Failed rescue attempt at Moon River Falls

By the time we heard him calling for help it was too late, but we went anyway. We had made the decision to try to head up to Moon River Falls for Canada Day like we had for the last two years. Lake Muskoka feeds the river and the flow is controlled in Bala by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Ontario Hydro. Three years ago, it was calm enough to swim underneath the main falls. This year however was a completely different story (shown below). The water proceeds towards a wide cascading waterfall that was easily crossed on foot. After the cascading falls, the river opens up and is calm enough to swim around and paddle around before it feeds to another choke point. When we showed up this year, we could hear the waterfall before we could see it as we paddled upstream from Moon Basin Marina. I expected it to be rough, but when I saw the falls from about 200 metres, the violence of the water took away any ambition I had to go anywhere near it.


My wife and daughter heard the cries for help before I did. We were on the south end of the river and had a radio quietly playing some music. A group on the north side of the river had been blaring house music all day and at first I thought the voice I heard was part of what they were listening to. However the body language of my wife caught my attention, and then I heard it clearly. “HELP! HELP ME!”

I looked north, and saw a man at the bottom of the cascading waterfall moving towards the third. I figured he had been swimming, and then just got in over his head. My friend Henry and I had been throwing rocks into the fast moving water at the choke point earlier in the day and were surprised with how strong the current was. 30-50lbs rocks would be swept away like leaves, and that was in the calmer area of the choke point. The part he was heading to was much more violent, and since the river floor is made up entirely of Canadian Shield rock, I knew it would be better to get him sooner rather than later.

I was cooking at the time, and told my wife to turn off the stove as I ran towards the canoes. I grabbed a few life jackets and began to unlock the canoes (last year we saw some drunk guys stealing another group’s boats for a booze cruise). While I worked on the lock, I got Henry to get the paddles, and from the water I could hear the man yelling and urging us to “GET IN THE FUCKING WATER NOW! HELP ME!". I had been in my flip flops, and quickly got in to my hiking boots. But for whatever reason, I decided to kick those off by the shore as I knew I was probably going to get wet. As we put the boat in the water, Henry made the observation that at the speed he was traveling down the river we weren’t going to get to him before went through the rapids at the choke point. “Fuck it”, I remember saying, “We just have to get there.” If I were to guess, from me getting up from my seat, Henry and I were paddling out to get him in under 60 seconds.

The bottom of the cascading falls, and the choke point off in the distance.
Henry was right, we weren’t going to make it. As we paddled out, I put on my lifejacket. We paddled for about 50 feet and then headed to beach the canoe at the choke point. I grabbed a lifejacket for the man and jumped in the water and swam out to his direction in what I thought was the calmer part of the river. I could still hear him screaming, which was a good sign because I knew at this point he was through the worst of it and at least he was still breathing. However there was something about the way he was pleading that almost canceled out any sort of rational thought in my head. I just needed to get to him. I started swimming harder and harder. So hard in fact that I dislocated my shoulder. I froze in the water and clicked it back in. By the time I gathered myself, I realized I was now being swept down the river, over sharp rocks, barefoot.

The water varied in depth from 2-4 feet. I oriented myself to travel feet first down the river and bent my knees to anticipate any rocks. I was cursing myself for not keeping my boots on, but was happy that I had the foresight to at least put the lifejacket on. I rolled over onto my stomach and started desperately grabbing at the river floor to try to stop with my good arm. Everything I touched be it a 1 foot rock or 2 foot rock, got pulled loose whenever I got my hands on it. I knew that eventually I’d get dumped out into a really calm part of the river, but to get to that I had to travel past a lot of rocks, without shoes, and the speed I was going, I was really worried I’d slice myself open.

I think it was my fourth try, my hand was raw from dragging it across the rocky riverbed, but I knew I had to stop. I grabbed hold of a rock and came to a halt. I pulled my head out of the water and saw my wife way upstream. I looked downstream and saw a bunch of motorboats and canoes in the water looking for the man. I stood up in an area that was about two feet deep and quickly realized that while standing was difficult, walking the 10 feel back to shore was not going to be easy. I shouted to my wife that I needed some rope. She and Henry quickly rushed back to the camp and came back with some 550 paracord. Henry tied it to a canoe paddle and threw it into the river upstream. I caught the paddle and was instantly relieved when I saw the bowline knot.

The sheer force of the water made it pretty treacherous. Being barefoot didn’t help either. Eager to get me back on dry land they pulled hard, but ended up pulling more quickly than I could walk so I had to let go. Henry threw the paddle back and I told him that I just needed to move at my own pace, which seemed to be centimetres at a time. Whilst standing I couldn’t really see through the water, so I felt the ground with my feet and took steps when I felt stable. With the encouraging words from Henry, I made it back to shore.


While I gathered my thoughts on what just happened, two guys paddled upstream, jumped out and then asked Henry if they could borrow our canoe. It was then that I saw a flipped canoe beside our beached canoe. Henry tried flipping it over, but the suction was too strong to flip it easily on the slippery rocks. We could have given it a better effort if we got deeper into the water but Henry made the correct assessment that it was for too dangerous considering its proximity to the fast moving water. Coincidentally it was in the exact same spot we were testing the speed of the water with heavy rocks earlier in the day, so we knew exactly how powerful the water was. As we stood on the shore and tried to figure out what to do with the canoe, Henry looked up at the falls and made a horrible discovery. “There is another canoe stuck in the falls. Can you see that?”

I told him I wasn’t wearing my glasses and that I couldn’t see that far, and that I was kind of glad. Looking at the raging waters I couldn’t imagine anyone surviving a fall through such a long set of rocks and water. Henry was right on point and decided it was time to call 911, and headed back to the campsite. I told my wife that she needed to get our daughter and her cousin into the tent. While they was gone, the canoe dislodged itself and it started to drift towards me. Watching it float towards me with the front all smashed up and the floor caved in, made my heart sink and I prepared for the worst. I was upset that I was waiting for it alone on the shore, but if someone was with me they would have been standing beside a bit of an emotional wreck. If anyone was trapped inside the canoe he was surely dead.

It took a few minutes to reach me and like the first canoe, the suction was too great for me to flip it from the side. I still wanted to work as quickly as I could just in case someone was still alive and trapped even though I couldn’t hear anything. I reached underneath and into the canoe, and luckily I didn’t find anything. I was relieved but now the full picture started to become very apparent. Both of the canoes had gone over the falls including the guy we were were trying to chase down. The reason he couldn’t swim to shore after the cascading waterfall is because he must have been injured. This was confirmed once the guys came back.

Apparently they were friends with the group of guys that were paddling down the river. Travis, the guy I was talking to said that he lived in the area and had never seen the water like this before and had warned his friends not to take the canoes out. Three of them did anyway, found that they had bitten off more than they could chew, and one of them went over the falls. The two others bailed before the falls and swam to shore. Travis said that the guy we were trying to help had been pulled out of the water and his leg and hip was probably broken. I stood there the whole time shaking my head in disbelief. It’s a miracle he didn’t die. I know that only a few years back 11 people got stuck in the falls, and three of them drowned. So for Travis to say that this was the worst he had ever seen the falls, and with me looking at it as he told me about his buddy, I was in disbelief.

It was all over, and I was exhausted mentally. I went back to my tent and lay down to decompress a bit. I was disappointed in myself. With all the first aid that I had learned with the Canadian Ski Patrol System, albeit over a decade ago, one of the most important things was that you shouldn’t get yourself into a situation that could turn one victim into more. At the same time though, if that man had died, I don’t know how well I would have been able to deal with not trying to help. In all honesty, I don’t even remember making the decision to help. We heard him, and reacted. Part of me is proud that we were quick to try to help, but the longer I think about it, the more I realize I should have spent the time to form some sort of a plan and to assess the situation before literally diving in head first. Hopefully you guys can learn from my mistake.

Stay safe out there geardos.

4 comments:

  1. Hey there - heady stuff! Its pretty tough to make plans versus acting when you know what the possible consequences might be. Glad you managed to not hurt yourself too badly and hope your nerves are back to normal.

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  2. I would just like to say thank you for your valiant efforts. It was my son that you made an attempt to rescue. We are very lucky that he is alive. Almost 8 weeks later he is at home with his parents recovering from a hip fracture of the femur and a fractured knee cap, both injuries on the same leg. This week we will be seeing the surgeon for the first time since his surgeries to discuss the next steps in his road to recovery. We know his recovery will be slow and painful but we thank God everyday that our son is alive. He is non weight bearing and has spent his summer in a wheelchair. Our son is an avid outdoorsman, who has travelled this river many times and is not a risk taker. He had paddled down the river form the 400 Hwy and was just out for the day with friends, one of which was a paramedic and one a nurse.. Somehow he just found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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    1. Thank you for sharing his recovery story! We were all very scared for him, and I'm truly sorry I couldn't have gotten to him sooner. Please send him my regards, and let him know I am wishing him a swift recovery. I've spent some time at hospitals and in physio myself, and know that the process can be tedious at times, but sticking to the prescribed exercises coupled with a positive attitude can definitely go a long way.

      If you'd like to talk some more or if for any reason you need to get in touch with me, my email address is ontariogeardo@gmail.com

      Kind regards,
      Mike

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