Bad Decisions on the Ashuapmushuan
by Tom Todd
The Ashuapmushuan River flows in a southerly direction into Lac St. Jean, about 5 hours north of Quebec City. It is a gorgeous, clean river that offers a variety of paddling. There is a road that parallels the river, which provides easy access, yet is not close enough so that you can hear the traffic.
Faith Knapp, Leslie Hollweg, and I signed up for a guided trip down the Ashuapmushuan this fall, in lieu of paddling the middle fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. The Salmon River was closed due to the devastating forest fires that occurred out there this past late summer and fall.
Although I had a great time on this trip, there were many things I learned that will be fodder for many stories to come. We had wonderful times on the trip and near disastrous times on the trip. In future stories, I hope to excite you enough to paddle this river as I think it is an excellent experience. … But for now, let me tell you about the last evening and the events that lead up to it.
As in any incident, many factors come into play in events and decisions that lead to potential disaster. In this brief story, I'll try to set the background of the factors that lead to this near disaster.
We had signed up for a 7 day trip guided and outfitted trip down the Ashuapmushuan River. Besides the 3 of us, there were 3 guides, 7 from an outward bound type program and friends in NJ, and an elderly gentleman from Rye. For the NJ people this was sort of a rewards retreat for a good season, and they had plenty beer to party up. A major part of the trip for them would be partying in Quebec City the evening before their plane flight home on the last night of the trip.
Soon after the outfitter's bus picked us up and started up the highway to the put in, it lost power. A return to town, dropping us off at a sandwich shop, while the distributor and rotor were replaced, delayed our put in until about 3 PM. We only managed to get down to the first camp, about a mile down the river.
As many of you know, I'm a late sleeper, but this crew seemed to be slower than most. We never seemed to get going before 10 AM. Oh well, the guides are responsible for pacing us on the river, not me.
As with most groups, some are stronger paddlers than others, and some don't care what is going on. The group would tend to get stretched out on the river and in doing so, I think made a much slower pace than would be normal. The guides, myself, and one other person paddled solo, the rest were tandems. Often we would have to switch around the tandem paddlers to optimize skill levels.
I was always concerned about one boat that had a big guy, a lot of personal equipment, and 3 cases of beer. It looked to me that there was only about 3 - 4 inches of freeboard. They were constantly bailing.
Just after supper on the fifth night, it started pouring and the whole camp ran to bed. As it continued to rain, I got up in the middle of the night to pull boats out of the water that were just sitting on the sand flats. Other than the boat used for the cooking table, not a single boat other than mine had been pulled up
The rain continued all that sixth day and because of it we got a later than usual start. At this time there was some concern as to how far we would get and the NJ "gang" was really beginning to anticipate their night in Quebec City … two nights hence.
We paddled in the rain for the whole day stopping once for a snack and once for lunch under the big tarp. Many people were getting cold and all were soaked.
About 5 PM we came to a campsite next to a stream that came out of the woods. This campsite was small enough that at first we weren't sure that was it. It was still pouring rain and we needed to make a decision, whether to stop and camp here or continue down about 3 miles to the next campsite.
The dynamics of this little decision meeting produced a decision that was ill-informed, not at all inclusive, not unanimous, and incorrect. Unfortunately, I was one of the people advocating the wrong side of the decision for the foolish reason of wanting a more comfortable site.
The NJ crew was clearly looking to optimize their time in Quebec City and by peer pressure, got most to agree to push on. The guide, mindful that if they missed the plane that the outfitter had arranged, they would have to pay for new flights, was a strong advocate for continuing. Although he had told some people in the morning about the class 4 rapid just above the next campsite, he neglected to mention it now, describing the 3 miles as flat water. Quick calculations indicated we would get there just as the sun set on this moonless, raining, cloud covered night, far from any urban glow.
A couple of people refused to get out of their boats to join the discussion. In my mind, their lack of participation gives them no basis to complain about the decision, although they did so vociferously later.
Ever mindful that my size often intimidates people, I was concerned about the elderly gentleman and another person who was getting cold. I asked them several times if they were ok to go on, an each time they said yes. The elderly gentleman wanted to prove he would not hold the group back.
In a situation such as this, it seems to me that a single person has veto power about continuing on. There seemed to be too much peer pressure and desire on the part of the guides to continue, to allow that veto to be voiced.
As we continued down the river, efforts to hurry up the slow pokes fell on deaf ears. The group got strung out.
We arrived at a class II drop in a canyon, that looked scary from above, but all ran it ok. Just below that was the Class IV drop with cliffs on the side with the campsite. We couldn't see the campsite. The guide and one other ran the rapid before looking. I ran the rapid after the other person, because the rest didn't know if he had made it. The rest huddled above the rapid until the guide returned and the darkness was closing in.
He ferried them across the river above the rapid and had them run a chute down the far side. I could hear screams as he fished multiple swimmers out of the water in the blackness.
Once they were all collected, they had to ferry back to my side of the river in a class I rapid which was above a class 2 rapid. The only person with a flashlight was the guide. Four people were wet and cold from swimming, the rest were just wet and cold. There were no happy campers, no hot dinner, and many wet tents.
Planning & Prudence didn't avoid disaster: luck & throwbag skill did!