Tuesday, June 17, 2008

17th: "Let's just see what's around the next bend."

Almost anyone who's paddled down an unfamiliar stretch of river has had to fight the urge to go just a little farther to see what's around the next bend in the river. I hate calling it quits for the day or turning around for fear that what lies just out of sight beyond the next bend will be memorable: a moose wading near the shore, a family of deer bounding out of view just as one comes 'round the corner, some magnificent cliff face or other rock formation or some spectacular meadow, the perfect campsite or an impressive rapid. I fight this feeling even when on rivers and creeks meandering through a small town or featureless farmlands.

Ilana wrestles with that impulse too, but she's more disciplined than I and manages to call it quits after only one or two bends in the river beyond the time we set for ourselves on any little excursion. If it were up to me, we'd always paddle way farther than we should. Ilana's self-control is what keeps us from over-extending ourselves or getting back to the take-out later than we planned. I've never begrudged her good sense on this, but last Sunday we paddled the exact same stretch of the Magnetawan as we had on our first lilly-dip of the season and we discovered that what lay around the next bend would have been worth getting back late for on that previous trip.

I awoke Sunday morning to the sound of rain on our trailer. The previous night's weather forecast for Sunday had called for possible rain and thunderstorms. It's rained every day or night this week. Ugh. When it wasn't raining the skies and weather forecasts were threatening rain and thundershowers, so we had postponed a day trip on the water every day for a week, not to mention our first camping trip of the season. Worse yet, some of those threatening skies and weather forecasts turned out to be false alarms, which left us feeling dumb. I always feel stupid when I put off a day of canoeing due to warnings of bad weather only to have the day turn out to be beautiful. Nearly everyone who likes canoeing knows some guy who is always complaining about not being able to go canoeing or camping for some reason or other. Bad weather is that guy's favourite excuse. I really hate being that guy. So when the rain stopped on Sunday morning and the sun came out I didn't care that Environment Canada was calling for rain and thunderstorms. The sky was telling a different story.

Ilana and I discussed a possible afternoon trip as she too was anxious to get out on the water for a half day. Since the weather might turn ugly on us at any point, Ilana suggested we avoid any trip across a large open lake. We'd been windbound once before on a day trip and didn't want to get stuck somewhere. She suggested we redo the very same stretch of the Magnetawan as we had on our first jaunt of the season, but this time we'd go as far upstream as we could before rapids or falls blocked our progress. With any luck, we might get close to Brooks Falls, which we'd discovered on our 2nd day trip of the season. So, after breakfast I began filling the dry bag with the usual stuff: Nalgene bottles of water, snacks, rain coats, emergency kit, etc. I even hopped out of my PJs and into my paddling clothes without my morning shower so as not to waste another minute of the day. I feared thunderstorm might roll in at any moment and cut our trip short.

We drove from our campground to the Lawton's Cove boat launch on Little Doe Lake in Katrine and wasted no time putting-in. It was sunny, gusty and the fluffy white clouds made it look like a promising day. As on our first trip, we paddled east out of Little Doe Lake and took the first right (south) fork after the first bridge and began our upstream paddle through Katrine, passing under the second bridge and then under the highway 11 bridges, past the golf course, under the train bridge and beyond it until we arrived at the same spot where we'd stopped on our first trip. It took an hour to get there, which was pretty good time considering how much stronger the current against us was than it had been the last time. The river was a good 6 inches higher than it had been before, swollen from all those consecutive rain days. The difference in the current wasn't just felt, but visible in the way the underwater grasses were bent down flat in the reddish, tea colored water instead of bending gently with the current as they had the last time we paddled by here.

For some reason there was a real paucity of wildlife that day. We saw no four-legged critters and very few birds, except for a few families of Canada Geese hiding out under the highway 11 bridges. The only good thing about the lack of fauna was that there were no bugs either; no blackflies, no mosquitoes, no deerflies or sand flies. I guess the occasional heavy gusts of wind were discouraging them from leaving the cover of foliage.

Though the fauna was not in evidence, the flora was terrific. The river banks were lined in places with gardeny mixes of yellow hawkweed, mouse-eared hawkweed, daisies, purple vetch, and orange hawkweed. Best of all, the wild irises were in full bloom, sometimes singley and sometimes in generous patches. Immediately upstream from the secluded cottage was a tiny side pond where we stopped long enough for me to snack on some fruit leather and some peppery meat sticks as Ilana nosed the boat into the grassy banks to take some close-up photos of irises.

When we returned to the channel Ilana pointed out that she was seeing tiny, but dense clusters of water bubbles floating downstream towards us. She'd noticed them getting more numerous as we paddled upstream. We suspected that these small sudsy islands were downstream indicators of frothy rapids not far upstream. No sooner had we inferred this that we began to hear the faint roaring of fast-moving water. We were just a few bends farther than where we'd stopped the last time we were here when we rounded a corner revealing a river feature we'd hoped to happen upon since last summer.

Immediately ahead of us the Magnetwan widened, but just beyond we could see the river winding towards us in a tight S-shape. It was several feet higher and narrower with whitewater funneling down in big frothy waves. This is exactly the sort of rapid were were looking for to practice basic whitewater techniques.

We didn't walk the shoreline that day to get a good look at the hard part of the rapids but from the base of the rapids the drops upstream seemed significant and rock-filled, making them beyond our abilities, especially when any route through would involve negotiating a fairly tight S-shaped channel. But the base of the rapids had all the elements we could have hoped for: very fast but straight current over a nice stretch of river, unlittered with rocks, some small haystacks to play in, distinct eddy lines on both sides of the main current, water deep enough to make an unexpected dunking safe, and finally, a big open and calm area immediately downstream, ensuring that one wouldn't have to chase the canoe or paddles a long distance in the event of an upset.

It's also a picture perfect picnic spot. Near river right, in the calmer waters where the river widens sits a large flat platform of a rock on which several people could comfortably relax and sun themselves after a swim, all with a clear view of the rapids upstream. The moment I saw it I knew we could practice many of the whitewater paddling techniques we'd learned last August at the Madawaska Kanu Centre. Ilana didn't want to try at first but eventually reluctantly yeilded to my urgings to try a few simple river moves.

We removed all the extraneous gear from the boat (dry bag, water bottles, etc) so we wouldn't have to chase unnecessary gear if we wiped out before discussing exactly what we'd do if we did wipe out: hold onto your paddle, get yourself upstream and clear of the overturned or swamped boat, float on your back with feet up and pointing them downstream until safely in deeper and slower water when it would then be safe to swim after the boat.

We began with a simple front ferry upstream, moving from our secure eddy behind that large flat rock on river right into and against the current, crossing at an angle to a great big eddy on river left. It went smoothly. From there we paddled up that eddy to where the water was moving really fast but still well below the ledges and drops. We took a moment to reminding ourselves of the technique for peeling out into a current and then we paddled hard inside the eddy driving the boat upstream and then angling the boat into the current a little until we felt the boat slow against the onrushing water, at which point we initiated a hard turn to the left and tilted the boat downstream, letting the current grab the bow and help us make our 180 degree turn. It was not a fast or daring turn and we stayed clear of the fastest part of the current, but the move was correct, if a little awkward. Not bad for a first try.

We followed the current downstream intending to eddy out behind the big flat rock where we'd begun but we were late in initiating the turn and we almost shot by it. We had to paddle hard upstream after spinning the boat 180 degrees to get ourselves back into the eddy. Pretty ugly move. We tried it all over a second time. The front ferry from river right to left was easy. The peel out into the current was a bit better, and this time we went out into the fast part of the water, enjoying the bounce from some wee haystacks. We eddied out behind the big rock again and this time it felt perfect. Our best eddy turn ever...and no instructor there to see it. We tried the whole thing a third time, but the eddy turn was sloppy. At this point Ilana put her foot down on my fun. Her arms were getting sore from doing crossbow draws for the eddy turns and she feared she'd pull a muscle if we kept at it. Since we intended to be canoe camping Algonquin two days later, she didn't want to be left with an injury. I grumbled at having to stop after only three attempts, but I was so happy to have found a nice safe spot with these river features only an hour's paddle from where we spend our summers that nothing could could get me down.

I hadn't done any solo paddling yet this season and had never done so in moving water, so I told Ilana I wanted to try what we'd just done in tandem by myself. She was concerned that I'd wipe out but I didn't care. I thought a good dunking would be a fine price to pay for the experience. From the safety of the big rock she could even get photos of me wiping out. I moved to the middle of the canoe and front ferried across. That part was easy, especially since I had a nice strong gust of wind blowing at me from behind, directly against the current to help me along. The peel out was a mess though.

Our canoe is not a playboat. It's a 16'-6" Prospector, designed for tandem whitewater tripping. When paddled solo, especially by someone as inexperienced at soloing and moving water as I, it's a challenge. The challenge was made worse by the strong gusts of wind. At one point, while trying to peel out, the wind was holding me fast in one spot for several seconds - broadside - right in the middle of the current I was doing bow pries like mad to crank the canoe around downstream. I guess with just my weight the boat sits pretty high in the water and the high profile of the ends catch a lot of wind. I made my way downstream and tried to eddy out, but completely overshot my target. Ilana got a few good shots though.

Once back in the starting position behind the big rock I front ferried across the river again. Instead of moving up along that bank to peel out again I turned around (facing downstream) and sideslipped the canoe from the eddy on river left way out into the main current. To my surprise, with the wind's assistance, I was able to back-ferry a little bit upstream.

I ended by doing a clean eddy turn behind the big rock. Ilana handed me the gear we'd removed and climbed back in. We were just tickled to have found this spot. We'll definately be back for more practice, though it's unclear if all these features will still be there when water levels drop as the rains ease off.

It was now about 2pm and time to head back. We headed downstream and passed an angler trolling along in a small aluminum boat. He asked if Brooks Falls was ahead. We told him it was, but that the way there was blocked by a small rapid. There was no telling how many such rapids there would be between here and Brooks Falls. He headed up to take a look for himself as we went in the other direction, enjoying how the current made the distances seem so much shorter.

We kept an eye out for patches of cattails. Ilana wanted to gather about a dozen or so cattail stalks to add as a side dish for supper later that night. In a marshy area near the golf course we backed the boat right into the shallows and we reached overboard into the water and began pulling up cattails. Within minutes we had over a dozen. Ilana later steamed them and served them with a little olive oil, salt and pepper.

With the assistance of the current we made it back to the Lawtons's cove by 3 pm, literally in half the time it took us to paddle out. Our next trip will likely be a two-night camping trip into Algonquin, just to shake the rust off of ourselves, but if we don't have a solid two days of sunshine in the forecast, I'm pretty sure we'll be right back here while the water's still high.

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