Silent but Deadly

Psychological hazards of going alone
By Rob Mullen

Some dangers of solo wilderness travel are obvious; you are by yourself and even a normally minor mishap can lead to a lonely death. Many outdoor experts offer reasoned pronouncements against going solo. The focus, however, has generally been on the physical hazards. Somewhat neglected are the stealthy mental stow-aways, sleeper cells that, unlike physical perils, you bring along with you. I was educated about these on northern Quebec’s Harricana River. I did not suffer any dramatic mental meltdown (though I talked to myself a good deal), but rather an insidious assault on my ability to make safe rational decisions. The crisis was fueled by ambition and, to a lesser extent, a personal trauma preceding the trip. It neared critical mass when these combined under stress with my resident psychic flaws.

The ambition was to combine three passions – my art career, wilderness canoeing and conservation. In September 2001 I paddled and painted along the 300-mile Missinaibi River (much of it alone) to James Bay (southern most extension of the Arctic Ocean). During that trip the idea to include other artists and an international museum tour of paintings to promote boreal wilderness conservation took shape. Since then the project has grown remarkably, but in the winter after that first art expedition the idea was just picking up steam and I felt it needed momentum.

To build on the success of the 2001 trip, I planned to canoe to James Bay via the Harricana in September 2002. As the year progressed I became increasingly convinced that the trip was necessary to preserve the project, and glossed over any problems. Two notable ones appeared in late summer. The first was an unavoidable delay until October 4th due to my final divorce hearing. The second (partly due to the first; the lateness of the date put several people off) was the lack of any crew other than myself. However, September had been unusually warm, I'd canoed long solo trips before and after the stress of the long delayed hearing I needed some wilderness time. Besides, for the first time ever I had a satellite phone, which made me feel much safer.

I had some qualms upon reaching the Harricana on an abandoned mining road 120 miles north of Amos, Quebec. It had been raining torrentially and the river looked ominously high, but the outfitter said nothing of it, and I used that unchallenged omission to help convince myself that it would be fine. In hindsight, not going wasn't an option I was willing to consider, and I was ignoring anything that suggested otherwise.

The stiff headwind, high chop, rain and snow squalls did little to dampen the excitement of finally being afloat, paddling into total wilderness north to the Bay and about to see what the points on the maps actually looked like; ever so faintly though, a small voice inside noted that the conditions were pretty rough. Later, vainly looking for a place to camp, I found the strong current was up into the alder-choked banks, making just getting to shore hard and dangerous work. Finally, as the snow thickened, I had to bull my way up a beaver trail to find a spot for my tent. Seeping through the veneer of excitement was a sense of disquiet.

I was up early and the river was up too, nearly a foot. A Northern Three-Toed Woodpecker hammering a nearby snag while I packed brightened the morning (a life bird for me) and I was away before the snow could start melting, but I was increasingly ill at ease. Traveling alone can be strange, and for company I sometimes anthropomorphize my surroundings. On other solo trips I'd generally sensed indifference from rivers (which combined with the vast quiet of wild places, can spark deep philosophical notions). Something about the Harricana, however, seemed unfriendly, like it was in a bad mood -- and had noticed me. I was totally silent not wanting to disturb it further. For a brief while once underway, as the sun warmed my back, all that faded and it was a perfect day on the water; then I reached Tematagama Rapid.

Purportedly an RII (rapids are graded RI – RVI), Tematagama was feeling emboldened by the high water. There was an RII route, but there were areas of the rapid where the hydraulics looked threatening. Aside from some eerie whirlpools that I had to time my way past in an upwelling eddy (they came in clusters), and losing my fishing pole, it was an easy run; non-the-less my sense of the river had grown to an overt feeling of hostility.

The next rapid was unnamed and, according to the trip account I had, also an RII, but the topographic map showed it funneling down to a narrow slot, which with this high water volume was worrying.

As I approached I could see a sheer rock wall on the right. On the left there was a ledge protruding into the current with a shore side eddy from a smaller ledge upstream of it and more sheer rock wall below. I headed for the safety of the eddy to look things over. As I neared the boundary between the eddy's backwater and the main current, I could see flashes of wave tops over the lip of the drop; not a good sign. I redoubled my efforts to reach the eddy, realizing as I did so how fast the current had become -- on the broad river it was hard to tell, but it was narrowing quickly and accelerating as it did. Focused as I was on the maelstrom being rapidly revealed downstream, I misjudged the strength of the eddyline as I tried to cross it to safety. With a shock, I was forcibly bounced back broadside into the funneling flow. For an intense, slow motion moment I considered squaring up and running the rapid, but the sight below cured me of that notion. Adrenalin is wonderful stuff. I powered straight back for the eddyline and crossed as it weakened downstream just above the maw of the rapid. It had been a very close call. Shaken, I set into shore and the relative safety of dry land. I had survived one of the physical risks of solo travel, now my equally dangerous mental test began.

Round One was during the first hour. There was no question of running. The current speed was truly scary -- my best guess was 20 – 25 miles per hour. There were no stable standing waves, just a violent melee of two to four footers frantically tearing themselves apart. The incredible hydraulic pressures of so much water being forced through such a narrow gorge created immense boils, souseholes, and a rapid running upstream out of the recovery pool. This awesome phenomenon created a twenty-foot whirlpool at the bottom that could have spun a swamped solo canoeist around for days. There were no obstructions, but the hydraulic insanity and that whirlpool, had to graduate the no-name RII to an R-IV+. I have little experience with such violence, but it was academic, I would never dream of running such a thing alone ... or so I thought. There was no portage trail. As I worked one out, I began to consider, "what lay ahead?" From the 1981 trip account the outfitter had provided, I knew there were more and larger rapids downstream with few portage trails, canoeists usually just using shoreline rocks. At this river height, would the rocks be safe or even above water? The river was showing its hand and I felt outclassed, especially alone. Despite intense frustration, my common sense won the first round and I set up camp to wait for lower water and fell asleep to the howling of wolves through the roar of the rapid.

The next morning was more depressing. It had rained hard during the night, and the water had risen close to another foot, coming uncomfortably near to my canoe. I secured the boat higher up and tried to settle myself down. A powerful upwelling of emotion accompanied the thought that the trip might have to be abandoned, so I focused on being patient and taking advantage of the situation. The gorge was quite picturesque, so I kept busy photographing and sketching. I looked at the rapid now and then, idly speculating on possible routes, but not considering them seriously. However, that night my heart sank anew as I listened to the rain drum down on the tarps over my tent and fire. Concentrate on the good stuff -- I was warm, dry and alive, not orbiting around in the spin cycle at the bottom of the rapid.

The crisis hit on day three. Looking back it doesn't seem to have taken very long, which is a bit embarrassing. As the day wore on, my mind broke into competing component parts, though despite the intensity of the struggle, an observer probably wouldn't have thought anything of note was going on in my head whatsoever. Ironically, despite the seeming quiet, it was a dangerous day.

The river that morning had again risen higher, despite my best efforts to deny it. I was deeply anxious about making the Bay. The powerful admixture of ambition and escapism attached to the trip started exerting inexorable pressure on weak points in my psyche. This is when I started watching the rapid seriously. Without the stability of a second or third opinion anywhere about, a disturbingly powerful, sly and bold side of my mind arose. I watched for extended periods that started innocently enough as sketching sessions. I'd "harmlessly" imagine how one would run IF you had support and it was warm. Then it escalated, appealing to my ambition and prying at my self-image; I was being timid, I could run the rapid and save the trip. My rational mind belatedly realized that this harebrained idea was gaining credence and the debate began:

"You've got to make it to the Bay"
"I could get in trouble"
"You've got too much riding on this to turn back a failure"
"I could get hurt"
"You're being a weenie"
"I could get KILLED!"
"Look! There's a safe route throught the rapid"

Fortunately, as my "Damn the Torpedoes" side would gain the upper hand, some variety of aqueous nightmare would inevitably erupt in the imagined safe route, but then the debate would just start over again.

Food resolved the conflict. The delay was eating up my reserves and without my fishing rod I'd risk going hungry -- especially dangerous in cold conditions. Neither side wanted to starve. When my daring self's gambit of using the satellite phone for possible resupply failed (the cursed useless lump didn't work, and only strengthened the argument for turning around), my rational side put its foot down and forced a solemn vow not to run until the water had dropped to a safe level; to accept that the trip might end there and to treat the gorge as a destination resort. With the truce in place I felt better, but literally was not out of the woods yet. Returning would be a tough paddle upriver, past Tematagama, and then a very long walk out; difficult, but not very dangerous.

The next morning it was strangely dark and the usual drum of rain on the tarps was absent. Hopefully I looked out, only to discover a blanket of snow even under the forest canopy, and it was still coming down heavily. That was the last straw and the decision was final. Leaving my camera safely in the tent, I went down to the rock pools near the top of the rapid to fill my canteens for breakfast. As I knelt meditatively watching the peaceful snowfall over the raging rapid, a lynx silently materialized out of the forest on the opposite side of the gorge and stood looking over the cataract. He looked briefly toward me, and then back out over the river for a few seconds before turning and going back the way he had come. As I cursed not having the camera, it struck me with quiet force that this was truly a good place to be, worth having gotten to, and that turning back was OK. The next morning after getting some reference of the sunrise in the gorge, I packed and headed back upstream. By staying in the slower water near shore, I managed it. Caching my boat, I packed five days food, vainly tried the satellite phone one last time, and started walking. By a stroke of sheer luck, one hour into my trek, I was picked up by “sawyeurs” on their way home after a two-week stint in the bush, and was in Amos, Quebec for lunch.

Disasters are often not the result of one mistake, but a series of escalating ones. Had this been a disaster, my decision to head alone into the northern wilderness in October, would have undoubtedly been judged a critical initial error. Emotional issues had been clouding my judgment even on the drive up. On the river they pushed me perilously close to making a possibly fatal follow up mistake -- a sobering experience. I had glimpsed the specter of a slow motion mental take over by an aspect of my mind unconcerned with safety, powered by over-hyped emotional investment in a goal that was slipping away. As it was, I won my inner struggle and have some exciting paintings as a result. So was heading north so late not a mistake? I'm uncomfortable with hindsight judgments, yet this presents an interesting paradox. What I can say is that it was a risk (possibly foolish), and one I won't take again. It also was a visceral reminder that emotional challenges, especially alone in wilderness, can be as dangerous as physical ones when they erode your judgement.

Wolves on the water

"Homeward Bound"
Timber wolves
Harricana River
20"x38" acrylic
by Rob Mullen.