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scenic or casual paddling beginner paddlers 1 day
Don River paddle and near disaster for Paddle the Don participants
Sunday, May 2, 2004
length: 16.0km, 1 day
difficulty: beginner

organizer: Moon Joyce
participants: Keith Nunn,


I wasn't going to do the Paddle the Don this year, but at the last moment, someone on another (non-canoeing) list I'm on posted the info and asked if there was anyone else who wanted to go. I called the Don Paddle registration line to see what the possibilities were and found that they were all booked up.

I really like Moon and, while I've never paddled with her, she said she had some WW experience. I thought "what the heck" and responded that I'd be willing to go, but wanted to paddle solo -- could she manage? Also, the event is booked up, would she like to crash it with me?

Moon was into crashing it and found herself a bow paddler. After a bit of phone tag on the morning of the run, we agreed to meet at the pub near the take-out and throw boats on my car and head up to the put-in. It had been raining all night, so I was thinking that it would be easier to crash from the east branch of the Don. The run is a bit longer (16km vs 12.5km), but it's a nicer section and bigger.

We put in at Lawrence at the Charles Sauriol nature reserve and headed downriver. It's almost constant swifts through this section, with occasional class I rapids and two dams. It's a fun section and definitely better than the west branch.

On the way down, we had to portage the first weir we came to. The second weir, in the Flemingdon Park golf course had a slot in it. I ran it, but the tandem boat would have submarined coming down into the trough. While we were getting the tandem boat around, and before I ran, a golf course staff person came along to warn us about how dangerous the weir was.

Non paddlers are so cute when they warn us about river features. The eddy on river left was very strong and not a good place to be (the guy had had to rescue some kids from it last year) and the water on right was just swirly and stupid, so I just took a bouncy ride down the tongue and eddied out downstream to meet Moon and Jeannette(?).

The swifts and class I continued down to the confluence with the West Don. I think we caused a double-take there as the first weir of the west branch run was just upstream of the confluence and the portage team was there helping the Paddle the Don participants around it.

Much deeper water from here down, and except for the weirs, mostly just moving water with occasional swifts. Just upstream of weir two, there were two TRCA trucks parked with guys warning us about a tree in the river up ahead. Nice that they did it, but as the tree was lined up downstream and took up very little of the river, rather unneccesary.

Weir two holds promise as a playspot as the TRCA has backfilled with three rows of boulders downstream of the dam. Unfortunately, the first drop (the weir) is as hazardous as ever and the fourth drop is just an impassible boulder garden.

The second and third drops are runnable, but only at high water. I really wish they'd had paddlers in mind when they put in the fill. 8-)

Weir three was runnable and actually made some good waves. It was a nice little drop. The TRCA has buried the original weir with boulders here, so there's no drowning machine.

Here's where the excitement starts. Just downstream from weir 3 is a bend in the river and a bridge (the Bayview/Bloor exit ramp) followed by a gravel bar. (I've made a bit of a map for this).

As I came around the corner (before the bridge) and looked downstream, I saw someone in the water in front of a tree and sweeper (at A on the map). He didn't appear to be in immediate trouble, so my first thought was "he's trying to extract a pinned boat". There was a boat caught in the branches on the left, but they seemed stable. There were a bunch of people standing about on the gravel bar.

After making sure Moon and Jeanette were going to land rather than entangle themselves in this mess, I made the moves and dropped into the micro-eddies behind the strainer pile.

I'm thinking, "Where are the TRCA guys?" This spot is a much bigger problem than that twig they were guarding upstream.

I hauled up behind, wishing I had a painter (I've got to stick one below decks for these occasions) and managed to secure my boat with the grab loop over a branch in the strainer. Now that I could focus on their situation, I took stock:

  • Three swimmers, no pfds (they floated away -- not worn).
  • Swimmers not trapped or in immediate distress.
  • One beginning into mild hypothermia, one heading there fast. Heavy guy running the extraction seemed ok for the moment.
  • Pinned fibreglas boat -- they were trying to extract with a single yellow rope -- no z drag -- did have assistance of gravel bar gang for pulling.
  • One boat in trouble in trees above (at B), more boats coming.

Great fun, eh? Since no one who looked competent seemed to be running things, I took control.

To soon-to-be-hypothermic guys: "Get out of the water."

To heavy guy: "This extraction isn't likely to succeed and you're making the safety situation worse."

No luck persuading him. With his team on the gravel bar, they actually shifted it. OK, I'll give a quick hand and hopefully clear the river. The boat jams under the strainer going one way and won't budge.

Dithering Guy with throwbag on left bank may now be useful. I tag the other end of the canoe and get dithering guy to throw me his bag. I tie in under the seat and swim across the chute to join him on the bank.

Once we get a z-drag going (it can work for short distances with a tree and a tied loop -- no caribiners) we manage to zig zag the boat out of the trap working in concert with the gravel bar crew (The knot for our z-drag complicated the release).

Turns out that Dithering Guy is TRCA staff. I tell him to get a vehicle down here asap to pick up the soon-to-be-hypothermic crowd. OK. Boat clear.

Moon and Jeanette have snuck down somehow. I move up to see if we can get the boat out of the trees above and safely down.

I give a little pep talk to the crew and line them up: "OK, on the count of 3 I'm going to push you across the current as hard as I can and you're going top paddle as hard as you can."

Hopeless. They can't even sustain any momentum. They hit the first branch and flip. Their boat pins where the first was and paddlers are now swimmers. The woman in the bow is practically falling out of her pfd. Neither are strong swimmers, but woman is hampered by badly-fitting, improperly fastened pfd.

Man bounches off canoe and manages to reach the gravel bar. Woman is freaking and is now caught in the strainer facing upstream (at C). Great!

I race down the bank, leap in behind the strainer, wade and swim up behind her (her head is still a few inches out of the water), yank her around and through the strainer. I almost lose her immediately because of water depth and the loose pfd.

Miraculously, once I've got her in behind the strainer, she stops freaking. I tell her we've got to swim again to get to shore. She still doesn't freak. I guess I was convincingly in control. I swim her to shore across the chute on the left side of the strainer.

Talk to TRCA guy again. He says he's been trying to get a vehicle, but keeps getting answering machines. "Then call 911, buddy. That's what it's for. We've got hypothermic people here!" Honestly!

"How many more boats are coming?" He doesn't know. "Then find out! Get someone upstream to start sending paddlers over to the right channel. They can't get through without dragging, but at least they'll be safe."

Pause. Where are we at? Most of the wet and cold crowd are standing around on the gravel bar! What the hell do they think is going to happen?

Moon volunteers to start shuttling people over. The first one they bring over isn't one I've seen yet! OK. How many swimmers were there before I got here?!

A TRCA truck shows up and I have to start bossing people into it. Moon and Jeanette continue bringing over more people I haven't seen yet. All with borrowed pfds. Why is it people think they're for sitting on?

EMS turns up and starts quizzing me about how many we have. A fair question, but I don't know the answer yet. To top it off we've run out of people on the far bank who are smart enough to know they need to get out of here. I have to start pointing them out and having Moon make them come.

It seems we have seven swimmers in total. Chat with EMS to tell them what's going on. They want to know who's running this show and how many more they can expect. I deny any involvement with the organizers and express my ignorance of the number remaining. "I'm just a competent bystander. (They look at my outfit and disbelieve.) Ask the TRCA guys, they're supposedly one of the organizers."

Meanwhile, we have another canoe in the trees on river left (at B again). Almost without fail, canoes come around the corner, see the crowd standing about, start back paddling and backferry into the trees. Argh!

I run back up the bank to deal with the new canoe. TRCA guy says he's got the people at weir three warning people to keep to the right bank. It's a start, but not good enough. I send him up to stand under the bridge and wave people to the right side to run aground and portage.

I try the pep talk and aim approach with this new canoe. I have some hope because the stern paddler is a big guy. Forget it.

They bomb just as badly, but follow my shouted instructions and don't flip on the first branch. Unfortunately, they don't have enough comprehension to be able to shuttle forward without losing the upstream gunwhale. I shout for them to duck.

There's not much clearance, but the boat could get under if we can get the people low enough. Bow ducks, stern doesn't. I don't know what the hell he's thinking. Continues to not duck. Boat swings around, the pressure is building up on the stern and may squish this guy if it submerges and he's still upstream of the branch.

He finally ducks. It looks like they'll clear, but the stern has a significant recurve and jams. I have to dive in, this time upstream of the strainer, yank the stern down under the branch and they're able to make the chute left of the strainer.

Fortunately, so am I. Whew! It's now about 45minutes after I first arrived. I've had enough of being the hero.

EMS has the cold and hypothermic and is sorting them out. The firefighters have arrived and claim to be ready to do any necessary extractions. I'm not so sure I'd say I was ready if I was wearing full firefighter gear, but hey, They're the pros.

It looked like the warnings upstream would keep folks out of this mess from here on anyway. I took my chance and skedaddled. I congratulated Moon and Jeanette on all the ferrying they did to get the cold and wet crowd out of there.

The rest of the run was mercifully uneventful. I was sure glad I'd worn my drysuit. Talked them out of a mug at the take-out for my pains in averting some terrible press.

I'll be writing up a more dry analysis to send to the organizers. This should not have happened. Oh well, everyone lived and it was a good drill for me. I've definitely learned a lot from the experience that I can apply in future emergencies:

  • don't assume that anyone else knows anything
  • don't assume that anyone will take initiative
  • don't assume that victims will do anything to help themselves
  • be brief, clear and firm in giving directions



2007.03.21 - kapn


I just reread this for the first time since I wrote it. Wow! That really charged me up and got my brain going. Thought of a few things I should have done or done differently.


posted by: Keith Nunn

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