A few days upstream of James Bay, over the seething volume of a flooded Nottoway River in mid-June, Benny Marr hollered from a boat length away, “In my imagination, it goes on forever.”

Finding the forever rapid on Quebec’s Nottoway River

He was referring to the seemingly endless rapid we were entering. It’s the sort of whitewater this region is famous for, where waves can be measured in stories and holes appear that could devour a house. His voice faded into the river, and for a time, he was right; this was a never-ending joy train of towering waves, a river he’d only visited once before, featuring the type of high-volume wilderness whitewater he’d searched the world for.

When holes began to open mid-river—ones I looked up at and down into—Benny opted to go river right. When the horizon disappeared, the river appeared far below some hidden gradient, and Benny hit the gas hard to the middle. It was a ferry not for the faint of heart in fully loaded long boats. With each of his strokes, he flashed a little thumbs up to where he was going next.

Benny Marr walks past a large rapid on the Nottoway River in Northern Canada
This is the wave that never ends, it surges on and on, my friend.  | Feature photo: David Jackson

As the tongue unraveled below, so did my stomach. All I could discern in the chaos beneath was a needle of water moving through a two-sided hole of destruction. It was Benny’s line, but I missed.

Back to the beginning

Four days earlier, we had left a rough gravel road behind and begun a 260-kilometer paddle that would end where the road meets the ocean in the Cree community of Waskaganish. Benny and Dan Sutherland were fresh from a big wave scouting mission in Quebec, and I was here to experience the mighty Nottaway I’d heard so much about.

For days we navigated the large stormy lakes that provide the Nottoway River’s volume. At this flood level, the water wasn’t just lapping at the tree trunks but well into the forest. We paddled until the last touch of pink in the sky before tucking into a sad highwater hovel each night.

In the wake of the lakes came horizon lines so wide they induced both joy and nausea. Looking downstream, we saw plumes of mist half a kilometer wide. The riverbanks didn’t lend themselves to shoreline scouts. In lieu of a view, Benny launched a drone to scout for lines. We huddled around the tiny screen, following Benny’s finger down the obvious course. It always looks breezy from above.

Upon entering, the lines disappeared, and holes greeted us. Afterward, Benny proclaimed he was still “figuring out this drone scouting thing.” This wasn’t the Congo River, where Benny and a legendary team of expedition kayakers used helicopters to scout Inga Rapids and where he was later airlifted off a small island above an unfathomable cataract. On the Nottoway, there was no chopper or big team, just Benny reminding me to “only look where you want to go, ignore the rest, and stay away from the edges.” I watched as he left the obvious lines to prospect for joy, trying for bigger, making meaning from chaos, using his boat like a painter’s brush to explore the canvas of a wild rapid.

A Google search of Benny Marr reveals glimpses into his life. An Ottawa Valley youth toting a mullet. The first descent of Site Zed on the Stikine River. The viral Lions Bay drainage ditch descent. Canyons in Papa New Guinea, among others. He is one of whitewater’s most well-known paddlers and nabbed the cover of Rapid magazine three times.

One evening, I pointed out a small, deep pool with walleye in it out front of camp. Benny was all smiles when they pulled, and his face focused when I instructed him on filleting them. All these years on the water and the river still has more to teach.

Drama and deliverance

But back to my missed hole. When I rolled up, I could hear Benny high above and behind me screaming, “You’re a warrior, Dave!” But I needed out, I needed air, and this hole was too big to escape. Next thing I knew, it was violent, then I was hanging onto Benny’s bow, blood pouring from my knuckle, fending for myself through holes, catching glimpses of Dan with my boat. It was a long 15 minutes before Benny nudged me into a shoreline eddy. Lying amidst boulders under the warm sun, the guys were laughing. Dan narrowly escaped the hole opposite me, and the good fortune of one swimmer instead of two was a wholehearted relief.

On shore, Dan emptied my boat of water as I lay exhausted, staring at the blue sky. I pointed to a piece of chaga on a birch tree up the bank. Benny grabbed his river knife and removed it, smiling. He’d never found the fungi responsible for the earthy tea before. Sitting around the steaming steeped brew that evening, we talked about the big rapids still to come and the 50 kilometers of windy James Bay we would have to paddle to get to the road; we reminisced on bad swims, and Benny shook his head at the day’s drama.

He was there in his happy place, beside a rapid he had searched the world for, one that stretched pulsing into the horizon, a ride that goes on forever in his mind. He talked about coming back next year, and it dawned on me this big, obscure river wasn’t just another expedition; it was the epitome of his life, intertwined with the pulse of wild water.

Cover of the Spring 2024 issue of Paddling Magazine, Issue 71This article was first published in the Spring 2024 issue of Paddling Magazine. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

This is the wave that never ends, it surges on and on, my friend. | Feature photo: David Jackson



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here