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A raging river challenges Hell or High Water

By Sean Chase, The Daily Observer

Sean Chase/Daily Observer 
The rafting team from “Paddling Magazine” shoots through the powerful Railroad Rapids on the Petawawa River Saturday during the 10th annual Hell or High Water.

Sean Chase/Daily Observer The rafting team from “Paddling Magazine” shoots through the powerful Railroad Rapids on the Petawawa River Saturday during the 10th annual Hell or High Water.


PETAWAWA – The mighty Petawawa River delivered a raging, violent surge that made Canada's largest whitewater races that much more exciting over the weekend.

The 10th annual Hell or High Water attracted whitewater competitors from across Canada and around the globe with high water levels due to the late spring melting of ice and snow in Algonquin Park making conditions more challenging than usual. However, the river was less imposing than it looked to veteran Ottawa kayaker Ben Plumb.

“The lines stay pretty much the same but there's just bigger waves,” said Plumb, who credited a professional organization with ensuring all safety measures are taken when the river is this strong. “This is top shelf. The people who are running it are well experienced and trained in safety.”

Carrying kayaks on their backs, competitors in multi-coloured wetsuits marched to the river's edge above the Canadian Pacific Railway trestle. Here they set off to negotiate the course beginning with the “Railroad Rapids,” perhaps the strongest current on the lower Petawawa River. The Petawawa remains one of the more technically challenging rivers in Canada. Once competitors depart the launch site above the railroad bridge, they shoot through a kilometre of Class III and Class IV rapids and reach at the Catwalk within a five-minute window.

Prior to that, kayakers and rafting guides conduct a visual reconaissance of the course searching for dead head longs and hydraulics, that phenomenon that occurs when water pours over the top of a submerged object causing the surface water to flow back upstream. Petawawa kayaker Adam Hanlon found the river a little lower from last year. While enjoying the ride down, he said the trip is a chance to really take in nature.

“You do the rapids and you get the adrenaline going but then sometimes between the rapids is some nice flat water where you can soak it all in,” said Hanlon, an employee with Canadian Nuclear Laboratories who takes full advantage of having the Petawawa in his backyard. “After work, we can come and run the river.”

Hanlon's co-worker, Katie Adams, took up kayaking three years ago. While she finds it both challenging and exciting, Adams said it's also a good way to exercise.

“It's a good balance between pushing yourself and getting out there and having fun,” she said. “You also meet some really cool people.”

Outside of the kayak and rafting, Hell or High Water has become a prominent festival that takes over the Catwalk for a few days each May. It also initiates a season of similar water events, that includes the Upper Ottawa River Race and Paddle Fest, around the region. Town of Petawawa programs co-ordinator Colin Coyle credited Hell or High Water organizers Philip Kompass and Mike Crouzat and their team of volunteers for once more putting on a stellar festival.

“This event is run by volunteers is it's really passionate driven,” said Coyle.

The economic spin-offs of the weekend cannot be underestimated, he added, noting the influx of whitewater enthusiasts benefits hotels, restaurants and other commercial establishments. Coyle noted that this sometimes translates in attracting those kayakers back to the area for their vacations.

“It's a one-stop shop here,” he said. “We've got whitewater, we've got the bike park and we've got great flatwater at the end of the Petawawa so they may come back multiple times.” 

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