Ship of fools

Just after lunch on a late July day, Dwayne Schafers and I set out in his McKenzie River drift boat from the fine launching-landing ramp just upstream of the Penhold Bridge in the County of Red Deer’s A – Soo – Wuh – Um Day Use Facility.

The joyful mood of these happy sailors later turned to horror when they underestimated the length of their float and were forced to take refuge on shore. Two were suffering from severe hypothermia. “It was a pitiful scene

The joyful mood of these happy sailors later turned to horror when they underestimated the length of their float and were forced to take refuge on shore. Two were suffering from severe hypothermia. “It was a pitiful scene

Just after lunch on a late July day, Dwayne Schafers and I set out in his McKenzie River drift boat from the fine launching-landing ramp just upstream of the Penhold Bridge in the County of Red Deer’s A – Soo – Wuh – Um Day Use Facility.

We were hoping for more of the kind of fishing Dwayne and a companion had enjoyed the day before, with big brown trout rising to mixed hatches of pale morning duns, golden stoneflies and brown drakes.

As I was rigging my fly rod, I overheard Dwayne answering the dreaded question we have heard too often — “how long does it take to get to Red Deer?” — this time posed by some folks who, with their poodle, were about to launch in a totally unsuitable dollar store inflatable, what I call a “rubber ducky,” intended for the pool or a day at the beach.

They did not appear to believe Dwayne when he told them we were just floating to the re-built launch — land site at Fort Normandeau, and expected to take seven to eight hours and that reaching the Kiwanis ramp in Red Deer would add two to three hours more. We did not see those folks again.

Perhaps they wisely reconsidered and bailed.

Every day on any river is different, and especially on one controlled by a dam.

The water level was much lower and the flow slower than the day before, adding time to the float. The sudden change in water level had also put the aquatic insects “down” and the brown trout off their feed.

We did take several faithful goldeye on our flies.

During dinner on an island, I noticed the name on Dwayne’s boat: “Carpe Diem.” He said he guides a classical scholar who told him the real meaning of those Latin words is not “seize the day,” but “take what the day brings.”

We agreed that is what you commit yourself to every time you launch a craft with no “reverse” — without motor — on any river or stream.

About the time we both put on jackets because a storm was building and a cold upstream wind was blowing, I started noticing a new strident tone in female voices we had been hearing for some time from upstream.

Eventually a blue rubber ducky containing three young men and two females hove up behind, and a male voice asked: “how much longer to Red Deer?” When Dwayne told them “four hours,” the response was irate disbelief and the claim that “Buddy told us the whole trip was two hours.”

Dwayne asked exactly where they were landing in Red Deer: “Below Three Mile Bend.”

Dwayne told them they could add another four to five hours. Then, a generation that can’t stroll a city street without cellphone glued to ear, asked us if we had one.

Dwayne told them that Fort Normandeau, where we were going, was a little over an hour and they’d better land and phone from there.

“They’ll never make it,” I said, and was proven right when they somehow got their craft ashore at the first mansion to come in sight on what has become known as “Millionaire’s Row” along the south bank.

These acreage owners endure rafter-tuber rescue missions far too often, not to mention better-equipped rafters who think they can camp overnight on riverside lawns.

It was a pitiable scene: three young men in Ts and baggy shorts and two females in bikinis, both hypothermic, one sobbing and shivering uncontrollably, the other hunched over and spasming so hard she had to be helped up the bank for the retreat to the house.

I was derelict in my duty to take a dramatic and instructive picture for this column, simply because I and three companions nearly died of hypothermia 39 years ago on my first float-fishing trip on the Bow River, mainly because I assumed they knew how far it was and how long it would take to get to our take-out place.

These young adults launched from the Penhold Bridge for what they hoped, believed, and had been told would be a pleasant two-hour float, but from there to below Three Mile Bend is a total of 27 km, a trip that, in a rubber ducky, is going to take nine to 13 hours. In fairness, alcohol did not seem to be a factor.

Any idiot can launch almost anywhere on a river, but your life may depend on knowing exactly where you are going to get safely out and off the river, how far it is, and how long it takes to get there. Deadly hypothermia can attack people who are wet, even on a sunny, but breezy day.

This coming last long weekend of the summer, if what you want is a “fun” two-hour raft or tube trip, make sure that’s what it is; much longer than that can quickly quit being either fun, or funny.

Bob Scammell is an award-winning outdoors writer living in Red Deer.

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