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This spring, I was searching for people to do outdoor activities with. I don’t have a lot of what you would call “outdoorsy” friends. But I was very pleased when my friend Julie asked me to do a two day whitewater canoe course with her. Julie and her husband are going to the Northwest Territories to canoe a river and she wanted some solid experience in how to handle the whitewater which she’s going to encounter.
I was pretty thrilled until I realized that meant she’d want to replicate the experience of canoeing with her husband, who canoes at the back of the boat. I have canoed at the back of the boat precisely once, the first time I was ever in a canoe, and I basically took us in pretty giant arcs for however (interminably long) I was in that boat. I did warn Julie that perhaps this might be a shitshow of an event, but we decided to go anyway and booked the trip a couple of weeks ago.
Julie is not really a planner. I picked Julie up to drive to NYC for a week one October and she forgot to pack a jacket. She almost forgot her wallet. In short, she’s pretty much the opposite of me. But I was totally amazed when Julie and I emailed each other the week before going to do some planning and then she even did a blog post on what she was packing to wear for our trip! Seriously? Who is this woman? I couldn’t even find my camping gear! I knew I might be in trouble…
I picked her up at 6:30 and we motored off to the Madawaska River down in Eastern Ontario about two hours from Ottawa. Julie had the tent, a giant canoeing backpack including some camp gear for me. I had the backpack I used for the Camino and a pair of crocs. I even forgot my water bottle, people.
When we arrived at the canoe put in, our fearless leader Ray (from Pure Life Adventures, the company Dad and I did our one day canoe trip with two years ago) unloaded the canoes and distributed the first load of gear into the canoe that Julie and I were going to get into. Julie got into the canoe (from shallow water, and I looked at the canoe and said to myself “huh, what is that in the bottom of the canoe?” Knee harnesses. Because in whitewater, you kneel. And because I am a majorly clumsy person, I got in that canoe, loaded with common gear and the gear of Sheri, the other guest, started shifting so I could kneel down, and tipped the boat. The good news is that Julie and I both float. The bad news is that the gear didn’t, and the shallows were very mucky and slimy. Meh.
After breaking the seal, so to speak, we managed to get to the island campsite in the most painful series of arcs known to man. It turns out I don’t actually know how to keep a canoe straight and can only steer in one direction. Heh. After we finally got to the camp, Ray decided we should probably be ballsy and do some flatwater “refresher” training (aka you were supposed to know how to paddle the flats before dying in the rapids). After about 2 hot, sweaty hours, Julie and I made our way back to camp for lunch, in a moderately straighter line.
We looked pretty good after lunch, didn’t we? We made it through the first rapid and immediately hit a rock, then motored over to the second rapid where we were supposed to do something called a “ferry”, where you angle your boat towards the current and cross over the current by paddling forward and steering and praying that you don’t get spun around. Well, we got spun around and rocked a bit and freaked out and dumped the boat in the middle of a fast moving current. You know what’s interesting? Swimming in shoes and a life jacket down one current and across another one so you can get to the shallows. We got back in the boat and soldier on.
I’m pretty hard on myself, generally. I have some perfectionism issues and I couldn’t understand what Ray was saying. And I couldn’t understand how to do what he wanted us to do. And I couldn’t figure out how to communicate with Julie. Normally, I cut myself a massive amount of slack when it comes to physical activities because I am uncoordinated and not that graceful, but for some reason I couldn’t get it through my head why I couldn’t GET this. It’s a paddle. It’s physics. Seriously. (Seriously, I dropped physics twice…. why would i think I would get that?)
Anyway, after we dumped the boat again and ended up practicing our mid-river rescues, Ray decided to split up Julie and I and I went in a canoe with him and Julie paddled with Sheri. It went better after that, but I still had a hard time figuring out exactly what i was supposed to be doing in the ferry. The good news is that the other moves we learned were the “peal out” and the “eddy out” which are fast little maneuvers run from the front of the boat and turn you very quickly.
Ray covered the mechanics again at the campfire Saturday night. I had some bad ferry dreams that night, got a bajillion mosquito bites, and woke up in a lot of discomfort. Apparently my knees do not enjoy it when I kneel for six hours, even on pads and in a harness. I’m sure it will come as no surprise that on my first run down the rapid with Ray Sunday morning, I tipped the boat.
See how zen I am in the water? That’s cause it was already about 28C. I don’t think Ray was all that upset either, and it gave Julie the chance to practice “cracking the boat”, lifting it up over the middle of the canoe, flipping it, and laying it back down in the water. I, however, knew I was going to have to belly myself up over the boat again. Ugh.
In order to get into a canoe in the middle of the river, your partner boat tips it towards you and holds it steady out of the water while you pull your upper body up into the boat. As soon as you clear the bottom of your life jacket, you sort of tip forward, head first into the boat. You know what happened to me each time I did a mid-river entry? I got my head stuck under one of those pieces of wood that goes across the boat. So I had to unwedge my head (which is face down), flip over, get my feet under me, stand up, and get to my seat all without tipping the boat again. On this go around, Ray tipped the boat a little too far to the side getting in and we took on a lot of water. I told him we were going to the shallows, cause it is HARD to get back in the boat.
By the end of the day, I got Ray down the rapid and across the current in a good ferry. Then I tried it with Sheri in the front of the boat and it worked AGAIN. We had to go around once to get the right angle to ferry the boat, but it worked awesomely well.
See? I’m totally steering that sucker. From the back of the boat! Of course, shortly after this photo I fell out of the boat and hit a rock so hard I got road rash, which is totally when I decided that I was done for the day.
We packed it in an hour early and were home by 6pm, dirty as all get out and itchy from the bites. All in all, I’m very glad I went. I can greatly appreciate the awesomeness of my dad and his ability to keep us going in a straight line when we canoed for six hours while he had a broken hand. I can see how, with a lot of practice, I COULD be a good canoeist. I can see how I can get a boat through a small rapid as long as I’m in charge of the boat and able to clearly communicate instructions to my partner. I can see how I’m too hard on myself and how sometimes the journey is more important than the straight line.
All good lessons. And I’m glad I learned them.