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I almost lost my life that day doing something I have always done. I became an example of how things can go wrong in a hurry, even when you have the experience.

My son Blake and I love to kayak on the river.  It is one of our favourite things to do.  For Father’s Day, he asked me if I either wanted to go for a bike ride or a kayak.  I chose kayak and we loaded them up in his truck.

He drove us to the river on what began as a beautiful, sunny day. We parked, launched, and headed out towards the Broadway and University Bridges.  Blake mentioned to me how quick the current was and that the trip back was going to be a little tough. He had no idea how he was foreshadowing the next few hours for himself.

We have a usual route that goes under the bridges, weaving all over the water. We traditionally paddle just beyond the riverboat, up to the safety wire that is there to remind/warn people that the Weir is coming up and you should not cross.  We hang out on the wire for a little while before paddling back. It is generally relaxing, and we can enjoy the scenery while getting in a good workout.

On this day, as we got closer, we saw a tree sticking out of the water near the wire.  Blake said, “it looks like dinosaur bones, we should check it out”.  We paddled over and once we were almost upon it, my kayak was pulled forward and the nose hit one of the buoy’s, forcing me to go sideways into the wire.  My kayak went under and the wire caught me in the side, knocking me out of the boat.  I grabbed onto the wire, and watched my kayak and sandals float downstream.  For a moment, we both laughed, like guys will do, because I was dumped into the water. The funny moment ended quickly when I realized how much trouble I was in.


I hung onto the wire, with half my body out of the water, kind of like we do at the top of a muscle-up and tried to think.  I asked Blake if he was ok and he said yes and when he asked me if I was okay, I told him no. It is not in a father’s nature to admit weakness in front of their children, but this situation needed my ego put aside.  My first instinct was to ask him to call 911, but the stupid man part of my brain did not want to be rescued on the water and be “one of those guys”.  Then it hit me how cold I was and that my hands would not be able to hold on much longer.  I told Blake I had to move.

Looking towards shore as I was starting off, the problem was this size of the buoys.  I needed to figure out how to get over them.  I first attempted an American Ninja Warrior move to try and jump over them, but they were too slimy, and I would surely not hold on.  I then realized that I could get under them, pulling myself with one hand under the water to grab onto the other side.  This was the most difficult part, because while I needed to make sure my grip was tight on one end before letting go of the other side, I could barely reach to make this happen. 

At this point Blake was in a safe area, watching it all.  Once I start pulling myself under and along each buoy, I told Blake that I was good and he should head back to get his truck, so he could pick me up at the University.  I told him to go because I did not think I was going to make it.  I told him to paddle back to his truck because I did not want him to see his father die, but he refused to leave me. He knew it, even if I didn’t! I saw him across the water, and I knew I could not let him down.

Fathers Day 2020 was a day I will never forget........ 

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There is not much better motivation than your son watching you, cheering you on, motivating you to hold onto that wire and to make it. He knew I could pull myself to shore and he made sure he was not going anywhere until he saw it.

I don’t even know how long it took.  It was all in slow motion, but over and under each buoy, making sure my grip was tight, I got closer to shore. It was such a struggle because I could barely reach each side and would start navigating each buoy but only getting a couple of fingers on it. My mind was going in a million directions but there was a constant mantra in my head and that was my coach, Glendon Hall, yelling at me, “unbroken” and “don’t let go of that wire”.  I am not the strongest guy in the gym, or the fastest, and not the youngest (OMS 4 Life!!), but at the age of 42, I am in the best shape of my life. Because of what I do I every morning at CrossFit Ashlar, I was able to hold onto that wire and pull myself under and over every buoy in a current that was trying to pull me into the Weir and to death. Functional Fitness, what is taught every day at CrossFit Ashlar, is what gave me the ability to save myself.

The best feeling was my feet touching the bottom of the river, allowing me to stand up.  I yelled to Blake that my feet were touching, and I had made it. He turned and began paddling back.  I heard some yelling from the side and saw a couple guys on mountain bikes asking if I needed help or a phone.  I did have my phone in my life jacket pocket, in a sandwich bag and amazingly it still worked.  I was still in shock and dazed as I walked to the top of the hill and called Blake to tell him again that I was alright and where to pick me up.  

I walked through the University land, dripping blood from my arms, soaking wet, with no shoes on and even laid in the grass for a while at one point. I eventually made my way up to Upper Place Riel and sat on a bench to wait for Blake.  It took us 10 minutes to paddle in with the current and it took him almost 3 hours to paddle back against it.  He is an incredible athlete, so this shows just how strong the water was moving.  I want to be clear to everyone reading this that we do not go out of our way to do anything unsafe or out of line.  We are life-vest wearing, safety conscious guys.  This mistake we made that day was underestimating the current.  

Once he picked me up, I asked him to drive back down the river to see if we could see my kayak.  It was a long shot but figured we should try.  We gave it a quick look and then went home.  

We sat on the deck that evening, had some drinks and were grateful that it ended up well.

People have asked me what lessons I learned that day.  I think the answer is to not be ignorant of currents and the water like I was. We have kayaked on that river so many times and have hung out at that wire.  It was a normal thing for us.

I went back the next day and counted 17 buoys that I needed to get under and over to get to shore. It is a helluva thing being on the edge of something so dangerous and having your brain and body in survival mode.

I was able to do it because of CrossFit Ashlar, Coach Glendon and our son, who waited, watched, and gave me the strength in those moments to keep going.

I have a new tattoo that commemorates the day, and I am forever grateful to be alive and to tell this story.

Graham Snell

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