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Being Prepared for the Worst Scenario

In October 2017, four friends and I paddled 150 miles down the upper Missouri River from Fort Benton, Montana to Kipp State park in our solo canoes.  It hadn't rained in Montana since June and everything was tinder dry.  A fire-ban was in effect, and of course we honored it.

The Missouri is an easy river.  There are no rapids (well, some occasional waves, that's all) and no portages.  Current speed varies from around 3.5 mph to 5 or more when the water is high.  Mostly, all you have to do is drift and sometimes paddle.  There are few trees to break the wind so a determined wind in-your-face can be a problem.  Then, you're wise to go ashore and hunker down until calm again prevails.  Failing this, you can paddle early in the morning or late in the day.

On the fourth day of our trip we passed a flotilla of college kids (at least 30 of them) in canoes and kayaks.  Their leader, who was rowing a well-loaded raft, said they were an environmental education class from the local college.  "We do this trip every year--give 'em a taste of what Lewis and Cark experienced," he offered.  I expressed my approval and said that I had taught environmental science in high school for several decades...and that it was great he was getting his students outdoors.

My enthusiasm for the group waned when the leader started up the motor on his raft (motors are permitted on the upper Missouri during certain times of the year if you are going downstream).  The drone of the motor wouldn't have bugged me if the raft had pulled ahead of our canoes to be lost around the next bend.  But it didn't; it just droned along at barely more than current speed.  We just couldn't escape it.  Of course, we could have put ashore and killed a few hours then continued on.  But the weather was ideal for paddling and the darkening sky suggested that tomorrow could be a stopper day.

Around 5 PM we found a campsite and peeled off to set up our tents.  The flotilla followed suit, camping a few hundred yards downstream.  Now, the wind was blowing hard and the sky was getting darker by the minute.  We securely anchored our tents then erected my giant (15' x 15') netted tundra tarp.  Within minutes after moving everything under the tarp, it began to rain--a cold, icy rain.  The rain continued without interruption all night (it would last for 2.5 days!).  When we awoke around 7 AM the temperature had dropped to 48 degrees; the wind had increased and it was still raining.  Everyone agreed that we weren't going anywhere today!

"Look there, the kids are packing up; they're leaving," said one of the guys who was watching all through binoculars.  Sure enough, the group was loading.  Everyone and everything was soaking wet.  We observed that some of the kids didn't have proper rain gear--a few were wearing leaf-and-lawn size plastic bags with holes cut for the head and arms.  Soon, all were unhappily drifting downstream.  I zipped my merino wool undershirt high on my neck then ducked back under the tundra tarp.  No way would I be out paddling today--and I had on full wool long johns, a Woolrich wool shirt, Gore-tex paddling suit...and a full fabric spray cover on my Northstar Phoenix solo canoe.

As the group disappeared in the distance, we chatted about their possible fate--all agreed that if we had been in charge, no one would have moved that day.

A few days later we camped with another group (adults) which the kids had passed. They observed that the kids were wet and cold; many were shivering heavily.  When questioned, the leader said everyone received an equipment list and was told to follow it.  He agreed that not everyone did.  To this I would offer the following:

1.  Question? Why didn't YOU (the leader) have a full-field inspection, like those in the army?  Like "Okay, gang, set out your warm clothes and rain gear; lemme have a look: If you don't have the 'right stuff' you DON'T go!"  We ALWAYS had full-field inspections when I guided teenagers, and these solved a lot of problems.  A concern with kids is that if the weather has been nice the week prior to the trip, they pack accordingly--shorts and bathing suits.  If it's cold and wet just before they go, they bring warm and waterproof clothes.  These young people packed for the 100 plus temperatures that had predominated since June.  Did the leader check to see if they were prepared for the worst.  Obviously not!

2.  Observation: Yes, they had made plans to end their trip at a specific place and time. Their shuttle vehicles would be waiting when they arrived.  But the weather was dangerously uncooperative, and by continuing on, this crew risked more than their comfort; they risked their lives!  The leader should have known better.  As I see it, he should have used his satellite phone, inReach or SPOT to call with the bad news that they would be delayed (The leader must have had some form of communication other than a cell phone which doesn't work on this river).  Then, hunker down until the danger had past.

THE AFTERMATH: two days later/farther down river, we camped with a group of adults who had passed the college group. They told us everyone had arrived at the take-out safely though some were pretty miserable.  Naturally, we were relieved that no one had died from hypothermia.  The point is, that someone could have!

What disturbs me most is that my friends and I were super-prepared for the worst scenario.  We could have packed up on that cold, rainy day and padded on, with no problems whatsoever other mild discomfort and a wish that the icy rain would stop.  But by continuing on in the face of adversity, this "leader" tempted fate and instilled misery enough to ensure that many of his students would never go canoe-camping again.

When someone tells me that they've just made a "first descent" down a river, I chuckle.  Heck, long before the white man, the native North Americans canoed every waterway on the continent, and they brought their families, babies and dogs.  They seldom had an accident.  Why?  Because they respected nature and knew not to fight it--when the sun came out again, they would continue on.

Modern paddlers would be wise to heed the ways of these old timers.

To always be prepared, check out our list of 7 Cold-Weather Paddling Products to stay warm on the water.

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