Mother nature has a way of reminding you who’s boss. When it happens, she makes sure that she scares the crap out of you, teaches you some hard lessons and is sure that you stay humble in her territory. Flipping a canoe was my reminder.
In September of 2018, I felt the brunt of that lesson on my last camping trip of the season – an “easy” paddle-in to a site on Algonquin’s Rock Lake, where my good friend Rhonda and I hosted a small group of beginner backcountry campers to celebrate the fall equinox. The plan was simple enough. We’d canoe to our site, set camp and head back to the access point to meet our group in the afternoon. Easy Peasy. The site Rhonda chose for our trip was a simple 20 to 30 minute paddle from the launch with no portages. Conveniently set on a small bay, it was also just a short bushwhack to the Booth’s Rock Trail. Her rational for choosing this site had two parts: if anything went wrong, we’d be able to hike in or out of the site.
Of course, we didn’t actually think anything would go wrong. So, the main reason for choosing the site was to have the option of hiking the trail as part of the weekend activities. At the campground office, we paid for our permit and chatted about the incoming weather. The next few days looked promising for a great trip, but first we had to deal with high winds coming in later that day. We worked fast to get out on the lake ahead of the wind and made it to our site after paddling hard into a head-wind. Our heavily-loaded canoe handled the grumpy lake without a problem, but we recognized that the wind was starting to pick up earlier than what was forecasted that morning. We set camp and talked about our options as we watched the lake from our site. “I don’t think it looks too bad.” “We can always hike back to the site if it’s really bad.” “It’s looking ok to me – let’s go for it now” From our little bay on Rock Lake, it appeared that the paddle back to the launch would be manageable, so we set-off with lots of time to meet our group. As we hit the long, open water of the lake, the winds suddenly started to gust and caps started to form on the waves. We paddled hard to try and get around the point of the bay and get the canoe facing the access point with the wind at our backs.
That’s when mother nature said “f*k you” and a huge wave crashing into us broadside. The wind and waves picked up our canoe and tossed us into the water as if we were simply a child’s toy in a bathtub. We flipped a canoe.
I will never, ever forget the sight of Rhonda falling out of the canoe in front of me. Or the feeling of coming to the surface of the water with a gasp, trying to find my bearings, find my canoe, find my partner and grasp what had happened and what I needed to do next all at the same time. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath at first, but I could hear Rhonda calmly telling me to take a deep breath and that I was going to be ok.
There was the flipped canoe – 3/4 submerged and taking on water with each white capped wave rolling over us. There was my paddle, floating inside the canoe. There was my water bottle, way over there. There were my shoes, floating in opposite directions. There was Rhonda, almost right beside me. Within a heartbeat we had to make decisions on what to leave and what to save. Thankfully, all our gear was back at camp. So it wasn’t a hard decision to leave the water bottles and my floating shoes. You would be amazed at how fast things float away from your grasp. Rhonda’s shoes had sunk.
Obviously, the paddles and flipped canoe were our priorities. We were able to tip the canoe enough to get the water out, but with that success the wind slammed it once more and flipped the canoe again – hitting Rhonda in the head. We righted it a second time but with the wind and waves it was impossible to keep water out of it. Our priority became keeping it from sinking and getting ourselves to shore. I’m not going to lie…. More than once it went through my mind that letting my beautiful Swift Algonquin canoe sink in Rock Lake was simply not an option. Because if the lake didn’t kill me, my husband just might. It also went through my mind, more than once, to keep a death grip on my paddle – a custom piece of huge sentimental value, engraved with my daughter’s name on the blade.
Once we got our bearings and had the flipped canoe and paddles firmly in our grip, we set course to start swimming to a sandy area along the eastern edge of the lake. As we moved our way slowly towards the beach, we could see people hiking along Booth’s Rock Trail just above our target and blew our whistles to get their attention. It seemed, at first, that nobody could hear us. But then we heard a whistle from shore. We’d been heard and seen!
Not knowing if our spotters had made a rescue call, we kept swimming. And swimming. Both Rhonda and I were calm the entire time. Chatting and joking with each other as we made our way to shore. Neither of us ever felt as though we were in imminent danger – we just set our sites on safety and worked together to get there. At one point I told Rhonda, “If I’m going to be flip a canoe, I’m really glad I’m flipping a canoe with you.” I meant it then and I still mean it.
The best view and sound of all was the Warden’s boat heading towards us. The boat reached us just as my feet touched lake bottom – steps from the beach. We had been swimming for over 30 minutes at that point, with wind and waves washing over us the entire time. You can’t even imagine how much of the lake I swallowed in that time.
As the Wardens took us and my canoe back to the access point we learned that they received several calls about the lake conditions and one call specifically about us in the water. When they set out to find us, they initially couldn’t see us and were heading in the opposite direction of where we were swimming. It was the pink PFD Rhonda was wearing that caught their attention. They did not see my beautiful canoe at all. Why? It’s completely black, including the hull. In the dark, deep, angry water of Rock Lake, my gorgeous canoe was invisible to our searchers.
We made it back to the access point just a few minutes to change into some dry clothes we had stashed in our car before the members of our group arrived in the parking lot. Thankfully, I had a pair of hiking shoes in the car to wear. Rhonda had to borrow shoes from one of the ladies in our group. We made the obvious decision to NOT paddle back to the site that evening. Instead, we hiked Booth’s Rock Trail and bushwacked the few meters off the trail to our site, with a plan to hike back to the access point the next morning to grab the canoes and spend the day paddling.
As we hiked, the wind whipped the treetops above us and we heard more than one tree crack from the gusts. Mother Nature was still in a frenzy and was letting everyone know her power.
The next day we awoke to a stunning Algonquin Fall morning with a shroud of fog, water like glass and no wind. As we hiked from our site to the access point, Rhonda and I pointed out the beach where we were picked up by the Wardens. Below us, a small group of hikers were on the beach and I heard one call out… “Hey! Did someone lose a Croc?” And with great laughter, made a big deal about finding a single, lonely Croc on the beach. I don’t think they knew we were on the trail above them.
“Yes!!!!” I called back. “YES! Is it black with a white stripe? Ladies size 7?” With disbelief the hiker scrambled up to the trail with my Croc in his hand.
Things I learned from flipping a canoe:
- Crocs float
- Water shoes sink
Black canoes are invisible
- Some fabrics stretch when wet. A lot.
- A belt is critical to keep your pants from falling off from swimming in a choppy lake for half-an-hour.
- Park Wardens will pretend they don’t notice your pants are falling off and your belt is around your hips instead of your waist when they come to rescue you.
- Park Wardens are amazing and riding in a park motorboat is still really cool, even if you’ve just been in a somewhat traumatic event.
- There are emergency campsites available at access points. They are unmarked and unreservable.
- No amount of rice will dry out a phone that’s been in a lake for over 30 minutes and a soaking wet pocket for even longer.
- It’s REALLY important to have a canoeing partner with a sense of humour and level head in an emergency.
- Light canoes are great for portaging but are not helpful when they aren’t loaded down in windy conditions.
- Water bottles and Crocs can float away really fast when you are also trying to empty a flipped canoe and keep your paddles close to you.
- You never think it will happen to you. But when it does, you’ll be really glad you are wearing a PFD and that you have a whistle attached to it.
On the way home from that weekend, we discovered that the wind that caught us on the lake was from the same system that caused six tornadoes in the Ottawa area. According to the Meteorological Service of Canada, the tornadoes in Ottawa-Gatineau were declared one of the ten most significant weather events of 2018 in Canada.