For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to paddle in Canada. The Ottawa, Buseaster wave – places that have featured in so much paddling media, but always seemed so far away. Back in December, I bit the bullet and applied for my Canadian working holiday visa (for the third time) and finally got accepted. Another stroke of luck came in the form of an employment offer as a guide at a rafting company on the Ottawa river.
Things moved fast after I got the visa. At the end of my season snowmobile guiding in Finland, I booked on to an IRF instructor workshop in Nepal, on the Marsyghandi river. I passed the Class 3 instructor assessment, but more importantly, got lots of realistic scenario training in, ready for the upcoming rafting season.
Then followed a quick turn around. Less than a week at home in the UK, before flying out to Canada to start the 8 day Wilderness First Responder course near Toronto. Toronto to Ottawa, Ottawa to the rafting basecamp and on to a Whitewater Rescue Technician course. After 3 days of swimming rapids, abseiling off bridges and memorizing mechanical advantage systems, it was time to start training for the river.
But not the Ottawa. Not yet.
Every year, the annual Hell or Highwater festival takes place on the Petawawa river, Ontario, to raise awareness for river access and the fight against hydroelectric power schemes. Teams of rafters race down the popular class 3/4 “Town section,” competing against the clock, to be the fastest through the rapids. Esprit rafting – my employer, provides guides for the event, for the teams that have little previous rafting experience. And so I found myself in training, running laps of the “Railroad” and “Lovers” rapids.
After over a week of guide training, the event took place, with hundreds of people flocking to the Petawawa to get their whitewater fix.
At the end of the event and a total of 16 runs down the river, we headed back to the basecamp for a day of rest before starting training on the Ottawa, our home river.
The Esprit rafting base camp could not be in a more beautiful location. Based on the northern bank of the river Ottawa, with a view right up the valley, it has some of the most amazing sunsets that I’ve ever seen. As a river guide, it’s perfect. I can walk 30 metres from my tent to the river and practice playboating after work. The pine lodge and restaurant/bar was a community hub for the local towns of Davidson and Fort Coulonge for many years.
I write “was” because on the 20th of May, we returned from training on the Ottawa to find it engulfed in flames and lost forever.
The blaze rapidly consumed the main building, destroying the restaurant, offices and changing facilities, on the eve of what was to be our opening weekend. For a moment, there were serious concerns over what was going to happen next. With the fire still raging in the background, we found ourselves asking “what should we do now?” And the answer was simple – “go pump rafts.” With an 8 boat trip booked in, we scurried around preparing food and gear for the next day.
We woke up the next morning and gathered for our guide meeting around the wreckage of what was our river home. The message was – “business as usual.” The morning’s logistics were somewhat more complicated than usual, but its a testament to the professionalism of those who I work with that very few of our customers had any idea of what had happened the night before.
We’re still rafting.
And we still have our sunsets.
The Ottawa is a river that feels like it was designed for rafting. It’s high volume, yet pool drop with a mix of drops and huge wave trains, for lots of big hits.
The main event in the morning, on the middle channel is the “Elevator Shaft” – a roller-coaster ride down the right side of the Garvins Chutes:
As the river level drops throughout the summer, rapids come and go. Although we guide the same river, it feels like many different rivers in the same season. A firm favourite for the high water season is the world famous “Bus-eater” rapid. Bus-eater is a real test of nerves, floating closer towards a wave of biblical proportions, waiting for the right moment to begin the charge towards the window in the centre.
A window that often surges and closes out, resulting in impressive flips…
Although I had 3 seasons of rafting under my belt before Canada, I had never been in a flip, with customers whilst guiding. It would be fair to say that Bus-eater has changed that now.
The Ottawa has been a step up in my rafting career -learning to making lines on high volume rapids, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to progress, each time we go out.
Outside of work we find ourselves on the water as much as possible, enjoying river life.
It’s going to be a good summer.
For more information on rafting the Ottawa river, check out Esprit Rafting here