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  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson

A SPEEDY DEMISE

Updated: Apr 26, 2023

Kopka River, Ontario. One of the prettiest rivers in the tree line.


SCENARIO

You and three friends are planning to canoe the Kopka River in northern Ontario. This breathtakingly beautiful route consists largely of small and medium sized lakes and gentle current, but it also includes a number of short, challenging rapids. Five major falls which you must portage around, round out the trip. The portages aren’t marked and their locations aren’t always obvious. Two portages are particularly noteworthy. One requires you to lower canoes and gear by mountaineering rope 100 feet down a canyon wall! Another follows an old stream bed which is choked with hip-high boulders which you must jump across. This portage is extremely dangerous, especially if you have short legs, poor balance and a heavy canoe. A reasonably good trip guide, which shows the location of portages and rapids is available free from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. You plan to write for it immediately.

One of the more interesting portages along the Kopka: dropping canoes and gear down a cliff using a climbing rope.

To summarize, the Kopka consists of mostly small and medium sized lakes and gentle current, with some short, challenging rapids and a few tough portages. Some portages are hard to find, but that’s part of the challenge of canoeing a wild river.

Your friends own a 17-foot Old Town Tripper canoe which weighs 80 pounds. You have an 18-foot composite, We-no-nah Jensen which weighs 48. That’s a real difference on the portages! More important, the Jensen is much faster and easier to paddle than the portly Grumman. However, it’s less seaworthy and it turns reluctantly in rapids. On the other hand, the “runnable” rapids on the Kopka are short and well-defined. You can easily portage or line any rapid that you feel is too tough for the Jensen.


PROBLEM

You and your partner are accomplished paddlers with an affinity for long, lean canoes. You've used this canoe a lot, in the Boundary Waters and on local rivers. You even raced it a few times on rivers with rapids. Question: Should you bring the sleek Jensen or rent a heavier, higher volume canoe? Read the Kopka background again, then decide.

"Land of the lost": Kopka River.

ACTION TAKEN

The men chose to bring the Jensen, which kept them in the lead nearly all the time. On the fifth day of their trip, they powered around the bend that marked the start of a strong rapid (it was on the map), missed the obscure portage, and entered the slick water above the first drop. When they realized they had gone too far, they eddied out of the main current and turned around, intent on paddling back upstream to calm water. But the deep, fine ends of the Jensen caught the eddy line, and the craft capsized, spilling both men into the frigid water.

Remains of the Jensen canoe

The bow man hung onto a pack as long as his cold-numbed hands would allow, then he succumbed to the power of the rapid and was carried downstream to the bitter end. The rapid - which was filled with boulders and strainers - would probably rate Class IV, if it were runnable!

Meanwhile, the man’s partner held on to the canoe till it broke up in the rocks, then he pulled himself out of the water into an eddy and attempted to find his way through the woods to the portage, which came out in a quiet bay near the rapid.

Unaware their friends were in trouble, the men in the Tripper started the portage. They completed the carry without seeing either of their companions, then they continued the trip, believing their friends were still in the lead.

The rest of the story involves dangerous bouts with hypothermia and the near death of the man who swam the rapid. How all four got down river and over the awful portages is another tale. You can read the full account in my long out-of-print book, Campsite Memories: Story of the Blue Canoe - available as an e-book on my website.

"Wedding Cake" Falls on the Kopka. Named by my wife, Sue Harings because it drops in several pitches (layers).

IN RETROSPECT

The first mistake was made before the wheels rolled north. The 18-Jensen is wonderful for cruising benign waters but it is not, by any account, suitable for rapids - any rapids! One could argue that the men should not have missed the portage. But human error is a reality of wilderness travel. Everyone makes mistakes. The question is, will your gear allow you to recover from them? The men were both good paddlers; they probably could have eddied upstream if they had been paddling a tripping canoe instead of a flat-water rocket that wouldn’t turn. The Jensen was the simply the wrong boat for the trip. Period!

The rule in the wilderness is to choose a canoe that will meet the challenge of the “worst reasonable” scenario you can expect to experience. Eddying out in the midst of a strong rapid is reasonable, and so is hitting rocks and capsizing. This rules out sleek, fast canoes that turn reluctantly, low volume ones that sink in waves, and fragile craft that are easily holed by rocks. On the other hand, pure-bred whitewater canoes are out of place here too. They’re too slow and hard to keep on course in wind and they may have not have enough room to carry the gear you need. Wilderness tripping canoes aren’t much fun to paddle, but they are versatile, trustworthy and reliable.

Tripping canoes on the Kopka: A mix of Dagger 17 Ventures, Old Town Trippers and one Dagger Legend (far right).


Many years ago, a very accomplished solo canoeist paddled Ontario’s Missinaibi River in a Pat Moore designed “Proem” canoe. The Proem is a very small (11'12") tippy canoe. It has a lot of volume for its size, but its highly asymmetric shape and rounded bottom have earned it the title of “drowning machine.” Only the very best paddlers can stay upright in a Proem, let alone paddle one well. This boat is fine for messing around on quiet water, but it’s out of place on a wilderness river.

Given this glowing testimony, why would anyone choose such a boat for a trip on a tough Canadian river? More importantly, why would he photograph his trip then show the slides to a novice audience? Ego, perhaps? Stupidity? Or, to show off his skills? I saw the man’s presentation and shook my head in disgust. I hope the audience didn’t believe a word he said!

No canoe is indestructible. But if you don't have the accident, you won't have to deal with it.

The final word in the Kopka River scenario is that the teams should have stayed together on the river. Eight eyes are better than four, especially when portages are hard to find. It’s that old devil, ego, again. He has no place on a wilderness canoe trip!

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*My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition, contains a wealth of advice on how to safely canoe difficult rivers.

* My book CAMPING'S TOP SECRETS, 2022 revision, details practical camping tips and procedures that only the experts know. If you know just a few of these tricks, you'll be a hero to your friends!


*My teen book, JUSTIN CODY'S RACE TO SURVIVAL! mixes a fictional wilderness survival tale with practical outdoor skills everyone should know - a first for books of this type. Adults love it too!

XXX


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