Kayakers shoot the mighty Petawawa in Hell or High Water Festival

By Sean Chase, The Daily Observer

-You know summer can't be far around the corner when you see a small army of kayakers braving the turb u l e nt waters of the mighty Petawawa River.

That was the spectacle this past weekend as more than 100 whitewater kayakers, canoeists and 180 professional and amateur rafters competed in the second annual event Hell or High Water and Ottawa Valley Raft Championships. Many came from as far away as France, Ireland, Britain and the U.S.

Carrying kayaks and rubber rafts, whitewater enthusiasts, clad in brightly coloured wet suits, strode down to the river's edge above the Canadian Pacific Railway trestle. It is here that they were first challenged with the so-called Railroad Rapids, one of the strongest, most violent currents on the Petawawa.

Organizers chose the Petawawa because it boasts some of the more technically challenging rapids in the area. Once competitors launched, they were expected to shoot through a kilometre of Class III and Class IV rapids and finish at the Catwalk within a five-minute window. Cheering them on were spectators who watched from the Four-Seasons Bridge. Down river, people lined the rocky shores to catch a glimpse of the winning team rolling in.

"The event was huge this year with cars lined up around the block, tons of spectators and fans and athletes," said co-organizer

Philip Kompass. "The Town of Petawawa and the people who came out to watch should be really proud of what they demonstrated."

Whitewater enthusiasts worry that the river, which has remained untouched from commercial development, will be drastically altered if two hydro dams are constructed upstream. Xeneca Power Development is seeking to build a station at the Big Eddy rapids just west of the CPR bridge. Mr. Kompass noted the weekend tournament was a chance to show off the river and what it can offer.

"With the threat of the river being dammed and diverted in the next few years, this was an ideal opportunity to showcase the sport and the river," he said. "Many more people were made aware of the threat of losing this amazing recreational resource to a small hydro project."

Other organizers echoed those sentiments. Co-organizer Mike Crouzat explained it is a rare attribute to have a river with fast moving water in the heart of a community such as Petawawa.

"The Petawawa River is a kayaker's dream, with warm water, a wide range of both technical and easy rapids," he said. "It would be a real shame to lose it."

This was the first time on the Petawawa for many seasoned kayakers, including Pam Dayment, who shot down the rapids with her rafting team Roxy's Foxies.

"It was awesome," said a drenched Ms. Dayment as her team pulled their craft out of the water at the Catwalk. "It was really good, fast moving."

For Natalie Swoboda, of Whitby, Ontario, the river proved deceptive. Veteran kayakers will often scout the course ahead of time, checking for fallen tree trunks, deadhead logs and hydraulics, which form when water pours over the top of a submerged object causing the surface water to flow back upstream toward the object.

"It looked different when you were scouting it," said Ms. Swoboda, who went down in a kayak. "I found it a little more challenging. It was cold and scary but fun."

The event raised funds for Soldier On, a charity that helps injured Canadian Forces members get back on their feet and Whitewater Ontario, an organization striving to keep the province's rivers clean and accessible.

In the championship race's final results, the men's winner was Bryan Buttimor, of the Guelph Kayak Club, who registered a time of seven minutes, 30 seconds. The women's winner was Pamina Vitta, of Springfield, New Jersey, with a time of seven minutes, 58 seconds. The rafting race winners were the team of Dan Drost, Zack Boles, Pete Darrah and Andy Atkins who came in at a time of seven minutes, 28 seconds.

Sean Chase is a Daily Observer reporter

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