The latest event in the growing trend of downriver whitewater racing is seeking more than just the usual mix of speed, thrills and carnage in serious whitewater. This Saturday, Ontario boaters will flood the Petawawa River, a tributary of the well-known Ottawa River, to participate in the second annual Hell or High Water Festival. While partly a celebration of a mile-long stretch of urban whitewater, event co-organizer Philip Kompass says his ultimate goal is to raise awareness of looming threats to dam and "dewater" the Petawawa.

"In my most humble opinion, the Petawawa is the greatest river in Ontario," says Kompass. "It has beautiful, complex rapids, tough enough to keep you on your toes but safe enough for intermediate paddlers with due caution. In high water it offers amazing big water boating and low water brings technical creeking and river running."

Last year's extreme high water added an extra level of excitement to the Petawawa's "Town Run," which is comprised of a series of Class III and IV rapids. Although water levels are lower this season, Kompass expects about 75 kayakers and canoeists to participate. New for 2010 is a raft race, which will bring together novice paddlers and experienced Ottawa River raft guides.

Kompass says he decided to go with a downriver format for the event because "it's the truest form of kayaking." Just like events like the Green Race in North Carolina draw hundreds of spectators, Kompass says Hell or High Water has similar appeal to non-paddlers. "Races are fun, carnage is exciting and anyone can understand [the concept of being the] fastest to the bottom."

More importantly, getting locals to recognize the recreational benefits of the Petawawa River further bolsters opposition to a private power company's proposal to eliminate the Town Run section of whitewater and replace it with a dam, penstock and hydroelectric generating facility. "There are many major players that have not yet been convinced this diversion is a good idea," says Kompass. "The paddling community has a real chance to make a difference." –Conor Mihell