WHAT TO FEAR ON A WILDERNESS CANOE TRIP
Updated: Jun 7
by Cliff Jacobson
Muskox: Hood River, Nunavut, Canada. Yes, these guys can be dangerous!
In 1974, I made my first big river trip in Canada. Five friends and I canoed 200 miles down a network of connecting Ontario rivers—Groundhog, Mattagami, Moose—to James Bay. It rained every day for 10 days; the river was flooded—very flooded (!); the bugs were terrible, the rapids were long and difficult and the scenery was unimpressive. One of our canoes that was not hauled well up on shore at the start of a portage, floated away and went over a 10 meter falls. It was damaged (bent gunnels, broken thwart, deck plate half torn off) but fortunately, we were able to repair it well enough to continue on. There were two capsizes, but they weren’t serious. I awoke every morning fearful that some new death-defying event would emerge that day. But in retrospect, our problems were due more to our inexperience than to real dangers that lurked around every bend.
Kopka River, Ontario. Cr. Rob Kesselring
Flash forward to 1984 and my first Arctic canoe trip (the Hood/Northwest Territories/now Nunavut). I prepared by reading every canoe book in print, not once, but many times. I envisioned miles of huge, pounding rapids (there were!), giant lakes with ice cold water, charging grizzly bears, hoof-stomping muskoxen and storms that would shred my tent. I had heard that in the days of aluminum canoes, there was about a five percent death by drowning rate on the tundra rivers. I didn’t want to add to the statistics! The good news is that we would use high volume Royalex canoes (Old Town Trippers) with full spray covers which should provide an edge in rapids. Still, fear of the unknown was always there—so much so, that I considered taking out an extra life insurance policy if my worst fears were realized.
Fact is, just about everyone who probes the unknown has some fear (at least at the start) that their skills won’t meet the challenge. “Fear”—call it mild trepidation—is nature’s way of getting one to slow down and think clearly. Mild fear heightens your senses, keeps you focused, keeps you alive! I’ve seen signs at the head of rapids along some U.S. rivers that remind people to urinate in the water, not on land. Whitewater paddlers jokingly rate the rapids by the number of urination stops: A one pee rapid rates about high Class II, a two pee rapid rates III-IV. Fear decreases with experience and proficiency. As paddle skills and judgment increase, dangers decrease, ultimately, it just becomes a problem to be solved. It’s like learning to drive: Whizzing along at 70 mph is scary at first, but the threat goes away as you gain skill.
Many of my non-canoeing friends think I’m nuts when I tell them I’m going to canoe hundreds of miles down a remote Canadian river where help is an airplane ride away. They think I will drown in a rapid or get eaten by bear. When I said I planned to canoe the Rio Grande River—and sometimes camp on the Mexican side—they were sure that drug-crazed bandito’s would do me in. And when I announced my plan to canoe 130 miles across the Everglades, I was warned about man-eating alligators and pythons. They were sure I’d get eaten by a snake!
Going where help is an airplane ride away. DeHaviland Single otter.
Truth is, what folks who don’t canoe in wild places generally perceive as “dangers,” aren’t. Drowning in a rapid is unlikely, because rapids occur where rivers narrow, and if you’re wearing a life jacket when you capsize you’ll probably make it to shore. Being killed by a wild animal is even less likely. Sure, it can happen, but it’s so uncommon that it would likely headline the national news--this, when thousands of people die each day while driving cars and barely receive token mention in the press.
In all my years of canoeing, the closest my wife Susie and I have come to dying on a canoe trip was: 1) On the Bloodvein River, Manitoba: a float plane that was just taking off nearly ran us down. He was going too fast to shut down and too low and slow to clear our canoe. He dove for the weeds and a pontoon missed our heads by a yard. (2) We were snugged against a high bank along the Thlewiaza River, Manitoba, Canada. There were thousands of caribou on the bank above us. The alpha male was strutting back and forth looking for a place to cross the river. He didn’t see us below him when he jumped into the water. His hooves missed Susie’s head by about two feet!
Here are the most common dangers you are likely to encounter:
A bad storm that threatens to shred your tent or flood your camp.
Falling and getting hurt while portaging—I once broke my wrist and sprained an ankle.
Making a long, open-water crossing on a big, cold lake where a capsize will probably be fatal. Yes, this is probably the most dangerous of all dangers you are likely to encounter on a wilderness canoe trip.
Capsizing in a rapid and losing (or damaging beyond repair) a canoe or gear.
Swamping—and wrapping--a canoe while lining it down a rapid.
Canoeing in an area where a forest fire rages all around.
Getting lost in a remote area where help is an airplane ride away.
Running out of food on a long trip.
Canoeing where forest fires rage nearby. Seal River, Manitoba.
The bottom line: DO expect to experience some mild fear when you first venture into the unknown. It’s a healthy feeling, one that will help grow your judgment skills. Your fear will dissipate with each new trip you make, and after a while you’ll be as comfortable and confident “out there” as you are at home.
*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!
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!
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!