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  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson


Cliff Jacobson/Poreno River, Norway/14' Pakboat

Bob O'Hara: One of North America's most experienced Arctic paddlers

Since 1969, Bob O’Hara has spent every summer canoeing in the Far North. A partial list of the 24 Arctic rivers he has canoed includes the Thelon, Coppermine, Back, Dubawnt, Kazan, Elk, Quoich, Ellice and Horton. Once, he paddled on the ocean from Wager Bay to Repulse Bay! O’Hara knows his stuff. He is a popular speaker at canoe events and his seminars are packed with useful—and often sobering—advice. For example, a man once asked him what advice he would give to a novice who is about to canoe his first Arctic river?” With a deadpan face, Bob replied: “Do your homework. And wear your life jacket; it makes the bodies easier to find.”

Bob was not being flippant: Arctic rivers bear no malice towards the unprepared, but neither do they grant immunity from error. Proper planning, polished paddle skills and a positive mental attitude towards set-backs are prerequisites to safety. Still, things can go wrong. That’s why experts like O’Hara, put every peg in place and take nothing for granted. When pressed, they often express a mixture of quiet confidence and trepidation—confidence there will be no mishaps on their trip, and fear that they or someone in their crew will screw up.

Note that it’s the experienced canoeists who worry most about what lies ahead. Beginners seldom give the matter much thought. Why? Because it takes considerable field experience to appreciate the hazards of a wild river, let alone learn how to cope with them. For example, how can you relate to losing a canoe while lining a drop, swamping in ice cold water far from shore, or surfing wild waves towards a wall of canoe-crushing boulders, if you’ve never done it? Practiced paddlers know. God, do they know!

Mild controllable fear is nature’s way of telling you to slow down and think before you act. The opposite is foolhardiness, and every whitewater club has members that qualify. If you want trouble, just include one of them on your next canoe trip!

Dr. Bill Forgey, author of Wilderness Medicine, once asked Sigurd Olson about this phenomenon. Olson laughed and said he’d put the same question to the famed Canadian explorer, Charles Camsell, at the Explorer’s Club one day. Camsell said he’d spent most of his adult life exploring the bush and was “scared during nine-tenth’s of it.”! Hyperbole? Perhaps, but the point is clear.

Some whitewater paddlers have a unique method of rating rapids. There are one pee, two pee, and three pee rapids. One pee rates about Class II on the International scale; three pee earns a V or VI! Mild fear—call it trepidation, if you like—is both healthy and normal.

Strings of good decisions build confidence, which in turn reduces fear. Still, some fear must remain to prevent you from losing respect for your “enemies”—cold water, thrashing rapids, serious storms, etc. Every good general knows that “respect for the enemy” is essential to winning the war.

It takes time to develop the proper respect for a wild river. Don’t rush the learning curve! Ten trips in the Boundary Waters will not prepare you for a northern river that has life-threatening rapids, undefined portages and fist-sized bugs. Build your experience slowly, and in a diverse, step-wise manner that will encourage growth. Train on local waters in all kinds of weather—high winds, cold rains, snow. Select routes that are “not on the map”. And don’t neglect your homework. Attend paddling schools and wilderness seminars; study trip journals, canoeing books, videos and blogs like this one. Question the experts; lie in the weeds and learn. Be patient: confidence will come, but fear should never completely disappear.

There's much more about Arctic canoeing in my flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition.


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