White Water Kayaking – Gull River, Minden, ON

Water: great to drink, fun to jump in, terrible to be under.

I am not a particularly brave person, but given the right circumstances I can get most of my fears under control. I’ve jumped off high dives, trapezed, flown a plane, and even talked to pretty girls. I’ve turned off my flight instinct in a lot of situations, but as soon as my head goes underwater every single neuron in my brain becomes focused on one goal: return to the surface as quickly as possible.

Que Hunt Number 1: White Water Kayaking on the Gull River. I found a weekend “camp and learn to kayak” program with White Water Ontario, so my friend Paul and I decided to give it a go. We drive up on Friday and pull into a forest with a sign in front of it at 10pm. It’s dark, but we can tell there’s a few tents set up and a fire going, so we join the party and set up our 1.5 man tent. We’re camping amateurs.

Under the cover of darkness, we met a few of our fellow kayakers and one of our guides, Jacob, a 14 year old who I doubt would get ID’d at the bars. Under the trees and around the fire, we only had time for a single beer before going to bed, but that was enough time for me to find Paul somewhere else to sleep for the night. A peaceful rest was on its way.

Sometimes I forget how scary absolute darkness is, especially when you’re by yourself in unknown surroundings with weird noises. I had to get up to relieve myself at what felt like 3am, and I felt very brave doing so.

The sunlight breaking through the overhead trees was a welcome start to the day. Follow that up with a breakfast that’s both delicious and provided by the instructors, and I was set to hit the water. By 9am we had met everyone in the group and grabbed our gear, so we threw our kayaks onto our shoulders and began the ten minute hike down to the lake.

The set up in Minden is perfect for beginners. There’s a raging river that dumps out into a very calm lake. This means you can start learning on flat water then slowly work your way up the river as your skills improve.

We had four instructors coaching us in two groups. As we went to get into the water, one of the instructors, Neil, annouced to us: “If you’re feeling brave and crazy, come with me”. Naturally, Paul and the other friends we had made up to this point all go with Neil. So, I said goodbye and in return got a bunch of frowns. “A fair price to get off the hook”, I thought to myself. But the numbers were off. Neil pointed out that one more member of Team Cautious would have to make the jump to team Brave and Crazy. My shame took over and I volunteered.

Our group paddled out to the lake, learned some strokes, and then paddled to a shallow bend in the shoreline where we would start practicing our flips. This was my first real moment of panic. Our group of “kayak extremists” would one-by-one flip themselves over, calmly tap three times on the bottom of their kayaks, pull the cord on their kayaking “skirts” and calmly swim out of their kayaks. I refused.

I had just met these people! They had no idea about how serious my underwater issues were. Could I really trust them? It created a bit of a delay.

“Ok, here I go. 3… 2… Are you sure you can flip me back over if I am stuck?” I asked Jacob for the 17th time.

Eventually peer pressure got to me, so I flipped, said “screw the tapping, I am out of here”, pulled my cord in a panic and swam for the surface with a heart rate up in the 200′s. But I did it.

Over the course of that morning we learned our strokes (to move), braces (to balance) and rescues (to not drown). The rescues were naturally where I struggled, as they all begin with you being upside-down under water. For example, the “T-Rescue”, which involves flipping upside down, then tapping on the bottom of your kayak (which is above the surface of the water), and then waving your hands back and forth along the side of your kayak. The hope is that someone will notice you flipped, care enough to save you, and then slam their kayak into the side of yours, allowing you to grab their kayak and pull yourself upright. The key to this manoeuvre is to stay calm underwater – but you can only wait so long for someone to come before you just have to pull out.

The water in many parts of the river actually flows in two different directions, and in order to navigate you need to be able to turn on these currents, called an eddy turn, or move across them, which is known as a ferry. I picked up both of these pretty quick along with the roll, which is a move used to flip yourself upright from an upside down position – twisting and pushing with your paddle to right yourself. I was never comfortable enough with it to go diving down the falls. Nonetheless, despite my paralyzing fear, I still felt like a success after the weekend had concluded.

Impressively, the falls are where almost all of our group ended up after the 2nd day, thanks in large part to the staff instructors. I’ve make it sound as though we were on the verge of death at every moment, but really it was an incredibly safe weekend. I don’t think we had a single injury in the group. It’s a “challenge by choice” philosophy and while you are constantly encouraged, you’re never forced beyond your comfort zone.

It’s also something anyone can do. There were many groups on the River with us, some kids as young nine, some adults pushing through their sixties. The weekend cost us $220 bucks each (the whole organization is not-for-profit), and that includes camping fees, two breakfasts and a lunch, as well as all the instruction and gear. Check them out at whitewaterontario.ca (try emailing somone as the site’s sometimes slow to update), or look for a similar organization near you. I can’t say that professional Kayaking lies in my future, but another weekend up in Minden might.