Open-Boat Boot Camp


“So you want some bigger water, eh?” our guide asked mischievously as he checked out his new, untested recruits. A few days earlier, upon first meeting Andrew Westwood, one of North America’s top whitewater canoe competitors and instructors, my three fellow paddlers and I had innocently inquired if we could run a few Class IVs in the days ahead. We were enrollees in a “Week of Rivers” program offered by Madawaska Kanu Centre (MKC), Canada’s oldest and most respected school for kayaks and canoes, and were about to tour some of the best open-boat rivers in western Quebec. A studious, soft-spoken 36-year-old from Ottawa, Andrew answered his own question. “Well, let’s see how our first day on the Madawaska goes before we commit to anything more challenging.”


We must have impressed Andrew on the Madawaska (a classic Class II-III river run flowing past MKC’s front door), because it’s only the second day of our tour and we’re now staring at a very significant canoe-chomping drop. As we beat through the underbrush to get a better look, the old saying “Be careful what you wish for” creeps through my brain. Perched on a lichen-covered outcrop overlooking the wide and swollen Gatineau River, Andrew examines the rapid from bottom to top, and then back down from top to bottom. Only then does he give us the skinny about Lucifer’s Hole. “See that recirculating hydraulic on river right?” our steely-eyed guide asks. “It’s a Class V. You don’t want to go there. See that Class IV hole in the center? Don’t go there either–it’s a keeper.”


My stomach is in knots, and it’s not from the spicy omelet that Andrew cooked for breakfast. After five seasons of whitewater canoeing, I finally feel like I can call myself a strong intermediate open-boater. But looking at this drop, which is more imposing than anything I’ve ever run, all I can think is, “Yikes, what the hell am I doing here?”


I steal a glance at my fellow lockjawed whitewater gladiators. There’s Shawn Mitchell, a shaven-headed 28-year-old communications director for a national health charity in Kitchener, Ontario. Erudite, affable, and fluent in French (a valuable attribute when traveling in Quebec’s hinterlands), he is in his second season of whitewater canoeing. “I’m definitely the weakest link in the group,” he unabashedly admitted after taking a couple of swims in the Madawaska River our first day. Also from Canada is Chris Davis, 46, a chisel-faced colonel in the Canadian army, whose job as a procurement officer has him buying and testing everything from tanks and trucks to sophisticated weaponry and women’s combat bras. He’s an experienced canoeist and approaches the rapids as just another military exercise requiring strategy, power, courage, and skill. And hailing from Middle America like myself is gray-bearded Larry Hinds, 55, a machinist from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A Class IV-V kayaker, he decided to take up open-boating two years ago to “expand his whitewater fun.”


After several minutes of dissecting the rapid, we (mainly Andrew) come up with a plan. We’ll catch the smooth black tongue just to the left of the center hole. From there we’ll edge along the Class III+ wave train rebounding off the cliff. “I think you guys can all make this one,” Andrew says encouragingly as he snugs his helmet back on his head. “I’ll go first; follow me down. Any questions?” There’s not a peep, other than that made by serenading frogs off in the spruce and maple forest. “All right, then,” adds Andrew. “Let’s rock ‘n roll.”


I’m as eager as everyone else to test my mettle against Lucifer’s Hole, but as the journalist in the group, I feel it’s my duty to record the action. “You mind if I hang back to take photos?” I ask Andrew. Andrew doesn’t mind, but Shawn is suspicious. “Oh, I get it,” he says as he prepares to trudge back to the boats with the rest. “You watch us get trashed, take pictures to embarrass us in a magazine, and then get to pick the best route for yourself. Not bad. Why didn’t I think of that?”

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