I launched my canoe with my friend Tierney this morning, full of excitement. Our goal was to paddle all 32 miles of the Clyde River in Northern Vermont today, which would mark my official completion of the 700-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail! The journey has been a checkered patchwork of love and tears, beauty and hardship, and finishing it felt like a bit deal. We launched in the pinkish dawn sunlight, mist still hanging in curtains over Island Pond. This sweet little river wound through cattails, beaver marsh, and groves of silver maple and cedar trees. The water levels were high from the past week of rain, making it much easier to push the canoe over the occasional beaver dam. We talked and talked, as old friends will when they haven't seen each other for a few years, and the hours slid slyly by. We had lunch after the first portage around Great Falls dam, with 21 miles already under out belts.
I always like to joke that Murphy's Law applies doubly to me: If something can go wrong, it will! That's one reason I tend to be so religious about things like always wearing my lifejacket and tying my gear securely into the canoe in case we capsize. As we ate lunch I skimmed quickly through what the guidebook had to say about the river ahead, but only paid it half of my attention, since chatting with Tierney was so much more fun. There was a mention of a few ledge drops that should only be attempted by expert paddlers, but the notation on the map didn't mention any such hazard, so I figured we could just follow the portage signs and they'd steer us in the right direction.
We jumped back into the canoe and paddled across Charleston Pond. When we got to the dam the portage trail had no sign marking it, but the path was clear enough. We loaded the canoe on the portage wheels and set off, and soon started seeing signs marking the portage trail at the intersections of the small roads we were wheeling along. An arrow very clearly pointed us down a dirt driveway that accessed a small power plant. Just where to put the canoe back in the river wasn't signed, but we scouted all the options and chose to put in just above a class II rapid. After that the river seemed to flatten out, although we could not see too far around the a sharp bend in the watercourse, and the steep bank discouraged us from scouting further. It seemed logical that the hazardous rapids mentioned in the guidebook were the ones above our put-in spot -- they sure looked like something only expert paddlers should attempt!
We launched back on the river and did a great job following the line we'd planned through the class II rapid, whooping with excitement as the very swift water carried us around the sharp bend in the river. Then we stopped whooping: ahead was a drop in the river far too steep for our watercraft, growling its watery roar at us, and we had no time to steer our craft to shore. "Go Left!" I shouted, "The left side looks better!" But none of it looked good. There was nowhere to go but down that ledge drop, and it was upon us in a moment. We slid down the first stair-step of the ledge and only took on a small wave over the bow as we nose-dived towards the next part of the drop. I'm not exactly sure what happened next, except that I was very quickly in the water, with the cold of the river on a 45-degree day seeping through all my clothes. The canoe was overturned, and Tierney was stuck underneath it. I let go of my paddle (which you are not supposed to do) and saw it shooting down the river's current as I tried to turn the canoe upright. The force of the water on the hull was extreme, and I suddenly realized the whole canoe might push me over and sweep over me down the river. I got out of it's way, all of us floating down the river and bumping into rocks as this kaliedescope pattern of canoe-and-human shifted before my eyes. The force of the rushing water kept sweeping my feet out from under me, and I flung myself clear of the barreling canoe, floating downstream feet-first for a moment to gather my wits. I was cold, but not paralyzingly cold. The bank of the river wasn't far, but my abilty to steer my floating journey seemed poor. My paddle was clearly gone forever.
Tierney managed to flip the canoe, and suddenly was on her feet in a shallow spot in the middle of the river, wrangling the canoe towards shore like some sort of badass aquatic cowboy. I stood up on the slippery rocks and tried to help her, but every time I tried to take a step my feet were swept out from under me. Noticing for the first time that there was ANOTHER ledge drop below us on the river and fast approaching, I decided to focus on getting myself to shore. Tierney miraculously got the canoe to the bank, we dumped the water out of it, and hauled it up onto dry land.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"Yeah. I thought I was going to die for a minute there, but I'm okay. I'm really glad I was wearing my lifejacket. You?"
"I'm fine. Well, I guess this is the part where we hitchhike back to our car." I said sheepishly.
"Really? You don't want to keep going?" Tierney asked, genuinely surprised.
"Well, I wish we could, but we don't have any paddles!" I pointed out. Tierney had been so busy focusing on a)not dying, and b) rescuing the canoe that she hadn't even noticed our paddles were gone. Examining the canoe, I saw that the wooden gunwales were busted in three places, and the tough Royalex hull had a three-inch tear in it where the gunwales had broken. It's really hard to damage a Royalex hull, so that felt like it gave us some serious bragging rights! It should all be repairable, but that craft will have a battle scar forever.
"I'm so sorry I didn't read the guidebook better," I apologized. "We were so close to the end that I got sloppy! Murphy's law, I guess!"
"That's okay, I wasn't paying much attention either, Murphy. And there's no one I'd rather tip over my canoe with than you!" We grinned at each other. Despite everything, we were still having a great day.
The first passing car picked us up and drove us back to my vehicle, the driver assuring us that nobody ever canoes that section of the river, and certainly not in such high water. We collectively marveled at the fact that the clear portage signage had directed us to put in above that ledge drop. Tierney and I drove back to Newport, and were greeted by a huge double rainbow arcing over the river we'd just come to know so intimately. I found myself feeling rather happy at how it had all worked out. I've canoed over 1,000 miles in the last 13 months, and this is the first genuine capsize in all that time. A canoeing sabbatical is poorer without at least one capsize story to tell.
So, I still have 10 miles of river left to paddle before I finish the NFCT! I already have a friend lined up to share that journey with... pushing my thrupaddle adventures into November.