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Confessions of a Whitewater Greenhorn

or "How I got to Paddle with Mark Scriver"
by Walter Bushman

For a number of years now, Churchill River Canoe Outfitters/ Horizons Unlimited has been hosting canoe and kayak competitions, known as the Mosquito Cup, the first weekend in August. In 1995, the format was changed and expanded to include clinics, demonstrations, slide presentations and tours of local points of interest. The event was held at Missinipe on the Churchill River, and to more accurately reflect the content, the name was changed to "Churchill River Canoe Symposium". When I received my information package and found that the program included names such as Mark Scriver and Beth and Dave Buckley, I was determined not to miss it.

I had taken some short paddling trips in the area before on some of the smaller quiet lakes like Sulphide and Contact, but coming from the dry prairie as I do, the only whitewater I could say I was familiar with was the salt-laden water of Little Manitou Lake which is so dense that anyone can float on it with ease. When I saw the session titled "Whitewater Tour" it caught my interest immediately. This was clearly an area where I could benefit from some instruction.

The seminar offered several options, from a complete package including all meals and accommodations to more basic choices of individual events, with camping available in several locations. I chose to camp at the provincial campground at Otter Rapids, just five minutes drive from Missinipe.

Upstream of Missinipe, between Hayman and Devil Lakes, the Churchill splits into several channels divided by rocky islands as it drops about 12 meters in 7 or 8 kilometres. This creates numerous falls and rapids of varying intensity, an ideal classroom for a whitewater course. This area was our Saturday destination, and our leader for the day was Sheila Archer, an experienced guide and well-qualified instructor with Horizons Unlimited. After a short boat trip across Devil Lake and a portage around Mosquito Rapids, we were ready to take to the canoes. Our group numbered six in total. We were using Old Town Discovery 169 canoes, two per boat, and as the least experienced, I was assigned to the bow of Sheila's canoe.

We had barely floated away from shore when I received my first tip.

"Keep your arms straight and rotate your upper body, and don't be scared to get your knuckles wet. The water is more solid lower down. See how Bill does it?"

I stole a quick glance around, but I'd already forgotten which one of our group was Bill (I'm awful with names) and I didn't want to let on. I was a bit dismayed. My paddle stroke was one area where I felt some confidence. After all, I had been doing basic flatwater paddling for years. However, as the day wore on and I covertly observed my companions, I was forced to concede that my stroke, which I had considered fluid and effortless was actually better suited to mixing an omelette than propelling a boat in fast-moving water.

Our first stretch of fast water came up at the south channel into Barker Lake. We practised front-ferrying from eddy to eddy, working our way upstream in the slower water in a zigzag fashion. We quickly reached our first stretch of actual whitewater locally known as "Surf City" which we lined our way around. Some of us turned back and ran this rapid, which was not too complex at the present water level but did have some interesting waves. One of the canoes experienced the first spill of the day as they pulled out of the current at the bottom and forgot to brace. No harm done, and they insisted it was a planned move, to cool off. After a few more runs, we continued upstream, taking advantage of eddies and carrying over a couple of tiny islands until we reached our noon destination, the island separating Ric's Falls from a rapid known as "The Far Side" (no connection with the cartoon of the same name)

By pleasant coincidence, we discovered that Mark Scriver, Kevin Schultz of Horizons Unlimited and a few others had picked the same spot for lunch and had their playboats and kayaks out.

Now this is an area of the sport which I haven't avidly followed in the past. Remaining suspended in a rapid with my canoe tilted at a gravity defying angle is something I fervently seek to avoid. I did, however, recognise the skill involved and the excellent photo opportunity it presented. My camera was out as soon as we touched shore, and if I hadn't been low on film, I might have missed lunch.

Over lunch, the conversation ( naturally) centred around canoes and Mark described some of the modifications (read major restructuring) he and his friends routinely do to brand new boats to make them perform to the level required for the manoeuvres that won him a silver medal at the world championship whitewater competition.

After lunch, we proceeded to Sluice Falls which was the turn-around point of our trip. I silently wished for another roll of film as I squeezed off the twenty fifth exposure from my twenty four roll, then we started back downstream to Corner Rapids. Mark, Kevin and the others had moved to this spot and were running a clinic for the kayaks. We watched them surf and do enders for a while. Corner Rapid is fairly complex for an open canoe because of the combined effect of a ledge at the start, then a constriction of the high banks, followed by an extreme right turn with the current beating against a tall rock cliff. The ledge is best run roughly in the middle where there is a bit of a gap. From there following the main flow puts you into some huge waves which can swamp a canoe, so a quick ferry is required to river right, then back to the left where there is a nice eddy after the bend. This allows you to follow the inside of the bend avoiding the biggest waves and staying away from the outside of the bend where the current beating against the cliff does some crazy things. After Sheila and Bill took two of the canoes through with no problems aside from a little water taken on two of our group decided to try it with the last canoe. (I was safe on shore, helping to carry some of the gear around ) They nearly made it but swamped near the bottom and dumped. Two of the kayaks quickly sped over to help them to shore below the bend, where the other two canoes waited. Their canoe was a different story. The current had it trapped against the outside of the bend, and that's were it seemed content to stay, bobbing up, then going under, not moving downstream at all. Mark and Kevin managed to hook a line to it and tow it back towards the ledge, where there was a small eddy. However as soon as one of them would stop paddling to try and right the canoe, the current would win and pull them back out. As I was still wearing my lifejacket and was the nearest, I waded out into the eddy to help. They were able to get the canoe close enough for me to grab and pull into the shallows. As soon as we got it emptied , Mark turned to me and said, "So, do you want to paddle down with me?"

I replied:..."" (My command of the English language is flawless.)

"Which side do you want to paddle on?"

"Well...uhh...doesn't matter..." (Yet another deft turn of phrase.)

"Okay. I'm going to turn us into the current and we'll do a front ferry to river right, then back over into that shore eddy on the left. Just paddle straight ahead from the left side and I'll set up the angle." For just a moment I wavered and glanced back at the shore. Then I remembered that Mark makes his living guiding greenhorns like myself down remote wilderness rivers. I knew that unless I did something really stupid like stand up or lean way over he would be able to keep us upright.

We paddled out into the worst of the waves, starting our ferry directly below the ledge and I did get my knuckles wet, but that was from grabbing for the gunwale. For a moment I flopped around in the bow seat, trying to keep my balance and not cause an upset, but before I knew it we had crossed over and were speeding back towards the left. I saw the quiet water slipping by next to me and dug my paddle in firmly. We spun around smoothly, in tight to the other canoes drawn up on shore.

Everyone on shore applauded our eddy turn and my draw stroke to set it up. ( I thought it best not to tell them I was actually trying to touch bottom and regain my balance.)

After enduring a bit of good-natured ribbing about being too proud to continue with my companions now that I had paddled with Mark, it was time to head back.

We set a leisurely pace, taking time to practise eddy turns and ferries as the opportunity presented itself. We stayed to river left and took the northernmost route into Barker Lake, avoiding the difficult drop of Shelf Rapid. This rapid is somewhat deceptive. From the downstream side you can see the full drop and hear its thunder from half a mile away. This was the first time I had seen it from upstream, and it appears quite innocent, nothing to indicate the drop of about a meter until you are nearly there.

For the last leg into Devil Lake, we chose to run some minor rapids known as the "Three Sisters " on a quiet little side channel. This was followed by a short carry around Staircase Falls and a paddle across Devil Lake to the campground.

The day concluded with some excellent playboat videos and a slide presentation on the Firth River in the western Arctic by Mark Scriver. I also learned that "Bill" was none other than Bill Jefferey, a paddler of some note who has travelled many of the less-known remote rivers in Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. Bill has a wealth of knowledge of Saskatchewan's wilderness rivers, much of it gained from personal experience and from talking with native elders who remember the traditional routes used before the coming of bush planes and snowmobiles. His slide presentation on the Grease and Porcupine rivers of north-eastern Saskatchewan showed the pristine beauty of this region.

The sessions continued through Sunday, with more demonstrations and clinics with Mark Scriver, Kevin Schultz and Mark Taylor, an instructor with Rocky Mountain Paddling Centre. Beth and Dave Buckley followed their Saturday presentations (At Home in the Wilderness and Outfitting for a Tandem Trip) with "Can we do it in a Week?" Other sessions included "The Wilderness Gourmet" with Sheila Archer, "Routes Less Travelled", "Boreal Flora and Fauna" and "Otter Lake Rock Paintings" with Ric Driediger, owner and operator of Horizons Unlimited.

I found the weekend enjoyable and informative. Rubbing shoulders with the featured guests made me realise that in addition to being world class paddlers they are also all class individuals, willing to share their hard-earned knowledge with anyone wishing to improve his/her skills. The turn-out, given the quality of the program was a bit disappointing. The record breaking forest fires of May and June reduced tourism all across the north in 1995, and possibly had an effect on attendance, although conditions were back to normal by this time. I think everyone who attended got their money's worth. As for myself, I came away with a number of things to ponder. Aside from having a clearer idea of which skills I need to work on, (my egg-beater stroke has now progressed to more of a coffee spoon stroke) I also discovered that the bow seat, particularly when equipped with flotation bags, can seemed cramped and unstable. This is the logical place to put the less experienced paddler, but I now feel a bit guilty about all the times I ushered my wife, daughter, or friends into the bow, then spent the day paddling without thinking about switching places.

My most lasting impression however, is of Mark Scriver standing his canoe on end while rotating it 180 degrees and making it look easy. I am already looking forward to next year's Canoe Symposium.

Notes from Missinipe | Poetry | Confessions of a Greenhorn | Helen Solmes

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