The Thrill Of Whitewater Canoeing

The Thrill of Whitewater Canoeing - ORCKA Certification At Palmer Rapids

My constant sense of adventure has recently peaked my interest in completing a Spanish River canoe trip.  This 145km trip would require us to be comfortable with handling canoes in whitewater and rapids.  For all my years paddling I can honestly say that I have limited experience in whitewater and thought that seeking out a course would be the most prudent and safe option. 

A quick internet search back in January of 2016 highlighted that there were a few options out there for courses.  Of these options I thought that the courses offered by the Ontario Recreational Canoe and Kayak Association (ORCKA) would be the most fitting.  The trouble was that ORCKA is an association made up of hundreds of certified instructors and it was not entirely clear how to go about organizing courses. 

This problem was solved when we attended the Outdoor Adventure Show in Toronto in February.  As if it were meant to be, there was an ORCKA booth at the show and we were able to get some much needed details.  They offered up 2 suggestions for us; 1) take a River Running course if we are planning on tackling the Spanish River, 2) contact Marty Tannahill, owner of Paddle In (http://www.paddlein.com/). 

That week I reached out to Marty via email and expressed an interest in a River Running course.  To my surprise later that week I received a phone call from Marty to discuss the details (who calls people anymore these days?  It was such a nice touch).  The conversation lasted 30 minutes and Marty was able to get a sense of who I was, what I was looking for.  I was impressed with Marty’s personal touch and I knew that we would be in good hands with Paddle In.

At this point in the planning I was set, but I needed to find myself a partner in crime.  That natural choice was Mark Highfield.  It took me less than a minute to convince Mark.  The conversation went something like that:

Darren: “Hey Mark, are you interested in taking a River Running Whitewater Canoe Course”.
Mark: “Absolutely”.
Darren: “Don’t you want any details?”
Mark: “No, it sounds like fun”.

That was easy. 

Originally it was just going to be the 2 of us, but after consideration we thought that perhaps we would open the offer to some other friends.  Recognizing the challenges of coordinating schedules with a larger group, we were hesitant, but brought the idea forward to Joe Armitage and Mike Walker.  Both Joe and Mike were interested and we put together some tentative dates for the end of May. 

The Course:

We were to meet our instructor, Gilles Miron, at Palmer Rapids on the Lower Madawaska River.  Little did we know, Palmer Rapids is a Mecca for whitewater training.  We met with Gilles and he gave us a quick overview of what to expect for the next couple of days.  We agreed to meet at the river’s edge at 8:30 the next morning to start.  Over the next 2 days we were to complete 16 hours of course materials, both theoretical and practical.

After a good night’s rest and a hearty breakfast we met Gilles at the agreed upon time and location.  His goal was to get us out on the water as soon as possible and after the obligatory safety orientation we were out on the water.

My first big shock was how different a whitewater canoe sets up compared to what I was used to.  These canoes came with air bags (inflatable floatation bags) in the front and back of the canoe and most surprising of all were the thigh straps that you literally used to secure yourself into the boat.   

Gilles mentioned to us that we would most definitely end up ‘in the drink’ during the course.  He quipped “Canoeing was something that we do between swims”.  

I quietly began to wonder “what have I gotten us in to?”.

Gilles put us through our paces.  He started with some basic canoe strokes and movements.  It was clear to see that the 4 of us had developed a number of bad habits over the years.  Conforming to proper mechanics proved quite challenging (for me at least) and humbled me.  By mid-day we were on track and working our way into the whitewater skills that we would require. 

That afternoon we were set to put all of our skills together and we practiced in the wash out of the Class III rapid at Palmer Rapids.  Let me say that the learning curve is much steeper when you are thrust into it.  Gilles’ harmless (at the time) joke that canoeing was what we did between swims became all too real.  At this point in the course we all became very well versed at swimming rapids, canoe over canoe rescues and retrieving swamped canoes. 

Before long we did start to get the feel and our control of the canoe in the turbulent water was greatly improved. 

The Real Deal – Our First Whitewater Run:

Practice time was over; it was time to put our training to the test.  The lower half of Palmer Rapids runs about 300m and offers a class 2 rapid with all of the obstacles one could ask for.

 We scouted the river (a very important skill to have) and decided to run the left side of the river.  This side offered some smaller water and a number of large eddies to offer us sanctuary.  From there we would work our way out to the middle of the rapids and around a number of rocks that were impassable on the left.  This is where it got tricky.  After making your way around these rocks, we had to head back to river left in order to avoid “The Death Hole”.  Now I’m sure that that’s not the actual name, but that’s what I’m referring to it as.  The Death Hole was a large hole on the right side of the river with a massive hydraulic.  For those that aren’t intimate with whitewater, let’s just say that it is something to avoid at all costs.  Easier said than done because the river is doing EVERYTHING in its power to pull you in that direction.

After we completed a thorough scout of the rapid, we returned to our canoes, loaded up and set out.  Gilles led the way and our 'simple' task was to follow him down.  With a slightly increased heart rate and a healthy appetite of butterflies, Joe and I followed Mark and Mike over the edge. 

We entered the rapids on a slight angle that would ensure that we missed the first series of large rocks.  The current steered us clear and a quick stern pry straightened us directly downstream.  With a large eddy on your left Joe and I slipped in effortlessly behind the other 2 canoes. 

I could breathe again, but we were still a long way from being finished. 

We pulled out of the eddy into the main current and headed downstream again.  With a slightly stronger flow, Joe and I were unable to avoid a few of the submerged rocks and the sound of our canoe on rocks made both Joe and I cringe in sync (sorry Gilles).  We hit the second eddy and took a moment to catch our breath again. 

The final stretch of river lay before us.  This was by far the most challenging section as we had to ferry (or back ferry) out to the middle of the river in order to avoid some large rocks.  The challenge was that after clearing these rocks we would have to come back river left to avoid The Death Hole. 

You can probably guess that we didn't end up in The Death Hole, but from where I was sitting in the back of the canoe it was close!  Joe and I passed by the rocks and the current of the river began pushing us directly to The Death Hole.  "Shit" I thought to myself, "here we go".  With a renewed sense of self preservation I began stern prying to pull us off that course.  I shouted at Joe "paddle hard" but I'm not convinced that he heard me over the roar of the river. 

The canoe reacted...enough...and as we passed within what seemed like only a few feet of The Death Hole I sighed in relief. 

We had made it.  3 canoes started and 3 canoes finished. The four of us looked at each, water dripping down our faces, and  the fear and excitement began to drain away.  We all said "Let's do that again".  

That concluded day one of our training. 

Why Everyone Should Take A Paddling Course:

As I have admitted above, this course really forced me to check my ego and be opened minded.  Given my breadth of experience I had formed many bad habits and I’ll be honest, I thought myself a pretty proficient paddler.  I can now say that I was wrong.  My paddling was lazy, my mechanics were poor and I had formed many bad habits. This course opened my eyes and I will be a better, stronger more competent paddler moving forward. 

If you wish to improve your paddling skills I strong recommend looking into a paddling course.  Going into a course open minded will pay dividends for any paddler.

If anyone is looking for specifics on the ORCKA organization or courses that they offer, please visit: www.orcka.ca / www.orcka.ca/content/?page=89

As a final comment I would like to thank both Marty Tannahill and his team at Paddle In for organizing this course for us.  I would be remiss if I didn’t thank our instructor Gilles Miron for his time, patience and leadership.  You have introduced us to the exciting world of whitewater and opened up so many amazing tripping opportunities that we intend to take full advantage of.  Here’s to the Spanish River and beyond.