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 Canoeing in Western Australia

Letter Home

by Elaine Lennox

© 2001, Elaine Lennox

 Just got back from a canoeing trip down to the Collie River for two days. Good stuff.

The younger guy , Karl, who came along with us for the first time, wasn't too enamoured, having spent seven months in Tasmania which is very mountainous, but it was a great trip for me. I was just beginning to accept having to do flat water to get fit when this came along so any kind of white water is better than the flat!

The river is a dam release feeding into irrigation channels for the farmers and the water level is decided on, to a large degree, by the temperatures. We had a metre of water yesterday on the upper Collie which was pretty good then today we only had 90cm. That seemed OK to start with but those ten centimetres made a big difference.

Everything started to go wrong when Merv and I decided to take a different channel just after the water came out of the dam wall in a jet. We went far right under the bridge while the other three went left. Within minutes we were in a really tight little channel, little more than a boat width with lots of sharp, pointy rocks. We had got used to this kind of 'creek' paddling the day before so didn't worry too much. After less than a hundred metres as we began to hit some of the shitty little ti- trees (which are bushes really). I looked down a bit further . . . and then took another look. One of the bushes had grown over our route just where it dropped away so two slim branches were right in our line of descent.

It was one of those 'go slow' moments. You look and then look again, knowing that you have to make a quick decision. There was no way round them and they were too big to push to the side so it looked like a neck job if we were to go any further. I pulled up short and pushed my boat onto a rock, knowing full well that I would end up pinned across the stream with Merv up my bum. Fortunately he could see what was up ahead so he jammed on all the brakes and slid across the stream too.

We were no more than an arm's length away from each other in a corridor of bushes with the drop about six feet down stream. I was luckier than Merv, though, because I had landed on a flat rock. As I eased myself out of my boat I threw my paddle onto the rocks at the side, only to watch it tumble off into the stream. Rushing 'slowly' along the slippery rocks I was in time to see the paddle, my one and only, swim into a huge eddie at the same time. Yes!! At that moment I heard Merv shout frantically, 'Paddle!' I jumped off the rock into the water, swam across the eddie towards the main current, clambered over a few rocks in time to see Merv's yellow paddle getting stuck further down stream.

By this time Merv was in a bit of trouble. He had managed to get out of his boat but it had immediately filled up with water so it was well pinned and as heavy as a truck. Although Merv has about five different boats, his good ones are all for flat water so his ancient white plastic Alpha looks a bit like a beached whale. Well, we tried everything to pull or shove this bloody big whale of a boat off the upstream side of the rock with no success. Next thing, as I turned my back, Merv gave a shout. The boat appeared to have shifted of its own accord (with a little bit of help from Merv) and it was moving off the rock.

Some time later as Merv was off trying to get his paddle I got in my boat to try and help. Another twenty metres downstream, though, there was a blockage of boulders which barred my way so I got out of there and into an eddie double quick. The only way forward it seemed was to swim/ wade across the stream and portage the big island in the middle. Since this huge island must get flooded from time to time there were absolutely no trails (and no snakes, I said to myself several times) so the going was rough. Much of the island seemed to be made up of a jumble of boulders, so, often as I put my foot down on the straggly broken branches, it would continue down to the next layer of boulders. Carrying a boat on your shoulder is not the best way to traverse that kind of terrain I can tell you! Being a woosy woman, though, I was happy to accept a hand from Merv when I fell down a couple of times.

That might have been the highlight of the day because the decrease in water level kind of took the shine off what had been a great little river the day before, with lots of drops, twists and turns and one or two decent falls but the scariest bit was yet to come.

At the top of the No Name Drop I pulled out to look at the water level. A big rock in the middle of this twelve foot + drop seemed to be even more of an obstacle than it had been the day before. A pad of exposed rock on the bottom of the fall worried me too.

Of course Karl was keen to do it. Karl reminds me of my mad mate, Graham. Do you remember him? I wasn't sure whether Karl had any sense of danger and it wasn't clear to me whether he appreciated the risks of paddling in a pointy boat but you know me - if the boys can do it then so can I. The best route the day before had been to drop down one level into a small eddie behind a rock, above the drop, then spin round to get a good approach to the entry channel to the drop. I did the twisty bit at the top OK and managed to miss the jagged rock in the middle but as I dropped down and turned the boat hard left I could see that I was off line, heading for the flat rock pad. I landed safely on a cushion of water and bounced over the rock no bother. Karl's first drop was effortless as was his second and third and fourth (which he did later), but Merv had a spot of bother.

His white pointer of a boat was a bit big for the eddie hop and as he spun above the falls he began to get sucked down the Deadly Drop on the right hand side of the fall!!!. Jutting out of the channel on that side was a huge tooth of a rock. It leaned nicely onto the rock face in the middle, leaving a tiny triangle of water to escape downstream. A no go area for sure. Just looking at it gave me the heebie jeebies.

I screamed something like no and set off back up the rocks to try and help, closely followed by Karl. As we climbed we could see that Merv was pulling back from the abyss but the next time I looked up he was heading down the No Name Drop backwards. We both jumped in and crossed the first part of the river above the falls, then Karl bravely crossed the main flow to grab Merv who had struggled valiantly to stay on a patch of fast flowing water above the Drop. Now they both needed rescuing.

Karl had taken a throw bag with him and luckily he's a climber so he can tie knots. It was no bother for him to tie the rope onto Merv's canoe handle. Since he's a guy he understands the dynamics of ropes and he soon spotted that I was a bit of a dim wit with them. After I'd tied the rope round our big rock the wrong way - it would have had both guys swinging off the top of the drop if they'd relaxed for a minute - I finally got it belayed the right way round so that us three women, Robyn, Ann and myself could pull them up safely to the pond above.

Wow. What an epic rescue. The only other thing I have to say is - 'Merv.
Get a bloody decent boat!!'

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