Facing My Fear on the Muskoka River [video]

I don’t know why, but fast moving water terrifies me. There was no incident as a kid or any experience that I can identify as being the reason. I just am. I don’t like being afraid because it prevents me from exploring wilderness places by not even considering a route if it has moving water. Last year I was certified by the Ontario Recreational Canoe and Kayak Association (ORCKA) in Moving Water Canoeing Level 1 (and did a blog post about it). This was the first step I took in trying to overcome my fear.

Now that I am certified, I have to keep practicing my skills in order to gain confidence. Not having a whitewater canoe has been a saving grace for me when my husband suggests a route that has moving water. My excuse has been that our kevlar canoe isn’t made for that kind of adventure, and I get to play it safe. But when we finally agreed to canoe trip in Quetico Provincial Park this year (a 3-year dream come true), I knew there was no backing down from having to paddle some moving water and around waterfalls. Not only will this be the most difficult trip yet because we will be in a complete wilderness-protected park with no marked portages or campsites, but it is also the longest being 16 days and over 320km around the Hunter Island Loop.

As part of our training for Quetico, we’ve been practicing a few of our paddle draws, rudders, pry’s, ferrying and eddying in the Muskoka River in town (which is slow moving in this area). My husband has been after me to paddle down the south branch of the Muskoka River from Baysville to Fraserberg for a couple of months, and I’ve been able to put it off with excuses. Until now.

Our 13 km route.

When we arrived in Baysville the water was at least 3 feet higher than this time last year! I didn’t know what to expect but my husband kept saying “the character of the river is so different than last year.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but when we approached an area on the river marked as “swifts” on the map we had, it was actually much more than that! With over 50 cubic meters of water per second flowing through, those swifts had easily turned into Class I rapids. I demanded that we eddy out immediately so I could collect myself. I was terrified and my stomach was turning in knots. There was NO WAY I was able to paddle this. Not even a chance.

“You’re going to have to trust me, I’ve paddled this river twice before. I know what’s down river,” my husband said.

At this point there was no turning around. It was impossible to paddle back up river. I was frustrated because I didn’t want to do it, but knew I had no choice. So, with a gulp of breath I said “Fine!” and we paddled back into the river, down stream and over the rapids.

I did it. My heart was racing.

“See? That wasn’t so bad. You did awesome, Babe!” My husband encouraged.

Yeah I did it, but I didn’t like it. The most difficult part for me is not being able to see what is around the bend on moving water Class I rapids. That’s what scares me. This was the first time I had been out on moving water (a year later) since my course last year.

When we left our second portage which was Cooks Falls, my husband told me that we had passed the worst of it. And what he meant when he kept saying “the character of the river is so different than last year,” was that he had to walk through the swift area, whereas we had to paddle over Class I, so the water was much lower and slower when he went. You see my husband is smart, he waited until after to tell me those things.

There were a couple of other dicey parts to this route. Like the nonsense at Slaters Falls where you’re approaching the falls but have to paddle really close to it to get around a streamer, and then quickly paddle into the shoreline again to get to the portage (you will see me give a thumbs up in the video). But we did it, and it was easy. The water isn’t actually moving that fast. Facts from my moving water instructor, Mark Orzel, kept entering my mind. “The water’s only moving at 7kms/hour,” (or something like that. It’s not very fast), and if you start tipping or losing balance “KEEP PADDLING and don’t do the gunwale grab,” because moving faster than the water is actually going to make you more stable.

So with all of that, I might look like I’m actually having fun in my video, but inside I was scared as hell. Glad I did it, and I will do it again. It’s all about building confidence. I had to keep reminding myself that I did go on my first 4-day solo canoe trip in early spring, so if I can do that, I can definitely paddle down some moving water! And I was scared as hell the first time I went on a backcountry canoe trip, and look where I am now.

 

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8 comments

  1. well done, Cobi!!! I think you need to obtain some kind of head mounted video cam, so we can see and feel what it’s like to run some of those rapids, with you! Keep up the brave work and you will only get better as you experience them……

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  2. I’m with you on the fear of moving water. I’m at the point now where I’m annoyed by my mild paranoia and want to practice more and more. Getting to know an easy local whitewater river has really helped me. I also spend a really long time scouting and reading the water so I know what to expect. Last year we portaged around 90% of the rapids on the Magnetawan but this year I plan to run them all (in a whitewater boat and with a helmet, of course!) and I’m really looking forward to it. One day I hope the thrill outweighs the fear for you and me both!

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    • Thanks for the comment, Tierney. I apologize for not responding sooner. I agree with you about the annoyance thing. It’s ridiculous, but it’s real. We were camping on Lake Temagami and Cross Lake (as you know, both huge) and had some crazy wind to contend with this past weekend. I get nervous paddling in those conditions too, but I was actually okay this time. We’re really pushing ourselves for our trip to Quetico, so with more experience the less nervous you and I will be. Looking forward to reading about your Magnetawan trip. We were supposed to do that this past weekend, but our friends cancelled so we went up north. Did you paddle the rapids or portage? How was it?

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      • We paddled most of the rapids this time! We brought a whitewater canoe, float bags and whitewater paddles. Water levels were EXTREME and so were the bugs but we really challenged ourselves in the rapids and kept the open side up! The three other canoes we saw over the weekend did not fare as well… we had to rescue five people who swam. You were probably better off heading up north last weekend. I checked the water office data and the flow last year was 10 m3/s and this year it was 118m3/s while we were there! We ran the biggest, gnarliest Class II we’ve ever done and it was the scariest thing of my life but so awesome.

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      • YEAH!!! Awesome! Sh*t.. I couldn’t even think of doing a Class II. Good for you. Now I’m really looking forward to your post! Water is crazy high everywhere! I wonder if those 5 people had any experience at all? Or just bad luck…

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      • Zero experience. Well, the one guy who’d been on a canoe trip tried to solo a CII and dumped right at the top. His friends decided that since Andrew and I made it through another CII, they’d try it – without scouting – and all went for a swim. This is after they’ve already LOST one canoe forever! Some people just don’t have an understanding of risk management I guess.

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