EAST PUKASKWA BOUND & DOWN: Or, lessons learned from a canoe trip gone wrong.
It’s hammering rain when we climb out of our Toyota Tacoma on an old forest access road west of Wawa, Ontario. By the time we get our outfit unloaded, wave goodbye to our shuttle driver and put the canoes in the water, we’re soaked and it’s cold.
Not the ideal way to start a 10-day trip down the remote and seldom-travelled East Pukaskwa River, followed by an 80-kilometre paddle along a wild stretch of Lake Superior’s rugged north shore.
I’m travelling with my brother, Ted, and we’re both soloing 15-foot Nova Craft Prospector canoes. It’s June 1, 2020, and we’re travelling in the wake of COVID-19 chaos. In the incubation of this trip, we’d thought the adventure would make for the ultimate exercise in social distancing, but when COVID-19 concerns ramped up and Crown Land camping bans came into place, we feared our plans to undertake this trip would be thwarted. We planned- on anyways and were elated when the ban was lifted last-minute.
As we take our first strokes on an alder-choked creek that feeds the East Puk, I’m chilled, but I’m mostly positive—“sure it’s a little damp out but thankfully it’s all working out!”
For some reason though, there’s an underlying foreboding feeling that I can’t quite shake.
FROM 1917 UP until the Great Depression, lumberjacks stationed at Pukaskwa Depot, a remote and long-forgotten settlement on the Superior coast, cut in the area. Logs were floated down the Pukaskwa and East Pukaskwa rivers and then transported in log booms hauled by tugboats on Lake Superior to distant paper mills and railways. Indigenous people have called the area home for about 7,500 years, and at one time travelled the inland waterways extensively, but little knowledge on the East Pukaskwa was available to us.Topo maps confirm that the river’s drop is steep and satellite imagery shows multiple falls and nearly consistent whitewater through long stretches of the river. Further research shows us that it’s been canoed by at least one person in recent history; and, most importantly, that person survived—but we don’t really know what to expect.
It’s day-two when we discover glaring errors on our 1:50,000 topo maps.There’s no falls where a falls is clearly marked and then, farther downriver, there’s a massive falls that’s marked as a comparatively unassuming rapid.
Even more interesting, pushy Class I waters, intermixed by consistent swifts, lead right up to the brink of the un-marked falls.We don’t rush and we carefully scout our eddy-outs, spending a lot of time out of the boats scouting downriver too. An upset here would likely mean my canoe would be swept over the falls. We’re falling way behind schedule but we keep reminding ourselves not to rush. Particularly when you don’t have river notes, you need to take your time on remote whitewater rivers or you can run into danger.
We’re bushwhacking around the falls and I’m double-packing. I’m carrying our food barrel along with my large dry bag and I have my axe and camera-tripod strapped to the outside of the bag.The going is slow, but with some effort we reach the second drop of the unmarked falls. It’s so impressive that I momentarily forget about the horrific portage we’re midway through.
Deep into the slog, we finally see that the end is in reach and I stop to take a break. Leaning on a rock ledge with my left hand, I accidentally push my dry bag off of the food barrel. That’s when my axe blade comes down on the back of my left hand with all the weight of the bag behind it.
The sheath had fallen off during the portage and the axe is sharp. I know immediately that it’s bad and I call to Ted with marked concern. I put pressure on the wound with my other hand to stop the bleeding.
Ted knows from the sound of the impact and the tone of my voice that I’m not joking. He breaks out the first-aid kit and runs over. Still holding pressure on the cut I say to Ted, “We’re going to look at it and see if the trip’s over.”
When I take my hand off the wound, Ted does a bad job at holding in his horror as he gasps. The wound is gaping, you can see the meat and three of the extensor tendons that control my fingers are cut. We both know immediately we’ve got to get out of here. I tell Ted I’m going to be OK, as I fight off the dizzying and nauseating feelings of shock.
Then it starts raining. Ted quickly drapes the tarp over us and begins going through the first aid kit. He dumps half-a-bottle of iodine in the open wound and when the burn hits, I know it’s working. I wipe the outside of the wound down with alcohol swabs and then put a non-adherent, sterile gauze pad on top of it, applying pressure again to fend off the bleeding and dry the area.
The next step is butterfly sutures and Ted manages to close the wound nicely before bandaging it up. When the bandaging is done, I sit in a relaxed position on the rock ledge and Ted puts on some spruce tea, which I sip to keep as warm as possible. We know the trip is ruined but after realizing we are going to be OK we give each other a big hug, both a little shaken up.
IT’S ABOUT 2:00 P.M. and we calculate that it’s about an eight-kilometre bushwhack out to a remote mining road. Ted’s pretty unsure if I should be travelling but he agrees to go when I reassure him that I’ll be OK. We cache most of our outfit in the bush, packing out essentials only.
Before we start walking, I shoot a satellite text with our Garmin InReach to Naturally Superior Adventures, the outfitter who had shuttled us, alerting them of our situation and that we’d need a pick-up where we’d been dropped-off.
We head back up the canyon wall, our packs laden with food, camera gear, tarp, clothes and sleeping bags. It’ll be best to be prepared to spend a night out, or even two. The bush is dense and frustrating to navigate through as we zigzag around patches of alders and downed trees. Exhausted and well into the trek we stop to eat a couple of energy bars and catch our breath while swatting blackflies. My hand is throbbing in pain and swollen. Ted’s carrying more than me and he’s beat.
“No way we can make it out today,” he says. That’s when we get a message from the outfitter that our shuttle driver has left Wawa to come get us. Somehow our wires got crossed as I was thinking we’d be out the following afternoon. With no way to contact the driver, it means he’ll be waiting for a very long time and he’ll likely leave once it’s dark. Not an ideal situation and it could force us to have to buck-up for an additional shuttle too. We push on to make it in seeming futility.
WE ARE SAVED when I pick up a decent trail that had been blazed into the river from the mine road. Though we still have 2.5 kilometres to travel on the road to reach our pick-up location when we emerge from the bush, the unexpected trail provided an obstruction-free route to the road and ultimately a longer, albeit faster trek to our pick-up spot. Nearing our end point, as we round a bend in the road, we are relieved to see our shuttle driver is still waiting for us. It’s about 9:20 p.m.; just before dark.
He’d been waiting there four hours.
In 15 years of wilderness canoe tripping, I’ve never had to bail on a trip. I’m pretty upset, though relieved when the doctor in Wawa tells me that I should heal in a couple months and likely wouldn’t need plastic surgery, adding that we’d done an excellent job with the wound.
Lessons are learned from this accident including the obvious—a revaluation on how I carry my axe and what kind of sheath I use.
The ordeal is also a reminder on why we go prepared in the first place—including learning first-aid, packing a robust first aid kit, taking note of potential walk-out strategies before the trip, learning how to navigate and bringing a communication device. These things, on top of remaining calm and thinking rationally, are what saved the day.
Now, we’ve just got to figure out how to get our stuff back out of the bush.