Whitewater… Black Day

Fiction based on the life experiences of Mike Swarbrick

 

 

The days are short and cold. The nights long and colder still. The knowledge that it will get colder in the days to come, hangs heavy on the heart that such a short time ago swelled with excitement and a sense for adventure. Jamie’s mind has taken over for his heart now and he realizes a sincere compassion for the men, women and dogs who long ago braved the perils of this Northern wilderness in search of their dreams and gold nuggets.

 

As Jamie’s paddle cuts crystals from the frigid waters of the Yukon River he remembers his days in school reading the magical tales of Jack London. While all the other kids were concentrating on learning multiplication tables and current events, Jamie would be far away in an exciting world of his own. Through his minds eye he could see himself breakin’ trail over the thin ice in the wake of a spring thaw which threatened the very existence of the men and dogs that traveled the frozen river with him. Many of them relied on Jamie’s legendary expertise and abilities to guide them up the trail and lead them safely into Dawson City.

 

Jamie Simpson, 18 years old now, fresh out of high school and looking for adventure, convinced his best friend Dave to join him on this childhood inspired challenge of paddling the Yukon River. Together they had left friends and family behind to chase Jamie’s dreams of discovery 3,000 miles up into the Yukon Territory. We join them now, some 260 miles above Whitehorse, in Canada’s Northwest wilderness.

 

They have paddled the river for 14 days now, yet they still have almost 200 miles to go before reaching their take-out point at Dawson City. Not a city at all since the gold rush of 1898 when 40,000 people converged on this site at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers but more a small town with a fluctuating population near 1,200.

 

The clothes they wear are too light for the climate that is growing quickly colder. Neither of the boys paddle much anymore, just enough to keep their little canoe in the current and moving slowly northward. They see Black Bears that have come down from the surrounding high country to catch the huge King Salmon that have migrated in great quantity from the Bering Sea to spawn. The bears will want to soon make haste in finding suitable quarters for the long months to come Jamie thought. He had bought a .30.30 lever action Winchester rifle for the trip but would not consider shooting one of these beautiful beasts unless forced to in self defense. He quickly gave his head a shake to clear that thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whitewater… Black Day   p. 2

 

 

It seems like so long ago that they had been able to bathe in water that wasn’t freezing cold. So long ago that they could eat a meal that they didn’t first have to catch, clean and cook them selves. “Fish”, Jamie thought, “I’m probably beginning to look like one”. The only food they have left to eat with the catch of the day is brown rice, some macaroni and a little oatmeal; nothing else, not even sugar for the oatmeal, cheese for the mac. or soya sauce for the rice. Jamie was beginning to hate these foods with a passion. “What I wouldn’t give to see a McDonald’s around the next bend. Or how about a tree equipped with an electric outlet and toaster! Fresh toasted bread and butter! Mmm, what luxuries’, he thought. All the things he once took for granted had now come to dominate his thoughts. Hamburgers, electricity, a warm bed, even his mom and dad, how he missed them all!

 

He and Dave were now passing the mouth of the White River. The strong boiling currents here required them to brace with their paddles outstretched at times while being careful that the boils didn’t grab the paddle blade and upset them. Jamie remembered his favourite story by Jack London, The Call of the Wild. It was here at the mouth of the

White River that Big John Thornton had first cut the dog Buck from his traces. Here, that Buck lay near death at the hands of the sled driver Hal, who only moments later had vanished with his sled, cargo, dogs and companions through the rotting spring ice.

 

The glacial silt that had given the White River its name now put an end to Jamie and Dave’s most abundant food source. The fish had moved to clearer waters leaving them to endure on just brown rice and oatmeal. The macaroni is now gone and the oatmeal will last only another day. Jamie, in some odd sense was happy because then he would only have two things left to hate: brown rice and the unforgiving cold. That damp chilling frost that in the morning would leave the tent as a solid white mass, and its zipper immobile, until hands repeatedly warmed in a sleeping bag could begin to thaw it out. Jamie found it somewhat unnerving being awakened in the early hours of dawn by a most necessary, beckoning call by nature only to find himself imprisoned and cursing Mother Nature herself for the frost and man’s ability to create such a fine fastening device.

 

The boys have witnessed some distinct climate change since beginning their trip in Whitehorse. In just two weeks they have seen summer turn to fall, and now the many small creeks that feed the river are quickly beginning to freeze. It took only three days for the leaves to change colour and fall like parachutes to the forest floor. They begin to see signs of the endangered wolf along the muddy shore. The Bald Eagle has left, but the Snowy Owl remains, keeping a vigilant eye to the ground from the barren branches of tall trees. For three days Canadian Geese have darkened the ice blue sky with arrows pointing south.

 

 

 

Whitewater… Black Day.   P. 3

 

 

 

Jamie knew they were in trouble when he awoke the following morning to find the high lonely peaks glaring down at them wearing white blankets of snow. By the time they had all of their gear packed and the canoe in the water, the sky had taken on a darkness that neither had yet seen in their lives. The mountain peaks had all but disappeared behind huge black cumulus clouds and all was quiet, deathly quiet. The only sound that struck their ears was that of moving water. The levels were rising and large gurgling boils would suddenly appear from the depths to shake and jostle their little boat. Sometimes the raging boils would uncontrollably sweep them up to 30 feet to the right or left, almost upsetting them on numerous occasions. Then came the rain. At first a slow, steady, freezing drizzle and then in windblown sheets.

 

Donning their cheap plastic rain suits they began to look for a suitable camp-site, but it was fruitless. One side of the river consisted of steep rock walls as far as the eye could

see. The other was so densely populated with bushes and brush to the water’s edge that it would be impossible to walk, yet alone set up the tent. And so they went, for miles and miles, back and forth, from bank to bank of this quarter mile wide river, in the driving rain, closely inspecting both shorelines. All they needed was a small clearing, but as luck would have it, none could be found, just rock walls and marshy lowland tangled brush.

 

The winds picked up and whipped the freezing rain into their eyes. It blew against the current creating waves that slowed them to a crawl. They paddled this day, those boys did. They paddled strong and steady with their chins up as much as possible, but their heads bent into the wind and rain. They searched and searched but to no avail.

 

They had to stay with one shore now as it was too dangerous to cross to the other. For all they knew they may have passed several suitable campsites, for visibility was near zero. They had to remain far enough from shore to avoid the large eddy currents that were always there. It was bad enough fighting the wind and waves without also having to fight whirlpool currents going the wrong way.

 

Jamie and Dave were miserable, but still they paddled. They had no choice, they must continue. They must find shelter. They were soaked through and through, choked by the wind and chilled to the bone. They paddled and they bailed. They did everything they could to maintain their balance with paddles braced in the boils and then continue to paddle and bail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whitewater… Black Day.   P. 4

 

 

 

Evening was upon them now and it was growing darker. Their energy levels were severely drained and they were desperately cold but still they paddled. They squinted their stinging eyes into the rain and searched both shores. Then they heard it. At first they thought is was just the wind and rain, or maybe the roar of their own exhausted brains. But hear it they did, and it was growing louder.

 

It was Five Finger Rapids. Jamie remembered the stories. A place where dozens of men who, years before, had made it this far only to have their dreams crushed, themselves drowned and their battered bodies discovered days later somewhere downstream.

 

They made a mad dash for shore but now there were no eddies. Dave grasped at the branches overhanging the river, but the current, stronger now, caught the keel and swept the canoe around, ripping the branches from his hands. Jamie was closer now but not quite close enough. He tried to back-paddle but the current caught the boat broadside, turned them again and pushed them further from shore. Knowing nothing of ferry angles they tried unsuccessfully to power the boat directly across the current which was increasing in strength and now visibly running downhill.

 

They were both now aware of the five monolithic columns of dark rock that towered 60 feet above the river constricting its flow into six narrow chutes of violently exploding hydraulic waves. At this moment they both knew they were committed.

 

Dave was now making a futile attempt at doing up the lifejacket he wore under his raincoat. Jamie’s mind was flashing vivid pictures of those battered bodies as he tried to bring the bow into the waves. A cross-curling wave actually assisted Jamie’s efforts and around it came. Dave gave up on the jacket and brought his paddle into action, trying to steady the bow. Jamie’s heart was pounding as he looked ahead at the huge black columns of rock that reached up from the depths to tower leeringly above them in the darkness. The incredible mass of black and white thundering water was now all about them. Up came the bow, high above Jamie’s head, where it hesitated only for a moment before falling down and driving deep into the next monster wave, partially submerging Dave, the cold water rushing in all around them. Nothing but instinct made them brace their paddles against the waves, and nothing but fear-inspired-adrenalin gave them the strength to do so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whitewater… Black Day.   P. 5

 

 

 

As they shot through the centre of  two columns, huge waves drove in from all sides, madly battering them from side to side with such force that no luck or skill could have kept them afloat. They were swept over and immediately swallowed whole by the white fangs of an apartment sized recycling wave.

 

Jamie’s mind was instantly aware of a strange time shift as he plunged headlong into the raging depths. His brain was working so fast that he perceived everything to be happening in slow motion. Like being lost in space, spinning end for end. Round and round he went, flailing desperately but unsuccessfully to find a direction to follow.

 

He was stuck there in that recycling hole, the wave breaking back on itself due to gravity in a continuous revolving motion, only he did not know it. He was aware only of a tumbling motion, tumbling in a medium that would not support his life. Tumbling and bashing bodily into large dark objects. Mere moments passed as hours, and mere moments, Jamie knew, were probably all that was left of his precious life.

 

He moved like a thing possessed, grappling with one of the ultimate forces of nature, only to be beaten into submission, uncontrollably thrown time and time again into the gnarled rocks at the bottom of the furious river. He was overcome with terror at the thought of being trapped and pinned by the tremendous turbulence against the rocks.

 

After what seemed an eternity, he was spit like an insignificant object into the currents that were thundering downstream. He was desperately out of air. His body had used all the oxygen that was in his lungs from before the plunge and was even now consuming the molecules of oxygen retained by every living cell. It was not enough. His chest began to spasm in search of more. Blind panic swept the edges of his conscious awareness, but he knew that he could not let it overtake him. He began to see concentrated flashes of light, described by some as stars, due to the lack of oxygen in his brain. All he could think was, “Not now Lord, not now” He knew he was beginning to lose consciousness, and he knew that would mean almost certain death. His chest spasms became violent as he desperately gave thought to squeezing through his teeth the bubbles that engulfed him, though knowing that if it didn’t work he would choke. It was then that his head broke the surface. He gasped for air but was pulled under again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whitewater… Black Day.   P. 6

 

 

 

 

Dave was pushed through the big hydraulic wave by the bow of the boat and was now somewhere downstream swimming for his life toward a small island. He was swept into it and clung to the rocks. The canoe, fully laden with water, struck him from behind.

 

Jamie broke the surface again, greedily gorging his lungs. The water, considerably less violent here, carried him just past the island where he somehow managed to make the eddy behind it. Here the currents took him close enough that he was able to drag himself into the shallows. Here too was the canoe, mostly submerged, supported somewhat on one side by the only remaining air bag, their spare paddle danced around it in the swirls.

 

Through fits of hyperventilation Jamie managed to secure both to shore. Then he threw up. He had nothing but water in his stomach. He heard Dave quietly calling for him, but he could not answer. Great relief and anxiety rose from his heart to his throat at the sound of his friend’s voice but still he could not answer. He began to feel pain from countless wounds, previously dulled by the frigid water, now engulf him. His clumsy hypothermic legs would not work beneath him no matter how he tried. He shivered violently and then squeaked a reply.

 

Dave found him there, doubled over at the waters edge. He fell down beside him and rubbed Jamie’s shoulder in a feeble attempt to warm and console him. He saw their packs still tied to the canoe, limped out to retrieve them, then slumped back to the ground in agony and exhaustion. There they both wept, as the rain slowly stopped. Dave emptied the packs and got Jamie a towel. He wrung out another and cut strips with his knife to bind Jamie’s wounds that were now beginning to bleed as his body warmed.

 

Jamie was breathing easier now but was still unable to walk, except as perhaps a drunk would walk, stumbling from side to side without motor control. He was still hypothermic. Dave managed to build a small fire with his wax dipped waterproof matches and set up the tent. As the fire warmed Jamie’s legs the feeling and circulation returned. This was it then, the campsite they had been searching for!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whitewater… Black Day.   P. 7

 

 

 

They would like to have stayed on here for a few days, at the foot of these deadly rapids to rest up and allow their battered bodies time to heal but the river had claimed the rice and the fishing gear. So come morning, without breakfast, they left.

 

The canoe once again moved northward, slowly revolving in the currents with the panoramic result seemingly transcending reality. Once again there was no sound except for that of the river, silent and then in contrast to the silence, exploding into writhing, bubbling boils, as would be found in a cauldron, a witches’ brew of unearthly things. The silence screaming as only complete silence can. Born of natural surroundings in a land so vast, but alive only in transient imaginings that expect sound to be created just by view. Nothing else moved, not even the two paddlers who transformed this view into reality.

 

The cold and singleness of purpose have turned these two young men to silence, fearful that they may disturb something in the natural path of things that is beyond their reckoning. Thus is man overshadowed by nature, Jamie thought; she is far more practiced in patience than he.

 

The days pass slowly, the nights not without dreams, for in dream is hope and in hope is survival.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mike Swarbrick is the owner and operator of Mainstream Media Services Inc., a video and photography studio based in Dunrobin Shores, (Ottawa), Canada. Mike has combined a history of being a professional adventure guide, river guide trainer and a long-standing background in the multimedia industry. Mikes catalogue of achievements include design/build services for audio and video suites, computer technician, video and photo editor, photographer, cameraman, carpenter, first aid instructor and firefighter. Mike is familiar with several satellite transmission technologies and it is this rare combination of skills that allowed Mike to execute communications and technical support on two expeditions to Mount Everest for Discovery Channel and Canadian Adventure Productions and to Egypt, the Sudan and Ethiopia.

As a published song and story writer, Mike sees these expeditions as great opportunities to mix his technical expertise with a driving creative spirit.