The weather was cold and the nights were long back in late December when I decided to attend EJ’s kayaking class on the Ottawa River. My decision morphed with other goals and New Year’s resolutions to the end result of having kayaked 50 days (including the Numbers), having bombproofed my roll, and having radically modified my Westfalia by the time I completed the long drive to the Ottawa in late July. You could almost say that the very act of choosing and committing myself to this challenging class was the watershed moment that had the greatest impact on my kayaking. But as I like to say, it is one thing to talk about something and another to commit yourself and actually follow through.
Three other students (Olly, Neval, and Scott) and I were paired with the king of kayaking, EJ, and the prince, his son, Dane for five intensive days of instruction and playing on the river and an equal amount of goofing off and story telling off the river. When the week was over, we were all sad to part our separate ways, but our bodies were grateful for the respite.
The Ottawa is a very interesting river that is in great contrast to the rocky mountain rivers of Colorado that I am so used to. It is located in a very flat section of Canada a few hours north of Toronto and drains an extremely large area that corresponds to an equally large flow. For all intense purposes there should not be any rapids, but several geologic faults in the underlying granite bedrock cause large step changes in the river profile that results in the ultimate pool-drop rapid situation with big water! The whitewater sections of the river are dispersed over several miles with large lakes (pools) between each of the main rapids (drops). And within the stretch of water, the river splits into two primary channels- the Main Channel and the Middle Channel.
We spent every day except Wednesday on the Middle Channel, since it had a larger number of features in which to play and practice our skills. The gauge height of the river was 6’ on Monday and was certainly much bigger flow than anything I had was used to boating. It just so happened that our class occurred on the perfect week, since the previous month of rainy weather resulted in uncharacteristically high flows for that time of summer but with the added benefit of sunny weather. The flow was not only high on Monday at 6’, but it actually doubled in gauge height while we were there!
Both channels began with the first drop down McCoy’s rapid. Sattler’s Hole blocked the left portion of the river and just down stream, Phil’s Hole blocked the right portion. Fortunately, there is a multitude of ways to navigate these large obstructions, many of which involved finding a small seam right through the gut of the holes or just plain going into the holes and getting spit out eventually. Each day, EJ had us run a different line, so by the end of the week, we had learned to make it through the rapid no matter the situation. Personally, I had a few issues with the holes, since my skirt imploded on not one, but two occasions while getting window-shaded in them! The first time, I eventually exited my boat after about 5 rolls with a boat full of water, so when it happened again, I committed myself to paddling through the remainder of the rapid with just head, shoulders, and paddle above the water!
The next major feature that we encountered on the Middle Channel was the scenic Little Trickle, which was comfortingly reminiscent of Colorado boating. Once again, we ran many different lines down the rapid, each of which I thoroughly enjoyed, but with the boof move at high water being my favorite. Following that were two smooth, fun surf waves- Angel’s Kiss and Butterfly, which served up great playboating opportunities at every water level.
And then came Garvin’s Chute– a 15’ river wide waterfall with several navigable routes and many places that you don’t ever want to find yourself. Approaching it always got my heart racing as primal fear overtook my body. On Monday, the scout left me initially awestruck at the power and beauty of Dragon’s Tongue that coursed right down the center of the drop. But after watching Neval heroically run it without incident, I vowed that I would perform the feat the next day. And that I did! Despite the fear that cloaked my whole person, I followed Dane right down the smooth tongue while focusing on my target at the end of the tongue and not the side drop offs into living hell. I dropped off the bottom, experienced a surprisingly hard impact in the white, aerated water, and emerged a second later unscathed and easily able to make the move to avoid the huge hole that remained below. Phew! I definitely earned my lunch on Tuesday!
But then came Thursday with flows at the 12’ level and the option to run Elevator Shaft on the far right side of Garvin’s. Dammit! If I thought Dragon’s Tongue was intimidating, Elevator Shaft was at an entirely different level. The water plunged 10’ straight down onto the rocks below, which we were assured would not present a problem. That is, as long as we went over it right-side up. Because God only knows what would happen if you decided to have your face cushion your boat’s landing instead of the other way around. And one more thing. There was a reactionary wave just above the actual drop that wants to flip you, but that is not particularly challenging for a solid Class III boater. EJ summed it up appropriately, “Only run this if you are absolutely, 100% positive that you won’t get flipped by the wave.” So there I stood again on the precipice of Garvin’s Chute with that wave of fear descending on me. But I decided to keep a pact with myself that I would throw myself into every challenge that was presented to me during the class as long as it was within my ability. And when I looked at the moves that I needed to make, I had absolutely no doubt that I would be fine. And as fate had it, I went smoothly over the wave, down the drop, and earned my lunch once again. However, the next day one of the students in the Keener program did not stay upright but fortunately managed to make it out of there only banged up and limping. Yikes!
After Garvin’s came the two most poorly named rapids on the river, Upper NoName and Lower NoName. Upper NoName presented a fantastic, clean surf wave while Lower NoName featured big-water rapids with numerous waves and holes scattered throughout. The higher flows on Thursday and Friday changed Lower NoName’s character from a fun, semi-mellow descent to a rockin’, rowdy trip over big waves and around (or through) big holes. On the appropriately dubbed Big-Water-Thursday, attempting to surf a difficult to catch wave at the bottom of Lower NoName was on the menu. The trick to catching this wave was to “surf across Vampire hole” in order to ferry over to the wave. Well, it was technically within my means, so I had to do it, right? After not using Vampire Hole to my advantage the first time and missing the wave, I decided to throw my self smack-dab into the hole and then simply ferry across. Of course, we all know that good stories come from things never being as simple as they seem or as easy as EJ makes them look, which ultimately ends up with some quality carnage. I definitely caught Vampire Hole the next time and got a super rockin’, powerful surf for much longer than I had hoped for! It then spit me out and over into a deceptive little hole that was hiding completely out of sight in the center of the river upstream of the nice surf wave. Vampire has a deservingly mean name, but that nameless hole put more of a beat-down on me than its Transylvanian neighbor. I was window-shaded, or as EJ calls it, “power-flipped” for what seemed like an eternity and which included a shocking, kerthunk of my helmet on the rocks below in this supposedly rockless river. Thankfully, it released me and no swimming was involved. I then proceeded to rest my tired body on the shore for a few minutes before getting back on the horse by hiking back up and running Lower NoName again. When all was said and done, a new hole had been named on the Ottawa- Pat’s Hole.
You would think that was it for play features and beat-downs on the Middle Channel, but you would be wrong. There was minor feature named Warm Apple Pie just around the corner from the take out. So on Big-Water-Thursday, we decided to check it out. As we approached, EJ described it as a “super-retentive hole, but you can always make it out the sides.” Dane and EJ proceeded to throw ends, blast, mystery-move, and generally make it look like good fun. So at his invitation and in keeping with my pact, I decided to hop right in there. It turns out that when EJ describes something as “super-retentive”, it is no joke. I got flipped in the pour-over, rolled up completely disoriented, only to get sucked back in and flipped again in what seemed like an infinite loop. Well eventually, at the first opportunity when I had my wits about me, I heeded EJ’s advice, paddled like hell to the corner of the hole and made it out of there in one piece. Wow! What a day Big-Water-Thursday was for me- skirt implosion in Phil’s Hole and no swimming, then running Elevator Shaft, then getting trashed in Pat’s Hole, and finally getting spanked in Warm Apple Pie! Oh, and did I happen to mention that I did all that in a playboat that I had never paddled before? When people ask me what I came away with from the class, I now say that I went to see the Wizard and I was given Courage!
But wait there’s more! I can’t neglect to mention the Main Channel that we ran on Wednesday at 11.25’. Compared to the number of features on the Middle Channel, the Main was sparser but also that much bigger. With names like Bus Eater, Waikiki, and Coliseum, you can instantly recognize that the Main is not for the faint of heart. Bus Eater is easily one of the most famous surf waves in the world, but it doesn’t “come in” until the flows are great than 14’. Below that level, it is basically a big, mean hole that you don’t want to be anywhere near. It resides at the bottom of Lorne Rapid which consists of a magnificent wave train down river right, so it is theoretically a simple matter to avoid Bus Eater at the bottom. Of course, nothing is ever, ever simple. As we approached the top of the rapid, Dane said to me, “Pat, the top wave is the perfect wave to try a kick-flip. Watch me do one and then you try it.” Rather than fully describe this to you, I will refer you to Wikipedia and suffice it to say that this move was way beyond my ability, not to mention a bit crazy to try considering I had never been down the rapid before with Bus Eater lurking at the bottom. But remember that little pact I made with myself? What the hell! Moments later, I watched Dane launch himself off the crest of the first wave and completely roll his boat as it soared through the air! I approached the wave with as much speed as I could conjure, pulled hard off the lip of the wave, and tried my damnest to corkscrew my boat and myself through the air! All I know for sure is that I launched myself into the Wild Blue Yonder, didn’t pull off the move, and spent a fair bit of time upside down on the subsequent waves. The other thing I know for sure is that I got the courage up to try something that I never, ever thought I would try! The bottom of Lorne Rapid also featured a great surf wave named Waikiki with the most exhaustive eddy-service I have ever experienced. Once again, I put my fears aside and managed to get two decent surfs on this wave that made almost everything in Colorado seem puny by comparison. Wednesday’s lunch? Earned it.
Once again, it seemed like there wouldn’t be anything more to fear on the river, but Coliseum Rapid waited half a mile above the take-out with what seemed like the sole purpose of inspiring awe in us. The entire river converges and simultaneous drops about twenty feet with the result being a string of massive waves that behave erratically with occasionally crashing fronts. And just to spice things up, there is a ten foot high, 150 yard wide pour-over down stream of the waves. Once again, that is a place you don’t ever want to find yourself. A testament to its potential danger is the fact that commercial raft companies employ jet boats to pick up swimmers who weren’t so lucky in Coliseum. The day we were running it, the commercial trips deemed the flow to be too high for them to run it safely. Gulp! For all the build up and potential consequences, Coliseum actually paddled quite easily, save for the fact that I got surfed at the crest of the 3rd wave! Wow, what a river!
Since I have returned from my trek to Mecca, I mean…, the Ottawa, I have been asked on numerous occasions about the most important thing I learned. It is a great question and one that I’ve pondered for several weeks now. After all, I spent 5 days kayaking with EJ, who is undoubtedly the best kayaker in the world, and that time was spent on the Ottawa, which is one of the premier rivers in the world.
First off, although I didn’t learn this for the first time during this week, I was reminded once again how great the people are who kayak. It has been, and remains one of the main reasons I spend so much time on this activity. My comrades in the class were all exceptional on the water and off, and the entire Jackson family was a blast to be around for a week.
As with any difficult pursuit, whether it be golf, skiing, or in this case, kayaking, there is no Golden Ticket that takes you from rank beginner to expert. And so in five days on the water, I wasn’t surprised that my ability level didn’t improve dramatically. But like I said, there were intangibles that I gained that will stick with me, the main one being the courage to try that which is within my ability but that I fear. And what I also learned was not a single skill, but a plan that will allow me to progress and continue to achieve at a higher level. I have summarized the game plan in three steps that are no-duh obvious to most people but that are firmly ingrained in me now.
- Fundamentals: EJ describes these as “the rules of the game”. These are the skills that he goes over in great detail in his “Strokes and Concepts” and “Rolling and Bracing” videos. I had been working on these skills throughout the season and the class was very beneficial in terms of correcting bad habits and explaining proper technique. Equally important was the fact that I was able to witness that EJ and Dane focus on these fundamentals all of the time! In order to be great, you need a great foundation!
- Repetition: Learning the Fundamentals is not sufficient to become great; you need to repeatedly reinforce those skills through repetition! Once again, I got to see this in action by EJ and Dane all of the time and I have no doubt about how important it is to their success. And, I came to the conclusion that Repetition is something that can be experienced on multiple time scales. The roll can be practiced repeatedly over the course of 5 minute warm up. We are all familiar with this type of repetition, but I think it is equally important that it be practiced over the course of the day on the river and over the course of the entire season. I can’t count how many times I looked over and saw Dane practicing his roll throughout the day. And I have no doubt that he continues to practice it day-in, day-out. That continued level of repetition of the fundamentals at all of those time scales is absolutely necessary for them to become second-nature and there for you at the times when you really need them. Another aspect of repetition that I had never really given thought to or witnessed previously was Dane’s persistence in running the same stretch of river multiple times in a row. Again, I can’t count how many times I looked over and saw him hopping out of his boat, running back up the shore, and hopping in again in order to get another go at the rapid. By Thursday, I had subconsciously caught on to this and found myself running 4 stretches of the river a second time, just because I wanted to. This isn’t only a great approach to getting better, it is also extremely practical. When you consider you much time and effort is expended getting to the river, setting up shuttle, driving home, and all the other little details, the amount of time to run a fun rapid a second time is absolutely minimal! So what if it’s going to take me 10 minutes to walk back up and do it again- I spent 5 hours driving to get here this weekend to do just this!
- Staying Positive: Kayaking is an extremely challenging activity. It is part of the reason why it is so fun, but it can also get people into a funk. I am always hearing about “the mental side” of kayaking or rolling, and I have certainly experienced that myself. That mental side is basically when you tell yourself that something might go wrong, or you might not be good enough. In the five days on the river with EJ and countless conversations off the river, I don’t think I ever heard him say something negative! That means that in thousands, if not tens of thousands of situations, he always, always chose to be positive! Wow, what a difference that makes! One of his Fundamentals is to “Always look at/focus on your target.” Always being positive is the ultimate expression of this rule. It not only allows you to achieve your goals and avoid the pitfalls, but it almost guarantees that you are having fun when you make those goals a reality. It is the difference between “making it through” and having a great time.
Like I said, the three steps in this plan are nothing earth-shattering, but I now fully appreciate them and have made them part of how I will be kayaking.
Finally, (wow, you read all the way down to here?!) I managed to pull together some photos and videos that I captured while on the river as well as some from some other sources. I hope you enjoy them!
Video compilation, but Youtube removed the soundtrack You can download the video below to your computer for posterity and some great tunes!