Canoeing the Owl River in northern Manitoba was always going to have its risks. 100km from the nearest house and with just a satellite phone for back up we were isolated and on our own. The six strong crew were split over three Canadian canoes, each 17 feet long, heavy fibreglass vessels with all our two weeks worth of kit strapped in including food, tents and packs. We had good team spirit and were full of confidence but aware of the dangers of what lay ahead over the next 220km.
By June 21st , 7 days in, we had neatly completed 50 sets of the 64 rapids on the river and headed towards number 51 which should have been routine. Jill from Parks Canada and Denny went through in the lead canoe and signalled that we should take a slightly more right line that they had just navigated.
Myself and Dave Raitt moved into position and headed to the frothing rapids. I was the power, Dave the steer. The line was good, speed bang on but then Boom! The canoe jolted as we dropped, somehow over an unseen underwatershelf, and we were jettisoned from the boat and capsized.
Dark flowing cold water put me in a different world as I was thrown around like an old sock in a washing machine and I floated to the surface. No – my head hit one of our water-tight dry bags which were tied into the upturned boat, but I was still underwater. I pulled myself down again to get away from the boat and surface but I again hit my head on something more solid in the turbulent waters which engulfed me. By now breath was running short and I was really panicking and I took in a huge unwanted gulp of water as I came up again and eventually found air. Suddenly I burst above the surface with a spluttering gasp at the side of the boat to be greeted by a bearded Dave covered in blood – he had a nose bleed.
“Martin” he shouted – who else were you expecting to pop up Dave?!
Up to our necks in the freezing water we shouted support to each other despite being only a couple of feet apart. “You ok”, “Hold on”, “Stay with it”……The torrents washed over us and we seemed to be trapped in a never ending spiralling whirlpool – this wasn’t good. My Zeiss binoculars suddenly popped up and smacked me on the chin. They were still around my neck and made me realise that somehow I also still had my specs on!
We became aware of Jill and Denny on the opposite gravel bank screaming at us. Denny pitched the emergency rope line but it fell short, he tried again, but once more it was unreachable. Time seemed to freeze and we just held on shouting, but it soon became clear we were out of reach of the line. The noise and the cold for me suddenly overwhelmed.
A strange dark cold feeling came over me, it also seemed relaxing suddenly, peaceful and calm, shutting out the outside world. Happy thoughts went through my head and I soothingly shut my eyes. My left leg had lost all feeling and I couldn’t kick in the water any more. Suddenly I began to sink back under. I realised I still had my hip waders on and desperately tried to undo the straps on the belt. I got one side undone, and this was enough to keep me afloat.
Dave was still shouting and I came to my senses in a jolt of shock. We had hit a rock and could feel a surface at our feet, despite being neck deep in water. We had a chance. Mustering all the energy we could we both kicked and flailed out our spare arm to move towards the bank while the river loosened its grip on us. Still clinging to the canoe we tried to right it, but as we did its weight nearly pulled us under. By now we had been in the ice cold waters for five minutes, it seemed an eternity, and adrenalin which had been pumping ferociously was waining. We were exhausted.
My coat floated free, Dave grabbed it after a shout from me, but we watched water bottles and sunscreen, and a cherry Chapstick, float off towards Hudson Bay………..why could we not float to calmer waters like that? The tripod however sank like Bin Laden in a bag and was never seen again.
We hit the embankment and pushed the boat, with all the still attached kit, onto the shore enough to stop us going into the next set of rapids. In this time we had only moved maybe 100 metres and the sun was blasting our faces but under the surface we were frozen to the core. We unclipped a couple of bags and got them ashore as Jill and Denny arrived from the opposite bank. I collapsed face down into the mud and don’t remember the next few minutes. I think I blacked out through shock, exhaustion and relief.
Next thing I recall is a voice saying ‘Martin’. It was Christian and Dave Britton who had hastily lined the third canoe through the rapids. It had been a very close shave.
Did we do anything wrong – no. It was a pure accident. No risk assesemnt can save you in these situations. I discovered Zeiss bins are 100% waterproof, never wear waders in boats and that you might have a life jacket on, but it is the cold that will get you. In the recent past I know of four people who have tragically died in canoe/kayak accidents in the west of Scotland. It is those recurring thoughts that make me realise how close we came.
The next few days of canoeing were mentally tough. We had lost our ‘mojo’ but had to go on. Getting back in the saddle is the only way to respond they say, but this is something I will never forget.