Wabakimi's " Little" Jackfish River
‘Little Jackfish River’ sounded innocent enough, like a creek in someone’s backyard. But it wasn’t a creek. It was a monster, wider and faster than anything we’d paddled before, with rapids that screamed and surged around rocks the size of Suburbans.
“Little Jackfish my ass,” said Erin, our guide. “How about ‘Hell-Roaring River of Death’?”
There were five of us. Amy, Sarah and Signy were teenagers, like me; Erin was in her twenties. We were nearing the end of a monthlong canoe trip in the Wabakimi Wilderness in northern Ontario.
In the early afternoon of our last day on the Jackfish, we rounded a bend and spotted a stretch of churning water about half a mile ahead. We’d already had to crash portages around seven sets of rapids that day, so we had a routine. The group halved like an amoeba, one canoe to each bank, to scout for a trail. Erin and Sarah went to the right bank. Amy and Signy and I went to the left.
After ten minutes of searching, Erin called us to the right bank. She and Sarah had found a trail. So Amy and Signy and I hurried to our canoe. Erin watched from the opposite bank. I climbed in the bow, the front end, and assumed the braced, kneeling position you use for whitewater. We were only crossing, but the rapids were close and the current was strong.
The water in the middle of the river moved faster than the water on either side of it, as if the river were a three-lane highway. Instead of the dotted yellow lines that separate lanes of traffic, there were eddy lines, seams in the water where the different currents touched. These eddy lines ran parallel to the riverbanks. (They don’t always.) We would have to hop the canoe across all three lanes, like the frog crossing the highway in the old video game Frogger.
I tightened my lifejacket straps. We pushed off from the bank and paddled upstream for a hundred yards, to get farther from the rapids. Using draws and pries, strokes that maneuver the canoe laterally, we positioned the canoe at a 45-degree angle. Then we paddled forward, using the short, hard strokes usually reserved for running rapids.
When the bow crossed the eddy line, the canoe tilted right. Instead of paddling harder and leaning downstream, I did exactly the wrong thing: grabbed the sides and froze.
Uncorrected, the lopsided torque flipped the canoe, spilling packs, paddles, and people into the water. Amy and Signy ended up in the slower-moving water and managed to swim out. I got dumped in the much faster water, panicked, and tried to swim directly against the current instead of perpendicular to it.
I was thinking of the rapids ahead. It quickly became obvious that my misdirected flailing wasn’t going to get me out of anything. I turned to face downstream, so I could at least try to avoid the worst of the whitewater--and saw a horizon line.
In the instant before I went over, I thought of the huge waterfall we’d seen our first day on this river. Then, distantly, I thought, so this is how I die.
Luckily, this wasn’t a huge waterfall, or even a medium one. It was only a six-foot drop, and there was so much water gushing over it that I hardly felt the slope. But there was a recycler at the bottom. A recycler is a confluence of currents that flows upstream. Recyclers often form at the bases of waterfalls, and downstream of partially submerged rocks. They are dangerous because anything that falls into one will get held underwater by the opposing forces. I slid through it so fast that it didn’t have a chance to pin me.
My lifejacket kept me on the surface of the huge waves that followed. I was heaved to the crest of a wave; the trough ahead was deeper than I was tall. I gulped a breath. Then I fell forward, down. The next wave reared over me. A thousand gallons of water crushed me down, down, down.
My eyes flickered open. The river’s belly was dark, terrible and serene, like Notre Dame at night. I was sure I was drowning.
But then it was as if someone had seized me and hauled me to the surface. I popped up like a cork, gasped another breath, and got smashed down by another wave. This cycle continued for what felt like hours but was actually only a minute or two. Each time I went under, I thought it was for the last time.
Then, once, when I bobbed up, instead of a wave ahead, I saw a seething channel of pushed-together water. I slid through it like a zipper. It diverted me from the center of the river to an eddy, an area of water sheltered from the current. I swam to shore in a few numb strokes.
Three days later on the Kopka River . . .
The Kopka is a placid river that resembled a necklace of blue pearls, as it consisted of a series of massive lakes connected by waterfalls and tiny, capillary streams. It was our last day. To get to Obonga Lake, the next stop on our way to our pickup spot, we paddled a narrow creek that reeled like a drunk. It was shallow and fast, with lots of rapids whose radio-static roar stood my hair on end. I trembled and cried the whole time.
About four miles upstream from the lake, a little bridge spanned the creek. I wanted to demand that we take out there and use our satellite phone to call and reroute our pickup. But I didn’t.
The creek emptied into a three-mile-long bay of Obonga Lake (the whole lake measures 27 miles). We paddled hard; it was five o’clock, there were dark clouds behind us, and we still had a couple of lakes and the ominously named Hell’s Portage between us and the van that would take us home.
The mouth of Hell’s Portage was a wound through the thick forest. We beached the canoes in the sandy, brushy stretch between the water and the trees, and unloaded them quickly. The leading edge of the storm was a black cloud that roiled like the rapids on the Jackfish. Storms didn’t normally bother me, but, then, clouds didn’t normally move like that.
We lifted the red canoe onto Sarah’s shoulders. She took four or five steps forward - the cloud passed overhead - the wind hit like a blow. Sarah struggled to stay upright. The canoe bucked like a mechanical bull. She staggered sideways, started to put it down, and then the wind seized it and flung it broadside at the path-bordering trees.
The sky darkened. Wind and rain lashed the trees so they bent like trudging slaves. Electric whips cracked from the clouds. We had to shout to hear each other over the roar of wind and thunder, and the crashing-down of trees. The strobe effect of the lightning gave the scene the slow, hallucinatory feel of a nightmare.
“What do we do if there’s a tornado?” I had to ask, though I don’t know what I was expecting her to say. There were no manmade shelters nearby, and it was too late to look for rocks to hide under. Erin paused. “You just hope there isn’t one.”
The five of us huddled behind a big, sturdy-looking tree on the left side of the trail and watched lightning strike the lake. Then Erin yelled “Move!” At the same time, there was an immense cracking sound and a seismic shake, like the earth itself was splitting beneath our feet. I jumped to the right side of the path, along with everyone else, as the tree we’d been standing behind snapped at its base and crashed backwards. Signy tripped over the wind-flung canoe and fell into it. We all screamed.
After a few moments, we untangled ourselves. Everyone but Signy stood. She couldn’t stand; her ankle was bent grotesquely backwards, and was already swelling and purpling.
The storm raged around us. We moved Signy to a safer spot, away from the trees, and then Erin said we should all spread out. “That way, if lightning strikes, it won’t kill all of us.”
We scattered, squatting in the bushes between the lake and the trees in the crouching position that is supposed to reduce your chances of dying if you get struck. Lightning struck the isthmus that jutted into the lake a quarter mile away. I sang softly. I didn’t want to die.
Forty-five minutes later, when we thought the storm had passed, we regrouped while Erin braced Signy’s ankle. “We can’t carry her over Hell’s Portage,” said Sarah flatly.
“We could paddle back to that bridge,” Amy said. “Then we wouldn’t have to portage at all.” We decided to wait a few minutes, and then do just that.
In the middle of the lake, the air felt cool and empty, leeched of the wet density it had had before the storm. The only sound was the muted dip-swoosh of our paddles in the water.
“Look at Sarah’s hair.” Erin’s voice startled me. I looked to the other canoe. Sarah’s short, choppy hair was standing on end. So was Amy’s. I had a shaved head, but my scalp tingled and the hairs on my neck stood up. “Must be all the electricity in the air,” I commented.
As if on cue, the sky above our heads split open. The clouds lit with a flash. Simultaneously, there was a thunderclap like an exploding bomb. We screamed. Then we paddled for a pine-dotted island that was the closest landform. We waited there for twenty minutes, while the cold pallor of the storm warmed to a feverish, sunset red. It would be dark soon. . . .
-Shelby, University of Minnesota firstname.lastname@example.org
[Editors Note: Yes, sports fans Shelby and her pals did eventually get out of the wilderness. As darkenss descended they bushwacked their way back upstream to the Obanga Road bridge where they were later picked up. Some pictures and route maps could be added here later.]