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WILDS of Manitoba



2024 03 25


WILDS Of Manitoba

Safe Paddling



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The bulk of the following information has been contributed by Donna Kurt. As a Paddle Canada certified Canoe Instructor, I promote and encourage other paddlers to be mindful of safety while paddling.

The information mentions canoes, but is also pertinent to kayaks and standup paddle boards.

The information was inspired by an article entitled "Surfing for Safety" written by Brian Johnston, published in MRCA Newsletter Volume 12, Number 4.




A lot of good links but be sure to visit the Accident Database.

Gruelling details and statistics drive home facts for all paddlers:
85 percent of drowned boaters weren't wearing a PFD,
25 percent of drowned boaters died from being pinned, and
4 percent drowned as a result of foot entrapment.


Two Manitoba drowning incidents come to mind.

In 2001 I was leading a canoe trip on the Pigeon River, on the East Side of Lake Winnipeg, and we portaged past a plaque erected to remember a life lost in the late 1990s. A skilled guide drowned in a keeper at the rapids on the Pigeon River. RCMP who recovered his body say he had a 100 percent chance of surviving if he was wearing his Personal Flotation Device (PFD). The guide had put his PFD in a pack rather than carry it. His only tourist/client watched him drown then had to deal with recovering the packs and canoe and then he had to paddle, portage and navigate down the very remote wilderness river on his own with great risk to his own safety.

I was leading another canoe trip down the Bloodvein River in the early 2000s; we observed and visited a stone and cement monument erected overlooking Kiskoosebesis Rapids on Manitoba's Bloodvein River; the previous year, a young man drowned because it was "TOO HOT" to wear his PFD, so he wasn't wearing his, despite the fact he could not swim and was not skilled in running rapids. His twin brother and the trip leader erected the monument several weeks after the accident. To assist the survivors at the time of the incident, another canoe party helped the survivors paddle downstream to get help at Bloodvein Reserve; the leader of this party paddled back upstream to guide the rest of his group on the rest of their trip downstream but missed them at a place in the river where it branched into two streams (they each took a different stream); the leader ended up spent at least one night without food and shelter, potentially resulting in more injury. Also, an official search and rescue crew later flew in to search for and recover the body. When leaving, their float plane's aileron failed and the plane nearly crashed.

Both incidents had great potential for causing more injury or fatalities.

Once an accident happens, the risk of more incidents increases, in turn increasing risk of further injury or loss of life.

Always wear your PFD!




Safe Boating Guide

Minimum required safety equipment for canoes, kayaks, paddle boards, rowboats and rowing shells not over 6 metres long:

  • 1 bailer or one manual water pump
    with sufficient hose to enable one person to pump water from the bilge of the vessel over the side of the vessel
  • 1 Canadian approved PFD
    or life jacket of appropriate size for each person on board
  • 1 watertight flashlight or approved flares for canoes, kayaks, paddle boards
    for use after sunset and before sunrise
  • One buoyant heaving line not less than 15 meters (50 feet) long
  • One sound-signalling device or a sound signalling appliance (1 whistle or airhorn)
  • 1 manual propelling device (paddle)



  • 1 PADDLE PER PADDLER PLUS a spare paddle in the boat in case one floats away or breaks
  • PROPERLY FITTING PFDs (whatever the CCG approved colour).
  • WEAR a whitewater HELMET when in whitewater; PROTECT YOUR COCONUT!
  • USE a THROW BAG instead of a loose buoyant heaving line; see more about throw bags, below.
  • SECURE your buoyant heaving line (throw bag) so it isn't foot loose, secured under a bungee cord on the deck of your boat; tie on the bailer too!
  • A good quality buoyant PAINTER rope a few feet longer than your canoe; see more about painters below.
  • A good quality buoyant PACK ROPE rope about 10 feet long; see more about pack ropes below.
    DO NOT attach the whistle to the PFD zipper pull, if the whistle catches on something your PFD might come undone when you need it most!
    I also wear a second whistle on a neck lanyard so that if I am in camp or off to the washroom or an exploratory hike without my PFD I can get help in case I happen to get injured or encounter another being.
  • COMPASS in a PFD pocketand learn how to use it. Perhaps an area map too.
  • SMALL OUCH KIT in a PFD pocket
    waterproofed bandaids, alcohol wipes
  • SMALL DITCH KIT in a PFD pocket
    signal mirror, waterproofed lighter, snack, fire starter
    possibly extras in another pack, eg. Inreach, SPOT emergency communicator, marine band VHF radio, satellite phone.
  • A DITCH KITin a separate waterproof bag
    Containing essential items in case you are stranded: spare clothes, redundant emergency communications gear, food/snacks, water, thermos with hot water, area maps, emergency bivy sack, small first aid kit, fire starters, waterproofed matches/lighter.




Use a good throw bag from North Water or MEC or Level Six which meets the Canadian Department Of Transport's 15 meter buoyant heaving line requirement. Many folks will just grab some cheap nylon rope which doesn't float and has minimal strength or some cheap polyethylene rope which floats but degrades quickly in the sun's UV light, is abrasive to handle and does not coil nicely; both these options are useless for throwing out to someone in the water who needs to be rescued.

If you are on remote whitewater trips buy a stronger, lighter and longer-reach throw bag containing 75 feet of buoyant Spectra heaving line, useful for paddler rescues or for Z-drag rescue kits.

Various stores sell a cheap little plastic jar type rescue kit that can be opened to use as a bailer, contains a whistle and 50 feet of coiled cheap polyethylene rope; the rope is not comfortable to handle and is useless to throw. Don't waste your money on these kits.

LEARN and PRACTICE how to throw your throw bag to that human flotsam and how to use it, don't wait until you have to use it in a real situation. Use an underhand throw, but don't throw the bag up over your head. If you are in the water on the receiving end, turn with the throw bag on your chest with the rope going over a shoulder and your back to shore so that the water doesn't pile up in your face and so that you can flutter-kick to help propel yourself to shore.

Also practice how to re-stuff the throw bag using the FILO or LIFO rule.
- FIRST bit of rope IN is the LAST OUT
- LAST bit of rope IN is the FIRST OUT
Don't just roll up the rope and stuff it in because it won't pay out of the bag properly when it is thrown. You have to stuff in a bit at a time starting with the bit of rope closest to the throw bag. A Paddle Canada canoe instructor can show you how to do this.

If you have thrown all your throw bags and want to re-throw one of them, don't waste time trying to restuff it, that takes too long! Your flotsam friend risks getting tossed in the maytag rapid again, pulled down in undertow or recirculated in a huge eddy. Grab the end of the throw bag rope in your left hand, then using your right hand pull in arm-length sections of the rope, making large hoops of the rest of the rope on your left hand, then using your right hand scoop some water into the throw bag, grab the hooped ropes from your left hand (which keeps holding onto the end of the throw rope) and give a good underhand throw of the throw bag and coiled rope out to the person in the water. It may not fly as far as the stuffed throwbag, but it's better than doing nothing or wasting time trying to restuff a throwbag. I rescued a friend doing this, I threw the recoiled throw bag far enough out so that it coiled or tangled around the loose painter rope on the friend's canoe and there was enough friction on the entangled ropes so that I could pull her canoe and her (hanging onto her canoe) out of a huge maytag keeper rapid into an eddy where she could exit the water. She may have died otherwise.

I attach the loose end of a throw bag to the stern-end grab loop or handle of my canoe and stuff the throw bag under a bungee so it stays put until yanked out. It can be quickly retrieved from the boat to rescue someone in the water if needed. Or if your boat flips while you are paddling, you can swim to the end of the boat, pull out the throw bag and swim to the end of the rope; if you don't get to shore, then stop swimming and pull the boat towards you and repeat until you reach safety (shore or another canoe), then you can pull the boat on to shore or the boat can be rescued such as by boat-over-boat, parallel flip, etc.

Another use of the throw bag is to help getting out of the water at a swim spot where the shore is difficult to climb or crawl on. I attach the loose end of a throw bag to a large rock, tree or secured canoe on shore and throw the bag out into the water. A swimmer can grab the floating bag and pull them self up onto shore. This saves a lot of abrasive cuts on sharp granite rocks, as well as slips and falls on mossy/slimy rocks or river bottom. Just don't forget your throw bag when it's time to leave your swim spot. It gives you a chance to try throwing the throw bag from shore, and gives an opportunity to verify the bag is properly re-stuffed.

I don't use my throw bag rope to hang tarps or other camp tasks which may involve exposing them to UV light for long periods of time as this will degrade the rope strength which may be needed for future rescues. I am also careful to ensure the rope is not cut or nicked or gets pine sap on it which could make it sticky and affect how it pays out of the throw rope.

If I am on a whitewater river trip I will have a second throw bag that I wear on my waist; these are specially designed for quick deployment.

The throw rope may be thrown to you but you are out of range. You can't always rely on someone else to rescue you, so be prepared to rescue yourself! Practice this in safe conditions preferably on a rescue course or clinic.

In the following photo I am running the left chute of Old Woman Falls on the Manigotagan River during a canoe trip about 1997. I felt safe about running this chute because the water was not recirculating at the bottom, it was not a keeper, and there were no rocks visible in the pool. I would likely get washed out of the rapid and float downstream if I capsized. Friends were on the opposite shore a dozen feet away ready to toss a throw bag to me. Note the painter on the front deck of the canoe and throw bag on the back deck of the canoe, both held in securely in place under bungee cords. I am also sitting behind the yoke without any thigh straps on.

Donna Kurt running Old Woman Falls, Manigotagan River.

At the bottom of the falls, the front of my canoe dived down into the foaming water and I quickly found myself out of the canoe and submerged, floating weightlessly several feet down in bubbling water . There was no gravity pulling me down, no current, no floating up to the surface; I was motionless in zero gravity, there was only white foam surrounding me. Time seemed to stop. This old woman felt like she could float there forever! I had my arms spread out, holding onto my paddle in my left hand, and after what may have been a minute or so, pushed my arms down to get to the water's surface. Popping up out of the water I immediately noticed that the shore was blurry; so I closed my right eye and the shore came into focus, then closed my left eye and the shore was fuzzy; then something bluish appeared on my right cheek and I pinched it with my right hand. It was my contact lens that was resting on my cheek! Not knowing what else to do with the lens, given I had to swim and didn't want to lose it, I placed it gently on my tongue, and closed my mouth, being mindful not to speak or swallow. I had now floated down the shore on river left and had gone out of reach of the throw bag my friends had thrown to me. I noticed a large V shaped gap in the rocks on shore, swam a few feet to it, threw my paddle up into it and pulled myself up into the V, turning around to see my canoe floating along toward me. I grabbed my whitewater paddle blade and reached out with its T-grip handle to snag the canoe gunwale and pulled the canoe close to me. The canoe was about half filled with water, so I reached across it at midship, grabbed the opposite gunwale and pulled it over my body, emptying the canoe out, then pushed it back over onto the water. I stood up, stepped in to the canoe with my paddle and soloed across the pool to a ledge on the Old Woman "island" (there is a chute on each side at this falls) where my friends were watching me do all this. A friend steadied the canoe when I reached the ledge and I looked up, took the contact lens off my tongue and asked "Does anyone have a mirror so I can put my contact lens back in my right eye?" That got an incredulous, good laugh from everyone. I had just done a good self rescue demo for my paddling friends, who had not taken any whitewater instruction aside from what I taught them during the trip, had lost and found a contact lens, had enjoyed timeless zero gravity and had fun all the while. I got changed into some dry clothes, rinsed the contact lens with solution and put it back in my right eye. We continued our trip uneventfully.

Learn self rescue!




Add to your boat (canoe, kayak or paddle board) a good quality buoyant PAINTER rope a few feet longer than your boat. Tie it onto the bow grab loop or handle of your boat (using a bow line or double fishermans knot). Coil the painter up and stuff it under a bungee on the bow (don't leave it loose, it can trip your or dangle on the ground when carrying the canoe). AKA painter line.

The painter has numerous uses: to tie the boat to a tree, dock or rock; to hold while lining or tracking your boat along shore; to tie your boat down at camp to keep water or winds from taking your float away (been there, done that); to tie your boat down to a vehicle roof top (I often have a V front rope to avoid side-to-side wind shear on the front of the boat); to tow a boat behind another boat; or to assist in a rescue.

Some folks enjoy a different use of the painter for canoe portaging, that I developed in the early 1990s. This is useful for reducing strain on shoulders over long portages. I tie the loose end of the painter to the stern seat, grab loop or handle using a quick release knot so the painter can be released for other uses. When moving in or out of the canoe, paddlers should be careful to not trip on the painter that is dangling across the seats and thwarts; move it to the side so it is not in the way. When the canoe is flipped for a solo carry, the painter hangs down to about hip level by your side. If it is not windy you can let your hands drop from the gunwales to your sides and you can grab the painter with your hand. This changes your shoulder position and affects how the canoe yoke is resting on your shoulders so that it gives your shoulders a break from the weight of the canoe always being on one part of your shoulder. As you walk the portage, you hold on to the painter with one hand to control the canoe's level: pull back on the painter to bring the front of the canoe down, pull forward on the painter to bring the back of the canoe down forcing the front of the canoe up, and pull sideways on the painter to make the canoe turn to sideways a little. If the painter is a bit too long, you can take up the slack by wrapping it around your hand once or twice. At the end of the portage you need to be careful to not get caught in the rope as you lower the canoe to the ground or water. Move the painter close to one of the gunwales so it is not tripped on when entering the canoe. A number of friends and I have enjoyed the use of this technique for decades.




Some paddlers just like to take their barrels and let them float down the rapids so they don't have to carry them over a portage. Paddlers who do this run the risk of the barrels getting damaged, kept in a keeper or they may float away quickly downstream; doing this with a waterproof pack may result in it getting damaged or infiltrated with water.

Some paddlers like to secure their packs to their boat so they don't float away or sink in case of capsize. Their are several methods of doing this. Just keep in mind that if your pack is going to sink, and if it is heavy enough, it may submerge your boat as well, making it more difficult to rescue or to use to get your body out of the water.

Many folks clip their pack straps to a canoe's thwart, seat or yoke. This may require reaching across a floating canoe to clip packs in or release packs individually which can take more time and you may end up capsizing the canoe, lose your footing or fall in to the water.

I prefer to use a good quality buoyant PACK ROPE about 10 or 12 feet long to tether my packs and barrels to the canoe in case of capsize. Tie one end of the rope to a seat, thwart or yoke using a quick release knot; then loop it through pack handles or straps making sure the rope stays above seats, thwarts or yoke; then tie it off to the last pack using a quick release knot. This allows the packs to float freely away from the boat allowing it to be rescued. The packs can be quickly released from the canoe by untying the quick release knot at either end of the rope. Before portaging, tie the loose end of the gear rope to a seat or grab loop so it doesn't dangle on the ground.

Some people prefer to tie the packs securely to D-rings glued onto the inside of the hull of the canoe with a gear rope (or several). This will keep the packs from leaving the canoe, and if they are secure enough they won't impeded canoe over canoe rescue. However this will make the canoe very heavy to lift for canoe over canoe, parallel canoe rescue or on shore rescue. It also slows down loading and unloading of the canoe at portages or camps. Despite this, this method is often used for whitewater canoes equipped with spray skirts.




Good outfitting and instruction will help to keep you floating and minimize potential for getting pinned on a rock, bridge abutment, strainers, undercuts or other hard places. Don't sell your self short to save a buck, get instruction and good gear.

An exemplary incident occurred on a canoe trip I was leading on the Manigotagan River in the late 1990s near the end of the canoe trip, when two paddlers decided to run a rapid I suggested that no one attempt because our skill levels were not suited for the rapid features. I had finished portaging and was enjoying lunch at the bottom of the rapid and saw them paddle their canoe away from the portage. They refused to return to the portage and carry the canoe over, all the rest of the canoe party could do was watch them attempt it. Thankfully they were wearing helmets and PFDs. We watched as they capsized on the first drop and then the bow paddler floated down on to a large rock and was nearly pinned on to it by the broached canoe filled with water, but she was lucky that the canoe moved around her without injuring her and she ended up floating out into the pool below the rapid where we rescued her. The other paddler hit a couple rocks while floating through the rapids down into the pool. When we got him out of the pool he realized he was bleeding internally where he had banged his buttock on a rock. This would become a bad bruise with a low level of medical urgency for most paddlers, but he is a hemophiliac and the injury had potential for turning into a life threatening hematoma requiring urgent medical attention. We urgently continued the rest of our trip with another several hours of portaging and paddling to get to our vehicles at the take-out. We risked having more injuries rushing over the last portage but we got through okay. He lay prone in the back of my Volvo wagon with his hips up and some frozen moose steaks on his injured buttock as I sped back to an emergency department in Winnipeg. He spent a week in hospital getting transfusion for clotting factors but he recovered. The otherwise enjoyable trip had a sour ending as a result but thankfully no one died. Unfortunately these two paddlers did not have (or heed) my gut feeling that running the rapid was a bad idea.

Listen to your gut and instinct. If you don't feel right about paddling in a windy lake, running a rapids or doing a certain activity, sit out or find an alternative. Take your time and don't rush. Don't let deadlines, others or the thrill entice you to do something you don't feel right about or that puts yourself or your group at risk. Only do an activity if you are confident in your abilities and the outcome. Learn your limits in controlled settings with people trained in instructing new activities under controlled conditions. A lot of people take it for granted that they can just get in a canoe and paddle, many people find out the hard way that it is not always so, and that there are safer, more efficient ways of paddling that make it more enjoyable.

Pick up a copy of Paul Mason's and Mark Scriver's "Thrill of the Paddle", a book that provides excellent outfitting information for boat and paddler no matter how easy or extreme the whitewater is. This book expands and updates paddling techniques in Paul's father Bill Mason's "Path of the Paddle" and accompanying book "Song of the Paddle" that expands on canoe tripping and camping.



Leave information about your trip with an emergency contact or two. Perhaps your Risk Management Plan and/or Trip Plan including your destination, start/end locations, contact phone numbers, daily checkin times with emergency contact, end of trip checking time, emergency numbers for parks/RCMP, group licence numbers, names of everyone on the trip, departure and return times, rendezvous locations.

Risk Management plan including identified leader(s) or group leading and decision making, itemizing scenarios and contingencies, emergency gear, participant names, emergency conctact info, skill levels, First Aid/CPR certifications, alternate exits from the trip such as walking to a road or community.

Gear/equipment checklist. Paddling and safety gear (DOT requirements), camping, kitchen, stoves and fuel, emergency communications (inReach SPOT, Sat phone, VHF marine radio), flares and bear bangers (gun if in polar bear territory), First Aid Kit, Ditch Kit, Repair Kit, ropes, clothing and footwear, sun/bug/heat/cold protection, food storage, waterproof packs and barrels, flashlight and toiletry kit.

Menu plan, safe food packaging, nutrition, portions, food allergies and preferences, cooking time, snacks, kitchen skills (knife, heat safety).

Trip plan. Objectives of group and individuals, start/stop/rendezvous locations/times, environmental conditions, water classes, weather/water levels forecast, area features and history.

Navigation route plan, maps, GPS tracks, Plan B, who is navigating.

Trip sanitation plan: proper toileting (cat hole), greywater disposal, handwashing station, bathing, dishwashing, garbage handling and removal, and water treatment.

Campsite and gear location, setup and tear down, campfire location and safety, delittering and site restoration.

Group/individual skill set: paddling skill levels, certifications (take a COURSE), abilities, portaging, map/compass/GPS navigation, practice together especially if new to each other, get Wilderness First Aid/CPR certification, conflict resolution, crisis management.

Pack a trip log notebook and record the trip.

Get physically conditioned for paddling and portaging. Do regular exercise, cardio, calisthenics, stretches, yoga, Taiji, Qigong, meditation, even while on a trip. Be mindful of your paddling activity, be in the moment of your paddling activities, not only when they are the most enjoyable, but also when they are gruelling or difficult, this will make all moments worthy and memorable. Partake of the environment, feel the world around you with all your senses: sight, smell, touch, energies.