December 09, 2011
Canol Trail ATV Adventure: How (Not) to Cross a Cold, Deep, Fast River
An Editor’s Note From Tim Romano: As a fisherman and whitewater-rescue trained individual watching snippets of the Canol adventure have made me cringe at times. Not just for the sheer brutality of the trip, but there are a few instances when safety precautions in or near the water are not adequate. To the viewers of this specific episode: You should know to never, ever try what you're about to see unless it's a do or die situation, which for the two on this trip it nearly was. Some things to consider:
- Crossing a river without a PFD is dangerous when you're near help. When you’re days away from rescue, this could spell disaster.
- When "pendulum swinging" the raft, Jim wraps his hand around the rope and walks to boat down. Please don't do this. Anchor the boat to a tree or rock and let it swing. Bad things happen when you're holding onto hundreds of pounds being pulled by the force of rushing water.
- You see them cross a deep, powerful river with a backpack on and a rope tied to it. First, never cross a river with your pack on and around your shoulders. Take it off and put it above your head or swim with it next to you. Should you fall and a piece of the backpack gets stuck in the rocks or a piece of wood there is a high potential for drowning. It's very, very difficult to get out of. Additionally, a rope attached to the pack presents more dangers. Not only do you have a pack that can get stuck, you also have 100+ feet of material that can wedge anywhere in the river bottom or woody debris. If that happens, it will knock off your feet and the force of the water will hold you down.
We found ourselves on the banks of the Twitya River, rain coming down, a stiff cold wind on our backs, the quads parked on a gangly looking bundle of sticks we were calling a ‘raft,’ surrounded by a blue inflatable donut that the thriftiest river guide in Whitehorse had decommissioned to sell at a black market price.
We had to cross the river. Morale was not high.
The river split into two braids, a long gravel bar between them. Our plan was to rig a pendulum ferry by attaching a main line to the raft, swimming a braid, and then securing the line on the opposite shore. The current and the side-wash on the boat should – note the ‘should’ – swing the raft/quad boat to the opposite bank.
There wasn’t much of anything on the gravel bar for securing a line. Jim swam the narrow river channel in his dry suit, let some slack off the line, then held on. The raft went. Then it kept going. And going. Jim stripped line moving down the shore. Watching this all through the Canon viewfinder, I wondered if the helicopter evac would take us right out of there, or drop a new quad on the other side of the river. This was the easy braid.
The raft beached on a spit of gravel further down the bank, 200 yards from our landing beach, but close enough. Jim deflated the raft and road the Polaris onto dry land, quite happy – celebrating with a fist in the air – that we were one quarter of the way there. The second quad went as well as the first and a few hours after sunrise we were half way there. Suddenly, to me, it actually all seemed possible.
The second braid was bigger, deeper, colder and faster. We hadn’t planned on transporting the raft from one side of the gravel bar to the other. This involved breaking it down and rebuilding it. As I didn’t have a dry suit, I was going to swim the first braid, grab the ferry line, then swim the second. We jettisoned that plan like so many Canol Trail trailers and I walked the first braid to help Jim rebuild the raft.
Two hours later, we were ready. I stripped down. Without a dry suit, when crossing a cold river, the best way is naked, but with the cameras rolling I thought I’d spare you that. Clothing creates drag, can snag, and you want it dry on the other side. Taking Jim’s advice on double dry-bagging my clothes, I made a pack, threw in a knife, lighter, camera equipment and tied on our ferry line.
Sure, the water on the first braid was cold. But toes and ankles and legs don’t know cold like chest and neck and head. On this second deep, fast, braid I went in to my knees then sat right down. When the river water came up over my shoulders then, yes, it was cold – knock your breath out cold.
To jump right into cold deep water is to tempt death. In icy water the body contracts. The wind escapes. Involuntarily you gasp for air. Underwater, this is very, very bad news. Sitting securely, head out of water, it’s just plain bad – bad but easily survivalable. Heck, some people do it for fun.
Sitting there in that cold bath I let everything adjust. I walked in till the water was at my chest. The force of that current was simply amazing. That power stands as truly the only scary thing that happened on the whole Canol trip. All I remember thinking is This better f***ing work! Then I pushed off.