Story of a Drowning in Gaspésie
Blog Article by Franskaya
An Unforgettable Paddle Adventure!
Water sports can be exhilarating, but they are not without their dangers.
Allow me to recount the story of a near-drowning incident that unfolded during my summer vacation in Gaspésie.
This narrative diverges from the usual theme of this blog, which typically revolves around music. However, I believe the lessons drawn from this dramatic experience could be valuable to anyone.
It's not that I'm eager to flirt with death, but I must confess that it's not the first time it's teased me. I've had my fair share of close calls since my birth, but this particular incident left a lasting mark.
The most comfortable place in the world for a music composer is their Herman Miller chair, behind an 88-key Roland keyboard. But a paddleboard, under the bright sun, with three fantastic friends on a river in Gaspésie, is not too shabby either!
I'm on vacation. Isy, a longtime friend, invited me to her micro cabin in the New Richmond area of Gaspésie, in the province of Québec, Canada. I gladly accepted the invitation because we don't get to see each other often, and our last IPA toast was a good two months ago. Isy also invited her girlfriend, Joe, and her friend Mimi from Ottawa.
The weather had been lousy for most of the week. So, when the sun peeked through the clouds on that day, it was a cause for celebration. Three of us decided to go for a paddle down the Grand-Cascapédia River. Isy, unfortunately, had a backache that prevented her from joining us.
It was Thursday, August 10, 2023. It had been raining heavily in Gaspésie for the past few days. A makeshift tarp above my tent had shielded me from the moisture. However, the river we were about to embark on had swelled, much like in the spring, and the current was strong.
Before setting out, Isy took a picture of us on the riverbank.
Two of us wore personal flotation devices (PFDs). Mimi secured hers to the cords of her paddle.
Here, the music composer in me couldn't help but imagine adding a soundtrack to heighten the suspense. "Induxatur" should suffice; its white noise will evoke the sound of the river:
We set off – one kayak and two paddleboards. I was on one of the paddleboards, and Mimi was on the other. Joe in the Kayak.
As mentioned earlier, the river's flow was strong, and Mimi would later exclaim, "Look at those rocks on the bank, they're moving so fast, it's impressive!"
However, fate had a surprise for us. Just 30 seconds after starting, I realized that I had left my leash on the riverbank. This meant that I wasn't tethered to my paddle. If I fell into the water, it could drift away in the current, impossible to retrieve. Not a good idea. I shouted to Joe, who immediately turned her kayak around. She managed to paddle upstream with great effort back to our starting point, where Isy was still waiting, having heard our cries amid the rush of the water.
While Joe battled the river, Mimi and I found refuge a few meters away amid four long canoes moored on the water.
It was a beautiful summer day. The sun warmed us, and sitting on our paddleboards, Mimi and I had no trouble maintaining our balance amidst the canoes gently rocked by the river. Mimi looked like a teenager in her fifties, and I had a schoolboy's smile etched on my face.
Lined with vegetation along its entire length, the Grand Cascapedia is a beautiful wide river.
Suddenly, a large "Suburban" type vehicle appeared on the cabin property. I couldn't help but think of horror movies or Stephen King novels where the villain makes an appearance. The truck made a U-turn, then quickly reversed before coming to a stop. Three men emerged, looking somewhat unfriendly, possibly fishermen. We greeted them and explained what we were doing amid their canoes, but they paid us little mind and soon set about backing their trailer into the water. One of the men got into one of the canoes, started its engine, and soon hitched the boat to the trailer. And off they went without exchanging many words with us.
Joe returned with my leash, and I secured it to my ankle. Finally, we were on our way again.
The river descent proceeded smoothly. The water sparkled, and the current carried us along pleasantly. We could simply go with the flow, without paddling too much.
I remained vigilant because the paddle's fin could unexpectedly catch on a rock or a submerged tree trunk. Fortunately, the water level was high, and we didn't see any obstacles. Or very few. I remembered a spot where the water was shallower, but it was easy to navigate around.
The opportunity was too good to pass up, so I retrieved my phone from my waist pouch to take a few photographs.
Then, the river split in two at Cascapedia-Saint-Jules, on either side of an Island named "L'île du cheval".
My two friends had already chosen to take the right branch. But I was lagging behind, busy putting my phone back in its pouch, which caused me to fall behind them.
I paddled to catch up with them, and while I struggled, I noticed what appeared to be rocks in the distance. I shouted to Joe and Mimi, who confirmed that the river branch seemed cluttered with rocks at some distance. Low water levels can be problematic for our paddleboards due to the rear fin.
Mimi then asked me, "Should we try the left side instead?"
And I replied, "Okay, let's go!"
Mistake. We were already too far into the right branch. The current was strong. We paddled and paddled, Mimi and I, but the current carried us toward a cemetery of dead trees, piled up at the intersection of the two river branches on l'Île du Cheval.
That's when my paddle collided with a large tree. The water surged in fits and starts along the trunk, partially submerging it. I almost capsized. I managed to regain balance just in time, through some miraculous reflex. And then, without thinking, my body chose the only survival option available: abandon the paddle and leap onto the tree.
Trusting your body is something I learned from my frequent mountain biking this year.
The mind is slow. The body knows what to do.
I stood on the tree. The balance was precarious. The paddle kept pushing against my shins in jerks, threatening to knock me off.
I see Mimi, who is less fortunate than me. Like me, her paddle collides with the tree, but she capsizes. A look of surprise floods her face. She falls into the water.
With one arm, she clings to the tree as best she can, and I can see panic in her face. Her mouth is open, her eyes are terrified. The water presses her against the tree. The sound of the river is deafening.
I say to her, "Calm down. No need to panic."
But it's already too late. The tree is slimy, slippery. She loses her grip, and the current pulls her under the tree.
Mimi's head appears on the other side of the tree. For a moment, she seems to smile. But soon, her smile fades. She manages to stay above water for a few seconds, but soon, connected as she is by her leash to the paddle stuck in the tree, she is engulfed by the waves.
Meanwhile, Joe paddles upstream on her kayak to get closer to us. In passing, she retrieves Mimi's paddle that the current had carried in her direction.
Still balanced on the tree trunk, the paddle continues to push me in the shins in fits and starts, threatening to make me fall. But the abyss between the tree and the pile of branches is a promise of death. The river roars. My hope falters. I am strangely calm despite the urgency of the moment. It's horrible what's happening. Everything is happening so quickly. There was a moment when we were still happy. Only one thought occupies my mind: free the paddles. They need to be pushed out of there. It's urgent!
A high branch prevented me from reaching Mimi's paddle.
Joe shouted, worried but composed, "Where's Mimi?"
I pointed to where she had disappeared and shouted in turn, desperate, "I don't know, there!"
Everything happened very quickly. I quickly extended my leash to pass it over the branch so my paddle would end up on the other side with Mimi's.
I moved forward and descended onto the tree, which plunged under the waves. Now, I had my feet in the water up to my calves. I wanted to push both paddles to free them from their entrapment. Just then, I heard a "splash"! Out of the corner of my eye, I sensed that Joe had jumped into the water! I descended even further on the slippery log. Then, as I pushed on Mimi's paddle, I lost my footing and fell into the water too.
For a brief moment, submerged in the rushing water, I panicked at the thought that my paddle might remain stuck like Mimi's. "It's not on mine that I pushed!" was the idea at the center of my brief panic.
But no, I resurfaced. I climbed back onto the paddle faster than in a contest, and I saw Joe embracing Mimi. Mimi's eyes were rolled back! She had drowned! Yet, it had happened so quickly! It seemed to me that she was underwater for no more than 90 seconds. Her eyes were white!
Mimi would later tell us that she had fought the currents with all her strength, and those 90 seconds had felt like an eternity and drained her of energy.
What a relief to see that Mimi's paddle had been freed from its entanglement in the process!
I quickly retrieved the drifting kayak. Since Mimi's paddle was still attached to her ankle, I didn't have to worry about it at the moment.
Joe turned Mimi towards her and gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as best as she could. And suddenly, Mimi began breathing loudly, coming back to life!
The rest is a tale of successful first aid. We found a gentle slope where we could get her out of the water. Thankfully, it wasn't too high or too steep. Joe had a metallic blanket in her kayak gear. We wrapped and warmed Mimi, who was shivering like a leaf. Joe left with the kayak to seek help. Meanwhile, I continued to keep Mimi warm with my body and managed to call for help with my iPhone (with the satellite 911 function) after several attempts. About ten minutes later, we heard the sirens of the emergency services. The police and paramedics parked on a property bordering the river, about 500 meters from where Mimi and I waited.
I could see movement on the property's bank. I used my whistle to get their attention. They were able to spot us from afar.
The three men we had encountered at the beginning of our journey came to fetch us with the last of the canoes they were in the process of taking out of the water to move elsewhere. Thanks to all three of these brave and kind rescuers, and thanks to the emergency services that responded so quickly to the call.
Above all, I salute Joe's courage and composure, as she jumped from her kayak to rescue Mimi. Fortunately, she had previously taken a water rescue course. Joe acted like a true hero. She deserves a medal.
I've rarely felt such relief! I'm filled with such gratitude to see that Mimi is alive! And that Joe is also safe and sound.
It can't be emphasized enough: for a life jacket to have a chance of saving your life, you must wear it!
I lost a water shoe and my two water bottles in the adventure. Minor losses. I always secure my glasses with an elastic band. Mimi didn't have one, and she lost her fitted glasses.
Next time I go on a river trip, I'll secure my personal effects better. If there's a current, I'll wear a helmet. I always wear my cycling gloves to avoid blisters from paddling. I was glad to have them. I scraped a finger during my balancing act. Probably on the large branch. Without my gloves, I might have injured myself more.
But the moral of this story is simple: if you go paddleboarding on a river, wear your personal flotation device (PFD). And don't start until all your companions have put theirs on as well. In fact, don't go without a companion. You are more at risk when you're alone.
Tips for Safe River Paddle Boarding (These tips are not exhaustive and are based on my own experience. I'm not an expert. Please refer to official documentation from the Government of Canada and your equipment manufacturer before participating in this sport):
- Don't go out alone. Go with at least one other person or in a group.
- Wear your personal flotation device (PFD) at all times.
- Ensure that everyone wears a PFD before starting.
- If you wear glasses, secure them with an elastic band.
- Wear a helmet. A collision with a rock after a fall can be fatal or cause serious injuries.
- Carry a whistle with you.
- It is recommended to have a floating rope.
- One member of the group should have previous water rescue training. If not, avoid rivers. Choose calm waters like a lake instead.
- Cycling gloves can prevent blisters on your hands.
- Even if it's hot outside, river water temperatures can be very cold. It's not always tempting to wear a wetsuit, especially in the summer. At the very least, have a space-saving emergency blanket with you.
- Secure your personal belongings to the paddle's cords using carabiners.
- Know the area. Study a map and gather information before setting out. If we had done that, we would have known in advance that the left branch was preferable, especially since it runs alongside the road instead of taking us away from it. On a river, forced portaging through wooded areas along the riverbank to bypass a rapid can be unpleasant, especially if you're barefoot!
- Wear water shoes.
- Check wind strength, water flow, obstacles, rapids, and tides (some river mouths vary with the tides).
- Avoid consuming substances before the activity. Being clear-headed could save your life!
- Make sure someone knows your itinerary. Tell them where you're going and when you plan to return.
- Learn to remove your leash with your eyes closed. Practice it before you go until it becomes second nature.
- Remember that you'll need to paddle to get back to your starting point!
Note: This list is not a substitute for common sense and good judgment, which should be exercised in accordance with the circumstances and context. The author disclaims any responsibility that may result from the practice of this sport after reading this blog post. These tips for safe paddleboarding can also be found in the Government of Canada's official paddleboarding safety guidelines. Consult the official version on their website before venturing out on the water. Have fun, but above all, be safe!
Franskaya is a music composer and producer from Quebec city, Canada. Click here to learn more about the author of this article.
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