Angle to Key West: The Giant’s Staircase (9/19)


A mile above Split Falls, near Millar, Ontario, Kaministiquia River – September 19, 2013

The rainstorm swallowed the sun, turned the world dark, then opened up above me. I was halfway around the first waterfall, a big drop called Hume Rapids where the Kaministiquia splits in three and falls twenty feet. I’d already moved two loads of equipment and food and only had the boat left, still heavy, still at the bottom of a ten foot cliff. I clawed in the mud, dragging the boat behind me, up and over the lip of rock and through a hundred yards of forest to the top of the falls.

Rain fell hard as I pushed through the trees. The dark clouds made noon feel like twilight until lightning flashed the world bright and thunder echoed off the rocks. I stood in the forest and waited, unable to pack the boat in a downpour that would fill open hatches like buckets, unable to do anything but stand in the rain and wait as the water seeped into me.

The next rapid came a thousand feet away where the river narrowed into a gorge. The water fell pool by pool, swirling in big eddies along the cliffs and boulders. I scrambled over the slick, steep rock along one edge, lining the boat through waves in careful inches.

The rocks felt greased under my feet. I broke fingernails clinging to handholds and smashed toes into cracks. I slid into chest-deep pools. I waded up rapids that beat against my legs trying to throw me off my feet.

I fell again and again, landing on elbows, knees, wrists, and hips, scraping away skin, battering muscles. I dropped the boat across my knee, crushed toes trying to find solid footing, and bruised my hands pulling on the rope.

The boat moved from one eddy to the next, curls of its yellow plastic hull carving away on sharp rocks.

Two thousand feet and I came to a third waterfall.

This one split around an island and funneled water through two narrow chutes. I found a path along the bank and portaged equipment piece by piece. It took four trips for the gear and one for the boat, all in the rain over slicks rocks, all pushing past wet branches, all through puddles and mud. Back and forth and back and forth and back and forth until I knew every step of the path, every loose rock, every slick log.

Another thousand feet and I reached a shoal that stretched from bank to bank. I stared up river, watching the water fall and fall and fall from the farthest bend, broken only by a few hundred yards between each step. In and out of the boat, over and over again.

Water rushed down mad and white. I waded up the rocks, fighting through hip-deep rapids, feeling for solid ground under the coffee water, tapping with my feet like a blind man taps with a cane.

The boat dragged behind me, catching waves, pulling into eddies, yanking me off-balance in the current. Rocks shifted under my feet like bowling balls. The water pushed and swirled. Up I went, precious inch by precious inch until the day disappeared and I could barely drag the boat through calm water.

I found a bit of open ground on a high bank and pulled the boat a few feet onshore before collapsing in my sleeping bag. My toes felt smashed. The skin on my fingers scraped away. My knee bruised. A crushed pinky, the nail spit and shattered. One heel battered and bleeding. A back pulled in fifteen directions. Hips that stung to lift a leg. Skin soaked through with water.

At 3 AM I woke up. The river sounded different, bigger. I stared out in the darkness and thought of all the rain. The cold air hit my skin like ice. It took all my will to peel back my sleeping bag and stumble to the bank.

The water had risen two feet. The boat floated in the current, held only by a thin rope I’d tied to a tree. There it was, the whole trip held by a few simple threads and a knot.

I scrambled down the cliff of bank I’d camped on and grabbed the bow line in my bruised hands.

“Five more feet,” I thought.

I pulled the boat up, dragging it out of the water and over the muddy lip, collapsing on the ground with the bow. I lifted myself up and stumbled back to my sleeping bag.

Four miles. All for just four miles.

8 thoughts on “Angle to Key West: The Giant’s Staircase (9/19)

  1. My appologies Dan. In the 80’s and 90’s I led a group that successfully fought off attempts by a private developer to build a hydro dam at the top of Hume Rapids. Had the dam been built, you would likely have had a simple portage around it and an easy paddle up to Split Falls. The Gorge would have just been a flat headwater pond. Sorry for your struggles but, not sorry for the river!

  2. Through the power of your written words, it makes me think of the first to come and travel this great land…no cell phones or modern technology of any kind. What you are doing and have accomplished most could not and would not even attempt except those Explorers. Amazing.

    Stay safe…don’t let the light starting to appear at the end of the tunnel up the risk at the sacrifice of your personal safety. Maintain your focus to keep safe while climbing, dragging, paddling to your final destination and beginning.

    What an adventure and your writing makes us feel a part of it, thankfully without the split nails, bruises and scraps…etc.

  3. Hi Daniel: Glad to know you are still safe, but after reading this article am beginnining to wonder if you are sound!! Had to check out this location to be sure if we visit it will be in a warm, dry, air conditioned bus! Your blogs fill us with awe; your adventurous spirit, laudable. Hope your wounds have healed by now and that your Guardian Angel continues to ride on your shoulder. Bob and Merilyn Deakin, Barrie, Ont. ( Friends from Little Current.)

  4. Daniel, Your prose is equal in quality, description and excitment to any nonfiction adventure writing I’ve read. My measure is by how vivid my visuals are and how quickly I move to the next sentence. Believe me, I’m moving as quickly as the water flowing down the Kaministiquia.

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