Lately, some open boaters have been lamenting the slow death of whitewater canoeing, and at first glance they have a point. Relative to kayaks, canoes are an increasingly rare sight, even in open-boat strongholds like the American Southeast. Look a little further though—anywhere in Canada but especially in Quebec—and it becomes clear that whitewater canoeing isn’t going away.
In Quebec, the canoe holds the same kind of cultural significance that baseball has in the United States. Canadian canoe roots reach all the way back to the Huron, Algonquin and Montagnais tribes, who taught French settlers to build the bark canoes they used to trap game and explore throughout North America. And there seems to be a little bit of that voyageur spirit in the modern Quebecois psyche.
“The French culture is less conservative,” says Vincent Dupont, an extremely talented canoeist and member of the Canadian Freestyle C-1 Team. “Parents here don’t need any sort of a controlled environment and take their kids on multi-day canoe trips all the time. They don’t have to plan. They just pack up their boats and go.”
This exposure to paddling at a young age has helped turn Dupont and other canoeists like Liquidlogic’s Guillaume Larue, 27, and Esquif paddlers Olivier Chatigny, 19, and Philippe Morin, 17, into certified phenoms with little fear.
“They start so young with their families that stability means nothing, they have so much balance,” says Esquif’s Jacques Chasse. “Plus at events like the annual Quebec Canoe Federation Festival, people will set up safety at a big rapid and everyone goes for it. Kids see this and they’re not afraid to try and punch a big hole in a canoe.”
This party-at-the-rapid tradition is cultivated in a strong club scene dominated by open boaters. “Montreal has three million people and there are four separate clubs here that account for at least 800 people, all canoeists,” says Nick Bidwell, marketing manager at Camp De Base, a Montreal paddling shop.
It doesn’t hurt that Montreal has a menagerie of rapids within three hours of the city where families escape with their young canoeing brood–rivers like the Jacques Cartier and the Rouge. Quebec at large has become a hotbed of whitewater exploration of late. And single-bladers like Dupont have lead the exploratory charge. – Joe Carberry
This piece originally ran in the 2009 edition of Canoe and Kayak’s Whitewater magazine.