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Unfounded Fears of Canoe Expeditions

I once received a letter from a man who was about to embark on his first Arctic canoe trip. He said he was excited to go, but worried that he and his partner would paddle over a falls or drown in a rapid. He said he was thinking about increasing his life insurance in case he didn't come back.

He wrote:

"We've canoed a lot of whitewater rivers here in Michigan and we're comfortable in Class II-III rapids. We've studied our maps and marked all the dangers. We don't take chances - if there's a doubt, we'll line or portage. Still, I'm worried that I might die on this canoe trip.Is this fear normal?"

MY ANSWER:

The fear (let's call it concern) you express is perfectly normal. Every wilderness canoeist I know secretly admits some trepidation that his or her skills are inadequate to meet the challenge. Note that it's the experienced canoeists who worry most. Beginners seldom give the matter much thought. Why? Because it takes considerable field experience to appreciate the dangers of a wild river, let alone learn what they are. How can you relate to the danger of swamping far from shore on a huge lake, capsizing in ice cold water or being caught in a strainer if you've never done it or seen it?Mild controllable fear is nature's way of telling you to slow down and think before you act. At the other extreme is foolhardiness, and every whitewater club has members that qualify. Technical competence is welcome on a wilderness canoe trip only if it is accompanied by good judgment!

Some whitewater canoeists have a unique method of rating rapids. There are one pee, two pee and three pee rapids. One pee rates about Class II on the international scale; three pee earns a IV or V! On some western U.S. rivers, the stench of urine above difficult rapids is so strong that authorities have posted signs asking people to do it in the water not on land.

Again, your feelings are perfectly normal. I'm certain that you will not paddle over a falls or drown in a rapid this summer. Why? Because you are a skilled paddler, you've done your homework and you know your limitations. Most important, you respect the river and know that you can't beat nature at her own game.

Have fun in Canada this summer. Spend your extra dollars on souvenirs, not life insurance. You'll find good deals on beautiful native artwork in the northern communities.


Cliff Jacobson is a professional canoe guide and outfitter for the Science Museum of Minnesota, a wilderness canoeing consultant, and the author of more than a dozen top-selling books on camping and canoeing. www.cliffcanoe.com

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