Over a Waterfall
If you ever find yourself going over a waterfall, you realize two things very quickly. First, you never see it coming. Second, well… let’s back up a bit.
Summer in the Canadian Arctic. Six young men traveled in two canoes on a journey of discovery. As was our custom, each canoe crewed three: Bow in the front paddled for power while keeping a sharp eye for rocks and relaying information back to Stern who steered and, as captain, relayed instructions forward. The Duffer rested in the middle hold with the packs. Roles rotated often.
Drifting downstream, listening to Arctic wolves greeting the sun, watching caribou huff-puffing across the narrows, and breathing deep the tundra’s tang of blueberries and dayflowers, we delighted in the moment. The rumble of a small rapids touched our ears.
Kean and I portaged, that is, carried, the packs while watching the boats shoot through whitewater. In the first canoe, Ted as Stern confidently picked his line while Isaac as Bow kept steady momentum to glide effortlessly through to the pool below. Upstream, shouts from the second canoe broke the tranquil air. Mason yelled at Richard who screamed back. Fighting itself, their canoe skittered around.
“They’re gonna’ swamp,” I said aloud.
Kean turned sharply. “What?”
“Not talking. Both think they’re in charge.”
The rapids yanked and twisted the bow into an eddy, the stern hit a rock, and over they went. We dragged them from the water wet, angry, but no worse for wear. The rest of the warm day was spent in cold silence.
Later, we happened upon a fishing camp hosted by the legendary Max Ward; he’d landed the first airplane on the North Pole. A hot shower, fresh food, and company other than our own, put us right again. The next morning, as we said our goodbyes, Max, wearing a grim frown, hurried to our group.
“You boys are headed into big water now with canyons, fast water, and who knows what. Be careful. The radio reports some sort of accident; three died. Keep your heads about you, speak up, and work as a team.”
We shoved off then as Mason took Bow, Richard Stern, and I sat Duffer. A summer snow squall, the first of many, whipped into our lonely group. Soon, our boats were sucked into rapids, the first whitewater since our ill-fated adventure. The yelling started, and again the boat pulled one way and pushed another. Missing our line, we rolled over a rock, tilted sideways, and ice-cold water sloshed into the canoe. With Mason and Richard grumbling at each other from opposite ends of the canoe, we slogged to a nearby island to unpack, empty, and reload the boat. As I clambered in, I grabbed the gunnel to steady myself and stopped in mid-movement.
“I’m not getting in there.”
All eyes pointed to me; one pair glared.
“The river doesn’t frighten me. What does scare me is the arguing—Mason, Richard—over who’s in charge. It’s gonna’ kill us. We need to talk. Seriously.”
And talk we did. With a driftwood fire blazing and sipping hot soup, we revealed ourselves as men rarely do. Richard established his need for esteem while Mason admitted that he needed to prove himself. Isaac wanted to be taken seriously while Kean spoke his quiet truth. Ted simply nodded. I asserted that until we sorted out our roles by communicating with respect, we’d never be the team we needed to be. It was the toughest part of our trip, but we got through it. The next morning, we left our island, a day behind but a lifetime ahead.
The Coppermine River flows north to the Arctic Ocean. She’s at once beautiful and brutal with a history of culture and savagery, heroes and villains. Deep canyons, wind-etched cliffs, and life clinging in the most unexpected ways. Just when you think you’ve got the river figured out, she surprises you.
Mason as Bow was supplying his usual powerful paddle work, Kean as Duffer was idly thinking thoughts, and as Stern, I was choosing the best path. By this time, we’d gotten pretty good at reading the water. My map indicated rapids ahead and then a sharp turn to the right. A quarter-mile down, the river bounced low against a high dark cliff, waves churning underneath, but the water before me was smooth.
And then the river dropped away. Before I could react, we’d slipped over a shelf-waterfall, a five-foot drop. The canoe angled steeply down, the bow torpedoed into water and then bounced up while the stern caught under gushing water as the river washed in. A moment later it was over. Water slogged around the packs, but we stayed upright. Ahead, a second shelf-waterfall tumbled six-feet down.
“Back-paddle!” Mason held our position against the current. The cascade behind, disaster ahead, and our fragile craft stuck in the middle with little room to spare at either end.
“Bail!” Kean scooped frigid water frantically. Only a moment to think.
Mason shouted, “Look left!”
There was a break in the lower shelf where the river slid down through a chute and then sprayed up. With that line, the canoe would stay atop the torrent while keeping somewhat level and stable. If we went over the waterfall ahead, we’d be swamped for sure and dragged downstream into the chaos below the dark cliff. Death waited there.
The chute was our only chance but how to get to it? There’s a maneuver in rapid water known as a ferry. By back-paddling to stay in the same place while angling the canoe, the current propels the canoe sideways.
“Backpaddle!” I yelled, and we went to work. The chute appeared before us.
Sliding through the gap, down, down, and then up, the bow split the water wall and we paddled on to safety. Wet, cold, and shaken, we warmed ourselves with gratitude.
If you ever find yourself going over a waterfall, you realize two things very quickly. First, you never see it coming. Second, you’ll never survive if you can’t communicate clearly with respect. A team that trusts is what saves you in the end.
The hardest part of our trip was learning how to talk to one another. The second hardest part was passing the wreckage of an aluminum canoe, twisted inside out from the irresistible force of rock-strewn rapids. As we drifted by in silence, we gazed upon panic, death, and what might have been.
On the last day of our journey, I watched as Mason and Richard navigated their canoe through the final rapids. Talking and laughing, they maneuvered the craft through danger with confidence and grace. As they glided into the still pool, they turned and congratulated one another on a job well done.