View topic - Trip Report - Bust on the Broadback, July 2019

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PostPosted: July 16th, 2019, 9:45 pm 
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Joined: November 16th, 2007, 1:11 pm
Posts: 98
Location: Virginia
We are "allowed" a big trip every other year or so. We’ve been to Canada a few times before – the Bonaventure (2007?), Mistassibi NE (2012), our Bloodvein debacle in Manitoba in 2015, and the duChef River in 2017. We’d been looking forward to this trip for about two years - making the ending all the more disappointing... But I get ahead of myself...

We were supposed to leave after work on June 25, 2019, but Tom had another day's worth he had to get done so we split around 6pm on June 26, and got as far as Syracuse that evening. Then it was up early, breakfast at Shorty's in Watertown, speeding ticket on 81 by 10am, and across the border. The smart-ass that lives in the phone who tells us which way to go decided to pick a route to Matagami that was neither paved nor gravel, but largely indeterminately deep potholes, washboard, and sign-less. Never-the-less, we made it to Motel Matagami before they closed the restaurant at 9:30. The bar was packed with locals - apparently, Thursday is the big night in town, but we are too old to try to shout a conversation over the music, and too married to care much about what the local talent has to show off, so we went back to the room for our own cocktails. Met a Cree guy in the parking lot who told us about his job of catching and smoking sturgeon – “…big f-ing fish, man.”

Eggs and gas in the morning and off to the bridge. The James Bay Highway went from old washboard pavement, to solid gravel, to brand-new pavement, to one-lane-only construction zones, and back again. 3 hours and 250 kms later (including a moment with a momma bear and cubs) we arrived at the Broadback and started unloading.

A note about the river level is worth considering here. It had been coming down gradually from 400+ and had been holding at 330cms for the last day or two. We had initially thought that 200-250cms was our desired range. This wasn’t based on much info, other than extrapolating from other people’s reports. Nor did we really know what the difference between 250 and 300 would look like, since we’d never seen the river before. Our backup plan was the Pontax but there was no gauge working there at all and the campsite availability in higher water looked slim. Our fallback’s fallback was the MistNE, but even it was running pretty high, and we had blown past that turn a day ago. So we just decided to do it.

At 330cms the Broadback is Big. Not Huge, like the video of the 2014 kayak/raft trip you can find online, but Big. The volume is very pushy and there are weird swells and eddies and currents that will come out of nowhere – and that’s the ‘flatwater’. There are no Beach campsites as marked on the map, there is no shoreline, many of the smaller islands are largely underwater, the water is up into the scrub everywhere, many of the rocks you would walk on for lining purposes are well submerged, and some of the rocks you might normally lift over are what you are walking on, with even larger rocks to lift over. Careful approaches to rapids become more challenging in these conditions, lining is more difficult, and just being able to stop is not a given. You could easily add a +1 or even a +2 in places to every piece of rated water. But we hadn’t realized all that yet…

Raymond showed up right on time, and we had some laughs before he and his crew took off with our truck. We were planning to be in Waskaganish by the 6th or so. The put-in on the north bank is a 60 degree sandy slide from the underside of the bridge, down into a little cove that swelled with the river from knees to hips as we loaded the boats and tied stuff in. A quick toast to the church of the blue dome, and we were off. The water temp was far warmer than I would have guessed – not uncomfortable at all. The R2 that runs out under the bridge was a fast intro to the pushiness of the river. Then a pause to reconfigure, rebalance, make sure everything’s just so, then into the rest of that R2 (with dozens of meters of meter-high wave trains to play in – good fun). Then it was mostly flatwater with one more good R2-3 that was more big, boiling, wave trains, which didn’t present a problem. Since the beaches were all under water, we camped at the hunting camp at Km 121. We’d had a little rain in the afternoon and caught a double rainbow behind us. The weather had turned fair and so we pitched tents and didn’t do a tarp. Steaks, corn on the cob & sweet taters for dinner, but first a croquet match, best of 5 (which I won). It was raining in the morning, so we cooked our eggs inside one of the cabins, and generally tried our best to avoid the mosquitoes, which, of course, was impossible.

The temps were dropping, the rain was getting heavier, and the wind was picking up. Would have made a perfect layover day, but to take one so early in the trip seemed unreasonably lazy, so we pushed through it. Got a late start around 1pm. The R2 at Km115 was mostly washed out, just a big wave surge through it, and the entrance to the lake-ish area at Km116 was a mess of cross currents, the result of a strong headwind, the direction of the river flow, and the small river entering from river right that pushed water all the way across that mouth. In a cold, driving rain and with fog rising, it was pretty disorienting. We pulled over to dig out another layer of clothing as the chill was setting in. We decided not to push our luck on the R4 ahead that day, given the weather, and camped at the hunting camp at Km111 around 5 or 6pm. Only 10 clicks today, but we'd made almost 20 yesterday, so we balanced out.

Got the tarp up first, then got a fire going pretty quickly, then set up home and changed into dry clothes. Once dry, I laid down in my tent just for a breather, and woke up about 90 minutes later. The rain had quit for the most part and the lake was totally socked in with fog. Pork chops, noodles, and asparagus for supper, a cigar next to the fire, then to bed.

The next morning broke without a cloud in the sky, with temps warming up nicely. Coffee first, then pancakes and sausage while things dried out a bit. In the boats, ready to put some kms behind us by noonish. We decided we’d wait to filter water after we lined the first R4, and a quick paddle across the rest of the lake left us on river right, looking down the throat of it. Without checking it out, we decided the portage over the hill would be a chore, and it looked like we could line most of it down the left, and what we couldn’t see, we decided we’d figure out when we got there. So we needed to paddle back upstream a ways to ferry across the river and get to hard river left, well before it made the hard left turn. I checked the Garmin, saw that my wife had written us a scolding note to get up a bit earlier and move a little faster. I sent off a quick reply, clipped the Garmin quickly to my deck bag, and led the way upstream.

I miscalculated the distance of upstream travel I would need to make the ferry. I made the turn to cross far too early, and began to get pulled quickly downstream into the meat of things. What had looked like a cobble bar that I had been aiming for was actually a pillow of water the size of a VW Beetle surging upstream. I managed to surf it for just a second, which held me out of the main current just long enough to stash my double blade and pull out my single blade – I was pointed upstream - began to turn downstream (guess I was going to try to run it), and lasted about 2 seconds before a weird sideways eddy line on one side, and a wave on the other, flipped me. The swim lasted only a minute. But it felt like ten, and it was the scariest swim I’ve ever taken. I went through two or three drops on the river right side of that R4, and was under a good bit. I took a lungful of water. My daughters’ faces flashed before me, and I thought shit, this is it. I’m gonna drown. And then I caught an eddy that spun me out, and I grabbed rock. I was out. By the time I coughed up the lungful of water and looked up, my boat was a football field away and moving like a bat out of hell downstream. All I had was my wetsuit, booties, pfd, helmet, knife, whistle, and a t-shirt.

I tried crashing through the young spruces on the banks to catch up to the boat, but that was slow going and reducing my boots to shreds. So I jumped back in and waded along the banks, using the scrub to pull myself along. This was also slow going, but faster than overland, and less painful. I’d gotten 150m from the bottom of the rapid when Tom popped out of the bottom of the portage trail. We waved at each other and he signaled for me to keep after my boat – which was still moving downriver. I thought he would portage after seeing my screw-up, but (little known to me) he decided to go back, ferried farther upstream and began the process of lining down the left by himself. I continued my downstream pursuit. By the time I reached the spot where the river turns lake-ish again, I could see the boat sailing across said lake-ish area. I had chased it 2 kms, and it was still a click and half ahead of me. I paused there at the entrance of the lake exhausted and not sure what to do.
Tom was 2 clicks upstream and I didn’t know his situation. My boat was, for the moment, stopped against the far bank of the lake, but it looked like a looong swim. Go after my boat? Wait for Tom? Go back for Tom? I didn’t know what to do. That indecision killed the trip. I waited. I swore. I screamed. I blew my whistle no end. No response from Tom (there was no way he could have heard me.) Was it 15 minutes? 45 minutes? I had no idea. Then the wind picked up. And my boat started moving towards what I feared was the outlet of the lake and the direction of Rooster Falls – a massive river-wide set of holes and giant waves. I lost sight of it. I figured if that was the way to the falls, there was no way I’d catch it now. If it wasn’t, it would be there later. That decided me. I headed upstream towards Tom.

I made it a few hundred yards when I saw his boat – without him in it - cruising downriver as mine had. F$%^…!!! Then I saw his head bobbing around the corner, about 100 yards behind his boat. We’re going to lose this one, too, I thought. I dove in and started swimming, but there was no catching that boat. Tom and I caught up at the point where I had been waiting for him to appear, and he said, “you got your boat, right?” “No…!” I replied, “We gotta go, man!!” His boat hit the same point mine had and stopped on the far side of the lake. I told him what had happened to mine. Tom wanted to jump into the current that had taken the boat across the lake so quickly. But I didn’t like the idea of being that far out in the lake as tired as we were. We began the circumnavigation, partly wading, partly swimming, and moved around the river right side of the lake. Took us a good 40 minutes but we caught up to his boat. As we bailed it out, he told me he had successfully lined most of the drops, but at the end, the boat got pulled into a chute, he was holding on to the rope, but the pressure had pulled him underwater, and he had no choice but to let go. The boat spit back into an eddy, and he clambered over the rocks to catch it, but the current pulled it back out when he was just feet away.

We rearranged some gear in his boat to make room for both of us to paddle tandem. We had a double blade and a single blade, and off we went towards Rooster Falls (yes, that was indeed the direction my boat had taken), in search of my boat, but without much hope of finding it. We arrived at the falls a bit later – no boat.

The falls are a magnificent sight – unless you are picturing your canoe and all your gear going through them. It’s not a neck-down to a steep drop-off like many falls are, rather it’s a river-wide roiling, smashing, crashing, thunder of waves and recirculating holes, with splash and spray rising dozens of feet in the air. It splits three ways downriver, but loses none of its umphf, carrying on its torrent some 250 or 300 yards, easily. I didn’t think there would be much of anything left of boat or drybags after going through that thrashing.

It was late afternoon by this point, and we decided to camp at the top of the falls and portage in the morning, and we set about taking inventory of what we had left. Tom hadn’t lost anything - so we had his camp gear, his clothes, the grill, a cooler with some meat and ice, some dry foods in drybags, and some booze. Luckily, he had a small first aid kit with him that had some iodine pills – we had lost the filter, and all the kitchen gear - so without the iodine, we would have had to boil water in his small metal coffee mug to purify it, 8oz at a time. Between the ice melting in the cooler and the iodine – we’d have enough water for a number of days, at least.
I had lost my boat and paddles, the kitchen, stoves, and fuel, much of the food, all of my clothes and camp gear, my passport, wallet and cellphone, and the InReach. I squeezed into an extra pair of Tom’s jeans (which came to about mid-calf) and his Keens (which my heels hung out of) – but it was all dry and kept the skeeters somewhat at bay. I could bunk in his tent, we could spread out his sleeping bag over both of us without having to spoon too tight, and he even had a spare foam pad for me to lay on. We figured we could manage for another week or so, especially if we had any luck fishing. We’d be hungry by the end, but we thought we could make it. We also figured that people would notice the InReach – which we figured either wasn’t sending a signal at all, because it was at the bottom of the river, or it was moving with my boat down through huge rapids in record time and sending signals the entire way. Surely Raymond or Recped, or maybe even one of our spouses or friends would notice and send us a message, and not get a reply, which would send up a flag. Until then… whatchya gonna do..?

We grilled 2 keilbasas and an onion over the fire, and ate those with some Naan we had found floating in the river (had come out of my cooler), and which we had dried out on the sunny rocks at the campsite. A few cocktails and commiseration over my lost boat, stargazing, then to bed. The cigars went down with the kitchen bag.

Up in the morning, and I started hauling the gear down the portage trail while Tom packed stuff up. There was no coffee and no coffee pot, no pancake mix, and no pan. So it was just some cold kielbasa, Camels, and water for breakfast. At one point at the top of the trail, I swore I could hear a chopper, but it never appeared. I did see a chopper the previous day – he had seen me swimming after my boat and came down for a closer look – I waved to him – at the time, I was not concerned about our situation – I was just chasing a boat after a swim.
Back in the boat paddling tandem below Rooster Falls was a precarious situation. We had little freeboard, though our balance and rocker wasn’t bad. But neither of us were accustomed to paddling whitewater tandem, and we grannied our way down the right bank, never getting too far from the scrub that we could jump out and hang on to as a stopping mechanism if needed. The river was crashing along with a volume and energy that is just hard to imagine – the RI and RII rapids we were grannying were a lot more like RIIIs, with monster holes out in the middle that you wouldn’t have wanted any part of on a nice day in a canoe. We were able to granny or line down most of the Washing Machine (RIII), but there was no lining The Rinse Cycle (R4) drop at the end of it. Thus began portage #2.

After we got around the Rinse Cycle, we had about 2kms of constant RI/RII (more like big RII stuff) before the next R3/4 – the Agitator. The map showed lining this down the left was possible, which meant we would need to ferry across the river. We did this using the eddy below a mid-stream island as a halfway point. An island further downstream blocked our view of the coming rapid. We aimed to get to the left of the island and line down the left bank around the R4, but that wasn’t going to be possible. Portage #3 was over a boulder field and up a steep hill to a bluff campsite that overlooked the Agitator, a half mile of river in both directions, and … my boat! It was on the other side of the river – above the Agitator - upside down – in the river, but mostly out of the water, pushed up onto rocks under each bowplate. It looked to be in one piece. A drybag was hanging out of it. And another drybag was floating nearby, caught in the scrub. And it was all totally out of reach for the moment.
We decided that the next morning we would load the boat, and try to ferry across to the other side. If we weren’t successful, we would just continue on downstream – there was another set of big rapids not too far ahead. But, if we could manage the ferry, we could walk back upstream and see how much of my boat and gear was salvageable. Perhaps the boat could be repaired on the spot…we wouldn’t know til we got there. But we had to try.

We were just about to start setting up camp on top of the bluff when I heard the chopper. He circled us and came in for a very close look – he was definitely looking for someone. I didn’t think there was a prayer of him landing. I gave him the ok symbol with both hands – hoping they could at least relay that message to whoever was freaking out by now. (The chopper showing up meant someone knew we were in trouble, which meant phones were ringing in at least two provinces and two or three states, and people at home who wouldn’t be caught dead ten steps from air conditioning were jumping to all kinds of conclusions.)

But that pilot was good – he set the bird down about 200 yards away, and as we walked toward it, 2 Cree men started toward us. “Hello, I am Roger, I am the fire chief in Waskaganish. Are you Christian? Your wife is very worried.”

Apparently, earlier in the day, another chopper pilot saw my boat upside down on the rocks, got down low and got a photo of it, and sent it off to Waskaganish. Someone asked Raymond if he thought it was us, and he confirmed that our InReach signal had disappeared the previous day, and the bottom of the boat looked like mine. Recped had also noticed the lost signal and had called Raymond to let him know that was a potentially bad place to lose a boat. The public safety crew in Waskaganish got things moving and called in a chopper from Cochrane. Raymond found a birthday party invitation postcard from my aunt in my truck, called the rsvp # on the invitation, my aunt called my wife, who then called Raymond, who sent her the photo of my boat upside down, and let her know they were sending out a chopper search. Then my wife called my mom, and there was more drama in the States than there was on the river.

Back on the river… I figured we didn’t have much choice. These guys would want to evac us, and we would be pretty ungrateful if we didn’t go with them… but… on the other hand… we were possibly a night away from getting at least some of my gear, and potentially my boat, back. I didn’t want to abandon everything (including all of Tom’s gear) and fly out, when we had a chance of salvaging the whole situation. Which is when Mark, the pilot, showed up. He offered to take us over to the other side of the river so we could see what was left of the boat and then play it from there. So Tom and I got a chopper ride across, got down to the boat, got it flipped, emptied, tied up in the scrub, and carried the gear that was left back to the chopper.

The boat was in remarkably good shape. Shout out to my royalex NovaCraft Moisie, here. What a trooper. One of the yoke bolts had sheared, but the yoke remained intact. The gunwale in that area had a bit of a weird twist to it. The hull had some deep abrasions where it had obviously been thrashed deep, over and over and over, against something hard. But the canoe was in one piece. Even the Harmony floatation bags were still in place and inflated. The SealLine drybag that had stayed strapped in contained my camp gear and it was totally dry. The one that had floated out and was just bouncing in the scrub was my clothes bag, with the phone, passport, etc – and even it was mostly dry. And of course, the drybag with the liquor was tight and dry. “Thank god, the whiskey’s saved!” The kitchen bag was gone. The paddles were gone. My deck bag with the InReach was gone. Now what…? I knew Tom would want to keep going, if possible. I knew my wife and mother would kill me if the guys went back to the station and reported that we chose to keep going even though we had no satellite and a broken boat. I knew I did not want to give up on my gear and Tom wouldn’t want to give up on his.

We talked to Roger and Mark, and we decided if they could get us out with our gear, that would be our first choice. We understood that evacuation was one thing, hauling freight was another. But Mark took the guys back to town, and came back with a cargo net and a long line. I hooked my boat to his rope, and he picked my boat right up out of the scrub and dropped it on the other side of the river on the bluff with Tom’s boat and gear. Then we spread the net, put the first boat in the net, filled it with gear, the second boat on top of the first, filled it with the rest of the gear, and strapped the two together. Mark dropped the long line to us, we hooked the net to it, and away Mark flew with our gear dangling behind and twisting in the wind.

He dropped our gear near the gravel road somewhere and the public safety guys picked it up and trucked it to town and stashed the boats in the woods. Then Mark returned to the bluff for us, and we got a chopper ride into the setting sun to Waskaganish. “Happy Canada Day, eh?” he said. “We should be in town in time for the fireworks.” It never occurred to us.

We didn’t make the fireworks, though. The town opened the Lodge for the three of us, and put us up for the night. We called home, showered, and got into dry clothes and sat on the bumper of the truck and ate a pound of sliced lunch meat that was left in Tom’s cooler, straight out of the ziplock. Next morning we had breakfast with Raymond, who relayed the last few days events in great detail, and then we went to the fire station to be led back to our boats, and to get the bill. Roger met us there, and, after introducing us to all the folks he works with, let us know that the town officials had decided there would be no bill. They were happy we were safe and hoped we would come back sometime.

And, indeed, I hope to. But that wasn’t the end of our adventure. On our way across the border, we were stopped for a ‘random’ search. They pulled out and went through every drybag looking for weed, and were really disappointed when they didn’t find any. Since we had some time on our hands, we decided to head for Maine where I have a little place on an island. We spent a couple of days there, putting the docks in for the season, and generally debriefing and rallying for re-entry to the world.

On the final morning (Saturday), as we were leaving the cabin in Maine, I felt what I thought was a Charlie horse in my calf. It hung around for a couple days, then on Tuesday night back in Virginia, I became more and more uncomfortable with chest pains developing and worsening as the night grew later and later. Finally, about 2:30, my wife convinced me to take myself to the Emergency Room. After several tests, they determined the Charlie horse had really been a bloodclot, which had developed after all the hours of driving, and when it burst, it resulted in a birdshot load of pulmonary embolisms (where all the clot fragments land in the lungs). I stayed in the hospital all next day and following night, then decided I’d rather convalesce on the island, so me and the kids and the dog and the wife all came back here to Maine.

There were a couple of good lessons learned hard on this trip:

Keep the satellite device clipped to your person.

Don’t underestimate a ferry above a big rapid.

Get – your - boat.

But the moral of the story is something we’ve been telling the concerned family members of our paddling group for years and years:

The most dangerous part of a river trip is the drive getting there and the drive coming home.

After everything that happened on the Broadback, the thing that really damn near killed me was the bloodclot I got from driving for 30 hours.

Selah

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PostPosted: July 17th, 2019, 8:43 am 
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Joined: February 10th, 2005, 2:36 pm
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Location: Southwest Michigan
Wow! What a story. Glad everyone was OK in the end.


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PostPosted: July 17th, 2019, 1:02 pm 
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Joined: June 28th, 2008, 2:06 pm
Posts: 303
Location: GTA
Great report. It's unfortunate you got to paddle only about 40 km though.

I always have my PLB in the pocket of my PFD. And when solo, I carry it in a little pouch around my waist on the portages so it's always at arms reach. But losing a PLB wouldn't initiate the same kind of response as losing your InReach did!


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PostPosted: July 18th, 2019, 8:28 pm 
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Location: Cambridge, Ontario
Thanks for sharing - happy to learn that everyone is okay. The response to your incident was very quick and could have been a savior had you been less fortunate recovering one of the boats/gear.

I was on the Broadback at a similar level. I remember the rapid in which your incidents occurred. We also ferried to RL after looking for the portage on RR and lined/carried from there. One in our group swam through the outwash and had to be picked up from the river by canoe to escape the flow. The Broadback is a large powerful river that magnifies consequences.


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PostPosted: July 20th, 2019, 8:14 pm 
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Joined: June 23rd, 2001, 7:00 pm
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Location: Newmarket, Ontario Canada
Can't say much other than Wow! Glad the stars aligned and there was happy ending!

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Present: Slip, Slap and Slop, hide from the sun! Past: Get some colour in those cheeks! Paddle Naked!



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PostPosted: July 25th, 2019, 11:47 am 
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Joined: January 11th, 2005, 4:58 pm
Posts: 1896
Location: Manitoba
Thanks for sharing your trip report.

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http://www.JohnstonPursuits.ca

 


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PostPosted: July 26th, 2019, 12:19 pm 
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Posts: 1367
Location: Oshawa
Wow what a story! I’m so glad everything worked out in the end. Your also extremely fortunate to survive a PE...the mortality rate on them is very high!

For reference to anyone who get up in those neck of the woods and find the Broadback too high, try the Pontax. I can personally verify campsites are no issue in high water...I paddled it early June I believe. The Broadback (and Nottoway) are on my list to paddle in a drought year!

Thanks again for sharing...lots of good info there and lessons for others.

Sam

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PostPosted: July 26th, 2019, 10:16 pm 
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Posts: 11
Great write up!
Here is another story where both guys lost their boats, and the InReach. I've linked it to the exciting part:
https://youtu.be/WZ6q0B1gYLQ?t=432


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PostPosted: July 31st, 2019, 10:24 pm 
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Joined: November 16th, 2007, 1:11 pm
Posts: 98
Location: Virginia
Thanks for all the replies. Hopefully she'll let me go back next summer and redeem myself...

The public safety guys said a lot of stuff washes into the big eddy below the falls and stays there - not sure if they were referencing the falls at Km 99 or Km 88 but either way, if anyone happens to be on the river this summer, here's what I lost:

Black 9' double blade - carbon shaft and blades, made by Accent
Big white single-blade 'guide stick' - made by Norse
Yellow Seal Line pack drybag full of kitchen stuff and some damn good cigars
Brown Watershed kayak-style 'deck-bag' - held splash top, headlamp, leatherman, etc, and of course, the InReach.
Red canvas bag with 3 small croquet mallets, 3 croquet balls, wickets, etc.

Sam, looks like you had a good trip on the Mist NW.

Christian

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PostPosted: August 2nd, 2019, 9:48 am 
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Posts: 268
That's a harrowing story! Thanks for sharing it. I like it when people share things like this so that hopefully I can keep from having something similar happen to me.

Obviously in hindsight it's always obvious what should have been done differently but it sounds like you handled the misfortunes well. Better luck next time!

Alan


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PostPosted: August 6th, 2019, 7:28 am 
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Posts: 438
Location: North Bay, Ontario
Great story! Makes me wonder about the "Debacle on the Bloodvein"...is there a write-up for that one?

Like others the main lesson I take from this is to keep your device on your person at all times, kind of like your bear spray, if you use that. But that brings up a question: if you had had your InReach, what would you have done? Called for an evac? Continued the trip? Having the InReach would have given you the choice. If you had continued the trip, you would have found your canoe and I guess things wouldn't have been too bad. But you wouldn't have known that when you made the choice. What would you have done?

Just wondering...

Kinguq.


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PostPosted: August 6th, 2019, 8:56 am 
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Joined: November 16th, 2007, 1:11 pm
Posts: 98
Location: Virginia
Kinguq -
I've been thinking about that very thing these last weeks. I think you nailed it - I'd have had options. I would like to think that I would have sent out a message to the tune of, "hey, we might be in a lot of trouble, but don't send in the cavalry yet..." Followed by a "nevermind, all's well, trip continues as planned" message after we got to my boat. But we were also Really lucky we had no physical injuries. That could have made the situation far worse with no InReach or Spot.

As for the Bloodvein debacle - yes, you can find that write up in the Manitoba trip reports. Not nearly as dramatic - everyone just kinda gave up.

Christian

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PostPosted: August 25th, 2019, 11:50 pm 
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Joined: November 16th, 2007, 1:11 pm
Posts: 98
Location: Virginia
That Moisie is a tough boat.
Ready to sail again.


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