FIASCO ON THE FRENCHMAN RIVER
I watched the ripples form ten feet from my kayak and called to my friend, “A large fish just jumped right by my bow,” Before I finished speaking the fish turned and plowed into the starboard side of my kayak with enough force to tilt me to port. I added this unknown behaviour onto the long list of crazy things already making up this paddling trip.
It started at 4:30 a.m. when I rose and dressed in warm clothes. The temp, lower than anticipated, made me cast aside the lighter clothing I had out. Within thirty minutes we were on the road, headed for Swift Current, where we picked up my paddling buddy and her kayak. I’d checked the driving distance from The Landing – 2 hours – and now informed her ½ an hour into our trip that it was a two-hour drive. So, of course we arrived at Eastend a half hour ahead of schedule.
Eastend does not advertise its dam – which I understand is a major tourist attraction for their area – or the access into the boat launch on one side of the reservoir. With directions from a townie, we headed out, only to find the road blocked by SK highway signs. A helpful woman on the nearby farm drove out and explained the road had been closed for the next six months, after the high school students used it to access the dam and paint the traditional graduation graffiti on it. She offered to lead us around to the boat launch a different way. In her yard were three small donkeys. While she fed the horses one of the donkeys came up to the fence and brayed. The cacophony of unexpected sound scared my husband and friend and sent us off into another bout of hilarity.
We would never have found the boat launch on our own. Eastend doesn’t believe in signage. The woman led us back into town and then on a twisting combination of side roads and trails to a concrete launch and small pier in the middle of nowhere. “Be careful,” she called before driving away, “the end of the launch is slippery.” The Frenchman’s River is also called the White Mud by locals, because of the heavy deposits of clay along its banks and bottom. The clay has the consistency of grease.
We unloaded the kayaks onto the steep surface and sorted our gear. “My lunch is back in the fridge at home.” I announced, giving them yet another laugh. After organizing what I had brought, I settled in my kayak and slid myself backward down the launch. As soon as a third of my 14.5-foot Perception floated on water, my bow wobbled dangerously, and my kayak did a slow sideways slide and dumped me upside down in the river. My husband, who usually has the reaction time of a rattler, stood frozen. I emerged from my kayak and tried to stand, but slippery clay on smooth Dawg soles doesn’t compute. I fell, stood, fell, and finally my companions acted. My husband pulled my flooded kayak onto the launch and reached out a hand. Still, I couldn’t walk up the launch and crawled up on my hands and knees, accompanied by their snickers.
Thank goodness for dry bags. While they pumped out my kayak and dropped all my soaked gear into the truck bed, I changed. My extra set of clothes were dry but not proof against the chilly 35 kph wind the weatherman assured would be 20 kph. I put on my damp PFD set my dry butt in my wet seat and with my husband holding my bow launched again. What makes my dunking especially ludicrous is that on my last paddle with this newbie kayaker I had tipped on a rock and gone through the same dry out routine. She had three months of paddling to my twenty-three years, and yet again I looked like the beginner.
We headed across the reservoir in a south westerly direction skirting huge islands of plants. We couldn’t tell if we were over six inches of water or six feet, because the plants always grew to the surface.
Within thirty minutes we were caught in a large swampy area with no visible exit. We paddled from one end to the other, back and forth across, into high reeds on waterways only as wide as our kayak and backed out again. We were lost. My friend used Google maps to try to locate the main channel, and half the time they told her she was on land. I phoned my husband and said we couldn’t get up river to the spot he had suggested for take out. He was already sitting there, having reconnoitred and received permission from the farmer who owned the land. He drove back to the main launch. I put my phone away and minutes later paddled out into a clear, deep stretch of water – heading for the bridge my husband had just left. Twice more we got into dead end backwaters and found our way onto the main river. The 35 kph wind made some stretches hard work, and cold. Finally, my jacket draped across my deck under my deck lines dried and I pulled it over my life jacket and felt a little warmth.
For all the comedy of playing hide-and-seek with the main river channel, we had some wonderful experiences. Red-wing Blackbirds, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds flitted alongside us through the high rushes. A variety of plants filled the surface of the water, so we floated over an ever-changing palette of colours. A bald eagle rode the wind currents, circling above us like one of nature’s drones (which by the way we decided would have been enormous help in navigating this maze). In one of the back channels, we flushed out a deer, who bounced along beside us like a toy on springs.
Finally, after three hours on the water, we pulled over for a stretch break on the only piece of rock-strewn shoreline that allowed for a decent landing. We walked about, loosening our hips and feeling elated we were on the main channel heading north into the current and the wind, but toward our LZ at the bridge. I phoned D and told him we were on the right track to get to him. Where was he. “Back at the original boat launch having a nap.” Apologizing for making him relocate once again, I started paddling. “I bet we’ll see the bridge around this next turn,” I called to my buddy. I turned the curve and gasped, then started laughing. She drew even with me and shared the joke. We were back at the main launch where we’d started.
We had planned on four hours of paddling time, and had only been on the water for three, but a quick discussion determined neither of us had faith we’d find our way back if we retraced our steps. Figuring my husband would already be driving back to the bridge I phoned him, found out he was still at the launch and could see us. He promised he’d get me onto the concrete without tipping, so we paddled across the reservoir to the launch, while he backed the truck into position. When my hull hit the cement, he dragged me forward so fast my kayak didn’t have a chance to wobble.
We enjoyed lunch at Jack’s Café established in 1920 and still putting out good food, then started the drive home, now two hours ahead of schedule. On the way, urged by my husband, I regaled my friend with other ludicrous things that happened with my younger sister. I wondered if this paddling buddy, like my sister would bring out the crazy, whenever we paddled together – a symbiotic screw-up every time we went out. We laughed so hard we had an excess of happy hormones to carry us through the next week. With my new moniker, Side-slip Smid, I anticipate my next adventure – or dunking.
PS My friend sent me the Google Map tracing of distance travelled and it looked like we’d been knitting a patch on the water with a complicated stitch. We’d gone everywhere and reached nowhere, but fun.