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Fears while paddling or on canoe trips

Glenn MacGrady

Staff member
Oct 24, 2012
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I have had a variety of fears that have affected me while on canoe trips or paddling. None have crippled or paralyzed me, but are enough to be annoying or a persistent nag. Some have been rational fears, others irrational.

First, I have a fear of heights -- acrophobia. This has mainly affected me while driving on steep and narrow mountain roads to access high altitude lakes or rivers. I once watched a van go over the side of a cliff as I was approaching it. Acrophobia also affects me if I try to climb a tree or stand on some high precipice or overlook.

I also have a sort of agoraphobia -- in my case a sporadic fear of being all alone on open water. Sometimes this is rational, as being very nervous about making a big crossing, which in fact can be very dangerous if rough wind or weather suddenly springs. Other times, however, I can be on mirror glass water with virtually no chance of bad weather, and yet I get an irrational fear that I am going to tip over in the watery expanse. This fear is mostly irrational, because I physically and historically have less chance of tipping over on calm water than I do tripping on a sidewalk. Yet, sometimes as I paddle alone, I have a little devil in my ear saying with each stroke, "you're going to tip, you're going to tip, you're going to tip . . . ."

A third type of fear always attended paddling hard rapids in my serious whitewater days in class 4 water. The fear was usually greatest when scouting unfamiliar rapids with ominous reputations. I developed what I called the "seven minute rule" of scouting. That is, if I couldn't figure out a confident route within seven minutes of scouting, I would portage, because I would get more and more nervous and fearful as the scouting analysis lasted more than seven minutes. Increased fear usually results in decreased confidence in rapids. Decreased confidence usually results in a decrease in aggresssive paddling and an increase in defensive paddling, both of which increase the probability of failure, dumps and swims.

I was never much fearful in camp or in my tents, but then I've never encountered any really strange nocturnal noises.

My solutions to my fears have included focus and mental discipline, occasional tranquilizers for the irrational fears, and a simple rule of no running hard rapids in a loaded boat when in real wilderness situations.
About those strange nocturnal noises... noises that have had me worried me several times, I guess, have been high winds at night while in the tent... esp during the fall with winter coming on. The wind rises and falls, sometimes making these unearthly moaning noises increasing in strength in the leafless trees overhead. Sometimes the strength of the wind gradually increases over a longer period of time, so that listening to each rising gust following a drop, you lie awake there listening to the moaning branches, the moaning increasing in volume steadily until becomes more like a threatening howl, wondering how much worse is this going to get this time. Then the wind falls again and you wait there for the next gust in the darkness, thinking about how much stronger will this one be... I haven't had any trees break off and hit the tent yet but can hear them sometimes breaking off in the distance.

A thing that put some fear into me for a few minutes in a canoe was the thought that I had lost my way on a river on a moonlit night. I was paddling on the return upstream, so the way should have been familiar... but after dark the low and rising moon was full and everything looked different. Because of the darkness where there was no moonlight, I got caught in a side bay, paddling round and round like a minnow in a minnow trap unable to find the way out. The narrow river channel upstream was in shadow from a hillside and not visible although the moonlight everywhere else was bright. At one point I thought I had paddled into an unknown side tributary at some point earlier on and was somewhere else, which was impossible, thinking about it rationally but the thought that that could have happened was still crazy enough to get some energy going. I had to get the flashlight out and search the shoreline closely to find the channel to get out, hidden by some vegetation.
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Glenn sometimes our fears serve us well and allow us to survive. Yes it seems odd on calm water but you are not alone. I taught Women in the Stern tandem for a long time. We put the guys who had always sterned in the bow . About three quarters of them were surprised to learn they were terrified. They had been used to seeing the expanse of canoe and cargo from the rear and the switch to seeing nothing but a tiny bow and a lot of water. Psychology is a funny thing,.
When I switch from big boat to tiny boat I too have gut wrenches. I have to give myself time to mentally iron things out.

Strange nocturnal noises: it's amazing how loud a rummaging in the bush bird is. And threatening sounding from inside the tent.

Interesting topic. Kathleen and I are in no way adrenaline junkies. We are very cautious people, but I would not say we have fears while wilderness paddling. More like reasonable concerns. I also don’t like heights. I just make sure I don’t stand close to the edge. In terms of running rapids, we have a rule. We both have to agree to run. If either one of us is uncertain, we don’t run. No cajoling allowed. We both have to be confident. As you point out, this produces stronger, less timid strokes. We don’t have a rule about how many minutes we should scout, as that is not always realistic. For example, on our Seal River trip in northern Manitoba, we got out to scout Nine—Bar Rapids, which Hap Wilson describes as three km (two miles) of “gruesome” class III & IV. We scouted the first half, to a spot with a suitable eddy, which took substantially longer than 7 minutes. We agreed we could run it that far.

Obviously we could not memorize the entire run in exquisite detail, but we noted the most problematic spots, and a general approach. On day trips with our canoe club, Kathleen and I always spent half-a-day each in the bow and the stern. But, as yellowcanoe pointed out, the bow can be scarier than the stern, and Kathleen remains a better bow paddler than me. I have complete confidence in her. So I set the general direction from the stern, while Kathleen makes the necessary adjustments from the bow to avoid rocks. If she puts in a stationary pry or draw, I immediately respond with the supporting stroke from the stern. No questions asked. No hesitation. We have never broached or capsized on a wilderness trip, even with a fully loaded boat. We also always use a spray cover. We ran Nine-Bar Rapids without incident, although my mouth did dry when we began our descent.

I also share your concerns about wind and open crossings, particularly on the Barren Grounds. When we approach a large bay, we generally don’t paddle straight across. Rather, we paddle into the bay to gain a shorter crossing, and then paddle back out. This adds considerable distance and time, but it is safer, and we are not in a hurry anyway. Once, with no real choice, we made a two-km open crossing, after being wind-bound for two days. We paddled as hard as we possibly could, let me tell you!
I can think of quite a few times when I have had fear: Twice crossing Tampa Bay in the Everglades 300 mile race between Fort Desoto and AnnaMaria Island in a big 23 foot long tandem kayak with my wife in the bow, In one there were sets of six foot breaking white caps quartering at us from the front, and I had to turn the kayak into them, so we wouldn't get hit sideways a broach. Each time we came off the top of one breaker the bow with Nanci would plow under with her coming up spitting out water. It was five hours battling our way across and getting in the calm water on the back side of AnnaMaria Island.
The second time it was just as bad, but they were quartering from the rear at us. We never entered that race again figuring three strikes and your out!
There have been quit a few times more, and one is on the North Toe River in North Carolina that is a nice wilderness run except for one rapid where there are rocks all the way across with only one safe passage just wide enough for a boat after some tight zigging and zagging. We have run that in solo canoes and solo kayaks and each time I fully have the fear that I am going to swim, but never have.
In the same river a few miles further on there is a long boulder garden about a hundred yards long that I always have a fear of swimming but so far never have.
Now at my ancient age I don't want any white water or rough ocean water. Lilly dipping suits me just fine
Being windbound because of wind, large waves and white caps on the day I have to paddle out (and having to be back at work the next day). I had a situation like that happen to me years ago when I was camped at site #31 on Grass Pond in the Bog River Flow in mid-November. I had my Radio Shack Realistic crystal weather radio with me and the weather forecast the night before I was to leave called for strong winds and snow developing overnight. I determined I had to get an early start, as the wind would only get worse later in the day and I had to allow for more time to get out. I turned in early and remember awakening in the middle of the night by the sound of the wind howling. When I got up the next morning (just before daybreak) it was windy and snowing, with about 6 inches of snow on the ground. Fortunately, I brought all of my cold weather paddling clothing. In the interest of time, I skipped the hot breakfast, broke camp, loaded everything into my Sawyer Autumn Mist, put on the spray cover and headed out. Grass Pond wasn't bad, but when I exited and got near the island at the entrance, the wind was really going, the waves on the lake were big, with white caps. No way was going out into that, around the point and along the north shore as I usually did. The only alternative was to hop the bays on the north shore until I got to the east end of the lake and then stay behind Frying Pan Island until I got into the river proper. Even doing that, I knew the stretch from behind Frying Pan to the mouth of the river would be tough because of the wind. The bay-hoping was time-consuming, as I had unload and load the boat for each of the carries into the next bay. The stretch of water from the last bay to Frying Pan was rough, as was the run from Frying Pan to mouth of the river. Fortunately, despite the constant wind and snow, between the clothing I had and the level of activity involved with the bay-hopping, I was never cold. Once I got to the river, it was just a steady paddle to the take-out and despite the snowfall, I had no worries about getting out, since my '88 4Runner was there in the parking lot, ready to handle anything the access road presented. Bog River Flow Camping Map
My/our only fear is what is out there in the night?
My insomnia is of my own making; accumulated thru years of late morning rises, late afternoon naps, and late night book reads. So when we trip I am the one staying up late watching the fire burn low and the stars fill the midnight sky. She has long since gone to bed. Just like at home she can barely keeps her eyes open long enough to see a sunset whereas I may well greet the dawn.
One last visit to the woods just beyond the firelight before putting both the fire and me to bed for the night. And then the play begins.
Act 1 Scene 1
I can manage to make a quick clothing change outdoors in the chill of the night before retiring. I am well practised and can to it with my eyes closed, but in the complete dark it amounts to the same thing. I am careful to zip up the tent as noiselessly as possible, there is no desire to disturb my wife's slumbers. Her gentle snores don't even change their pitch as I ease into my bag. However just as I am being transported off to dreamland listening to the wind in the boughs and rain on the fly her part in the scene changes.
Act 1 Scene 2
The snoring stops and her rustling starts. An adjustment here, another there, I can feel her move around to eventually rolling over to stare at the tent overhead (I assume she is, it's still pretty dark at this hour). And then she lets out a sigh. I lay still and play my part. I notice nothing. I am "asleep".
She shifts and then tries again, this time with more effort. Sigh. Followed by an "accidental" flop of her hand across my sleeping bag.
Act 2 Scene 1
Okay, now I "wake up" and pretend to notice the"accidental" disturbance.
"You okay?"
"Hm. Yes, but..."
I wait for it. I know it's coming, and although I really don't mind I wait for her lines...
She finally delivers them "Oh darn. Sigh."
I play my part and give her her cue asking " Do you have to go?"
"Sigh." There it is again. The late night pee visit defeat.
Act 2 Scene 2
I assure her I could use the night air and a short walk, so I will come along.
We go thru the kerfuffle of extricating ourselves from our bags, slipping on footwear, and donning jackets for the outside chill, which serves to make the dash to pee all the more urgent. Headlamps pierce the inky blackness showing us the way but just beyond their beams the forest is still looking impenetrable. Often there's a blanket of cold mist clinging to the camp. Wading thru it we make the slow procession to the thunderbox (if there is one).
I ask the same question I do every trip and receive the same answer every trip.
"Do you want me to lead or follow you?"
"Um. I'd rather you follow me. Keep your light on please."
I hold my lamp in my hand and cast it's light around as we walk.
She doesn't like the feeling of a not empty darkness behind her as she walks down the forest path. You never know what's out there in the night.
I will shine my torch wherever it's needed for it's purpose while keeping my eyes averted through the forest canopy.
Back in camp I'll ask her to pause with the lights out to give our eyes the chance to adjust to the night again. Drink in the sights and sounds of a northern predawn. Greet the stars if the sky is clear. And then head off to bed.
We've had some unsettling days but most often it's the night that can put the fear into us. Both of us. The rustling, scratching, or absolute silence.
The darkness can feel creepy on our nightly sojourn to water the earth. She feels it and appreciates the company. I feel it too.
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This is a very interesting thread.

When traveling new country alone, I often deal with a tinge of dread as I wish I had another person to talk with when route decisions need to me made, getting lost in big wilderness on multi week trips can nag at me. Also I have found mother moose with calves to be something I am extremely cautious of and can spend too much mental energy thinking about. I have had a few run ins to where I can become hyper aware of moose sign.

I have a fear of heights, but seem to climb outcrops in spite of this … usually. I do fear open water and wind, but feel more nervous when the weather breaks loose in camp. Sitting in my tent, hearing tree tops snap … pause … thud of them crashing to the ground … Yikes! I remember one trip long ago in WCPP praying if I was going to be hit by a falling tree to be killed instantly and not pinned for days.

I learned long ago, martins scurrying at night sound like bears. Rabbits running around at night can sound like my camp is under siege by marauding human eaters. Lastly, when moose stomp their hooves like a deer when alerted to my presence at night … it does get my attention.

All this said, one of the most satisfying things I can do in life is explore the wilderness woods and waterways. Exploring with my dog Jake makes it even better.

My biggest fear while out in the wilderness is people. While I have met many extraordinary folks that I have enjoyed sharing time with, I've also come across some sketchy characters. No one has ever wanted me to squeal like a pig, but I've had encounters where moving on was a high priority. In the same category as the fear of my fellow man is the concern for my vehicle at the takeout. Catching my first glimpse of the truck, wheels and windows intact, is always great relief.
Conk nailed it.

I am concerned about my vehicle. Not for duration of the trip, the truck is the last thing on my mind. Not even for the duration of the last day. But when I get within a few miles of my truck some anxiety begins to build.

I have had vehicles broken into a five times; three times at my urban workplace (would have been four, but I saw the guy and met him with a length of pipe and obvious intentions, crackheads can still run), once at a mechanic’s shop, once at a hotel parking garage. I have a sense of relief upon coming to the take out seeing it whole and undamaged, not windows broken and cleaned out.
Probably in the back of my mind is vehicle safety. I can't say for sure if it is why I am not paddling some places. I don't intend to return to the Adirondacks. I have had gear stolen there.

Not ever here. Never. Nor in Canada.
I am most concerned about inadvertent falls, either in camp or on a portage trail. I have had a few close calls with falls, or with balancing on trees to get through some downfall. I think about how easily I could have lost balance and snapped a leg. I have slipped on roots and ended up on the ground with my head landing next to a big rock. A few inches over and it would have been lights out. Who knows when someone would have found my half eaten and rotted corpse.

My fears:
1. Getting hurt to the point I need to call in for help. I carry the SPOT X on me at all times, except while in camp, and I would be really embarrassed if I needed to be pulled out because of an injury.
2. Not being able to handle moving water or wind conditions. Thankfully I have done ok for a long time.
3. Losing my food to a bear. I am pretty relaxed with my food, I usually just throw it under the canoe but in parks I separate the two Sealine bags and figure if I loose one the trip will still go on.
4. Loosing a Duluth Pack to a bear, I bring the empty food pack into the tent at night, take my food but not my DP.
5. The truck, will one spare be enough, is an 8 year old truck dependable, will it be safe at the put in.
6. Family, is everything ok at home/kids
Good point about family Robin. I was hurt for a good while on a long solo. As my trip was winding down others I traveled with at the start found where I was holed up so we could paddle out together. Marten gave me his sat phone and told me to call a friend of mine. We worked together for 20 years, and her husband passed away while I was on my solo. Also, my kids were struggling with some things. I was glad to have the sat phone to take care of some needed business ... I guess I forgot i do worry about family when on a trip.
1. Waking up and not being able to fall back asleep, is a big one. The smaller the tent, the more likely I am to have trouble getting back to sleep and the more I worry about not getting back to sleep, the less likely I am to get back to sleep. Reading a book in my tent usually does the trick helping me fall back asleep. Luci light is awesome for reading in a tent at night.
2. Bears. I've only been awakened once by a black bear while I was sleeping in my tent and it was not a fun experience. The good news is having heard a bear stomp through the woods and huff at me, I no longer mistake all the other nightime noises for bears.
3. Severe weather, be it wind or rain or lightning.
Probably in the back of my mind is vehicle safety. I can't say for sure if it is why I am not paddling some places. I don't intend to return to the Adirondacks. I have had gear stolen there.

Not ever here. Never. Nor in Canada.
Interesting, in 40+ years of canoe camping and backpacking in the ADKs, I have never had a problem with someone tampering with my vehicle or what's in it.
Interesting, in 40+ years of canoe camping and backpacking in the ADKs, I have never had a problem with someone tampering with my vehicle or what's in it.
Same here. Although I often think aboiut it, I have never had a problem where I have parked my vehicles in remote locations. Friends of mine make it a point to generally leave a trashy look to the interior of the car with crumpled papers and trash scattered within.

Other worries are "did I remember to pack my x,y, or z?" If I think about it while driving, I stop and rummage through my pack until I find it or I will obsess about it until I know for sure. My wife expects me to leave initially, then turn around to retrieve what I forgot within a few minutes. Sometimes multiple times.
Interesting, in 40+ years of canoe camping and backpacking in the ADKs, I have never had a problem with someone tampering with my vehicle or what's in it.
They took my whole camp set up and greeted me with guns . They had set up a hunting camp. That was some 20 years ago. I had been away from camp teaching canoeing at Paul Smiths. Nowadays with more yahoos in the Daks I am more sensitive to hearing stories, as isolated as they may be about break ins and stolen goods. Plus since canoeing the North Maine Woods I just find access easier here and never any traffic. As you know LEO's in the Adirondacks have a big range of area to cover and there aren't that many of them.
Unfortunate, that the ADLs of now are not like when I lived there some 60 years ago.

I was on a trip to Iceland when a family member passed away. We were on the far side of the island in a car and getting out before the funeral could not happen. The funeral had to happen a certain day, now we are the black sheep. So I share Robins concern about what is going on at home, especially solo. If I ever solo again I will get a two way texting system like the Inreach.