Ottawa River: 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.

Paddling gear, ready for the next outing

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.

Rafts on the Ottawa River

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.

Farmland on Calumet Island

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