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.
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.