“Do you think they’ll notice?” I asked my boyfriend K in a hopeful voice, as I stared down at our rented white water canoe that now possessed what can only be described as a very large wrinkle around its mid-section. I guess that’s what happens when you wrap a canoe around a rock in the rapids.
“Maybe we can ‘iron’ it out” K replied without much conviction.
It was only day 2 in our 5 day expedition down the white water infused Batiscan River in north eastern Quebec, Canada. We were out on our annual white water canoe trip with friends and this year we had chosen the Batiscan as our challenger. It was a river that had been on my friends white water bucket list and we were intent on exploring this wild region.
Beginning its journey in the Laurentian Mountains at Lake Edouard, the Batiscan River travels 196 km’s through forest and agricultural land until it eventually empties into the St.Lawrence River, just north of the town of Trois-Rivieres. The area we were traveling through was a mix of forest with rugged cliffs, rocky outcrops and rapids ranging from Class 1 to Class 4* (see below for definitions).
Our trip began early one warm June morning as our group of 6 intrepid explorers set off from Ottawa to the small town (well, village really) of Riviere-a-Pierre, Quebec. The drive took us about 4 hours and we made it in plenty of time to catch our train.
Wait a minute…. Train?
Yep, that’s right! To get to the put-in (the starting point on the river), we had to take a VIA Rail train. This was one of the things that had attracted our group to this river in the first place. The train would act as our shuttle and take us to our starting point, while we’d arranged it so that we’d have a car at the take-out (our finishing point on the river).
When our train arrived, the attendants thought nothing of our unusual gear and helped us load our 3 canoes, food barrels and dry bags into a cargo car at the end of the train. There was actually another group doing the same trip as us and I have to say, it was a sight to see a train car full of camping gear and canoes!
We took our seats and watched the incredible scenery go by as the train wound its way though boreal forest, following the river. Looking out the windows we often caught glimpses of the mighty Batiscan and its churning white water, giving us a sneak peak at what lay ahead.
In just under an hour the train began to slow down in the middle of nowhere. There were no signs, no train station, nothing to indicate that we had arrived at our destination. The conductor seemed to simply know where to stop (or so we hoped).
Once the train came to a halt we all climbed down and started unloading our canoes and gear right onto the tracks. Looking around I could see the forest on the far side of the tracks and the river just 10 yards off to the right. There appeared to be a spot that had been previously used by trippers before us and was the easiest access to the water. Once everything was out and accounted for the train slowly continued on its way, leaving us alone to survive the next 5 days on our own.
Off We Go!
We loaded up our boats with gear and started paddling. By now it was the middle of the afternoon and based on the map we had, camp sites where few and far between. Although we wanted to get a few kilometers in on our first day, finding a campsite for the night was on the top of everyone’s mind.
We managed to pull away from the other group that had shared the train with us, never to see them or any other paddlers for that matter, for the rest of our trip. Our first day on the water we encountered only small swifts and R1’s. All of them were so shallow that we had to get out of our canoes and pull them along the rocky river bed.
As late afternoon began to turn into early evening, we found imposing storm clouds chasing us down the river. Consulting the map we found that a camp site was coming up and we made a beeline for this safe haven. We paddled hard, hoping to get off the water before the storm finally caught us.
After much searching we finally located the overgrown campsite listed on our map. Though the entrance was hidden by wild bushes and trees, this grassy site was wide and open surrounded by tall cedars and a plethora of blueberry bushes.
We had only just managed to pull all our gear and boats from the water when the skies opened up above. Everyone scurried around the site trying to pitch tents and collect fire wood before everything was completely drowned out. Our group managed to get the tents up but we would be fire-less that night as the forest and all its fuel were completely soaked. We ended up cooking our dinner over camp stoves (rather than fire) and enjoyed a warm meal with a glass of wine (thank god for boxed wine!) before falling asleep to the gentle sound of rain on our tents.
Waking early the next morning, we were on the river in good time after a delicious breakfast of oatmeal and fresh blue berries. The day started out nice and clear with blue bird skies as we paddled down the river, taking in the stunning scenery around us. Alone on the water we enjoyed the quiet solitude of the river and forest along the banks. The silence was only to be broken by the rushing sound of rapids as we approached each white water section.
Incident #1 – Fatal Attraction
Taking time to scout out the rapids as we went, we made our way down river one set at a time. Around mid-day we ran into our first incident. As we approached a seemingly easy set of R1-R2 rapids we felt confident enough as a group that no scouting was required. It was here that K and I had a slight miss-communication that lead to our canoe getting up close and personal with a rock in the center of the rapid.
It started out with our boat leading the way (me in the front of the canoe and K steering the rear) as we approached what was supposed to be a easy to navigate rapid. As we drew nearer to the point of no return, I spotted a large rock directly in front of us that had no been visible until now. With K in the back, he was unable to see said large rock and therefore did not steer us away from it (despite my protests).
With too little time left to do anything about it, K finally saw the rock and put us into a hard left turn in a valiant, yet completely useless attempt to avoid this obstacle. Our boat now turned completely sideways, we were in the perfect position to get our canoe caught, dead center on this rock. It didn’t take much for the incredible force of the river to push our canoe up onto its side and spill the entire contents (including us) into the river.
Watching our dry bags and food barrel bob down stream, we were left standing in 3 feet of water trying to dislodge our now completely pinned canoe from its death grip around the rock. I have to say I’ve never seen a canoe bend in half like that before! Completely buckled in the center, with water filling the boat, the current was pinning our little canoe to the rock in the way a bug is squished and pinned to the windshield of a car while driving.
After a lot of heaving and hauling, K and I quickly discovered that from our position, we were not going to be able to dislodge our boat. Seeing that we were getting no where, our friends (who had passed us in the rapids after witnessing our awesome example of what not to do while navigating in white water) rescued our gear and parked their boats at the bottom of the rapids. They walked back up shore to us and, after tying off a throw bag (rope) to the bow of our canoe, were able to dislodge out boat from what might have been its final resting place.
Once safely back on shore, K and I assessed the damage to our almost-brand-new rental white water canoe. Cringing at the sight of the huge wrinkle that now encircled the center of our boat, we were just happy that the thing still floated as we still had 3 more days of paddling to do. Shrugging our shoulders, we simply said “good thing that’s what they’re made to do!”. Returning this boat to the rental shop would be a problem for future Jill & K to deal with.
The rest of the day went smoothly and we found a wonderful campsite in a little clearing beside the river for the night. A train bridge ran right beside our site so we climbed up onto it for a beautiful view of the river.
The Journey Continues
Our third day saw us down some pretty intense white water sections, a lot of which we opted to line* our boats down rather than risk life and limb to paddle them. Some sections were not meant to be run in a canoe at all. Some of the portages saw us hauling our canoes up steep river banks and onto the very train tracks that had brought us out to this wilderness in the first place.
The last white water section of the day was a very large set of rapids that had to be done with the precision skills of a surgeon in order to make it out alive. After some debate, we all decided it wasn’t worth risking it and so we hauled all our gear up onto the train track portage to walk around. It was a stunning set of rapids and we managed to find a beautiful beach campsite right at the bottom, and fell asleep to the sounds of the thundering water.
Day 4 started out much the same as the other days. By now we were all in a rhythm and packing up camp went like clock work. Down the river we went, running the rapids we could and either portaging around or lining the canoes down ones we could not.
Incident #2 – Not Again!
Towards the end of the day we arrived a section of R2-R3 rapids that seemed to continue on forever, one set of rapids after another. On their own each rapid was run-able but, factoring in safety measures, it was decided that we would have to line the boats. Even though we were fairly confident running each section individually, there was little room for error. If we messed up on the first set of rapids, we’d be swimming the next 4 sections which we weren’t willing to risk. And it’s at this section that our canoe once again gave into its fatal attraction to large boulders in the middle of the river.
K and I were lining our canoe along the shore of the first set of rapids when the line K was holding onto came undone from the canoe. We’re still not sure how this happened as we had checked the lines at the start of the day, but for unknown reasons, it was now not attached to our canoe (I had let go of the stern line in order to leap frog ahead of K while he swung the boat around for me to grab onto the end).
All we could do was watch helplessly as our fully loaded canoe was swept away by the current and began running the rapids without us. We called ahead to our friends (who had already made it through the first 2 sections) in the hopes that they’d be able to grab our boat. Unfortunately, the river claimed possession of our canoe first, as it once again became lodged around a rock in the middle of the river.
All the contents of our canoe were swept away by the river and our friends were able to grab a few items for us as dry bags, food barrels and paddles floated by. Once again we began the daunting task of trying to dislodge our poor little boat from its death grip around a rock. With some help and a bit of luck we managed to free our canoe once again, the crease around its mid section becoming more and more pronounced. Our little-boat-that-could popped right back into shape again, ensuring us transportation out of the wilderness.
Once our gear (well, the gear that we still possessed) was loaded back into the boat we continued down the river. We all played a game of I Spy, searching the shore line for our large dry bag (the one with our tent, clothing and sleeping bags) as it had managed to escape the rescue efforts of our friends. In the end, we managed to recover all our belongings, save for one water bottle!
At our camp site that night we inspected our beat up little boat once again, gasping at the deep grooves around its mid section and marveling at the fact that it was still a fully functioning canoe.
End Of The River
Our final day on the water was an easy, relaxing paddle in beautiful sunshine. We stopped on rock islands to explore, take pictures and enjoyed a nice lunch and a swim beside the final set of rapids. After having 4 full days of paddling it was nice to sit back and relax in the canoe, as the gentle current floated us along its meandering path though the forest back to Riviere-a-Pierre.
It’d been a long journey, one full of ups and downs. Having been on a few white water canoe trips in the past, we all agreed that the mighty Batiscan was in a league of its own and was definitely the most challenging river we’d taken on yet. This wild-one had humbled us, both in its stunning beauty and its untamed, unforgiving nature that only the wilderness can provide. We hope to return to the mighty Batiscan River one day and take on its epic white water once again.
Buying Our Boat
So what ever happened to our beat up little boat?! Well we took it back to the rental shop and explained what had happened. We were honest about the mishaps and misadventures that we’d put this canoe through and were ready to pay the price for the (few) extra dings and scratches we’d now permanently etched into the boat. The rental shop was very understanding and offered us two choices: 1) pay for the damages or 2) buy the canoe outright (everything included!) at a very good, discounted price. We chose the later, as the deal was too good to pass up for a fairly new, albeit slightly damaged white water canoe. We have since taken our canoe on a few white water adventures and I’m pleased to say it still works perfectly!
Lining a canoe: refers to walking along shore beside your canoe, while holding onto ropes attached to the bow and stern. The canoe stays in the water and is pulled along beside the shore.
Classes of Rapids: There are 6 classifications of rapids based on features in the river and how easy it is to navigate. Classification of a particular rapid may change as the water levels change throughout the season.
Although we didn’t quite get the video footage we wanted from the Batiscan, have a look at the white water trip we did the previous year down the mighty Petawawa River in Algonquin Park, Ontario, Canada!
I would just like to note that this trip was not taken on lightly and should only be attempted by those who have training and experience in white water. Most of us on this trip have professional Swift Water Rescue Training (including myself) and have years of experience around white water. Our trip leader has an extensive history of working as a white water rafting guide and white water canoe and kayak instructor for over 10 years. I myself have a River Guide certification from my time working as a white water rafting guide on the Ottawa River. Safety always came first, which is why we ended up lining our canoes or portaging some rapids on this particular river. We were traveling through a more remote area and we knew help would not come fast should we need it.