Saturday, August 09, 2008


I went kayaking this past weekend, at a place not far from this millwheel on bracebridge in northern Ontario ( It's a pretty sight here, and I'm just glad I've lived to tell the story.

It was my third time kayaking. They'd vanned us out to a point from where it was to take us an hour to get back via kayak. It was mid-afternoon, we were on a winding stream with a gentle current.

After lazing a while, letting the current do the work, I decided to put my back into it, and pulled ahead of the others. The vistas changed with every bend in the stream, beginning with open country on either side of the stream to a more wooded landscape as the current began to pick up. The faded dry-green facade quickly changed into a deep, pulsating forest-green. With the water speeding up, rocks sprung from the water-bed, and the earlier light gurgling of the stream gave way to animated arguments where water met rock.

I hadn't realised it, but I'd missed the sign that asked kayakers to dock. The aerodynamics of rowing with the rapids took up all of my mindspace. Insert the oar's blades into the water at an angle that least disrupts the kayak's lines. Don't push the water, pivot the boat using the oar as fulcrum. Accelerate the blade rapidly (m/s^3) so that the oar builds on the kayak's momentum instead of subtracting from it. I was creating my own little Beijing.

It was possibly an hour past the stopping sign that I realised I'd probably missed it. By now, the stream was a river. A shallow one, but one that looked remarkably like the picture above. Beautiful, and alive. Far be it from me to claim any kayaking expertise, but I was having the time of my life dodging rocks, and ducking under ash-white branches that were drawn towards the river. Each new bend, each rapid was a mini-challenge. There was a point that I perfectly jumped a five-foot straight drop waterfall in my kayak. I learnt later that I wasn't supposed to have been that lucky. Rather, that my kayak should've tipped and that I should've hit my head against some rocks. I'd have been easily found then.

By now, I was looking for a spot that I could lodge my kayak, realising that the further I went, the higher the chances I was going to get lost. The river goaded me on some partly by how beautiful it was, and partly by sheer dominance.. The rapids were in no mood to help me break my journey.

Three hours into this my kayak finally lodged itself in the branches of a dead tree that had fallen across the river. I was unhurt, and quickly got out of the kayak as water gushed into it.
There was forest on either side, and I had little knowledge about the geography of the area. I hadn't seen any signs warning of bears, but then, with it approaching dusk, my delicate urban sensibilities would've been ruffled by any carnivore. I decided I was better off making my way upriver rather than trying my luck in the woods. The river was wider than I've managed to show in this picture above, but it gives you an idea of the forest on either side.

I walked along the sides of the river, so that I could clutch onto the underbrush to help push against the current. My sneakers were soaked, but with every step into the water, I felt like I was redefining the concept of saturation. The river bed was not just slippery because of the moss, but at various points, it'd suddenly change depth. Here a foot deep, and there, five. I broke off a long, unwieldy branch that seemed to have extended itself for the purpose, and poked at the rocks on the bed to see if they were truly part of the bed, or if they were just playing possum until I stepped on them. I fell a few times and the current pushed me back some meters, but I was making positive overall progress against the current.

There were times when branches hung so low over the river that the only way to get past would be to take a deep breath and swim below them, against what was quite a rough current. It wouldn't be as much swimming as much as using these same branches to pull my way past them. At other times, I'd turn back and head to a uniformly shallower part of the river so that I could swim-crawl on all fours to the other bank, hoping I'd have better luck moving upriver on that side.

I could no longer see the sun, and though there was still some light, the green of the woods was fast changing into a darker, deadlier colour. I had already called out for help a couple of times without any real conviction, as though it was just a step towards my rescue. Now, I realised how much hope and desperation my next call would have. And as I shouted for help, I knew I wasn't going to get a reply, it was that densely wooded and that remote. And all of it felt so primal. This base instinct for survival tempered with an illogical attempt at dignity. Articulated in a foreign language, limited to a single word. "Help". Not "HELP!!!!". I hope I haven't let on I'm scared. It'd be funny if they find me and say, "Hey, don't you know there's a path behind that oak there? leads right to our cottage. We're having a barbeque. Join us?"

But as the minutes ticked by and with no help to be had, I found instincts I didn't know were in me. Instincts, not courage. Courage is a choice, instinct is your subconscious taking over. I'd scraped the skin off my thumbs a little while earlier and when I grabbed onto a log to stop me falling, I felt a shock, a sting so intensely painful that I cried out. I'd normally have dropped everything to treat it, but my instincts had prioritized things for me. The sting was secondary. Survival primary. I needed to get to a vantage point, and if there wasn't one on hand, I needed to find a dry spot to spend the night on before it got too dark to see.

I was crawling back across the river to the other side when I heard a shrill whistle. I looked up to see a canoe rounding the bend, two men pointing excitedly at me.

I'd known it wouldn't be hard for them to find me. I'd kayaked a finite number of hours downstream. I was making my way back going the most logical search path any rescuers would take. But I'd be lying if I said I hadn't seen this playing out in some other ways as well.

Later, when my feet were on land, I looked at my thumb, wondering why such a clean patch of scraped skin would sting as much as it did. A tiny worm emerged from under my skin. It had made pincer-like holes in my flesh at a few points, from which an oily secretion flowed. Later this just turned into tiny droplets of blood. Blood I know. Blood I can deal with.

A friend asked me if I felt stronger for the experience. I didn't know what to tell him.


Anonymous said...


Wow, what an experience! This will stay with you for a lifetime! Sure, at times in the future, after you've regaled it to entranced damsels and adoring youngins a few dozen times, you'd have run from a crocodile, fought a bear with your bare hands, and survived three nights before they found you, but deep in your heart, this experience will stay as it was, and you'll break into an unconscious peaceful grin and know you are that much richer for it. There's no dollar value on such life experiences - they're priceless!

And very well written too. Bravo!

-Michael Jayasuriya

indra said...

Mornin MJ :)

Thanks for dropping in. I had quite a time, as you can tell.

The friends I went with, they were worried that evening. Now that a week's past though, I'm hearing stabs about carrying a compass to work.

So, yes, good call there about how the re-telling is going to play out. Much embellishment needed - Assorted wildlife will figure prominently. It'll begin with how I survived on twigs and berries to my days spent teaching the grizzlies to play fetch. I'll see if I can't work in a caribou stampede :)