Jason Blanch and Woody Thompson set out with five of their friends to experience the River Philip on a recent weekend, and experience it they did.
What was planned as a morning adventure along the river on April 4 turned dangerous when three of the group ended up in the frigid water after upsetting a canoe and a kayak. The paddlers made it to safety, but their boats washed down the river and have yet to be recovered.
"We do the River Philip quite often in the summer... we did it three or four times last year," said Thompson. "We knew it was going to be kind of wild because there was lots of rain and snow melt... we saw that the river was way higher than it usually is, but the enthusiasm of the crowd kind of took over, so we decided to give it a try."
The group, who arrived with three kayaks and two canoes, decided to enter the water near the Collingwood Fire Hall, where a pancake lunch was taking place. Blanch was the first to put his borrowed kayak in the river, and was excited after making it through the first "tricky" section. He then turned to watch the others make their way behind him, and that's when things started to go wrong.
He turned around just in time to see Thompson and his girlfriend, Elita Rahn, end up in the water.
"We reached the first place where the two rivers come together, and there was quite a bit of turbulence," said Thompson. "Within about 100 yards from where we put in, we capsized and swam ashore, abandoning in the canoe."
Thompson said he could hardly remember the events, which happened very fast, other than the coldness of the water, and the speed in which they were moving. He said his survival instincts kicked in, and he focused on getting the two of them safely ashore.
Watching all of this from his kayak, Blanch also had to move fast.
"I couldn't believe how fast they were moving," he said.
After seeing that Thompson and Rahn were safe, Blanch tried to save their canoe, but was spun around and almost upset his kayak when he grabbed the submerged canoe and tried to redirect it. Just as he was letting it go, he witnessed another member of their party, Kevin Anderson, strike a tree and upset the kayak he was in.
After making sure Anderson was safely ashore, the group decided to abandon their adventure soon after it began. After changing into some dry clothes, they regrouped and gathered at the fire hall for some appreciated pancakes, sausages and baked beans.
"I was a little disappointed because, in a kayak, the section of river we were on would have been quite fun, but I recognized that we didn't have the right gear," said Blanch. "We really didn't calculate for how cold it was."
They had packed down sleeping bags and jackets, all sealed in dry bags and attached to the boats, and had full changes of clothing, first aid kits and throw ropes, but were not prepared for the 0.4 C degree water or the speed of it, according to Blanch. The river was also running to high for that paddling, he said, adding that they also should have been more experienced.
"I'm not saying it's an insane thing to do, but that day it just wasn't sensible at all," he said. "We definitely learned a lot."
A week later, Thompson and a friend returned to paddle the river again, and search for the missing canoe and kayak. The water was still moving fast, but five feet lower, and much easier to navigate, he said. They did not find the boats, but he said someone else may have.
"At the first big bend of the river, which would have been a logical place for things to end up, we saw boot tracks, and what looked the print of a keel of a boat in the sand," he said. "So we followed the tracks back to the road, and saw some four-wheeler tracks and stuff, so likely they were found."
The paddlers are asking anyone who may have found the boats to call them at 664-8342 (Thompson) or 661-3005 (Blanch). The kayak Anderson was in had been borrowed from Blanch's wife, and was a Christmas gift that she had not even been able to use yet, he said.
"My wife is a very tolerant woman, but I would be much happier if I could give her kayak back," he said.
Meanwhile, they advised anyone else planning to paddle the river to do so at a more appropriate time, and with the proper equipment and extreme caution.
"If there are others as foolish as us, it's good for them to know that, if it's overflowing its banks, it's too much," said Blanch.