There is a place in space and time where two forces collide. The place is called TERROR. The forces colliding are named IGNORANCE and COURAGE.
I am an adventurer yes. But I am not the most seasoned. At 36 years old, I have had many adventures and sailed many grand voyages. But I am still quite green on “Expedition” scale.
Thankfully for me, I am not engaged in a competition of titles. I am simply interested in living well. So while on this path to discovering my limits, I occasionally blow past the safe zone and do something stupid.
Something like attempting to run the “Bloody Falls” of the Coppermine River in a 5 lb. pack raft, 10 miles from the closest Arctic village, with no means of communication. Yeah, something like that.
Having briefed you on what is to come, let me share with you the purpose and intent of what I am trying to share here. What I am hoping to communicate is that we can do amazing things when we plan, study and prepare. We can mitigate hazards by being humble and achieve amazing things in relative safety.
Then, mere days later, we can become complacent, perhaps lulled into a false sense of security from our prior accomplishments. We can fall into the trap of talking ourselves into a bad situation.
This story will be entertaining, I wager. Probably more entertaining than hearing the broad strokes of our 3500-mile sailing voyage into the Arctic. Like train wrecks, we gather to these stories. It seems there is something inside us that yearns to find the Ragged Edge, where nothing matters beyond the moment. The moment where you are in love with the very breath in your lungs, because it’s all you have…
In September of 2013, 10 miles south of the Coronation Gulf, in the Canadian Arctic, at a place called “Bloody Falls,” my friend Jason Wilson and I had a moment just like that.
I cannot speak to the intricacies of Jason’s experience that day. But I will share with you mine, knowing our hearts are similar on this event.
It was a beautiful morning in Kugluktuk. We were waiting on a seemingly perpetual cycle of bad weather, for our VFR flight to leave the Arctic. But as always, we were “Enjoying The Process”
It was about noon. We had planned to get a ride from a local by 4-wheelers, to the legendary “Bloody Falls”. A site where a historical massacre occurred during the early days of exploration.
Our ride did not show. So we set out to hike the 10 miles on foot. A local gave us a ride to the trailhead and we were on our way. The scenery was beautiful and we made good time.
It was great to be out exploring and not giving into apathy. We did not know anything other than that we wanted to float the Coppermine River back to Kugluktuk before dark. As to the falls, we would make our decision once we saw them.
A couple hours after leaving the trailhead, we could see the falls. They were at least a mile away, but we could already hear them roaring. They were not very high, but moved very, very fast through a narrow break in the hard rock, maybe 30 yards wide, before spilling into a wide expanse of water, well over a half-mile wide and a couple of feet deep. There were no cascading horsetails and rainbows. Just grumbling, crushing, rushing, foaming, swirling water. Like a 30-yard-wide fire hose over automobile-size boulders…
About now you are already thinking I’m stupid, and that’s okay. This is not a hero story. This is a search of the heart.
Jason and I scrambled to the falls, knowing the cold Arctic night would move in soon. We approached the falls and stood on a cliff over them. It was very loud. We did a quick interview for the adventure film we are making.
I recall how I felt… I could taste the acid in my throat. I wasn’t sure yet if we would run them. But I knew that if we did go down, there was one path which was immediately identified as NOT AN OPTION. I belabored this point in my mind and created three mental routes. Lets call them the “good” route, the “things went bad” route and the “unacceptable” route.
The “good” route was about three feet wide. It was the bulge of two wave systems on either side. It was comprised of silky smooth water, boiling to the surface amongst the chaos around.
Just to the east a few feet was the “things went bad route”. This bordered the good route and was about 25 feet wide. On the other side of this route was the far shore of the river, a beach of polished stone, honed smooth by the Coppermine running over it since forever. Among the treats scattered in this route were numerous large boulders, a zig- zag of churning against the rocky shore and a few choice standing waves that chewed at the incoming water like heavy gluttonous mouths, drinking limitless gallons, day and night. Maybe they were hungry for something chewy…
The “good” and “things went bad” routes were separated from the “unacceptable” route by a large rock outcropping near the center of the falls, the remaining western portion of the falls being the “unacceptable” route.
The “unacceptable” route was something that scared me. I repeated adamantly that at all costs, this route must be avoided. Problem being… the good route was sandwiched between the bad ones, just riding the eastern shore of the rock island.
We decided to get a closer look by hiking up further and crossing just above the falls. That way we could get a close-up view of the routes below.
Jason and I donned our safety gear. Jason wore a Mustang Survival whitewater rescue jacket and an industrial climbing helmet over normal clothes. I wore a rock climbing helmet and a full set of “Stormr” gear which consisted of bib overalls and a Stryker series jacket. We had been testing Stormr gear since the previous winter, with good results. I had been in the cold ocean water for over 10 minutes, while conducting initial testing and knew the gear would float me. So I decided to put the gear to test in white water.
We blew up our boats and put in about a hundred yards upstream. Even this water was terrifying. There was a hundred yard crossing ahead of me that had a 7-8 knot flow speed, with a 4-knot back eddy. The water was literally flowing in two directions at once.
I sat at the current edge and studied the timing of the back eddy. About every 30 seconds, the whirlpool would consume itself and subside for a moment. I don’t know if my tactic worked, but I chose my moment, and paddled hard. It was unnerving to say the least. My little boat bucked the waves as I was slapped around. I dug deep with my paddle. At times I was sitting completely still, paddling with my all.
By the time I crossed over I was exhausted and had lost about 30 yards to the downstream current. I took advantage of a mild eddy on the other side and waited for Jason to cross. Just as I was, he too was pulled downstream a ways.
I remember a moment in his crossing, where the current took him well downstream… My heart was in a lump. I paddled gingerly out of my cozy back eddy to be poised, should he be taken down. I did not know what I would do to help him. But I knew I was going to be there.
Much to my relief, he pulled free from the current’s grip and we made our way to the head of the falls in tandem. There we got out of our boats and walked the shore near the “good” and “things went bad” routes.
Now somewhat empowered by a victorious crossing upstream, my confidence took a nudge and for the first time, I considered running the falls in earnest.
Back and forth we walked the smooth stone mass under our feet. I spouted my theories, and Jason his. Our final conclusion was that we did not agree on a best route at all.
While I salivated over the thought of paddling that silky bulge of water, encased by walls of chaos, Jason liked the look of the east shore. He knew it would be a wild ride, but shore-based nonetheless.
We ended our debate as I said, “I’m going to shoot for the middle and ride that silky finger”. I was sold on it. Jason, I think, was more realistic. He said he saw no way down the falls without swimming.
But I was like “Joe Dirt” and could not have “NO”in my heart. But really I think, I must have, because the first thing I did before entering the boat was to splash my face with cold water. This is a trick used in cold water scuba diving, to diminish the shock of cold water immersion.
I flicked on my Go-pro and gently coasted from the shore. I hugged the shore, tiptoeing my way along. But there was a problem. The falls could not be seen. The horizon was smooth. Where was the middle? I could see some of the rock outcropping. That was the best target I would get.
I stopped there and took three deep breaths. That’s what I do when I’m scared: I take three deep breaths. After the breaths, I make my decision to get out of the game, or stay in it. It works. But sometimes just barely. This was just such a time.
Head down, I buried my paddle, defining my decision to go…
As I approached the roaring chaos, the horizon gave me more clues. Shortly after, the water around me filled in the rest of the story and removed all doubt in my mind that I was way out of my league. I could not recognize anything. Where the hell is the silky finger of water? And why is it that my paddle strokes make no effect on my uncontrollable
spinning in circles?
A few moments into it I cried out “I’m in it now! Whether I like it or not!” and paddled hard to just aim downstream. I was pretty close to my target, actually. But had bailed on continuing. My new plan was to try and ground the boat on the rock island.
This was a fantasy of desperation that provided a fleeting moment of comforting thought. Then, two feet from the island… it happened. My boat sucked to the west side of the island. The “unacceptable” route had chosen me as a tasty morsel.
My arms stretched for the island, but it was no use. I centered myself in the boat, grasping to paddle straight at the corridor of hungry standing waves. I was terrified. An awful feeling swept throughout my body, as my boat spun about-face. As the bow of my raft climbed skyward, having been snatched up into a backflip, I opened a sliver of my mouth, and sucked a half lung full of air. Then it all went dark. Dark but not quiet.
I kicked my legs in unison, to free myself from the boat’s spray skirt. I don’t know when I lost the paddle. Then moments later I was upright for a moment. Just ahead of me was a standing wave, darkening the sky ahead. I spit water and sucked air again as the wave consumed me.
I knew this wave. This was the one that scared me most. I was convinced from the first time I saw it, that if it got ahold of me, it would never let me go. I had a vision of being perpetually tumbled there until the river froze over.
But that didn’t happen. What did happen is that I was taken under water and whipped around like I’ve never been. My arms and legs were like flags in the wind. The wave played with me. Then, as if bored with me, passed me off to the next set. And so the process continued. Moments in time were like hours in my mind. I saw my raft just once. It was 20 feet away from me at the base of the falls, spinning in place. All I could think about at that moment was Jason. “Don’t Go,” I thought, “Don’t Go…”
You see, at the base of the falls, the two streams reunite, creating a swirling, spinning body of water between them. I was stuck in this water now, surrounded by two powerful arms of water holding me in a cradle of death. The Stormr gear had kept me afloat and I could swim with my arms. But my boots were weighing me down. And I was down often enough to think about some very important things. Like my boys at home. “They won’t be surprised,” I thought. Then shaking that thought of failure off, I went back to the fight.
I was kicking and beating to take breaths. It was time to lose the boots. I pried the first off with my other boot. Then breath held to pry off the second. Instant relief! I was mouth above water, even in the rough stuff, which was less and less, as I drifted farther downstream.
Just about then, I saw Jason’s boat spit out of the “things went bad” route. Without Jason. I could not see him. My heart sank and I swam hard to break the current, now more free to make way. Then I saw Jason’s boat again. It passed behind me. I had to make a choice. Shore or boat? Shore or boat? I watched the boat. It was moving slow. I swam for it. But it kept moving. I was chasing my own tail. “Where is Jason!?” I kept thinking.
Then I saw him. He was swimming for the boat. I paddled hard and we made it there in unison. I was so glad to see him and I told him I loved him. Because I do, and we just about died together. It feels good to share your care for another person without shame. We should all do that more often than we do.
We were going to be okay, I thought. By the time we drug the boat ashore, we had been rolling 17 minutes of footage.
As I rose from the water, my heavy tired body weighed heavily on my frozen stocking feet. I limped gingerly ashore and switched gears to “inventory and planning” mode.
Along the hike, Jason and I had been discussing survival options and the like for the wilderness. I came up with the idea that caribou shoulder blades, if lashed to a sturdy stick, would make a good paddle.
After I got out of the water, I revisited my grand plan. “We need to find some shoulder blades,” I plainly stated… How silly that sounded. We were 10 miles from the village, on the wrong side of a cold brutal river with one tiny boat and no paddles. I had no shoes and Jason was shivering violently. Shoulder blades weren’t going to cut it. What we needed was an ugly immediate plan that kept us moving and warm.
But I took a feeble walk across the rocks, back to Jason’s rapids, in hopes of finding his paddle.
I took a moment there. I paused in reflection. I took off my camera and I talked to my
sons. I spoke from my heart but did not say much, other than that they were in my mind the entire time. And that I did not know what drove me to do these things. I did not apologize for being me. But I was apologetic for any negative aspects of my personality, which exposed them to possibilities like me disappearing in the Arctic, for instance.
I had also been dating someone at the time. And oddly enough, I realized that this footage would be viewed later and she may feel put out by not mentioning her. I attempted to address this and commented that I had “thought of her, too”. In doing so, I could hear the nature of my voice. I had just made an untrue statement, out of obligation and caught myself. It was then and there that I realized my heart was not hers and we would not remain together. But that’s another story…
Gaining some focus now, I had getting home to the village on my mind. Jason was moving slowly but was ready to go. I hobbled back across the smooth rocky shore, back to Jason, where he was busy shivering and dumping water out of his belongings. We dumped the stone ballast from his bag and took a brief inventory. It was confirmed that we did not have the resources to safely stay the night in the wild, without further endangering ourselves. So we set about getting ready to cross the Coppermine one more time. With the spray skirt off removed, we could both fit on the raft on our knees and hand paddle in tandem, across the wide plane of water downstream of the falls.
We could make it by dark if we moved fast.
But Jason had taken quite a beating against the rocks and was limping. His entire right leg was in pain, usable, but painful. Regardless, we had to move and keep moving. So in we climbed and off we paddled. Two men in a tiny boat. Up a creek without a paddle.