Updated: Feb 5, 2022
(From my new book (just released!) CAMPING'S TOP SECRETS, 5th Edition)
Broken trailer tongue--near LaRonge, Saskatchewan. Destroyed my wood-trimmed Old Town Tripper canoe.
My dad was a quality control engineer. A sign in his office read, “Accidents don’t just happen; they are caused!" The villains are speed (doing a task too fast), impatience and not following safety rules.
In 35 years of guiding canoe trips on some of the toughest rivers in North America, I’ve never needed more than Band-Aids and Tylenol. I believe I owe my good luck to a plan that emphasizes avoiding accidents.
Everyone gets a detailed equipment list they must follow. There’s a full field inspection—those who don’t have the “right stuff” don’t go! Not allowed are plastic rain suits, cotton socks and blue jeans. Wool, fleece, polyester and nylon are the respected fabrics. Sneakers won’t substitute for boots. Everyone carries a knife, matches, compass and whistle.
DUPLICATE ESSENTIALS—stoves, first-aid supplies, maps. Tents have interior plastic groundcloths, extra cord and stakes for storm-rigging. Bring at least one rain tarp. Carry a satellite communicator (SPOT, inReach etc.) and/or a satellite phone.
Along the Kopka River, Ontario. This Alumacraft canoe has been here for a very long time!
DOWN-PLAY YOUR SKILLS
Under-estimating your skills—and those of your crew—keeps you humble and out-of-trouble! For example: many people consider me an expert canoeist; I prefer “intermediate”. Indeed, the best compliment I ever got was from a young woman named Kristin Frisch who was trying out for the U.S. Whitewater canoeing team (late 1980's). A qualifying whitewater course had been set up in the dells at Taylor Falls, MN, not far from my home. They had just completed setting up the gates so I took the opportunity to play in the rapids, run the gates in my wood-strip solo canoe which was the prototype (fiberglass/wood-strip version) of what later became the Old Town CJ solo, then the Bell CJ Solo. However, unlike the factory versions which had plumb stems, near zero rocker and "wouldn't turn," my boat (named "Mantoy") had well curved stems and nearly three inches of rocker: it would pivot on a penny and was great in rapids. After watching me for awhile, Kristin asked if I would paddle tandem with her on some practice runs through the course. I agreed and we did great. Afterwards she said, "Cliff, you're pretty good; why don't you enter this race?" I smiled and said "No thanks, Kristin; big rapids freak me out." She looked me straight in the eyes and said "Cliff, you have more skill than guts!" I couldn't have been more proud! Down-playing my skills has helped me avoid many disasters.
WAIT FOR GOOD WEATHER
The book, “Into Thin Air” reveals the high price you may pay if you continue on when you should stay put. Better to hunker down until the weather improves, even if the wait plays havoc with your schedule. Experienced wilderness travelers plan “one down day” in five for the unexpected.
Along the Kopka River, Ontario. This canoe has been here for decades. The story is in my long out-of-print book, CAMPSITE MEMORIES
SLOW DOWN AND SMELL THE PINES
Most accidents occur late in the day when people are pushed and tired, or when the pace is too fast for slow hikers. Solution? Slow down and camp early if you can; fuel up on high energy snacks and take frequent breaks if you can’t.
REVIEW SKILLS AND SAFETY PROCEDURES EACH DAY
Begin each day by reviewing skills and safety procedures. Is everyone dressed appropriately? Are there blisters or small cuts that will become infected? Are water bottles topped off, rain gear and warm clothes handy? Boaters may review paddle strokes and river safety signals.
Long before the white man discovered the recreational value of rivers, native North Americans used them as highways. Families often traveled together, with their elders, children and dogs. By today’s standards, their boats were fragile and their paddle skills marginal. Certainly, there were accidents. But native accounts don’t dwell on them, any more than we do when we drive our cars. How is it then, that even poor paddlers usually got down-river safely? The answer is “patience”—a commitment to not take chances!
Most modern outdoors people don’t have much patience. They offer these reasons why:
1. Bad weather/behind schedule--gotta keep truckin’ or we’ll lose our layover day at the canyon.
2. A macho attitude. Other parties paddled these difficult rapids, climbed the high mountain, so can we!
3. We’re prepared for the worst! Dangerous rapids, difficult climb, bad weather ahead? No problem; we're well-trained and have the best gear.
Here are some examples of how patience pays:
The wind was blowing bloody murder when we arrived at Otter Lake (Fond du Lac River, Saskatchewan) so we put ashore to wait it out. The waves continued through supper, so I suggested that we camp and try again tomorrow. We were snuggled under a tarp, sharing hot buttered rum and popcorn, when we saw two canoes—wind in their face-- plugging towards our camp. I waived them in and suggested they share our camp. They said they were behind schedule and had to keep going.
The wind quit around noon the next day and we paddled off with a smile, determined to make up lost time. The sun sets around 11 PM at this latitude (59 degrees), so we agreed to canoe till dark. Some time that day we passed “their camp.” Everyone was asleep so we chose not to linger. We logged 31 miles that day and 29 the next, which put us ahead of schedule. We never saw the other canoe party again.
Moral? Nature rules! Stop when you must; run when you can.
South Nahanni River, Northwest Territories: Rescuing a "wrapped" Royalex Old Town Tripper. That's singer Gordon LIghtfoot in the yellow PFD, left.
The MacFarlane River (Saskatchewan) rushes through a three mile canyon just before it breaks out into Lake Athabasca. There’s serious water here—you have to be nuts not to portage. But where? There was no sign of a portage on river left so we crossed to the right and took out at a narrow trail that ran up a steep bank. There was a tree with an ancient axe blaze on top. Aha. The portage!
Hardly. The trail ran a quarter mile along the canyon rim then petered out. Perhaps it continued in the woods? Four hours of searching revealed nothing.
MacFarland River, Saskatchewan, about three miles above Lake Athabasca. It was a two mile portage which we "built" ourselves. The portage took two days!
We were shot so I suggested we “sleep on it” and have another look tomorrow. We did, and drew another blank. Bickering began. Pressure grew to canoe the canyon, dangers be-damned.
I suggested we pair off and keep looking. Shortly, someone found an old animal trail that went in the right direction. But it was overgrown with young trees—a canoe could not be carried through.
Sure enough, it was a portage, albeit one that hadn’t been used in years. It took us more than a day to clear the route and complete the carry. Our patience paid off.
Fond du Lac River, Saskatchewan. That big boy was barely 20 feet from me!
We had just finished breakfast when I heard someone yell, ”Bear! Big bear!” Sure enough, a huge cinnamon-colored black bear (or maybe it was a grizzly) was circling our camp. I hollered and blew a whistle. He didn’t even look up. So I grabbed my rifle (a .444 Marlin) and amassed everyone into a tight group. He circled closer. When he was 50 feet away I fired a warning shot over his head. He just sniffed the air then ambled down the bank and came in from another direction. He paused behind a large rock and stood up to see us better. He was just 20 feet away!
I was plenty scared, even with a powerful rifle in hand. But I did not want to kill this gray-whiskered old boy. So we talked. I looked unthreateningly into his eyes and told him I didn’t want to hurt him, that we’d be gone soon, and he could have his way. I said I respected him and wanted him to go on living. But I emphasized that I would have to shoot him if he came over that rock.
We stared at one another for some time. I could sense the wheels turning in his head. There was no fear or animosity. Only the question of what to do next. Then, after what seemed like an eternity (I learned it was just two minutes) he turned and walked away with dignity. As soon as he was gone, some crew members said they would have shot him long before he got so close. But as the fear wore off, all agreed that my patient plan was the right one.
Patience is like a secure eddy in the middle of a raging rapid. It’s gives you time to formulate a plan before you dash dumbly downstream.
RESPECT THE VICTIMS OF AN ACCIDENT
Victims of an accident may appear confidant initially, but inwardly they are often embarrassed and gun-shy. A sensitive response is important. For example, victims of a canoe capsize should change clothes immediately, even if the weather is warm and there is no danger of hypothermia. At the least, dry clothes will soften the sting of humiliation. Later, in camp, when everyone has rested, you can analyze the capsize. Afterwards, the incident is best not mentioned again.
Steel River, Ontario. Victims of a capsize may be gun-shy for some time.
SAFETY RULES REDUCE ACCIDENTS
Safety rules reduce accidents. Here, along with rationale, are some of mine:
Swimming in wilderness waters: Wear shoes (eliminates stone-bruised feet). No diving! (Head impacts are often fatal).
Don’t wear shorts while hiking or canoeing (sunburn issues).
Never carry a second pack on your chest (falls follow if you can’t see your feet).
No whittling! (the cause of most cuts).
Portage around Thompson Rapids, Fond du Lac River, Saskatchewan. Carrying a pack on your chest is a recipe for a fall!
Stow all personal gear inside your tent at night (wind carries things away; clothes get wet from dew and rain).
Don’t sit on your life jacket (eliminates compression damage, encourages respect for your PFD).
Is everyone dressed for the weather and gear packed so it will stay dry in rain or a boat capsize? Can everyone pin-point their position on the map? Are warm clothes, rain-gear, water, toilet paper, sunscreen, Band-Aids and bug-dope handy? Do you have some colored plastic flagging (available at hardware stores) to mark confusing trails? Attention to little things discourages big problems!
*My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition, contains a wealth of advice on "how to safely canoe difficult rivers."
*My teen book, JUSTIN CODY'S RACE TO SURVIVAL! mixes a fictional wilderness survival tale with practical outdoor tips everyone should know--a first for books of this type. Adults love it too!