Open Water Trips

Adventures in Open Water in Small Boats

Final Story of my Saskatchewan Crossing Disaster

Sorry for the length of this story. It is as detailed a description as I could write about my ill-fated trip. Needless to say, lessons were learned. If anyone has an easy way to post pics without passwords please let me know and I'll post shots of the rapids I went through without the kayak which deserted me half way down the first rapid. The next 'yak will be tougher (already ordered the kit) but not for class 6 anything.


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 5í 10Ē 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 and camping along her banks. The weather is fine at 10 C, cloudy skies but otherwise dry and clear. I scouted out the alternative put-in point Friday, May 31 shortly after arriving at The Crossing Resort. The 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 kms upstream of the original put-in location. Access to the river is a gravel road about one hundred meters in length from the highway. A hanging steel cable off blocked the access road to prevent people from driving right up to the river.

. I pack my gear into the kayaks hatches 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 forget because of the excitement I am experiencing. 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 occasion. The kayak is very heavy so Jerry helps me lower it down the three-foot embankment into the water. I ease the bow onto a submerged log and let the stern remain on the mud of the embankment. This arrangement helps to create a perfect launching support despite the fast flow of the river current. I boarded the kayak and tied the spray skirt in place. I used stomach wrenching rocking motions to launch the kayak into the water. The current immediately sucked me downstream into the center of the river. I looked back at Judy and Jerry and waving, showing them the biggest grin Iíve had in years. They were now going to speed off to the bridge on Highway 93 to watch me pass under it on the way to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. 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!

I see the high mountains are still brilliantly covered with last winters snow while the alpine forest is greening with sprigs of new growth. The mountain air is fresh, full of the scent of 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 Thompsonís Creek: a mother and two cubs, I took their picture. I am surrounded by life taken from the sparse offerings of mountain terrain.

I turned my attention to navigation. The river current was fast and I needed to put all of my attention to scanning 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 and paddled hard left to avoid submerged boulders. As I watched the boulders go by I paddled hard right to pass through small standing waves 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 and thought how you can pass some but you canít always get around the others. I wasnít worried. The bottom of the kayak has graphite powder mixed into the epoxy so she can take quite a scraping without serious damage.

The second curve in the river offered me a choice of channels. The right channel appeared very shallow so I took the left. The current was very fast and hard against the left bank of low rock wall so I paddled with a combination of forward left strokes and right braces to steer for the center of the river. I relaxed once I was clear of the curve and watched ahead to scout out my next path. Ahead was a short straight run then 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 gasping a little at the sudden shock of cold on my chest. The heavy-laden kayak held steady through the waves and made them non-the less fun to cut through. This is some of the excitement I had hoped for.

I stayed in the center of the current and concentrated on scouting for more submerged boulders and rapids. 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. 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 is a neon orange sign on a post somewhere ashore warning water users to stop, get out and portage to the other end of the gorge. I did not see this warning sign. It was at this point that my misadventure began.

When the rock walls had risen high enough I began to hear the echoing sounds of thunderous water flow. I have no concerns about submerged boulders at this point because the water flow has become very deep and turbulent with standing waves about three feet high but navigable. The troubled waves wash over the decks and slap my chest and wash my face but that becomes the least of my worries. I sense that the water flow is accelerating. I am concerned and instinctively begin to back paddle with uncertainty. I am not smiling any more.

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. Remember, the water is flowing very fast and I have little time to think about what is happening. It is with grim realization and intense panic that I realize why I am feeling so much uncertainty. The damn river has disappeared ahead. I canít see past a certain point because it just isnít there. I can hear a roaring thunder that I have heard before, many times from the safety of the catwalks at both Johnstonís Canyon and Athabasca Falls. Falls! There are falls ahead! Oh my God! Falls!

Heavy panic set in as I back paddle with frantic ineffectual stokes but the current has a magnetic hold on me that I cannot repel. This cannot be real, it isnít happening to me. I am Canadian; nothing happens like this to Canadians, it happens only to other people. God, I feel stupid, embarrassed and more afraid than I have ever been because I have time to ponder it.

I switch mental gear as I see the top of the fall with a large rocky outcropping in the center. 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 didnít I scout out this part of the river better? I didnít want this!

I could see two seething foam edged chutes just twenty or so meters ahead parted by a black forbidding looking rock 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 wide sweep and heavy flow through the middle. This was my 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. The heavy kayak responded too slowly, I just didnít have the time for maneuvering away from the worst that could happen. It barely began to steer left when the bow was swept to the right by side spill. With a jarring thud I hit the rocky outcrop squarely on the middle of the keel in the cockpit section. I bounced off the rock, and rotated laterally to the right. The bow fell onto another rock as the world fell towards the frothing brew below. The kayak flipped upside down, summarily dumped me and I was sent headlong into the churning whirlpool at the bottom of the narrow chute.

When I hit the water in the whirlpool I remember hearing that wet airy submerged sound that you hear when diving into a pool. I did not hear the thunder of the falls any more. 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. My shoes, glasses and hat had been torn from my body upon impact with the water. Anything that wasnít tied to me was gone at this point.

Each time I went down I opened my eyes and could see the water. I could see hazy light and millions of frantic bubbles. I could see individual bubbles swarm around my face with vicious chaotic madness. They appeared gray, then green and yellow. I tried to swim hard for the light but the water wouldnít let me go. I could go up only when the whirlpool let me go up. Twice I felt I had not enough air to keep up my struggle fir life. Death seemed not to notice that I was wearing a pfd and dunked me with ease. I remember my thoughts during these moments: they were images of my children, my wife and how I had so much yet to live for. I could choose death here and now if I wanted. All I had to do was breath in the water and let it suffocate the life out of me in seconds. I could not make peace with that decision: I chose life!

At this point I remembered something I had read: 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 eased up on my struggle and let the water take me where it would. When I felt the pull of the whirlpool lessen I swam hard. I felt the grip of the whirlpool abate and I was swept downstream.

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. Suddenly something impacted my left leg at the quadriceps, spun my body around and I went down again. I struggled back into the light and found myself looking upstream facing a large rock. I realized instantly that I was in its protective eddy but slipping backwards quickly. I swam hard and reached the rock with relative ease. I grabbed for any handhold I could find and held onto it as if it was my first-born child. I felt shocked relief! 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 gone. Fatigue washed through my arms and my leg hurt. I rested my face against the rock and closed my eyes.

When I felt I was ready to take action I looked around and found I was about four feet from a rocky shelf that tilted into the water. It was spotted with brown moss, slimy looking where it was wet and rough where it was dry. I looked downstream 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 didnít know what kind of water and rapid was waiting for me downstream if I missed this jump but I couldnít 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.

I leapt for the ledge and grabbed for the dry rough surface of the rock. I do not recall how I was able to pull myself up this 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 donít!

When I took stock of my situation there on that ledge I realized I needed time to rest so I could think straight. I couldnít feel my feet and I was shivering. They were waterlogged and numb with cold but without scratches. I couldnít see any obvious signs of blood any where 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. 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 is roughly a ten-foot drop with a tremendous volume of flowing current. There is one gripping whirlpool and one huge hole. 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 steaming witchís brew. I also saw my paddle 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 it 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. Suddenly I straightened my back and thought with a terrible realization! I remembered that Judy and Jerry would be waiting for me at the bridge. I could see the horror on their faces and the panic that would set in 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 lichen stained broken slab slate topped by tall dark evergreen forest 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 leg and I was shivering with cold and needed to warm up. I would have to let them suffer their thought s until I could collect wits 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 before being 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 wet cold uncertain bare footsteps. When I got to the corner of the shelf I eased myself down to the waters edge and waited until something washed close. My paddle came first so I grabbed it and pulled it onto the ledge. I used it for a crutch and took it up to the top of the ledge.

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 kayak stern wallowed in the center of the whirlpool and then moved in close. I grabbed it by the rope handhold. I tried to pull it up out of the water but it was heavy and I stumbled. I let go of the stern as I slipped back into the water. My heart was skipping beats while my eyes and hands searched for a handhold as I slipped. I went into the water up to my chest before the fingers of my right hand latched onto the last bit of jutting edge of the rock shelf. I could feel the whirlpools current gently pull 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 couldnít find one so I pulled myself up carefully with the right hand and pushed up against the rock shelf with the other. I could not afford to lose my grip. I would be swallowed by the whirlpool 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 my right hand had found. When my legs were free of the water I stopped on the dry rock face and laid there breathing hard. I crawled up to a kneel and turned to regarded the stern that had been sucked back into the watery maelstrom. I wanted desperately to get the stern out of the water for no more reason than to reclaim what was once mine to show that I had some control of my situation.

When I regained my strength and a measure of confidence I eased myself back down the rock shelf towards the stern, which had been thrown back into the corner. This time I maintained as firm a grip as I could on the tenuous rock edge with my right hand. I carefully reached out, grabbed the rope handhold and slowly pulled it out of the edges of the whirlpool. I eased it slowly up unto the ledge 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 very wrong.

Once I got the kayak half onto the ledge I moved it up a 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 cursed 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 dayís food, rations, $100 cash for emergencies (like a burger from MacDonaldís 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 of my 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 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 remaining water inside the compartment. I grabbed the bear bangers and stuffed them inside the zippered pocket on the front of my pfd. I threw the flares aside on moss. 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 looked around at the rock walls looking for a way off of the shelf. I noticed that there was an opening below a rocky overhang to the south end. I would have to climb around the rock wall and lean toward the rushing water to reach another rock ledge. If I fell I would be back in the rushing water. This maneuver would not normally bother me but this time I was terrified of it. I kept looking at the water flowing swiftly past and I could not bring up the courage to try the climb. I balked. I stared at the river, looked back at 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 beginning to feel. I didnít 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.

I desperately wanted out of my stony niche of misery. I contained my fears and took the risk. I climbed around the rock wall. I had to feel my way around with my fingers and lean backwards as if doing the limbo over the rushing milky blue water to get around the wall. 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. I reached up with my left leg and used it only to balance my body while my hands bore the brunt of my weight. I pushed off with my right foot, lifted myself and quickly 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 shelf of rock 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.

It was with fatigued relief that I limped back toward the Crossing Resort. I knew 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. 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 banger launcher out for bears while I followed the highway south to The Crossing Resort.

I limped to the main office and got a room until I could get a ride home. The personnel there graciously let me in early and set me up with some Tylenol. 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 so I phoned home and left a message with Benjamin for them to come and get me. 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 Wardenís office to report the accident and let them know I was ok. I didnít want someone to find my equipment and think maybe there was an injured paddler in the area in need of help. The warden asked me if there was anything they could do to help. I thanked him and told him there wasnít much since I was ok and waiting for my ride home. I spent the rest of my evening alternating between watching movies, sleep and pacing to relieve muscular stiffness.

When Jerry and Judy got back in the evening we went back down to the river and recovered the equipment that was stowed in the bow section of the kayak. The next day 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. We recovered the stern and all equipment that was stowed in it. I lost my spare paddle, my rescue bag, my Filsen Hat, the sun hat Teo Calpito gave me as a gift, my 35 mm camera and a water tight container containing batteries, four rolls of film and Jerryís HP digital camera.

Just before we planned on leaving we stopped at the pub for a drink and some food. The bartender 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 didnít tell anyone that I would be in the pub. I went out to speak with the man. He introduced himself as John. John is a tall man standing almost seven feet tall with shoulders broad enough to block the sunshine off the top of my head. He had gone down to the river and collected the bow and all broken pieces he could see. 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 didnít see it: he said it is. We both figured I was a little too focused on the water during the time I passed it. He also said I was lucky to get out of that rapid alive and relatively unscathed: didnít I know it! I thanked him for bringing the bow up. He invited me to stop over for a coffee if I ever make it back this way. Iím sure that will be one good cup of coffee cuz I plan on going back soon. I want to see what I went through before I hit the fall.