EPISODE 106 RACING DOWN THE DON RIVER…TRAPPED UNDER THE THWARTS
” Suddenly upside down in foaming white water.?” “What happened?” That thought flashed through
my brain “My head is bouncing off the river bottom rocks.” Wiggling I made a
sudden and sodden discovery, “I am trapped by he thwarts.” Trapped by the thwarts.!!
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
The phone rang earlier. “Mike here, Alan, I have a great idea for a radio
program. We can do it live…from a canoe racing in white water down the Don River.”
“There is no white water in the Don River.”
“Once a year the Conservation Society opens the dam upriver so that canoeists
can race down the Don like it is the Frazer River canyon. PADDLE THE DON.
The race is a money
raiser for improving the Don River. We can do it. Are you interested?”
“Sounds exciting but I have one big problem.”
“Yes, I fell off a small cliff in France a week ago. Bashed myself up badly…cuts,
bruises and a broken wrist. Surgery. Wrist is pinned together with long spikes.
In a sling. Bottom line is I cannot paddle.”
“No need to worry. You will be wedged under the thwarts. SAFE. A friend and I will
paddle while you record the trip on tape. CBC mobile equipment.”
The concept intrigued me. I had been doing nothing much while convalescing.
The black bruises had turned brown. Stanless steel pins holding bones in place.
The wrist was in a sling. Truth be told, I was bored.
Marjorie was not too enthusiastic though. “Just think a live radio program from
white water on the normally lazy Don River.”
So it was a go. About 600 people gathered at the launch point high up the Don River
below the dam. Once the water was released the lazy stream turned into a raging
hurricane. And the canoes began to be launched…quickly to get the full value of
white water canoeing. The field once full of canoes was soon emptied.
Our turn came, “Get in fast, we’ll push you off,” said a person who seemed to be in charge.
I wedged myself under the thwarts, pillow under bum. Snug. Mike got into the back.
His friend to the front and before we could adjust we were pushed off into the foaming
white water. Mike would steer with the flat of his paddle. At least I thought he would.
“Mike, do you know how to use the J stroke…to steer?”
So much noise…too much speed…not sure even a J stroke could rescue us.
We failed to get control. Immediately we began to spin… to cart wheel down
the Don. Horizontally. Best seen by a helicopter. Dizzying to me… my thwart was dead
centre of the cart wheel. We came around a sharp bend and there before us was another
canoe…green as I remember. It was hung up on some rocks in the middle of the River. No
sign of a crew. Then again no bodies piled on shore.
As we spun down the foaming flow there were other canoes in trouble. Some beached. Of course
veterans of white water were whizzing buy in complete control. Not us. We were doomed . Spinning
Destined to pile up somewhere. Hopefully on shore. But that was not to be. A huge roller
hit us broadside. Then hung up on a rock. Tipped the canoe. Water rushed in and over we went.
Suddenly I was head down in the Don River. I remember my head bouncing on
the bottom stones. It happened so fast I had no time for fear or action. The canoe
was still moving. Air trapped kept it afloat. Sort of. But I was looking through a haze
of fast moving water. Odd sensation. It may surprise you to know that I was not afraid. I had no fear
of drowning as long as I could get my body clear of the goddamn thwart. Last man
Underwater. How long? Not very long. Suddenly a muscled arm grabbed me by the back
of the neck and hauled me clear of the canoe and back to an oxygen supply. it was Mike.
A little embarrassed but relieved he had not lost me. My broken wrist was still in
a sling. And in the other hand I held my pocket camera.
So all three of us survived. We even waved as other canoes road the white water
southward towards the Keating channel.
“What about the sound equipment…the recorder, microphones, cables..gear?”
“Gone…who the hell knows where.”
“We will have to figure out an explanation…that stuff cost CBC money.”
“What do we do now?”
“May as well continue…we held onto the paddles…just need to pull the canoe
ashore and drain it.”
“Are you up to finishing the trip, Alan?”
“There is a portage a little way from here…mustn’t miss it or we’ll
be caught in a patch of rocks.”
That portage point worried me but we pointed the canoe to the landing
point. Mike and his friend carried the canoe while I followed…shivering.
The rest of the ride down to the catchpoint called the Keating Channel
was uneventful. The white water calmed itself down. Maybe this is a good
point for observations. If we had our equipment the story would have
been delivered something like this.
THE LIVE RADIO BROADCAST THAT NEVER HAPPENED
1) Good morning listeners, today we are going to ride down the
white river rapids of the Don River. PADDLE THE DON DAY.
Only one day each year does
the Don River have enough water for canoe racing. Only today
May 3, 2015. Why? Because today the Conservation people will
open the upriver dam and create a sluiceway.
We are picking up
speed. Keeping the canoe straight. To do otherwise would be
a disaster. Exhilarating. Smooth J stroking…heading where we want
to go. Missing the big rocks that appear now and then. Some other are
not so fortunate. Beached.
2) Whups, looks like one canoe are in trouble, we just passed
a green fibreglass canoe that will never make the Keating channel.
Seems to be hung up on a rock…maybe pierced. No sign of
the owners. No other debris. No dead bodies.
3) Some veterans of rapids are rocketing past us. No fear of speed and deadfalls.
Veterans of the river. We are slower. Being very careful. What a grand day!
4) We beached at the portage site perfectly. To fail would have been
a disaster as the Don River tumbles over a jumble of Ordovecian slabs.
Broad patch of shallow water. No deep water. Had we missed the portage we would have
been smashed up a bit.
5) We are now in the water of the lower Don River once again. Much
better…slower…restful. Easy paddling. Slight changes in the back paddle
and we change direction. Easy.
6) We are paddling the full 10.5 km through the heart of Toronto. Amazing
wilderness only visible by canoe on this day.
7) Not really that pretty on close inspection. There are 872 storm sewer outlets on the River. Some hidden
in greenery. Others blatantly obvious. Add to that the 30 sewer outfalls and the Don does not
seem so pretty. The water colour is brown now. What makes the water so brown? Smells a bit.
Some say the Don River had so much bundle fluid was that it would catch fire in places.
Overflow tanks fail more often than not. When that happens all kinds of guck
gets in the river. We have been using the Don River as a sewer for 150 years and just
now starting to clean it up. The money raised by this PADDLE THE DON experience
will provide $100,000 to help clean the river.
8) There are other living things watching us. Rabbits, Herons, ducks, geese…
many with young. Must also be foxes unless they have been usurped by the new top
predators of the Don River…the coyotes. Never saw any of them. No doubt they saw us.
9) Pictures of the Don River Valley at any time of year are thrilling. Nature at its best
you might say . But don’t say it too loud. Snow melts. Heavy rains and meltwater flow
where opposition is least. In other words into the Don River Valley…into the River.
So many contaminants come with meltwater and spring rain. Let me count some of
them…cigarette butts, de-icing fluid some of which spills each time your windshield wiper
tank is replenishedl, dog shit left by those who care not, heavy metals that are not seen
but will be deadly to fish stocks, soapsuds by the tonne, and as many or more tonnes of road salt.
It all heads for the river. Turns the Lower Don into a stinking mish mash of things that float and
things that are water soluble. Not nice. But there is hope. Toronto is more aware of the need
to clean the Don and signs for the future are not as dire as they seem right now.
ETc. Etc. THE RADIO BROADCAST THAT WAS NEVER MADE.
BACK TO REALITY.
The Keating Channel catches everything including the odd dead body.
Not mentioned in my imaginary radio broadcast was the CBC sound equipment that
must be tumbling down the Don River with the white water. Bouncing like my head
did on the submerged rocks.
Another thing not mentioned was the fact I was soaked to the skin. Freezing cold
by the time we reached the Keating Channel. We no longer talked to each other
by then. When we boarded the shuttle bus to take us back to our cars, we were
not talking at all. Too embarrassed. Too cold. Too worried.
Back at the launch site I waited shivering for Marjorie to pick me up. Soaked to
the skin. Goose bumps. Recovering from falling off a cliff a few weeks earlier
and now recovering from a near drowning. Cats have nine lives. How many
do humans have?
May 3, 2015 had not been a good day.
Foolishly I thought the upside of the experience would make a good radio story. I wrote
and submitted a script. And waited to hear when we would play the tape for all to hear.
I have now waited five years or more. Perhaps you can explain why.