Rapids and a near encounter with death: the case for following the rules in wilderness environments

From birds eye view, the Rivière du Moulin, which flows through the quiet French town of Chicoutimi, Canada is quaint and unsuspecting. Winding and rarely wider than a four lane highway, it is easily underestimated. Such was the case when a group of teenagers went kayaking along it.

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The falls, courtesy of TripAdvisor.

The group had walked along sections of the river before and experienced its booming force and drastic drops. This area of the river, where kayaks could be rented for the afternoon, was simply boring in comparison. The water meandered at an almost standstill rate – so much so that the first half of the paddling route was upstream.

The group was given one directive from the outfitter: stay in the boats; though as one can safely predict, this group of seemingly invincible teenagers did not stay in the boats. Having explored the area together for five weeks now, the group was accustomed to bending, and downright breaking, the rules.

The group paddled upstream and all was uneventful. Nothing exciting to later report, nothing to elicit a rise in heart rate. For members of the group, this was perfectly acceptable; a lovely paddle with good company. For others, specifically one daredevil boy and one fearless girl, this was not sufficient.


Note how daredevil boy isn’t even wearing a life jacket. (Chicoutimi, 2014)

At the end of the route lay a small waterfall, jagged with quick current, partially concealed by rocks and trees. At either side of the base of the waterfall was uneven ground and rocks, perfect for climbing over to get a better view. The boy and girl, ignoring better judgment, quickly hopped out of their boats and began walking along the shore. The water boomed against the rocks – it looked spectacular. The start of it was still concealed however. They both began to walk along the rocky shore adjacent to the falls. Others, fearing being left behind or deemed cowardly, reluctantly followed.

Above the falls, maybe ten metres high, the water returned to river, flowing horizontally with quick current. It passed underneath a sort of tunnel, under what seemed to be a bridge for trains. The rocks beside the water began to narrow; the ground became slanted.

Without hesitation, the group continued, led by none other than the boy and girl. In order to pass under the bridge, they needed to crab walk along the slant, facing the water. The girl began to feel her feet sliding beneath her. She reached for the arm of a boy beside her, but quickly realized holding onto him would just send them both into the current. Looking back, she could see about 20 meters of water before the falls began. Heart racing, head pounding, feet continuing to slide, she looked into the eyes of the boy beside her and jumped in.

The water hit her cold and fast. Even before she was fully submerged she was doing an aggressive front crawl against the current. She fought to get to stay along the edge of the water, attempting to grab onto something, anything. Five meters passed. She grabbed onto a rock only to have it slip out of her fingers. Ten meters passed. Her hands scraped along the edge of the smooth slope. Still nothing.

With barely five meters left before the falls, she found a large boulder in the water and gripped on. She held onto it, ignoring everyone else around her; all she could do was hold on and try to slow her breathing enough to make the next movement count. She shimmied to around the boulder until she was along the bank. A hand reached down to meet her own. She grabbed on and pulled herself from the water.

High on adrenaline, she laughed. “That was a close one.” Someone was crying. Everyone was hugging her. Uncomfortable with the attention, “Let’s go back,” she suggested. Before getting into her boat, the boy whose arms she’d grabbed onto, whose eyes she locked with enveloped her. “I’m so sorry I didn’t hold onto you.” “It would have just brought us both down” she replied. Together they all paddled downstream back to the launching dock. Her heart rate didn’t return to normal until both feet were secure on dry land.


Trying to look tough after my encounter with the falls (while inside I’m really just in shock and probably still shaking). (Chicoutimi, 2014)

If you haven’t already guessed, the “girl” in the story is me and this was one of my last experiences living in Chicoutimi, Quebec. The boy I locked eyes with I’d been dating at the time; the daredevil boy remains one of my good friends. With the friends I’ve kept in touch with, we still talk about “the day of the rapids” (when I recall the story, they’re rapids and not a waterfall – perhaps this is my way of downplaying the events in my memory). My friends say it was one of the scariest moments of their lives; rightfully so, had I gone down the falls I’d have either died or wound up with many broken bones, and likely a cracked skull or torn up torso. Me, I had too much adrenaline to be anything but focused on a way out of the water. Everything else is blurry. I can’t even remember whose hand grabbed mine to pull me out.

The experience reminds me that we are not invincible. What was the reward in getting further up the river? I can’t think of one, surely not one that justified the risk I took. This influences how I evaluate risks to this day, four years later. Now my motto, to borrow the words of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, is “know your limits and play within them.”

So the next time you’re engaging in risky behaviour, consider the magnitude of the consequence and the likeliness it’ll happen, and make sure the reward far outweighs it.

Oddly enough, when this event occurred, I had never paddled rapids. Less than a month later I was asked to train to start guiding whitewater canoe trips. It’s now my favourite thing in the world. I will always, however, maintain a deep respect for water, rapids and falls. They aren’t playing around.



This photo was taken when we returned to shore. I think my heart is probably still pounding. (Chicoutimi, 2014)

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