My father first arrived in Canada in 1977, headhunted out of the UK by the technology powerhouse that was Bell Northern Research. Shortly after arriving, some friends of his took him on a whitewater trip down the Petawawa River in Algonquin Park where they observed far more disastrous consequences than any trip I’ve ever been on. Although I am trying to convince him to write it out here, this is not that story.
It took me thirty-one years to convince him to go on another whitewater canoeing trip. I’ll probably never convince him to go again.
The trip we went on is one of my absolute favourites. We start on a Friday at the base of the Grand Chute on the lower Dumoine river and camp there overnight. The next day we spend in the flatwater around the campsite brushing up on our whitewater techniques. On Sunday we run the river, bringing only a lunch and some spare clothes in the canoes. The Dumoine takes us down a series of really fun class 2-3 rapids, pulls us along the flatwater portions with a powerful current and finally spits us out onto the mighty Ottawa river for a 2.5km paddle to the car shuttle at Pine Valley Tent and Trailer Park. It’s a full and strenuous day that typically doesn’t see us back home until late at night, but it is absolutely worth it.
The lower Dumoine offers up the best that wilderness canoeing can provide. There are big, fun, fast rapids. There are perfectly sized standing waves that you can surf your canoe on. There are amazing vistas that appear from nowhere as you round a corner in the river. And there is never a moment of boredom.
We assembled a motley crew for the trip – my wife Lila, my friend Jim and his wife Mel, my oldest friend Adam and his girlfriend Do and, of course, my parents Romie and Geoff. Jim and Mel are experienced whitewater kayakers and had the role of rescue boats. They had their work cut out for them on this trip!
We arrived on the Friday evening with the weather threatening – it was cool out with dark and ominous clouds overhead. We all set up camp, Adam pulling out a brand new tent, purchased for this trip at Walmart just the day before. Looking at the tent, with a small fly only covering the very top of it and the door zippers angled at a 45-degree angle to the sky, I couldn’t help wonder how the tent would repel the rain. Adam assured me that, being that it was a brand new shelter, it was bound to be waterproof.
We awoke the next morning, after a night of torrential downpour, to find Adam and Do huddled at the back of the dining shelter trying to keep warm. Their tent had, indeed, leaked in the night, and they had not had a great night. Needless to say, they weren’t in high spirits on the Saturday. It was a windy, cool and wet day that day which did nothing to improve anyone’s mood and made the whitewater skills training difficult. We were all pretty happy to get into our sleeping bags at the end of the day.
Sunday dawned beautifully. It was bright, sunny and warm. After packing up the site and having a hearty breakfast, we headed down river in much higher spirits.
I must admit, this being the first real whitewater trip that I had guided on my own without Nick by my side, with my father’s bad experience heavy on my mind and with a crew of mostly inexperienced canoeists, let alone whitewater canoeists, I was erring on the side of caution. Possibly a little too much.
At the first rapid, we couldn’t see around a corner, so I made a call to portage – despite the fact that the map told us that it was a simple segment and Jim’s scouting mission came back saying everything was fine. So everyone hoofed the heavy whitewater canoes over the non-existent portage trail. All but the last boat that Jim convinced me to run the rapid in with him. As it turned out, it was completely fine and a lot of fun. Suffice to say, the group was not entirely pleased with me after that.
After that first experience, I loosened up a bit. We still scouted our rapids (to do otherwise is foolhardy) but we ran every single one from there on. The penultimate rapid is the biggest on this trip, called “Examination Rapids”. It’s a double-ledge run with a lot of big white water. We scouted the rapid up front and it looked pretty fun. One by one we started to take the run, and one by one we swamped and tipped our boats.
Lila and I went first. It looked like we were going to make it, but right as we tried to eddy out at the bottom of the rapid, the amount of water in our canoe took us over. My mother was the first injury, she bent her knee on their flip in an odd way that took about 2 years to heal. But the real fun was on the final run.
Do, having watched the other two boats bail, decided that she would prefer to walk this one. Adam was still game though, giving me the opportunity to take another shot and vindicate myself. We started the run well, hitting the right points along the way. I’m not sure exactly what happened on the final ledge though. Whatever it was, we went right over, and, instead of heading towards safe landing in the rock garden at the base of the rapids as with the previous swims, the current started carrying us towards the far side of the river from the landing.
I’ll take a quick aside here for a primer on whitewater safety. When swimming in a whitewater river, there are two things that are extremely dangerous. First, your own canoe. A canoe filled with water going down a rapid is large, fast moving and incredibly heavy. It also tends to be pushed by the water along the same path as the current pushes you. The first rule of whitewater safety is, if you find yourself in the water, get away and upstream of your canoe, lest you be crushed against an immovable object by it.
Second are things called strainers. Strainers are downed trees sticking into the river from the banks. Their branches extend deeply into the water and “strain” the river. Getting caught in a strainer is one of the worst possible scenarios. The pressure of the water pins you against the branches while forcing you under. Nothing good comes of hitting a strainer.
Back to our situation. As we hit the second ledge in the Examination Rapids, we flipped the canoe fairly spectacularly. Adam and I ended up in the water, heading off river left. Looking up ahead after I got back above water, I was terrified to see Adam, holding on to the upside down canoe, and starting to head downstream of it. I yelled and yelled at the top of my lungs until, to my relief, he pushed away from it and got upstream.
It wasn’t a moment too soon as we were headed towards the bend in the river and the current was taking us towards a tangle of strainers at the water’s edge. We pushed and swam hard and managed to avoid the strainers – though it was a close call. Our canoe, however, was not so lucky.
The long suffering Jim, who had so far rescued everyone and their canoes, came and picked us up in the kayak and brought us back to shore. Once back with the group, we looked across the river and assessed the situation.
Our canoe was clearly visible on the far side of the river. It was also clearly visibly stuck in a strainer. And it was across a piece of water that was clearly moving very quickly.
In all of my other trips, we’ve been put into harms way through inaction, circumstance or stupidity. Looking across at the canoe, all I could think of was that in attempting to rescue the canoe, I would be purposefully putting people into danger.
We put the options on the table – could Jim get the canoe alone? Unlikely, it looked pretty lodged in there and would be dangerous for a tired-out kayaker to attempt to get in there on his own. Could we get to the other side somewhere a bit safer and walk to the canoe? Nope – there were no trails on that side of the river. Could Lila and I cross on our own and get the canoe? We really didn’t think we’d be able to pull it out and then solo both boats back easily.
There were only two viable options that we could see. First, the safe one – abandon the boat, pay the full cost of it at the rental place and double people up in the remaining canoes. Not a great option but one that I considered really seriously. The alternative was really risky and, frankly, scared the crap out of me. We would put the four strongest canoeists in one boat, and ferry our way across the river to get the stranded canoe. Compounding the danger was that I was the only one who had ever executed a canoe ferry.
With four people in one otherwise empty canoe, in a ferry with people who didn’t have much experience balancing a canoe, across fast moving water, our boat was incredibly tippy. On two occasions on the way over, I called a retreat because it felt too unsafe. After each turn back to the “safe” shore, I steeled my resolve and sent us back towards the empty canoe.
When we finally made it across to the far side, I was white knuckled and shaking like a leaf. We docked to the shore just up stream from the canoe and disembarked to assess the situation. As I was starting to look at how the boat was stuck and trying to evaluate how we would get it unstuck, doomsday scenarios running through my mind, Adam stepped past me, grabbed the canoe and “mightied” it off the trees. Just like that, we were loose and ready to roll.
We got ourselves back into our respective canoes and continued downstream, congratulating ourselves on barely avoiding disaster and drying out under the warm sun. We thought that would be the end of our adventure, but unfortunately we were wrong.
We enjoyed the rest of the Dumoine in a leisurely fashion. The excitement was behind us and all that was left was a calm flatwater paddle out. We arrived at the Ottawa river tired but in good spirits.
The Ottawa herself was in anything but good spirits. As we rounded the last bend onto the Ottawa, we were confronted by howling winds, high waves and whitecaps running down the river from west to east. We were facing a 2.5km paddle across a wind tunnel, going partially into the wind and attempting to beat the sunset. In an attempt to reduce the risk, we decided to raft the boats together. We got some spars and lashed the boats ready to make the crossing. Jim and Mel, experienced kayakers, decided to go ahead and bid us farewell.
Lashed together and with all the paddlers on the outermost boats, we started across. Our spars creaked and groaned with the waves and we paddled our hardest. The raft kept us on level and stable and gave me the comfort that the less experienced canoeists would stay with us.
Lila and I discussed our approach. Lila suggested that in the 3′ waves, we stick close to shore and head west against the wind to a point where the river narrowed, cross and then use the wind to bring us to the takeout. I wanted to just go straight across, reasoning that it would be a direct shot across the wind to land at the takeout. As usual, I should have listened to her.
We paddled and paddled towards our takeout, straining against the wind and the waves. But the takeout never seemed to get any closer. In fact, it appeared to be getting further away. No matter how hard we strained, we were crossing over but not coming anywhere near our takeout point up-wind. After what seemed like an eternity I made the call that we would go for a different take out. Just down wind from our takout by about 1.5km, is Driftwood Provincial Park. We made a turn and started using the wind to take us towards where we wanted to go. It was still hard going across the wind, but at least at this point, we weren’t going into it.
After a hard fought paddle, we landed at Driftwood. We disembarked and practically kissed the solid ground. After dragging up the canoes and getting our wits back about us, we sat to look back at the sun setting over the river. As the sun started to head towards the horizon, the wind died completely, leaving the entire Ottawa river a mirror flat calm. Had we waited and rested for an hour, we would have had the easiest crossing ever!
Pondering what we had done to deserve this level of karmic retribution, we ordered a hideously expensive taxi to take us back to our car and proceeded to complete the car shuttle and head back to Ottawa. Arriving back close to midnight, we were asleep the moment our heads hit the pillows.
Epilogue: Whitewater canoeing has the potential to be a dangerous activity – it must be approached with caution and respect. This was a trip I had done before with experienced guides, we had reviewed the maps and notes, we had proper floatation, helmets and safety equipment. And while most people on the trip had limited whitewater experience, there was a significant amount of flatwater canoeing expertise among us. It’s impossible to prevent things from going wrong completely, but when they do the experience and preparation is what allowed us to deal with these challenges.
Moral of the story – proper experience and preparation may not prevent incident, but very well may prevent accident