Escape Rapids

By Robert Horwood

One day’s paddle from the Arctic Sea, the Coppermine River drops rapidly through a forbidding canyon. Here you can choose either to carry your canoe and gear over the hills to calmer water, or trust your skill in the rapids.

Samuel Hearne was the first European explorer to pass this way. His skilled Indigenous guides saw him safely downstream in his search for the native copper reported to be common in the river valley. The Indigenous paddlers managed these rapids so easily that he did not mention them in his journal. Incidentally, he did not find any significant amounts of copper. But the river was still hopefully named “Coppermine.” Fifty years later, another explorer, John Franklin, came to the same passage, but did not fare so well. His canoe foundered in the heavy white water from which he and his companions narrowly escaped. He named this part of the river Escape Rapids.

“…the spot from which all those before me have looked with wonder and concern at the rising cliffs.”

I stand on the east bank of the Coppermine, just above the beginning of Escape Rapids. This is likely the spot from which all those before me have looked with wonder and concern at the rising cliffs. Like them I am an explorer, facing similar challenges and uncertainties – only with better equipment and different motives. I am exploring my responses to adventurous life and travel in “a land so wild and savage,” as Stan Rogers mused in his famous song “Northwest Passage.” I want to feel and work with fear, to make a friend of it. And yes, to feel a sense of kinship with those intrepid souls who have been this way before.
The basalt rock quickly gets steeper on each side of the river. The water, a deep blue, becomes dotted with bouncing white patches, revealing hidden rocks as the water gains speed over the steeper drop. Downstream, the river makes a sharp left turn. Spray dances on the rocks as the torrent runs into the cliff ahead at the turn. My heart lurches. A canoe in that place will be pushed against the unyielding rock. “Between a rock and a hard place,” has literal meaning there.

Escape Rapid, Coppermine River (from Michel Lafrance’s personal collection)

The near left side of the river has larger patches of white. Further downstream, in the centre, are even greater areas of turbulent white. One of these is set off by a large V-tongue of smooth water shooting into a series of steep standing waves with extensive white patches on either side. These show the position of large rocks with dangerous holes below. Such holes have a strong undertow that can easily be fatal to those trapped in them. I decide that my rising heart rate will be best handled by examining the situation.

My companions and I look for a path that matches our abilities and gear. We must first avoid the left side at the start. The revealed rocks on the right are reasonably easy to evade. We are standing on the right shore, and I gain confidence that we can begin with good prospects to stay dry. But on the right side at the turn of the canyon is that dangerous cliff. We must somehow start on the right, then move across the river to the left far enough to avoid the dangerous heavy water in the centre well down stream. From that point we can safely navigate the rest of the big water, avoiding rocks near the left bank.

“We will not portage.”

So our plan is made. We will not portage. We will cover the canoes with water-tight spray skirts that fit snugly around each paddler’s waist. Using back strokes to keep the canoe speed slower than that of the water, we will lower ourselves down the water avoiding the scattered rocks on the right. Approaching the turn, we will set the angle of the canoe across the current, paddling backstrokes in such a way as to maintain the angle. The action of the current in combination with our paddles will push the canoe sideways across the river to the left above the large holes. This downstream ferry, as paddlers call it, will move us away from the threat of the cliff at the turn. If timed correctly, it will also put us on the safer left side of the large complex of heavy water in the centre.

The leading canoes in our party complete their preparations and push off. We delay our departure to watch the line they trace down the river. Each canoe follows the plan, safely negotiating the hazards on each side. I gain confidence. We check that the loose gear in our canoe is stowed. We unfold the spray skirt and fit it (with a little stretching) to the canoe. The spare paddles are secured in straps on top. We snug up our life vests and slide the canoe into the water. Ivan McWilliam, whose turn it is today to paddle bow, climbs into his place through the spray skirt. He adjusts the laces at his waist for a snug fit.

“I feel an excited anticipation and a burst of nervousness.”

Then it is my turn to board. I feel an excited anticipation and a burst of nervousness. I am awkward when shifting my weight from land to the canoe, and I fumble with the laces on the skirt. Once I am finally settled in kneeling position there is no turning back. I am enclosed and dry, safe inside. But I also feel trapped. It occurs to me that if we capsize, it will not be easy to escape from being trapped in this vessel in wild water. All these thoughts fade as Ivan indicates that he’s ready and we move out of the shallows into the flow of the river. There is no longer time for reflection.

As expected, the first section is easily navigated. We work smoothly together to move the canoe through safe water around the rocks. Moving deeper into the canyon it’s tempting to glance away from the water to the cliffs towering above us.
On the right, a beautiful white thread of falling water tumbles down from the top of the cliff. I yell to Ivan so that he can share this moment of calm. But it’s a mistake. We are at the turn and have missed the moment to start our critical ferry to cross the river. We try it anyway, because we must avoid being dashed into the cliff that is looming closer and closer. The ferry begins to work, and we ever so slowly move away from the cliffs. Our downstream progress and ferry have taken us just above the long tongue and standing waves that mark the start of the heavy water we meant to avoid.

“I hear the hissing roar as we pass the edge of a large hole…”

Evasion is no longer possible. To ferry further will put us into a serious hole. We straighten the canoe and enter the maelstrom. The canoe begins its steep slide down the smooth V-shaped tongue ahead. As waves pour over the canoe, I yell to Ivan to brace hard. We both lean out to our respective sides with paddles pressing the water like outriggers in the manoeuvre paddlers call a high brace. The water runs harmlessly off the spray cover as wave after dancing wave splashes over. The spray soaks my face.

I hear the hissing roar as we pass the edge of a large hole on the right. Another appears to pass by on the left. We are successfully threading the needle between these hazards and at length reach easier water. At the end of the canyon, we meet the paddlers who have gone before us. One of them asks, “What were you guys doing out there?” I have no words to reply. We make camp on the tundra where it levels out as the cliffs end, again on the right side of the river. I am quite sure that this is the same spot where Franklin’s party must have camped. It’s the only suitable place to recover from a close call. Franklin’s able assistant George Back painted an accurate watercolour of Escape Rapids as seen from below, only on the less hospitable left side. He must have crossed the river to find the position for his painting. He would not have done that unless the party had made camp.

Rapid – Houston, C. Stuart (1995). Arctic Artist. McGill-Queen’s University PressQueen’s,
Figure 4.

In the calm and safety of our camp, I reflect on my friend’s question. What were we doing out there? Well, for one thing we were paying the price of letting a lovely little fall of water high on the cliff lead us to neglect the river. But perhaps another thing is that we were unknowingly taking the “hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea,” as Stan Rogers suggests in “Northwest Passage.” It feels good to be part of the distinguished company of adventurous explorers that escaped Escape Rapids.

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