Kiss the rock

Novice whitewater training with the YCCC, June 19-21, 2004

Now that angle bit over there angle is how we're angle going to angle take this first angle bit. Then angle eddy out just to angle river angle right. Don't forget to set your angle.

Now that angle bit over there angle is how we're angle going to angle take this first angle bit. Then angle eddy out just to angle river angle right. Don't forget to set your angle.

Lawrence and Pippa head down the first chute.

Lawrence and Pippa head down the first chute.

Piano rock. Sunday morning. We had two beautiful paddling days.

Piano rock. Sunday morning. We had two beautiful paddling days.

Sunday, June 21, 2004 - Ottawa

Morning found us under sunny skies, a bit chilly, with mist rising from the river. We were out on the water by 8:30, doing a few warmup s-turns and ferries below Piano Rock while there were no boats around.

By 9am, though, I was really regretting our decision to not get on the water even earlier. Suddenly Palmers was utterly swarming with boats. If you can stand it, aim to get on the water for 7:30 or earlier. You will still be able to eat, prepare and embark in full daylight and you will have the place to yourself for 90 minutes.

However I'm not a morning person and was feeling pretty tired from Saturday, so I went along with the general, pro-sleep consensus.

After our warmup we stretched a bit and heard about back paddling. Then we tried it. Whitewater canoes are designed to turn and to have good secondary stability - two things which make them a pain in the butt to paddle in a straight line going forwards. Paddling backwards - well, what can we say?

Moving right along, we headed through the first V of the lower set to try back-ferrying. Things fell apart rapidly (sorry - I had to use that just once to tell my grandchildren) after that.

Backferrying - where you side slip across a river while facing downstream - is quite hard. You have to point the canoe's stern ever so slightly in the direction you want to travel, then paddle backwards like the blazes, all the while resisting the river's inimitable push to spin your canoe sideways and make you swim.

Within a few minutes, we were all over the river. The plan had been to slice through the chute on river right and then backferry across to river left, then back again to the eddy to the right of the chute we came through.

Kelly and I made it through and across, though barely and (I speak only about myself here - I couldn't see Kelly) with the worst technique possible. But others got turned around and eddied out by the chute, or further downstream. Eventually the rest of them were on river right, with Paul doing that paddle twirling signal thing which translates to "get the fuck over here we're sick of waiting."

Bravely we clawed, hauled and scraped our way back across the river, more or less keeping the bow downstream. "Thanks for the demonstration," Paul said when we got back. I shuddered to think about how that monologue went:

"Well, they're not doing this, they're not doing that, and where the hell does Chris think he's supposed to put his paddle? I suppose he thinks he's rowing. Wow. I can't believe Kelly still has both arms in her sockets."

The group gave up on back ferries shortly after that.

Suddenly as lesson plans everywhere moved to the next segment, the hordes descended upon us and every eddy on the lower set was swarming with canoes, like so many large, plastic and neoprene water flies.

We spent a lot of time trying to catch a surfing wave and jet ferry across. But it proved harder to hit than we imagined, and I just remember paddling really hard and trying to focus on keeping my paddle vertical amidst Paul's sargeant major-like shouts of "Vertical paddle! Vertical paddle."

It's funny. In any other situation, I would have told him off. Words to the effect of: "I have more than a quarter century of flatwater paddling that's trained me to paddle in a fluid, comfortable style and you expect me to overcome that in a weekend? And when I don't your answer is to yell at me? Get another teaching strategy or get another student." But I was just as pissed off at myself for not being able to do a simple forward stroke as instructed that I had my own inner gym teacher yelling at me and besides which, "loud" is the only vocal setting that works across a rapid.

And in the end, apart from when we all let ourselves get bottled up in an eddy for far too long, Paul never really seemed impatient with anyone. Well, there was the odd shout of "do something, do anything" when someone initiated an IAM or when they just stopped paddling.

Not surprisingly, the next lesson-ette was about picking a line through a river and how to avoid that moment of paralysis when things don't go as planned. Kelly and I took to this readily: Plan A is to hit the eddy on river right. If we miss the eddy, Plan B is to aim at the eddy downstream. If we miss that eddy, Plan C is: feet up, hold onto the paddle, face downstream.

Both of us are fairly soft spoken people and neither of us is what you'd call assertive. So mid river conversations would go something like:

"Shit. What do we do now?"
"What? I can't hear you."
"What do you want to do now?"
"I dunno, maybe try for that eddy, what do you want to do?"
"What? I can't hear you."

...all this while you float past your options at speed.

But far more important at Palmers is the strategy for getting through the other boats. Paul says "you have to be a bit aggressive." But I hasten to add that you also have to teach people not to hang about in eddies too long by offering them an incentive to leave.

See, the optimal eddying-in point is also the optimal peel out point, is also the optimal hang about and watch the world go by point. And so if you're heading for an eddy, already full of canoes, the best strategy is to attempt to execute the best eddy turn you can, bearing down on the top of the eddy at speed. Under no circumstances are you to aim for space. Not only will you impress your instructor but you will also encourage those eddy rats to move on a bit quicker next time. Besides which, upstream boats have right of way, so if a bit of battling canoes goes on, it's not your fault.

At one point Kelly and I slammed into this one boat that decided to eddy in just as we came down the chute. They were moving slower so they got the worst of it. They took on a lot of water and almost went over. I was secretly gleeful.

We learned a bit about braces and then hauled the boats back up to the upper set for lunch. Over lunch Paul taught about risk assessment and hydraulics, aka souse holes, aka holes, aka drowning machines etc etc. (Although not all holes are drowning machines - it depends how big it is and how big you are).

Then after that we went to run the upper set. The upper set has a whole lot of water squeezed through a relatively narrow channel. There are a few teensy weensy eddies along the way, but there's mostly a lot of foam and a big rooster tail.

At first glance, the line seemed to be "point downstream, stay upright." But another group of Y paddlers - the intermediate tandem group - was snaking back and forth across the chute, dancing gently from eddy to eddy, poking their boats into impossibly small pools behind rocks that were practically pebbles.

They looked so smooth, so efficient. Then they all wiped out trying to make the fourth eddy and got flushed down stream. But for an instant whitewater paddling actually looked like something other than the exercise of brute force against all nature.

And when I watched the intermediate course's two instructors take a tandem playboat through the upper set, whitewater paddling actually seemed graceful, smooth and precise. Elegant even. Of course they had a hairy time getting through the last bit too, but they did it. I was in awe. I wanted to be them.

"Ah, I have so much to learn," I said to myself as Kelly and I chose the head downstream, stay upright line. We went back up, switched places and tried for the first eddy, before heading straight downstream. We made it.

We were off the water by 3pm. We hauled our boats back up to camp, hauled our carcasses out of their sausage casings and headed back to Ottawa.