Rough rapids are running down the river in between trees.

Why You Need to Learn to Run Rapids

Rough rapids are running down the river in between trees.

Almost everyone can paddle a canoe on flatwater, but most are not able to run a rapid skillfully. Thus, I made it a goal to become a whitewater paddler so I could experience any canoe routes in and outside of Ontario. 

Have you ever finished a portage and feel a tinge of jealousy when canoeists behind you paddle past you after skillfully running the rapid you just carried around?

It certainly had me questioning my logic, since it looked like they were having way more fun and expending considerably less energy. No doubt, this certainly fostered the desire to learn how to run rapids, but I was also drawn to the adrenaline-filled adventure aspect of it. 

I learned the ropes of running rapids safely on the Lower Madawaska many years ago through Paddler’s Co-Op. The water was warm, the rapids not too intimidating and the course and instructor were fantastic. I obtained my Moving Water Level 1 & 2 certification through Ontario Recreational Canoe and Kayak Association (ORKCA) that weekend and have never looked back. ORKCA is responsible for provincial safety and paddling standards. 

Since then, I’ve paddled countless rivers across Ontario, throughout Canada, and the US. Whether donned in drysuits paddling down freezing-cold mountain rivers in the far north, or on classic whitewater rivers in Ontario such as the Petawawa, I always look forward to the next one. Learning to become a whitewater paddler, and developing those skills, was one of the best decisions I’ve made in canoeing. 

The Benefits of Learning Moving Water Skills

Become A Better Paddler

You may decide to never venture off a lake and enjoy flatwater canoeing this way, but most likely at some point, people will find themselves on moving water, whether a creek, stream or river that connects one lake to another. It’s in our nature to explore and travel further abroad. Therefore, learning the various aspects of moving water whether specific strokes, understanding river features, and all the safety components will make you a better paddler, even if you decide not to become a whitewater fanatic. You can never learn too much, especially regarding safety. 

Team Building Skills

Unless you are a solo paddler, canoeing is all about teamwork, whether paddling together in sync, sharing the carry on a portage or even working on chores together at camp. But come across a rapid in your canoe, and I guarantee you won’t find anything more rewarding than running the rapid successfully together—from getting out of the canoe to scout ahead, deciding on which line to take and how to run it, and lastly, skillfully riding the rapid together. It’s teamwork from start to finish, and you’ll both have a much greater appreciation of each other’s role. 

Running Rapids is Fun

Let’s admit it. Paddling for hours on end on a totally calm and flat lake can get repetitive. But come across a rapid, and you can bet all your senses will be fired up. It’s an opportunity to flex your muscles, make some fancy moves with your paddle and whoop and holler like kids. Besides, who doesn’t enjoy getting soaked on a hot summer day as you plow through a big standing wave? Like riding a roller coaster, it will get your adrenaline flowing and add some spice to your day. Running rapids doesn’t have to be scary or risky. You just need to choose which ones to run based on your ability and comfort level so that it can be an enjoyable experience. 

Greater Opportunities

One of the reasons I wanted to become a whitewater paddler was to make sure I didn’t lose out on any canoe route opportunities. Not all canoe routes are suitable to flatwater paddlers. Sure, many popular routes have established portages around rapids and are accessible to everyone, but those in less travelled and more remote areas may not. In fact, portaging on some routes is impossible, such as canyons where you’re committed to the river and rapids. If you have a sense of adventure and want to explore beyond established routes, being a skilled whitewater paddler is essential. 

Where to Go for Whitewater Action

With whitewater skills, there are endless rivers in the province you can experience, whether for just a day or as part of a longer trip. Here are three popular rivers in Ontario that are a must for whitewater canoeists. 

Black River, Simcoe County

The perfect introductory river that is close to major cities and is easily accessible. Lower volume, pool and drop type river that is warm and a great place to practice, even for just a day. Check out the ORCKA website for a list of courses and instructors available, and the Ontario’s Lake Country website for more information on the Black. 

Lower Madawaska River, Renfrew County

A very popular whitewater river with more volume and bigger rapids. It is a further drive from city centres, so you’ll want to plan for a least a few days on the river depending on the section you want to cover. There are multiple access points and shuttle services available for this unmaintained provincial park. If you are looking to develop moving water skills, the Madawaska Kanu Center also located nearby is a premier destination for whitewater instruction and courses lead by world-class paddlers. 

Petawawa River, Renfrew County

A classic whitewater trip located in the northeast part of Algonquin Provincial Park. This river is a must for whitewater canoeists who want to run challenging rapids, experience a stunning landscape and immerse themselves in one of the best paddling routes in the park. Although there are portages around every rapid, many of the rapids are at a higher skill level, so you will need to be on your game if you plan to run them. If you feel a bit intimidated, consider the guiding services of Black Feather, a wilderness adventure guiding company. They will ensure your experience running rapids on the Petawawa will be safe and complimentary to your skill level so that you will get the best of both worlds. 

Ontario is a great place to learn how to paddle whitewater. There are countless rivers and rapids across the province, as well as organizations, companies and instructors willing to teach you the skills. The best way to learn moving water skills is to simply take a course by an ORCKA or Paddle Canada instructor. I would highly recommend it. You don’t need to be certified to run rapids, but learning all aspects of moving water skills is important to being confident on a river, having fun, and most importantly, being safe.

Last updated: October 1, 2021

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