alan skeoch
august 2020

Splashing through the Don River's momentary class 2 rapids. (Photo: Lake Ontario Waterkeeper)

” 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.!!



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?”
“No choice.”
“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.


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.
tire rubber, 
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.



Trash accumulating in the Keating Channel – the landing site for paddlers at the end of the course. (Photo: Lake Ontario Waterkeeper)
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.

alan skeoch
August 2020

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