Challenging the mighty Petawawa
On any given Thursday, you will spot a sorted band of folk strolling along the shores of the Petawawa River.
Clad in wet suits, they stop at various locations, make a quick inspection of the river conditions, and then enthusiastically carry on their trek.
They come from different backgrounds and walks of life. Once a week they break from the mundane to come out and play. Their sport is whitewater kayaking. The mighty Petawawa is their playground.
Climbing onto the Four-Seasons Bridge, the group spies its biggest challenge -the turbulent rapids beneath the Canadian Pacific Railway trestle. They visually inspect for hazards and determine the safest routes to negotiate. Their homework done, it's time to climb into their crafts and shoot some rapids.
They call themselves whitewater enthusiasts, but there are various degrees of experience in the group. Some are novices still getting their feet wet. Others are members of the Petawawa River Rats, who have a few rapid trips under their belts. Then there are the veterans -the kayakers who once called themselves the Valley River Runners.
Formed in the 1970s, the club had around 50 members at its peak. Ten years ago, it folded amalgamating with the River Rats. This summer, however, Valley River Runners alumni have something to cheer about.
Next month, they'll set aside their whitewater exploits to gather around the television set and watch one of their own compete in the grandest sports exhibition of them all. That's when Sarah Boudens, former Valley River Runner, will strive for her first Olympic medal in Beijing, China.
At the tender age of nine, Ms. Boudens began paddling with the River Runners. It launched her into a career that has taken the 25-year-old Pembroke native from four-time Junior National Champion to the World Cups and, hopefully, success at the 26th Summer Olympiad.
It is here where the future Olympian learned her trade, and it's a good river to earn an education in whitewater slalom kayaking. Tim Sykes, a former River Runner with 25 years experience, has shot rapids on rivers across Canada and the United States. He says the Petawawa is one of the best.
"The Petawawa River is more difficult than the Grand Canyon," explains Mr. Sykes as he studies the currents of what is known as the "Railway Rapids" from the safety of the Four-Seasons Bridge. "It's not as technical but it is more challenging."
After scouting the rapid, the party checks safety equipment, dons helmets, and shoves off in the kayaks. In their reconnaissance of the rapid, they are meticulous. They look for hydraulics, also known as holes, which form when water pours over the top of a submerged
object causing the surface water to flow back upstream toward the object. Hydraulics can be particularly problematic, explains Mr. Sykes, as a craft can easily get stuck in the circulating water.
They also check for sweepers, fallen tree trunks or dead head logs which may cause turbulence, and strainers, formed when an object blocks the passage but still allows the flow of water. Equally important, however, the kayakers will pinpoint eddies, those calm spots on the downstream face of an obstruction. From an eddy, a kayaker can scout ahead and assess the next set of rapids.
The kayakers never assume the routes will be the same week after week. They consult a water level gauge situated underneath the Highway 17 Bridge. If the level changes by 10 metres, the group will walk the route assessing the rapids as they go. Mr. Sykes contends that the higher the river the more difficult it will be, adding there is nothing regular about shooting the Petawawa.
"The characteristics of the river change as the level changes," he notes. "I've never gotten bored with it."
Of course, these kayakers are going through this exercise for recreation. At the Olympics, Ms. Boudens, competing in the Women's K-1 (single kayak), will be aiming to navigate a kayak through a course of hanging gates on river rapids in the fastest possible time
Slalom canoeing was introduced at the Olympics in 1972 at Augsburg, West Germany. The kayaking venue this time around will be at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park, a purpose-built course where all kayaking, rowing, canoeing, and marathon swimming events will take place.
To earn a spot on the podium, it will take discipline and skill on Ms. Boudens' part, notes Mr. Sykes. On the Olympic course, each gate, consisting of two poles, hangs from a wire across the river. There could be between 18 and 25 numbered gates painted in the colour dictating the direction the competitor must go in (green for downstream, red for upstream). For the competitor, there is an element of the unknown going into the race.
"We know this river and how to run it," Mr. Sykes explains. "At the Olympics, they're going to see the river but they can't practice."
Upstream gates can often be found in eddies. In international Olympic competition, competitors have two runs to qualify with the times added for the result. However, the competitor will still need to read the course, devise strategy, and determine where the river can help you, contends Erik Hagberg, who has been whitewater kayaking since 1979.
"It's a lot of skill reading the water," says Mr. Hagberg. physically demanding so you try to
get as much power out of the water as possible. You don't want to do it all yourself."
But it's not as simple as running through the gates. If the competitor's boat, paddle, or body touches either pole of the gate, a time penalty of two seconds is added. If the competitor misses a gate completely, displaces it by more than 45 degrees, goes through it upside-down, or through it in the wrong order, a 50 second penalty is assessed. According to the International Canoe Federation, most slalom courses take 80 to 120 seconds to complete. The competitor does have some help from the craft made of fibre that is low riding and easier to manoeuver on the waves. Many factors affect results including competitor's skill level, the degree of water turbulence, and the difficulty of the course.
"It's not just power," adds Mr. Sykes. "It's speed and balance."
Local river runners use 10-foot kayaks and don't leave shore without all the proper equipment -helmet, a specialized life jacket tailored with the correct buoyancy for whitewater, a spray skirt and an airbag inside the kayak's hull. The group's exploits take them through the lower Petawawa River's three major sets of rapids, known as "Railway", "Luvers" and "Suicide". Unlike the Olympics, they don't paddle back up the rapid but will surf on top, riding the waves back and forth.
Drying themselves off after a two-hour workout, the ex- Valley River Runners store their gear and conclude the evening with a pizza supper. While the club is no longer in existence, the surviving members are elated that one of their own will soon be in the Olympic spotlight -a dream none of them could have imagined years ago when a nine-year-old kid began learning the ropes on this very river.
But it's because of that whitewater experience that Mr. Sykes believes Sarah Boudens has a good chance of paddling away from the podium with some hardware.
"It gives them an edge over the other paddlers and she's got that," he remarks. "She's going to do well."
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Daily Observer Reporter/Photographer
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