It’s not like the new guy was inexperienced.
And it’s not like the Sangamon is a very dangerous river.
I mean, if one wishes to avoid putting oneself in potentially hazardous situations, you’d do far better to avoid I-74 between Mahomet and Champaign on snow days. And who does that?
And yet, anything can be hazardous when conditions line up.
And that day on the Sangamon River, the situation combined to create the perfect storm of hazardous conditions.
The river was up and the current was strong, but certainly not hazardous – just enough to make for a pleasant float trip – and still well below flood stage.
The only real potential hazards one generally encounters on the Sangamon arise from trees that fall in the river. But even they only create interesting obstacles to paddle around or past as long as they don’t entirely block the river from bank to bank.
And when they do block the entire river, they’re merely a pain as you have to get out and portage your canoe or kayak around. And in spring and summer months, this inevitably means stinging nettle. Ouch! But still rarely hazardous.
Here’s how hazardous conditions line up:
One tree blocks the bank extending straight out from one side, say off the port (left) side of your canoe. It stretches nearly all the way across the river but still leaves a comfortable opening to paddle through if you turn to starboard (right).
But then only about 20 or 25 feet past that another tree blocks the river directly in front of you and extending from the right bank, perpendicular to the current and barring your way forward and again stretching nearly all the way across the river. But still leaving a nice opening if you turn hard to port (left) as soon as you pass the first tree, then pass by this second tree with it off to your starboard (right) side.
These two trees right after each other extending from opposite banks essentially create a passable zig-zag in the river.
Not so much.
Because as you make that hard turn to port immediately after clearing the first tree, your canoe is perpendicular to the force of the current, most of which is flowing full force into and then underneath that second tree.
So it’s essential to have cleared the top end of that second tree before the current slams you into it sideways.
If you don’t make it, your canoe’s starboard side ends up pinned against the second tree, perpendicular to the river’s current, the full force of which is now slamming against the port gunwale (pronounced gun’nel, meaning top edge) of your canoe.
If that slamming current tops that port gunwale, woe is you as your canoe rapidly fills with water and sinks with you and your partner in it. You’re left in the river, clinging dearly to a log with a sunken canoe.
Phil and Elaine had paddled ahead. And since this channel past the tree appeared open, they chose to go through rather than portaging around.
By the time I caught up in my kayak, Phil and Elaine’s canoe was perpendicular to the current with the starboard side pinned against the second tree and the river threatening to breach the port gunwale. Still, they’re experienced and knew what to do: be careful, sit still, and wait for assistance.
I came through in my kayak and made that very sharp turn to port. With all the strength I could muster, I turned the kayak around, paddled upstream slightly to escape slamming into that second tree, then whipped it quickly back around in a little eddy behind the first tree to barely clear the top of the second tree. I was safe.
I immediately turned back to the right bank just past and behind the tree, paddled to shore, and quickly hopped out to help extricate Phil and Elaine.
Now comes the new guy who said he was a fairly experienced paddler. Since I had cleared it the passage, we knew it was potentially passable. So I told him to try it if he wanted to, despite Phil and Elaine’s obviously precarious situation.
Phil, Elaine and I were still working our way out when he came though. He made the turn to port and paddled hard. Just not hard enough.
He almost made it around the top end of the second tree, but not quite, and now he too was pinned with the starboard side of this kayak against the tree, the river current slamming hard against his port side.
But a kayak is much closer to the waterline than a canoe and he couldn’t hold it. The port side dropped too much. Water breached his cockpit and before he knew it, it was full. It went down and under the tree, and he was hanging on to the tree up to his neck in cold, fast river water.
This is precisely the type of hazardous situation one prefers to avoid.
Elaine was still out on the tree and helped to get the new guy out of the water and stabilized. He was drenched, but reassured us he was OK, even apologizing profusely for his mistake (which we profusely stressed there was no need for!). But he was fine.
And after recovering his swamped kayak and getting back on our way, he seemed more embarrassed and humiliated than actually harmed.
So we managed to survive and here I am: evidence that we lived to tell the tale.
I tell this story as a cautionary tale to anyone floating the seemingly placid Sangamon River. It’s generally a very safe river and paddling is always enjoyable, always rewarding. I always recommend it highly.
Yet anything can be hazardous when conditions line up, compounded by a series of errors in judgement.
Years ago, I used to watch the TV cop show Hill Street Blues. On every episode, right after the morning briefing, just before the cops and detectives went out to fight crime on the streets of the hill, the sarge always said “…and don’t forget: let’s be careful out there.”
Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, June 19, 2016, by Scott Hays