The Seal River is located northeast of Tadoule Lake, in a remote corner of northern Manitoba. It is one of the most beautiful canoeing rivers in Canada, and one of the more challenging. The Seal runs fast from start to finish. The closer it gets to Hudson Bay, the faster it drops. If the water is low, the final miles to the Bay are an exciting, rock-dodging run. If the water is high, it’s a heart-pounding experience, even in a splash-covered canoe!
The rapids are long and wide and often confused with hundreds of rocks. Decisions come quickly as bodies twist and paddles dance to the echoes of “right turn, left turn, ferry left; ledge ahead--eddy in, now!” Unpredictable holes and ledges seem to appear from nowhere. Occasionally, there are falls. This story is about one of them.
I’ll take poetic license and call it “Jacobson” falls, for my close observation of it placed me on intimate terms. Here’s what happened:
My wife, Susie and I, are in one of four canoes negotiating a wide, mile long rapid which rates a technical Class II. We are running second, about 100 feet behind my friend, Herb Hill, who is an extremely accomplished whitewater canoeist. Herb and I have shared a half dozen wild Canadian Rivers. I trust his judgment and he trusts mine.
Our trip notes say there is a ledge at the base of this long rapid, and the best way around it is on “river right.” But the water is low and the right shore is a boulder field. It’s even worse on river left. We’re threading a tight zig-sag course just right of center. The right bank is closest--about 200 feet away.
Suddenly, Herb turns hard left and frantically ferries up stream. He makes it into a small eddy (barely!) and stops, out-of-breath and seemingly dumbfounded as to how to proceed.
I catch it all out of the corner of my eye but I can’t relate. The route ahead looks cluttered but clear.
Should I cut left now, continue on and crowd Herb’s eddy, blast right into the rock garden, or run straight towards what looks like a clear “vee” ahead? Quick! You have three seconds to make a decision!
I continued straight down the tube. Seconds later, Susie screamed “falls!”
“Straighten her out!” I yelled. “At least, let’s go over straight!”
Now, the canoe was in the flow, heading towards the bubbly chasm below. A Volkswagen sized boulder suddenly appeared on my left, just six feet away.
“Back!” I yelled! And momentarily, the big Dagger canoe stopped dead in its tracks. Somehow, I managed to pry the stern around and pin the boat against the rock. One more yard and we’d have gone over the falls!
Together, we pulled the heavy boat on to the huge boulder, then we looked downstream and questioned what to do.
The falls wasn’t a killer, but it was a “canoe breaker.” We were in the proverbial predicament--safe on a rock with no place to go. I noticed that Herb had left his eddy and was edging towards shore. Everyone else was scrambling along the left bank, hip-high in water, cussing and swatting bugs as they lined and dragged their boats to safety.
Susie and I just stood on the rock and watched. We were in no hurry--there was no place to go!
We discussed our options: Could we run the right chute? Not a chance. Ditto, the left: both were canoe killers. We could attempt an upstream back-ferry to “Herb’s eddy,” but we’d never make it. Or, we could shove the canoe over the falls, then swim for it and hope for the best. Deep down, I hoped for a helicopter!
While I was deeply contemplating, Susie--who is an exploratory monkey of sorts--snaked over the huge boulder and worked her way down to the base.
“Will ya look at this,” she called, in a surprisingly pleasant voice. “Nice eddy here, and a clean run-out below. Just slide her down and we’re home free.”
Two minutes later our big Dagger canoe was back in the water and Susie and I were aboard and smiling. It was clear sailing to an easy eddy 100 yards downstream, where we waited an hour for our friends to finish dragging through the boulder field.
PROBABLE BEST COURSE OF ACTION
Admittedly, Susie and I took the easiest route around the falls. We didn’t have to line, wade or portage. A simple “lift over,” that’s all. But was our decision wise?
I think not. Our maneuver was unplanned and largely impossible to duplicate. Sheer power, luck and a strong downstream lean saved the day. Chances are one hundred to one we could never do it again.
Moreover, I knew Herb would not suddenly turn without reason, or panic ferry just for fun. I should have heeded his cue and eddied out immediately. But, the route ahead looked clear. It really did! When I realized my mistake, it was too late--and there was only room for one boat in “Herb’s eddy.”
One could submit that I was following Herb too closely; but the complex nature of this rapid suggested that “tight running” was the best plan. However, if I were to re-do the scenario, I would probably cut to the right shore, even though there was no clear path.
“Trust” marks this scenario. I followed Herb because I trusted him. However, trust must be tempered with the knowledge that even the best paddlers sometimes screw up. Maybe Herb just made a mistake.
This scenario ends with a saving brace and a powerful last minute ferry. For a split second, I committed to paddling over the falls. Then my vision cleared and we forced the maneuver that saved the day.
Sun down on Hudson Bay at the mouth of the Seal River
If there’s a lessen here, it is that rivers have a way of rewarding determined last ditch efforts. Ever notice how “one final draw” often brings the canoe clear of a rock? Winston Churchill got it right when he said, “Never give up, never give up!”
My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition, contains a wealth of advice on "how to safely canoe difficult rivers.
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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!
* From my long out-of-print book, CANOEIST'S Q&A. It contains 25 true scenarios (plus FAQ's) that define the wilderness canoeing and camping experience--a great training tool for those who go beyond the beaten path. (available as an e-book HERE).