Nine paddles slice the water in perfect synchrony, powering the canoe forward through the rapids. Or at least that is how my mind imagines the scene from my position in the bow of the canoe. The sun shines down on us from a crackling blue sky, icicles hang from the gunwales, and the fingers of my gloves are frozen solid and slip on the icy paddle shaft – wait a cotton-pickin’ minute here….what’s all this about icicles and frozen fingers, and how can it be there are NINE paddles in imagined perfect harmony?
What is going on here is a minor historic Canadian moment – the first ‘Canot du nord’ (North Canoe) (26’ long) to compete in the Upper Jock River Paddling Race. – probably the first North Canoe to ever paddle on the Jock River. The Jock River is affectionately known as ‘the Mighty Jock’. To call it a river is a bit pretentious – it is really just a stream, but a lovely stream that winds through hardwood swamps and wetland and agricultural fields, the picturesque town of Richmond, sneaking through the backyards of suburban Ottawa as it picks up speed and tumbles down rapids on its way to join the Rideau River.
In spring, the Jock is transformed into a river by the spring runoff, and on one day each spring, since 1971, an annual rite of spring takes place on the Mighty Jock – the Jock River Paddling Race. Initially, the race was held from the town of Richmond to the confluence of the Jock with the Rideau. This first iteration of the race had some challenges – icy waters, tricky rapids and ill-placed bridge abutments that occasionally became adorned after each race with the carcasses of canoes wrapped around them. Did I forget to mention the concrete base for a weir with re-bar sticking out of it? All these factors lead to the decision in 1996 to move the race to the more pleasant waters of the upper Jock, a 12.6 kilometre section with shallow rapids and a lovely sinuous course through one of the Ottawa area’s most significant wetlands, the Richmond Fen.
I’m proud to say that I have competed in most of the races on the Jock, and won medals in both the upper and lower Jock races in an imaginative variety of ways in many categories. I’ve raced solo, with various kids, friends, family, even once with Mark Oldershaw, Olympic sprint canoeist, as my bowman, not long after he had won a medal at the Games. One spring when the race was still run on the lower Jock, and the river was extremely ‘boney’, I switched from my fancy but fragile racing canoe to a beat-up plastic white-water canoe at the top of the rapids. My proudest moment in my extensive Jock River Race history was winning the family class with my wife Connie, our son Isaac, then six, and our three-legged dog Mica. Mica is the only canine to have his name inscribed on the coveted Trailhead Cup, which at that time was awarded to the Family class winners. A few years later, Connie and I escorted our son Isaac down the course when he paddled it solo in a fat red kayak when he was just nine. The biggest challenge of the day was rushing him to and from his hockey playoff games, before and after the race.
This spring, I was puzzling over how to earn a medal in the race this year. I had spent the winter convalescing from old injuries and ailments that decided to catch up to me all at once, and was in no condition to race anything. So I had an idea! Although, over the years, there have been canoe and kayak racing classes for elite racers, families, parent/child, high school, greybeards/grey-mares, SUPS, best dressed, and more … there has never been a class for Big Canoes! So I contacted my friend Ray D’Allaire who owns a big 26’ “Canot du nord”, and asked him if he was up for it. Ray enthusiastically said “YES!”, and the race was on for us.
We put out the word (thank you Liz Elton, for knowing every paddler on the continent … we had offers from as far away as Washington, DC and Albany NY; thank you Connie, my one true love, for paddling right behind me all the way, and thanks you to the rest of the crew who were unfailingly enthusiastic, uncomplaining and cheerful!) and soon had a crew on nine, with Ray steering at the stern, and me setting the pace and dong my best to miss all the rocks and logs at the bow. At least that was the plan.
I paddled the course the day before the race with master paddler and safety-crew organizer Dot Bonnenfant, and the two race organizers, Gaetan and Ian. It was a lovely day, with ice along clinging to the tree trunks in the fen, and light snow falling. We flagged a few submerged logs with orange tape, and I was confident that there was just enough water to slide the big canoe down the rapids without scraping too many rocks.
Ray and I had discussed getting the team together to practice, but with the cold winter weather for the week before the race, and our last-minute arrangements, we realized that was not possible.
“We’ll just run it cold”, Ray said a few days before the race. He did not realize then how deadly accurate that statement would turn out to be.
Race Day. Temperature: -17…with the wind, but there was almost no wind.
But it was bright and sunny, and probably only -6 by the start time at high noon. The coldest Jock River Race ever. But over 100 hardy paddlers came out to celebrate this annual rite of winter, er…I mean spring. We loaded our crew into the big canoe, practiced a few eddy turns and upstream ferries, and declared our team ‘race-ready’.
A few hundred metres from the start is a shallow rapid, followed by a narrow chute of fast water. The crew was working together, and we manoeuvred down the rapids as if following a six-inch wide piece of tape that showed our course down the deepest part of the channel. The tape is in my mind, of course, not on the water! We managed to negotiate all the sharp turns in the fen, and only bumped a few logs (all unavoidable, of course!). Down the rapids we go, scraping a few rocks – all of course, unavoidable, at least in my mind. Soon the spires of Richmond come into view, and as we negotiate the final rapid, I turn around to face the crew, and set the stroke rhythm for the final push to the finish line. We had practiced this on quieter, straighter sections of the river. In my biggest voice, I start to count off the first four powerful strokes, but I only got to “ONE…”, when, “Ker-crunch! Well, ‘whadyaknow’, there’s one more rock in this river, and we found it. Luckily, I didn’t fall out of the canoe, and we picked up the pace to the finish line, finishing in fine style (at least in my mind), but most importantly, with the crew all still smiling, happy, reasonably dry, and reasonably warm.
And best of all, we won our class! (Well, we were the only canoe in our class)
I’m considering this event as a warm-up (ironic as it is to have a warm-up paddling event at -6C) to the Big Canoe races at Rideau Paddlefest on Aug. 6. I’m ready now. Are you?
Voyageur-in-training and chief gouvernail for Rideau Paddlefest.
The 12.6 kilometer long race starts on the Jock River at the Munster Road south of Franktown Road. From the start line, there is a shallow rapid a few minutes downstream, followed by a chute of fast water. The river then flows through open fields and farmland for several kilometers before several sharp bends signal the beginning of the Richmond Fen wetland through which the river runs. When paddlers see a railway line on the south side of the river, it means the end of the Richmond Fen, with the river widening out considerably. This is followed by a long set of rapids followed by another set of rapids before the finish line at the Jock River Park in Richmond comes into sight.
Want to join the Rideau Roundtable…Submit your name and e-mail stuff and leave the rest to us.