Eastern Canada’s record runoff shoves freestyle kayaking forward
[The following story and photos originally appeared in the current, July 2013 issue of Canoe & Kayak]
BY CHRIS GRAGTMANS
When Joel Kowalski called to tell me about this spring’s 30-year-record flood, the Ottawa Valley was already in a state of emergency and the water was still rising. I drove 17 hours from Asheville, N.C., and when I arrived, the Ottawa gauge, which tops out at 23 feet, was underwater.
No one had ever seen the river like this.
Gladiator—which appears only in high-water years and was respected as the rowdiest river-wave ever surfed—came and went as the Ottawa passed through and above its surfable level. Some epic media surfaced from rising Gladiator sessions, most notably a screen-grab of Ben Marr’s 7-foot pan-am on the wave. A who’s who of freestyle progression converged on the valley: Dane Jackson, Rafa Ortiz, Marcos Gallegos, Evan Garcia, Rush Sturges, Matt Baker, Jared Meehan, Ben Fraser; joining hard-charging locals Kowalski, Camblin, Marr, Nick Troutman, Tyler Fox, and a host of others.
I also grew up on the Ottawa, but my paddling has since strayed to other corners of the continent. Only recently did I realize how far and how fast the area’s peak runoff is pushing freestyle kayaking, and the skills of those paddlers willing to step up to the violent, mutant waves that appear suddenly with the rising water and disappear just as quickly.
Patrick Camblin coined the term “stakeout” and applied it to a new wave-seeking tradition. He and Marlow Long would car-camp at the Buseater parking lot and wait for the Ottawa monster to form. They incorporated a ski-rope to tow onto the wave and pioneered the use of a jet ski to capture images of big-wave kayaking in a different way.
The Stakeout of 2013 was a 10-day whirlwind of massive waves and rapids during record-high temperatures. Gladiator, the Ruins, Detonator: These are the top tier of wave-surfing. Even such (still impressive) features as Buseater, High Tension and at Lachine are tame in comparison. On waves like these, things happen so quickly that it’s difficult to react. It feels as if the wave could rip your arms off on a whim. The paddlers who shined there truly set themselves apart: Marr, Troutman, Dane Jackson, Kowalski. Marr hit an airscrew to a bread-and-butter combo—um, that’s three aerial tricks linked together. Jackson managed to stand out even in this high-profile crowd, consistently sticking three-airscrew combos—that’s three airscrews in a row linked with each rotational bounce off the wave.
The scene at the Petite Décharge River was classic Stakeout. With Detonator at the perfect level, Camblin and Marr brought a few bottles of wine to the Quebecois family that lives right next to that rare and superlative wave. Some sweet-talking with the delivery opened the gate to a grassy camping spot, and we pitched our tents next to what was, at that moment in time, the best wave on the planet.
Before the chase moved on to the next epic wave, I took a moment to savor this rare convergence of talent and conditions. Out on the wave, the sport of freestyle kayaking was making an evolutionary leap. We can only imagine what will come next.
A FEW EXTRA NOTES: In addition to those waves, we checked off some sick big-water rapids. From the Ottawa, it is an 8.5-hour drive up to the Lac St. Jean area of Quebec. This massive lake has huge drainages pumping into it, and probably over 300,000 cfs of water pouring in and out in the springtime! We were able to run the classic Mistassibi River (The Whitewater Grand Prix’s Hawaii Rapid, seen in my head-cam footage above, is on that river) at over 50,000 cfs! We also went back to the massive rapid (seen in the above photo gallery) under the bridge on the Mistassini River in Dolbeau-Mistassini. That is the rapid that a bunch of people ran in the inaugural 2011 Grand Prix. It was running about 15,000 cfs higher than the Grand Prix flows, but Ben Marr and I both gave it a go and came out successfully. The rapid flowing into Detonator wave was another highlight. Run one time that I know of previously (by Ben), Ben and I both gave it a go and plugged into the massive bottom curler. And finally, on the way back to the Ottawa, Ben Fraser, Tyler Fox and I stopped at the Mastigouche River, home of probably the best slide in Eastern Canada. Tyler Fox and I sessioned the slide (seen in the clip below) while Ben Fraser shot photos and hexacopter video of us. I’ve wanted to run that slide for 10 years and finally got the chance! For all of these rapids, Ben Fraser was shooting aerials with his RC chopper.
Back at the Ottawa, the bipolar Canadian weather reared its ugly head. While the first four days of stakeout were record-high temps up to 87 degrees, the final day for me ended with a snowstorm. The snow pounded down and a few of us went to watch playoff hockey and a movie in Pembroke.
Top all of that off with an earthquake, and you have a tumultuous spring in that area. Two other interesting occurrences were Marcos Gallegos’ skirt implosion at Ruins, and Rafa Ortiz’s beat-down to swim when he failed to make a critical ferry and got barreled in the Mistassibi Hawaii Rapid.
When it all came down to it, I realized that chasing the water is secondary to a much more important central theme. The water provides a great excuse, but the real reason why everyone loves it so much is because of the awesome people that you get to hang out and paddle with for extended periods of time. It really is one of the most fun times of year. Stakeout certainly lived up to its reputation and I can’t wait to experience it again in the future!