"Cowboy-up" - Part Two

by Neil E. Miller|Published 09-12-2008

“Cowboy-up” – Part Two


     Day Three of white-water camp dawned much the same as Days One and Two but without the precipitation.  On this morning, everything happened earlier as the pace was quickened so we could depart the camp at 8:15 in the vans for the drive to the Aumond’s Bay put-in on the Lower Madawaska.  This stretch of the river had a series of eight rapids collectively called Snake Rapids although each rapid had its own name and each was distinctly different from the others.  Also, the six “yakkers” and their two instructors were joining us on this stretch of the river for the final day of the program.


     For my partner and I, this was the most significant day.  We were wilderness trippers and for us, it was very important that we had gained some knowledge and confidence as to what we personally could paddle and what we would have to walk around.  This was the whole point of coming to MKC.  It was to be a tool to assist us in our real passion, which was remote wilderness canoe tripping.  And so Day Three was a commencement of sorts and just like in high school, everybody graduates but some graduate with more knowledge, achievements and honors than others.  We didn’t need to be at the top of the class; we just needed to be knowledgeable and this final day, our “baccalaureate”, would be the test.


     After three kilometers of flat water we approached the first of the eight rapids.  This was called Island Rapids and was a long grade 3 ledge with an island over toward the river-left shore.  We scouted and ran the ledge tight to river-right and pulled off a decent eddy-turn just below it.  Not great and certainly not textbook, but decent.  We ran the next two sets of grade 2 rapids “ducky style” but just below the second set, our instructor threw in a quick eddy-turn. The Sudburyites in front of us did the same but we were too close to them and blew on through.  This earned us a disappointing head-shake from the instructor but it wasn’t our first and it wasn’t to be our last.  We were not yet at that point where we could execute these white-water maneuvers instinctually. Without some planning and discussion beforehand, there was only going to be a 50/50 chance that we would pull it off.


     We approached Narrow Rapids, a grade 3 bisected by a giant glacial radical and we landed and scouted from the river-left shore.  The left channel was too “bony” to run in low water conditions but in the late spring melt it had plenty of water cranking through it.  We ran the left channel and put in just below it for lunch joined by the yakkers.  The entire MKC adult group was now together and in conversation we learned that the reasons we had all signed up for the program were as diverse as the people themselves.  These reasons ranged from seeking a new action outdoor hobby, to getting into better shape, to enhancement of paddling skills, to preparation for a paddling expedition or just for the sheer adrenaline rush.


     We put in after lunch and ran the next grade 2 “ducky-style” although there were some “pillows” requiring vigilance, then the final three rapids of the Snake Rapids series were all that was left.  These were all big grade 3’s and each required a scout. 


     Rifle Chute was the first of these final three and in the guidebook, it was considered to be the toughest of the entire Snake Rapids series.  The rapid was about a hundred meters in length and in order to be successful, we had to enter on the right of the channel to avoid the large wave on the left. Then, in the heart of it, we had to quickly maneuver the canoe to the left to avoid the large wave looming on the right.  If you made that maneuver at the proper moment, you were good all the way down through it. 


     The first pair of Sudburyites were successful. We went second and were equally successful. Then things started to unravel.  The third canoe with the other pair of Sudburyites failed to get to the left of the second big wave and in the blink of an eye they were swimming.  While the instructor chased them down, my partner and I retrieved their canoe and emptied it of water.  The final canoe in our group with the two Nahanni-bound ladies were getting some last minute instruction from our other instructor and then they, too, started into the rapids.  It went very wrong for them almost immediately. They caught the edge of the first big wave on the left and virtually did the entire hundred meters immersed in the river about five meters behind their swamped canoe.


     After all rescues were completed and we were on the shore taking a breather, we watched the kayaks come down.  The guy who had been a climber in Vancouver before his company transferred him to Ottawa, hit the same wave at the same spot as the ladies with the exact same result.  We watched as he made the entire hundred meter run inverted but he never gave up trying to roll himself back up.  The head kayak instructor took off after him with such speed that it almost seemed that he had been propelled by a giant bungee cord.  The instructor got to him just as the student popped his skirt and bailed out.  All-in-all, things were starting to get interesting on the river and we still had two more big rapids to go.


     The overcast had given way to partly sunny skies and the afternoon temperatures were hitting their high of 15°C.  I wasn’t sure if I had dressed warmer or if all the excitement and adrenaline spikes made me more impervious to the cold but I was certainly comfortable on this day.  It’s amazing what a little sunlight occasionally breaking through the overcast could do to raise a person’s spirits.  My partner and I were feeling much more in control of the boat and we were ready to tackle Split Rock Rapids, number seven in the series.


     The Nahanni ladies had gotten beat up and worn down enough on their swim down through Rifle Chute that they opted out of running Split Rock. The instructors brought their boat down for them, giving us a real opportunity to see where the best line would be for the big tandem boats.  We always got to watch either one or the other instructor come through a rapid before we ran it, but in their little play-boats. They could come through sideways or even backwards – it didn’t really matter.  The heavier, more sluggish Starbursts did not have that nimbleness.


     We ran the right channel of Split Rock and the route was to enter on top of a glassy smooth tongue, then quickly pull to the left because the tongue morphed into a large canoe-swamping haystack.  However, you couldn’t pull too far left because there was an ill-positioned rock that could do some real damage to the boat so we had to just skate along the left edge of the haystack.  We all performed this with near perfection although we all took on a little water from the standing wave and had to get to shore at the bottom to empty the boats.  That was just how close you had to cut it and even the instructors took on some water as they brought the tandem boat down. 


     We were geeked-up and full of confidence because of the way this final day had been going for us.  We weren’t scoring A’s but we were scoring B’s and B+’s and a half kilometer below Split Rock was the approach to the final and trickiest rapid.  This had the somewhat innocuous name of Raquette Rapids which in French means “snowshoe” but how this name related to the rapid was a mystery.


     We landed our canoes in a calm place above the rapids on a large island and took a good half hour to scout our way down through the maze of small islands and protruding rocks.  After much discussion, it was agreed that the best line was down the left shore of the large island then between the peninsula on river-left and the small island mid-channel.  There was little margin for error as this rapid was 500 meters in length surrounded by obstacles.


     After putting in, we performed a “must-make” front-ferry across grade 2 rapids until we were lined up with the route all the way to the bottom.  The ferry was successful and we swung the Starburst around and completed the run all the way through with the only incident being getting too close to the standing wave at the bottom and shipping a little water.  Thus, we ended Snake Rapids and Day Three on a very high and positive note.


     The take-out was a little less than two kilometers below this and, as we loaded the boats on the trailer, even being swarmed by blackflies couldn’t dampen the high we were feeling.  Our “training day” was over and we felt empowered and successful which was all we really wanted from the experience anyway.


     In the American West of the 19th century, the cowboy evolved out of the Mexican Vaquero. For roughly a 35-year period, from around 1850 to around 1885, this character of myth and lore slept on the ground, routinely ate beans and animal innards, fought with Native Americans, rustlers and other cowboys and bathed about once per month.  The life was difficult and demanding but equally rewarding and gratifying. The cowboy had to repeatedly reach inside himself and pull up the physical, mental and even spiritual strength to carry on.  But regardless of the physical demand on his person, he loved what he did for many different reasons that were really only understood by those who shared his passion for the lifestyle.  And, when he was in town again, sleeping in a bed, fully bathed and eating real food, he couldn’t wait to get back out on the staked plain doing what he loved most and where once again facing moments of personal challenge he would have to reach down inside himself and “cowboy-up”.



Neil E. Miller

Copyright © September 7, 2008