Learning to White Water Canoe in Ontario
Featured destinations: Canada
Published 21 July 2016
“Today, there’s a 100% chance of going in the river,” announced Claudia Van Wijk, owner of the Madawaska Kanu Centre (MKC), to varying levels of unease. We were going to get wet. Feeling even more nervous than before, I pulled on my wetsuit, helmet and lifejacket, and tried to be brave.
The canoeing group on the Madawaska River (image: Angela Griffin)
There were six of us, all complete novices, plus six instructors and Claudia. We piled into a van dragging six brightly coloured canoes behind it, and headed to the river – ‘the river’ being the tree-lined Madawaska River just outside Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. I could see by everyone’s faces that they were all feeling a little apprehensive, especially after Claudia’s promise that we were going in.
The group feeling a little nervous before our canoeing adventure (image: Angela Griffin)
Choosing an instructor
We stood at the riverside and were each assigned a paddle. “Everyone choose a paddling partner!” Claudia instructed. This was easier said than done. How do you pick from a bunch of very young and fit instructors who you’ve only just met? Being awkwardly British, we all hesitated and tried to be polite, until one of the instructors, Johnny, said, “Anyone who wants adventure, come with me,” and for some unknown reason everyone started to nudge me towards him. Although unsure of just how much adventure there would be, I threw caution to the wind and joined Johnny in the canoe.
Angela carrying the canoe to the water (image: Angela Griffin)
Practising our technique (image: Angela Griffin)
Left or right?
I got into the front paddler’s seat and Johnny showed me how to position myself correctly. I attached my knees into the straps as Johnny took the back seat, which is easier for steering. “So Angela,” he began, “if we lean left which way we will turn?”
“Ummm…right?” I guessed.
“Not quite,” he said diplomatically. “If we lean left we will turn left.” Not a great start.
Just to hammer home the point, we practised going back and forth across the river, leaning left and then right to see how the canoe responded. With a class I rapid in the centre of the river, he showed me how leaning first into, and then away from, the flowing water was the best way to ride the waves smoothly. “Just like skiing,” he told me. Just like skiing, I told myself.
Angela swimming in the river (image: Angela Griffin)
Practising for the ‘what ifs’
Once we’d practised a few times and I was feeling more confident, it was time to practise the ‘what ifs’. The instructors informed us that if we fell in we needed to turn onto our backs and ride the rapids feet first, keeping our bottoms up. Easy? Well it was time to give it a go. It was at this point that I realised that Claudia had been right, there was 100% chance of going into the river.
Claudia knows what she’s talking about. She was 10-time Canadian National Whitewater Kayaking champion and a bronze medallist in the 1982 World Championships. Her daughter Katrina has continued the trend, becoming a professional kayaker herself. She now runs the MKC with great enthusiasm, clearly relishing doing something she loves.
I stood on the edge of the rapid, ready to jump. Johnny told me to follow him, and I did. I plopped rather unceremoniously into the river and the water rushed into my wetsuit. It was cold, but only for a second. It soon became more refreshing than chilly, and I manoeuvred my legs around as instructed, riding the current like a slide. It was great fun! I wasn’t scared at all. In fact I would have jumped in again, but now we had to canoe.Angela gets a face full of water (image: Angela Griffin)
Canoeing the rapids
We went down the river in a procession, each pair surfing the rapid and then moving to the side to wait for the next. Johnny and I built up a good speed and rhythm, smoothly navigating the rocky patches. No rapid was above a class II, but I still managed to form a rather large puddle in the front of the canoe. On more than one occasion I suspected that Johnny turned the boat directly into the waves on purpose, giving me a face full of cold water and drenching me in the process, but I’ll never know for sure.
Angela and Johnny on the river (image: Angela Griffin)
Into the river again
After a couple of hours splashing about in the sunshine, we parked our canoes in a row at the side of the river. Getting out was easier said than done, and after a few wobbles and near swims, we were all home and dry. Or so we thought. “Good job!” encouraged Claudia, “and you know the best way to end the day?!” I immediately thought of wine, but Claudia had other ideas. “Jump off the bridge!” she said excitedly. We all turned to where she was pointing to see a bridge over the water. I’m not sure how high up it was; it looked maybe 10 metres above the water to me, but in reality it was probably nearer six. When I stood up there, looking down into the river flowing briskly beneath me, it might as well have been 100. My heart was beating fast. Having jumped off a few things in my time though, I knew my best tactic. Go second, so that I could watch someone else and learn from their mistakes, and don’t wait for a countdown or else I’ll never jump. “Five!” they all yelled, and I jumped. No four-three-two-one for me.
Jumping into the river (image: Angela Griffin)
The water was refreshing, frothy, and deep. My lifejacket pulled me quickly to the surface, where I popped up into the sunlight and kicked furiously to remove myself from the current. I reached the side, sat on a boulder and watched the rest of the group take the plunge, some more confidently than others.
The group after our canoeing adventure (image: Angela Griffin)
Back at the MKC, a large wooden building with a dining room and accommodation for those on week-long canoeing and kayaking programs, we washed under the maple leaves in wonderfully warm outdoor showers. Feeling dry and refreshed we tucked into Claudia’s homemade lemon and poppy seed cake and chatted nonstop about what a good time we’d had. We were still buzzing later that night, proud of ourselves for doing so well on our white water canoeing adventure.
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