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whitewater play intermediate paddlers 1 day
Black River (Queensborough)
Saturday, December 4, 2004
length: 12.0km, 1 day
difficulty: intermediate

participants: Glenn Meinzer, Michael Sims, Peter Farr, Martin Breu, Isaac McConnell, Scott Card


As we set off in my car early Saturday morning into the rising sun, little did we know that we would end the day sorting gear in the parking lot of the Belleville Hospital. Mike, Glenn and I had piled our gear and canoes onto my van and set off to meet Martin, Isaac and Scott at the Tim Hortons (what would Canadian paddlers do without Timmys?) outside of Madoc.

We were going to run the upper Black River, a river only Isaac had paddled before – and that several years ago -but we that we had all heard about. It was a trip we were all looking forward to as the level had risen lately and was described as “low but runnable” on the Boat Werks site. The Environment Canada gauge stood at 7.6 (10 cms).

We were late getting onto the river but managed to set off a little before noon. The day was overcast and hovering just above 0C, both factors that would become critical in a few hours. Martin was paddling a little C1, while the rest of us were in open canoes.

The upper Black starts right off with a short drop, a sharp bend then a small canyon. It is a great chance to check out what the river has in store. As we had read in one description of the run, if you find this challenging you can head right back to the car here because it gets more difficult. None of us found it excessive so we continued on.

We had a wonderful afternoon running the canyons and chutes the river had to offer. Most of us walked the first cascade we came to, but Isaac made a picture-perfect run that was an education to watch. Too bad none of us had a camera. More canyons and other rapids followed. I walked a couple, but not as many as I had thought I would. The “Triple-B Falls” was portaged by all, as was Particle Accelerator in its turn. We were all awed by that rapid even at this low level. It sparked a debate over what point a rapid becomes a waterfall.

The first sign of trouble came when I messed up my line on a sharp dogleg into a narrow chute and ended up in the water with my boat pinned and partially wrapped on a mid river rock below the chute. Freeing the boat took far too long and eventually involved Martin and Mike wading out supported by lines strung from one shore to the other. All of us were amazed when it finally came off the rock with nothing more than creases. I thought my poor boat was a goner.

Now, in late afternoon, the heavy overcast created a premature evening gloom that was rapidly fading. Martin, Glenn and I, at the bottom of the lengthy canyon, decided to start off ahead and let the others catch up. This turned out to be the next mistake. They did not catch up in the short flat section, nor after the next rapid, or even the flat section following that. By now it was difficult to see in the dark, the snow was starting to fall and the temperature was dropping. We could not see the length of the next rapid and decided to portage – a good decision since the bottom turned out to be quite nasty.

Martin and Glenn set off again with the idea that at least someone would be at the car and near the phone in case of disaster. I was worried about the party behind and wanted to make sure they would not try to run the deceptive rapid we had just bypassed, so I went back to the start of the portage and waited. And waited...

I don't know how long I sat there in the dark, possibly an hour, but I finally heard their voices after a significant length of time. They seemed to be taking far too long to get across the short flat section. I called out and told them where to land. When they were almost at shore I could see all three canoes were lashed together. As they landed they told me that Scott had slipped on a rock back where my boat had pinned and his shoulder was probably dislocated.

Mike, Isaac and I hauled the boats across the short portage and helped Scott navigate the trail, such as it was. On the other side we decided to leave Isaac's boat free and raft mine in instead, since Isaac was by far a better paddler and better choice as scout, and my boat was closer in size to Mike's and Scott's. It was taking far too long to portage, as this involved untying the boats in the dark, hauling them though the bush (did I mention that there were no portage trails?), then retying them again. Not that we were much faster on the water. Steering the raft of canoes was not easy. We wobbled down the river, straining our ears for and sound of rushing water warning us about the next drop. Because we had to listen closely we could not even keep Scott occupied with conversation. Bear in mind that only Isaac had been here before and that several years ago. We had no idea how many rapids were between us and Queensborough, although we could now see a glow in the sky we thought was the town.

It was now so black and overcast that at times I was not sure we were moving. Isaac stayed a little ahead. Scott was showing definite signs of shock from his injury and must have been in significant pain, although he never complained. He was the only one of us not wearing a full dry suit, too, so his clothes were damp. With the falling temperature and his enforced immobility he was beginning to shiver badly, and hypothermia was starting to set in.

Now we came to the next drop. It was pitch black, but we thought from the sound that it was short. It didn't sound too difficult, but we could not tell. Isaac checked out the portaging options, but found that we were at a ceder swamp. There was no way we could get Scott through, much less the canoes. Our options were disappearing rapidly. We had to get Scott to shelter and medical attention quickly.

After some debate, Isaac decided to play probe. He floated down the centre of the rapid to see what was there. Finding that it was just a swift, he called out that it was okay to proceed, but that we should stay left. We could only hear the occasional word over the sound of the water, but we got the gist of it. The only problem was that we really did not have a good idea where “left” was. Even if we did, steering the three canoes rafted together was not an easy job. Isaac brought his Quake out into the current and guided us toward his voice -- pretty much until we rammed him. I can't imagine what Scott was thinking. If we dumped in the dark, his chances were not good. All of us decided that we would not try that again, but for now we were back into another flat section.

The river twisted and wound on for a bit and then we came to the next drop. It sounded bigger, perhaps, but we already knew we would not run it. We got out of the boats and started toward the bottom of the rapid, trying to stay very close together. None of us liked the idea of someone wandering off. After passing through a knee deep pond, we pushed through some trees and climbed a small ridge. At the top was an ATV trail. Since we were on the road side of the river, we made the assumption that this would end up near the road. We decided to follow it. This had the additional benefit of warming Scott through exercise, and his shivering seemed to abate somewhat as we walked. We soon came to a burnt cabin, then a narrow lane and a power line. Following these eventually brought us to a gate and the road. Following the road south, Mike blew on his whistle as we walked. Eventually we were answered by another whistle ahead, and Martin and Glenn came out of the dark toward us. It turned out that Martin's car was just ahead, and soon we had Scott in dry clothes in the car. The time was now somewhere around 7:30 or 8pm.

Martin, Isaac and I piled in and they drove me to my van at the put in, then headed off to the hospital in Belleville. By the time I got back, Mike and Glenn had borrowed a couple of flashlights from a helpful resident near the take out, located our boats where we had abandoned them near the river, and had brought Isaac's and Scot's boats to the road. While I put those on the roof they went back for the other two.

As I was loading the boats a car pulled up behind me and out came the woman who, as it turned out, had lent us the flashlights. Elaine had brought hot coffee, soup, crackers, cheese and all the trimmings. By the time Mike and Glenn came back I was into my second cup of coffee. We finished changing and loading, returned the flashlights and the rest of Elaine's stuff, then drove off to meet the others at the hospital, with a short stop at Timmy's for a bite.

In the hospital parking lot we hauled all the gear out of the cars and sorted it and the boats out. It was now 10pm and Scott was going to be in for a few more hours. Martin and Isaac went out to find dinner, and Glenn, Mike and I headed home, ending out the journey at 2am. Martin, Isaac and Scott were much later.

From the notes flying back and forth over the next few days, I think it is safe to say we all learned a few lessons. Flashlights would have been helpful even though we did not plan to be on the river past dark. Staying together as a group would have reduced the risk and given us more options. All of us are talking about improving our first aid skills.

posted by: Peter Farr

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