In retrospect, launching into the river without our life jackets on was a hugely foolish decision.
Let me start out by saying that this story has a happy ending and everyone made it home ok in the end, but it was a close thing.
I just spent the past week with my in-laws' families in Black River Falls, WI. My entire matriarchal clan gathered for a group vacation including horseback riding, bicycle riding, and swimming and fishing at their rented cabin on a private lake. On Thursday, we were to canoe for several hours on the Black River.
18 of us launched from the shore at just after 11am. My three brothers-in-law, their wives, most of their children, and Tinyang's mother, and my grown son were included in our group. There were a total of 18 in our party, comprising 7 adults and 11 children ranging in ages from 19 down to 6 years old.
Heavy rains the night before, on the order of seven inches, had swollen the river considerably and the rapids were really frothing. A small tornado had in fact touched down in a nearby town the night before and damaged some houses. All of this should have been a warning sign to us. Not being more aware of the river conditions was our first mistake and lesson learned. We later heard that when we launched, the river was rising at a rate of one foot per hour.
The canoe outfitters gave us very general directions which essentially consisted of "Turn right at the falls, left at the island, and land to the right at the orange sign. Don't worry, you can't miss it." A map was provided but it was a wide-area road map with hand-penned notes "Right, Falls" etc. The map was not waterproof.
Because I had been helping to shuttle cars to the landing downriver, I didn't get a good look at the water until just before we launched. I was told that the rapids just upriver of our position were "a mild class one" I started to get nervous because they looked pretty damn impressive to me!
Regardless, I went along with the group and launched, trusting that the outfitter wouldn't send a group of novice canoers consisting largely of children into dangerous conditions. This was our second mistake and lesson learned.
The outfitter did not accompany us down the river, but continued to offer vague advice just before launch such as "If anyone gets into trouble don't worry, so long as they're wearing a vest they'll pop up like a bobber" and so forth.
We had distributed our FRS/GMRS radios to the group, and had one in the lead canoe, one in our canoe at the tail, and two in the middle. Tinyang and I had our EDC equipment (knives, flashlights, first aid, etc) plus phones and I had an iPad along that we were using for GPS navigation. Tinyang and I were in our own personal canoe which the outfitter had transported for us. Our packs were lashed to the canoe and we had a spare oar bungeed to the right gunwale.
Complacency led us to decide to forgo our personal flotation devices, as we do when canoeing on lakes, opting to strap them to our seats. This was a foolish move on our parts. Everyone else was wearing their vest. This was our third mistake and lesson learned.
Tinyang and I had the tail position in our group, and though the river was swift the first several minutes of the trip were going well. Some of the kids were having issues with steering due to lack of experience, but our group was staying together and everything seemed OK. I took out our camera and snapped a few pics, and a short piece of video.
We rounded a few bends, passed the falls without incident, and then rounded a bend to the left. When I saw the rapids, I knew we were in trouble. I put down the camera and started rowing. We hit the first standing wave in the rapids and immediately yawed sharply to the left. We were suddenly sideways to the rapids and immediately we became swamped.
My pocket watch is stopped at 11:31:49.5 am. This is when we went into the water.
We managed to stay with the canoe and rode out the rapids. Tinyang lost her oar at this time but I managed to retain mine somehow. The canoe was totally submerged and was only barely buoyant as a result of it's foam flotation inserts, more on this later.
Once we were stable enough to communicate with each other, Tinyang called back to me that we were headed for a mess of trees ahead. I saw them and replied that I had very little control at the moment. I told her that I was going to try to stop the canoe when we got into the trees. Tinyang reported to me at this point that her canoe seat had been smashed. I acknowledged and told her not to worry about it. The trees were a clump of small ones in the middle of the river. Most were less than a foot in diameter and were loosely spaced. I could tell that the canoe would pass between the first few at least. To me this looked like a death trap, at the speeds we were traveling one of us would have gotten snagged and probably injured for sure.
Tinyang was near the front of the canoe and I was near the rear, gripping the canoe and oar both in my left hand. I managed to hook my right arm around the first tree in the bunch, stopping us short before we got very far into the trees. After struggling for a moment against the current, I managed to plant my left foot against another tree and gain a firm perch against the current. Tinyang was downstream of the canoe on the left side of the bow. Once I was sure of my hold I told her to get her vest on.
It took several minutes for Tinyang to free her vest from the canoe. About this time, a four-inch diameter log floated down the river and hit me from behind. It stayed pressed up against me by the current. I had to shift my grip a couple of times, and move the oar to my other hand. The river kept trying to rip the oar out of my hands. Tinyang finally managed to free her vest and clip it on. A second log hit me from behind during this time. She then took a form stance and braced the canoe while I first shoved away the logs that were still pinned against me, and then put my own vest on.
Firmly braced and in our vests, I looked over at my wife and told her that I loved her and that we were going to get out of this. She told me that she loved me too.
After a minute's rest, we set about to freeing the canoe. It turned out that we were wedged up against a submerged tree that had fallen across the river just under the surface. The canoe was still under water, and was canted in such a way that the current was flowing into the inside of the canoe and keeping it pushed against the submerged tree. I shifted my grip to use both hands on the rear carry handle of the canoe, and heaved with all my might using my left leg. I could feel myself going into adrenalin overdrive, and managed to shift the canoe enough so that the current started it moving again.
Unfortunately it moved UNDER the submerged log. I shouted to Tinyang to move clear and not get pulled under the log. She started to move to the side but her arm got stuck between the canoe and the log, and she called out to me that she was stuck. I could see her arm pinched and trapped, and her chin was just above the water, the canoe was still moving forward, and she was about to go under.
Somehow, and I still don't know quite how, I managed to lunge forward, grab the canoe, heave it aside, grab her arm free, and push her to the other side of the log. She managed to get clear and I guided the canoe under the log to the other side. I ducked under the log and popped up on the other side still holding the canoe and the oar, and Tinyang was floating above the forward part of the canoe, which was still totally under water.
We floated downstream through the trees, only a short distance really, to the far side of the clump of trees where we got stuck on yet another fallen tree. This one was slightly above the water. The nose of the canoe impacted this log hard enough to slightly crumple the plastic nose of the canoe.
I initially told Tinyang to try to get up on top of the log, but it started rolling so I shouted at her to give up and don't try. Once again the canoe was angled so that the current had it pinned in place. We again rested a moment to gather ourselves. During this time she managed to get up out of the water and was urging me to but I didn't want to move too far from my position. I handed her the oar. I told Tinyang to watch herself and set out again to free the canoe. More heaving, lifting, and pushing managed to send the canoe under the obstructing log once again, and we finally floated free of the trees and back into the river. Tinyang handed the oar back to me.
Back in the deeper current, the canoe remained submerged. There are foam floatation inserts in the seat pillars that are supposed to provide bouyency in situations like this but they are, we have decided, inadequate. The canoe stayed completely under water and was tumbling in the current. We managed to position ourselves so that the canoe was across the current and we were floating above and behind it. This way, if we hit a rock the canoe would take the brunt of the impact. I still had my oar at this point but was in no position to use it. As the canoe continued to roll we struggled to stay on above and behind it.
Ahead in the river I could see the next branching. Remembering that we were supposed to go left at the island, I told Tinyang to start kicking in that direction. Perhaps I am imagining it but I believe we were making headway.
It was at this time that I started hearing shouted voices from the right bank of the river. I heard a male voice shout "Get out, it gets much worse!" and I hard a young female voice give a piercing shriek, and I heard an older female voice call out "On no!" I looked over at Tinyang and said "Do it." We let go of the canoe.
We set out swimming towards the right side shore. I turned to a backstroke to look back for Tinyang, to see her swimming just behind me about arms length away. I turned back to a sidestroke and we got closer to the shore as we rounded the bend in the right fork. Ahead I could see more rapids. We came up on a tree that was only a few feet from shore; it was about three inches in diameter and leaning sideways, low over the water. Tinyang and I both managed to hook onto it, her just ahead of me, further away from shore than where I hooked on. I braced myself and then grabbed onto her. I told her that I had her firmly and that we were OK. After a few seconds I told her to come closer, and then climb over me and closer to the shore. She managed to do so and I followed. In a few more seconds we crawled up onto dry land.
We stood there on the shore recovering for a moment and then climbed up to a level spot. I sent Tinyang up the slope a bit further to scout a path back to where everyone else was. About this time, a canoe with one of my brothers-in-law and his son pulled up, I helped them land the canoe and tied it off. Looking across the water I could see two of the boys stuck on an island in the middle of the river. The other adult men were already engaged in a retrieval operation so I helped scout the area a bit. About this time others in the party from upstream came into sight. The first person I saw was my 19 year old son. We hugged and reassured each other. One of my sisters-in-law arrived with my mother-in-law and several children in tow. Meanwhile the two brothers had finished retrieving the boys from the island and joined our group. In all, 14 people climbed out of the river. Four people were unaccounted for at that point, the third brother and his young daughter in a canoe, and two of the teenage girls who were in kayaks. We were sure they were downstream of us, but that was all. All of our personal electronics were dead so we had no way to call for help. We left the remaining canoes tied to the shore and began making our way uphill.
BTW at this point we had a different sort of failure, the kids were getting bitten quite a bit by insects but neither my son nor I remembered that our EDC boo boo kits include individual application packets of insect repellent. The prep that you don't remember to use is a wasted prep. Another lesson learned.
Earlier one of the younger boys had scouted uphill and found a service road. We followed this for a short distance and came out into a rock quarry. We walked through the quarry until we came to one of the workers. We flagged him down and he brought us up to the work shack. In all, there where three men working the crew at the quarry. They called the outfitter for us. We gathered the children and checked them for injury; none were hurt beyond scrapes and bruises. My two brothers-in-law decided to go looking for the missing party members. There was some disagreement as to whether they should go back in the water, but they were determined. We gave them our best life jackets, and they hiked back down to the canoes. I remained in order to guide the outfitter down to the site.
After a short wait the outfitter arrived. We filled him in on the situation and then I walked him down to the canoe site. In the meantime one of his employees shuttled the rest of our party back to our vehicles. I walked the outfitter down to the site where we found the two men had already hauled three of the four canoes up to the service road. They then went back down to the water and launched in search of the others. The outfitter was concerned and didn’t want them to go, but by the time he realized what they were doing they guys were already gone. We returned to the work shack.
In my absence the other members of the party had been dropped off and Tinyang had returned with our car. We set out to follow the outfitter back down to the site where we were supposed to land originally. As we were leaving, one of the workers at the quarry flagged us down and recommended we call the authorities as soon as possible. In all the commotion, no one had yet done so. We thanked him and drove off after the outfitter.
At the landing, we waited to see if anyone would arrive from up river. Tinyang asked the outfitter if he had called the police, and he said he would. Tinyang however felt the guy was in cover-your-ass mode and therefore asked a passerby who was coming down to check the condition of the river if she could use his phone, and she called the police. A squad car arrived and the officer was brought up to speed. He summoned a dive team to start searching the river. When he learned that we weren’t sure if the missing people were downstream of the landing or not, he summoned a helicopter. As we waited I prepared a throw line in case we had to throw a rope to someone, and prepared a larger rope with a life jacket tied to the end.
The wait seemed interminable as we watched the river. The officer loaned me his field glasses and I watch the bend upstream. In a moment that deserves it’s own movement in the soundtrack of life, I saw a canoe come around the bend, then another. Two kayaks followed immediately behind, and the last canoe was towing my and Tinyang’s missing canoe! In short order the party landed and we hauled their canoes out of the water. The dive team was called off and the helicopter order was canceled (it hadn’t taken off yet). We all embraced and rested for a while, then packed up what we had left and returned to the cabin. The outfitter hauled our canoe back to the cabin later that night.
The canoe now has a bent keel bar, and a large dent in the hull. Our bags remained attached however mine had come open and I lost several items including an iPad and my favorite sandals. Everything was pretty soaked however my spare clothes, which I had packed into a size XL ziplock, had surprisingly remained dry. We lost two oars. All of our radios, phones, watches, and cameras were dead. We managed to salvage some of the memory cards and will post some of the few pics we have later in the week, including a pic of the damaged canoe. We think we can repair it btw.
All in all it was a very harrowing experience and we’re just glad that everyone came home safe and sound. We all agree that the outfitter was at fault for sending a group like ours out into those conditions, but I feel we must also accept personal responsibility to a degree. There were warning signs that we should have heeded. Tinyang and I were fairly well prepped with water, first aid, and so forth but failed in communications, safety gear, and other areas. Other party members were less well equipped.
We’re still digesting all the lessons from this and have already made several decisions about things to do differently in the future. At least one member of the family says she’ll never get back into a canoe again, but Tinyang and I will do so and want to be better prepared should we, heaven forbid, find ourselves in a similar situation in the future. We did, in fact, take the canoe back out on the private lake at the cabin the following day, just to “get back on the horse” so to speak.
That’s it for now, more comments later as we process it all. There’s probably inaccuracies and omissions in my story as we’re still reconstructing some of the things that happened. Future plans include increased physical conditioning and swimming practice
, never launching into a river without our jackets, better waterproofing for our kits, and so on. We will also be making improvements to our canoe such as filling the seat platforms with expanding foam (they're currently hollow and they filled up with water) and similarly filling the seat pillars. We may also add flotation inserts at the bow and stern. Finally, we intend to lower the seats a few inches for better stability.
We'll also post some pics when we can.
Thanks for listening.