Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Riding the Big Waves

It's that time of year, it's L.T.'s birthday. We usually go camping, however this year he finally admitted the bugs are furious and the water is still pretty cold around his birthday. We do usually have the park to ourselves though. Last year we took advantage of that and altered our plan mid-trip. (2016 Birthday Trip)

This year he's asked to go whitewater rafting on the Ottawa River. I've always been very hesitant to try this. Fast running water with big rocks frightens me beyond words. I had a bad experience (see here for that story). As much as my logical brain can tell me I will be safe, the reptile part of my brain is going to scream the whole way down any rapids. Actually it will probably whine loudly just being in a river current. When I'm on a flat lake, if I can hear water rushing in the distance, I'm thinking that I'm going over Niagara Falls. L.T. tried to talk me into going up a little creek where the water was flowing against us and I still thought I was going to go down rapids. See? No logical thought was happening there.

The reservation was made. I'm betting he thinks that I will try this, overcome my greatest fear, and from then on become a whitewater enthusiast. We'll see about that. I'm not bringing my new camera. Maybe my old one that's already been in the lake. Part of the trip is the hard sell at the end to buy the video of your escapade. I'm sure sheer terror is not going to be my most flattering angle. Maybe L.T. will wear his GoPro.

The tour company is Wilderness Tours. There has been whitewater rafting running on this part of the Ottawa River for over 30 years. I watched Youtube videos the other night of some of their tours and then had a vivid dream I broke my leg and was in a hip to toe straight cast. 

The day before we were supposed to go he was contacted about our reservation. He'd purchased the express tour, which leaves later in the afternoon. No one else had reserved that trip so they recommended we book the whole day. He asked me my opinion and I said this was something he wanted to do, whatever he decided was fine with me. 

He decided on the full day package. They said to be at their location by 9:30 a.m. Google said it would take an hour and a half, so I picked him up at 7:45 and we were on our way. It was a nice day. Blue skies, white puffy clouds, rain forecast for the late afternoon. It was warm enough, especially in the sunshine. All's well, right? 

We got there, parked the car, signed the waivers, checked in, got our wristbands. The orientation would be at 10:30. We rented a helmet with a GoPro mount ($15). L.T. forgot to fully charge the batteries, so we were working with a two-bar charge. Which turned out to be enough. They did not push the rental of wet suits. The lady checking us in said that the guides had only this week just said the water "wasn't that cold". Lots of people rented them anyways.

They have a lovely location with a nice big deck to relax on. The tour leader, Keegan, gave the orientation. At 11 we lined up for the big yellow school bus that would take us to the put-in. We arrived at a place near the put-in where we selected our helmets, lifejackets and paddles. We walked down a short dirt road where we saw our rafts on the shore. 

We had been grouped into three large 12-person rafts and two smaller 6-person rafts. We were told what raft we'd be in during orientation. We were in raft 3, of the larger rafts. Everyone got into their rafts (I mistakenly thought the boats were facing out and selected what I thought was the 2nd row, but turned out to be the 4th row back. Oops.

Keegan gave us a safety orientation and explained to us how things would work. Each guide shouts instructions to the left and/or right side of the boat whether to paddle forward/backward/or not at all. Also they wanted us to paddle in three gears. Easily, hard and super hard. I honestly thought I would hardly be paddling at all. Nope, I can attest to the fact that there's a lot of paddling as my shoulders were sore the next day.

It was decided that I'd be wearing the helmet with the GoPro on it. I was not able to bring my reading glasses with me, so I would not be able to help L.T. turn the camera on or start the recording. This worked out pretty good. He's better at operating the camera than I am. When we got close to a rapid, I'd just lean over and he'd adjust the camera accordingly.

We started out on flat water. There are a series of rapids that are run spaced nicely apart. They are giving us a full-day tour, so they space them out nicely as well. The current is fairly consistent, so often we were floating along only having to paddle enough to keep us going in the right direction.

Each guide explains to us what is coming up. We learn the name of the rapid and how we're going to approach it. They explain how we'll go through and which direction to swim if we fall out of the raft. By the way, we are expected to hold onto our paddles if we capsize. As if! The paddles have a very hook-like end to them to allow for someone to grab it if it is handed to them, helping to pull people toward the raft. 

I'm not going to remember all the names of the rapids, although there is one in particular whose name I shall never forget. But I'm getting ahead of myself. We were approaching the first rapid and the guide gleefully asked us if we could hear it. Yes, a roar was getting louder and louder. When approaching a large rapid you honestly can't really see it. You just see a line where the water drops down. It all looks very safe, although it sounds scary.

I was scared to death going through the first set of rapids. I was hoping this feeling would dissipate as the day went on, but I think it got worse. That was mostly because of the next set of rapids. More foreshadowing here. Our directions when going through rapids was to sit part way on the rubber edge of the raft and part way on the seat. We should have one foot braced ahead of us, one tucked in closer. If things got really dicey they'd yell for us to "get down". In the middle of each row there was a ring with a short rope attached to it. For the first set of rapids I grabbed that rope, stopped paddling and ducked as low in the raft as I could. The rapids were in sets. Generally you go through a few at a time. 

After all rafts successfully made it through the first set of rapids, we all disembarked onto a small rocky island. It was right next to a category III+ rapid. First there was a photo shoot. Each group had their picture taken in front of the rapids. Guides studied the rapids and decided the path to take. The first two smaller rafts went first. Keegan was the first guide through. They flipped the boat. There's a Zodiac boat right there with a jet engine ready to help fish people out of the water. Yikes! I'm not going to like this.

Our guide, Katy was standing with us. I looked at her and she said to me "We shouldn't flip when we go through. We call those smaller rafts the flip trippers."

The second small raft went through. No problem.  The first large raft went through. No problem. The second large raft went through. No problem. Then it was our turn. Each raft had one guide on it. But for this set of rapids, the guides from the other rafts would run theirs through then come back and double up on the larger rafts. Our guide was Katy. Tommy joined us to help guide us through (cue the dramatic music) the rapid that is called Bus Eater. 

There are two rapids here, Bus Eater is the lower one. We made it through the first rapid and bobbed along towards the line in the river where it dropped and buses supposedly disappeared. Tommy was wedged in the front of the raft, his legs spread and jammed under the front row as he leaned out over the front to steer with his paddle. We went into the hole that is Bus Eater and the raft flipped up and over to the right. I was sitting on the right, L.T. on the left.

From what we can figure out, he was probably tossed high and to the left right into the worst of the water. He was surprised at how he felt his lifejacket wasn't very buoyant. He bobbed up quickly but was instantly washed over by a wave. He came up again, washed back down. And again a third time, finally staying out of the water and able to catch his breath.

I went under and felt like there was someone or something on top of me. I didn't feel like I could surface. My eyes were open, I could see it getting lighter and finally I bobbed up. I had swallowed a lot of water and started choking immediately. I made enough of a noise that the Zodiac came and got me first. Considering how loud these rapids are, I must have been making a lot of noise. Our instructions for getting back into the boat were to pull ourselves up and kick at the same time while the person hauled you in by your lifejacket shoulder straps. Yeah, I did none of that, I just let him haul me in like a rag doll as I choked on my hands and knees on the floor of the Zodiac once I landed.

L.T. also got hauled in. The guy pulling him into the boat just hoisted him in without him helping much either. What is your guess on whether I still had my paddle? If you guessed no, you'd be right. After they'd hauled a few other people onto the boat we went to shore. When I stepped onto the 45 degree angled large rocks, my legs were shaky. It took a while for me to settle down. L.T. was right behind me, both of us dripping. Honestly I don't even remember feeling if the water was cold, I was too busy trying to breathe. 

This was the lunch stop area. They've got a nice place set up with benches, an open building where they grill up hamburgers and sausages, and picnic tables. There's a large "washroom" with a couple of outhouse style toilets and a place to wash your hands.

There was a fire in the pit on the lower level, I sat near it on a bench while L.T. got me a hot chocolate. It was probably the worst one I've had in a long time but it felt good to have some hot liquid on my throat. We ate lunch and rested for a while before going out on the boats again. 

One of the guys on our boat lost his shoe in the big dump. Someone found it. All the paddles were rounded up as well. I was surprised. Before we had left we were instructed that no one could wear flip flops or shoes that had no backs (like Crocs). No sunglasses without ties. Nothing loose. They also recommended no jewelry. 

Keegan came around to each picnic table to ask how we were doing during lunch. I was surprised to find out that his main guiding gig is in New Zealand. He's originally from Canada, but spends more time guiding down under. The clientele is predominantly German and their rivers are mostly gorges. I can't imagine having stone cliffs along the edge of the water. I like the Ottawa River's sandy shores. 

After lunch we got back into the rafts and headed out for some more rapids. I would have been fine walking back to the headquarters instead. There were three more sets of rapids. On the second-last one, another Category III+ we "surfed" at the bottom for a while. We would make a foray in from the bottom into the lowest rapid, the front of the raft would fill with water, then it would spin and go over some smaller waves. We did this about 5 or 6 times. Honestly it's probably a time filler as well. I know from previously working in the tourism industry if people pay for a full day trip, they don't want to be brought home early. At the end of the last rapid Katy told us we could jump into the water and hold onto the "chicken line", a rope running along the side of the raft. A couple jumped in right away, a few others followed. I had already had my fill of water, I was happy to sit and watch them float. L.T. didn't jump in either. But he was nice enough to help some of the others get back into the raft when they were done.

A couple of the guides have started their own nearby microbrewery so once we finally got out of the rafts, there's a spot with a fire pit, some benches and everyone can have a small plastic cup of beer that they have on tap. There's also water and "juice". We walked up the hill to a spot where the bus showed up to pick us up and drive us back to the headquarters.

They already have a finished, edited version of our adventure ready to show us in the amphitheatre. They have some regular content they put on the front, then each of our rafts are shown going through, you guessed it, Bus Eater. So we got to see how our raft went into the hole and was flung up and over to the right. It was fascinating and humiliating all at the same time. We didn't buy the video. We didn't even ask how much it was.

We changed into dry clothes and made our way home. L.T. immediately downloaded the videos from the GoPro and we watched them on his computer. It was funny, on the Bus Eater section, he just grabbed it and it was stopped on a frame that was just water and bubbles. I think I'll make it my new Facebook profile picture. 

Here's an edited version of the trip through Bus Eater.

My review? Well as this is my only experience with a rafting company, and it's not an activity that I would choose to go on my own, it gets a pretty good rating. Their headquarters area is nice, they have everything you need, it seems like most things are recent builds, it's clean and has a nice spot along the river. The staff are great, especially that guy that drives the Zodiac and pulled me out of the river, he's SUPER. I never did get his name. The equipment was good, nothing was broken, which I'm sure happens a lot in this industry. L.T. didn't think his lifejacket was buoyant enough but it was up against Bus Eater (seriously, google it, I'm not making up that name).

The food and drink supplied were okay, very basic. The drinks could have been better. There were just large round cooler jugs with water and some sort of powdered juice mix. Man, I could have used a Coke after that dump in the water! There was nothing to buy at the lunch stop, nor should there really be. I could get one at the end if I really needed it. The fixings for the hamburgers and sausages were fresh and cleanly presented. I understand that having fancy lunches is a big expense and foodies shouldn't expect to get a 5-star lunch on a rafting tour. I almost felt like I was going to toss mine at times as it was.

Katy came around to everyone at the lunch stop and offer us a cookie from a tray. They were not homemade, but I ate two anyways.

Would I go again? Probably not, but I'm very glad I did take this opportunity to face one of my fears. And I never once mentioned it to anyone that I'd previously had a canoeing mishap that was causing my nervousness today. I would recommend this tour to anyone interested in trying rafting. I think it would be a great team building exercise. As long as everyone was onboard with it (har har).

Here is the whole video including the Bus Eater section:


Wildlife seen today: a big snapping turtle was hanging out just before we set off in the morning. Someone pointed out a bird flying saying it was an eagle, but it was an osprey (Katy corrected them). Shortly after that we did see an eagle. I saw a few herons flying overhead, but I didn't bother pointing them out to anyone, everyone was focused on the river.

The following video is one I found on Google that shows Bus Eater starting from the angle we had when we watched other people going through it from the island. 

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