AN HEROIC RESCUE: What Would You Do?
The following life-threatening experience took place on the Turtle River in northern Ontario.* The Turtle is not a particularly difficult canoe route. The rapids are short and well-defined, and the portages are generally good. The major obstacle is a number of large sprawling lakes which you must navigate and which demand attention if the wind is up. Experienced Boundary Waters and Quetico Park canoeists--who have good judgment and basic whitewater skills--would find themselves right at home on the Turtle River.
I am departing from the usual format of this blog to allow Jim Leavitt to share his story with you in his own words. I hope you will frequently pause to consider each decision that Jim made. And lest you judge Jim’s actions too harshly, be aware that he and his wife, Cindy are superb whitewater paddlers and very competent outdoors people. I’ve paddled three tough Canadian Rivers with Jim and Cindy and they have earned my respect. The Leavitt’s have good judgment--they know they can’t “beat the river.” Jim is an experienced physician in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and Cindy is a Registered nurse. Both know the dangers of cold water and hypothermia.
Jim and Cindy’s story depicts a scenario that has been repeated thousands of times in thousands of places all over the world. It points out how one small mistake can be life-threatening, and how one bad choice can lead to another. Most important, it illustrates that there are no pat formulas for correcting a serious error.
Every experienced canoeist I know has had at least one potentially life-threatening experience. It’s part of the learning curve. However, most paddlers are simply too embarrassed to admit their mistakes. Jim Leavitt is a notable exception. I commend Jim and thank him for allowing me to share his story with you.
To encourage you to think carefully about options, I’ve inserted (WHAT WOULD YOU DO NEXT?) at key places in the copy. Make your choice, then read on to see what happened. You’ll discover that things complicate quickly after the initial disaster. Hindsight here is a perfect 20:20!
As told by Jim Leavitt
August, 1995--Two canoes--myself and a male friend in a 174 Old Town Discovery canoe, and Cindy and a lady friend in an 18’ We-no-nah Sundowner canoe. It was the fifth day of a week long trip which started at Turtle Lake, North of Atikokan, Ontario.
We were greeted by a very strong headwind on White Otter Lake which slowed our progress considerably. To conserve energy, we would paddle hard from bay to bay, rest a moment and go on. We were pleased that we were able to negotiate the difficult “wind tunnel” between the large north-south island and the west shore. We stopped for lunch at a small protected sand beach.
(WHICH OF THE DECISIONS BELOW WOULD YOU SUPPORT?)
Our lunch spot was small but comfortable and, if need be, we could have camped there for the night. However, I was disappointed that we hadn’t come as far that day as I’d hoped. I wanted to make a beautiful campsite at the south end of Ann Bay at Jackfish Narrows. Besides, we had, I thought, easily made it across the roughest part of the lake.
We were confidently jumping from bay to bay and had come around another small point to run along the west shore into the wind. My Old Town Discovery made the move without difficulty and we went about one kilometer down the shore to wait for Cindy and her friend in the “Sundowner.” The two were in trouble as soon as they rounded the point--the more they tried to turn towards shore, the more they were blown out to sea. I watched their “lack of progress” from shore and assumed that, with a little more time and effort, they would soon join us, even though I could see they were moving farther out into the lake.
I left my companion on shore to watch them with binoculars, while I climbed the cliff and searched for a campsite. Twenty minutes later I returned and could barely see them with binoculars. Occasionally I caught a flash of white out on the lake which suggested that the canoe had tipped over and was rolling repeatedly in the waves.
(WHAT WOULD YOU DO NEXT?)
Now, what do I do?
A) Stay where I am knowing that they are both foundering in heavy water far from shore?
Cynthia is not a strong swimmer so I was very worried. Even though the water was relatively warm, it could be several hours before the capsized canoe washed ashore. It was a little after one-o-clock, so the wind would continue to blow for many more hours.
B) Work my way north along the shore, behind the two islands, so I could pick them up more quickly when the wind settled down?
I entertained this thought for a few seconds but didn’t give it much weight. Precious time was slipping by. I was even more worried that I wouldn’t be able to see them from the north side of the islands.
C) Go after them!
(WHAT WOULD YOU DO NEXT?)
This is what I chose. A tiny voice inside me told me it was unlikely I would succeed, and that if both canoes swamped I couldn’t help myself or anyone else. Besides, there was no guarantee that the two swamped canoes would drift together in the same direction. This was a huge lake, with lots of bays and potential landing spots. If I lost sight of them I might not find them again! However, I had an overwhelming feeling that I must do something, even if it was foolish.
Adding to this was my partner who could not swim and said “I don’t want to die!”
(WHAT WOULD YOU DO NEXT?)
QUESTION: Do I go out empty or loaded?
I knew that I could probably control the canoe better if it was light. The craft would also sit higher in the water and be less likely to swamp from the following seas.
My concern was leaving our only known dry gear--two tents and clothing plus stoves--behind on the shore at such a distance that I could not retrieve them before dark. I had no way of knowing if Cindy’s packs had remained with the canoe or floated free. If they were gone, I would need my equipment to rig a comfortable camp. But, it would be a disaster if I also tipped over and lost everything. What to do?
(WHAT WOULD YOU DO NEXT?)
I went out loaded. I decided to go straight into the middle of the lake then head northeast with the wind behind me. I knew that a following sea is much more dangerous than a headwind. However, there was no choice; I’d have to run with the waves at my tail. The stern of the canoe began to weather-vane as soon as it broke into the waves, so I put ashore and readjusted the load so the tail was heavier than the bow. This solved the problem.
However, by the time I finished re-trimming the boat, I could not see the other canoe. I guessed they were two or three miles away. I turned downwind and started for the far diagonal shore, thinking this is where they were headed. About halfway down the lake my bow partner spotted them to the northwest. I had erred too far east. It took two “Z” maneuvers to realign my canoe with theirs. The wind was blowing stronger than ever and I was surprised we didn’t tip over when we made the turns.
Minutes later we intercepted the swamped canoe and were relieved to see that Cindy and her friend were hanging on to the boat. Thank God they were both wearing life jackets! All the gear and paddles were gone. The flash of light I saw on shore was the canoe rolling in the heavy waves. I estimated they had been in the water for nearly an hour. The women were cold but not hurt.
Now what do I do?
A. Try to empty the canoe and right it (canoe-over-canoe rescue).
No way! Not in these waves.
B. Have them hold onto their boat and tow it with ours.
The swamped canoe was acting like a large sea anchor, so I guessed our canoe would probably just wallow in the waves until it swamped. Trash this idea.
C. Have them hold onto the stern line or side of our canoe, while we towed them ashore.
Tried this, but had the same wallowing sea anchor effect.
D. Ask them to let go of their boat and climb aboard ours.
(WHAT WOULD YOU DO NEXT?)
We chose option “D”. Miraculously, we got them both into the middle of the canoe from opposite sides--not without some anxious moments, like when Cindy’s partner got her leg stuck between the wanigan and gunnel and couldn’t get all the way in or remove her leg. I knew that if she lost her grip on the center thwart she would fall off the gear and possibly break her leg and drown. If she fell, she wouldn’t be able to extract her leg and I would need to roll the canoe over and dump us all. Fortunately, I was able to get her leg free and her into the canoe.
I was able to hold this unstable construct together for only about fifteen minutes before we capsized!
(THERE ARE NOW FOUR ADULTS AND A LOAD OF CAMPING GEAR IN A CAPSIZED CANOE, IN A HEAVING SEA. WHAT WOULD YOU DO NEXT?)
A. Hold onto our canoe and float.
We tried it and barely moved at all!
B. Hold on to the canoe and kick with our feet.
We tried this, to no avail. No effect with “Bean” boots--and I didn’t want to lose them.
C. Let go of the canoe and float with either our life jackets or a gear pack or wanigan?
This would get us out of the water more quickly and thereby minimize the effects of hypothermia. However, all four of us might be scattered across a large shoreline with no canoe or gear. And if we did all make it to the same spot, there would be no dry clothes, food or equipment. If we left the canoes we might never find them again. What to do?
D. Try to paddle!
(WHAT WOULD YOU DO NEXT?)
Paddling seemed the best alternative. I hoped to make it to the big island but the alignment of the canoe suggested that, without forward progress, it would drift past the corner and head down the lake. I had three paddles in my boat--so with one person holding onto a tent which had popped out from beneath a Duluth flap, and the other three standing in the bow, stern and center, we began to awkwardly paddle. It seemed to serve several purposes: gave us something to do in the face of utter helplessness; warmed us up; and maybe, just maybe brought us closer to land. I knew that if we missed the island, we would float for hours at the mercy of the waves. Hypothermia and progressive despair wouldn’t allow us to be in the water much longer. It required constant chatter and encouragement to keep from giving up. It was frightening to hear someone say “I can’t go on.”
I set the boat on a quartering tack, and we seemed to make progress. But as soon as we’d get ahead, a wave would roll us over. When we were standing in the canoe, the water was waist high. Sitting would have been better except that the waves were so high they washed over us and prevented us from paddling.
We finally hit the island just past an almost vertical rock wall. The women had been in the water for nearly four hours. Cindy was visibly blue and shaking and was not responding to verbal cues. Hypothermia had set in!
Equipment on hand included two personal packs, one wanigan with pantry goods, two day packs and a pack basket--enough to make fire and rig a snug camp.
The shore on which we landed was so rocky and overgrown that we could barely sit or stand. Camping was impossible. Fortunately, one of my two PEAK 1 stoves worked. I had an emergency fire starting kit in my thwart bag and soon got a large blaze going. Modesty took a back seat to a swift change of clothes.
(WHAT WOULD YOU DO NEXT?)
A NO CHOICE DECISION
We had to get off the rocks. Once re-warmed, it was time to move. But how? Four people in one canoe was out of the question, so I put three people and two articles of gear in the boat and struck out for the far shore. The wind was diminishing, and so was my self-confidence. I simply did not want to paddle in any waves!
The good part of the catastrophe was the sandy beach towards which we were headed. There was a gentle slope, enough room for a dozen tents, and plenty of firewood. And wonder of wonders--we found one Duluth pack and the gear Wanigan lying on the beach! We were still missing the food pack and one personal pack, but we did have four live humans, one canoe, three paddles and enough food and gear to get by. My psyche was so fragile that I waited an hour before I returned to pick up the remaining person. Now, all waves looked too menacing!
The rest is history: A roaring fire was built and dinner was scrounged from the pantry. Without sleeping bags for all of us, it was a miserable night for some.
It’s amazing how, in a catastrophe, your world narrows to a few basic needs. What I wanted most was a second canoe. The area was fairly remote, so I knew that we could sit on this beach for days--maybe weeks--before we were found. Staying put was not an option. I would rather move as a group than divide up.
(WHAT WOULD YOU DO NEXT?)
Earlier that evening, I saw the second canoe blow down the lake. It was headed towards a huge 40 meter vertical rock face about one kilometer from our camp. Would it break up on the rocks or drift into a quiet eddy? I hoped I would not be packing the Sundowner home in a Duluth pack!
A miracle! The next morning we found the canoe at the base of the rock face, with a sharp vertical edge jutting from the water. It was intact, except for two symmetrical four inch holes in the rails. Now, if I could just find another paddle...
I no longer cared about the food pack or missing Duluth pack. I just wanted out of there! We emptied the We-no-nah and towed it back to camp. Further down the sand beach, I discovered a paddle. What joy!
That morning we found the other two paddles and remaining packs, scattered along the beach. The only losses were one pair of boots, a hat and towel. To our good fortune, the sun was shining and everything was dry by noon. We made 14 km. by evening and found a nice campsite close to the final portage.
I can attest that Cliff Jacobson’s bagging system does keep everything dry--even when packs are attached to thwarts and agitated in a heaving lake for more than a day.
WHAT I LEARNED
--Don’t try to swim while wearing “Bean” boots.
--When in doubt, stay put!
--A submerged PEAK 1 stove will fire up with a little encouragement.
--If you don’t have a doubt, you’re not considering all the possibilities!
--People are important, gear is expendable!
IN RESPECTFUL RETROSPECT
Jim Leavitt’s crew successfully crossed the roughest part of Ann Bay, so Jim reasonably figured that they should have been able to handle the rest without difficulty.
Any prudent canoeist might have made the same judgment call and duplicated Jim’s experience. Nonetheless, I would have had two concerns:
#1: Before making the final crossing I would have re-trimmed each canoe so it wouldn’t weather-vane on the downwind run. Then, I would have told the second canoe to stay within shouting distance of my canoe. All canoes in a party should stay together when crossing a windy lake, even if it means that the fast team must slow down. Not all canoeists are strong paddlers, and not all canoes are equally fast. Getting ahead--way ahead--of your friends on a windblown lake minimizes the chances of a successful rescue.
Admittedly, under real field conditions it’s not easy to slow down a fast team. Some of the speed is macho; some of it is wind-driven exhilaration; and most, perhaps, is just the desire to get out of danger as quickly as possible. Nonetheless, canoes should stay together when things get rough. Had Jim been closer to Cindy when the capsize occurred, he might have approached the problem differently. The water was relatively warm so hypothermia would not have been an immediate concern.
#2. Those who are familiar with canoes will recognize that the Old Town 17’4” Discovery and 18-foot We-no-nah Sundowner, are vastly different crafts. The Sundowner is designed for fast, efficient travel on open rivers and “Boundary Waters” style lakes. It turns reluctantly in currents and wind, and its narrow bow tends to submarine in huge waves. The Sundowner is a fine canoe but it’s not ideal for the Canadian bush.
The “Disco” on the other hand is a marginally sluggish general purpose canoe, that has no virtues or faults. It turns better and is much more forgiving than the Sundowner. Note that Jim had to make several “Z turns” to get to Cindy’s swamped canoe. He might not have been able to make the turns in the Sundowner.
Am I suggesting that the Sundowner is inferior to the Discovery? Not a chance. Both canoes have their place. The Sundowner was simply out of its element here. The roles might have been reversed if Cindy had been paddling the Discovery.
This is not a matter of “which canoe is best." It’s a matter of knowing--and complying with--the capabilities of all the craft in your party. Had Jim been paddling the more sporty Sundowner, he might never have attempted the crossing.
Rule: all canoes in a party should be matched to the task. Tone down your expectations if they’re not!
In Search of Cindy:
No experienced paddler I know would fault Jim Leavitt for going after his wife. His decision to go out loaded was correct, both for the reason he cited, and to increase ballast and control in the waves. I would have moved all gear as close to the center of the canoe as possible. Then, I would have positioned my partner behind the bow seat and assumed a kneeling position against the rear thwart. This would have lightened the ends of the canoe and produced a drier, more controllable ride.
The Heroic Rescue
I would argue against putting four people in the canoe. Jim knew this would result in disaster, and it did. I would choose one of these options:
a) Command the paddlers to grab the stern line of my canoe, roll over on their backs (their heads towards the stern of my canoe) and kick hard with their feet to provide some forward motion. I would then point the canoe about 20 degrees into the wind (tacking route) and paddle aggressively. Hopefully, we would make some headway. If not, I’d try option “b” which, I think, is probably the best.
b) One paddler straddles the bow of my canoe, the other straddles the stern. The paddlers lay on their backs, their feet locked over the rails of the canoe. They hold tight to the canoe and lift themselves out of the water as much as possible. Their life jackets should support their torso. Now, the canoe is in balance and the “swimmers” are essentially part of the canoe. This is an effective rough water rescue procedure. I agree with Jim that under these conditions the Boy Scout “canoe-over-canoe rescue” technique is out of the question--indeed, it is usually out of the question!
c) Paddlers in, packs out! One could clip the dumped packs (they’d float) to the stern line, then tow them behind the canoe. The packs would act much like a sea anchor and slow the canoe down, but three people paddling might overcome the drag.
As you can see, once the initial mistake is made, everything that follows centers around making the best of a bad situation. In this scenario, cool-headedness and dogged determination saved the day. In another situation this may be not enough.
It’s interesting to note that Jim’s conscience told him to remain at the safe lunch spot until the wind died down. But he ignored the warning.
My advice? Keep your group together, consider the worst case scenario and always go with your gut feeling (guardian angels don’t lie!). And don’t allow a tight schedule or friends pressure you into doing something that you know is unsafe.*
*From my long out-of-print book, CANOEIST'S Q&A. It contains dozens of scenarios that define the wilderness canoe experience--a great training tool for those who go beyond the beaten path. (available as an e-book HERE)
*My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition, contains a wealth of advice on how to safely canoe difficult canoe routes.
My book CAMPING'S TOP SECRETS, 2022 revision, details practical camping tips and procedures that only the experts know. Know these tricks and you'll be a hero to your friends!
*My teen book, "Justin Cody's Race to Survival" mixes a riveting fictional wilderness survival tale with practical outdoor skills everyone should know--a first for books of this type. Adults love it too!
My 90 minute video, THE FORGOTTEN SKILLS details the most important camping skills. If you can do them all you'll be a hero to your friends!