On remote expeditions, your canoe is your number one survival tool. Losing it is not an option. When travelling solo on whitewater expeditions, the only self-rescue gear I have is 100 feet of rope (one 70-foot throw bag plus the painter rope) attached to the canoe and to me.
I clip into the rope via a quick-release belt on my PFD. Of course, it’s potentially very dangerous to swim attached to 100 feet of rope—it can snag on rocks and other obstructions, pinning you in the current—but in continuous, high volume rapids with no recovery pools, this method may be the only option to retrieve your boat.
I only use this technique when the risk posed by losing my boat outweighs the risk of swimming with the rope.
Using this technique has saved my life. Travelling solo on the Nahanni in a September snowfall, I flipped in Wrigley Whirlpool, a nasty rapid that took me by surprise five kilometres upstream of its indicated location on my map.
I had just enough rope to swim to shore before the line shuddered with the load of the canoe. With the strong current, swimming my fully loaded canoe to shore would have taken far more time than I had in the icy water.
This article originally appeared in Rapid, Summer/Fall 2010.