ANUAL EASTER LONG WEEKEND CANOE TRIP – The Clarence River.
A total of 24 paddlers from the club signed up for this years Easter long weekend canoe trip. This adventure was advertised as a lovely 3-day paddle down some “mild” rapids with 2 nights camping along the way. From the predicted miserable weather forecast of rain we knew that conditions would be less than ideal but that didn’t dampen our spirits. All committed we set off in a convoy of vehicle to the Wilderness Lodge for our launch set off point on the upper reaches of the Clarence River.
In double Canadian Canoes we had to carry all our supplies such as food, water and tents to be self-sufficient for 3 days. We were advised the forecast of rain was not a worry because the river was currently very low “boney” and a rise in level would mean less portages and a quicker easier trip. We were given a safety briefing which included some valuable maneuvering techniques and general advice on which rapids and obstacles to be wary of and suggested camping sites which we marked onto our map. A group photo was taken and we set off on our adventure.
DAY ONE. Is soon became apparent with a few thrills and capsize spills that a shuffle of paired up combinations needed to made. Although this made the navigation of the rapids safer, we still had many capsizes while people built up their skills and confidence. Waiting downstream after each rapid to ensure 12 canoes made it through safely proved to be very slow and after a long afternoon we fell 10km short of the expected campsite. We set up camp, had dinner and somehow Jai and Eli got a lovely campfire started. With no dry firewood Jai and Eli blew and protected the flame for 40mins!! And we were grateful. Exhausted, most of us were in bed asleep by 6:30 or 7pm.
DAY TWO. Yes it rained all night long and some tents faired a lot better than others. The combination of fear, illness, exhaustion and the lure of dry warm clothes, shelter and a comfortable bed were too strong for some of our team members. The satellite phone was fired up and Grant made the call asking for the extraction of 8 paddlers. It was lucky we had stopped at that point on the river because not far upstream was a road/bridge and any further along would have been an impossible location to get collected from. We were left with a more manageable sized group of 8 canoes and 16 paddlers.
It didn’t take long for us to get into the swing of things nicely and we had a big day of paddling ahead to make up to the 10km we lost the day before. With a few bruised and sore bodies some paddlers took the option of walking a few of the rapids while a couple of the more experienced paddlers such as Amanda, Helen and Eli excitedly multiple trips to get all the canoes down them. Grant took the group on a mystery portage tour to a dead end lake, which was not appreciated; Gary found smacking April with a paddle good technique to get her to lean down stream and Helen’s love affair with fences began. Helen’s love was so strong she threw herself and paddling partner Jed out of the canoe just so she could cuddle a barbwire fence!! Later in the day at a lunch stop Helen had a romantic date with an electric fence – sparks flew. OUCH!!! If you have ever touched an electric fence while wet you will know it’s a rather painful experience.
It drizzled for most of the day with a few big down pours but all in all it was a great day. We set off at 8am and made camp at 4:30pm. Luckily the rain held off while we set up our tents and Grant assembled a fancy shelter between trees using a massive tarp, rope and canoe paddles as tent posts. We all sat under the shelter until the ripe time of 8pm and had a good chinwag while it pelted down rain. We had no possible chance of building a campfire however Helen and Jed were happy to instead collect some rainwater to replace their drinking water which was lost on a capsize during the day. We all retired to semi dry tents and listened to the rain and slept as the river rose.
DAY THREE. What we faced was a lot more water. We were camped at the top of a rapid and it looked a lot more swift and angry than the night before. A few again walked while the rest of us bounced our way down. Paul was in fact bounced right out of the canoe but quickly climbed straight back in to rejoin is partner Mellissa but apart from that there were no dramas. What faced us on day three were lots of long flat straights, which was very different to the frequent rapids of the two days prior. The extra water in the river covered the rocks, which did make the infrequent rapids a very easy fun fast ride. Byron was particularly happy to not revisit bouncing his sore bum bones on large shallow boulders again.
When we stopped for morning tea the sun was shining, we replaced raincoats with sunscreen and everyone was feeling fantastic because it was turning out to be a beautiful day. Grant made the call via the satellite phone to let the Wilderness Lodge know were on the home straight and would be ready for pick up a sometime between 11:30 and 12pm. The worst was behind us and we had an easy paddle home. The group was charging ahead without a worry in the world.
NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE…. No way could any of us expect or predict what happened next. The entry point to the last rapid looked tame but what welcomed us around the corner was absolute carnage!!! 7 of the 8 canoes capsized and life and death flashed before many of our eyes. Strainers are one of the most significant dangers whitewater kayakers and canoeist will come across in flooded rivers. A strainer is an over hanging tree, debris such as logs and branches which have gotten caught and block the way (under and above the water). This not only causes an obstruction, it also causes the current to increase and even change direction as the river attempts to navigate through and around the obstructions. Basically we were swimming with deathtraps. A few of us got sucked under logs and caught on things and life hung in the balance.
We did frantic head count and it’s a miracle that no one got trapped and drowned. We all smashed into trees and branched and a few of us got pinned and hit by out of control canoes as they hurdled down the river. Trudi was pinned under water for a long period of time. Her legs were both trapped under a branch deep in the water, which was sending her down deep. Luckily she reached up and held onto a higher branch while she got one of her legs free. All the while she held her breath as the water was flowing over her face. Not able to hold on any longer she let go and somehow rolled out of it. Eli her nephew watched in horror not able to get to her to help. Once out of the water Trudi then had to pull a stumpy pinky finger sized piece of wood out of her face. Canoes and gear were scattered and caught up in trees all over the place. One canoe was totally submerged, couldn’t be retrieved and therefore left behind. 8 paddlers made their way on foot, found a road and hitchhiked to the finish, while the others paddled towed a canoe each behind them with all the gear. It took us 3 hours to recover.
It turned out that the river had risen about 1.7m. We had an amazing death defying adventure. I take my hat off to Yvonne, Joanne, Margo and Julia for an outstanding effort!! It was a big ask to take on that river and you did it without any complaints. Byron and Don you both showed true guts and determination and Mellissa, April, Paul, Ian and Gary you are all adventure hunters and so much fun to hang out with. Helen you are always legend!!! Eli was dependable and good to laugh at in his flimsy plastic bag rain coat. The SUPER STAR couple was Save The Day Grant and Ever Reliable Trudi who showed pure resilience and style. I’ve also been told by Eli that she always has a Mary Poppins bag which has everything you could ever need. The biggest thanks goes to our life jackets and helmets, which I’m positive, saved our lives at least once or twice each.
Amongst all the carnage of the final death defying rapid Helen still found another barbwire fence to play with. Great trip everyone – who wants to come next year??
A week later we went and collected the canoe….