OTTAWA -- "Ready for another dick spin? Hard left!" yells the helmsman. "What was I getting myself into?" I was in the palm of Mother Nature's hand, careening down the mighty Ottawa River in an inflatable yellow raft with 11 silent strangers and it was too late for second thoughts.
"Get ready for the real thing," yells Rhino, our goateed guide, aka Brad Crawford, "This folks is the real McCoy!"
You hear the rapids roar before you see them. Our bow drops suddenly and dives out of sight into a deep chasm. A volcano of white water explodes outside our fragile domain. Inside, a crushing force launches us skyward like a rocket fighting gravity. My stomach flutters with butterflies. I hold my breath. "We're going to die," I whisper to myself. Seconds later, the silent strangers are a gaggle of gasping giggling fools. Yep, and I'm one of them.
The Ottawa Whitewater Lovers Rafting, Owl Rafting for short, has evolved into a premiere spot for adventure seekers. Situated 120 km outside Ottawa in the hamlet of Forester's Falls - part of Renfrew County - this ecoadventure playground is sandwiched between the rolling hills of dairy farming and the lush forested border between Quebec and Ontario.
With the boom in ecoadventure travel, it's no surprise that six other companies have put up shop in the area. For Owl Rafting owners, National and International Whitewater Champions, Claudia and Dirk Van Wijk, the popularity of this water sport has translated into a boom for their growing business which started in 1981.
Today, visitors can choose from family float trips, to corporate programs, to one or two day excursions. There is even a campground nestled by a sandy beach fixed with hot showers, a sauna, and a massive log pavilion. Visitors can camp in tents for $15 per night or rent a small wooden cabin for six at $60 per night. For those outdoorsy types, who are extra eager to out stretch their muscles, there is a bonus. Kayaks, canoes and even beach volleyball are available.
But, on this early afternoon, my focus is whitewater rafting. In prep for the excursion, a guide takes us through a 20-minute orientation session, demonstrating paddling techniques, life jacket procedures and briefing us on the all important liability release forms. Next on the agenda is reassuring us scaredy cats that should one not wish to tackle any rapid, we can be put safely ashore at any time. The whimp-out factor is low and the safety record of the Owl operation is excellent.
Armed in wet suits, helmets and paddles our rag tag gang now looks like an overweight bunch of navy seals. A school bus then races us to the launch site to the section known as the Rocher-Fendu rapids.
We're flying now. "Oh my God, I can't see anything," yells my mate, Steve. Waves of icy water appearing as high as the CN tower loom above our heads, soaking us from head to toe. In the raft ahead, a man tumbles overboard. His arms flail above him as if swatting a swarm of bees.
But, the only thing buzzing is the throbbing beat of hearts from this anxious crew. Unlike the brochure photos which depict the defenseless blue capped paddlers battling the white capped waves, the Owl Rafting staff are cool, calm and collected. The guides are all highly trained professionals who have hundreds of trained hours on the river. Many have flocked here from such destinations as New Zealand, Australia, Scotland, France and even Newfoundland to challenge this part of the Ottawa river.
On my journey, newlyweds John and Sharon from Dublin were eager to put their metal to the test on the rapids. The previous day they got their adrenaline rush from shooting the Niagara River in a jet boat.
Once here, it's easy to understand how one can get lost in the natural wilderness. The area is marred by glacial erosion; indelible piston-like igneous intrusions erupt from the rock face lining the river. Giant spruce and pines surround the banks along this 12 km journey. Against an Impressionist's speckled blue sky, ospreys scan for prey from their skyscraper nests. Damming in the area has killed off many former rapids but the trek along the Rocher Fendu remains untouched and is one of the last sections along the Ottawa River that hasn't been robbed of its power.
The Algonquin and later the fur traders feared and stayed clear of these mighty rapids, whose volume, and velocity rivals the Grand Canyon's Colorado River. Paddling in double time, Rhino yells, "Fast forward. Fast forward." We have made it to a place known as, Butcher's Knife. "Keep your fingers inside the raft. Knuckles left on the outside will be ripped off by the razor sharp rocks," he warns. Gulp.
Perched on the shore is a videographer. No, this is not a Steven Spielberg movie. Nor is it another summer disaster flick with Helen Hunt. It's my life flashing before me. "Smile now," he says and adds, "Let's see your best face for the movie."
Sure. My body is jolted backward by a wall of crashing water. I fly off my seat landing hard on my derriere. Another thunderous wave bangs the rubber raft against the sharp granite, then spins us uncontrollably into the vat of foam like whipped egg whites in a mixing bowl. The waves can reach two metres high in early spring. But on this late spring day, the water levels were just where inexperienced paddlers want them.
For paddlers who want to taste the sweet waters, there's always dunking and diving at what is affectionately called, Big Friendly Rock a.k.a."BFR." A single line of eager swimmers wind their way up the rock face. One after another like lemmings they jump directly into the raging current, and are swept down river.
Once the Algonquin Indians revered and paid homage to the river gods, offering them metal and weed as gifts to protect their canoes from the powerful waters. Years later, loggers sang songs as they steered trees down this aquatic super highway to mills such as Consolidated Stone that still operates here. And today outfitted in high tech gear we throw ourselves with abandon into the once foreboding water. All the while, surrounding this journey up the Ottawa River is a feeling of nostalgia over years past.
The sun's warm orange glow bounces in the gentle waves that lightly tap the side of our raft. Eight natural obstacle courses have been surpassed in this six hour trip. Rapids called Black Chute, Garborator, Muskrat and Horseshoe have come before us. Has the last hurdle been leaped? A faint puttering announces a small boat approaching in the distance.
The flotilla of rafts is hitched and towed to a barge that has been converted into a mini restaurant. We board to dine. A long table is topped with mountains of green salads, vegetable dishes, and a couple of steaming barbecues. The aroma of marinated pork shish-kebabs wafts through the warm spring breeze. As I sip back a tall cold glass of Canadian beer, I laugh nervously, almost drunk, from the experience. I have challenged the mighty rapids feared by the Algonquin.
I am now secure in this barge and lift my glass up to the Indian river god to complete the last hurdle. "Until we meet again," I toast.
The strangers are no longer for together we have shot the rapids. And together we glow in the color of a late spring sun.
photos: Owl Rafting
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