My boyhood was spent in southern Saskatchewan beside the Souris, a little river in a big valley. The channel wanders from one side of the valley to the other. It's sluggish and sedate in summer, basically a series of long narrow puddles, with only a trickle of flow between them. In dry summers it often quits flowing, not to resume until the following spring's runoff. But, if spring runoff is heavy, it becomes a torrent, tearing at its banks and carrying big floes of ice that crash and grind together as they float along. Sluggish, sedate and safe no longer, its character changes and dangers lie in wait for the foolhardy.
Valley children enjoy and appreciate the river, but are made cautious of it, often, as I was, by dire parental warnings about fierce creatures allegedly lurking in its depths. As age increases, however, credulousness decreases, so the warnings are often forgotten or ignored.
I always liked to go with my parents when they drove three miles up the valley to Uncle Walt's farm. There I could visit with my cousins. Reg, 13, was two years my senior, old enough to look up to and be led by. Mel was nine, young enough to make me feel mature. Visiting on warm spring days meant tramping around the farm, looking at calves and lambs, finding crocuses, spotting ducks and geese. Being supposedly river-wise kids, our wanderings were unhampered by parental cautions or prohibitions.
I regretted that, despite living beside the river, my dad had no boat. He didn't need one, as a municipal bridge abutted the farm. Having no handy bridge, Uncle Walt had a boat. Well, sort of a boat, perhaps a pseudo-boat, meant for summer low-water use. Homemade, it was only a sheet of plywood with vertical sides and ends angled to make it slightly easier to pole through the water. I had a brainwave: "Would your dad mind if we went out in the boat?"
With adventurous bravado, Reg confidently answered, "Course not. Let's go." So we pushed the pseudo-boat off the bank, into the water, grabbed the poles and proceeded on our voyage. Unfortunately, the river was not at summer low; it was at spring high. The strong current was swiftly propelling big multi-ton ice floes, which slammed and pounded into each other, sometimes hard enough to split or even shatter. They immediately began to pound and squeeze our tiny craft. After a few hits the situation became obvious.
"We're getting stuck in the ice," I yelled.
"I'm scared. Go back to shore," Mel whimpered.
It was not possible. The boat, graceful as a brick, was awkward and cumbersome in calm shallow water. Now, gripped by strong currents and hemmed in by ice, the poles could not reach the bottom. We drifted downstream. Now we started to panic as ice slabs repeatedly rammed the boat, threatening to tip us into the frigid water.
"Push the ice away with the poles," I yelled with desperation.
"I can't," responded Reg, "They're too big and heavy."
Then we started yelling: "Help!" "Help!" "Rescue us!" "We're gonna drown." "Help, please!"
It was to no avail. The adults were in the house, drinking coffee, munching pastries and chatting, blissfully unaware of their children's plight.
"What the heck are we gonna do?" I yelled at Reg. "You shoulda known better than to do this." After all, it was his family's boat and he was older.
"Shut up," he snapped back. "It was your stupid idea."
Recriminations provided no remedies, so we quieted down. We had now drifted several hundred yards, around a bend, into even more ice chunks, with more terrifying thumps and bumps. Mel was frantic.
"Don't want to die! I'm just a little kid! Please, you guys, do something. Save us."
This followed a hit that pushed the front of the boat onto an ice slab, then spun it enough to slam it back down, showering us with water. We were wet, cold, shivering and scared.
"Look!" shouted Reg. "There's some open water up there. Maybe we can get closer to shore."
The ice shifted a bit and, by pushing on the floes, we were able to move toward the open water. Hope returned, but, alas, an eddy brought ice in along the shore, trapping us again in the downstream drift. Our situation was getting desperate. We were drifting ever further from the house and the banks were steep. Even if we could get to the bank, it might be impossible to climb. We could only sit tight amid the thumping ice and hope for another chance to escape.
We seemed to have been hours on the river, when, suddenly inspired, I asked, "Reg couldn't we just walk across the ice chunks to shore? It might be our only chance."
"No," he retorted. "They'll tip us into the water and push us under. We'd drown."
"Just go for the big ones," I persisted. "They won't tip from our weight. We can jump from one to another back to shore. Let's try it."
"Well, OK," he reluctantly agreed, aware of the lack of alternatives. He was blubbering in fear; Mel was sobbing. "The bank gets flatter up ahead. It's probably the best place."
As the next big slab came by, he and I carefully picked Mel up and set him on the ice. Then I helped Reg to sprawl onto the slab, carrying a pole. But when he turned back to assist me, the boat and slab had parted company. The gap of cold water was too wide to safely jump, so the boat and I drifted on.
Then Reg shouted, "Look! There's a big one. Jump on it."
Turning quickly, I saw the floe edging away from me. With desperate strength, I flung myself onto it. Well, most of myself. Knee, ankles and feet trailed, hitting the water and provoking frantic clawing of the ice. I pulled myself up, intact, wet and shivering, on the solid ice surface. Relief at being on solid slabs instead of in the tiny boat was brief, as we were still in great danger.
"What do we do now?" I yelled. "You're over there and I'm over here."
"Wait till they get closer," Reg ordered, "Then we'll all get on the one closest to shore." Over the next few minutes the two floes edged toward each other and toward the now flatter bank.
"Now!" ordered Reg, standing at the edge of his floe. "I'll grab you when you jump. Do it... now!"
I hurtled across a yard of open water where Reg grabbed and steadied me. Things were looking more hopeful now.
"Look there." Reg pointed at a nearby floe. "Let's go for it."
With big steps we scurried onto a smaller, less stable floe headed closer to shore. "We're gonna make it, guys," yelled Reg, waving the pole joyfully. Mel and I shouted enthusiastic agreement.
The floes were almost abutting now, with some approaching the shore. Two more jumps and we were next to shore, but shallow water made the floe run aground. A six-foot span of ankle deep water lay between the ice and safe ground.
"We'll have to wade" was Reg's executive decision.
Taking the pole, he leaped as far as he could, landing in 10 inches of water and four inches of mud. Scrambling the rest of the way, he turned, thrusting out the pole, first to Mel and then to me. With yanks and wading, we got our soaked feet and numb legs ashore.
It was a long cold mile back to the house. There we were met with parental scolding, mixed with relief at our safe return. Then the question, "Where's the boat?"
"Um, um, well... it's... still... in... the river," we told them.
Reg's brother Harv, 20, was sent to retrieve the boat, not by hopping across ice floes, but with a rope and grapple hook. Secured with a hook, the boat was hauled ashore, to be left till warm weather and low water enabled it to be floated back to its mooring place.
On the way home that afternoon, I was closely questioned by my parents, who were not pleased the voyage had been my idea. They took a more positive view when I pointed out that the floe jumping had been my suggestion.
"Yes," I told them, "It was my silly idea that got us into the mess, but it was my good idea that got us out of it."
TOMORROW: ADVENTURES WITH LUDWIG VAN