Death paid us a visit today. In Iceland we had a day in the black cinder desert where we were unprepared for the freezing rain and blowing wind; and on the Noatak River we had an unanticipated encounter with a bear cave. These were frightening events. Today we almost died.
Because of weeks of recent rain, the Koyukuk is running faster than usual – probably 5 to 7 miles per hour. There are more rapids and sweepers than usual. Sweepers are trees along the bank that are bent out over the water. They’re called sweepers because they sweep you out of your boat.
Unlike the mighty Missouri River, the Koyukuk twists and turns. The inside curve of the turn is a rock-gravel bar with shallow water that extends into the river. The outside of the turn is deeper, swifter and often has sweepers extending out like skeletal fingers reaching for you.
We entered a particularly sharp curve, avoiding the shallow rocks on the inside of the curve. Without warning a strong current grabbed our canoe and pulled the fully loaded craft towards the outside bank that was lined with sweepers. An aspen tree dragging in the green water had our name on it. “Paddle like hell on the right!” I yelled, and we dug in with everything we had. But it was too late.
The broad side of the canoe slammed into the tree, and the stiff current continued to push the canoe under the tree limbs. Barb, I and the dry bags piled in the middle of the canoe could not fit under the tree. Slowly the canoe tipped counter-clockwise with the boat slipping further under the tree while we were pinned against the branches. In a moment, the canoe had tipped far enough that its left side dropped below the water level, and we were doomed. The current poured into the boat as it tipped further and continued its move under the tree. In less than two seconds, we were tossed by the aspen branches into the freezing water while the canoe continued to turn over until it had flipped a full 180 degrees – its bottom facing up.
Barb and I were on the river side of the canoe bottom clinging on to the tree branches to stop us from spinning down the river. Aspen is not a strong wood. The braches cracked and split while we grabbed frantically from one branch to another.
I looked back at Barb who had no more than her face, shoulders and an arm above the water that streamed around her. “Do something!” she shouted at me, spitting water.
“Grab the edge of the canoe!” I shouted back. I felt my rubber boots filling with water and dragging me down.
“I can’t! It’s too far out of reach! I’m holding on to the branch.” Barb, being Barb, is not one to admit defeat. She pulled up on the splitting branches and lunged for the canoe edge that was almost beyond her reach. A second thrust and she made it. Now she had a grip on the water-logged canoe. “Henry, you grab the canoe!”
“Can you hold on?” I shouted.
“Yes. Grab the damn canoe!”
With my body nearly horizontal in the swift river flow, I slowly pulled myself from branch to branch along the up-facing bottom of the canoe until I could reach over and grab the canoe’s edge. With both of us pulling hard, the canoe reluctantly righted itself. The dry bags bobbed to the surface while the steel bear barrels, filling with river water, dragged the canoe down. We rocked the canoe and tried to free it from the tree’s grip.