The Ottawa River is one of the world’s premier whitewater rafting destinations. With put-ins and luxury outdoor resorts located about an hour west of Ottawa’s downtown core, you have the option to camp out and “rough it,” or to stay warm and dry in a cozy cedar wood cabin. The river is conveniently located, offering gentle family-friendly and high adrenaline adventures. Whether you’re after whitewater rafting or the more extreme whitewater kayaking, the turbulent waters of the upper Ottawa River have something to offer everyone.
As I pulled up to the Wilderness Tours Adventure Resort in nearby Foresters Falls, Ontario, I wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into.
My initiation to the joy and excitement of whitewater adventure happened earlier in the summer when I participated in a whitewater rafting day trip with another local outdoor company, RiverRun Rafting. I spent my day bouncing and laughing my way down seven different Class II and Class III rapids, and though our boat flipped over unexpectedly at Horseshoe—the biggest and most dangerous rapid of the day—it didn’t affect the group’s morale. Once all the rafters and paddles were recovered from the fast-moving water, we simply continued down the river like many explorers, fur traders and log drivers before us. I discovered there is something addictive about the rush and loud untamed roar of whitewater.
Though I enjoyed rafting, the surfing and snowboarding daredevil in me felt like I needed to push the limit a little more. While rafting, I saw a group of whitewater kayakers skillfully surfing and flipping their way through the waves. This seemed like my kind of adventure and I didn’t hesitate to sign up for Wilderness Tours’ Beginner 2-Day Whitewater Kayaking Clinic.
My first day of kayaking was spent on the calm sandy beach, just around the corner from the resort, where my instructor from the Ottawa Kayak School (OKS) Seth Ashworth—a member of Great Britain’s 2011 ICF Freestyle [Kayaking] World Championship Team, didn’t waste any time introducing us to the challenges of whitewater kayaking. Once we were all geared up and ready to go, he gave us our first task: “Okay, now paddle out, flip yourself over and get yourself out,” he said. Nothing like trial by fire, I thought.
Being the only young woman in a group of four men and giving into my competitive nature, I paddled out first, turned upside down and got myself out. The key to whitewater kayaking as a beginner, I learned, is to know how to pull off your kayak skirt and get yourself back to the surface. Task one was accomplished and as the day progressed, we learned more skills needed to survive in whitewater. I left the beach on the first day feeling confident that I could hold my own on the mighty Ottawa River.
After warming up in one of the resort’s hot tubs, I settled into my cedar cabin for the night and let the sounds of the river lull me to sleep as I looked forward to the next day’s high adrenaline adventure.
Once the group finished a pancake breakfast and woke up with some much-needed coffee, we loaded the kayaks onto a trailer and drove out to the Lorne Rapid put-in to begin our second day on the water.
As we carried our kayaks towards the river, the roaring noise of the Lorne became louder. As I sat and watched the rushing water, I couldn’t help but think that the rapid had looked much less intimidating from the safety of a 12-person raft.
Now, as I sat there all ready to go in my tiny red kayak, I had a feeling that I would not be running the Lorne and that it would be running me.
Seth’s voice pulled me away from my thoughts and back to the task at hand: we would be practicing going in and out of the whitewater and I was up.
Nervously, I picked up my paddle and inched my way towards the roaring rapid. All I had to do was keep my boat steady then return to the safety of the still water, which seemed easy enough. A few paddle strokes in and I was surprised to see how well my little boat responded, then the power of the Ottawa River took over.
One ripple hit the kayak and I was under the thrashing white waves. It was nothing like what I had experienced at the beach. Disoriented and in desperate need of air, I pulled my kayak skirt, smashing my leg on the side of the boat on my way out. I swam back to the shore bruised, sore, scared and defeated. Despite my daredevil nature, maybe whitewater kayaking just wasn’t for me?
One after the other, members of our group entered the whitewater and were promptly thrown out. But after some words of encouragement and more coaching from world-class kayaker Seth, the day took a turn for the better. The Ottawa River may have won the morning round, but the afternoon was ours. After a few attempts, with Seth giving expert advice from his kayak only a few feet away, I was finally bouncing and gliding along happily on the water’s surface.
Once we were able to safely ferry across the tumultuous current, the group stopped at Push Button, a Class II rapid and kayaking play spot. To get through this arrow-shaped rapid unscathed, Seth directed the group to go down one at a time and paddle hard. This is what I had been waiting for: a chance to run a full rapid.
After watching the guys go down the rapid successfully, I was the last kayaker of our group to attempt Push Button. I may have been the only girl in the group, but I wasn’t going to let that hold me back.
I let go of the jagged rock that was keeping me from being swept downriver and paddled into the middle of the dark flowing rapid. This time, the tiny kayak went where I wanted it to go. I relaxed and kept a steady paddle rhythm as my boat bounced and played all the way down to the safety of the still water. Though my heart was pounding, my battered leg throbbing and my stiff muscles complaining with every stroke, I was actually enjoying myself. I ran Push Button instead of it running me!
Our kayaking plans changed in the late afternoon as the whitewater rose to levels that are dangerous for brand new kayakers. But our trip wasn’t over yet.
After warming up by a campfire at the river’s edge, we set our kayaks aside and followed our instructor on foot to the top of a gigantic three-wave river chute known as Waikiki. The task was simple: buckle up your lifejacket, jump in and ride down the rapid.
To be honest, as I stood there watching gallons upon gallons of water flow by me and meet in an angry garburator of rocks, current and six foot waves, I questioned Seth’s sanity. Jumping into a huge, rushing and roaring rapid goes against every survival instinct I’ve ever had. Also, I wasn’t sure what an enraged river would do to a little 100-pound me.
But after some reflection, I figured Seth would not put us in harm’s way. A type of carpe diem mentality took over and I jumped in, hoping for the best. Waikiki’s size, power and roar now doubled as I splashed around helplessly within it. But I made it over one wave, then two and then three; this was actually a great time! Before I knew it, I was relaxing again in the safety of the still water.
As I sat there, looking up at the magnitude and sheer power of a rapid that seemed capable of destroying anything in its path, I couldn’t help but think the Ottawa River just taught me a valuable, timeless lesson: kayak or no kayak, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. I left the beach feeling proud, confident and determined. I’d be back to run more rapids next summer.
The Ottawa River, which stretches about 1,207 kilometres (750 miles) was first used as an Aboriginal Peoples trading route, then a main waterway for early explorers and later, as a main lumber trading route in the 1800s.
The Ottawa River and the regions of Foresters Falls and Beachburg, Ontario, are home to outdoor adventure companies Wilderness Tours, RiverRun Rafting and OWL Rafting on the Ottawa River, which all offer family-friendly and action-packed river adventure roughly from May to mid-September.
At least once in your life, let yourself be excited and enchanted by the unbridled power and majestic natural beauty of the Ottawa River!
*Special thanks to Seth Ashworth for keeping me motivated and focused on the Ottawa River. Without Seth’s constant encouragement and expert coaching, this story would not have been possible.