The water was a frigid 55 degrees, the winds were blustery and cold in a remote Canadian wilderness area known for treacherous waterfalls, and Nathan Henneberg-Verity was in a tiny canoe with two other young men, fighting a losing battle against a fast-moving current that was sweeping them toward what seemed like an inevitable oblivion.
Nathan and his friend John Allen were in the canoe with guide John Ness from the Northern Tier National High Adventure Base, one of four high adventure areas owned and run by the Boy Scouts of America.
Henneberg-Verity, now 18, and Allen, 15, are members of Troop 26 chartered by Christ Church Episcopal in Norcross. Henneberg-Verity is an Eagle Scout, Allen is working toward that goal, and Ness, from Arkansas, had hired on as a guide.
“It’s a test of their mettle,” says Scoutmaster David Wilson, 54, “their ability to handle adversity.”
The purpose of the trip is for the scouts to canoe around a series of waterfalls, paddling to shore to walk around the most dangerous areas.
All was fine until the unexpected happened. After “successfully portaging” around a steep waterfall, the young men ran into trouble. Due to a late snow melt, the water levels were “much higher than normal,” says former troop leader Kevin Dunn, 51. This created a “hydraulic effect,” and the canoe went backward.
“As we turned back for shore, our canoe flipped, putting us and all of our gear out into the lake,” Nathan says. “The current was too strong to swim against and we were being pulled toward the waterfall.”
He spotted a small island between them and the falls, but the canoe had filled with water. Nathan and Ness somehow made it to the island, but John Allen was trapped between the spinning canoe and the island, couldn’t get to shore and was headed toward the falls.
So Nathan jumped back in, hurdled the canoe, grabbed his friend’s life vest and pulled him to safety.
For his act of heroism, Nathan was recently awarded the BSA’s Honor Medal, for displaying “unusual heroism and skill in saving or attempt to save life at considerable risk to self.”
Nathan pooh-poohs any talk of heroism, saying he did what he’s been trained to do.
“It was a pretty dangerous situation,” he concedes. “I hadn’t gotten to John, he would have gone over the waterfall.”
Wilson and Dunn weren’t surprised by Nathan’s reaction.
“It’s no big deal,” says Nathan, who plans to join the Air National Guard.
John Allen doesn’t see it that way. “Nathan Verity saved my life,” he wrote in an official statement for the investigation that followed. “Nathan showed a selfless act of honor by putting himself in some danger to save me from going down the falls.”
Nathan’s dad, Don Verity, 64, says “it’s in Nathan’s character to be able to respond.
When I heard about it, he just said, ‘Somebody had to do something. It could have had a very sad ending.”
Karen Roughton Allen, stepmother of the teen Nathan saved, says “it’s frightening to look back and think what could have been. We’re very grateful.”