I’ve got this friend, Matt.
Matt’s got this look, you see. I’ve known Matt a long time, and I’ve seen this look more times than I can count. It’s this look that usually just means ‘get ready’. So, I do.
Years ago on the Petawawa River, Matt gave me this look. We had been in Algonquin a few days, winding our way up a magnificent route, splashing and darting through rapids we had no experience running. I can’t speak for Matt, but I had only ever paddled white water once before and it was a fantastic mess. Boats tipped, packs ripped, and things were fine.
For the most part, we only ran sets we could see the end of. Looked doable? Go ahead. Not so much? Maybe go ahead. Unlike our previous trip together, we lacked a river guidebook this time around, which would have come in handy for having any sort of clue as to what we were getting into.
For the first few days of the trip, we continuously studied our map with focus on a particular portage. The long one. 3 kilometres around a portion of river riddled with rapid line markers, indicating an absolute gauntlet. We kept agreeing that we weren’t going to run it. No way.
Around midday we approached the mouth. Didn’t look too intimidating, I thought.
We pulled our boat up to shore, saddled up our buddies with their packs and boats, and sent them off down the trail.
Suddenly, as if someone flicked on the stage lights, things got quiet. Left at the trail head was myself, Matt, a canoe, two paddles and life-jackets that were 3 sizes too small, and a few packs.
Matt gave me that look.
His eyes flicked between me and the boat, head nodding towards the river. Mine started doing the same, and so I got ready.
Within moments our things were in the boat and we were paddling, boots and loose gear flung into the hull. Two young bucks, swelling with confidence, off into something or other about a river. I was nervous.
Jokingly, I think, as we approached what seemed like a small first drop Matt said, ‘Me, you, in Algonquin. Not the worst way to go!’ I laughed agreeably and felt the hairs struggle to stand on my sweat and sun soaked neck.
We rounded a few bends and hit the first drop. About 4 feet. We tipped. Until then, that was about as big as anything I’d run before. My heart started to beat a little quicker, and because we were soaked, I opted to wet myself. We swam off into an eddy, gathered the gear, and agreed that this would be a good time to put our shoes on. Strapping up our laces and the buckles to our lifejackets we hopped back in the canoe and kept paddling.
A couple turns later we came up to a straight away. Sitting in the back of the boat, I could see a faint line of white beyond Matt’s shoulders. I stood up to get a better look and could make out what I thought to be the tops of trees. The closer we got, the more right I became, and the bigger the pit in my stomach grew. Very aware we were coming up against a BIG one, I screamed, ‘we should probably pull over and scout this one out!’.
Matt yelled back, ‘Yeah, yeah, for sure!’.
Well wouldn’t you know it, the moment I dug my paddle in to angle us to shore, the water took such a turn that our canoe pivoted around backwards. Now facing upstream, I felt the torrent of the imminent drop pulling us faster and faster to the edge.
They say your life flashes before your eyes right before you die. I call bullshit on that. All I saw was Matt and the bit of river we had just paddled.
This was one of those moments I think really changed how I saw things. This was the first time in my life I’d ever come to terms with my own mortality. It was as if all the certainty I thought I had about anything just fell away, and the notion of surrender made sense for the first time. I remember one of us yelling ‘here we go!’
In an instant, we simultaneously jumped up and span around in our seats so that Matt was now in the stern, with my knees being crunched into the bow. Now, typically when paddling white water, I think, someone yells out directions on how to paddle. Draws, cross-bows, whatever other terms a trained paddler knows. Matt and I did the same, but for this drop, all I heard him howl was ‘Hold on!’.
And so, I did. Paddle slammed horizontally across the boat, I gripped the gunnels with everything I had.
Then it happened.
In what felt like an eternity, our canoe plummeted from its horizontal plane to a vertically sheer descent into a pit of doom. I felt the packs push against my back as I stood midair, Matt’s hands crashing into my shoulders as he fell forward. This was it. This is how I die. Matt was right, not so bad.
Slamming down, our boat half submerged in the river, I met the surface of the water at eye level.
We bellied up. We flattened out. Hell, we didn’t even tip. We were mostly sunk, sure, but buoyant enough to pull off into another eddy and gather ourselves. The boat was a little beat up, we were shaking, and I pissed myself again.
As if afraid to look a disappointed parent in the eye, we slowly turned around and met our primordial maker. This was no rapid. This 5-meter waterfall stared at us cursing our escape, and landed into a slew of jagged boulders, beckoning anyone stupid enough to dance in her might. It was as if the spot we hit was the only one that would have allowed us to make it out with our lives.
Again, at a loss for words, we broke into a hysterical laughter.
‘Back in the boat.’, I said. We were still only five-hundred meters into a stretch of rapid 3 kilometers long. Getting no more than a glimpse of the enormity of what we had just run, we kept paddling.
Kings of the River, we were.
We danced through the next few drops, steering our boat with the same freedom a child must feel when they learn to scribble. As if the river could hand us anything we couldn’t take. Indestructible.
Around another bend, and my heart sank again. No line of white, this time. No, instead what lay before us was what I later found out to be a human made sluice from the logging days. Essentially, an intensely narrow stretch of white water, thrashing violently and powerfully enough to fire halls of timber down at lightning speed, and we were headed in.
‘MATT! We should pull over and scout this one out!’.
We managed to find a nook just big enough for one of us to stand in and hold the stern of the boat while the other trekked along the shore and scouted out our next beast. Matt went, I waited and pissed myself. Ten minutes later, or forty, I don’t know, Matt came hopping back.
‘How’s it look?’
‘Pretty much the same! Let’s go.’
At this point, while we weren’t being pulled backwards over a waterfall, we had no option. We couldn’t get our boat out from where it was lodged, there was no upstream to paddle, and trying to fight through the bush back to the portage trail was out of the question. Our group must have been done by now.
Again, I came up against one of those moments. Having just been through what we had, letting go felt easy.
Well, this is going to go however it’s going to go, I thought to my terrified self. And, again, as we jumped the boat back into the current, or, as we used to put it back then, ‘tied our dicks to the yoke and proceeded to fuck the Universe with every ounce of our panting selves’, we tapped into a level of paddling I’ll likely never see again. We were flawless.
We were so flawless, in fact, that I even took a moment to realize how perfectly we were paddling.
As if the spirit of the river called me out for daring to not be totally present in that moment, we weren’t so flawless anymore. We fucked up. Our canoe slammed against a protruding rock and under the water we went. Release.
The next stretch of disaster is very spotty in my mind.
I remember lots of darkness, shutting my eyes with every plunge beneath the water. I remember breaching, seeing my map soaring from one wave crest to another. My arm shot out and I grabbed it, somehow. I remember catching a glimpse of the river ahead, the canoe upside down, packs each flung into different parts of the flow, and Matt howling. I remember struggling to keep my feet ahead of me so that my vital organs had a better chance than my butt cheeks of escaping the rocks below. By the end of that stretch, my ass looked like a zebra.
That’s about all I remember. Just as quickly as the sluice had moved, it came to screeching halt of calm. Everything drifted effortlessly into a glassy bend in the river, and there we were. Again laughing, again collecting our gear, we hugged each other and prayed that this was the end of it.
Back in the boat.
Moments later, and we were finished. Our final curve brought us to a straight away of trickling swifts; the only portion of the river visible from the portage’s end. We hardly put our paddles in the water, exhausted and laughing at the juxtaposing currents we had just so intimately met. Our friends’ jaws were dropped. To them, those trickles were huge.
‘You guys paddled all of those?!’ one of them yelled.
Matt and I laughed, paddled to shore, stood our tattered selves up out of our broken seats with packs in hand, reached for a snack, and finally exhaled.
Lunch was a salami sandwich and some blue juice. In the carnage, the barbecue sauce had exploded over everything.
Things we’re good.
They still are.