BY HANNAH FLEACE
She heard the crunch, saw her father and stepmother’s blue canoe smash into the rock and saw her father’s life jacket float down river.
Annie Brady froze. “We’re going to run into them,” she repeated to herself.
“We’re going to run into them.”
Annie, 25, was at the stern of another canoe, guiding her younger brother Danny, 15, and cousin Denver, 16, through the Big Salmon River. They were behind her father Jeff, 58, and stepmother Dorothy, 57.
Annie’s mind was blank except for that phrase, a chant in her mind.
“What do we do?” Danny asked.
Annie snapped out of her trance and yelled for everyone to aim left. She finally spotted her father a few feet ahead in the current, working his way toward them.
Annie guided her green canoe to shore and climbed out to assess what happened. The river narrowed and a logjam clogged the right side of the water while low hanging branches, called sweepers, made the left too dangerous to attempt.
Dorothy and Jeff opted to paddle between the obstructions, straight down the middle. They had just dodged several rocks, but no one saw this big one until it was too late. The boat hit the rock, more like a boulder, and swung perpendicular, sweeping Jeff out of the stern seat and tipping the boat on its side. Still in that life jacket, Jeff was able to swim to the left shore. Dorothy was able to climb out of her bow seat and stand up in the shallow river, hanging onto the boat against the rock.
The Brady vacation was not going well.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, Jeff was excited. His daughter was coming up and he’d planned an adventurous trip on a slightly more challenging river. The family tries to take vacations every year, and they usually involve the Yukon and some form of water.
Their first two days were on a series of lakes. They’d ended up staying an extra night at the put-in due to wind on Quiet Lake.
The next day they were on the river, making a series of portages, and then around noon on the following day the boat hit the rock.
From their position on the banks of the river, it was easy to tell that Dorothy would need something to grab onto and line herself or swim back. The water reached above her bellybutton.
Annie tied one of the canoe paddles to the bow line from the other boat. For the next 10 minutes she tossed the paddle and it would be too far or too left or too right.
As she watched the paddle splash and reeled it back, Annie thought about the search and rescue workshops and classes she had done. She had never taken a swift water rescue course, and the only time she’d practiced throwing a life ring she was awful at it.
“’I’m really cold,’ she said,” Annie recalled Dorothy’s words. “I don’t think I can hold on any more.”
Fear crept up through Annie and she yelled back, “Do not f—-ing let go! That’s not okay.”
The conversation continued, a mix of encouraging words, instructions and some yelling.
“She was pretty upset,” Annie said. “She was going through all sorts of different emotions. Scared, angry, guilty.”
Finally, after Dorothy had been in the water for around a half an hour, they got the rope to her, and she jumped in and Jeff pulled her over to him.
Once on shore, and after some big hugs, they changed into dry clothes and set up a camp. They pressed the HELP button on their SPOT tracking device because they were unsure of the damage to the canoe, which was still stuck on the rock.
Help came the next day by helicopter after local and Yukon contacts got their HELP message. A satellite phone and extra food were dropped off and motivated the family to keep going.
[quote_right]“It was 15 years ago almost to the day that they had been in a similar accident in a log jam (on the Wheaton River),” Annie said. “It was the one thing that she has never wanted to happen, (and it) happened again.” [/quote_right]
The canoe had floated off the rock to their side of the river, and they were able to patch it with spruce sap and Gorilla tape, enough to keep it from leaking so they could float again. The next few days of paddling were smooth but long, and the accident was fresh on everyone’s minds, especially since there were more rocks to avoid.
Even nearly a month later, Annie has flashbacks and a few weird dreams.
“What we learned is so valuable,” she said. “That we were able to go through that experience and come out okay is tremendous, but there are some emotional scars.”
There were no physical injures other than sore and cold limbs, but for Dorothy in particular, the trip was grueling.
“It was 15 years ago almost to the day that they had been in a similar accident in a log jam (on the Wheaton River),” Annie said. “It was the one thing that she has never wanted to happen, (and it) happened again.”
Jeff wished he hadn’t pushed the family into such a challenging river.
“I feel guilty for taking them out (on the Big Salmon),” he said. “I should’ve known better.”
Jeff has been paddling Yukon rivers for decades and most of the family has river and outdoor experience as well. The greatest lesson may be not to get too comfortable.
“I learned it was a little too much river for a family,” Jeff said. “Next time I’ll pack more (survival) gear and have it in both boats.”
Jeff’s camera gear was ruined and his fishing gear floated off down stream. Their new canoe was pretty beat up, but as the family will tell you, it could’ve been worse. An animal could’ve stumbled upon their camp or someone could’ve been injured.
“All of us adults, we can all take some fault for not being as prepared as we should have,” Annie said. “I haven’t let this experience go, and I don’t think I will for a while.”