In a perfect world every adventure we pursue will go flawless; no injuries, no rain and no getting lost. When preparing for adventure, you’re planning for the worst but expecting the best. From first aid kits to tying gear into canoes, everything you choose to bring is for a reason. After several flawless trips, I started to forget the necessity of these preparation practices. Then Floatilla 2014 happened and I was bluntly reminded.
Last summer we followed up Floatilla 2013 with a much bigger and grandeur Floatilla 2014. I organized 8 canoes of friends to head down the same section of the North Saskatchewan River over three days. The trip even sounded good enough for my parents and 4 of their friends to come along. Making the grand total of paddlers to 22 + one dog! Oh yeah, Bok Choy came along too. Taking what we learned from the prior year, I felt pretty prepared for the journey downstream; more maps printed, a better plan for daily kilometers, better waterproofing, safety equipment overload and all equipment tied down. All equipment tied down right? Wrong.
Unfortunately, on the first day between basking in the sun and playing in the rolling class I+ rapids, we missed/forgot about the warning on the map to avoid Saunders Ledge. Essentially, it is the only feature on our route to avoid. Classified as a class II+ feature, it looked like a natural weir and does a pretty efficient job at flipping canoes. In a matter of minutes, 7 canoes had flipped and 14 people and one dog were swimming in mountain fed water.
What ensued was a HUGE learning experience on all levels; how I react in a crisis situation, how my adventure partners react in a crisis situation, why we prepare and some trip planning changes for the future. Here are my biggest take-aways from this experience:
1. It’s cliché, but stay calm and make a plan – Mark and I were the first canoe to head over the ledge, luckily we knew to hit it straight on with lots of power. Although thrilled that we didn’t flip, my stomach quickly sank as I looked back and witnessed canoe after canoe flipping. Instead of panicking, we made a plan to first bail as much water out of our canoe as fast as possible, then to start paddling for people and people’s gear. Nothing was going to float past us. This was exhausting but slowly everyone and everything (almost) got out of the river. Next was how to regroup and get people warm and dry again, but that was the easy part. By staying calm and making a plan, eventually the crisis will subside.
2. The advice you give and the advice you’re given is vital – Wait, did I say people’s gear was floating on by?! Unfortunately not everyone listened to my advice of tying all gear down, or underestimated the power of a current and their gear came loose. Luckily we didn’t lose too much but it sure made the rescue effort a whole lot harder! When you’re told to wear, bring, tie in safety equipment, do it! Anyone who chooses to not adhere to safety guidelines is a liability.
3. Unless you’re on a paid tour, everyone is responsible for themselves – It’s really easy to default to the guidance of the trip organizer. Generally they figure out who is coming, where everyone should meet, when everything is kicking off and sometimes what to bring. As a participant, it’s a good idea to be as informed as possible so you’re not relying on the organizer all the time. If you’re given a map, read it, know what is going on and where you’re going. If something was to happen and the group was separated or someone was injured, the more people that know what’s going on the better. Ultimately you are responsible for your own wellbeing, so set yourself up for success before you even start.
4. Be picky with your adventure accomplices – The group’s skill level should dictate the adventure; a more experienced group will want to take on something more challenging than a group with some enthusiastic new comers. It’s ok if you’re new (everyone was a first-timer once), just make sure the group knows your skill level and that you are with experienced people that can show you the ropes. Consider pairing a more experienced person with a less experienced person, this will facilitate distributing the group’s experience. If you’re taking on something more challenging, you never know who is going to be rescuing who, so you want to make sure if you are the one in need that your buddies have your back.
5. Stay positive, negativity is a virus – Shit happens! But that’s why you signed up for an adventure right?! If you knew it would be a walk in the park with no inherent risk, would you still want to do it? Part of the attraction to wilderness excursions is the challenge that it probably will be hard and that something could go wrong, but knowing you have the skills to persevere makes it fun. So when things go sideways, try with all your might to stay positive, especially when you’re in a group. This ties back to picking your adventure accomplices. I’d recommend sticking with the ones that lift you up, because once you have one Negative Nancy in the group, it has the potential to spread like wildfire!
Luckily there were no huge consequences of the North Saskatchewan River fiasco. We were incredibly fortunate to flip right outside a campground where a family was camping with some river jet boats. They graciously assisted in running up and down the river retrieving personal items, people, canoes and even Bok Choy our dog! The rest of the trip was fantastic and all that remains is a hilarious campfire story. There were a lot of lessons learned that day, but the one I am most thankful for is knowing that I have awesome friends that still trust me when I tell them to come with me on an adventure.