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What Every Hobbit Should Know About Paddles

Photo: flickr.com/usfwsnortheast
What Every Hobbit Should Know About Paddles

Canoe paddles propel us across the lakes and down the rivers of Middle Earth but they also hang in university dorm rooms and are proudly displayed above mantles, reminding us of adventures past. Canoe paddles are woodsmen’s tools and scholars’ art, they are swords of freedom and portals into memories of the past.

Where do you buy such a mythical thing? Our paddle buyer’s directory introduces you to the makers—from large companies with magical worldwide distribution to the garage-based wizards in your shire. Before you delve into our directory or speak with your local peddler, your first step in buying a paddle is to determine the size you require and type of magic you wish it to perform. 

Sizing Your Sword

Choosing the correct paddle size can be as simple as walking up to a rack and finding the one that stands to between your chin and your nose. This old camp standby is a good rule of thumb for sizing your first paddle.

Other paddlers spend their lifetimes working out complex equations, calculating such variables as torso and arm length, shaft diameter and shape, curve of the blade, activity type, seat style and height above the water. Granted these are all valid considerations, but the ultimate deciding factor is usually personal preference developed after a few adventures.

Types of Paddle Magic

Recreational

Recreational canoe paddles are general-purpose tools made of inexpensive materials such as aluminum, plastic and cheaper woods. Wood recreational paddles often come in the same blade shapes as lakewater tripping paddles. Aluminum and plastic paddles come in a variety of shapes and are inexpensive and very durable. In either case, what you save in cost you give up in performance and aesthetic appeal. When was the last time you saw a plastic paddle hanging over a fireplace?

Lakewater Tripping

Traditional designs such as ottertail, beavertail and voyageur have long, narrow blades for smooth, repetitive strokes on deep, flat water. They are most often made of wood, for tradition and aesthetics more than any other reason. One-piece or laminated paddles made of woods such as ash, cherry, mahogany, maple, walnut and poplar offer lightness and beauty finely crafted into wonderful shapes. Wood paddles require a bit of care. Dents and scrapes at the end of the blade should be sanded and varnished or oiled to prevent splitting.

Whitewater

Whitewater paddles generally have short, square blades for quick and powerful strokes in aerated, shallow water. Whitewater blades are most commonly flat or spooned to “catch” more water and built tough to withstand abuse. They can be made of wood, fibreglass, carbon or Kevlar with metal or resin-reinforced tips. While other paddle types have a variety of contoured grip shapes such as pear grips, whitewater paddles usually have T-shaped grips for leverage and a precise, secure feel.

Performance

Performance canoe paddles are built for speed and often used in racing or fitness paddling. Weight and efficiency are more important than price, allowing manufacturers to use more expensive materials, such as carbon and Kevlar, and experiment with a variety of blade shapes. Bent-shaft designs set the blade at a slight forward angle to help keep it vertical through the most powerful portion of the stroke. When the clock is ticking, every little bit helps. 

Screen_Shot_2015-12-23_at_10.17.01_AM.pngThis article first appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Canoeroots’ print and digital editions here

How to Canoe Across Canada in a Season

Photo: Rick Matthews
How to Canoe Across Canada in a Season

On April 18, 1995, Roman Rockliffe and I dipped our paddles into the Bay of Fundy. We were setting off up the Saint John River, attempting to be the first people to paddle coast to coast across Canada in a season. We had no support team and little funding; only a canoe and a dream. In the following six months, we paddled up the Saint Lawrence (and lunched with Pierre Trudeau in Montreal en route), sloshed across the Great Lakes, hopped through the Boundary Waters, danced across Lake Winnipeg, toiled up the North Saskatchewan, grunted over the Rockies and then flew down the Fraser. On October 12 we splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and tasted its salty broth, bringing our great Canadian adventure to a close.

We weren’t superhuman, just a couple of canoe trippers who had always talked about “the big one” until we finally decided to give it a go. Anyone with determina- tion and a love of canoe tripping can do the same. Here are a few tips to help you along as you prepare for your own cross-Canada canoe marathon. 

Choosing Your Partner

Some might think that on a 180-day canoe trip you’d want your best friend or partner to be your companion. It could work, sure…or you could be at the throat of your dear friend and ruin that relationship forever. In order to do all 8,000 kilometres from the Maritimes to Lotusland, you have to be prepared to paddle and portage for 10 to 12 hours a day, every day.

Roman and I had met exactly twice before we set off. The key was that we were both bull-headed and would never, at any cost, quit before our goal was achieved. We were thrown together to achieve one singular task and had no baggage of the past to bring with us. 

So pick out a determined individual who loves to trip and shares your dream. Perhaps try an ad in the personals—“tripper seeks tripper for cross-Canada fun.”

Fuelling the 8,000-Kilometre Engine

We discovered on our journey that we could average about 60 kilometres per day on flat water, 90 kilometres per day downstream and 40 kilometres per day upstream (portaging, of course, cut down these distances).

To keep the engine humming at this pace, we ate a very basic diet. It consisted of oatmeal for breakfast, peanut butter and jam on tortillas for lunch, and some facsimile of freeze-dried noodles and gravy for dinner. Energy bar breaks during mid-morning and mid-afternoon rounded out our Spartan diet.

We sent our food ahead to towns along the route by mail before we left. Call ahead and talk to the person in charge of each respective post office so they’ll hold it beyond the usual 30 days before returning it to sender. Often you’ll be able to find a $5.95 buffet in the town where you pick up your cache. Go on in, then amaze, confound, and finally bring the poor proprietor to tears as you proceed to eat every last bit of food on the buffet table.

Getting Half a Year Off to Go on a Canoe Trip

Don’t let a job get in the way of a dream. Ask your superiors nicely. If they refuse, quit. There are thousands of jobs out there but there is only one trip of a lifetime. Let the canoe become your office and the tent your home. “Back in the days when I canoed across the country…” is going to sound better to your grandchildren than, “Back in the days when I processed insurance claims….”

Gearing Up

A 180-day trip requires the same gear as a weekend trip to Algonquin. All you essentially need is a canoe, tent, stove, pot set, paddles and basic clothing. Ah yes, one more thing: When we got to the Rockies we faced a

400-kilometre portage over the divide between the North Saskatchewan and the Fraser. Get some mid-wheels for that section. We slugged through in seven mind-numbing days, pulling our canoe and gear along the Yellowhead Highway. I shudder to think of toting our load the same distance on our backs.

Attitude

If on day 10 you’re hoping for day 180, the trip is as good as over. On long trips, the best mental approach is to savour every day, one paddle-stroke at a time. You can never look ahead. Living in the moment is the way to go. Remind yourself that you will never pass this way again. On a point-to-point canoe trip, every dip of the blade brings you in contact with different sights and sounds that are gone a moment later.

When it’s pissing rain, you’re paddling upstream on the Saskatchewan River, the bugs are hammering you, and you miss your family and friends, think to yourself, “Where in the world would I rather be?” Inevitably, your answer will be “Nowhere. Nowhere but here, on a canoe trip across Canada.”

In 2003, Frank Wolf bicycled 2,200 kilometres across the Yukon/Alaska backcountry in winter. His film of that trip aired on CTV. Between adventures, Frank works as a retail minion at Mountain Equipment Co-op in Vancouver. 

Screen_Shot_2015-12-23_at_10.17.01_AM.pngThis article first appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Canoeroots’ print and digital editions here

Why Do We Paddle the River?

Photo: Brian Shields
Why Do We Paddle the River?

Why do we do it? Why do we paddle remote rivers every summer, year after year? Why in February, when the snowdrifts still sit hard-edged in the backyard and the light comes charging back, do we river runners feel the unspoken dread of a summer without a river? The new light mixes memory and desire, tumbling old friends and rivers of the past in winter reveries. Paddling partners reach out to each other, questioning, proposing, easing each other’s fears of being left behind to tend some scorched and mundane bit of a garden in the oppressive summer heat.

Perhaps travelling rivers is an excuse to dream. The river I am thinking of this time is the Mouchalagane, last year’s antidote to urban boredom. By spring, after months of planning, we nickname it the “Mouchie”, a name well-suited to some pet that is always there to lift your spirit in the pewter-coloured days of late winter.

The Mouchalagane is a tiny blue line on the map. Beginning on the high, sparse plateau west of Labrador City, it falls southward only 130 kilometres, tumbling, rocky and narrow through most of its length. For a two-week trip the pace is languorous. Our only deadline is making a float- plane rendezvous on Manicouagan Reservoir—the flooded meteor crater at the end of the river. 

The time available transforms the trip. It means that we rarely pass a breath-catching campsite without pitching the tents. And we only look at our watches to confirm why we’re hungry. A great deal of time is spent staring at the river, and this is seen as a perfectly normal pastime. We talk to each other and reveal the little secret things that we often keep hidden even from ourselves. Books are passed around through many hands and are mostly read as close to the river as possible, often well into the night. And the inconceivable happens: the ever-early risers often sleep late.

Maybe we escape to the wilds to play hunter-gatherer. With all our extra time, the fishermen in our small group pretend to be predators, endlessly wearing out the speck- led trout in a laughable game of catch and release. They often leave at first light, and working up or down through the limitless eddies, come back late for breakfast wearing satisfied cat-grins and carrying only their fish stories. Fishing lessons take place and soon everyone is playing the game. It seems only the fish are not having a good time.

Or it may be that we simply need to feel something different, to escape a life lived on claustrophobic acres of windless office carpeting in some highrise centre of power and influence. We enjoy marking the passing of the grey days with rain-fires, sheltered under a spark-ravaged wisp of a tarp, creating a rough comfort in the dampness and wind.

It is, we think sometimes, for the water that we drive for days and push the confines of credit limits to pay for floatplane charters. We are whitewater paddlers, and we travel in the company of fellow zealots, each infatuated with making the move, sacrificing the boats on the “Mouchie’s” rocky altar and scouting every wave of every set so that it can be played like a piece of music.

The Mouchie has numerous stretches of water rated beyond the limits of most open canoes. We run all the scary stuff for the camera and bounce out at the ends pumped with adrenaline. Spontaneous war cries leap out, euphoria finding a voice over the sound of moving water. Yes, this high could be the reason we do this.

Finally, there is a stretch of river that drives the boats to shore. The land falls away and the water begins to scream and consume itself. Like giddy children, we skip along the wide granite edge of its spring floodplain, picking flat rock campsites, and then again and again finding better places, as we laugh into the deep rock rooms hid- ing under immense overhanging slabs. The river noise fills us and the water tears past so fiercely that the mind will not allow the eyes to look even for fantasy lines out among the madness. The hypnotic river draws us to its edge, sits us down gently and sucks our minds dry. At a time like this, we don’t ask why we’re here. We know we’re about to camp in Heaven.

And it is for this reason that I am tempted to say it is the campsites. For when our bruised canoes are back on their racks, stored for another winter, and our memories of the Mouchie are aged and mellowed, it is the campsites that we seem to most remember. It is the rolling Amazon forest of caribou moss that we sleep on again in our reveries and it is our dramatic camp in front of the dark and comforting rock rooms on the river’s floodplain that is always the first retreat for the mind.

But isn’t it all these things and then some? The winter dreams, the languor of river time, the adrenaline of whitewater, the campsites—all of this makes the river something we turn to each year. We paddle because we have come to know that a remote river always asks us who we are, and given a canoe, always answers by trans- porting us so far beyond the bonds and the shackles of the ordinary. Our time spent together on the Mouchie is enough to sustain us for another year, until our hemi- sphere tilts back toward the sun, igniting the fire within us for another wild river.

Brian Shields is a retired sport-fishing guide who presently fritters away his life in his solo boat, trying to perfect his cross-forward stroke. 

Screen Shot 2015 12 23 at 10.17.01 AMThis article first appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Canoeroots’ print and digital editions here

Sleep Tandem, Paddle Solo

Photo: James Smedley
Sleep Tandem, Paddle Solo

This year, our annual tripping group was paired down to five. This allowed us to get all our gear and people into one plane, which cut down considerably on flight costs. The somewhat controversial side effect was that we now had one solo canoe, as well as two tandems. Someone would have to paddle alone.

During our trip planning meetings, there was some concern that the solo boat would be a problem, and how it might be difficult for the solo paddler to keep up with the tandem boats. I, for one, was determined to keep this myth alive. I was looking forward to spending as many days as possible in the solo boat. And I realized that if I could make the solo boat look like more work, then maybe no one else would want to paddle it.

On the first morning, I strategically chose two small packs to load into the hull of the solo canoe—the “over- flow pack” (a drybag loaded with extra bits and pieces that would not fit anywhere else) and my personal pack, both lightweight. I pushed away from shore and floated, while my companions wrangled with burdensome barrels and dry bags, seeking perfect trim. Already I was remind- ed how great it could be to be the odd one out.

“Hey Fi,” Andy called out from shore as he lugged another 80-pound food barrel into his canoe, “Don’t worry, we’ll make sure and wait for you today.” They were playing right into my hands. As the rest of the group finished loading and paddled toward me, I dug my paddle into the water, feigning intense effort.

I soon discovered other misconceptions I could foster among my fellow paddlers. It was clear from the outset that people were making a special effort to include the “socially isolated” solo boater in inter-boat conversations. But far from feeling lonely, I was the social butterfly. When I felt like joining a conversation, all I had to do was dart across the water in the lighter, under-loaded solo boat and interrupt.

“Hey what are you guys talking about?” I would say. That’s all it would take to get in on an interesting chat, and generate a little sympathy for the lonely solo boater. It was the best of both worlds. No longer stuck with one partner all day to deal with their shifting weight, ineffec- tive paddle strokes, annoying personal habits, and long awkward silences, I was able to engage only in the fun parts of being with other people, and flit away when things became boring, or tense.

At lunchtime, it was even more obvious that the solo boat was where I wanted to stay. As we approached the chosen lunch spot, I made sure I lagged a little bit behind the others. I watched one pair as they fumbled around trying to identify the wanigan to extract the condiments and utensils, and the other as they searched for the barrel with the lunch. If I had timed it right, I would just be rolling in as everything had been found and unloaded.

That afternoon brought our first portage. Again I found myself hanging back, this time to observe the age-old struggle with other people’s “froo.” The lake echoed with calls of “Is this yours?” and “Where do you want me to put this?” as my friends waved water bottles, bits of discarded clothing and other loose items at each other. As I drifted into shore, I quickly tucked my loose items away, unloaded my two wee packs, shouldered one and was off. As I lifted the solo canoe onto my shoulders I had another revelation—it was a feather compared to the tandem beasts we had brought along. Could this get any better?

While things remained amicable for the first couple of days of the trip, I knew from experience that as the days wore on, the tensions and petty irritations inherent to paddling in a tandem boat would become more pro- nounced. Therefore I made it a point to extend my tenure in the solo canoe for as long as I could. I kept up to the group just enough to make it look like more work, deflecting all offers to trade with a heroic grin and an “Oh no, I’m fine” (ask your mother for a demo next time you’re home) while making a good show of straining into my strokes. 

Despite my efforts it became more and more difficult to fend off the requests of others to “give it a try.” Paddling partners were increasingly irritable with each other, especially the one couple in the group.

While there are some things best done with a companion or two, perhaps paddling is not one of them. What better way to bring all your lurking relationship issues bubbling to the surface than to jump into an overloaded canoe and set off down an isolated wilderness river for two or three weeks? Arguing about boat angle, trim, and the location of underwater rocks can be a strain on any relationship.

By day four I had lost my grip on the solo boat, and eventually everyone had caught on to my little secret. In the end, the solo boat ceased to be seen as a problem. The problem was that we only had one.

Solo paddler Fiona Hough has occasionally been spotted doing various things in the company of others. She is a freelance writer, teacher, corporate trainer and outdoor instructor in Ottawa

Screen Shot 2015 12 23 at 10.17.01 AMThis article first appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Canoeroots’ print and digital editions here

Luring Paddlers to Fish

Photo: James Smedley
Luring Paddlers to Fish

Canoeists can solo arrow-straight into a headwind, eddy out of class IV rapids, execute quick and efficient portages, and pull cheese soufflés from reflector ovens. But ask us to catch a fish and we’re most often skunked.

Our wilderness wanderings take us where brook trout, walleye, char and grayling fin hungrily beneath the Kevlar. But clad in Gore-Tex and wielding bent shafts, canoeists see paddling as primary. Some flirt with fishing but their efforts are frivolous at best. It’s too often a case of fishing in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with inappropriate equipment.

Adding fishing to the canoe tripping agenda is not difficult. On remote rivers or lakes, the right moves will provide instant gratification. A first step is determining the type of fish to expect. Studying route descriptions and talking to outfitters or natural resources personnel help us to fine-tune our gear and ensure that the season is open and we’re properly licensed.

Proven tackle will depend on the species holding in our destination waters. Throughout Canada the most common choices oscillate between warm-water species like bass, pike, perch and walleye, and those who prefer colder water, like trout and char.

Live bait is effective for both sets of species. Worms are the lowest-maintenance, needing only to be kept cool in a small container of moss. Worms can be fished on their own, with a single hook weighted with split shot, or used to sweeten artificial lures. 

A canoeist’s tackle box should include variety and still slide easily into an outside pocket of a pack. Include a few diving minnow-shaped crank baits. Adjust the size to the fish you expect to catch—three to six inches in length will do for most situations.

Include eigth-ounce to half-ounce jig heads and a fist full of soft plastic twister tails. Scented tails in white, black, and chartreuse are effective with or without live bait.

Throw in a selection of mid-sized spinners and a couple silver and gold spoons. If pike are prevalent, a few steel leaders will prevent the loss of lures to these toothy predators.

Remote systems often provide more fish than we could possibly eat. Bending the barbs down on our hooks allows for gentle handling and quick release of most of what we catch.

Organize the gear in a small plastic box, saving enough room for essentials like needle-nose pliers for unhooking fish, a fillet knife and Zip-loc bags for the fillets.

A medium-action five- or six-footer is a good all-purpose rod for canoe tripping. Teamed with a mid-sized spinning reel holding about 100 metres of eight- to twelve-pound monofilament line, the unit should be able to handle most game fish encountered on inland lakes and rivers. Two-piece rods can be broken down and easily stowed. A few short lengths of small-diameter shock cord attach rods securely to thwarts and seats during portages or when running whitewater.

Even in the most prolific waters, fish are not everywhere and we must learn to recognize where to concentrate our efforts. In rivers, the base of falls and rapids point to the most obvious haunts. Oxygen-rich waters churn in deep holes and most species will hold somewhere within the pool. Bends in the river can also mean deep-water eddies and increased current. The same is true where narrowing shorelines funnel the flow through deep channels.

In lakes, hot spots are not so obvious. Look for features that stand out from the rest of the lake. Shoals, rock piles, extended points, steep drop-offs or weed edges will all hold fish.

Wind and current tend to make anchoring a canoe the most effective way to fish the hot spots of lakes and rivers. A strong mesh bag filled with rocks makes a great anchor that can be emptied for the portage trail. From an anchored position we can slowly work jigs along bottom, still fish with hook and worm, or cast spoons, spinners and crank baits over the shoals and weed edges of lakes or across a river’s current.

In rivers we can avoid the uncertainty of anchoring in strong flows by fishing from shore. In lakes we can opt for trolling when the wind and waves conspire against dropping the hook. In fact, tossing a line out and trolling while paddling is an effective search technique that unwittingly draws our lure over mid-lake features that hold fish.

Beware: Angling can insidiously become the prime focus of a wilderness outing, adding a new and time-consuming dimension to a canoe trip. Satiating the desire to angle means taking the time to fish during peak periods of morning and evening, as well as trying that irresistible spot we may pass during the day.

Of course not all paddlers will be enchanted by the fusion of paddling and angling. Those less stricken should avoid conflict by sharing a canoe with a like-minded partner. While the anglers work the wilderness waters, the paddlers can forge ahead to set up camp. When the cheese soufflé emerges from the reflector oven, it will be the perfect complement to a meal of fresh fillets.

James Smedley is the recipient of several national writing awards. He lives, writes, photographs and canoe-angles in northern Ontario. 

Screen Shot 2015 12 23 at 10.17.01 AMThis article first appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Canoeroots’ print and digital editions here

Project Wood Gunwale: How to Lose Five Pounds in Eight Hours

All Photos: Scott MacGregor
Brian Shields glues in new light-weight gunwales on an Equif whitewater canoe.

The more time you spend in a canoe, the more you will become aware of how much your canoe weighs. In our early days of open canoeing, we weren’t much aware that our boats looked clunky and felt as if they were lined with lead. It might have all the charm and allure of a rusty Russian fishing trawler. But wobbling in and out of eddies wearing fat-cat grins, we’re probably half full of water anyway and happy enough just keeping our helmets dry. But as the paddling sea- sons pass, the idea begins to creep in that a boat hull should have lightness, beauty and natural continuous curves.

There is no easier way to lose five pounds of pointless fat, and to change the shape of your embarrassing hull, than to install your own wood gunwales. With a little legwork ahead of time, our wood gunwale diet program takes roughly eight hours and pares at least five pounds. Your canoe will have never looked better—well- trimmed, sexy and fated for love at first sight. 

The Legwork

Begin by drilling out the rivets from your ugly vinyl gunwales. Now totally committed, seek out specialty lumberyards in the Yellow Pages. You’re looking for a knot-free, straight-grained length of ash or cherry, about four inches wide and slightly shorter than the length of your boat.

If you lack your own table saw, planer and router, get on a first-name basis with the guy at your local woodworking shop and have him rip your plank into four equal strips. Gunwales squared to three-quarters of an inch look beefy and “masculine,” ideal for people who think paddling steep drops is a giggle. Five-eighths square looks best and is tough enough for all but the craziest of open boat cowboys. The strips should be ripped slightly wider (by about one-eighth-inch) than these final gunwale dimensions, then planed down to a perfect square in thickness and width, and finally rounded off to a round profile with a router/shaper using a 3/8” corner round over bit. 

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The Six Steps to Looking Sexy on the Water

Step one: How long?

The inwale and outwale can be the same length. Play with the lengths until the inwale and outwale can be clamped together on the boat and still contour tightly to the curve of the hull at the ends. Centre the gunwales on the boat using centre marks on everything—boat, inwale and outwale. Round over the ends of the gunwale strips using a rasp and then sandpaper.

Step two: Drill time!

The goal is to beautify, so ensure there are only two screws showing at each end of the outwale. All other screws are installed from the inside of the boat. On your worktable, drill two one-eighth-inch holes, spaced five inches apart, in either end of the two outwales (the strips on the outside of the boat) and then a series of holes five inches apart on the inwales. 

At this point, sand the gunwales to an irresistible sensuous smoothness. Seal the wood with an oil finish where it fits against the hull.

Step three: Clamps, please!

Clamp the gunwales back on the hull, centring everything again. Leave a bit of the Royalex hull protruding up between the strips; we’ll trim and/or sand this flush later. Now, countersink each pre-drilled hole, drilling through the Royalex. (The drill bit in the countersink MUST be smaller than the width of a number-six screw. Screw threads need something to hold on to.) Hot shot tip: If you want to cut your boat down, this is when you do it. Simply clamp the gunwales as low below the Royalex as you want the height of your boat. Drill. We’ll trim the “excess” boat away later.

Step four: Pass the screws!

With a clamp beside every hole, screw the two strips together using 1-1/4” #6 stainless steel screws. Do the final tightening by hand.

Step five: Pro job

A laminate trimmer is used to trim off the rough and irregular Royalex edge. A sander does the same job but takes infinitely longer.

Step six: Polish your image

After a final sanding of the wood, and re-installing the thwarts, apply Varathane’s Natural Oil Finish. Cut up the old vinyl gunwales and use them as tomato stakes in the garden, the perfect final use for such hateful things.

So there you are. Now you’ll need some new paddling clothes, colour coordinated for once, to complete the new look. 

Photo collage of Brain Shields attaching light-weight gunwales.

Brian Shields uses a drill to attache new gunwales to a whitewater canoe.

 Brian Shields uses a drill to attache new gunwales to a whitewater canoe.

Brian Shields uses sandpaper to smooth out the new wooden gunwales.

 

This article on wood gunwales was published in the Summer 2004 issue of Rapid magazine.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Rapid Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Rapid’s print and digital editions here.

662 Miles to Skunk Creek

All Photos: Scott MacGregor
662 Miles to Skunk Creek

Along the lonely stretch of asphalt joining the northern Ontario towns of North Bay and Thunder Bay there are 19 Tim Hortons coffee shops and 11 larger-than-life roadside mascots erected to remind travellers that there is nothing more memorable about these towns than a large double-double and a honey cruller donut to go.

New Liskeard with its Holstein cow (built by local canoe builder Scott Canoe) is the first town. Chimo the polar bear in Cochrane, home of the Polar Bear Express train to James Bay, and a space ship in the hamlet of Moonbeam are a couple of the other quirky landmarks on this route.

The often-unnoticed landmarks are the little green signs on the 42 bridges you cross telling you there is moving water far below. On these little green signs in white capital letters are the names of some of Canada’s most pristine, challenging and seldom-paddled whitewater rivers. Names like the Nagagami, Shekak and Skunk Creek that had meant nothing to me, until now.

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With our whitewater canoes in their holders on the roof and our third coffees securely anchored in the console we point the Rapid Avalanche back out onto Highway 11. A quick check with our OnStar nav system confirms we’re headed north, only 129 miles to go to the town of Hearst and our confirmed reservations at the Companion Hotel. We’ve arranged to meet up with the crew of local kayakers who’ve promised some great runs.

In 1998, Paul Beauchesne, now the proprietor of the paddling and outdoor shop Paddle Buddies in Kapuskasing, was shopping around on the Internet for used boats and fortuitously surfed his way to then Toronto-based canoe and kayak instructor Mark Long. They agreed that Mark would deliver his used boat to northern Ontario, and to make his trip worthwhile Paul would round up enough outdoorsmen to fill a kayak course—the region’s first.

Paul not only filled his end of the bargain. Word of mouth and the coverage in the local media filled three more courses. Like a peddler selling magic beans, Mark and his trailer full of canoes and kayaks rolled north again and again, planting whitewater seeds that are sure to grow to the sky. 

After a good night’s sleep we drive west out of Hearst to a little green sign fastened to a bridge. There we find three locals, pouring over a topographic map spread on the hood of a pickup: Jean Lecours, Gilles Levesque and Jean-Guy Brunet, the town’s aquatics director. In Hearst, taking magazine editors and friends down local rivers falls under the aquatics director’s job description. When I joked with Jean-Guy about skipping work with the mayor’s blessing, we were sliding into the current of Skunk Creek, downstream to where the water dropped over a misty horizon line and the rush of moving water echoed in the alders. Jean-Guy just smiled and asked if I could swim. It might be nice…, I thought as I strapped into my tiny open canoe (locals were in Pyranha H3 creekboats)…it might be nice that we have Jean-Guy the lifeguard along for the ride.

Jean-Guy was a student in one of those early whitewater classes. “I fell in love with the sport and decided that this will be a nice program to start at the pool,” he told me as matter-of-factly as if he was starting a book club at the local library.

“It will be good for the region because we have lots of rivers with rapids nearby.”

Two kilometres from the downtown Tim Hortons there is a class II–III whitewater stretch of the Hearst River. We all agreed if this section were anywhere else, there’d be slalom gates and manmade play features, but here in Hearst there is nothing. Just a beautiful river flowing beside a country road on the edge of town. Nobody had thought about kayaking it.

After his first paddling course, Jean-Guy set to work immediately to acquire a grant from the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Recreation, with which he brought in instructor trainer Lee Chantrel and, once again, Mark Long, to run a whitewater rescue program. Jean-Guy turned to local businesses and fundraisers to raise the money to purchase 12 kayaks for the pool so the Town of Hearst could offer its own courses. Standing on the pool deck surrounded by the town’s fleet racked on the wall, Jean-Guy tells us proudly that each year 20 to 30 high school students, 24 kids in the summer programs and dozens of adults learn to paddle on the rivers surrounding Hearst.

Most of northern Ontario’s whitewater runs begin high on the Precambrian Shield and pour down off the rocks working their way north to the James Bay Lowlands and eventually the Arctic Ocean. Highway 11 runs along the Clay Belt region straight across this prime whitewater playground, slicing the runs nicely into upper and lower sections with ideal road access.

From the highway, Skunk Creek, like all the rivers, looks flat. With hardly enough time to get warmed up, the Skunk narrows and pours off the Clay Belt over the first drop—the drop we could hear from the highway. Unlike rivers closer to the cities these northern runs are paddled so little the rapids don’t have names and the trails along the river’s edge border only the deep pools, tramped by trout fishermen, not paddlers.

Over this five-mile section, the Skunk falls 120 feet. You could think of it as having a six-foot waterfall every couple of end zones for 80 football fields. But the sidelines are not flat and open, but rather treed to the edges and choked with logs.

The Skunk is a combination of clean waterfall drops and cascading waterslides with only a few inches of water between our boats and the rocks below. At times the creek is pinched so tightly between canyon walls we scrape our paddles and knuckles off the rocks as we launch off the lips.

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As far as anyone knows, the Skunk, like many of the local rivers, was first kayaked by Remi LeClair, a legend on any paddling gauge. Remi, as the story goes, bought his first kayak in ’97, a used River Runner R5, and was the lone kayaker for a while. No one else had any equipment or seemed interested. Finally his best friend, Guylain Baril, found a boat and the two taught themselves to roll on the rivers surrounding Kapuskasing and then decided to go exploring the bigger rivers on the west side of Hearst.

They’d fished some sections and seen the gradient and etches of the Shekak River on the topographic maps and decided that it would be good whitewater. “Looking back on it now, we should not have survived that first descent [of the Shekak]. Just imagine the early spring-flooded Shekak with no wetsuits, no drytops, no neoprene gloves, no helmets and worst of all no idea what was down- stream. I will admit we went too far too fast… A little bit of scouting and no plans to portage anything, we never asked ourselves, ‘Are we doing this one?’ It was always, ‘Which line do we take?’”

Together they pioneered many of these rivers, rivers on par with the best of the plastic-filled rivers of eastern Ontario and Quebec. And two years later during those first whitewater instructional courses, Remi heard the group was looking for a potential teaching river. He humbly offered to guide the group down the Shekak.

The green sign for the Upper Shekak is just above another sign for a roadside picnic area half an hour west of Hearst, just before Highway 631 heads south to Hornepayne. The put-in is a perfect place to park a family camper for sandwiches, oblivious to the class III–IV whitewater hiding downstream. Mark Long describes the day run on the Upper Shekak as “amazing”:

“It’s pristine, technical, lots of rapids and a variety of lines ranging from easy to very challenging…Something for every type of boater.”

Mark felt so strongly about the area, he and his family packed their bags in Toronto and headed north. “We’ve fallen in love with the region and we’ve made this place our home. We love the rivers and the people. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.” In 1999 they started Momentum Outdoors, a small outdoor company teaching paddling, running rescue and safety training and offering rafting on the Shekak as an alternative to egg salad at the put-in.

Gilles Levesque snuck out of work today to join us on the Skunk. He’s the controller at one of Hearst’s two mills and an inte- gral part of the local kayaking scene. Gilles escaped small-town Northern Ontario to attend Ottawa University for a business degree and a law degree, becoming a CGA and a member of the Bar of Upper Canada. After a couple years of big business law life, he’s travelled the world, married in the Southern Alps, and moved to Hearst and now has three kids, two whitewater kayaks and a small Cessna floatplane.

Gilles is the local eye in the sky, turning best guesses at the size of unknown rapids into visuals from the air. Even more important, from the air he can scout the best access points in an otherwise virtually uncharted maze of logging roads. Apparently, he’s just confirmed another run only minutes from our run on the Skunk—a run they’ve noticed on the topo but haven’t got around to trying.

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Two kilometres before the Skunk meanders into the mighty Nagagami River, we take out beneath an abandoned railway bridge and scramble 115 feet of scree slope out of the canyon. We run shuttles on abandoned logging and mining roads and over trackless train bridges still spanning the gorges below until we are back out to the highway.

Tired, sunburnt, knuckles bloodied, we replay the day rapid by rapid. We all agree that this little creek and the nearby rivers are Hearst’s best-kept secrets. And we figure it’s likely to stay that way. Even with Cochrane’s polar bear and New Liskeard’s Holstein cow paving the way, it seems unlikely that this northern mill town will erect a larger-than-life 50-foot skunk as their mascot. 

 

This article on paddling in northern Ontario was published in the Summer 2004 issue of Rapid magazine.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Rapid Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Rapid’s print and digital editions here.

 

Park n Play: Winooski Mill, Vermont

Photo: Corey Hendrickson
Park n Play: Winooski Mill, Vermont

For those who enjoy grabbing centre strage when throwing down, the ledges of the Winooski River are the place to be. Enter stage left or right for low water-water summertime play less than two hours’ drive soouth of Montreal. 

On its way to Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence, the Winooski flows between the cities of Burlington and Winooski over several bedrock ledges creating a range of features from wave holes to pourovers and falls.

The historic riverside textile mills have been renovated with office space, shopping, dining, a music venue, and observation decks. Diners at the Champlain Mill restaurant watching the action from outdoor seating or floor-to-ceiling windows reward diligent boaters with cheers for big moves and good downtime. If you head in after a session, someone just might offer you a congratulatory drink.

Numerous boaters say the ledges represent the best potential whitewater park in the state. With the city of Winooski undertaking a revitalization project to make the river a more central feature downtown—complete with river-side greens, paths, and more viewing— the time is ripe.

When the water is high, Vermont’s boaters go off in search of the Green Mountain State’s secret stashes. Summertime, when the levels on creek runs drop, local rippers and weekend warriors line up for the Winooski’s waves, holes and falls, or sit on the ledges and talk shop about big spring runs. Damon Bungard, a fixture at the Mill, calls the pourover “extremely con- sistent.”

“I think the record is over 40 ends.”

For the après paddle, head into Burlington to walk the pedestrian strip with college students and locals. Or if you aren’t ready to check out the nightlife when the sun goes down, the lights from the twin cities of Winooski and Burlington provide an eerie glow to the sparkling falls. 

The Goods

Where:

Low-water summertime play

Take Interstate 89 to the Winooski exit. Head toward Winooski on Route 2/7 and find the large Champlain Mill building. Park in the back and put in on river right, or cross the bridge and turn into the Chase Mill parking lot for slightly easier access on river left. Paddlers should be respectful of the Chase Mill businesses and park as far upstream as possible, away from the main building in the overflow lot.

How:

The Mill section of the river is sandwiched between two dams. The upstream dam is not visible from the put-in, but scout the downstream dam and beware of it when the water pushes up over 15,000 cfs. At this level there is a small margin for error above the dam, and an accidental run of the drop would be very unpleasant. The main flow zigzags over the ledges, from river left to river right.

When:

Look for flow info in cubic feet per second (cfs) online at waterdata.usgs.gov/vt/nwis/current/?type=flow under “Winooski River near Essex Junction.” Flows above 400 cfs make for fun and relaxed play. Above about 1,000 cfs, the main pourover on the bottom ledge can get a bit sticky. Those looking for more dynamic features or a quick thrill ride down the stair-step ledges should come in the spring or after big rainstorms. At high water the pourover features become overly retentive, but some wave holes come in that allow for new-school moves. Look for glassy waves, breaking waves, and holes below the ledges with flows over 2,000 cfs.

Who:

The Vermont Paddlers Club sponsors sessions at the spot most weeks.

Why:

You love the attention.

 

This article on Winooksi Mill, Vermont was published in the Summer 2004 issue of Rapid magazine

This article first appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Rapid Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Rapid’s print and digital editions here.

 

River Alchemy: The Life-Changing Force of Water

Photo: Rapid Media Stock Images
River Alchemy: The Life-Changing Force of Water

Climbing over each cross-tube one at a time, working her way to the back of the raft, Angelina picks up the guide stick. It looks heavy in her tiny hands. She jams a size-four running shoe under a cross-tube and quietly briefs her team a last time before pushing off above Triplet Rapid. Her darting glances at me for assurance betray her brash New York City manner. With the grip of the current at the lip of the rapid, I watch her search for her line between two pourovers. She looks to me, brown eyes streaming with tears, and asks, “Does life always hurt?”

Angelina is far from home and her struggle with depression. Shattered at a young age by the tragic death of her parents and a string of foster homes that did more harm than good, Angelina fell deeper and deeper into despair. Eventual hospitalization drove her to turn her life around. Her counsellor recommended this Outward Bound course, learning to guide a raft on a seven-day whitewater trip in Utah’s Lodore Canyon.

This is a well-travelled path, using the wilderness for growth, change and therapy. Longstanding programs such as Outward Bound, Project Dare and Boundless Adventures have moved tens of thousands of people through some stage in their life via the medium of a simple wilderness trip. With a claim to inspire self-esteem, self-reliance and concern for others, “challenge” is a central theme. While some programs seek the mountains or use a ropes course, the vast majority take to the challenge and healing power of rivers.

For 20 years, pipe-smoking psychologists in their leather chairs have poked and prodded at this adventure education therapy phenomenon. They recognize that when removed from familiar “environments,” people approach new challenges without preconceived notions of what they can or can’t do, more often than not utterly amazing themselves at what they accomplish, such as guiding a class III rapid. There is no overwhelming clinical evidence, though, that these achievements somehow make their lives different when they return home to the rat race.

What scientists failto conclusively prove (to themselves) flies in the face of what river guides and instructors experience every day: a river trip can irrevocably change a person’s outlook. A few days floating on water offers perspective—the perspective it takes to come up with alternatives in one’s life.

Oblivious to the clinical idea of “therapy,” these guides know they are just the key-holders who unlock the river. Their job is simply to let people experience it on their own terms and challenge what they need to inside themselves.

There is no one reason why rivers peel away our outer layers exposing our core. Every person will have their own experience, but I believe there is something underlying that is more fundamental than just being outside, away from life’s pressures. Rivers are the most visible means of seeing our world as a living, breathing, continuous system. Being on, in, and around flowing rivers connects us to that process, connects us to the Earth, and re-connects us to our lost soul—a soul that gets beaten down from the daily grind.

From this continuous cycle of regeneration and mindless flow of rivers one may take any number of things: assurance that life will continue despite hardship, trust and surrender to a greater power, or new confidence from managing in an inherently unmanageable environment.

Pipe-smoking psychologists poke and prod at adventure therapy. 

These are the same reasons that paddlers and fishermen flock to rivers. We tell our friends we are there to challenge ourselves, surf, or catch a trout. But, the deeper reason why is our connection to flow—a connection that is so elemental we struggle to put a finger on it.

The last evening of Angelina’s Outward Bound trip is a celebration of what we have accomplished as a group and what each individual has proven to themselves. We sit at the river’s edge, in the darkness and silence, soaking up what we will be leaving in the morning.

All trip, Angelina was whittling away at a driftwood stick, something I thought she’d take home with her, keep in a sock drawer or make into a necklace. Instead, she ceremoniously places it in the river. She lets it go. Satisfied, and in the tone of one with a secret well-kept, tells us, “It doesn’t matter if the pain goes away. The river keeps flowing.” She crawls into her sleeping bag happy, secure in knowing that when she returns home, her experience will continue floating in the current, carried by the power of the water.

 

This article on  was published in the Summer 2004 issue of Rapid magazine.This article first appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Rapid Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Rapid’s print and digital editions here.

Doggy Paddling: Kayaking With Your Best Friend

Photo: Dave Quinn
Doggy Paddling: Kayaking With Your Best Friend

Last summer my wife Kelly and I began the paddling trip of a lifetime. We completed the first two weeks of a voyage along the entire coast of B.C. We chose to do the most exposed section first— from Port Hardy on Vancouver Island’s north tip to Bella Bella on the Central Coast. Our charts showed places like Skull Cove and Cape Caution, and we had envisioned a lonely, desolate coastline, pounded by surf from Japan, littered with wrecks of kayaks and ships alike. Instead, we were surprised to meet all manner of folk (with the odd exception of sea kayakers), including commercial fishermen, a solo explorer piloting a Zodiac from Alaska to Seattle, and a wonderful group of Heiltsuk people from Bella Bella running a native rediscovery camp. They expressed mild surprise to see us in our double folding kayak bob- bing around in the surf, but were completely taken aback when I opened the zipper on my sprayskirt and our dog Lucia stretched and popped out for some fresh air. 

Yes, you can paddle with your pet! Cats, with their nasty propensities to urinate on, spray, claw, and generally devalue property, are pretty much out of the question, in my opinion. But a dog—man and woman’s best friend! Dogs are truly social animals that can adapt themselves to pretty much any situation—ski touring is akin to dog heaven, river rafting is like pooch Nirvana, and extended sea kayak trips are like one giant rotten salmon carcass to roll in.

Kayaking with your hound can either be Milk-Bones and rawhides for both of you, or it can be like one long, drawn-out shock collar for both pet and owner. To tip the scales toward the Milk-Bone side, paddlers need to spend time choosing the right dog, invest thought and care into training, and plan trips with their pet in mind.

When it comes to choosing the ultimate paddling pooch, size does matter. Large breeds, such as rottweilers, shepherds, and huskies will likely require their own custom hatch or even their own cockpit, and will tend to make life interesting if the paddling gets bumpy. Smaller breeds, such as border collies, blue heelers, and smaller labs and retriever cross-breeds can often fit in a cockpit with a paddler, and will therefore be easier to control if paddling conditions become more challenging.

When we finally gave in to the tiny newspaper ad that proclaimed “Border Collie Cross Pups!” We examined each of the six little fur balls in the litter to check their foot size—puppies will tend to grow into their feet—to choose a smaller dog that would be comfortable in a kayak cockpit.

And so little Lucia entered our life. The training with a puppy begins at once, and I believe that training is more about building a connection between you and your pet than teaching banal skills such as “sit” and “roll over.” From day one, Lucia went where we went. By the time the local lakes and rivers opened up for paddling, she already had nearly 50 ski-touring days under her pelt (even though she spent most of these with nothing but her head poking out of my day pack). When we finally did try to teach her basic commands, it was painless, as she inherently knew when we were happy with her or otherwise. 

We wondered how Lucia would do in a kayak, so as soon as conditions allowed we put our sea kayaks into the St. Mary’s River near our home in Kimberley, B.C., and floated 15 kilometres downstream with our dog soundly asleep on an Ensolite pad between my legs.

Next came the training for the worst-case scenario—a dump in rough water. We wanted to give Lucia every possible advantage, so we borrowed a CFD (canine flota- tion device) and spent many sweltering summer afternoons swimming various sets of rapids with her, allowing her to get used to mixed-up water, and training her to stay with us while we swam. 

The southern Inside Passage was our first extended sea kayak expedition with Lucia. We paddled a Klepper tandem kayak because its 14-inch depth gave Lucia more room to get comfortable on longer paddling stretches.

An important piece of gear is a sprayskirt with a waterproof zipper. This allows the dog to get “above- deck” to get some fresh air on calm seas— would you want to be locked under your sprayskirt after beach burrito night?—and allows you to close up the cockpit if waves begin to wash over your deck. 

We learned there are many things to consider when bringing a pet into a wilderness area. It is critical to have a dog that is well-trained and easy to control. The wild West Coast is home to a vivid abundance of wildlife. Every beach is at least a temporary home to sandpipers, turnstones and other shorebirds that a poor- ly trained dog would just love to chase—an ultimate sin from a no-impact standpoint. Every beach also bore the tracks of cougar, grizzly, black bear or wolf, and some- times all of the above! Any wandering away from camp a dog might do could be its last, so if a dog can’t stay put, it should be leashed.

Dogs have all the basic needs that we do—food, water and shelter. Although the dog will find all man- ner of rotten flotsam to ingest, it needs to have its regu- lar diet kept up. On a cold, wet trip, dogs will need more food than normal, just like us. We usually bring a regular ration of Lucia’s regular dog food—which for a long trip can be a daunting amount of extra food to pack—and supplement it with the some of the fresh fish we catch and eat ourselves.

A thirsty dog’s first encounter with salt water can have explosive results, but it is a lesson that the dog will likely have to learn on its own. Just pray that the purging from both ends does not occur in the middle of a long crossing. It is your responsibility to ensure your dog has access to fresh water, either from creeks near camp, or your own supply. A collapsible nylon water dish takes up almost no space, and can double as a food dish.

It is a romantic notion to sleep with your dog in a tent, but a salty sea-dog that has rolled in the unidentified carcass washed up on the beach will likely not be welcome with the humans, no matter what manner of West Coast deluge is happening outside. Therefore it’s a good idea to bring a tent with a generous vestibule for the stinky hound.

We chose our ultimate paddling pooch carefully, and spent months working with her to ensure that she could be a part of the low-impact travelling we enjoy.

Since then, we have met other guides who actually take their pets to work! One friend has taken his dog, Honey, with him while he guides multi-day kayak trips in Nootka Sound on Northern Vancouver Island, and another friend’s dog, Chewy, gets to river-raft the Elk, St. Mary’s, and Bull Rivers all summer with him. We have even had a blind guest bring his seeing-eye-dog on a two-week guided trip to Ellesmere Island!

We learned that with a little preparation, and a lot of training, you can share your adventures with your dog, and hopefully never again have to see a pair of sad eyes watch you from a kennel window as you head out on another grand adventure without them.

Itinerant guide, biologist and frequent Adventure Kayak contributor Dave Quinn lives in Kimberley, B.C. with Kelly Comishin and Lucia the salty dog. Dave and Kelly operate Treehouse Outdoor Education, specializing in adventure and wilderness therapy. 

akv4i2cover.jpgThis article first appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Adventure Kayak Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Adventure Kayak’s print and digital editions here.