Marcel Speaks

On my second day of skiing I participated in a series of bad decisions that nearly cost me and my friends our lives. Being in high school at the time when bad ideas and bad decisions were a way of life the only thing that is surprising to me is that we survived. Without belaboring details let me just say that we had gotten lost and were suffering from hypothermia. We were rescued by three remarkable men, two of whom told me years later that when they found us, we had maybe 2 hours to live. Two of those men were very kind but the third was a beast.

The beast was a German expat named Marcel Schuster who had served on the Russian Front in WWII as a Nazi Mountain Trooper. He had been captured and spent three years in a POW camp which didn’t improve his outlook on life. He was entirely unpleasant and totally unsympathetic to our situation. During our rescue the only six words he uttered to us in his strong German accent were “You Stoopid Boyzzz” and “Learn or Die” followed by another “You Stoopid Boyzzz”. After eight years I was reunited with the three men that I owed my life to but Marcel didn’t smile and wouldn’t shake my hand. All he said while looking at me with a cold and bitter stare was “You Stoopid Boyzzz”.

I’m going to get to the kayaking part in a minute but before I do I want to mention what a strong influence Marcel’s message has had on my life choices. Though I have met no one who knew him who would describe him as a nice guy he spoke to me in a way that got my attention and that I understood.

I think that many of us choose our activities, boating or otherwise, where we accommodate objective risks and plan for what subjective risk / rewards we may or may not want to consider. Since that cold Winter night in my 17th year when I had 2 hours to live but was snatched from death by two nice men and one acerbic ex-Nazi with a short temper and no tolerance for the dumb-assery of youth I have heard Marcel speak to me a number of times. When he speaks I listen.

Skip ahead to 2017…

I was 2 days into a planned 3 week solo kayaking trip on the BC coast when my weather radio told me of an intense ridge setting up over Haida Gwaii and that it would bring 40 kt winds to the area. That made my intended route and my current location untenable. I had two days to seek a sheltered route, which was doable, but I didn’t want to go where the easy and safe routes would take me. There was a 6 mile stretch of coastline on Athlone Island that I wanted to see and if I hurried, I could paddle it and get into the lee of the Bardswell Group before the winds arrived, but just barely. Once sheltered by the Bardswells I could carefully scurry from here to there like a mouse evading a hungry cat, safe as long as I didn’t get caught in the open. So, for 2 days I monitored weather and hustled towards safety.

On my last “safe” day I left Dallas Island around 8:30 AM. I knew I that I was cutting things pretty tight and that I really should have gotten out of camp an hour earlier but I wanted a second cup of coffee. My bad. Conditions were smooth until I reached Blair Inlet near Ivory Island and things started to change. The wind had increased to W @ 10 kt countering the building ebb at Blair. Friendly swell became more evident as I started across Seaforth Channel. Textured patches began to show the effects of mixing currents and from mid-channel to Cape Swaine the ebb was on with swell being bent and disturbed, gaining height as windwaves were tickled to attention by interaction with the opposing current. I ducked into the gap behind the island that terminates Cape Swaine for a brief rest. Looking at conditions to the south they appeared to be somewhat sporting and it was clear that there would be no place to take another break until I made the cover of Wurtele Island so I took the opportunity to fuel on a ProBar, checked my chart and tried to interpret the sea bottom profile that my GPS displayed on its magnificent 1.5” x 2.25” big-screen. Maybe I could have seen it better if I had covered one eye and taken out my contact lenses. I changed out the Cypress for my Ikelos in anticipation of conditions.

Those 3 miles to Wurtele Island presented intensifying conditions that were ragged and snotty but still manageable. Achieving Rage Reef at the north end of the island I sheltered in the lee of the boomers to reassess conditions. Looking south and then scanning back north the way I had come the thin layer of haze clinging to the water told of froth being torn from breaking waves. I really wanted that next 3 miles. It had been a failed objective since 2012 and I really wanted it. The outside of the island would be rough, though, and probably getting more so and it would only be another hour to Cape Mark. I can do that.

And then Marcel spoke to me as loudly and as clearly as he ever has since that cold night in the snow and he said “You stoopid boyz!

That was all it took and I ducked behind Wertele island without further discussion.

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I grew up with someone who said to me often, “stupid kid”. Usually deserved. Those two words have stuck with all of my 67 years. Those words were spoken by my father.

Glad you made the right decision.

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Could it be that Marcel’s warning, Learn or Die, played a bigger part in that wise decision?

It’s a pretty impactful statement.

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Reminds me of the saying “Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from poor judgement”.

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If I had met a Marcel when I was 17 it may have lightened the work load on my guardian angels. Surviving very bad decisions at 17 just made me feel indestructible.

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Three,
Your writing is really good. I like all of your stories.
The timing of this story is perfect. We have some questionable trip planning going on around here at the moment.

My Dad gave us tremendous freedom to go on outdoor adventures as kids. I got out of school to go deer hunting in the third grade. We were on a rifle team by age 10. We were doing our own reloading in jr high school. We started camping for a week without adults by age 12. But he was my Marcel. He always asked us a lot of questions about what our plans were if something bad happened. He was very specific. He gave us many cautions. He did a solo trip for 10 days in the Cascade Mtns at age 16. My Dad is 95, he and my grandfather were both backpackers but they did not call it that in the old days. His Trapper Nelson was the first pack I ever used in 1960, and it is still hanging in the basement in Seattle.

We always had a sense of responsibility. When I got older, I got in arguments with people sometimes because they drank too many beers and started running rapids without scouting them first. They hunted with a round in the chamber all the time. They were sloppy with how they used an axe. One guy liked to wear waders in a canoe but would forget his lifejacket. I only go on trips with these kind of people once.

Good judgment is how you make it through difficult experiences and live for the next trip. We were trained for it from the time we were little kids. I have always enjoyed leading trips. Now I am 70 and people in my age group do not want to be lead. Now I think about much smaller groups and solo trips. One other person or only tried and true outdoor companions. There is no substitute for good judgment.

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3meterswell, very enjoyable read with a good message!

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Marcel certainly spoke the truth. You were wise enough to listen.

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Great story with a point every one who paddles needs to take to heart.
I notice, though, that by your 2017 trip you were never at any point lost or uninformed about developing weather conditions. Like truly stoopid boyzz might have been. You knew the risk you were taking and what it would take to both face it and how you could avoid/minimize it.
And yet you were still tempted to take the riskier route… and recognized that temptation for what it was. At least in my experience that’s the really critical point - at what point do we let go of a goal? At what point does a considered risk out weigh the imagined rewards?
Like many others here, I don’t paddle the big waters like some of us do, but the same kind of calculation applies to long down wind runs on large lakes with waves building, deciding when (and where) to hunker down as lightning storms are developing. At any given time, where is the nearest road in case a boat is irrecoverably wrapped or smashed beyond usability, how and where to hike out. How long and where can you go at any given time if the bear does get your food? The same risk/benefit analysis plays out for every one of us in one way or another no matter where or how we paddle.

Like ppine I went into some pretty wild country (Northern Ontario mostly - Red Lake and L. Packwash) as a kid with my family. Lessons were learned by doing so; Lessons in map/compass usage and when waves and weather were too risky or not. At what point does uncomfortable or nerve racking turn to seriously dangerous? Back then it was by 12’ motor boat, in later years with a Grumman in tow. I recall one trip, when I was 15 or 16, where a HS friend and I were dropped off with the canoe on an island in a remote section of Red Lake for a week. We did some pretty serious fishing in bays and reefs that week and covered many miles in every direction from that island. (By way of contrast, I’ve heard recent discussions on public radio where concerned parents debated whether it was some kind of negligence, or even abuse, to let their unattended kids play basketball in a city playground. Too risky, many thought. How times have changed!) Until he married, dad was a backpacker too - though he called it trout fishing. (In the Sierra Madres pre and immediately post WWII) The Canadian trips came after my sister and I were born.
We looked like this on the road back then…


Though there were times after that when I was young and on my own when I toyed with second stage hypothermia and in got into waters and storms that were bigger than I should have been out in, as it happened I never actually needed rescuing, certainly not by a Nazi Mountain Trooper. (That’s a truly unique happenstance…and fortunate. I think its safe to say we’re all glad you’re here to relate this story.) I always got out of it by myself, one way or another. It wasn’t always pretty, though.
rival51’s saying has more than a little truth to it. That’s also how we learn where the lines we draw for ourselves should be drawn, how not to be stoopid boyzz.
Though that’s a useful phrase to have locked in mind for retrieval at critical moments. I’ll remember it.
Thank you.

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Great post. I used to paddle with a woman that acted as my conscience; she was a good influence. Now I occasionally paddle with a former guide and he’s also a good influence on me. I try to avoid doing anything “edgy” while canoeing but as PJC says if you spend enough time on the water there are plenty of opportunities to get in trouble.

When you read about paddling tragedies I bet that a high percentage of those folks knew they might be doing something risky.

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Points out that back in the day we were well mentored and had ample opportunity to do outside stuff with competent adult models that would actually go with us and lead and also let us sometimes hang ourselves gently. We all made mistakes and learned from them.

When it was time we ceased being mentees and then what happened? I’d like to think that the outdoors mentoring kept going but too many organizations are now hobbled by their insurance policies and lawyers. It is really really sad. The many opportunities we had in person are not replaceable by Internet postings.

3meterswell very nice narrative. You have experience and your story illustrates just all the factors that can enter into a potential hazard. I am not suggesting you give up coffee; I understand

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When real life is more entertaining than fiction.

I like your way of telling this story.

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I have made some life decisions by asking myself “What would Fonzie do?”
Perhaps now I have a balance by also asking “What would Marcel say?”

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Marcel was not a happy man and you know what he would say.

I don’t know… Fonzie played a kind of pseudo greaser on TV. But many of us are old enough to remember a few real greasers. As I recall they weren’t generally real pleasant or forgiving folks, and were a bit prone to tribalistic violence. They sure weren’t flower children or nature lovers.
Marcel might have more in common with them than we really care to remember.

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I don’t know. At that time, my concerns of being rightfully recognized as being uncool probably exceeded my concern of dying doing something fun. At that time I suspect that I was more concerned with somebody telling me how “stoopid” I was.

Yeah! How did we do that?

I learned all about mortality from being pinned in a class IV-V rapids, ski accidents, dirt bike wrecks and especially horse and mule wrecks. They started when I was 13 and have been a common thread my whole life. When you are about to drown or laying there in a heap a long way from help it gets real in a hurry. That doesn’t include over 100 bear incidents, and all of the near misses by driving too fast. I have felt very destructible most of that time and feel fortunate to be still around.

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Did you read my 2017 trip report? If so, thank you for taking the time. I started that trip with a bunch of objectives and a half dozen of them were struck down by that weather forecast. The 6 miles outside of Athlone and Wertele, while small, were important to me. It isn’t an easy place to get to. But there I was, nearing my personal redline and Marcel spoke. Thank you, sir. It was all I needed to hear.

I think that we all listen to other voices at some point, however they come to us, and Marcel has come through for me when I probably needed wiser counsel.

Sure I read it. Wouldn’t have responded otherwise. Great read and one that is good for all of us to consider.
The part about really wanting the next three miles, the outside of the island even knowing it would be rough and getting more so, only another hour, thinking “I can do that”… well, that sounds like the voice of temptation to me. And you wisely resisted it, recalling the voice of Marcel. You let go of your earlier goals.

We should all be so wise as to listen to a voice as prudent (though harsh) as Marcel’s. You were weighing the sort of risks we all have, and probably again will weigh. Paddling risks can differ in detail but not in kind.

As a bit of an aside - the earlier part of your story, getting lost and coming so very close to death as a result, and Marcel’s attitude toward it reminded me of another account that is one of the most remarkable, and thoughtful, that I’ve ever read. There’s a story “Mechanical Boy Comes Back” in the book “Moments of Doubt” by the climber David Roberts that has similarities, of at least seem so to me by my reading. There were large parts of a community that were of similar mind to Marcel. It’s nine pages long or I’d post it. But I’ll fire it off to you privately. I copied it for typing practice years ago (in Windows 98 SE) and hopefully it can still be read on more modern formats.

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