The Lorne Rapid begins as an outflow of one of the Ottawa River’s many massive pools. The slow, almost-still water begins to descend, rolling in a smooth velvety tongue as it funnels between large rocky islands littering the Ottawa. The descent steepens. Water ricochets off the rock walls, hurdling toward the center of the channel, and colliding into a churning foam-pile aptly named Garberator: a wave known throughout freestyle kayaking for its thrashing nature, speed, and ability to send kayaks airborne. It is now the site for this year’s ICF Freestyle Kayak World Championship.
The Ottawa River has potentially had a larger impact in evolving freestyle paddling than any other river in the world. Its big volume, warm summer waters, and abundance of world-class features at practically every level has churned out crops of the biggest names in the sport. It also draws in paddlers from around the world, using its waves as an experimental lab to develop revolutionary tricks, and to push the envelope of what is possible in a kayak. So it is no surprise the International Canoe Federation’s biennial freestyle worlds have been hosted twice before on the Ottawa. First in 1997 at McCoy’s Rapid, where linking up as many cartwheels as possible was the sure path to victory. Then a decade later, during spring 2007, at the monstrous Buseater, where athletes towed in to the massive feature on a rope before careening down the steep face, popping off it to engage aerial maneuvers. Buseater may have provided the most impressive wave that a world championship has occurred on, but the circumstances required an optimum river level, cold spring water, and difficult accessibility for spectators: obvious drawbacks to hosting a title event. Three world championships have passed since, including the latest 2013 worlds on North Carolina’s Nantahala River. Held on a completely re-engineered wave at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, the event had great spectator turnout, totaling an estimated 30,000 over the course of the week, not to mention live-streaming coverage seen by another 50,000 online viewers. But what NOC lacked was the dynamic and visually impressive display that a big wave provides, and which many of the athletes crave.
Cue the Garberator.
“It seems like Garberator is going to bring the best combination of worlds-type of infrastructure as well as feature,” explains Canadian team member Joel Kowalski. “NOC was definitely the most accessible worlds that North America has held recently — it’s roadside, and NOC is such a great venue. A couple of the worlds in Europe have been very accessible, right in some downtown centers. The features have been fun, but still pretty small. Garberator is going to be a pretty epic combination of what’s happening around the actual feature, as well as the feature itself.”
What Kowalski means by “around the feature,” is the transformation he has witnessed leading up to the event, as the river’s edge has transitioned to a sporting venue. Complete with grandstands and a media tower.
Kowalski (pictured above in yesterday’s parade of athletes ceremony in Beachburg, Ontario) grew up with the Ottawa as his backyard. His father, Joe Kowalski, founded Wilderness Tours, one of the largest outfitters on the river and also the host for this year’s event. The waves of the Ottawa, such as Garberator, have helped shape Kowalski to be one of the world’s top paddlers. Posting impressive results at main events, including third place overall at the 2014 Whitewater Grand Prix. Garberator has also played a role in the formative years of a number of other freestyle competitors on both the Canadian and American teams, including Kowalski’s fellow Jackson Kayak team paddlers Nick Troutman, and current men’s kayak world champion Dane Jackson. Now their summer stomping grounds are a world championship venue.
“We are all really excited about it,” Kowalski says. “Surfing the wave during our training slots, and looking up at everything that is being developed around it, is pretty crazy.”
There may be some home-field advantage for American and Canadian competitors who have dedicated years learning “Garb’s” nuances, but a victory will be no easy task. The speed and power of the wave will be sure to dish out some unintended power flips. With big-wave gymnasts from 27 other nations moving in to claim a win, including the team from Uganda which faced a complicated path to competing, it’s anybody’s game on the Ottawa.
Visit worldfreestylekayakchampionships.com to watch the ICF Freestyle World Championship live. And check out the event schedule (also photographed below), which concludes today with the women’s and men’s squirtboat finals.
Check out a little more Garberator scene-setting footage with Nomade Media‘s recent piece highlighting defending men’s champ Dane Jackson preparing for the competition: