A Story of Anxiety and The Black River
Updated: Mar 31, 2022
“What have I got us into,” I said, my voice noticeably panicked. “Heather and I have no business paddling this river.” I was speaking to my brother Jim who was doing some last minute packing before hitting the sack. We were to depart early the next morning to head up to paddle the intense white water spring run, the Black River Hastings county. It was early April 2009 and water levels were unusually high all over southern Ontario, even by spring standards. This particular spring was unique because of the combination of rain mixed with the snow melt from a winter which saw record snow fall. While looking at water flow charts on the Boat Werks website I continued to become increasingly worried. According to the website most of the rivers in the region were in flood and the Black was very high water. The Black River at these water levels is no joke and although Heather and I had had some good practice paddling white water we had never undertaken such an advanced stretch of rapids let alone headed out in near flood conditions during the very early spring.
High water on the Black River. Photo: Ted Baird
The Black river is typically only run by kayakers and play boaters in these water levels and not by those with 17 foot prospectors canoes which we would be using. The river would be a challenge for Jim, Arie, and I who have all had some serious time putting our skills to the test in some intense rapids. However, Heather was not as experienced and the Black river was now seeming more and more not to be the place for her to get that experience.
Whitewater kayakers sometimes run this waterfall on the Black River. Photo: Ted Baird
Now, I’m always a little nervous before a trip but this time I was a wreck. The last thing I wanted was to take my trusting girlfriend, whom I was trying to slowly introduce to white water canoeing/tripping in hopes that she would develop a deeper love for the sport and thrust her unsuspectingly into a raging white water torrent where she might get injured, or worse, decide that she hated canoeing! For me the thought of injuring her in some way after all my reassurance about how fun it would all be was overwhelming me with anxiety. Thank God I had got her a dry suit a few days prior.
Wet or dry suits are a must for cold spring whitewater runs like the Black River. In this pic, Heather has all the proper gear on for spring white-water. Photo: Ted Baird
After sitting in front of the computer checking flow charts until 3 am Jim woke to go to the bathroom and saw me in the same place as when he went to sleep still in my panicked state. He yelled at me to go to sleep that we had to be up in 4 hours and that paddling the river would be fine. I must admit knowing that Jim and Arie wold be accompanying us on the trip was very reassuring as it gave Heather and I a great support team of highly skilled paddlers who both had their life saving certificates to boot. Also, more difficult rapids that Heather was not comfortable running could still be run by subbing in Jim or Arie for Heather so I finally went to sleep.
The next morning came quickly and my anxiety had not subsided. As we drove toward our destination the sight of other rivers fuelled my fear as they all seemed to be in flood, overflowing well past their banks and even engulfing some riverside houses. While stopped at a Tim Horton’s Jim and Arie witnessed my panicked state and noted that I was wearing a short, tight shirt over a long loose basketball jersey and figuring that I was so stressed I could not dress myself properly and they both had a good laugh at my expense.
During the drive I did not hide my fear from Heather but expressed it quite openly, she didn’t seem too worried but said that I was not doing the best job of reassuring her. I suppose I wanted her to know what she was getting into so that she had a last chance to bail and because I wanted her to be making the decision to go because she wanted to go but not only because I wanted her to go. Heather’ s relaxed and cool attitude helped calm me which was good as we soon arrived at our put in point.
Jim and Arie reenter a rapid after eddying out. Photo: Heather McGeorge
The first rapid is just down from the put in and was a raging 800m CIII + down a narrow stretch of bolder riddled river lined with snow banks with the toughest stretch right at the beginning. A spill here would mean a long swim down the dangerous rapid. I turned to Heather and suggested that she should probably sit this one out but that it would be great if she got some pic’s of us running the rapid. Heather agreed but was concerned that all the rapids would be too intense and explained that she did not want to spend the trip walking around the rapids while we had all the fun. I assured her there would be ample opportunities for her to run rapids and that she would get her fix. After arguing about the best line to take while scouting from shore Jim and I successfully ran the rapid and we met Heather at the bottom.
Jim and Ted approaching the first rapid they encounter on the Black. Photo: Heather McGeorge
Jim and Ted running the first rapid they encounter on the Black River. Photo:Heather McGeorge
The four of us continued down river and Heather and I got a taste of some Rapids. We ran several sets of class 2 and short class 3 Rapids and we’re getting into our groove. We soon came upon a challenging class 3+ with a big twisting unavoidable hole at the top. Heather and I watched Jim and Arie narrowly escape the rapid upright but now feeling confident we decided to go for it……”Back paddle”! “Back paddle”! I yelled at the top of the hole but it was too late we hit the hole too fast at the wrong angle and it instantly flipped us like a pig on a spit. Up until this point Heather had never dumped and I guess it was go big or go home because Heather was dumped half on shore, smashing her elbow on a rock bloodying herself and the force of the dump smashed both our paddles in half. Jim helped pull Heather up on the bank and Arie and I retrieved the canoe. “That’s why we bring extra paddles, “Arie said “but seriously have you ever seen something like that,” I asked, “a dump where both paddles break in half and one person barely gets wet?” We all agreed it was a very unusual dump.
Heather was pumped up with adrenaline and we paddled many more rapids that day but that night we assessed her elbow closer and it was a pretty bad smash. She had bled a big patch that soaked through her dry suit and her elbow was bruised, cut and swollen. “Thank God it wasn’t my head,” she said and she vowed to wear the helmet next time. We all agreed and commented that she now has the blood stains and scar as souvenirs. I think in a weird way she liked the souvenirs despite being upset she had stained her brand new dry suit. Worried that the injury would be worse in the morning she took some Advil and put some snow on it to help the swelling. Despite being a great sport about it, this situation is exactly what I was worried about. I was happy to see how well she handled everything and that she was having a good time. I explained that dumping, although scary, is usually actually a fun float down the rapid and usually isn't painful. We ate a nice dinner and had a warm fire and I fell asleep thinking of the tougher stretch of river yet to come.
Heather hangs out fireside as Jim and Arie look at the picture of her dumping earlier that day
The morning came and after some oatmeal we loaded the canoes standing in water up into the trees on the riverbank. We ran rapid after rapid and on a couple occasions Jim stepped in for Heather on some huge sets. One rapid in particular Heather and I cut it close. Jim and Arie were to run a very challenging 500 meter long class 3 Eddie out and scout that there was not any extreme danger around the blind bend and give us the thumbs up or down. They ran the rapid river left catching a narrow tongue and barely stayed afloat with some skilled bracing. They then gave the thumbs up for Heather and I. I said, “ok babe we will run it just as they did river left catching the tongue, bracing at the end and avoiding all the ledges river right.” She agreed and we were off. ” Paddle hard! Supper hard!!” I screamed as our plan completely fell apart. We were swept all the way river right and bombed over three ledges that we were specifically trying to avoid! By some miracle we stayed upright and met Jim and Arie in the Eddie at the bottom. It was then I realized that Jim and Arie should have never given us the thumbs up and that only about 150 meters of pretty quick moving water away there was a huge class 5 rapid around the bend. ” You lazy ass*****!,” I yelled, “why did you tell us it was safe.” With this they laughed and said they thought it was fine! Heather laughed and commented that we got away with one. Mostly I was relieved all was ok but it was a fun run nevertheless.
Jim and Ted Run a big drop on the Black. Photo: Arie Vanderheyden
We went on to run many more large rapids and it was not too long before Heather and I dumped again. This time however it was fun. Our dry suits protected us from the frigid water and the big haystacks were fun to float down. We grabbed the throw bag off the canoe and swam to shore both emerging from the river with huge smiles on our faces concluded with a high five. We were having fun and the tough parts were behind us.
We finished the day with some nice weather and soon arrived at the take out. Arie and Jim went back for the other car at the put in and Heather and I waited. Starving we rooted through the food barrel for the last bit of food which was a jersey milk bar we knew Arie had secretly stashed.” Ah ha! I found it, it was wrapped in a trash wrapper.” Heather said. We both shared the bar laughing to ourselves. When Jim and Arie returned Arie immediately began rooting through the food barrel, “are you looking for the jersey milk bar,” I asked, “yes” Arie replied with a look of desperation in his eyes, “yeah….we ate that” I replied and his heart sank. Heather and I had a good laugh. We congratulated each other and we all headed home. But most importantly Heather had had fun.
Our vehicles at the take out. Photo: Ted Baird