Thursday, March 17, 2016

A near miss on the Malbaie

I wasn't sure whether to write about this event or not, but I figure maybe something can be learned about quick thinking and reaction to an event, or at the very least how often do you get a detailed first hand account from somebody who has had a fairly rare experience I suppose. Take from this what you can, especially to always be prepared as things can happen when you least expect it (re: Murphy's Law). This happened in June of 2015, the part at the end was added in March 2016.

I should preface that the event that happened was a one in a million occurrence on a friendly class IV river (albeit at a fairly high water level) that could just as easily occur on any waterway of any difficulty to a paddler of any skill level under the perfect conditions. We had experienced, rescue trained paddlers (including myself) present with proper safety equipment in place and were completely mindful of all reasonable safety precautions. There are inherent dangers in sports as in all things we do, just like in walking on a sidewalk there is a constant danger of being hit by a car, attacked by a bear or struck by lightning. Life is not as naturally safe as our first world tendencies make it out to be.

It was mid June and a huge group of paddlers decided to head to the Malbaie river in Quebec. There were around 30 people out that day from intermediate creekers eager to make the next step up to seasoned veteran expert/professional paddlers, all just looking forward to a good day of sun and fun on the river. The bugs were out to enjoy it as well. The level was indicated online as around 22 cms, though most with experience say in reality it felt closer to 30 cms. A level that makes all of the normal rapids on the run better and the iconic 30 foot waterfall intimidating. My biggest goal for the weekend was to run the rarely ventured Malbaie 'B', after the normal run and a slight step up in difficulty apparently, but with takeout access logistics issues.

We all had a great time making our way down to the waterfall, which lies about half or two thirds of the way down part 'A' of the run. With the added water the flat paddle in was not it's usual rocky self and flowed smoothly. We took our time at the rapids, making sure everyone made their way down safely and took pictures and chilled out, enjoying the sunshine and relatively warm water temperatures often found on the river.

Then we got to the amazing (and completely optional) waterfall, 30 feet of beautiful vertical glory that every seasoned paddler waits for on this trip, it was beefier than I'd seen it, but still good to go with the same two obvious lines presenting themselves, one seemingly with less consequence for a missed move than the other. After a few people took a run at it with decent to good results and no real issues I decided to hit up the usual high water left line which involves ferrying over from right to left then trying to boof a little lip about a third of the way down the main rolling lip of the falls. I didn't have success with my boof and in turn got a little beat down at the bottom and flushed out upside down, an entirely normal and acceptable result.

As I rolled up I noticed I was headed for a rock-face against the left wall and started trying to skull myself right to avoid it, worst case I thought I'd bounce off of it. Little did I know with the water being at the perfect level that the rock-face was undercut and formed a triangular point of the perfect size at it's apex that was just underwater. Well wouldn't you know it, this corner of rock wedged perfectly into my cockpit pinning my legs and me in my boat. At first I thought this something I could easily get out of, but after about 5-10 seconds (to me anyway) and being hit with a throw-bag I realized this was a bad situation.

At first I could lift my head out of the water or slightly maneuver it to form a bubble so I could breathe, buying me some time to think (it's amazing the feeling I had of having time to react and think, but not being able to readily decide what exactly to do). I couldn't reach my release to pop my skirt. I tried moving my body to unwedge from the rock which didn't seem to work. There was lots of pressure pushing me against the rock and making it difficult to do anything from the water coming out of the base of the waterfall about 10-15 feet upstream. I tried reaching up to grab a throw-bag but couldn't grab anything. My helmet was being pulled off by the water and the strap started to choke me so I removed it. My rescue vest then popped up against my face from the water pressure, which was the opposite of comfortable.

At this point I feel like I'd expended most of my energy, I couldn't reach my knife to cut my skirt when I finally thought to do that, I could no longer reach my skirt to possibly pull off the sides, I was trying to think of what else I could do, I feel like 40 seconds to a minute had passed at that point but really don't know. At this point my upper body was flailing freely in the current and I had no mechanism to breathe and no energy left to fight.The wear and literal tears on my skirt later revealed the amount of pressure I was under against the rock.

I remember being calm and thinking 'hmm, so this is what it feels like to drown' as I watched the bubbles of aerated water pass by my face, followed by 'well I guess this is how I die unless I somehow get rescued' then 'man this is an uncomfortable feeling, but I can't really do anything about it, I just wish I'd pass out already since I can't breathe or do anything else'. I feel like these last three thoughts passed over about 15 seconds of time where I could not move and it simply felt like I was holding my breath but had no more breath to hold, even though my mouth was open, a sort of feeling of suffocation (which I later came to realize is often described as 'dry drowning' as opposed to 'wet drowning' where you take in water). Then it went black.

The next thing I remember was like waking up in the morning, I couldn't see but could hear Annie's voice saying 'Adam, wake up' for what seemed like 30 seconds, then my eyes slowly seemed to open and it took about 15 seconds to realize where I was and what had happened as I saw Charles face and a quick thumbs up and smile before rushing off and then the waterfall off in the distance. There was a short time where I felt very emotional, and then a short time where I regretted not thinking of things to rescue myself sooner while underwater or better strategies to use. I had a splitting headache and the bugs were extremely annoying.

From what I understand, the following happened after I passed out. Charles and Pascale has jumped in beside me twice after running back up with no results before Frank 'La La' anchored a throwbag which Emrick used to descend and along with Charles get me out of my boat and off the pin spot (after 30 seconds of solid effort fighting the current where I was stuck) to shore about 80-100 feet downstream. Etienne then started CPR for 30 seconds to 1 minute before taking my pulse which was at that point rapid but I was still unconscious. He then did mouth to mouth for about 1 more minute before I started to breathe. Shortly after I started to come to. Apparently I was stuck underwater for about 4-5 minutes after I became pinned. At some point my drysuit was cut open for circulation.

At this point everyone was very emotional and very happy to see me back alive, and I was super stoked to be alive! What a great feeling that is. The boys built a fire to keep me warm and we waited for news to return from people who'd left to find a way to get me out and also call Search and Rescue while I was unconscious.

Eventually it was starting to get late and we'd received no news so we had to make our way downstream after leaving a message for the others, at this point I only paddled the flats and some small class II rapids and walked the rest, which is not that easy as it turns out in the lower half of the Malbaie with a splitting headache! Luckily I had the help of the crew to move my boat along and help me through the woods. The bugs were horrible.

Eventually we ran in to the rest of the crew who had made their way downstream after seeing we had vacated the base of the waterfall, I was stoked to see them! Then just as it got dark we were at the takeout bridge. After changing and heading up towards the cars word was that Bagotville SAR had dispatched a helicopter so that ended up picking me up and medevac-ing me to Chicoutimi hospital where I would stay for 12 hours of tests and observation to make sure I was ok, which thanks to the quick thinking and efforts of a great many people I was.

A huge thanks to all of my friends/kayakers involved in saving my life on the river (especially the fearless, selfless and quick thinking Quebec Connection boys), getting me and my stuff downstream, Bagotville Search and Rescue, Chicoutimi hospital and the Quebec and Canadian medical system. Without them I wouldn't be alive today, I'm pretty lucky!

What you've read until now I mostly wrote shortly after the event, the rest was added just recently.

After being discharged from the hospital I figured I faced a crossroads. I could either get back in my boat and start paddling right away or if I didn't, knowing I'd soon be sent to work in Europe for 6 plus months where I likely wouldn't have a chance to paddle, it's possible that I might not get back in my boat... so after a day off I did a chilled out Tewksbury run (my home class IV) to get back in shape a bit where I was a bit nervous, then over the next week before leaving to Europe was able to snag Taureau, Valin, Mistassibi, and Des Ha Ha with the beauty Chutes de Gamelin, Kabir Kouba including the large slide/falls among others to finish off with a good run before taking my time off paddling.

Sadly in Europe, despite my best efforts I wasn't able to make the Adidas Sickline Race on the Oetz River in Austria (which we all hope remains flowing in it's current state!).

Upon returning from Europe finally in late February I was fortunate enough to rally a crew for the US Southeast and snag Watauga, Chatooga Section 4, Horsepasture and the Green Upper and Narrows multiple runs. Now I'm about to head off for the NorthWest Creeking Competition in Washington and Kernfest in California before a good month of solid paddling that will finish with Hell or High Water at the Petawawa in Ontario before I return to work.

Stoked on life is the name of the game, don't waste it, it's precious! ...and have a good laugh when you see yourself in the local paper as an 'anglophone tourist' hahaha

Moments before the 'action'! Photo by Eric Champagne

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