Zoar Gap, the consequences of traversing a class 3 rapid in a open canoe

Im not a master boatman but I do know my way around a paddle. I first started canoeing back in 1999 as a kid. I joined the canoe camp and we would travel up and down the northeast paddling down rivers. Until 2004 I went every year and the highlight was our trip to the Deerfield river in Massachusetts.  We would canoe down exhilarating class 2 rapids and had a terrific time.  Every year however we always pulled out of the river right before Zoar Gap. “The Gap” we dubbed it was a class 3 plus rapid. We were never allowed to go down it because it was way to dangerous. We heard stories about a few reckless individuals would attempted it in a open canoe. I vowed that one day I would join that club. Today over ten years later I was going to do it, and heres what happened.

It was july 11,2015. I had received a Discovery 169 canoe for my birthday.  My friend from France was visiting me. I promised her an epic canoe trip with little details about the journey. We rented a small red ford, I wasn’t sure if it could fit a canoe on top but we made it work.

We drove up from Seaside Heights New Jersey to Deerfield Massachusetts. We arrived at midnight. “where are we going to sleep?” she said alarmed.  “Lets drive around and find a place” I said reassuringly. We found a trailer park and pulled into a spot between two mobile homes and set up our tent by the light of our phones, “Where do we put the..” Shh” I interrupted” her forcefully. “You want these rednecks to come out to find some strangers pitching a tent near their hydrangea bushes?”.  We awoke at five before the anyone else did. We parked outside Zoar Outdoor which is the river outfitter and information point. We passed out in the car until nine. I went inside and was amazed at all the high tech river equipment they had for sale. I saw a salesman and made a beeline towards him about the dam release. “are you folks going down Zoar gap?” he said curiously. “yeah”  I quickly responded “in that” he said pointing towards toward our red canoe. “yes”I said irritated. “do you guys have flotation for your canoe or helmets?” “No we don’t but I’ve canoed down this river before but never attempted The Gap.”  We get in the car and drive to the start point some 5 miles upstream from Zoar gap.  There we unhitch the coanoe and bring it down to the river. I’m not sure how we are going to get back to the car but thats the least of my concerns “it will work out” I think dismissing the thought. On the river and I give basic maneuver instructions to FrenchGirl. How to warn me about pillows, which are rocks just under the surface and and other obstacle we were going to encounter. After only ten minutes, there was a tremulous downpour “fuck!”I shouted annoyed. I navigated us to the side of the river. It was a horrible place to dock but we had no other options and the cold rainwater pelting us like frozen bullets was unbearable. We sit in some shrubby waiting what seemed like an hour before the rain let up. After some time the sun came up and we were back on our way. It was incredibly beautiful with the fog rising up from the  river.

Because of the weather forecast there was no one else on the river.  Its usually packed with adventurers so the silence was a bit eerie.  I practice my rusty canoe skills on class 2 rapids maneuvering deftly between rocks and avoiding obstacles and obstructions. We practiced a few eddy turns. Its where you basically do a U-turn on a river and pull behind a boulder. Boulders cause and the river to actually flow upstream directly behind them so its like parking your canoe. We continue down the all to familiar river and I notice the sign for rapids ahead. I see the last take out point before Zoar Gap, fate however would have a different plan for us. Just as we are about to go down it its starts down pouring again. causing us to pull out off the side of the river and wait it out the same place I had pulled out over and over again so many years before. “The rapids are right ahead, you want to come check them out so we can plan our course?” I suggest to FrenchGirl. We amble throughout the forest come to a road  and walk in the direction of the rapids.  From the road we look down at the river. The rapids are monstrous, bigger than I remember them as a kid, coupled with the rain clouds it was legitimatly scary.  I wasn’t going to let FrenchGirl see my fear. “its fine its not so bad” I say my voice wavering. “are you kidding? you want to go down that?? no way ” she says in disbelief  “you can go by yourself and I will watch from shore” she say defiantly . “Look” I say “lets go to the waters edge and get a closer look.”. There I explain,  all we have to do is get around the big rock in the middle, its easy to avoid. “You’ve been canoeing with me so you know I know how to maneuver it” I reassure her.

The rain stops and we head back up to the road.  A lady with a big camera is coming over. I start questioning her. It turns out she works for Zoar Outdoor and she’s about to take pictures of a rafting group that will come down. I tell her our plan and she agrees and says yeah you really need to avoid that rock in the middle its called the Ejector because if you go over it the person in the back (Me) of the raft or boat gets ejected out of there seat like a catapult. “Is that a good path for canoes” I say? “canoe? I’ve only seen rafts and kayaks go down it” she says plainly, “well thats reassuring” I thought with a half hearted laugh.  We head back to our boat FrenchGirl is still nervous. I say listen I have a plan. The rafting group is coming down, when we see them round the Bend we will go. That way if there is an emergency and we need help they we be there. Skeptical  but convinced enough to go along with it she agrees.  We see the big blue rafts of Zoar Outdoor approach and we push off excitedly with adrenaline coursing through my body it was pure diabolical glee. “When I say so.. I want you to Paddle as hard as you can on the right in a sweeping motion.” I yell over the roaring white water ahead.  We mange the first obstacles fine and then I spot the ejector rock. The water is moving so fast we have a split second.”NOW” I shout and we make a sharp fast turn..too fast and too sharp..I over did it. We brought the canoe perpendicular to the river and we hit a rock on the shoreline which cause us to immediately capsize when the powerful flow of the current pushed the right side of the canoe. we were dumped into the raging river. I was still Holding my paddle for dear life and I point my feet down stream to push off rocks. I did not want to have my foot ensnared in the river bed. I make it to shore and see FrenchGirl Scramble onto a rock. I watch in horror as the flipped canoe go down the river with out us at alarming speeds. I start racing along the rivers edge unflaggingly. I was jumping over rocks like the Last of the Mohicans. When I reach it, I dive into the river and grab a hold of it. Its incredibly heavy full of water and stuck in a strong current. I was exhausted and breathless, trying to pull it to shore was an impossible task.  Luckily the river bottomed out and  was able to stand. I laboriously pulled the canoe to shore and flipped and dumped the water out. I hopped inside and paddled in vain going upstream to get FrenchGirl. I could not move and inch forward no matter how hard I paddled. Then round the bend I spotted a Big Blue Zoar Raft approaching. In the back FrenchGirl was standing up waving her paddle at me.She was fine was I was banged up a bit and thought I broke my finger but was ok. We continued the three miles until the take out point still thinking about what happened. We Hitchhiked back to our car. “So how about it?” I say slyly. “how about what?” she said. “How about doing it again tomorrow?” I say only half joking.”No thanks I like my life” she smiled back.

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