My Proudest Moment

This is an old story about a canoeing mishap and adventure from back in my 20s that I wrote for an online newsgroup many years back. Enjoy!

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Back in spring of, I think, 1986 or 87, I was guiding a 10-day Rio Grande Lower Canyon trip for SCCE, an outfit out of Maine.  I was sharing guide duties with Tom, one of the best guides and explorers I have ever met.  His wife, Lisa, was chief cook and bottle-washer, but could carry her own as a paddler. Together, we were in three solo boats, leading 14 new and return clients in seven tandem boats downriver, cooking meals, setting up tents, teaching paddling and showing a bit of geology and archaelology and all: the regular stuff.

On this particular Grande trip, the river was a bit low, maybe 2.5 feet instead of the usual 4 (I might have these numbers off…) which tended to slow our daily progress a bit, and also made most of the rapids more difficult, as they are primarily constriction or rock garden drops.  On or about day 3, we came up to a drop which was particularly gnarly at low water.  The usual run was a wide open skirt on the right past some monster waves, over a small ledge and on out the tailrace.  But at this level, the ledge was high and dry, and the right run was shut off with no exit.

canoeing_rapids

There were 3 massive boulders in the center of the river, making a diagonal fence which pushed the water left into a large boulder garden.  The run was to enter left of center, slip *just* to the left of each boulder, getting closer to each one, until you punched the wave off of the third and biggest and were able to draw behind it and run out the tailrace.  A simple one-move run for the experienced paddlers, but the first real challenge for the novices.  Tom and I decided that, as it was only noon, we would bring the guide boats down, let Lisa serve lunch, and we would set up safety and coach the clients on down.

20131126-tand1Earlier that morning, Lisa had let one of our favorite return clients, a 65-yr old woman named Claire, paddle her solo boat while she took stern in Claire’s tandem rig.  Claire was a fairly good class 2+ paddler and the day was mostly class 1-2, so Lisa took the precautions of double-checking that her gear was tied in well, and passed the boat on to Claire (who was a notoriously good tipper).  Once we arrived at the rapid, Lisa eddied at the most downriver spot above the drop and stood by the tandem rig she was paddling, keeping the clients behind her until Tom and I signaled to her what the plan was.

Unfortunately, when I yelled up to Lisa that the guide boats were coming through first, poor Claire was so excited that she hopped into Lisa’s boat and shoved off before Lisa could react! Instantly, Tom and I saw that Claire’s line was going to feed her right into the biggest rock, in the very center of the tongue midstream!  When the boat hit nose-on, Claire bravely laid on a monster brace and kept it from slipping sideways and dumping, but instead the nose dove downward and the stern started lifting.  Claire dropped her paddle, stood up and braced both hands on the rock as the boat started a VERTICAL postage stamp.  She could only do so much, and quickly she fell out as the boat slipped sideways and made a perfect ‘T’, open side IN, across the front of the rock.  Then, horror of horrors, the entire boat slipped down below the surface (the rock apparently was undercut), and instants later, the surge wave from the bow and stern suddenly disappeared as the ends of the boat broke and wrapped entirely around the base of the rock, in the very center of the current, 5 feet below the surface, about 25 feet from shore in the middle of the tongue.  With all the trip essentials like food, first aid, and water in it.

883260We were screwed, and about 100 miles from civilization.

Of course we rescued Claire right away, but our first major challenge was how to get out to the rock! The current was FAR too strong to wade, and we tried to swim but were unable to.  We even tried to paddle down and eddy out behind it, but the proximity of the boulders behind and the force of the current even made that impossible.  Poling back up to it was likewise impossible.  Don’t underestimate this: Tom and I were very good and strong paddlers, but this was just an impossible situation. The river was even too wide to get a rope across to do a tyrolean traverse.

Then I hit on an idea (by now you’re wondering why this was my Proudest Moment, aren’t you?)  We went about 100 yards upstream where the river was narrower above the drop, and Tom and I paddled across towing the rope behind us, with Lisa and some clients belaying their end. Then we turned downstream, staying well to the right side of the river. When the rope snagged on the big rock, Lisa hauled in her end and we were swung neatly into the eddy behind the rock, where we quickly tied off and scrambled up on to. Now we were safe on the rock and had a line to shore. Very slick, eh?

Unfortunately, Lisa’s boat was under about 5 feet of fast-moving water on the upstream side, completely and neatly wrapped around, and probably broken to bits.  We were unable to reach it from above, or to work our way up the side.  In fact, after about 1 hour, all we were able to do was to fill a throwbag with rocks, sink it upstream of the boat, and have it wash out beside the rock. We attached a old biner with a broken gate that stuck open (like a hook) and when we pulled in, the biner managed to get hung up on something down there…hopefully the boat.

After rigging up a 27-to-1 Z-drag (really!!) and having all 14 clients pulling on it, the boat shifted about 3 inches and a solitary bag floated out.  By now, it was obvious that we were not going to go anywhere, and when the bag turned out to be full of beer, we were all visibly overjoyed. However, the boat still showed no hope of getting unstuck and after about 3 hours of rescue effort, Tom and I were forced to paddle back to shore and acknowledge that we were going to have to finish the trip without Lisa’s boat, a stove, half our water and food, and our major first aid kit.

Then one of those magical things happened that I would not grudge you for disbelieving.  As we were all standing there, more saddened by being defeated by the challenge than by the loss of the gear and boat, the damn thing shifted. A lot.  So much that when I grabbed the line with 2 or 3 clients, the boat just slipped right off and swung into shore! We couldn’t believe the luck, and when we hauled it in, we saw that the biner was hung up on the handle of an ammo can and tangled in the mess of the gunnels, and the can had chosen that moment to collapse and this allowed the boat to slip free.  The gear was mostly saved, the stove and water jugs were intact, but he boat was a total wreck.

It was a 16′ Explorer, and every piece of wood was snapped: inwhales, outwhales, thwarts, seats, end plates: everything.  The longest surviving pieces were about a foot long. Additionally, the ABS was torn in 3 places: beside the stern seat, it had ripped a jagged tear on *both* sides all the way down to the V, almost meeting with only a 1 inch tag holding the end of the boat on.  In the bow, it had torn from one side, completely around the bottom and 3/4 of the way back up the other side, removing a large missing chunk along the way. The boat was almost in 3 pieces, a total loss. Tom figured we should just bury there as a tribute to the river gods, but I figured that we needed the boat, as its loss would have left us overfilled and without room to absorb an injured person. Tom and Lisa went to work on setting up camp and making a big meal, and I (who just LOVE these types of challenges) went to work on the boat.

riogrande_ph4First, I removed every piece of wood, and took the saw and cut off all the ragged ends.  I saved all the screws, and robbed the other Explorers of every third screw in their gunnels.  I also took the forward thwart from the 2 other Explorers, and a stern seat (as they were being paddled solo).

Since I still didn’t have enough wood for inwhales AND outwhales, I first spliced the long pieces, splinting on both sides of the tears where they met the gunnels.  Then I finished by alternating inwhale-outwhale-inwhale all around the perimeter of the boat.  I also put the 2 scabbed thwarts in and the seat.  When I was done, the boat had its shape and almost resembled a canoe again. Except for the tears and the hole from the missing section.

I drilled 2 or 3 ‘stitch holes’, and laid in some loops of string to hold the tears closed, making the boat look like Frankenstein. Then I duct-taped the outside of the boat across the stitches. Then I took candle wax and filled in the gaps where the tears had frayed.  When I was done, I duct-taped the inside also, then cross braced little x’s with wire to keep the rails from flexing.  When I put it in the water, not only did it not leak, but it was as solid and sturdy as a new boat!

We filled it with the trash, empty jugs,  and anything light to prevent the bottom from scratching, and I paddled it out: 6 days, many class 3 rapids and rock gardens, and a portage. The boat made it fine, in fact, Tom and Lisa quickly realized that it was a seaworthy playcraft as it was light as a feather, and we traded off several times. We ended up needing it later to do a rescue, and we even eventually patched it up with fiberglass and it served another 10 years as a guide boat!

And Claire gave us a big tip each.

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