Correspondence from a Sinking Canoe

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Josh Stadler paddles down Pine Creek on May 24.

What follows is an entry from my trail journal, one of the few items that remained dry on a recent canoe/kayak trip down Pine Creek, the small river that cuts through the “Pennsylvania Grand Canyon.” This is as I wrote it while sitting around a camp fire, exhausted from the day’s events. Parenthesis are added for clarity:

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Somewhere on the edge of Tiadaghton State Forest, Pine Creek Gorge, Pa. 10:05 p.m. — I still have my brother’s watch. And the Opinel No. 8. Boots drying. Clothes in wet dry bags were actually dry. Can’t say as much for food and accessories. I lost my fishing jacket and all flies. Have rod. On Pine Creek with Seth (Way), Josh Stadler,  and Tommy (Apple). Seth and I in canoe. Little heavy with gear. Put in just south of Anasonia (Ansonia, Pa.). Good day. Sunny, warm. Fun river.

Owassee Rapids. Scouted thoroughly. Good, strong through top (section). Past first rock. Past second, past third. Three huge waves. The “Terrible Threesome.” Past (them), lot of water. Others that hit described same successively large waves: 

“Lot O’ Water” — Canoe has shitload of water.

“Oh, Fuck, That’s Too Much” — Swamped. Another direct hit and you’ve sunk my battleship.

“That Wave is Eye-Level” — Pounded.

We clung precarious(ly) to the boat. Hit (a) rock. (I) swam to shore. No help (from) fisherman. Ran. Seth still on canoe, flipping. He passes me. Josh, Tom mostly swamped, catch up, save majority of gear. The loss of my father’s flies weighs heavy.

All safe, warm fire.

Lot of other people wrecked. All safe. 5-year-0ld girl, overly drunk guy. We helped save them all. 

I was terrified (for mine and Seth’s safety). No serious injuries. Cooler was good float for Seth. Only have gone 5 mi.? All Happy. Josh hero (for repeatedly going back into the river to pull people and their gear to safety). All alive.

Seth Way powering the canoe while I photograph.
Seth Way powering the canoe while I photograph.

Hindsight from dry land

The three big waves of Owassee Rapids are notorious for sinking canoes at moderately high and high water, which is what we experienced on Memorial Day weekend after more than a week of rain in Pennsylvania.

These waves were 3-4 feet tall and there was no avoiding them in a canoe.

I remember paddling through the rapids until I saw the waves. Then it happened fast and became a “hang-on for dear life” scenario. We took a lot of water in the first hit, but it all hung up front near my seat. The second wave was larger and dumped so much water in the canoe, that it was like watching a submarine dive.

With the third wave, there was no hope. We were already swamped. After that we tried desperately to steer the canoe through the remainder of the rapids, but that’s impossible. Soon we were bouncing off rocks. One hit us in the front left side, spinning the canoe, tipping it and throwing me free. I made the decision to swim.

Seth was left to cling to the canoe and said at one point, as it was tumbling and dragging our gear along the bottom rocks, his foot became entangled in a rope we had used to tie down our gear.

I was on the wrong side of the creek by the time I caught up with Seth and the other guys. A nice couple on a pontoon boat shuttled me to the other shore and we began assessing our damage.

We lost:

  • a pair of sunglasses
  • a fishing pole
  • a fishing vest with all tackle and flies
  • a tarp
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The one-lane road along Pine Creek. Caution.

Not bad, considering we could’ve lost a lot more. But the water was everywhere. The “dry” bag with my Canon DSLR: swamped. Water in the food bag, but not much. Packs were soaked. Sleeping bag, like a sponge.

The heaviest loss was the flies my father had tied and gave to me the year he taught me to fly fish. The rapids also broke the reel on my fly rod.

The canoe sustained a crack to its top edge. The keel runner was busted loose, but no holes or leaks. And the front seat was torn completely off its supports.

We played life-guard for six or seven other canoes. The consensus was that the family who brought their 5-year-old down the rapids was irresponsible. She dumped and could’ve easily been killed by the hypothermic water or by a man-trap undercurrent. The water temp had Seth nearly hypothermic. He exercised to warm up, but the family refused his dry sweatshirt when he offered it to the girl. Not a gratuity I would pass up for my kid.

River time is time for reflection.
River time is time for reflection.

Maybe I’m overreacting; after all her parents seemed experienced enough and everyone had a life vest on. People on shore kept the girl’s spirits high, congratulating her on being a tough little kid and she soon had an emergency blanket around her.

Would I have brought Chipmunk (my 5-year-old) down the Owassee Rapids? No. But they assessed it and felt she was up to the challenge. It’s their kid, not mine.

By far the worst boater on the day was a guy who was so drunk he was unable to stand or maintain any kind of decorum around other people. He stumbled over a set of kayaks, stole one of Josh’s cigarettes without even asking, and was a complete bumbling mess. He constantly interrupted people’s conversations and babbled on about himself. He’s lucky everyone was tired otherwise such ill decisions at another point in time would’ve earned him an ass-whooping.

Owassee's start. I remember saying to Seth,  "We can take it."
Owassee’s start. I remember saying to Seth, “We can take it.”

The drunkard was a tragedy waiting to happen. And how he survived Owassee is a mystery to me.

With no way to portage our gear over land, we decided our canoe was sea-worthy and got back on the river. We had a much more relaxing time on our second day, successfully navigating rapids and making good time.

Mental note: all dry bags should hence forth be referred to as “wet” bags. Second note: garbage bag your pack and double or triple bag your electronics.

Photographic update: The camera shop called me some weeks ago. My Canon is FUBAR. The water damage was too extensive and there was no way to repair it. So the photos in this post are the last ones taken with that camera. Enjoy.

Lastly, always wear your life vest. Even the strongest river rat can run into trouble in the water. Talking about a $300 camera in the past tense to your buddies over beer is far better than being carried by six buddies and talked about in the past tense over tears.

From left, Seth, Josh, Tommy and I just before setting off into the rapids. Last photo of my beloved Canon.
From left, Seth, Josh, Tommy and I just before setting off into the rapids. Last photo of my beloved Canon.

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