Canoeing The Lower Madawaska River

Sometime last winter I got it in my head that I wanted to learn how to whitewater canoe. It wasn’t that I was sick of flatwater paddling or that I’m some sort of adrenalin junkie, I just wanted to push my paddling skills in a new direction. I was able to convince a few friends that this was a good idea and in May we took an ORCKA River Running course and walked away with the basic skills and an appetite to put those skills to the test. (If you are interested in reading about that experience see The Thrill of Whitewater Canoeing).

We had set our sights on the Lower Madawaska River. This river offered us a dam controlled environment with a variety of rapids ranging from Grade 1(easy) to Grade 4 (difficult). The other appealing factor was that this river had high enough water levels late in the season that would accommodate our schedule.

We were aiming for a 3 day, 2 night trip from Palmer Rapids to the town of Griffith. This was an approximate distance of 41km and combined flatwater and whitewater paddling. We would camp in Lower Madawaska Provincial Park both nights.

The early trip planning had us renting 2 outfitted canoes from Paddler Coop (www.paddlerco-op.ca) in Palmer Rapids. The trip would include Mark Highfield, Mike Walker, Joe Armitage and myself; the same crew that took the River Running course back in May. Just a few weeks before leaving Joe needed to bow out for work purposes and our trip was suddenly in jeopardy. Enter Jonas.

Jonas was a member of our 24 Hour Mountain Bike Team and an experienced flatwater paddler. His experience in whitewater was limited, but he was eager to fill in for Joe. He didn’t even flinch when I told him to meet at my house at 4:45am to leave for Palmer Rapids.

In the interest of brevity and to prevent boredom, we found ourselves in Palmer Rapids early on Sunday October 2nd. Mike and Mark had picked up the canoes the night before and stayed over at the Paddler Co-op. We met them up at 9am and hit the water to knock the dust off and show Jonas the ropes of whitewater canoeing. Our training ground would once again be Palmer Rapids and it’s grade 2 rapids.

Mike and Mark took the first run and I wisely (?) told Jonas to observe what they were doing and that we would follow their lead. Bad idea. Take a look at the video link below and you will see what I mean. In the end we all made it through the rapids successfully and it was time to head down the river. After shuttling some cars and a quick bite to eat we were ready to begin our trip in earnest.

Our first day took us mostly through flatwater sections of the river. We saw a few rapids but nothing overly aggressive. This was fine as Jonas and I were still trying to gel. By 5pm we had put in on our site for the night, a nice little island at the beginning of the Snake Rapids. That evening we dined on chicken fajitas thanks to Mark.

Day 2 was the big day of our trip. We would be tackling 9 different sets of rapids as we made our way towards the next campsite located at Crooked Rapids. These rapids are referred to collectively as The Snake Rapids. The first of which was Island Rapids.

We were fortunate to have camped right at Island Rapids so we have ample time to scout them. We also had ample time to psych ourselves out. In low water conditions these were still running at grade 3 and they would be our most challenging set yet. One important note about this trip is that we all agreed that if anyone was not comfortable running any particular set of rapids, be honest and speak up. The others would respect that decision. Everyone agreed to give this set a shot.

Fueled by the awesome power of breakfast burritos we broke camp and moved all of our gear to the other side of the rapids. We would run these with empty boats, just to be safe. No one wanted to start their day chasing gear down the river. Mike and Mark went first. They made it look easy which instilled a lot of confidence in Jonas and I. I admit, I was nervous. Jonas and I hadn’t spent much time in the boat together and that is an often overlooked factor in a successful run. As it turned out the route that we selected was far more forgiving then we had originally thought and we coasted down the rapids into the big eddy (safety) down below.

With a successful run under our belts and our confidence soaring we started down the rest of the Snake Rapids.

Next up we had a few smaller rapids including the Dog Leg Rapids, Shallow Rapids, The Narrows and then Exam Time Rapids. The Exam Time Rapids were only running Grade 2, but they managed to school Jonas and I and they almost ended our trip.

As always we referred to our guide book, scouted the rapids and selected our route. By this time we had successfully navigated a few rapids and we were all getting a little cocky. Navigating these rapids would take us down the middle and then out to the right side between a number of large rocks. Simple! Jonas and I hit the run but struggled to get back to river right. In an attempt to make it back on course we became pinned on a rock with the upstream gunwales inching towards the water.

Jonas and I both reacted leaning downstream over the downstream gunwales and shifted. Mark and Mike looked on. We were able to shift just enough weight for the boat to pull free. Final grade for the Exam Time Rapids, D-

Our next rapid was Rifle Chute. This grade 3 rapid is considered to be the most difficult on the trip. With low water we were looking at a lot of rocks to work around. My first instinct was that we should skip this rapid. I was a little on edge after our adventures in the Exam Rapids and I didn't like the fact that it was looking like we would have to back ferry the length of the river to get from the right side over to the left side in a very short distance. We also had an audience for this run. There were some other paddlers just downstream and they were all perched on the river's edge to watch the show.

After several minutes of scouting Mike noted that there was a gap between some rock in the centre of the river which make running this seem more reasonable.

We loaded up and as always, Mark and Mike lead the way. When they first dropped into the rapids I thought that they were going in. There was a large rock on the left side and they cut it a little too close. The rear or their canoe ran right over it and if not for some effective bracing I think that they would have been swimming. They made their final move and shot through the gap at the bottom. Jonas and I followed much the same route and found ourselves safely at the bottom of the rapids in no time at all. I was glad that we took our time, scouted it properly and decided to run it.

Split Rock Rapids was a lot of fun. It would be the whitewater equivalent to a rollercoaster ride and all you really need to do is point your canoe downstream and hang on. Both boats coasted through the big waves safely and we were on to the last of the Snake Rapids, the Raquette Rapids.

These rapids were beautiful but with the low water conditions they were technically out of our league. With lots of rocks scattered about we felt that it wasn't worth running the risk. Those rocks looked hungry and we weren't too anxious to feed them.

We had about 8km of flat water paddling with a small 250m portage around Slate Falls to break it up for us. Generally 8km in a canoe wouldn't be an issue, but after the excitement of the rapids earlier in the day we all zoned out as we continued downstream.

Our final test for the day was going to be the Crooked Rapids. It was all that stood between us and our campsite for the night. These simple grade 1 set of rapids snakes around 3 separate islands. While these were not the most challenging rapids we had a lot of fun with them. It was here that I really felt that Jonas and I clicked. We were communicating well and we were starting to trust each other.

We made the run effortless and put in on the left bank to set up camp.

That evening we dined on 4 cheese pasta which was fantastic, that is until it was time to do the dishes. We all had a few drinks and chatted at length about the day and our adventures. It was surprising to see how far the group had come since that morning and the confidence that we all earned on the river that day.

We all slept well that night.

Overnight a dense fog rolled down the river. It was cold and damp but none of us really seemed to mind.

We awoke for what would be our final day of the trip. We would be hitting the Wadsworth Rapids, a few swifts, Buck's Ledge, Highland Falls and ending up in the town of Griffith. The trip was uneventful and as we approached the town of Griffith we started to note more and more signs of civilization. Just before reaching our take out, a truck could be seen driving down a road that ran parallel to the river. I took note of the group and just how our moods all changed when we saw that car. It was a sure sign that our trip was coming to an end and I don't think that any of us were happy about it.

Mark’s Thoughts: Deciding to rent from the Paddlers Coop was great- went out of their way to help and they genuinely cared. The communal camp area was a great way to start a trip; I can’t imagine how great it would be in the spring. The weather was also great considering it was overcast and rainy. I think paddling all day in the sun wearing a wetsuit could prove a bother- or an excuse to swim a bit. Paddling a whitewater canoe on flatwater was a new adventure, I agree with Darren’s remark of them being “bathtub-like”. The river itself was low, which made for a fun paddle where we could practice our whitewater skills without a high degree of negative outcome and the scenery couldn’t be beat, with the bald eagle sighting being the icing on the cake. I very much am looking forward to our next whitewater adventure; I can almost taste the coffee!

Mike's Thoughts: It was interesting to see the river at low water levels and how much it changes and limits your options through the Rapids. I'm looking forward to getting back up there in the spring to do it all again.

Jonas' Thoughts: It has been a long time since I lasted hopped in a canoe to explore the great and beautiful country we have. This trip down the lower Madawaska was an incredible experience that I was lucky to have as I was the replacement tripper. Starting with a very long drive, and a little delay in getting started we were in the canoe and ready to go. Our first hit was Palmer rapids, this helped get the feeling back and prepare me for the rest of the trip. I have had plenty of experience doing flat water canoeing, but this was my first trip where the focus was on running rapids. It took awhile to get my head around the different techniques that are required for this type of canoeing but by the last day I was good to go.

For me the best part of this trip is very cliché, but I cannot get enough of the peacefulness that you find in the great outdoors. We were very fortunate to have half decent weather, although it was cold you never felt it while you were out on the water. With little wind the water was like a mirror, and with the seasonal colours it truly was a wonderland. Running the rapids, especially Rifle Rapids, was exhilarating. The risk of danger with rocks everywhere, just hidden by the rushing water, gets your heart pounding. It really makes me want to come back while the water is high and even faster than it was. Some things I learned were more camping related, bring a pillow being at the top of that list. Not being cheap on the ground mattress pad is also a good idea. Lastly, if you need a wet suit, bring your own. Overall, this was a great experience that even a novice could do. So if you have been thinking about doing this quick escape, go for it! There will be no regrets.