Nineteen AMC whitewater
kayakers set up camp in Beachburg, Ontario this July for a week of instruction
at Canada's Ottawa Kayak School (OKS). The group included four teenage boys,
eight men, and seven women. Organized by the Connecticut chapter, the group also
included several paddlers from MA and NH. We brought our tents, our boats, and a
sense of adventure to the safe, warm, BIG whitewater of the Ottawa River.
The Ottawa: Big water!
We’d all heard that the Ottawa River has huge waves, so we prepared ourselves to
see big water. But not all of us expected to see wide water. Upon our arrival
many of us admired the lakefront views of the kayak school and inquired into the
whereabouts of the river. The instructors pointed to what we thought was the
During our first two days on the river, our instructors laughed at our bug-eyed
expressions every time we saw a new rapid. No matter which kayaker you asked or
which rapid you asked about, the answer to the question, “How was it?” always
brought the same response, “It was big!” One trip member recalls her approach to
McCoy’s, the first rapid, a solid Class III. “The very first day it sounded like
Niagara Falls as we approached McCoy’s. Plus, we saw the huge sprays of water
rising above the horizon as we got closer, and I thought, "What did I get myself
The Ottawa contains over 175 islands and two primary channels, the Main and the
Middle. The Main has the biggest water, while the Middle is slightly smaller.
However, during our visit the river was 20 feet over its usual height due to
recent heavy rains. On the way to the campsite, the news report on the radio
cautioned, “The Ottawa is unseasonably high. Please reschedule all recreational
activity. The Ottawa is not safe for recreational use.” Due to the
excessive water levels, even the most advanced students were only allowed on the
Middle Channel during our stay. While our usual home rivers run between several
hundred and several thousand cubic feet per second (cfs), the Ottawa was flowing
at 130,000 cfs during our first day.
The beautiful, 4-mile run down the Middle Channel consists of Class I-V
rapids, with names like McCoy's, Garvin's Chute, Little Trickle, Angel's Kiss,
Upper and Lower No Name. The run includes waterfalls, sandy beaches, and very
few rocks. The lack of rocks made this a safe playground for perfecting new
skills and pushing our limits. In fact, our instructors explained that rapids
which would be rated Class III in the US due to the height of the waves
frequently garner a Class II in Canada because of the lack of rocks (and
therefore lack of dangerous consequences). Beyond the dearth of rocks, the
Ottawa differs from typical New England rivers in both its warmth and in the
flatness of the surrounding land. But the most-repeated refrain after the first
day on the river was definitely, “It was big!”
A typical day
On the first morning the adult paddlers self-selected into four groups:
beginners, novices (either Class II paddlers or those who had not yet
bomb-proofed their combat roll), intermediate river runners, and playboaters.
The teens divided into playboaters or beginners. We had a typical student to
instructor ratio of 5:1. Within each group the instructors successfully and
patiently handled a range of paddling abilities.
Each day we took a shuttle to the put-in at 9:00. Mornings began with a
disciplined warm-up session where we fine-tuned strokes we already possessed and
added a few new strokes. By week’s end the playboater group’s warm-up included
forward/backward strokes, forward/backward sweeps, C-stroke, S turn, offside C
stroke, reverse compound, stern squirts, and double pumps/bobs. We worked each
stroke to develop good habits, warm up our muscles, and prepare for more complex
Two mornings included roll bomb-proofing sessions. By week’s end even previously
inconsistent rollers had a combat roll that will easily weather the Class III+
rapids of Zoar Gap on one of our home rivers, the Deerfield. We learned to roll
with our paddle in any position, and some learned to roll without a paddle at
all. All boaters worked with bracing extensively.
We stayed on the river until 4:00, and the instructors paced each day to
avoid burnout or injuries. The highlight of the day for many of the boaters was
our daily lunch break at Garvin’s Play Spot. Instructors prepared food on the
large, semi-permanent grill OKS had set up in the area. We ate huddled around
the campfire or sitting on rocks watching others take turns in the four standing
waves at the play spot. We cheered as group members accomplished new feats or
contributed to the carnage on the six-foot-high waves.
At the end of each day we dined together and compared notes. After-dinner
activities were fairly low-key, although the options for more abounded. OKS
shares its facilities with Wilderness Tours, a self-proclaimed “whitewater
resort.” Free activities included paddleboats, swimming, and all sorts of ball
sports. Mountain bikes and bungee jumping were available for a fee.
Unfortunately the pool, hot tub, and most games were overrun by boisterous
rafters or “Family Adventure Week” participants during our stay, so we opted for
less energetic pursuits. Since campfires were prohibited, we spent our nights at
the main lodge watching videos of kayaking instruction or of ourselves on the
river, attending a safety clinic, playing lawn chess or dominoes, watching the
Tour de France, or just hanging out.
Although the OKS offered cabins for rent, our group chose to camp for the week.
We were given a large, grassy field away from the rowdy main lodge. Everyone
tested the waterproof guarantees of our tents, as it managed to rain every day
as soon as we emerged from the river.
Instructors provided constant supervision in a laid-back manner. They
taught precise technique and offered constructive criticism, but they knew how
to let students have fun and learn some things on their own, from one another,
and from the rapids. Each group member realized new levels of confidence and
skill, and everyone recounted a unique personal achievement.
One paddler’s high for the week came when she “finally got on the wave” at
lunchtime. “Then it turned me backwards and I did a 180 (without trying) -- a
second later it flipped me and I did my first combat roll in the rapids below
the wave. That was a big thrill.”
For many, our personal bests were also our scariest moments. Performing two
loops in the hole at the top of Lower No Name was both the most nerve-wracking
moment and proudest achievement for one playboater.
An extremely nervous beginner remains most proud of using a new stroke to
do an eddy turn. “It took me a while to commit to the gliding draw in moving
water, but when the instructor finally coached me through it, I was amazed at
how the river slowed down and I maintained control. After that I got a bit more
confident and even paddled a rapid all by myself.”
Running one of the largest rapids, known as Garvin’s Chute, was a thrill for a
playboater and long-time paddler – as well as an accomplishment nobody else
achieved that week. He recounts, “It was the first time I ran a Class IV+/V
rapid. It was fast, and it was a challenge running it blind... I guess my
biggest achievement was putting myself in those huge holes, playing in the
waves, and being able to do 360's -- and being comfortable in doing so.”
A new playboater echoes those sentiments and says the intense week was
just the trick to take her to a new skill level. “As a river runner, I used to
avoid holes, especially ones with names like Vampire Eater. As the week
progressed, my approach changed from, ‘If you can’t circumvent it, punch it,’ to
‘If you can’t circumvent it, surf it.’ For the gentler holes, nothing beats the
feeling of the Mystery Move.”
We all learned a tremendous amount in five days. One woman who had never
been in whitewater successfully navigated a Class II+ river run (upright!).
Several of us bomb-proofed our combat rolls, and all of us returned home with a
new definition of big water.
We also returned home with new friends and paddling buddies. As Dennis Wigg, the
trip organizer, expounds, “My greatest thrill was seeing others in the group
meet their individual challenges and grow through the experience. I liked having
19 people go up together and get to know each person a little better. The group
in itself helped to make the trip a worthwhile experience.”