Pro boaters are the tip of the spear, the first to break new ground and lead the sport in new directions. Gear manufacturers clamor to claim them, providing free equipment so the paying public will associate their products with the athletes at the cutting edge of whitewater paddling. Or whitewater pedaling, as this case may be.
The semi-pro pedal boaters
When Caleb Roberts and Marc Godbout need to make a tough move in a rapid, they line up their sponsored boat as well as they can, and then pedal furiously.
Online videos show their four knees as just a blur while their pedal boat drifts slowly toward huge features on rivers like the Ottawa and Gatineau. The pair are accomplished solo open boaters, but are undisputed superstars in what Roberts calls the new sport of whitewater pedal boating.
They caught the eye of recreational boat manufacturer Pelican after posting a video of one of their early descents.
Pelican offered them a free boat to do what they do, so long as they include in their videos a disclaimer stating these boats are not designed for whitewater.
Does this make them the world’s first semi-pro pedal boaters?
Roberts objects. “To say ‘semi-pro’ suggests there is a higher level to attain.”
The love for pedal-boating whitewater
There is nothing “semi” about practicing the sport at the highest level there is, he says. How much higher this level gets remains to be seen. Roberts says he is committed to training, which, for pedal boating amounts mostly to mental preparedness.
“I think about pedal boating a lot,” he says. “More than most people, anyway.”
But there’s also physical technique. For this sport, in which the athletes sit back and make small circles with their feet, any serious conditioning program starts with walking.
Roberts says his commitment to the sport sees him walking every day, even if it’s just short distances around the house.
Despite how far he’s come, Roberts remembers the first time he saw a pedal boat. “I was at my Opa and Ona’s cottage, and their neighbor had one. I remember seeing it there, listing in the reeds. It looked so cool.” Little did he know, one day he’d be one of the world’s most recognizable whitewater pedal boaters.
Roberts guides river trips for Black Feather Wilderness Adventure Company. When meeting clients on the Mountain River in the Northwest Territories last summer, one of his guests recognized him from pedal boating down the Ottawa River.
Fame aside, Roberts insists the story here is about the boat. He thinks back to the pedal boat he saw at his grandparents’ cottage and notes the basic design hasn’t changed much in 30 years.
“Think how much kayaks have changed over that time,” observes Roberts, implying there must be something approaching perfection in the boxy, square hull. Roberts calls Pelican the “Apple brand” of pedal boats and credits their Monaco model with being a key to their success.
“The Monaco doesn’t hold a cooler, but it’s smaller and nimbler than some other models, so that’s a sacrifice we make,” explains Roberts.
Speaking of sacrifices, while he has dabbled with paddling by hand over the side of the rail to make particularly challenging moves in the plodding boat, he draws the line at packing along canoe paddles for auxiliary power. “It’s important, at this stage, that we keep the sport pure,” he argues.
What are the next stages?
And what are the stages that might come next? Roberts has his sights set on expeditions.
“It’s the next frontier,” says Roberts, who admits he hasn’t contacted any bush plane pilots yet to inquire about the chances of strapping a pedal boat to pontoon struts.
“I’m waiting to get a little more established first,” he adds, recounting a lengthy email exchange with Arizona Park Service Rangers in which he tried to clarify what type of boat he wanted to take down the Grand Canyon if granted a permit.
In the end, they said his pedal boat would be okay.
The thought of enjoying the Grand Canyon scenery from a pedal boat is almost too much for Roberts to contemplate.
“In a way, we pedal the rapids to get to the flats. Flatwater is where pedal boating shines,” says Roberts, arguing that pedal boating allows him to sit back and take in the sights, see and experience nature to an extent not possible with a paddle in his hands.
Of course, sooner or later, there are going to be rapids. Roberts knows he’ll be ready, for almost anything.
“We haven’t figured out how to boof yet, but when we do, the sky’s the limit.”
Ian Merringer is a former editor of Rapid magazine.
Pedal hard! Dispatches from a bold, new frontier of river running. Caleb Roberts pedals a precursor to the modern Monaco here. This 1987 model helped secure the sponsorship. Photo: Robert Faubert