FORT KENT, Maine — A family outing earlier this week almost ended in tragedy when the swift waters of the Fish River tossed a kayaker out of her vessel and kept her pinned against jagged rocks for at least 30 minutes.
Late Friday afternoon Janice Bouchard, bruised and sore, had nothing but praise for the three members of the Fort Kent Volunteer Fire Department who risked their own safety to rescue her Tuesday afternoon.
“My sister and I had planned to just kayak from Eagle Lake to Soldier Pond,” Bouchard said. “But the river was so nice and the weather was perfect so we got the idea to keep going to Fort Kent.”
Bouchard said in retrospect she should have known the treacherous conditions waiting for them at the Fish River Falls, given the heavy rains of the past month.
As the two women approached the portage around the falls, Bouchard said the current “flipped me over right away and I was actually lucky I got pinned against the rocks.”
Otherwise, she speculated, she might have been swept over the falls.
“She was caught in an area with some whirlpools and her legs may have been wedged into some V-shaped boulders,” Richard Stoliker, volunteer fire department captain, said.
Meanwhile, Bouchard’s sister Linda Majka had successfully guided her kayak to the shore.
“I did not panic,” Bouchard said. “I told [Linda] to check if anyone was around and when she said there was not I said, ‘Lin, I can’t stay here forever, go get some help.’”
Majka ran the more than quarter mile up a trail leading from the falls to Airport Road and continued on foot another half mile or so to the home of Tina Jandreau, Stoliker said.
Once there, Stoliker said, Jandreau called 911 while Majka and Jandreau’s son Travis, rope in hand, ran back to Fish River Falls.
“Before she left Linda passed me the life jacket from her kayak and I was able to put it on,” Bouchard said.
Stoliker said when the call came over the radio, instead of going to the firehouse and assisting with the launch of the rescue boat, he headed straight for the accident scene.
“I don’t know if it was intuition or what,” he said, “but something told me to go right to the [Fish River] Falls.”
In those early minutes after the call came in, Stoliker said, there was some confusion as to where Bouchard was in relation to the Fish River Falls.
“The information was pretty vague,” he said. “All we knew was someone was in the water around the falls.”
While Stoliker and firefighters Jonathon Nadeau and Curtis Gagnon were heading to Fish River Falls, other members of the Fort Kent department were preparing to launch a rescue boat into the Fish River several miles downstream.
When the three firefighters arrived at the scene, Stoliker said Travis had gotten a rope out to Bouchard, but she was unable to do anything with it.
“Travis got that rope to me and I grabbed it,” Bouchard said. “I wrapped it around my hand and held on; I wasn’t letting go.”
“I could see her out there,” Stoliker said. “Her sister was in the trail and yelled to us, ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry.’”
Stoliker credits the young man on the scene for keeping his head and doing a commendable job in calming Bouchard while they waited for the rescue.
“How she held on for a good half hour I have no idea,” Stoliker said. “That water is really cold right now and the current is rushing like in the spring.”
Stoliker was able to fashion a loop in the rope and after several attempts, toss the end to Bouchard who was able to place it over her arms and around her torso.
Forming a human chain on the rocks, Stoliker, Nadeau and Gagnon prepared to pull the woman to safety.
“I told her when she was ready to let go and we’d pull her in,” Stoliker said.
“I knew I could not stand there much longer,” Bouchard said. “I took a step to the left and the current caught me and just whipped me around.”
Stoliker said none of them were prepared for the force of the current, which caught Bouchard and nearly swept her away.
“That first initial shock when she let go of the rocks almost pulled me in,” Stoliker said. “It was almost like when you see on TV people talking about that adrenaline rush and they can lift a car; something gave me the strength to hang on.”
With Nadeau holding on to Stoliker’s legs and Gagnon holding on to Nadeau, they were able to slowly pull Bouchard to the shore.
Stoliker said Bouchard kept pleading to him to not let go.
“I told her not to worry, she wasn’t going anywhere,” he said.
“We regained control of her and the closer she got to the shore she was able to help us by clambering out,” he said. “When she was close enough, I grabbed her by the life jacket and pulled her in.”
Bouchard, who Stoliker said looked exhausted, rested a good 10 to 15 minutes before feeling strong enough to attempt the hike out.
During that time, her husband, Joey Bouchard, who had gotten word of his wife’s accident through one of his employees contacted by Jandreau, arrived on the scene.
“I hadn’t even told him we were going kayaking,” Bouchard said. “I felt guilty because we were having a nice day and he had to work.”
“He looked like he was in shock,” Stoliker said. “It was pretty emotional.”
A Fort Kent ambulance was waiting for Bouchard at the trailhead where she was treated and then released without going to the hospital.
Stoliker said he does not feel like a hero but is glad he and his fellow firefighters were in the right place at the right time.
“It’s nothing I ever want to do again,” he said, adding the rescue boat would not have been able to reach Bouchard’s location above the falls.
As far as Bouchard is concerned, everyone involved in the rescue is a true hero.
“I know this is what they prepare for,” she said. “But they put themselves at risk to save me.”
The next day she made it a point to visit them all to personally thank them.
She and her husband run Bouchard Family Farms, makers of prepared ploye mix, and have vowed to keep her heroes in the Acadian buckwheat pancakes for a long time.
“I’ll make them, I’ll butter them, I’ll put creton on them and even feed them to them if they want,” she said.
Stoliker advises canoeists and kayakers to stay away from the Fish River Falls until water levels drop.
“If you want to canoe in the Fish River, start in Plaisted and pull out in Soldier Pond or put in below the falls,” he said.