North Knife River, Manitoba: the water is very high and shore-line eddies are washed out. It is 45 degrees and raining.
A rocky island hides two killer falls that lie below. The right falls can be lined; the left must be portaged. The river runs well into the trees—lining is out. We must portage!
We begin the arduous task of cutting a portage around the left falls. Three hours later, we’re across and on our way again.
Later, we come to the 40 foot falls which my wife Susie has dubbed “The Gates of Heaven”. The river below splits into two channels; the right is “questionably canoeable”, the left is a blind shot through a canyon, around an island. I’ve done this river twice before and there are two options: portage the falls and the long rapid below it (400 yards on river right), or just carry around the falls (50 yards) and forward ferry across the strong rapid to river left. Then, turn downstream and ride the waves. Easy—that is, if you don’t miss your ferry. And at this high water level, you could!
At the falls, we meet some teens from a popular Minnesota tripping camp. Their leader says that last year four of their canoes went over the twin falls we portaged around earlier. The kids survived but were injured; the boats were heavily damaged. He says that they nearly did it again this year, but saved the day by crashing the rocky island (!).
I ask about his course through the rapids ahead.
“Think we’ll run the right slot.” He says.
“Too tight. I’m going to ferry across then run down river left. But my crew will portage—it’s only 300 yards.”
He says he’ll think on it.
Ultimately, he decides to run river left, like me. I watch him launch into the current. He is sitting, not kneeling. He powers downstream—no upstream ferry here—and paddles like mad. His canoe barely clears a van sized boulder. Seconds later, he’s out-of-sight.
Scared white, the second team prepares to go. I tell them their leader screwed up—a forward ferry is the way to go. They are willing to try. Mid-stream they lose their ferry angle, but after they’ve cleared the boulder.
The remaining canoes follow suit. They “make it”, but without grace or style. Obviously, they’ve never been taught to ferry!
Accidents were waiting in the wings. Only the physical strength of these youngsters and their barely adult leader got them through. Summer camps, hurting for participants, are pushing the envelope to create adventures that will entice teens. They are canoeing difficult rivers that are generally regarded as “for experts only”.
Most young adult leaders I’ve met are competent paddlers. Still, it takes time to develop the proper respect for a wild river: you can’t rush it! Yes, youngsters can learn paddle skills quickly. But they—and their leaders-- need time and miles for techniques to mature. Pushing the envelope too fast encourages disaster!