Story by Scott Whalen
BARRY’S BAY, ONTARIO — The white wave of water hits us before I even see it or hear it.
A huge splash from the murky Madawaska River pours into our open canoe. It’s not a storm surge by any means, but for just a moment, it is a little scary. The canoe does a dangerous wobble. I realize the error is my doing for paddling furiously in the wrong direction.
My upper body becomes tense. I correct my stroke and try to dig the paddle deeper into the water.
I ask myself: Am I really ready to plunge even farther into the churning rapids ahead, while kneeling in a canoe? There’s no time to think, and there’s no turning back … because here we go deeper into the whitewater in front of us.
OK, so maybe this telling of my first experience with whitewater canoeing at Ontario’s Madawaska Kanu Centre near Barry’s Bay is slightly embellished for dramatic effect. It’s sort of an exaggerated fish tale. Instead of catching the big one with a hook, this story is about riding the whitewater of the Madawaska and not ending up in the water myself.
I would make this water adventure even more of a tall tale, but the person at the back of the canoe would likely roll her eyes at me in jest.
Instructor Stefani Van Wijk, 23, who is one of a third generation of paddlers at this amazing kayak and canoe school near Algonquin Provincial Park, knows that we were actually in control the whole time.
The wave that hit us was relatively small. The water never really got higher in the boat than a couple of centimetres, and Van Wijk was in confident control of our canoe and our whitewater experience the entire time.
It was me, the 50-something writer at the front of the boat, who paddled the wrong way and let a bit of water in. But that was the only time it happened during a two-hour lesson.
Improve Your Canoe Skills in Algonquin Park
The bottom line of this experience astounded me. Crossing whitewater rapids in an open canoe, with someone of Van Wijk’s skill and expertise, is not really frightening at all.
The boat doesn’t tip or even wobble. It’s a much smoother ride than you might expect and as the paddler in the front it’s really not that difficult.
Even better, it’s lots of fun. After a couple of crossings from one bank of the Madawaska to the other on a brilliantly sunny day, I wanted to do it again and again.
Earlier, my knuckles were white with fear as we pulled up to a concrete dam on the Madawaska. I saw and heard the rush of whitewater below that was going to be where we paddled.
You see, I grew up on a small lake in eastern Ontario, or flatwater, to serious canoeists. I love lakes and water and everything about being in boats, but I was always told to stay away from dams and rapids. Any whitewater meant danger of drowning, hitting your head on a rock or worse, being pulled down a river to certain death. You stayed away from rapids and you certainly didn’t go paddling into them.
But Van Wijk’s calm teaching style, her ability to make me feel secure and her command of this canoe won me over. To my surprise, I learned that you don’t simply survive or tame rapids, you work with them. You become part of their power, and you move safely from shore to shore and down the river.
It’s all about tilting your body in the canoe just slightly and using the right paddling strokes at the right time. Van Wijk makes it seem deceptively simple. In the canoe, near the shore, she explains exactly how we will head into the rapids, where we are aiming and how we will end up there.
To do that, she demonstrates some of the various paddle strokes: a draw, a pull, a C-stroke and a J-stroke. The pulls and draws relate to the direction of the stoke, and the C and the J are done in the shapes their names imply.
We try the various strokes in the air, then get into the correct kneeling position in the canoe, and slide into comfortable knee straps. Van Wijk has a lot of safety gear attached to her vest and shorts, and we are both wearing snug lifejackets and strong plastic helmets. The paddles are light and comfortable.
With me in the bow, and Van Wijk in the stern, we head into the half-metre high rapids, and aim for the other shore. When you begin learning, you don’t head straight down a river in the middle of the rapids. You bisect the river, from shore to shore, in a zigzag pattern.
Hitting the whitewater at the correct angle is critical. We tilt slightly in the boat on her command, then paddle harder. The force of the current magically carries us along until we reach the calm water of the other shore.
There are various techniques to move through rapids, including eddying, C-turns, S-turns and ferrying. All of them are technically fascinating and yield various results.
The key aspect is to consider where the rapids are, and where lies the calm portion, or eddy, of the river. Then you plan the river crossing, from the calm water, or eddy, across the eddy line, where the waves start, and into the rapids, then into the eddy of the other shore.
How you get there, how you manoeuvre the canoe and where you end up are where all the fun is. For newbies like me, it is a bit stressful, but incredibly satisfying.
In the canoe, the power of the river is like a giant magical hand, guiding us along the crests of the rapids as our paddling action keeps us from tipping. You can’t really daydream while doing this. You have to concentrate on timing, paddling direction and strength, plus body position.
It is the most amazing feeling as the river provides the propulsion, power and speed, while the canoe, your body position and the paddle strokes harness that power for a purpose.
After crossing the rapids a few times, I am hooked. Back on the shore, Van Wijk and I speak philosophically about being on the Madawaksa River and how much she enjoys working on it.
I ask whether the task is to control the rapids, and Van Wijk speaks poetically about her relationship with the river. She stresses that the goal is to “work with” the immense power of moving water, not to fight it, or control it.
When you are plunging through whitewater, with a masterful paddler in control behind you, and the canoe is dancing on the crests of the waves, it is a magical thing.
And you have a great story to tell.
MORE ABOUT MADAWASKA KANU CENTRE
Address: 247 River Rd, Barry’s Bay
Price: Costs from $200 for one-day course to about $1,300 for five-day
· Kanu is the word meaning kayak in German
· Offers one-day, weekend and five-day paddling courses
· Various accommodation on site, separate costs
· Offers family programming, teen camps and women’s retreats
Ontario Travel: www.ontariotravel.net/en/home