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Out Alive: Underwater

A couple flips their canoe in class V rapids on Northern Ontario's Kopka River

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It had been a relatively tame trip for the first 3 miles, but now a 200-yard stretch of unrunnable rapids lay before us. We pulled the boat over to scout the portage, unaware that a storm a few years back had drastically changed the river’s banks. Instead of the easy passage we expected, we’d have to paddle dangerously close to the mouth of the rapids to reach the new portage point. Back in our 17-foot old town tripper canoe, we paddled slowly toward the bank. The river had a different plan.

All of a sudden, 5-foot waves crashed into our canoe and we tried to yell to each other over the roar. “Left!” then “right, right, right!” There was no time to feel nervous; we concentrated on avoiding the boulders that obstructed our every move. We were in the maw of the rapids and there was nothing we could do about it.

We made it 100 yards before our canoe spiraled sideways and breached a large rock. The boat flipped immediately, pinning us in the icy water. Upside down, I reached for the Velcro straps holding my legs in the canoe and was free. The boat’s hull crashed—like thunder—against massive granite boulders. I surfaced. There was no sign of Jane.

The current muscled me away from the canoe and down the river, twice dragging me under into recirculation pools. My life jacket was no match for the current. Massive amounts of pressure bore down on my body, holding me under. I thought it was the end. But by some miracle I returned to the surface. I was catapulted over a 5-foot waterfall and my leg jammed into a large rock crevice. It snapped. I heard the three clicks of my bone above the roaring of the rapids. The crevice spit me out and I got kicked, face up, into a 40-yard flush pond at the end of the rapids. There was still no sign of Jane.

Jane Ferguson

Jane and I met in college and had been married 25 years. We were constant wilderness companions. We traveled all over North America and into the Arctic, hiking and paddling. To hone our skills, we decided to spend a week in Canada at a whitewater school. After learning and practicing advanced paddling techniques, we decided to take an impromptu trip down Ontario’s Kopka River on our way home to Montana.

I was lying in the flush pond when our canoe slid down the waterfall and drifted next to me. I mustered enough strength to bail it out and pushed myself to the river’s edge to rest. For about 45 minutes I waited and watched. My heart raced and my anxiety grew. I sat in the pool telling myself to stay calm. It was all I could do to not lose it. But after having waited as long as I did, I knew something had gone terribly wrong. It was 10:30 a.m. and our car shuttle wasn’t coming until 9:00 p.m. I couldn’t wait any more.

A switch flipped. My scrambled mind snapped into utter rationality about my situation: I needed to move. It felt strange, at first, my complete lack of anxiety coupled with a disconnect from all emotion. But everything had become clear. I was laser-focused.

Tall canyon cliffs rose from the river on both sides. I tied the boat up to a tree so if Jane came out she’d know I was OK. My leg was slightly crooked and pounding, but my brain didn’t register the pain. I grabbed a white bag from the canoe, hoping I could use it as a distress signal, fashioned a leg splint out of a balsam branch, and took a paddle to use as a crutch. Heading off through downed timber, I stumbled and crawled, dragging myself up the cliff on the east side of the rapids to look for Jane. In 40 minutes I traveled no more than 100 yards. From the top of the cliff I scanned the rapids, searching for any sign of Jane. I crept to the cliff’s edge and fell through a moss-covered hole before arresting myself on a balsam tree. I pulled myself back onto the rock, but I had seen nothing.

I dragged myself back down to the water’s edge. The nearest highway was 2.5 miles away. I needed to get there. I followed the river as it flowed from rapid to calm water to rapid. My body was in shock and hypothermia was creeping in. It was no more than 50°F, and a steady drizzle kept me soaked through.

I had to cross the river to get to the highway. I finally came upon a section that opened into a large lake of sorts, with an island in the middle. I was a mile from the road. My plan was to let the river carry me to the island, rest there, then get back in the river and cross to the other side. But 5 yards from the island, I got caught in a current that pulled me far out into the lake. Back-paddling my way toward the shore, the cold became unbearable. Then, across the lake, I spotted a boat.

I screamed and whistled and slapped the water, but the motor was running, and the men didn’t hear me. A few minutes later, they killed the engine. They had planned to fish where the river flowed into the lake. I whistled again, grabbed the white plastic bag from my pocket, and tied it to my canoe-paddle crutch, waving it frantically in the air. They finally saw me. The men came over, hauled me into the boat, and brought me to their camp.

The paramedics came. I was hypothermic and my leg was snapped in three places. My logical, emotionless mind crumbled. The anxiety returned. Jane never did.

A few weeks later, search and rescue teams found Jane’s body. The autopsy showed there was no water in her lungs. She had most likely hit her head on a rock when she went over. She had been gone instantly.

For months, I obsessed over details of the accident: wishing we hadn’t decided to impulsively stop for the trip down the Kopka, wishing we had paddled just a bit harder to the right, avoiding the boulder we breached. As experienced wilderness travelers, we always knew there was some level of risk. And so many times we had walked out of the wilderness unscathed. So many times those trips had filled us with happiness.

I think about what Jane said spontaneously to me a few days before the accident. She turned to me and said, “You know if something ever happens to me, you’ll scatter my ashes in my five favorite wilderness places.” We ran through them together. Then, all of a sudden, she was actually gone.

But that promise to her brought me through the grief and the guilt. I’ve fulfilled her last wish.

Key SkillsManage a Canoe Capsize

1. If you go over, don’t panic. Panic wastes time and effort.

2. If you can, stay with your boat on its upstream end. This affords better visibility and makes it easier to swim the boat to shore. In higher class rapids (III and up), however, let go of the boat, lest it knock you around.

3. Assume the whitewater swimming position: on your back with your toes and nose up, your knees bent slightly, and your arms by your side. Keep your head up so you can see where you’re going. If you are going to hit a rock, use your legs and feet to absorb the shock and redirect your body.

4. Paddle to shore, but never try to stand up in fast-moving water or you’ll risk leg entrapment.

5. Collect your gearin calm water and tip or bail out your boat to empty the water.

Gary Ferguson wrote a book, The Carry Home, about the ordeal.

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