The Longest Day
The day was Monday, June 14th, 1999. I’ll remember that day very well for the rest of my life.
It started out early for me. Being a professional entertainer, I had performed the previous night and had finally made it to bed at approximately 3:30 a.m., which is typical of the musician lifestyle. When the 6:30 a.m. alarm sounded, it wasn’t without a couple of silent cusses from myself, but I knew this day meant a whole lot to my 19 year old son Carman, who had been continuously pestering me for weeks about us going fishing together, so I kept my laments silent.
Considering we had no fishing gear at all made the idea of a fishing trip a bit of a challenge, but that wouldn’t sway Carman. He was used to me saying no to a lot of his ideas over the course of his young life. Having always shown to be a precocious child from his very first words as a baby, he had come to realize over the years that, with the right kind of probing, he could usually get his way with me – eventually.
The way he inadvertently got to me this time, was by going fishing with his cousin Chris (who, incidentally, had fishing gear), and finding a couple of good fishing holes on nearby Pitt Lake, or more exactly, one of the many rivers that branch to or from the actual lake itself. Being that they had no fishing licenses, they were doing a ‘catch and release’ type of fishing, and he assured me that, if we rented a canoe like they had, we would most definitely catch fish.
My mother-in-law, Elva Fleury, from Brockville, Ontario was staying with us for a month over the June and July period. She was 83 years old at the time and in very fine shape for a woman of such advanced years. Having her wits and health with her, she loves to get out of the house, usually to shop, or window-shop at the very least. On that Sunday the 13th, in the afternoon, my wife Joanne, Carman and myself took her to a swap meet in downtown Vancouver. We had never been to that particular one before, and thought it would be, at the very least, interesting.
When we got to the swap meet, Carman and myself separated from the girls, to look at ‘guy things’, and promised to meet back up at a specific time. While we looked around, Carman casually suggested that we look for some fishing gear, because we could get some used stuff for cheap.
He had finally convinced me and the proverbial ball was really rolling now! Leaving the swap meet empty handed, we drove to the Army & Navy store in New Westminster, which is widely recognized as one of the better fishing tackle places to shop in the Greater Vancouver area. After buying 2 new fishing rods and reels, some fake bait, lures, extra line, hooks, 2 different types of bobber sets and 2 fresh water fishing licenses, we were set to go fishing the next morning. The day was supposed to be beautiful…
Indeed, when I awoke Monday morning, it was a spectacular day. Not a cloud was in the sky, and feeling the heat already, it was quite obvious the sun was going to take domination of the day. It was 7:00 a.m. when we kissed Joanne and mom good-bye, and armed with all our fishing gear, seemingly unneeded jackets and extra clothes, my cell phone, and a wonderful picnic lunch Joanne had conjured up, we started out from our home in Coquitlam for our 3/4 of an hour vehicle ride to Pitt Lake. I told Joanne we would probably fish until about noon, then go to the nearby salt water inlet at Port Moody to get some clams for supper. We were going to barbecue up a roast for supper that night and my 24-year-old daughter Carolyn was coming over as well. If we caught fish for dinner on top of that, we would eat like kings!
We arrived at the lake at 7:40 a.m., and waited until the man that we later came to know as Gord opened up the canoe rental shop at 8:00. The water was perfectly calm, but you could see how the water level was rising in the lake from the spring runoffs.
In the 1998/99 season in Vancouver, the mountains and surrounding ski areas such as ‘Whistler/Blackcomb’, Vancouver Island’s ‘Mount Washington’, Washington State’s ‘Mount Baker’ and even our in town ski mountains, ‘Seymour’, ‘Cypress’ and ‘Grouse’ had experienced record snow falls for the season. There was the constant danger in the months of April through July that the spring ‘melt’ could cause widespread flooding in most of the Greater Vancouver areas. It was quite obvious the ‘melt’ was raising the levels of Pitt Lake, but not at an alarming rate.
Gord outfitted us with life-jackets and after briefing us on a map stapled to the side of the rental hut as to where the fishing spots were, we set out across Pitt Lake to one of it’s tributaries. The lake was like glass, and the water was so clear you could see the bottom almost everywhere we paddled. The effect was extremely calming for me on that day.
I’d been accused of being a work-a-holic, and always justified it by pleading that ‘a musician is lucky to work that much, period, and that you never know when your talents will become out dated, or not what the clientele wants anymore, so you better take everything you can while it lasts’, etc.
That was one of the reasons I had my cell phone with me that day.
Aside from being able to keep in touch with home, I was supposed to discuss an upcoming job with a booking agent, and told her on Sunday to call me on my cell on Monday. I secretly figured that the ‘Fishin’ Musician’ humour I could send her way would be relatively amusing for, at the very least, myself. I generally love my own jokes more than anyone else anyway.
As we set out across the water, I was very grateful that Carman’s endless persuading had led us to that moment of solitude, so in touch with nature’s beauty. How fast that magnificence can turn to horror!
As we headed through the docile rivers towards where Gord had told us to go, we stopped several times to try a few casts out into the calm waters. Getting no bites, I asked Carman if this was where he and Chris had gone fishing. He replied that, no, they didn’t go across Pitt Lake to the rivers like we just had; they had traveled north up the lake a bit, then turned left into one of the other rivers and that was where they had caught all those fish. Thinking I knew where we were geographically, I mistakenly suggested to Carman that we could reach where they had been by continuing up stream from where we presently were, as opposed to turning around and backtracking to the lake and then up. That heeded suggestion nearly cost both of us our lives!
As we moved slowly upstream with me at the bow and Carman ‘steering’ in the back, the water was starting to run a little faster, but I thought this was a good sign. I remembered doing a lot of creek fishing as a young boy with my father in my hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and it always seemed that trout loved fast moving water. As far as I was concerned, we were heading towards major fishing, not major disaster.
The water was becoming pretty fast moving after a period of time, and all that energy we were using to move upstream was making us a little hungry. We were starting to see fast rapids up ahead as we pulled into a quiet side stream to have a bite to eat.
At that time I checked messages on my phone, and there were none yet which was typical. Most agents or clients don’t call musicians until the afternoon due to their late hours. It was now only 9:45 a.m. I put the cell phone back in my hooded jacket pocket along with my wallet and keys.
Being quite warm, I then took off the jacket and rolled it into a small ball, stuffing it into the front of the canoe. After having a bite to eat and a soft drink, we ventured back out into the fast current.
Thinking we had just a little farther to go to find Carman’s fishing hole, we made our biggest mistake that day. We went upstream.
As we proceeded up what had now become a raging river, Carman was fighting a losing battle with the current. It would shift us to the left quickly, and then just as fast shift us back to the right. We decided to turn around when we noticed felled tree logs across the entire width of the river up ahead.
Being inexperienced with all this, my fishing lines got caught in some overhanging tree branches. As Carman valiantly struggled with the current, I was trying desperately to free my new fishing rod from the branches. Finally, the fishing rod freed, we tried to move back downstream.
What was tough on the way upstream was impossible for us on the way down. We had steered our canoe upstream through a 4-foot space left when a tree had fallen most of the way across the river.
Going downstream, that 4-foot space was like trying to pass through the eye of a needle. Immediately the current caught the canoe and it shifted the back end around so that we were heading sideways into that fallen tree!
We hit that trunk with unbelievable force and the canoe flipped to the starboard (right) side, which was the upstream side. We hit that liquid ice and I lost my breath. Luckily, the undertow forced me under the tree trunk and then brought me up on the other side near an overhanging tree branch.
I grabbed onto the branch and, hanging on for dear life, turned my head upstream to try to locate Carman.
He wasn’t so lucky.
The upper branches of the tree trunk had caught his muscle shirt so that as the undertow pulled him down, the branch would pull him back up. Then the current would pull him under again, only to have the branch pull him back up. I watched helplessly for a lifetime watching my son slowly drowning while he continuously struggled with his horrifying predicament.
Somehow he got himself loose and he came flying towards me through the fast moving water. I grabbed him with my hand and we helped each other to the shore.
We looked at each other in amazement and I hugged him. Carman cried,
“Dad, we’ve lost everything”; which we had, but I assured him that the fact that we were still alive was a bigger deal.
Now we had to figure out what to do. We were in shock and deliriously cold. Mostly mountains surrounded us. We had no communication with the outside world, and I had no clue where we were. I only knew we were north of where we had started our journey.
The first thought I had was to move inland. This proved to be next to impossible; because the flooding of the land surrounding the rivers and lake was so extensive that the icy cold water was up to our chests in spots. That coupled with the old growth forest, deep mud patches and the thorns of the blackberry bushes made the trek pretty much unfeasible.
We tried going downstream only to find the same situation. On top of that, even if we did make it downstream, we didn’t know if that would help us, or make our situation worse.
Carman looked upstream about 200 yards to where we had just recently, from the relative comfort of our canoe, seen the fallen trees across the river. He suggested that we make our way up there to where the fallen trees had provided a partial clearing, to maybe flag down passing aircraft. We made the 15-minute hike along the shore to the logjam and climbed up on it.
Sadly, the only way anybody would see us from above was if we were actually on the logs in the middle of the raging river. We carefully climbed onto the logs and made our way to the middle.
The way the logs were situated provided a lower log just above the water and an upper log, which was at about chest level. As we stood there catching our breath, Carman took off his red tank top and, having previously grabbed a tree branch as a tool for slashing through the thick forest, suggested I turn his shirt into a flag so we would be more visible from the sky.
Thinking I was well balanced, I let go of the upper log to tie the shirt to the stick. At that moment, I lost my footing on the slippery lower log and once again plummeted into the water.
Where we had gone down in the canoe was in very fast water. Where I now found myself was in liquid death. The swirling whirlpools and undertow quickly overcame me, and although I was still wearing my lifejacket, it would help me up only high and long enough to get a quick breath before the current would pull me back down.
Carman, forgetting about his own life, jumped into the abyss and his hands found a tree coming out of the water at a 30-degree angle. From this point he could just barely reach my hand to hold on to me. As he screamed and cried that he wasn’t going to lose me, I slowly used my last bit of strength to pull myself toward the same tree he had grabbed. Finally, my hands touched the thin trunk of what used to be a spruce tree and we made our way down the trunk against the current to where,
just above and in the middle of the water, sat a big tree stump with a 1 foot trunk that laid towards the shore that we were just standing on moments before.
We took one side of the trunk each and, holding on to each other for balance sat down on the knobby wood. We had just enough room to sit. Any move would have plummeted us back in, and we had had enough for one day, if not a lifetime.
Carman was still emotionally distraught with the thoughts of almost losing his father, and I comforted him by telling him that he was a hero by saving my life and how much I loved him. Carman, being the type of person he is, quickly dismissed any of my hero talk. He wouldn’t hear of it.
I looked at my watch, which had miraculously survived all that water. It was only 11:00 a.m. The canoe was due back at 6:00 p.m.; so I knew that nobody would even begin to suspect anything was wrong for at least 7 hours! Fearing our own demise if we tried to move towards shore, we stayed put on that stump, precariously positioned about two feet above the rapids.
The sun was beating down on us but the air surrounding the melt-water was cold. Aside from the life jacket, I was dressed in thick cotton track pants, now incredibly heavy from the water retention and a thin T-shirt with my old running shoes and socks completing my dress. Carman had on just a life jacket and white jean shorts with his shoes and even though I was freezing cold, he was having violent shivering spasms. As Carman hung onto me tightly, I took of my shirt and track pants. I gave him the shirt and hung the track pants on one of the stump roots just above my head to dry out.
As I gazed up at the tall mountains surrounding us, I knew that the sun wouldn’t be with us long, which meant this freezing cold air was as good as it was going to get. I kept a standing time vigil with my watch counting down the minutes aloud for Carman as to when I assumed we would get rescued.
Minutes felt like hours as we hung on to that stump. The rushing water played aural tricks on us, as we hallucinated the sounds of helicopters, powerboats and airplanes. The only things that passed near us were a helicopter going in the wrong direction of our sight range and 2 commercial jets miles above. We kept ourselves occupied with talk of what everyone was doing at that moment. Carman wondered if his mom was already worried about us, and I told him no. She wasn’t expecting us back until at least 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and that, even then, she would probably be very lenient on our time schedule because it was our ‘bonding’ day.
Each of us lost in our own thoughts, sometimes an hour would go by without us saying barely a word to each other. I know that Carman was thinking about his girlfriend, Kit, who he just adored. She had quickly become a welcome addition to Carman’s life and also the family. A beautiful, bright and motivated young lady, she was a godsend to Carman, as far as Joanne and I were concerned. He finally had found a stable, good person to date and have fun with. Carman had started to carve out his and Kit’s initials on that stump with a pocketknife he had in his jean shorts but then stopped. I think subconsciously he didn’t want Kit’s name involved in anything so ugly as our predicament.
When we did talk, our conversations would drift from dumb jokes, to songs, to what everyone at home was doing at that moment, to if and when we survived this, how it would make a great story for the rest of our lives. Every 15 minutes or so we would yell out ‘help’, more in an effort to keep wild animals away than for an actual distress call. From our spot, it seemed nobody would hear us anyway. At times, when I looked down, it seemed like the water level had risen, but assumed it must be my imagination playing tricks on me from all the news broadcasts I had heard.
As my watch reached 6:00 p.m., I told Carman that rescue would be forthcoming, although I wasn’t that sure myself. By that time, my pants had dried and Carman had cut a hole in the crotch to design a makeshift sweatshirt for me. As I predicted, the blaring sun had gone down quickly behind the mountains and the air had grown much colder. The ‘sweatshirt’ was a barely a help, and Carman’s shivering had reached epic proportions.
When my watch hit 8:30, I didn’t think help was coming and I told Carman we might have to spend the night on that stump, as horrifying as the thought was. We would have to hold on tightly to each other rubbing each other down continuously to create some type of warmth to survive the night.
Carman looked down and pointed out that indeed the water level had risen, because a log we had used to boost ourselves onto the stump was now almost completely submerged.
We now had a choice to make, albeit a treacherous one. We could risk our lives in 2 ways. We could quite possibly be washed away in the middle of the night on that stump as the water level rose, or make our way across the thin trunk attached to the stump towards shore. It was getting late and colder as we decided to try our luck at getting across the rapids via that log.
The log was situated just inches above the rapids. It we slipped or let any loose limbs or clothing catch the fast moving current just below us, it would mean almost certain death. Since I was nearest the actual log, I went first.
With Carman’s terrified voice coaxing me along, I slowly straddled the log while holding my feet just above the fast moving water. I inched my way along, using what we used to call as young children a ‘bum-walk’, while trying to hold my feet up. After an eternity, I made it to the ‘safe’ end of the log. Now it was Carman’s turn.
Praying on the other side for God to protect my boy, I watched as Carman repeated my example. My fists were totally tense by the time Carman joined me. After climbing onto nearby logs for support, we were back on shore. We had been on that stump for 9 1/2 hours and we were now back to where we were at 10:30 that morning!
Looking inland, a small mountain was directly in front of us. I told Carman to follow me as I climbed to find out if we could at least see where we were from the top of that mountain. The first thing I noticed were the bear droppings, then fresh bear tracks. Looking up, it seemed the whole mountain was covered in bear caves. Knowing that the bears were hungry after their extended hibernation, and quite possibly in the company of cubs coupled along with local recent reports of wildcat sightings in the area, we opted to head back down to the river’s edge.
By now it was 10:00 p.m., a full 12 hours since we capsized. Carman stuffed his shirt with lichen and moss in an effort to get warmer, and he then pulled out his pocketknife and started to cut down cedar branches and ferns in an effort to make a ‘bed’ for the night. I, on the other hand, was having a real time of it trying to make a ‘boy scout’ campfire by rubbing 2 wet sticks together. It seemed like nothing was dry despite the blazing sun of the afternoon. My efforts were futile.
Suddenly I heard Carman cry out, “What? What?”
Thinking he thought I had said something I yelled back at him. He told me he had heard a voice. Thinking it was the water playing tricks on him, but not wanted to curb his hope, I listened.
Suddenly around the corner came a red kayak with a rescuer on board. He yelled at us that the rescue boat couldn’t get up the river for us, which I couldn’t understand at that time, and he was sent by kayak the last kilometer up the river to find us. He told us that ‘Search & Rescue’ had been alerted, and that if they didn’t hear from this smaller rescue squad soon, a rescue chopper would be deployed, but that could take another hour.
Yelling back at him that we just wanting to get back, he then told us he would keep vocal contact with us as we made our way down the riverbanks to the rescue boat. That would mean making our way through all that cold melt water, thicket and old growth forest we had turned back from 12 and 1/2 hours earlier. Craving home and civilization felt overwhelming, and waiting any longer for a helicopter felt unacceptable, so we opted to head down stream on foot towards the rescue boat.
A heard cries behind me as Carman winced in pain from the cold water and thicket slashing at his legs. He was quite obviously hypo-thermic by this time, but we had no choice but to proceed ahead. I kept coaxing him on as the thicket ripped through my own cold flesh, wondering when this would ever end.
Finally, the boat was in sight and we waded our way through the water to the craft. I was shocked to see a big log holding the boat back from going upstream. Explaining to one of our rescuers that we didn’t pass by that log, he explained that we probably had, but didn’t realize it. He illustrated that the river was subject to tidal actions, and that when we had gone up the river, the tide was higher than that log.
I noticed his cell phone and asked to use it. It was now 11:30 p.m. as I checked my cell phone messages. Three were from the agent asking to please get back to her, obviously annoyed by my lack of response. Five were from Joanne starting at noon to 9:30 p.m. increasing panic showing in her voice with each message. I then tried to phone home where there was no answer. Thinking she must have come to the lake, I anticipated her standing on shore when we got off the rescue boat.
I couldn’t believe how far we had gone in our short canoe ride. The trip back to the rental hut seemed to last an hour. The rescuers told us that they generally don’t put any red flags up on tardy rental returns until 8 o’clock due to the fact that they’ve had too many cases of people taking their time getting back, risking a good reprimand from the staff.
They also explained how a couple from Europe was camping deep in the forest when they heard our shouts for help echoing off the mountains. Not knowing the direction the cries were coming from, they made their way by kayak all the way across the vast lake (in itself dangerous at that time of night because of very strong winds that can arise without warning) to the rental shack and alerted the staff that somebody was in distress, but they didn’t know where.
When we got back to shore Joanne wasn’t there, so I called home again. This time she answered sounding frantic as she told me that she had just driven our daughter Carolyn home, and that Carman‚s girlfriend Kit had come over worried after Joanne had called her wondering if she had heard from Carman. I told her to get Kit to drive her to pick us up with the extra truck keys and to please bring some warm, dry clothes.
An hour later I was driving in my truck with my wife beside me. Carman drove home with Kit. Joanne phoned Carolyn who wanted to speak to me right away. As I talked to her, all the emotions I had been holding back all day came flooding out, and the sobbing didn’t completely stop for about an hour. The terrified look on my boy’s face when we went down in the canoe, to his screaming and crying as he saved my life, to the constant concern on his face as the day went on will probably haunt me for the rest of my years.
Like I said – I was going to send it into Readers Digest – and then Carolyn died on November 17, 1999 and took the wind completely out of my sails
…what a year…geesh…