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It took a long while of procrastinating, but its time the cobwebs drop to the floor on my whitewater paddling lifestyle.  It’s been about 3 years since my last real river descent of any consequence (over class III) and more than that running bigger water.  The good news is I have the perfect 1-2-3 combination for getting back into the fray of big water runs, the Ottawa river at 14 (= spring levels),  my new Jackson Kayak Zen and Billy Harris!

Billy “The Mission” Harris.  Billy, or William I like to call him (he hates that), has just started his new instructional/consulting program here in the Ottawa valley and was the perfect guy to count on to get me over nerves and back into the bigger water.  He’s not only an awesome freestyle coach but he’s also someone who knows the psyche enough to help you with those ‘mind things’ when necessary.  It was truly necessary for me!  In July, I paddle the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon!  My mission:  Get comfortable in big water.  The Ottawa at this level (14 is not normal for this time of year) is very pushy so its the perfect training ground, especially this late in the spring as the water gets super warm.

Billy’s approach became clear at the top of McKoy’s, a legendary ‘big hit’ section at the top of the Ottawa:

“I’m gonna follow you”, Billy announces.

“Er… what’s the line at this level?” I ask,

“dunno” he replies with that sly William look…

“X$#%” I say (sorry folks, I know this is a family channel)

A great big ole wave train later and I’m already thinking that I’ve been an idiot for all these years of not paddling.

This was the first time on the Ottawa’s main rapids in a Zen for me.  I’ve paddled 25+ years in a freestyle boat of some sort, and only once in a Hero a few years back, but never the Zen.  I’d been working with the Zen on the lower volumed Mississippi (Canadian version) but nothing prepared me for just how forgiving the Zen is in pushy water.

My standard river running position is sliding through rapids perpendicular to the current, just an active blade in, cruising over waves and either forward or backward strokes to move back and forth/side to side to line myself up for the next moves etc.  Doing that you are typically fighting the exploding waves, boils and eddy lines of bigger water but have a great view downstream, are stable with that downstream blade and can bust to either side relatively fast.  Freestyle boats tend to be lower and edgier so the fight is usually continual on the Ottawa till you are lined up.  In the Zen, I readied myself for the push and pull, struggles of keeping the current off the seams etc… but nothing came.  Nothing.  With a proper lean, that active blade, my ride was just a matter of timing boofs or punches over/through those much more breaking waves and holes.  Wow!

I did all my runs with relative ease, flipping only once on a reactionary.  It was a move that I underestimated, I leaned the wrong way, I missed my paddle stroke and over I went.  This scenario is KEY to confidence.  As we all know, “nail that first whitewater roll and the rest of the day the roll is off the table as a cause for stress”.  The roll with the Zen was instant, even in the boils.  For confidence this day, it was huge.  Kinda glad I messed up 😉  With the smaller planing hull of the Zen and its very ’round’ side walls, this boat rolls like a dream.  My outfitting wasn’t as it should have been and my hips were loose in the seat, but still it spun up in an instant with no resistance.  Boom, there I go to that next level of confidence.  Good news, cause the harder, bigger runs were next.

At Upper No-name, there’s this legendary ‘soul surf’ wave at the top, river left.  Perfect timing for a surf, now that my confidence is high.  Zen = awesome soul surfs.  YOU ALL know the surf I’m talking about.  No spins, no blunts, no ends, no NOTHING… just edge controlled front surfing from one side of the river to another.

The grand finale was Lower No-Name, a consistently big rapid at the end of the Middle Channel.  At low levels its a mite bigger than the rest of the channel, but typically too bony for beginners.  For intermediate paddlers, the line involves a move or two.  At this level, the line is pretty much just heading in and dealing with stuff.  Every wave was bigger, water around was pushy, loads of reactionary action and all ends in a big V-shaped wave/hole at the bottom where the mid-season Vampire ledge appears.  Again, the Zen allowed me to simply focus on the line I wanted to take through the rapid.  Cockpit guiding my way through, I didn’t know of that bottom hole so after a move around a top hole, and a glide through some bigger breaking waves (easy braces) I ended up facing the meat of the bottom hole.  I turned, punched like a pro … the Zen didn’t even slow down.  Awesome!

If you are where I was yesterday, worried about any transition in your river running lifestyle, grab some Zen.

Again, MANY thanks to Billy Harris for his encouragement.  To quote Stephen Wright: “Billy Harris is the best instructor”.  Let me know if you need a guiding hand and I can hook ya up with this fine fella.

Check out the vid of the last two sections on the Ottawa: