Apprehension is running high. The jovial mood at breakfast, when we merrily swapped stories of nocturnal noises, has fizzled away.
We’re travelling to Madawaska River to the strains of the Beach Boys, the canoes at the back of our van rattling as we bump along Ontario’s backcountry. With my shiny helmet, plastic paddle and wetsuit gear, it feels like summer camp, but canoe culture runs deep in the Canadian-American borderlands. First Nations people have been here for nearly 20,000 years; the canoe, their primary mode of water transport, was used for trading and hunting, like a needle threading 2,600 miles of waterways.
I only have a mile of the river’s rapids and eddies to tackle, but recent experience doesn’t fill me with confidence. Yesterday, while tandem canoeing in Mud Bay, I was dragged out by the wind and was unable to steer in anything other than an imperfect circle. This time, we’re paired with instructors, and all the sympathy I can telepathically channel goes out to Stefanie, who has to rely on me to negotiate this stretch of the river.
We’re talked through the manoeuvres by Ian, the group’s main instructor, who reels off a couple of worst-case scenarios, from “taking a swim” to hitting a rock and the canoe getting crushed downstream. However, the gently lapping water has a calming effect and it isn’t until one of the more able members of our group overturns his canoe during a practice emergency turn that the dam holding back my rising panic bursts. I turn to Stefanie.
“I don’t know what to do if that happens. I usually work in the kitchen,” is the answer I get in return.
We spend the next hour slapping the water with our paddles. We navigate turns propped up on our knees, our thighs strapped to the sides of the canoe, moving our hips in time to veer around rocks. It all feels effortless. Stefanie turns and gives a nod: we’ve got this.
As rehearsal turns to reality, we bob downstream towards the rapids, our eyes fixed on the surrounding forest of pines and hardwoods, a canvas of greens with flecks of fiery orange as the autumn foliage emerges. For all the drama of the torrents up ahead, the only sounds are those coming from the woods. A chipmunk scurries along the bank, before darting deeper into the thicket, while a chorus of birds chirrups.
Staying at the Madawaska Kanu Centre, we’ve been stripped of our connections to the outside world and encouraged to immerse ourselves in the environment instead. Food is grown locally; campfires replace wi-fi; and entertainment consists of lakeside conversations as the sun sets upstream. But it’s this moment, in this canoe, that resonates with me most. This instant of tranquillity that follows my trepidation entering the river, and preceeds the inevitable onslaught.
Soon, the roar of the rapids starts to invade my peace, the rustle of the woods replaced by the ferocious water challenging the rocks in its path. “Godspeed,” yells Ian as he swings up behind us. I’m back on my knees, poised with paddle in hand. Unwavering. Determined. Stefanie turns around for one last reassuring look. “Let’s do this.”
Learn the moves
J stroke For minor shifts to keep the boat on the right path, a ‘J’ shape is paddled in the water close to the side of the canoe.
Draw Used to move the boat sideways, the front (or solo) paddler reaches out over the water with the paddle, plunges and pulls the boat towards it
Cross draw Similar to the draw, but done on the opposite side to the one you’ve been paddling on. Maintain the same grip on the paddle, rotate your torso and draw on the opposite side
Pry To turn the boat in the opposite direction, place the paddle against the boat and use it to push outward.
Three to try: Calmer waterways
Named after the rice beds that used to grow in it, Rice Lake in south-eastern Ontario became a swamp after the grain stopped growing 25 years ago. Stay at family-friendly Elmhirst’s Resort on its shores to traverse the water in an eight-man canoe; or take an overwater seaplane tour.
The calm and clear waters of Golden Lake are an easy stretch of the Bonnechere River to navigate, with sandy shorelines backing on to the surrounding forests and rocky ridges. Nearby, Algonquin Way Cultural Centre tells the story of the local First Nations community, which predates European settlers by 8,000 years.
Sandwiched between Algonquin Provincial Park and the Madawaska Kanu Centre, Mud Bay’s waters are warm and shallow. And, when the wind picks up, its 200-plus acres offer plenty of paddle practice. Set out for one of the islands dotted in the lake — this can be harder than it sounds.
Air Canada flies from Heathrow to Toronto, from £554 per person. Stay at Elmhirst’s Resort, from £125 per night, based on two sharing. A five-day whitewater course at Madawaska Kanu Centre, from £835 per person, includes instruction, accommodation and meals (but not tax and rentals).
Published in Experiences 2017, published with the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)