ArticlesTrip Reports

Disaster at The Saskatchewan Crossing

First marking on map: Start Saturday, June 01, 2002, 1000h. Elevation 1424 m, location N 51 degrees 59.023 minutes H 116 degrees 47.799 minutes.

I am taking this reading just before I launch myself onto another page of my own history. I am excited, thrilled and nervous. I feel like a voyageur keeping careful track of an adventure into the exciting unknown. At 41 years of age, standing 5′ 10″ and very fit despite neck and back injuries from a car accident, this will be the first time I have ever gone off anywhere alone and for so long. This is supposed to be three weeks of external exploration and inner personal discovery while sea kayaking the length of the North Saskatchewan River. My campsites will be wherever I find myself one hour before sunset.

The weather is fine at 10 C, cloudy skies but otherwise dry and clear. I scouted out an alternative put-in point Friday, May 31 shortly after arriving at The Crossing Resort. The alternate put-in point is about 2-3 kilometers north of the Glacier Lake hiking trail, which is one km north of The Crossing Resort and about five kilometers upstream of the put-in location I had originally chose using a map. Access to the river is a gravel road about one hundred meters in length from the highway. A hanging steel cable off blocks the access road to prevent people from driving right up to the river. The open area right beside the river is sheltered by tall evergreens that create a darkness that generates a sense of foreboding whenever I look deep into their midst. That feeling arises from the fact that there have been many bear sightings since arriving, both black and grizzly. I am not worried though, the river moves so swiftly that I will move quickly past any bears I see.

I packed my gear into the kayak to keep an equal weight distribution from bow to stern. I pack and unpack my gear a couple of times as I remember things I need to do but forgot because of the excitement I feel. Once everything was packed and safety equipment in place, I prepare to launch. My wife, Judy and her brother Jerry, are there to see me off and photograph the event. The kayak is very heavy so Jerry helps me lower it down the three-foot embankment into the water. I eased the bow onto a submerged log and let the stern rest on the thin shelf of mud at the bottom of the embankment. This arrangement helps to create a perfect berth for the kayak despite the fast flow of the river current.

After carefully boarding the kayak and tying the spray skirt in place, I used stomach wrenching rocking motions to launch the kayak into the water. The heavy kayak slowly slipped into the current, which immediately wrenched me downstream into the center of the river. I twisted my torso and craned my neck to look back at Judy and Jerry. They were quickly shrinking in size as the river hastily put distance between them and me. I waved back at them, showing them the biggest grin I’ve had in years. They were now going to speed off to the bridge that crosses the river on Highway 93 to watch me pass under it on the way to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. They were there to spot me and make sure I got to the original put-in without incident. That was where I would end this first leg of two or three on my quest to paddle all the way to Hudson Bay. This is exciting! This is living! Woo Hoo!

As I sped along my river route I saw the high mountains that were brilliantly covered with last winters snows, while the alpine forest was bursting with the new color of greening sprigs of new growth. The mountain air is fresh, filled of the scents of freshly flowing evergreen resin and the sap of poplars and brush. There are birds flying from tree to tree. On the drive in I saw elk, mountain goats and countless deer. I know there are four black bears in the immediate area as reported by a man who saw them just last night. I also know there are three grizzlies within a few kilometers at Thompson’s Creek: a mother and two cubs, I took their picture. I am surrounded by life taken from the sparse offerings of mountain terrain. I feel so free and alive, much more so that I have in the many years of living in the center of the now sprawling city of Edmonton.

I soon had to turn my attention to navigation. The river current was fast and increasingly required all of my attention to scan ahead for boulders above and below the water surface. As I passed around the first curve I saw white water in the center of the current flow. I paddled hard left to avoid submerged boulders. As I watched the boulders go by I immediately had to paddle hard right so that I could pass through small standing waves. I whupped up a loud yahoo and smiled to myself thinking how wonderful it was to be able to go where few people are willing to risk. It was then that I felt a whump under the kayak as it slid over a rock. I laughed aloud, thinking that you can pass some but you can’t always get around the others. As with life, bumps are impossible to avoid. I wasn’t worried about the structural integrity of the kayak; the bottom has graphite powder mixed into the epoxy so she can take quite a scraping without serious damage. At this point the gravelly plain that was on the right side of the river when I started the trip gave way to heavy moss-carpeted forest. The shore was now composed of more solid but level rock.

The second curve in the river offered me a choice of channels. The right channel was a wide sweep of shallow water with visible gravel, so I took the left. The river was doglegging to the right and the current was flowing very hard and fast against the bank, now a low rock wall. I paddled with a combination of forward left strokes and right braces to steer for the center. I relaxed once I was clear of the curve and watched ahead to scout out my next path. Ahead was a short straight choppy run that ended with a slight curve to the left. I ran through several very cold two-foot standing waves and got a good soaking. The waves left me breathing hard and fast from the sudden shock of cold on my chest. The heavy-laden kayak flew steady and true through the waves, making them all the more fun to cut through. This was some of the excitement I had hoped for. More big smiles!

I stayed in the center of the current and concentrated on scouting for more submerged boulders and whitewater. At this point I was not very focused on how the terrain was changing. The initial excitement of kayaking in the mountains was still too fresh on my mind for me to think I could be entering difficulty so early in the journey. I breathed the pure, cool and crisp air that stirred so refreshingly above the swirling water. The graveled banks were giving way to stony banks that became low rock walls that were growing rapidly in height. I barely noticed that I was entering a gorge! Apparently there was a neon orange sign attached to a post somewhere ashore at this point. It warns paddlers to stop, get out and portage to the other end of the gorge. I did not see this warning sign. Not only was this sign small but installed at the point of no return and at a section of the river where there are three very large standing waves. I saw the waves before I saw the sign so I never saw the sign. It was at this point that my misadventure began.

The rock walls had risen to as high as a three-story building immediately after the sign. Within seconds of rounding the corner that occurs just past the sign, I began to hear the echoing sounds of thunderous water flow. I had no concerns about submerged boulders at this point because the water flow become very deep and turbulent with those standing waves I mentioned. They were about three feet high but navigable. I couldn’t paddle around the waves; the current was picking up speed. The troubled waves wash over the deck, slapped my chest and washed over my face as I rammed through them. They quickly became the least of my worries. I sensed that the water flow was accelerating faster. I am now very concerned and instinctively began to back paddle with uncertainty clouding my thoughts. I stopped smiling.

The skin-numbing water of the glacier-fed river was dripping off of my face as I peered through my water-smeared glasses, my vision distorted by the rivulets of water streaming down the lenses from the splashing of the waves. I arched my neck to see ahead but saw only more uncertainty. I could see the surface of the river but something was missing past a certain point. The water is flowing so very fast that I have little time to entertain any cohesive thoughts about what is happening. I am now thinking instinctively; my thoughts guided by the previous experience of a landlubber. It is with grim realization followed by brief but intense panic that I realize why I am feeling so much uncertainty. The damn river has disappeared ahead. I can’t see past that certain point because it just isn’t there. My ears suddenly focus on a roaring thunder that I have heard many times before from the safety of the catwalks at both Johnston’s Canyon and Athabasca Falls. Falls! Oh, shit, there are falls ahead! Oh my God! Falls!

With heavy panic set in, I frantically back paddled with ineffectual strokes. The current had a magnetic hold on me that I just could not overcome. This cannot be real, it isn’t happening to me. I’ve lived a tepid life so far with not a lot of danger involved. Nothing happens like this to Canadians like me; this happens only to other people, adventure seekers. God, I feel stupid, embarrassed and more afraid than I have ever been because I have time to let uncertainties and imagined fates whip my fears to their worst conclusion.

I forced myself to switch mental gears as I see the top of the fall. I know panic will do me no good, that it will probably kill me. If I want to have a chance at survival I have to take on the fall as if I meant to run it in the first place. I swore to the gods through grit teeth that come life or death I would fight all the way through this peril. I was not betting on life at this point. I felt as if I had stupidly surrendered all control of my life unto the rush of freezing water and uncaring rocks ahead. What the hell am I here for? Why didn’t I scout out this part of the river better? I didn’t want this! The uplifted rocky outcropping that divides the river in the center appears ahead and I am barreling straight towards.

High rock walls on both sides, which rose at least three stories each, guarded this section of the river. I could see two seething foam edged chutes just twenty or so meters ahead separated by the wet, black and very forbidding looking rocky projection. The chute to the right was narrow and appeared to carve forcefully against the sidewall of the gorge. That one would smash my little expedition into the rock wall. The chute to the left had a wider sweep and heavy flow through the middle; that was my chosen route. I did not know where it would take me but it was all I had.

My heart was in my throat but I shoved it down into my arms, hands and guts and paddled as hard to the left as I could with my eyes burning into the center of that chute. The heavy kayak responded too slowly and in that speeding current, I just didn’t t have the time for evasive maneuvers. The bow barely began to swing left when it was suddenly swept to the right by side spill coming off of the rock. With a jarring thud I hit the rocky outcrop squarely in the middle, the keel grinding the kayak to a halt in the cockpit section. The boat was balanced briefly on top of the rock then suddenly rotated laterally to the right. As I flipped upside down in the kayak, the inverted bow landed onto lower rock shelf. The stern was guided by the current and jerked onto an unseen rock behind me. That rock was probably the steep angled ledge on the right bank. My world hung for a precious second above the water before the structural integrity of the inverted deck and coaming gave in to forces they were not designed to repel. I bodily fell towards the white frothing brew below and was summarily dumped headlong into a small but very deep, forcefully churning whirlpool.

When I hit the water in the whirlpool I remember hearing that wet airy submerged sound that you hear when diving into a pool of water. I did not hear the thunder of the falls any more, I felt it with my whole body. I remember being tossed around like a rag doll in a washing machine. I came up for air twice and got sucked back down each time. I felt nothing but the physical struggle, not the numbing water or emotional turmoil. I was in a totally instinctive state of being whereby my body was doing what it needed to do to survive. My shoes, glasses and hat had been torn from my body upon impact with the water; anything that wasn’t tied or zipped to my body was torn away by the raging tortured water.

Each time I went down I opened my eyes and could see the water. I could see a hazy halo of light up above with a blur of millions of frantic bubbles insanely swirling within that halo. I could see individual bubbles swarm around my face within that vicious chaotic madness. They appeared gray, then green and yellow. I tried to swim hard for the light but the water wouldn’t let me go. I could go up only when the whirlpool let me go up. An insensitive and miserable force was now directing my life and I knew that it could care less if I lived or died.

Twice I felt I had not enough air to keep up my struggle for life. Death seemed not to notice that I was wearing a pfd and struggling with all my might; it dunked me with ease. I remember my most poignant thoughts during this gargantuan struggle for breath. They came to me during my second and final trip to the bottom of the whirlpool. They were images of my children and my wife living their lives without me. I experienced such a profound sense of loss at the thought that I was energized with just enough energy for one final attempt to get out and save myself. I knew that I had so much yet to live for. I could choose death here and now if I wanted. All I had to do was breathe in the water and let it suffocate the life out of me; my body wanted me to. I was a split second from making that choice but for those haunting images of my fatherless family. Deep down inside my blackening brain that was slowly giving in to oxygen starvation, my soul could not make peace with the idea of dying this day: I chose life!

At this point a bizarre coincidence occurred, one that I will never forget and always depend upon when in a life-threatening situation: I remembered something I had read; it came to me without forethought, instinctively and in good time. That something was a story I had read online about a paddler who wrote about how to escape the death grip of a whirlpool. The author explained that I should not struggle against the current until I felt it ease up. At this point I should then swim perpendicular to the flow. I immediately gave into the incredible forces tossing me around and let the water take me where it would. I was on my last dribble of consciousness when I felt the pull of the whirlpool lessen. I swam hard without sight and do not know when I broke the surface of the water. I only know that I found myself on my back speeding feet first through yet another chute.

I floated on my back with my legs forward, arms spread out to help me keep my head above water. I needed to rest my tired limbs. All I could see was a blur of white foam, rock and forest, as I struggled to regain my perspective. Something suddenly grabbed my left knee, whipped me around and plunged me back down underwater. My tossing body felt like a rag doll again. The force impacted my left leg near the quadriceps. I struggled back to the surface and found myself looking upstream facing a large rock. I instantly realized that I was in its protective eddy but slipping backwards away from it. I swam toward the rock and reached it with relative ease. I grabbed for any handhold I could find and clung to it as if it was my first-born child. I felt shocked relief at this point in time. I knew I had more struggles to go through to get out of the river but I was relieved to be able to catch my breath and begin to think things through. I was stunned and fighting against the idea that this was real and not just a nightmare. I could not see anything clearly because my glasses were lost; my prescription is strong. Fatigue washed through my arms and my leg began to hurt. I rested my face against the rock and closed my eyes.

When I felt ready to rested and better able to take action to rescue myself, I looked around to take stock of my situation. I found that I was about four feet from a rocky shelf that tilted into the water. It was spotted with brown moss, slimy and black looking where it was wet; rough where it was dry. I looked downstream over my left shoulder and saw that I had a length of roughly six to eight feet of this shelf to try for if I was going to jump for it. I didn’t know what kind of water and rapid was waiting for me downstream if I missed this jump but I couldn’t hang on this rock much longer. The cold would eventually bring on hypothermia and that would present its own problems. I was willing to take the risk.

With a small pause to bunch up muscle and courage, I leapt for the ledge and grabbed for the slanting rock. I do not recall how I was able to pull myself up this steeply tilted surface with wet gloves and waterlogged body. It was entirely possible that there was an extra hand helping to pull me up. Who knows? I don’t! If there was an extra hand helping out, it would have to have been present while I was deep in the whirlpool evaluating my chances mentally while my body was voting to quit.
After I crawled carefully to the top of that ledge, I rested. I was shivering and I couldn’t feel my feet; they were waterlogged and numb with cold but without scratches. I couldn’t see any obvious signs of blood anywhere on my body. I had no headache so I decided that I had no head injury. This is the amazing part since I was not wearing a helmet. I never expected to be so inundated with trouble so I never planned on wearing a helmet. I did consider the idea of a helmet but I planned on portaging around rapids so I felt a helmet was unnecessary. I thought to take off my pfd to start warming up but changed my mind just as quickly. I realized that if I slipped back in I would need the pfd again. I knew then that I was thinking straight so I trusted myself to figure a way out of this mess.
I sat on the ledge for a few minutes and looked around; I was awed at the sight. The fall I went down was roughly a ten-foot drop at the time, with tremendous volume water passing through its tight confines. There was that gripping whirlpool and one huge hole just below the rock that stopped me. Both are topped with thick white foam. As I sat there, I could not at this point, believe I had just been in there fighting for my life. I saw in the whirlpool what appeared to be the stern half of my kayak. It appeared to be stirring the whirlpool like a ladle in a boiling witch’s brew. I also saw one of my paddles and my Platypus water bottle with sip tube swirling in the whirlpool. I watched them go round and round and dumbly thought to myself that my trip was over.

My trip was over and I almost died because I was ignorant of the river conditions. It took me four months and all of my spare time to build the kayak and the river broke her back in seconds. Planning the trip took more months and plenty of money. It was over after only 10 minutes of paddling. Suddenly I straightened my back and thought with a terrible realization: Judy and Jerry would be waiting for me at the bridge. I could imagine the horror on their faces and the panic that would beset their hearts if they saw pieces of my kayak and equipment float by and no sign of me in sight.
I stood up and searched for a way off of the ledge I was trapped on. I saw no easy way out. A high wall of broken slab slate encrusted with lichens all shrouded by tall dark evergreen forest up above caged me in on all sides except for the river. I shared the panic that Judy and Jerry would feel not knowing if I was alive or drowned. I had told them I would be twenty minutes before I passed under the bridge. At least twenty minutes had to have passed by now. There was nothing I could do for that now; I was hurt. I could feel pain beginning to throb in my left knee and I was shivering with cold: I needed to warm up. I would have to let them suffer their thought s until I could collect wits and warmth enough to get out of my predicament.

I watched my broken kayak and loose equipment swirl in the whirlpool. Every once in a while they would take turns backwashing into this vee-shaped niche to the right of the whirlpool where it would bobble for a brief while then be sucked back into the dizzying swirl. I stood up and went to the other side of the rock ledge, slipping a little with terrifying ease because of my cold, numb and wet uncertain barefoot steps. When I got to the furthest end of the shelf beside the whirlpool, I eased myself down to the edge of the water. There I waited until something washed close. My paddle came first so I grabbed it and pulled it up onto the ledge. I broke it, used it for a crutch and took it up to the top of the ledge. My knee was really starting to throb but I blocked out the pain, I had more work to do if I was going to improve my chances of survival.

I eased back down to the watery niche and waited. The water bottle bobbed in close but I cared not to take the risk retrieving it. The river was an excellent source of water so the bottle was a redundant piece of equipment. The stern of the kayak wallowed in the center of the whirlpool in an upraised position, then fell flat and moved in close. I grabbed it by the rope handhold and tried to pull it up out of the water. It was full of water, it’s storage compartment flooded and heavy; I stumbled and slipped down towards the whirlpool. I let go of the stern as I slipped back into the water – bared feet first. My heart was skipping beats while my eyes and hands searched for a handhold as I slid down back towards certain misery. I slid into the water up to my chest before the fingers of my right hand latched onto the last bit of the jutting edge of the rock shelf. I could feel the force of the whirlpool tug at my legs.

I used all of my strength to hang on to the edge of rock while I used rapid panicked movements to find another handhold with my left hand. I kicked my feet madly to gain greater momentum back towards the rocky ledge. I couldn’t find a handhold for my left hand so I pulled myself up as carefully and smoothly as I could with the right hand while pushing up against the rock shelf with the left. I could not afford to lose my grip. I would be swallowed by the whirlpool and didn’t know if I had the strength to fight it again.

I inched my way back up the rock ledge on my belly with worried, careful hand grasps on the edges of the large crack that my right hand had found. When my legs were free of the water and I was on dry rock, I rolled onto my back laid there, breathing hard. When my breath slowed down I crawled up to a kneel and turned to regard the stern that had been sucked back into the watery maelstrom. I wanted desperately to get that stern out of the water for no more reason than to reclaim what was once mine and demonstrate to myself that I had some control of my situation.

When I regained my strength and some measure of confidence, I eased myself back down the rock shelf towards the stern, which had now been thrown back into the corner. This time I maintained as firm a grip as I could on the rock edge with my right hand. I carefully reached out, grabbed the rope handhold at the end of the stern and slowly eased the kayak remains out of the edges of the whirlpool. I worked it slowly up unto the ledge a little at a time, allowing the water that flooded the cargo hold to drain out. I felt like I was in a strange place, pulling only half of my kayak out of the water. This felt so very wrong.

I moved the stern up the ledge one foot at a time until I had the kayak near the top where the ledge leveled off and a few thin evergreens had taken root. I gathered some semblance of confidence at this small victory and let fly a few swear words to relieve some of the stresses. I opened the storage hatch and found that the water had soaked everything in the compartment. Inside, I found my daypack, which, besides a quart of water, held the day’s food rations. It also held one-hundred dollars in cash that I carried for emergencies (like a burger from MacDonald’s in Rocky Mountain House); my dictionary and thesaurus (still dry in a Ziploc freezer baggie); and a few other odds and ends necessary for daily hygiene. I also found two dry bags, which held food rations and all of my camping gear including my tent, sleeping bag, water purifying pump and dragonfly cook stove. I felt immense comfort and relief that I would be able to eat and even camp if I had to stay where I was. I also found extra bear banger cartridges and rescue flares floating free in the water still pooling inside the compartment. I grabbed the bear bangers and stuffed them inside the zippered pocket on the front of my pfd; I may need them before the day was over. I remembered the four bears and three grizzlies seen in the immediate area just yesterday. I wanted some measure of defense against the bears after everything that had passed. I threw the flares aside on the moss. I’d decide what to do with them later.

I studied the rock walls to find a way off of the shelf I was stuck on. I noticed that there was an opening below a rocky overhang at the south end of my rocky niche. I would have to climb around the rock wall and lean toward the rushing water to reach another rock ledge if I attempted that escape route. If I fell I would be back in the rushing water. The water at that point was relatively flat and unexciting but my last experience at falling into it taught me to be afraid of it. I kept looking at the water flowing swiftly past at its dizzying speed. I could not call up the courage to try the climb. I balked! I stared back at the rapids, looked back toward the new challenge. I thought about how hard the struggle was to get to the shelf I was standing on and how tired and sore I was feeling. I didn’t want to do it but I had to. There was no one to help me here, only me. That was the way I wanted it in the first place and now I had to face this choice.

My desperation contained my fears and forced me to take the risk of falling back into the river. After packing my pfd pockets with all the emergency items I could carry and tossing my recovered paddle to the safe side of the rock face, I began my climb around the rock wall. I had to blindly feel my way around the curving rock face with anxious fingers. I had to lean backwards as if doing the limbo with the rushing milky blue water underneath me as the penalty for failure. I had to lead with my left leg, which was now throbbing with pain and buckling whenever I rotated my hips over it. It would not support my weight. One wrong move with it and it would irrevocably fail me. I reached up with my left leg and used it only to balance my body while my hands and arms bore the brunt of my weight. I pushed off with my right foot, lifted myself and gingerly brought my right foot onto a wildly tilting slab of rock. My left knee throbbed sharply with pain. As quickly as I could I twisted my body toward the other side of the rock wall and pulled up with my hands, forcing my body onto the safety of the next wider and safer rock shelf and enough open terrain to get me home safely. I paused on the other side and looked back towards the falls again. I felt no respect for these falls, only fear and relief that I survived the ordeal. I also knew that I would be back some other day to begin my trip again but with more care given to personal safety.

It was with severely fatigued relief that I limped back toward the Crossing Resort. I knew that if I followed the river I would eventually meet up with the highway at my original put-in point. I did not bother to think about looking for any equipment that may have been swept downstream. I prayed that I got to Judy and Jerry before any stray pieces of kayak or equipment did. I discovered a pony bridge at the Glacier Lake hiking trail that led to the other side of the river. It was an immense relief to know I would not have to walk the other two kilometers of rocky riverbank to get to the highway. My knee was really starting to hurt and I was limping badly, leaning heavily onto the half of paddle I now used for a crutch. I crossed the bridge and met up with the trail, which led me about one kilometer to the parking lot at the trailhead. I kept a worried eye and a loaded bear banger out for bears while I followed the highway south to The Crossing Resort. That was another one-kilometer hike. I tried to hitch a ride from passing tourists but the odd circumstances of my condition seemed to arouse enough suspicion that none of the vehicles that passed stopped long enough to enquire if I required any help. That frustrated me but I knew I didn’t have far to go to get back to the Crossing Resort so I tossed aside my feelings and soldiered on.

Upon arrival to the Crossing resort, I limped to the main office and got a room until I could arrange a ride home. The personnel there graciously let me in early and set me up with some Tylenol. They knew something was up when I walked in crutched up with a half a paddle, squinting like a half-blind goomba and all wet in tights and a paddling vest. They asked me if there was anything further they could do to help me. I assured them that all I needed now was a long warm shower and lots of sleep under a heavy blanket. Jerry and Judy had already left for home before I got there. I don’t remember how I learned that but I phoned home and left a message with my youngest son, Benjamin, for them to come and get me. Ben thought I was joking when I explained my situation. It didn’t take much to convince him that I wasn’t kidding him about anything. I then phoned the Rocky Mountain House detachment of the RCMP. I asked them to keep an eye out for Judy and Jerry to try to head them off at the pass. I also called the Park Ranger’s office to report the accident and let them know I was ok. I didn’t want someone to find my lost equipment and think there was an injured paddler in the area in need of help. The ranger asked me if there was anything they could do to help. I thanked him and told him there wasn’t much since I was safe at the resort and waiting for my ride home. I spent the rest of my evening alternating between watching movies, rolling around on the bed in agony trying to sleep, and pacing to relieve muscular the stiffness that was setting in. I showered several times to try to get warm. I think it took four long soaks in the shower before I was feeling comfortably warm again. The heat didn’t do my knee any good but I desperately wanted to relieve that chilled feeling. I’d deal with the knee later.

When Jerry and Judy got back in the evening I related my tale of stupidity to them. Jerry and I eventually went back down to the river the next morning and recovered the equipment that was stowed in the stern section of the kayak. We lashed ropes to it and dragged it over the rough-forested terrain back to car in the parking lot. I don’t know how I did it but my knee held out for the whole way. Later that afternoon, Jerry and I walked back along the river to the site of the crash. Along the way Jerry found the hand pump and Platypus water bottle. Jerry had been down to the river earlier and spotted the bow snagged by a deck line in the water. We managed to loosen it watched it float downstream through another class 6 rapid. It went through the rapid intact so we were able to chase along the riverbank, now part of a flat graveled plain, and recover all equipment within its intact storage compartment.

In all, I lost my brand new Grey Owl Sirocco spare paddle; my rescue rope; my Filsen Hat; the Asian sun hat a friend gave me as a gift for this trip; my 35 mm SLR camera and a water tight container. That container contained spare batteries, four rolls of film and Jerry’s HP 120 digital camera. I think I just might have lost a little pride as well but I’m not so sure about that, I still have attitude.

Just before we planned on leaving we stopped at the pub for a drink and some food. The bartender eventually came forward to inform me that a park ranger was waiting outside to speak with me. It must be a small neighborhood up here in the mountains because I didn’t tell anyone that I would be in the pub. I went out to speak with the ranger. He introduced himself as John. John is a tall man standing closer to seven feet tall with shoulders broad enough to block the sunshine off the top of my head. He had gone down to the river earlier and collected the bow and all broken pieces he could find that I had opted to leave for posterity. We talked for a short while about the river. This was when I learned there was a warning sign to get out and portage before the rapid. I suggested that the sign should be painted neon orange because I didn’t see it: he said it is. We both figured I was a little too focused on the water during the time I was approaching it. He also said I was lucky to get out of that rapid alive and relatively unscathed: didn’t I know it! I suggested that he install a larger sign further upstream to warn paddlers that they would soon need to disembark and portage. I thanked him for bringing the bow up, which I lashed to the roof of my car along with the stern. He invited me to stop over for a coffee if I ever make it back this way. I promised him that I would be back as soon as I could recover from my injuries, then we’d talk some more.

I returned to the Crossing two months later in August. By that time the water level of the river was considerably higher. I stopped to speak with John who was still at the Ranger’s Station. We talked about what happened to me back in June and how it could have happened. He related a story about a young family that came to him in July, one month after my disaster. There was a father, a mother and two children under the age of five years. The father was informing John of his intent to paddle the North Saskatchewan River “above” the point where I started my fateful journey. John said he tried hard to dissuade the man but he was determined to do the paddle on that stretch of river. John resorted to telling the father about my incident and how it nearly killed me. Eventually the couple was convinced to find a lake to paddle on. John says I saved that family by telling my own story.

Well, I walked over to the rapids along the trail at the top of that gorge to go have a final look at what I went through. I was absolutely stunned at the changes I saw in the configuration of the rapids that now appeared there. The fall was hidden under water flowing even faster than it had been when I went through that area. The whirlpool was gone and in its place nothing but madly foaming water. The hole that used to be below the drop was now the source of something like six or seven weirdly shifting haystacks, huge things that rose and fell like boiling tar. The stacks popped up as suddenly as they fell. No boat was ever going to make it through there without capsizing, the stacks rose up with too much force. There was also this strange surf-like wave that was moving upstream, or seeming so. The second set of rapids was gone, hidden under the haystacks. The thunder arising from the increased water flow was deafening, much more so that it was before. I stepped back from the ledge I was standing on because I felt nauseated by the thought that the young family could have gone through this spot had it not been for my disaster. They would have died, that appeared certain.

I left the area with a sense of relief that I made my scouting error in June while the glacial melt was at a low. The headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River originate at the foot of the Saskatchewan Glacier, high in the Alberta Rocky Mountains. The water is freezing cold when it flows in the summer and raises the level of the river considerably during the warm summer months. I left also knowing that I’d return to restart my trip and finish it the way it should have been finished, with a great story to tell.

Subscribe! Get PaddlingLight in your inbox. Enter your email address:

One comment

  • […] he leaves essential gear behind. Another example comes from Robert Pruden when his kayak was swept over an unexpected rapid. His kayak was destroyed and some of his gear lost. Luckily, he was within a short distance to […]

Comments are closed.