For the want of a paddle

Michael Johansen
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One thing can be said about a German tourist who recently visited Labrador: the man must have been tough, because the rocks in the Kenemu River didn’t like him very much. One took his paddle and another his canoe. The way things were going, a third might easily have taken his life.

The Kenemu River is southeast of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, flowing northwards past the Mealy Mountains into Lake Melville. It’s a navigable river, providing canoeists with a route to and from the southern Labrador plateau, which until a few years ago was not accessible by road.

A highway now crosses the Kenemu River above a spectacular series of waterfalls that once took a week to reach by way of the stream’s headwaters, but can now be seen after an hour’s drive from town. That’s where the German started his run down to tidal waters, but he didn’t get very far, having only been underway for a few hours before he fetched up on the first rock, swamping his boat and losing his paddle. That’s where he passed the first night: cold, wet and uncomfortable.

The next day he managed to set off again downstream, but since he had no paddle he had to let the currents carry him. His trust was misplaced and within minutes he hit a second rock. He saved some of his gear, but he lost the canoe.

He was able to get dry and warm on shore, sleeping in a waterproof bag under a tarp while he awaited help. His computerized SOS, however, had not been noticed, so no one was looking for him. He was eventually rescued days later, but only after he’d started planning to escape upstream on foot, which would have meant struggling along a steep shoreline through thick bush and up rocky cliffs. The trip downstream had only taken the man three or four hours, but the return journey would last as many days, if not more.

The walk proved unnecessary when he was finally able to attract the attention of a private helicopter that had been regularly flying over his position. That chopper couldn’t pick him up, but the pilot did the next best thing, which was to alert someone who could: 444 Squadron based at 5 Wing Goose Bay.

The incident teaches an important lesson, and not only to the happily rescued German tourist. The man already had wilderness experience in Labrador (having twice descended the Churchill River — once all on his own), but he admitted he had not adequately prepared himself for his Kenemu trip.

He said he had not learned everything he could have about the river and so it surprised him. Many in Labrador who listened with interest to the reports describing his experience tended to agree with him, saying he should certainly have spoken to a few local people before he set out down the river, adding that a spare paddle or a tool like a nice sharp axe that would have given him the means to fashion a new one could have saved him a lot of grief on the second day.

The phenomenon of adventurers coming from outside to the Ungava Peninsula to test their mettle against the fierce and awesome country they find there has been something of a spectator sport for Labradorians for several hundreds of years.

The Hubbard expeditions are famous examples from the last century, but more recently (and with more amusement) people talk about a certain television personality who can survive a full week anywhere else in the world, but could only manage three days in the Mealy Mountains before calling for help.

The survivor-man’s mistake was the same as Leonidas Hubbard’s (a mistake not repeated by Hubbard’s widow, Mina): they did not find out what local people could have told them. The fortunate ones were those who didn’t have to pay for that failure with their lives.

Experienced as the German was, and as tough as he showed himself to be, neither would have saved him if he hadn’t also been lucky, but luck is not something anyone should depend on with total certainty — not when lives are at stake.

A little preparation works better.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Geographic location: Labrador, Kenemu River, Mealy Mountains Happy Valley Goose Bay Lake Melville Southern Labrador Churchill River

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