A Cautionary Tale

Frank de Jong and Iva Kinclova

The only thing worse than distrust of a group leader is over-trust.
Who is responsible for planning decisions on a group-organized trip?

The Harricana is a powerful, remote, Quebec river that flows through four distinct types of geography: the clay belt, Canadian Shield, limestone bedrock and the James Bay lowlands. It takes roughly four days to paddle each section. 

200-million year old brachiopod

The clay belt is expansive flat bush and farm land where erosion increases the turbidity of the water. This section is a bit of a slog but has majesty if you are of a contemplative disposition. The river then flows through gorgeous, pink granite, crashing through stunning rapids, falls and chutes, the rocks bearing the 10,000-year-old scars and sculpting of the glaciers. The geology then abruptly changes to 200-million-year-old sedimentary limestone. Here you paddle past cliffs embedded with fossils, skimming quickly over countless limestone ledges. The river then broadens into the muddy James Bay lowlands, with its characteristic kilometer-wide tidal flats, the habitat of shore birds, seals and belugas.

Our 3-female, 7-male crew consisted of myself and nine of my long-time friends, although, typical of our far flung society, most of them had never met. We congregated in Cochrane after long drives from Thunder Bay, Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and Huntsville. I initiated the trip months earlier and coordinated the preparations, so I was thrilled it was finally underway.

The Map

While greeting each other, several of the experienced paddlers were surprised that one couple had brought a composite rather than a heavy-duty whitewater canoe. The couple knew the Harricana was a whitewater river but had made a poor choice of boat. We were concerned about the potential consequences, and as titular leader, I should have insisted they rent a whitewater canoe in Cochrane, but I didn’t.

Like all good canoe trips, ours started the night before in a bar. Perhaps it was a bad omen, but for various reasons only 5 of us went to the bar. Omen or not, we had a raucous time laughing and bragging and getting acquainted with a few of the other crew members.

The morning of our departure from Cochrane we discovered that we had only two bailers for five canoes. This required a trip to a dollar store and scavenging recycling bins at gas stations for new ones. Also, the person in charge of maps couldn’t find one of the two copies they brought, plus the first 4 pages were missing. This was remedied by dashing to a motel and begging the proprietors to print out the missing pages and an extra set from an online version. We managed this just before our shuttle, Brian Porter (705-272-8268), drove us the four hours from Cochrane to the put-in, downtown Amos, Quebec. 

Harricana Whitewater

It had been difficult to find trip reports on the first section, from Amos to Joutel. The notes on the maps from www.cartesplainair.org were pretty much the only source. As we started off from Amos it became apparent that no one had taken a serious look at this section. On Day 2, when we divided the length of the trip by 14, the number of paddling days available, we realized it would take an average of 28km per day to get to the mouth of the Harricana. This seemed like a daunting proposition since the Canadian Shield section contained many rapids which would require scouting, lining, running or portaging, plus many trip reports warned of strong, cold headwinds.

Two of our crew members, who hadn’t carefully read all the pre-trip emails, and weren’t present on the Zoom calls since they joined the crew late, had assumed the put-in would be Joutel. Most Harricana trips start at Joutel in order to avoid 150 km of flat water that must be paddled when starting from Amos. This oversight put too much strain on a pre-existing bursitis-plagued shoulder, forcing the couple to bail from the trip on Day 4.

Lining through boulders

To paddle to James Bay from late August to mid-September was to tempt the weather gods. And indeed, the weather turned out to be unseasonably cold. Though throughout the trip only two canoes dumped in rapids, both times our capsized colleagues were near-hypothermic by the time they finished their swims. Dry suits should have been mandatory.

Most canoeists consider trip planning to be exciting and interesting, but not our crew. On the Zoom calls the conversation invariably veered away from organizational details. Even the obvious question of whitewater experience was skipped over. The inadequate whitewater skills of several of the crew members became apparent during the granite section of Harricana. This problem forced two of the skilled paddlers – who initially insisted on padding together – to partner instead with unskilled paddlers.

Two empty canoes went airborne, one flipping end over end down the rocky beach, the other spinning like a top before landing just off shore

The twin problems of inexperienced paddlers and the fragile canoe dictated that all but Class I rapids had to be lined or portaged. On top of this, the often non-existent portage trails slowed our progress and exhausted us. Our group split between those who paddled the rapids and those who lined or portaged, which on several occasions meant losing sight of each other for periods of time, breaking a cardinal rule of canoeing.

Due to these time pressures we not only missed spending a couple of leisurely days in the spectacular granite area, but we often had to paddle in challenging conditions.

Mini Puffballs for Supper

One day, we found ourselves lining through a kilometer of huge boulders in a hail storm. Another day, late in the late afternoon, we descended a kilometer-long rapid while fighting sleet in a gale-force headwind tunneling up a limestone canyon. A canoe dumped in mid-rapid forcing us all to head for shore and make camp in an unimaginably inhospitable spot. While hacking out tent sites and starting a fire to warm up the shivering capsized paddlers, two empty canoes went airborne (they were not tied up), one flipping end over end down the rocky beach, the other spinning like a top before landing just off shore.

Many of us were outside our comfort zone for the entire trip. Anxiety kicked in about Day 3 and plagued us for the rest of the trip. We worried that a single paddling error, unexpected rock, a trip or slip, a change in weather, could have meant injury or death. As you can imagine we had a few emotional meltdowns and several times we almost pushed the red button.

But at the same time, everyone took responsibility for our situation. Everyone was a trooper, we worked as a team, made inclusive group decisions, and worked through challenges with a great deal of humour and from a position of trust.

Tim and the glass canoe

We were 8 people living in close quarters, depending on each other, requiring bravery, self-awareness, constancy, selflessness and cheerfulness. The Harricana turned out to be a metaphor for life, it was society in microcosm, we were living one day at a time under challenging circumstances. We all had a stake in ensuring inclusivity and social cohesion.

We lived “in community,” face to face, 24/7 — not online. Our trip was surreal and life-changing, and doubly so because of the previous months of COVID-19 isolation. Partially because of my poor leadership we lived with the imminent threat of death, which added immediacy and hyper awareness every day.

We lived for 16 days as a vulnerable, interdependent community in a gigantic, timeless, elemental landscape.

We lived for 16 days as a vulnerable, interdependent community in a gigantic, timeless, elemental landscape. We lived side by side with boreal caribou, moose and belugas, migrating swallows, fish, geese, ducks, eagles and sandhill cranes. Most of the Harricana lies above the northern limits of agriculture and logging where nature is still intact, where a full range of creatures continue to live on an evolutionary scale.

The euphoric stress release we felt at trip’s end was palpable. No one drowned or had been seriously injured, the composite canoe leaked badly but didn’t fully collapse, and only one of the two map sets ended up swimming with the fishes. Miraculously, aided by tailwinds and very little rain, we made it to Washow Lodge/Goose Camp of the Moose Cree First Nation only one day later than planned.

Searching for life in the universe

Two nights and a sunny, warm day while waiting for our shuttle (James Bay Shuttle –  Kim Cheechoo kim.cheechoo@moosecree.com, 705-363-7172), gave us time to decompress, dry out, explore the area and recover our wits in preparation of rejoining the larger society.

The second morning, on the high tide and under a clear sky, we headed west on a glassy James Bay in two open freighter canoes. But a cold north wind soon rose making our traverse a very bumpy, miserable 5 hours on rough seas.

Once in Moosonee the wind was still and the sun shone. Townspeople were genuinely curious about our trip. Waiting for train-time we sprawled on the grass in glorious warmth, overlooking the placid Moose River; the beer and junk food never tasted so good. Then, on the mostly empty Polar Bear Express leisurely clattering to Cochrane, we felt like 19th-century royalty.

Overplanning can take the fun out of a trip, but under planning can cost lives. This trip was clearly under planned. Some of us understood the broad strokes and assumed the details would work themselves out, others assumed other crew members, or myself, would exercise due diligence.

Cold, bumpy James Bay shuttle

I learned many lessons on this trip. I knew that some of the people didn’t have the requisite whitewater skills but I didn’t act on my knowledge. I was in the best position to coordinate and share research but I didn’t make sure we had an acceptable description of the physical and psychological challenges. I should have organized a more rigorous spread-sheet to ensure we would have appropriate gear, particularly dry suits, whitewater canoes, bailers and a set of maps in every boat.

Having learned these lessons, I am still left with questions. How far does a trip organizer go in making decisions for other adults on a self-organized trip? Where is the balance between being autocratic and giving people room to make decisions and live with the consequences? And why did my fellow paddlers not ask the hard questions about others’ paddling skills or discuss the number of days needed to complete the trip? Was it because of their tight work schedules, a habit of abdicating power to others, or a fear of standing out by asking questions?

With these questions in mind, I conclude that our Harricana trip was a fabulous vacation that I never want to repeat!

5 thoughts on “A Cautionary Tale”

  1. Thank you for writing this. Warnings about the dangers of inadequate planning, poor equipment and lack of experience are a necessary reminder. Even experienced paddlers over time can become nonchalant and trip leaders need the courage to insist on clear answers to their questions.

  2. Iva and Frank joined in on our WCA Wilderness Safety and Risk Management Zoom Presentation held on March 27, 2021. The presentation will be put on our WCA YouTube Channel.

  3. jonathan berger

    The Hurricanaw as we called it back in the day is a real tough river. An experienced crew would have had the same problems you faced given the conditions and the travel schedule you set for your trip.

  4. A wonderful cautionary tail. I have lead many trips, co-led trips, and been along when others have planned. I have a cardinal rule, “No Adventures.” Enough unexpected things happen without encouraging them (like the weather turning, or the river being three feet higher than expected). I have yet to feel a trip was over-planned.

    Having been in similar situations to what you described, on at least two occasions, I have come to understand the fault was with me. I didn’t speak up when I felt something wasn’t clear or when something felt off. I have the experience to know when I should speak up and I didn’t at the time.

    What I have learned is, while some of the crew may have tripped in various wilderness settings, it doesn’t mean they had any hand in planning beyond their own gear. What has worked for myself and my co-planners is a central checklist with someone responsible for entering the job as done (I cannot take the credit for this idea).

    AND everyone gets notice of everything as it is completed. The maps you mentioned were a good example. Once the person responsible for maps had gathered them together, they should have gone out to everyone as a PDF or snailmail.

    A great story, told well. Thank you both.

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