The Doc Project

That time I saved my family from drowning in a river... when I was 16

How a well-meaning family adventure became the last time the Anderson-Hunts would ever agree to get into a canoe together.​
The Anderson family on a canoeing adventure in calmer waters. (Kathy Hunt)
Listen to the full episode10:11

by Kalli Anderson

It took me a long time to realize that not every family has a bunch of standby "Remember that time we almost died?" stories they like to chuckle over at every holiday gathering.

It took me a long time to realize that not every family has a bunch of standby "Remember that time we almost died?" stories they like to chuckle over at every holiday gathering.

At my parents' house, usually around the time the second glass of wine is ready to be topped up, someone inevitably brings up that time Uncle Brian's van fell through the ice in the middle of the Ottawa river, or the time Dad dove off the sailboat without putting the anchor down first, or, how about the one where the garage was on fire and nobody noticed? I could go on.

One of our most enduring classics is the story of the last canoe trip the five of us took as a family.

It was about 20 years ago. I'm pretty sure I was 16, which means my brother Dylan would have been 14 and Daniel would have been 10. It was a route down a section of the Lower Madawaska River near Algonquin Park in Ontario. We'd spent the first few days portaging our gear around rapids and then occasionally running the tamer ones in empty canoes.

As I remember it, near the end of the trip, my dad and brothers were in one canoe, my mom and I following behind in the other. I remember my dad raising up on his knees to look down river, and then waving us through.

"It's just a little trickle." No need to stop to scout the rapid this time.

Turns out, it looked relatively calm because it was the top of a waterfall.

Slate Falls is the scary white and grey bit. (Google Earth)
Slate Falls is a notorious set of waterfalls and rapids that even most expert canoeists don't attempt to run. Along the portage trail, carved into rocks, are the names of late 19th-century log runners who lost their lives trying to break up log jams on the falls.

As we rounded the first island and saw the falls, my mom and I tried to quickly manoeuver away from the first big drop and we ended up turned sideways, wedged up against a rock at the top of the falls. Instead of immediately heading to shore, my dad steered toward us. And their canoe got stuck too.

So there we were, a family of five and two jam-packed canoes, stranded on a rock in the middle of a river, at the top of a waterfall.  

Kalli's brother Dan at Slate Falls. (Kathy Hunt)
When no other canoe appeared and it became clear that our only option was to have someone head a bit up stream and then swim the 15 metres or so across the section of river to shore (and then pull everyone else and the boats across), it also quickly became clear that I was going to get to be the hero.

At that time, I was a competitive swimmer, training 13 hours a week, and despite his initial insistence that he should be the one to swim across, my dad had to concede that I had the greatest chance of actually making it through the current.

To this day, I can barely remember anything else about that trip. But that heart-pumping swim across the river and the sound of my whole family cheering as I grasped a slimy rock and dragged myself to shore is still vivid. 

To hear the rest of the story, take a listen to documentary. 

The sound of my whole family cheering as I grasped a slimy rock and dragged myself to shore is still vivid.

For a good five years, that was our best "the time we almost died" family story. It held its spot without contest until the time in my early twenties when I was working as a whitewater rafting guide and accidentally lost my mother overboard in a vicious wave known as "the Washing Machine" on the Rouge River in Quebec.

We still like to laugh about that one too.

This story aired as part of our Sept. 12, 2017 episode.

Two stories of awkward, dangerous and beautiful family bonding - from the last time a family of five ever agrees to get in a canoe together to a mother and daughter who "bury themselves in their work" building a casket. 28:59

Acey Rowe
About the producer

Acey Rowe is an award-winning radio producer and host of The Doc Project. Hailing from Gatineau, Quebec, she got her start in broadcasting co-hosting the afternoon drive on 103.9 PROUD FM in Toronto, the world's first LGBTQ commercial station. From there, she joined the CBC as a producer for DNTO in Winnipeg, where she told stories and helped other people tell theirs. Acey's work has been featured on The Current, q, Podcast Playlist, Tapestry and Day 6, where she won a Gabriel Award. She is also part of the team that makes Now or Never.

Kalli Anderson (Robby Reis)
About the contributor

Kalli Anderson is an award-winning audio producer, writer and filmmaker based in Toronto. She has produced radio documentaries, news reports and current affairs segments for CBC Radio (The Doc Project, Out in the Open, Dispatches, The World This Weekend). Her writing has appeared in The Walrus, Chatelaine, Today's Parent, THIS Magazine, Toronto Life, The Grid, Eye Weekly and The Globe and Mail's online edition. Her short films have screened in festivals across North America. Her audio documentaries have won an RTDNA Adrienne Clarkson Award for Diversity Reporting and been nominated for a Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) award.