One of the more popular natural attractions in south central Ontario is the Elora Gorge. It’s a beautiful 2 kilometre long gorge that the Grand River has cut through 70-foot cliffs north of Guelph. The gorge is contained within the Elora Gorge Conservation Area, and they rent big inner tubes for people to ride down the river. There are sections of rapids as well as some more serene “lazy river” sections. We’ve now been camping there twice, and both times have certainly been eventful – once because we didn’t go tubing, and once because we did.
About a year ago (the summer of 2013), we went for a few days to Elora in the hopes of going tubing. But it had rained quite a bit over the previous week. It was OK the day we got there, but then it rained overnight and the next night too. The tubing run is closed when the river flow exceeds 8 cubic metres per second; the day we wanted to go tubing, it was measuring 98 cubic metres per second. That’s not a typo – the river flow was over twelve times higher than their safety limit. One of the two bridges over the gorge was closed entirely because water was flowing over it, to the point where you couldn’t see the bridge. There was no way we were going anywhere near the water. We had a fun camping trip (despite the rain), but we were disappointed that we didn’t get to go tubing.
Let’s try that again
So this year, we decided to go back and try again. We booked the same campsite as we had the previous year and this time Mother Nature played nice. Our first day we slept late and decided to have more of a lazy day, so we played some cards before lunch and did some geocaching in Elora after lunch. The second day was tubing day. Our plan was to do one run, then walk back to our campsite (about halfway up), have lunch, and then do more runs in the afternoon. If Gail or I got tired, one of us could wait at the bottom with the van and drive everyone back to the top. After getting ready, we drove to the rental place and walked with the tubes to the starting point. This was sometime around 11:00.
Here’s a Google map of the tubing run; I wanted to use the satellite view but it was cloudy the day the satellite took the picture so you can’t see much. I’ve marked approximately where the interesting events happened.
Note that this is not a water ride, it’s just a river. They rent you the tubes and they’ve built stairs to get you to the starting point, but the rest is up to you. There are no lifeguards or attendants at the start, end, or anywhere in between.
At the start, a friendly man was there taking pictures of his grandkids, and noticed our confusion as to where to go. He suggested walking a little further up the river and starting from there, so we did. We didn’t plan it this way (we didn’t really plan anything – more on that later) but Ryan went first, then Gail followed him. Nicky went next and I came last. Before I even started, I noticed that Ryan had flipped over going down the first set of “rapids”, but quickly recovered and gave us the thumbs up. As I was approaching the rapids, I managed to get spun around and didn’t see what happened to Gail or Nicky. When I hit the rapids, I flipped over backwards as well. I managed to stand up and grab my tube, and started to get back on it.
That’s when I noticed Gail sitting on a rock on the right bank. No tube.
Nicky was floating down the middle of the river and an empty tube was floating down in front of him. I hadn’t gotten back on my tube yet, so I managed to walk/swim over to the bank where Gail was. The water was still pretty fast here, so it took a fair bit of effort. It turned out that Gail had also flipped over, but while Ryan and I managed to grab our tubes, Gail did not. She got pounded by multiple waves which bounced her off of the rocky bottom a number of times. She was eventually able to grab some rocks on the bottom and pull herself to the side and get out of the river. Both of her knees were scraped up pretty good, as well as her ankles and the side of her right foot. She had lost her sunglasses and had thought for a minute that her contact lenses had also been washed away, though luckily they hadn’t. I stayed with her until we determined that she could stand and walk back to the start (she was shaking too much for the first couple of minutes). We decided that I would continue and once we were done, the boys and I would walk back to the van and then come and get her.
The whole time we were sitting there, we had to watch our children float further away from us, down a river that we hadn’t seen before, and that we had already found to be much more dangerous than any of us had realized. The boys are 14 and 12 and have been taking swimming lessons their whole lives; they’re probably better swimmers now than either me or Gail. That plus the fact that they were wearing helmets and life jackets were the only reasons we were nervous but not panicking.
After making sure that Gail could walk back to the start (maybe 30 metres back), I continued down the river in my tube. I had no watch on and so my sense of time is rather hazy, so I have no idea how long it was before I caught up with the boys, but it couldn’t have been more than about 5 or 10 minutes. They had reached an eddy in the river, so Ryan was essentially sitting in the middle of a big circle, not moving, while Nicky was slowly drifting around the circle, holding on to Gail’s tube which he had managed to grab. I grabbed Gail’s tube from Nicky, then we had to kick our feet for a while to get out of the eddy and start heading back downstream. Ryan had somehow managed to get out of it without kicking at all and was ahead of us again.
Just around the corner from the eddy, there was a shallow area that Nicky and I got caught up in. We had to push along the bottom to get free, and that led us to the second set of rapids. I told Nicky to go down first, then I sent Gail’s tube down by itself (since I figured I wouldn’t be able to hold onto it), and then I came last. I drifted to the right side of the rapids, near the canyon wall. Just as I expected to bounce off the wall, I heard a loud bang and immediately sank into the river.
The water wasn’t deep but the current was very strong. It pushed me through the rapids until I managed to grab another rock on the canyon wall with one hand, while holding onto my deflated tube with the other. Nicky saw this and wanted to know if he should stop or try to grab Gail’s tube, but he was still in some pretty fast-moving water. I told him to just keep going, figuring it was more dangerous for him to try to stop. I had no choice here but to walk down the river. Some parts had a rocky shoreline which was easy navigable, but for most of it I had to walk in the river holding on to the cliff face or trees sticking out. Some places were ankle deep and slippery, while others were deeper – the water came up to my shoulders in one place. There was one area where I had to swim about 30 feet and another where I had to climb through a fallen tree. There were a few areas with big rocks that I had to climb over, and I saw one rock with a big spider on it – must have been 3-4 inches across. I hate spiders, so that would have been the worst moment of most normal days, but it barely even registered. I slipped and fell once but luckily just landed on my butt, with nothing more than a bruise to show for it. Sorry, I don’t have any pictures of it.
Eventually, the river got shallow enough that Nicky was able to grab Gail’s tube once again and get out of the water to wait for me. Again, I have no concept of how long it took for me to get to him – fifteen minutes? Forty five? I really don’t know but from the time my tube burst until the time I met up with Nicky again must have been at least 30 minutes. I stopped there for a rest and then we continued down the river, with me floating on Gail’s tube and carrying mine.
The rest of the way was relatively uneventful but frustratingly slow. Not only was I physically exhausted, but I was anxious to get back to make sure Gail was OK. Problem #2 had slowed us down significantly, so I was sure Gail was wondering where we were. I got caught in another eddy where I had to kick continually for several minutes to get through it. Then Nicky and I hit some more shallows where we had to push off the bottom to move. We eventually arrived at the end of the tubing run where we were finally reunited with Ryan who had finished ages before.
We got out of the river and walked back up to the parking area while I filled Ryan in on what had happened. After about a 10-15 minute walk, we got to the rental place, turned in the punctured tube (“No thanks, I don’t need a replacement”), and picked up our van keys. While tying tube #3 onto the top of the van, Gail’s phone (which was in the van) rang. By the time we found the phone, it had stopped ringing but I noticed that there were eleven missed calls from my phone. Gail had walked back to our campsite and was getting pretty worried that we hadn’t yet reached the van. We called her back and reassured her that everyone was OK. It was now 1:38pm. That one single run – that only three of us finished – had taken us about two and a half hours.
We drove back to the camp site and Gail hobbled over to meet us. She was also doing a little better though her left leg was pretty stiff and it was obvious she was going to have some pretty good bruises in a couple of days. I’m writing this a couple of days later and she does indeed have some bruising (see picture) and her legs are still stiff and achy, but it could certainly have been much worse.
During lunch, we tried to decide what to do the rest of the day. Gail thought about trying again but skipping the first set of rapids (the subsequent rapids weren’t as bumpy as the first), but she decided her legs hurt too much. I wasn’t really in pain but was still nervous about the river because of my tube bursting. There were a couple of areas during my walk down the river where it had taken most of my strength to avoid getting pulled by the current – what if it had been Nicky’s tube that had burst? Would he have had the strength? Would the current have pulled him along, bouncing him off of rocks the whole way, or worse, dragging him under the surface?
I knew this was a pretty rare occurrence and the odds of it happening again were pretty low, but the tube bursting scared me enough that we decided that we were done tubing. The boys were disappointed but understood. We played some more cards and the boys and I kicked a soccer ball around for a while, and we eventually returned the tubes. The boys and I had one run for our $25 each, and Gail spent about $1 per metre of her tubing adventure.
Gail and I are pretty surprised at ourselves for just jumping in (pun intended) before really examining the river and the rapids and having a plan. We did say to the boys before we started that if we get separated, just keep going and we’ll meet up at the bottom, and maybe there really wasn’t much more we could have done. Hundreds of people do this every day and while I know they’ve had accidents, they’re pretty few and far between. I guess subconsciously we didn’t figure that we needed a “what if one of us gets beaten into the rocks?” plan or a “what if a tube bursts?” plan. Perhaps cancelling the rest of the day entirely rather than letting the boys keep going was a bit extreme, but the what-ifs crept into my brain and took over.
Perhaps we’ll stick to water parks from now on.