Hello from the Ottawa River – Learning How to Whitewater Kayak (and how the river kicked my ass…)
Way back when in February I went to the Outdoor Adventure Show and I twisted my friend Leslie’s arm to go on a learn-how-to-kayak weekend with me. We booked 2 days including meals, kayaking lessons and camping accommodation with a company called Equinox Adventures that has a rafting and kayaking camp located on Calumet Island in the Ottawa River.
So Friday we got ready, I picked Leslie up from work and we headed off on Highway 401 east of Toronto. We got stuck in rush hour traffic for a solid hour and half until I decided to go north of the highway to take a country road. We stopped in for a nice little dinner in Belleville, and after driving through the beautiful countryside in Eastern Ontario and after getting lost on the winding roads near our destination, we finally set up our tent at about 11 pm, illuminated by the headlights of my car.
The Equinox river camp is very basic, located around an old farmhouse are 3 different campgrounds (for noisy, semi-noisy and quiet campers..), an outbuilding with extremely basic men’s and women’s bathrooms that have 2 toilet stalls as well as 4 functioning shower stalls in a co-ed shower and an outdoor eating area covered by tarps that are draped over metal railings. Luxury accommodation this is definitely not.
Saturday morning we got started early, we actually got woken up by the mooing of cows in the farmers field next door at about 6 am. Other campers reported that some of the cows took a walk right through the camp ground and actually left some sizeable paddies behind. It was fabulous to be in a tent again after not having gone camping for about 8 years…. We got a simple breakfast, some pancakes and pre-packaged muffins (some of them a little furry) and we started picking our kayak gear and headed off with our knowledgeable guide Christine and her helper Krista in a van to the Ottawa River. We got suited up with our life jackets, helmets and sprayskirs, and then put our kayaks in the water.
I had a devil of a time getting my sprayskirt over the kayak’s opening because it was so tight. We started with simple paddling exercises in the calm waters of the Rocher Fendu dam and first learned how to do a “wet exit”: after you tip the kayak and are underneath the vessel (panic time for most people) we were taught to rip the sprayskirt off and swim our way out of the kayak.
Paddling was quite difficult since the angle of the blades of the paddle is offset, so while your right hand is supposed to stay still, the left hand is supposed to tilt a little so the left blade of the paddle goes into the water at the proper angle. I had a bit of a problem with that since my right arm is way stronger than my left arm (from playing tennis) and I couldn’t get the entry angle of the left side of the paddle right, so many times I ended up going in a circle off to the left, having to paddle 3 or 4 times on the left side just to straighten myself out again. The kayaks are perfectly flat on the bottom, so there is no hull to help you out with the tracking on the water.
Paddling got a little more difficult when we went up the Ottawa River and my own personal faulty technique caused me to veer off to the left all the time, causing me to get caught in the current of the river, drifting downstream, against the direction of where we were trying to go. I then realized a few things: that the currents on a river as big as the Ottawa River are extremely strong and that my upper body strength was waning pretty quickly. I really developed some major respect for the river and for the skills involved in kayaking.
To be honest, I never quite got the hang of it. We were taught skills like “ferrying”, i.e. getting across a current at an angle, or the “T-rescue”, where a second kayak comes up to you after you have tipped your kayak and are trapped underneath the boat in the water. You are then supposed to tap on your own kayak 3 times to make noise to alert other paddlers that you have capsized. Then you have to reach along the side of the boat to locate the second kayak, and then you put both hands on the other kayak and twist yourself out from underneath your own vessel with a flick of the hips.
I have to admit, I am a pretty athletic person, and I love speedy sports like downhill skiing and mountain biking, and I am actually pretty good at them. But some things about whitewater kayaking gave me the chills, just the idea of getting entrapped upside down underneath the kayak, possibly snagged by a rock underneath the water, and not being able to get back up freaked me out.
So I decided that in the future I would try calmer water sports such as canoeing or sea kayaking on a calm lake, instead of facing mortal danger on the rapids. To reassure all of you readers though: all the other kayaking students did fine, they went upriver, and came down through some mild rapids and had a great time paddling themselves around on the Ottawa River on Saturday and Sunday. And Christine, our guide, was very helpful, and there was always another kayaking student around to help you if you were in trouble, so assistance to safety was never far away.
Saturday evening we actually watched a safety video for whitewater kayaking and in the video I realized that advanced whitewater kayaking is a pretty dangerous sport and the risk of drowning or hurting yourself by getting entrapped in rocks or “strainers” (fallen tree branches that stick out of the water) is substantial and must be avoided at all cost. We also learned that working as a team and rescuing one’s team mates are critical life-saving skills. By this time I had already decided that I would trade my second day of kayaking lessons in for some mountain biking on Sunday, combined with a little photo safari of Calumet Island.
So Sunday morning, after my interview with Krista, she was kind enough to lend me her mountain bike and I grabbed my camera and started my discovery of Calumet Island, a large island in the Ottawa River wedged between Ontario and Quebec. I cycled through forests, rolling hills, grazing pastures and past a few extremely well-kept country properties. I spent about an hour cycling on dirt roads to the edge of the Ottawa River where I started to experiment with my camera a little bit.
My brother-in-law Roger, a consummate graphic designer and visual artist, had recently taught me how to do close-up shots of plants and other objects, so I started experimenting taking close-range shots of plants and flowers right next to the Ottawa River. This was the first time I experimented with this photo technique and I have to say I was reasonably pleased with the outcome once I came home last night and downloaded the images.
On my way back from the river I had an interesting encounter: I drove by a barn and saw 2 horses grazing in the distance. They looked up and noticed me, and as if on cue, two other horses came out of the barn as well. They started approaching me, as I was standing on the side of the road, behind a wire fence. All four horses came trotting towards me. About half way from me they stopped in unison, checked me out, then looked at each other, figured they had seen all they needed to see, and trotted off in perfect coordination again. It was a really comical cross-species encounter and I ended up chuckling to myself when the horses disappeared again into the barn.
After my 2 hour mountain biking excursion I spent the rest of Sunday exploring the island in my car and drove through rolling hills and farm land. Upon my return to the camp ground I spread out a blanket under a tree and did some open-air reading. All the other campers were gone to either river raft or kayak, and the campground was totally quiet, all you could hear were the crickets and an occasional moo from a cow. It was serenity at its best. The other rafters and kayakers came back in the afternoon and they all reported that they had had a fabulous time at their respective water sports.
At about 4:30 we headed back out on the road and did a nice 5 hour highly scenic drive through towns like Eganville and Bancroft that are surrounded by rolling hills, lush green forests and ancient rock faces, before we headed into the serene lake district of the Kawartha Highlands. It was a perfect weekend – a combination of adventure and relaxation under crystal blue skies, and it just taught me how beautiful the back roads of Ontario can be.