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Canoing Disaster: A Fun Way to End A Marriage!

Me and my bud shooting the widowmaker.This is a story about bears, freezing waters, waves, near-death experiences, and a sunk boat that almost ended my marriage.


Dad (me)
Mom (8 months pregnant)
Eldest: 7 years old
Middle: 5 years old
Youngest: 2 years old
Two dogs

Lake Minnewanka is a very large lake, deep and dark and cold, surrounded by granite mountains and fed from their melting snow caps. A drowned town sits under those cold waters, making a popular scuba diving site. In fact, my first visit to the lake was to get my advanced dry-suit scuba certification. Backcountry trails circle the lake, leading in and out of lakeside campgrounds. Bears were out too. Rangers orders dictated that hikers move in large groups and arm themselves with pepper spray. We would avoid the bears by paddling to one of these campgrounds about 8km in, have a picnic, then paddle back out. That was the initial plan.

We unloaded the boat, placed the kids and the dogs and set off. Then the wind blew.

Survival Tips

Some useful survival tips for you as you enjoy your own canoing adventures

Canoing With Your Spouse

One of the most dangerous activities, nearly guaranteed to cause divorce. If you must risk it then here are the jobs:

FRONT: Contrary to popular belief, the front person does steer and paddle. Further, the front paddler is the captain because they can see everything, dangers or interesting sights alike. They give the orders and the rear paddler obeys.

REAR: The rear has more ability to steer the boat than the front, but the rear paddler still can only move the rear of the boat essentially "pointing" the canoe along an angle relative to the front. Rear paddlers sometimes expect the front paddler to be telepathic, which is usually a wrong assumption since the front paddler cannot even see the rear paddler. The rear paddler takes orders from the front paddler and makes it happen!

Divorces occur because the front paddler has less control over the boat but more ability to see. Either the front paddler makes good decisions but that jerk in the back ignores them, or the front paddler does nothing including neglecting huge boulders that the canoe may crash into.

Cold Water Swimming

Don't do it. You cannot survive. As your internal temperature drops then your body slows until you can't move because your muscles fail, including eventually your heart and brain no matter how fit your body or strong your will.  In fact, if you are fit then you have less time because your mass is closer to the surface (more surface area to volume) and your muscles are not insulated by fat.  In water near freezing you start to fail in just a few minutes beginning from the far edges of your body, like your arms, which you need for swimming!  The way to survive is to get out of the water, either by getting to shore or climbing onto something that floats. You can last longer by keeping still, hugging yourself, and keeping your head out of the water.

Watch out for cold-water shock. As soon as you move from warmth into cold water you will involuntarily gasp, which means you might breath in water. Calm down and know that you will adjust in a few seconds. I take a cold shower every day but the shock still happens every time nonetheless.

Fast River Swimming

The main dangers are the obstacles: Rocks and branches underwater or extending from the shore. Smashing your head or get speared are not good for survival so you should sit in the water with your feet downstream. Let your feet hit any rocks or debris instead of your head. Meanwhile, use your arms to paddle yourself closer to shore. Don't try to swim upstream, just get to shore and walk where you want to go.

How to swim in a river

NEVER WALK IN WATER! The only time you might walk in a fast-moving river is if it is very shallow, less than knee deep. Walking in a deeper river, say waist deep, puts you in danger of getting your foot caught and falling. If you fall, especially backwards, with your foot caught then the weight of the water flowing over you will keep you down and drown you unless someone saves you. To cross a river that is deeper than your knee you should always swim (or use a bridge).

Capsizing in a River

Wait until you get to shore to save the boat, but DO NOT LET GO OF YOUR PADDLE -- you will need it! It is impossible to maneuver a canoe while you are swimming because the canoe plus the water in it has a mass measurable in tons. Also, stay upstream of the boat because you don't want to get pinned by all those tons. You should have a long rope at each end of the canoe. To save the canoe simply hold onto the rope as you swim to shore. Once you get to shore, hold the rope and plant your feet; once the boat reaches the limit of the rope the current will push it shore automatically.

Canoing In Large Waves on a Lake

On a lake, the waves are caused usually by wind or butthead-motor-boaters who pass too close too fast. You have to take the waves head-on if possible because they can roll the canoe in a broadside hit. The only time you don't want to take them head on is when they are taller than the boat sides but coming in closer together than the boat is long, but even then you take then as head on as possible with the boat still fitting in between.

Canoing In Large Waves on a River

On a river, the waves are caused by water flowing over or around obstacles. Unlike on a lake, the waves could be going in many directions depending on where the obstacles are. Therefore, you need to be able to steer with the goal being to go around the waves as much as possible. Again, never go over a wave broadside, but you can "bounce" of the waves and let them do most of the work of getting you around them. Always keep paddling. Think of placing the bow into the right spot, then flipping the stern on the right line.

The wind was a welcome push on the way out, mild but making travel easy and fast. An accumulator in my mind counted the ounces of saved effort, effort to be repaid on the way back. We paddled for about an hour, challenging each other to spot a bear on the slopes around us. Whoever could spot a bit of large wildlife first, or a bird of prey, would have the right to choose the restaurant on the way home.

The wind steadily grew, and with it the waves. When the height between peak and trough began to exceed the height of our canoe we made for a pebbled beach for our picnic and to wait out the wind.

At the beach we had a glorious time. The dogs chased sticks and did acrobatics through the crashing waves. The eldest and I skipped stones and took pictures. We also tried to test our cold water survival skills. The waters of Lake Minnwanka are only about 10 degrees even in the summer. To experience disaster in the Arctic I decided to swim a couple of hundred metres along the shore. The water was cold, but not so bad on the body once the initial shock wore off. Then my head started to ache from cold as I tried to front crawl. Now I understand why cold water is so dangerous. A few minutes and a couple of hundred metres later my body began to numb and the arms didn't want to move as smoothly. Probably a few minutes more and I would have been paralyzed, taking the deep sleep as I disappeared under the waves like Leonard DiCaprio in Titanic . Thankfully the sun beamed hot and thawed me on the shore.

Dogs fetching along the shores of Lake MinnewankaDog leaping into Lake MinnewankaChild experiencing the cold waters of Lake MinnewankaCold water soak in Lake MinnewankaSurvival swim practice in Lake MinnewankaPlaying with kid along the shore of Lake MinnewankaWife and youngest along the short of Lake MinnewankaBoy guarding a canoe by Lake MinnewankaKids by the shore of Lake Minnewanka

As the afternoon passed into early evening we had to make a move, even though the waves were not getting smaller. The boat, with all it's passengers launched into the wind, facing waves three or four feet high. Even a small wave, taken broadside, will flip a canoe. A wave taken head on, however, will only wash over the canoe, possibly filling it with water but not tipping it. A canoe full of water can still be paddled to shore. So we carefully travelled, pointing into the waves as they rose and taking every opportunity to make faster time when the wind died briefly down. We managed to keep most of the water outside the boat, with our kids accepting the important job of bailing what water did get in.

Goat along the shore of Lake MinnewankaPerhaps an hour later we made it around a point and into a more sheltered bay. To profit from the remaining daylight we paddled quickly to see the canyon of a river that feeds the lake. I spotted a family of mountain goats first to earn the right to select our dinner venue -- the Old Spaghetti Factory.

The Great Sinking

Emboldened by the success of our lake trip, we took the canoe out again the next day for a river run down the mighty Bow River. Mainly a wonderful float during which the dogs ran along the shore and swam alongside the canoe. We parked on a sand bar where I taught the two oldest children how to swim in a raging river, lying on the back with legs pointed downstream to fend off the rocks. There was some screaming and freaky panicked crying but the oldest mastered it after a couple of tries, which is lucky because it saved his life less than an hour later.

Wife paddling along the Bow RiverCanoing along Bow River

I wanted to gift my family with exciting memories, so near the end of the trip I piloted the boat through some larger rapids. The rapids were haystacks, which are just large waves in deep water. As far as rapids go, they are very safe. No chance of being smashed by rocks. No whirlpools to catch the boat. No recirculation to eat us up. Unfortunately our dogs didn't realize that everything would be ok. We sliced through the first three waves cleanly but got some splash from the final wave. The less intelligent dog immediately leaped overboard, tipping it as she went.

We flip in the Kananaskis River

My 8 month pregnant wife and I were suddenly in the deep, swift current unable to feel the bottom of the river.  The canoe was upside down.  Downstream I saw that our middle child was clinging white-knuckled onto my wife's back, a frantic, wailing vine.  The oldest child was in the water beside me.  I yelled "Swim to shore!" and he nodded, silently agreeing that I had selected the best choice for him.  "Where is the baby?" my wife yelled. She looked in all directions, middle child still screaming. No sign.

I looked over the boat and saw the dog who capisized us, but neither our youngest, nor the other dog, were in sight.  Must be under the boat.  It had been a few seconds already.  I flipped the boat over, releasing a black dog and a red-faced child into the sunlight.  Grabbing the youngest by the life-jacket I pulled him to me as I floated downstream.  His eyes bulged out of his red face.  As I looked at him he eventually realized that he didn't have to hold his breath any longer.  He gasped a couple of times before opening his voice to cry.  Like when he was born, crying means he's alive and doing well!  My wife was happy too.

Now to save ourselves.

Sad after swimming in the riverMy wife was trying to swim with the boat, a child on her back and another in her belly.  I yelled, "Leave the boat, I have it.".  She pushed off and was at the shore within a few strokes.  I felt around underwater for the rope attached to the boat.  As followed it to the end it began to snare my feet.  Things were getting complicated as I had to manage a two year old, a paddle I had to keep, and a rope tangling around me.  I shook the rope off eventually and was free to abandon the boat and head to shore.  The youngest and I pulled up just downstream of the others.  I got out and held the rope, swinging the boat out of the current and onto the shore.  That's when I got an earful.

Wife: "I told you I didn't want to go into those rapids!"

Me: "I know."

Wife: "We almost died!"

Me: "It wasn't that bad."

Wife: "Yes it was, the baby almost drowned!"

Me:  "Not really, he was only under for a few seconds!"

Wife:  "I thought he was dead.  I really thought we had lost him."

Me:  "He has a life-jacket.  He wasn't going to drown."

Wife:  "You're a bad bad man."

Me:  "Come on, wasn't it even a little fun?"

That was the end of the shore conversation.  The youngest kids stopped crying after about ten minutes.  It took some major courage for my wife and the kids to get back into the boat, but we needed to travel another couple of kilometers to the takeout.  My wife sat cross in the front, pointing out every small ripple and ordering me to give it wide berth.  She had lost her paddle during the disaster.  The young kids were silent.  The oldest was proud that he had saved himself and was retelling the adventure to me as I paddled.  Awesome.  And I'm still married two weeks later.  Miracles are possible.


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