“Cowboy-up” – Part One

by Neil Miller|Published 09-12-2008


“Cowboy-up” – Part One


     We decided on the command, “tilt” instead of “lean”.  When I would yell out, “lean”, with all the excitement of the moment, there was a natural tendency to lean one’s whole body into the turn and all this accomplished was a quick roll into the river.  Either way, as soon as we hit the reverse current we would bobble, prompting an instinctual but worthless gunnel-grab.  Of course, the issue of semantics; that is, which was the proper verb to best describe our action taken (or at least intended) was the least of our problems.


     We were slowly working our way down the first section of the Siberian Rapids (a Grade 2 rating) and we were working on perfecting the venerable and time-honored white water maneuver known as the eddy-turn.  The “text-book” eddy turn has the boat crew set the angle as they enter the rapid, leaning the boat on the downstream side then punching through the eddy-line into the eddy, quickly changing the lean of the boat to the opposite side to counter the reverse flow of the eddy’s current, while at the same time the bow paddler is sticking a high brace or cross high brace and the stern paddler is throwing in a stern draw or pry depending on whether it’s a river-right or a river-left turn.  And all this happens in about three seconds time once the boat enters the rapid.  At least the mystery of the long paddle was solved.  It allowed the paddler to get enough of the blade into the water on the opposite side of the boat lean to maintain control.


     The weather was still overcast, rainy and about 6°C, only two degrees warmer from when we had rolled out of the tent in the morning.  My partner and I were both right on the edge of discomfort, needing one more layer of something to make us comfortable.  We were sticking the eddy-turns but it wasn’t a pretty sight.  We were coming into the eddies too low and the boat always bobbled as we crossed into the eddy’s up-stream current.  Fifty percent of the time we both thought we were going to dump.  Partially through our comfort and skill level in a canoe, and partially due to luck, we had managed to stay out of the river until just before lunch when we had to do a mandatory roll and immersion to practice the canoe-over-canoe rescue.


    I knew the water would be cold but I wasn’t quite prepared for how shockingly cold it would actually be.  As I adopted the sit-position with my feet facing downstream, both instructors rushed over to me in their little solo play-boats and with great concern asked if I was alright.  I must have looked like I was going to have a seizure but I was actually feeling O.K. and my bow paddler and I made very quick work of a smooth re-entry after emptying the boat of water.


     We had worked our way down to the first low cataract of Staircase Rapids, a grade 4, and before we walked up to the camp gazebo and lunch, we scouted this series of staircase-like rapids.  The instructor informed us we would hold a lining exercise through these rapids after lunch.


     Lunch had been amazing with hot soup and a huge, roaring fire in the central pit and this would be the only time we were to have lunch with the Hurontario adolescents.  We were quite chilled and in order to find ourselves a spot in front of the fire, we were forced to demonstrate our heightened social position to the boys like the alpha-male Virunga Mountain gorillas.  Perhaps that’s a bit overstated since it appeared these “children” failed to appreciate our position and we didn’t really get to spread out in front of the fire until the youth group departed.


     Now we were back at the river lining our canoes, with single stern line only. This was pretty quick work for us all, especially my partner and I who have lined canoes through a lot tougher places in Northern Ontario.  Once back in the boats, we approached Chalet Rapids, a 500 meter grade 2 and grade 3 rapid with a little bit of everything.  We would spend the rest of Day One and the morning of Day Two at this place working on eddy-turns, peel-outs and front-ferries.


     Ten years before, my son and I had attended the Parent/Child Weekend at MKC and we had rolled into the river on a grade 2 rapid in section three of the Palmer Rapids.  My son was only eleven then and because of his lack of physical strength, we had to perform a bastardized version of the front ferry.  In a proper front ferry, the bow paddler supplies most the power while the stern paddler maintains the correct angle while supplying supplemental power.  The modified version that my 80 pound son and I adopted had me providing most the power with him helping me with the angle corrections.  It was in fact his correcting cross-draw that got pinned to the hull by the current that leveraged us right into the river.


     Now, a decade later and in much bigger current we were practicing at the base of a grade 3 rapid moving from river-left to river-right and back again, then repeating the drill over and over again.  As the stern paddler, I had this fear of allowing the angle to open too much and the result was just the opposite.  On our first attempt, with too tight an angle and with my bow paddler’s strong forward stroke, instead of ferrying sideways we were climbing higher into the current.  When I tried to open it up, the current was too strong and it blew us out.  After this, I maintained closer to a 45° angle and we were much more successful although I found out that the front ferry from river-right to river-left was my favorable side and this tended to handicap me as it became a somewhat psychological thing.


     On our third day we had to run a solid grade 3 that was about 500 meters in length with countless rocks and boulders. The safest way to line up on the best path through the obstacles required a front ferry out from shore for about 20 meters before we could make the 135° turn to begin the descent.  Fortunately this ferry also just happened to place me on my favored side and we executed it perfectly completing the run flawlessly; or nearly flawlessly, until we reached the bottom, kissed a haystack, shipped about 20 gallons of water and had to wallow to shore to empty out the canoe.


     We had spent Days One and Two on little more than four kilometers of the Middle Madawaska practicing river-reading, eddy turns, peel-outs, front ferries, S-turns, C-turns and back-ferries.  In those two days we had dumped into the river three times; once as part of the mandatory rescue training and twice quite by surprise.  Both the unintentional swims occurred during eddy-turns, right at that point where the boat changes direction from going downstream to entering the upstream-flowing eddy current.  There is a split second where the proper angle, the turn and the changing of the lean all require perfect coordination and timing. If the “bobble” was severe enough, we both threw out a mighty (and worthless) gunnel-grab but it couldn’t keep us out of the water.  Of our group of four canoes, one pair of the Sudburyites were the best of us and only unintentionally rolled into the river once, on the third day.  The other pair of Sudburyites, their friends and neighbors, accidentally went swimming two more times than us over the three day period. The two ladies who were heading to the Nahanni later that summer, had us all beat. On some of the biggest stuff, they were just so worn out from immersions that they asked the instructors to bring their boat through the rapid for them.


     Day Two began with a heavy wet snow falling but it turned to cold rain as we hiked back down to the river and our boats.  It felt just a little like we were trudging off to work instead of heading out to play but the excitement quickly took hold and we once again started to receive our money’s worth of thrills, chills and education.  Surprisingly, after so ominous a start to the day, the afternoon cleared to partly cloudy and the temperature rose to nearly 10°C.


     Drill-work is a key part of the regimen at MKC because through consistency we become better paddlers, so it was more eddy-turns, front ferries and S-turns. Sometimes when I psyched myself out on a front-ferry because it wasn’t my “favored side”, the ferry quickly degenerated into an S-turn which still got us to the other side of the river.  With the S-turn, we would head up-current like the beginning of a ferry but in mid-stream would swing down-current then just as quickly turn again for the opposite shore and the eddy or slack water to be found there.  Generally we ended up lower in the eddy than we would have with the proper execution of a front-ferry and the S-turn demanded enough slack water on the opposite shore to accommodate a margin of error of about three boat lengths.


     Between Chalet and Gravel Pit Rapids we learned the back-ferry.  For some reason, I had feared this maneuver thinking it would be too confusing but our experience with this was just the opposite.  We executed it perfectly every time and it put my partner and me into a new dimension of paddling.  We had always assumed that in white water, both paddlers needed to constantly paddle hard to keep the boat in control but the back-ferry allows you slide the boat left or right as you continue to face downstream. It also allows you to slow the boat as you enter a rapid.  This revelation, the slowing of the boat, really put us both into a much better mindset as we realized that it wasn’t all just grunt and hustle.  There actually was finesse to this business of running rapids and the effect it had on our boat-handling partnership was quite positive.  I won’t say that it turned the day into a psychedelic picnic but a lot of tension and stress seemed to depart the dynamic duo (which was us) paddling the slightly battered red Starburst.


     We had eaten our lunch in the gazebo again but this time without the Hurontario adolescents who were gone for the day on the Lower Madawaska.  As we worked our way down Gravel Pit Rapids, we went ashore by a large outcropping and the instructors called for volunteers to practice river rescue with the throw bag.  Since we had gotten reasonably dry and warm at the gazebo fireplace, we slunk to the back of the group so we wouldn’t get picked.  This tactic, though slightly dishonorable, actually worked and we launched our canoe feeling smug and clever and the instructor asked us to perform an eddy-turn on the very next river-left eddy. We missed the lean, bobbled, grabbed the gunnels and rolled into the river.  There’s a deep, spiritual lesson to be learned there somewhere but I still can’t quite verbalize it.


     The final set of rapids was Cottage Rapid and we formed up behind our instructor and followed him through all 500 meters of it, “ducky-style” (one canoe behind the other and so on.)  Day One had been one new experience after the other but on Day Two we settled down and began to have a little more fun with it all.  On Day Three, we would string it all together as we covered 10 kilometers of the Lower Madawaska River and eight different sets of rapids each with its own distinct personality.


Neil E. Miller

Copyright © September 7, 2008