Why I (Temporarily) Traded in My Canoe For a Kayak

Exploring The Ancient Abitibi River—in Neoprene

I jumped the gun a bit when the tourism gang from the Timmins region in Northeastern Ontario invited me up to participate in the Great Canadian Kayak Challenge. I agreed to race, basically because I love the Timmins area. Problem is, I’m a canoeist, not a kayaker. I also don’t have much of a competitive spirit. The last race I took part in was at a church picnic, when I was eight, running across a field balancing a hard-boiled egg on a spoon. I’m definitely not an anti-kayak sort like some of my canoemates, but to me, the joy of paddling is gently gliding a canoe across a mist-covered lake, not squeezing into tight neoprene and propelling myself across the water as fast as possible. But then again, I love the north, so there was no way I was going to pass up being there for such an event.

Of course, there was still the issue of not knowing how to kayak. For that I contacted an outfitter I knew from Smooth Rock Falls — Rick Isaacson of Howling Wolf Expeditions. His idea seemed simple enough. Rick would take me kayaking down the Abitibi River a few days before the race to teach me the techniques needed to finish the race with style and not come in last, or at least not look like a total geek when getting in and out of the boat.

To give myself more time practising out on the Abitibi River, I took a flight out of Toronto to the City of Timmins. The extra cost was well worth it since Rick picked me up at the airport and had us launching at the Abitibi Canyon Hydro Dam by mid-day.

Abitibi Canyon Dam was built in the early 1930s and once housed enough people to be considered a good-sized village, made up of seventy houses, a church, a school, a post office, and a place to buy groceries and alcohol. Lots of alcohol. It’s now a ghost town — a real ghost town. Two monuments are the basis for the alleged haunting. One is dedicated to at least four men who were encased in the concrete dam during the initial construction. (Rumour has it that the number is actually as high as two hundred.) It’s called “The Sons of Martha,” and has profound poetry inscribed on all four sides. A second marker pays homage to the ten hydro employees who died one foggy morning in 1976 after their plane crashed into the hydro tower 250 metres northwest of the dam. With such a high body count, the ghost stories have become legendary.

We drove over the wall of cement — one side holding back the Abitibi River, and the other revealing the deep canyon lined with a mix of cement and hard granite. Rick then turned down a secondary road to reach the access point downriver.

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Joining us were Drew Gauley, the cameraman and photographer for the trip, and Rick’s son Luis. Luis’s job was to motor Drew around in a square-stern canoe to get good footage of Rick showing me, the greenhorn, how to kayak. And the lessons started the moment I tried to take a seat.

What an embarrassment! Getting in and out of a kayak without getting wet, and while retaining my dignity, seemed next to impossible. Rick, however, showed me a couple of manoeuvres to make the act look somewhat graceful. My preferred entry was sliding my butt across the paddle shaft anchored behind the seat and braced against the mud-caked shoreline of the Abitibi. It wasn’t until my third attempt that I slipped into the driver’s seat without mishap.

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Next was a lesson on forward motion. It’s definitely not like canoeing. The power comes from rotation of the torso, not propulsion of the arms. Keeping the blade low, at least at eye level, and pulling it through the water from tip to hip were a couple other techniques Rick taught me. The most important element in Coach Rick’s arsenal, however, was making sure to relax each stroke. We had over forty kilometres to cover in less than two days, and the only way for me to make the distance and still have enough Tylenol-induced muscle power to get over the finish line was to relax each stroke.

A pit stop was made at the old site of New Post fur trading post. Again, thankfully we had Rick as a guide. I would have definitely passed this area by. The only evidence of the site being a past homestead and trading post were patches of rose bushes and rhubarb peeking through clumps of aspen, birch, and wild raspberries. The spot was also flat, a rarity along the banks of the Abitibi. The Hudson’s Bay post was established around 1867 to encourage Indigenous trappers to trade there rather than go south to Timiskaming. It was placed at the end of a long portage around the rapids that existed before the construction of the dam. Boats travelling up from Moose Factory were swapped for canoes travelling downstream, and cargo was exchanged. A big white clapboard house was built for the Hudson’s Bay Company factor, along with an even larger store and two smaller buildings to accommodate the Cree trading at the post. When the railway was extended, it meant the end of New Post, and by 1924 it was abandoned.

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Not much remained intact at New Post due to the dam causing fluctuating water levels that continually erode the riverbank. Rick took us farther back, through a large stand of mature poplar and stunted spruce, to view the gravesites. Here, a number of Hudson’s Bay workers and local Cree people are buried. Stone markers and wrought-iron fences marked the European graves, and cedar planks marked the Cree sites. Growing among them all were various species of flowers, introduced here via an elaborate garden once cared for behind the horse stable and dairy. It was a haunting place to be, and we paid homage to the people who lived — and died — here along the Abitibi before heading back to the river.

Our first night camp was upstream on New Post Creek, at the base of New Post Falls. We chose a sandbar, which Rick said would be fine to pitch a tent on as long as we broke camp before mid-morning. The waters of the Abitibi are completely controlled by hydro dams, and levels fluctuate each time cities like Toronto crave power. Rick and Luis obviously knew the river. Still, we were a tad late packing up, and our tent almost floated away on us.

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A rough, steep, and muddy trail runs along the right side of the falls, and the crowning achievement of our trip on the Abitibi was walking alongside the 120-metre cascade and gawking down at the silt-laden, chocolate-coloured water that connects the Abitibi with the Little Abitibi, two rivers that run parallel to each other. This link makes it an excellent canoe route to try out in future, paddling down the Little Abitibi and back up Canyon Dam, or downriver to take the train back out. Problem is, New Post Falls is slated for a dam — soon.
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Rick Isaacson is a known advocate against most future dams in the region, including New Post. He definitely doesn’t hold back his feelings for anyone. I wouldn’t classify him as a blind, emotional activist. At first glance, maybe. But the more I got to know Rick, the more I realized how insightful he is: a deep thinker, a northerner who cares for the rich history of the region but also for its future. His passion has gained him allies among the local Cree and Ojibwe, politicians, hydro workers, and southern Ontario canoeists and kayakers. On a recent trip he even guided Gordon Downie, of The Tragically Hip, and Robert F. Kennedy, who were representing Waterkeepers Canada. His advocacy has also made him some enemies. But that comes with the territory, I guess.
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From New Post Falls we paddled downstream toward a second hydroelectric dam at Otter Rapids, and it took us most of the day to navigate the twenty-five kilometres of river. Along the way I worked on improving my paddle strokes before the big race. The Abitibi was a perfect testing ground for me. The banks are wide and the wind can build some solid waves. Manoeuvring the kayak, especially without the rudder dipped down in the back, was a challenge.

Rick went over the main steering strokes, the first being the forward sweep. Again, it all had to do with the rotation of the torso. To make the kayak turn right, I would lean forward and place the left blade of the paddle up toward the front, by my feet, and then sweep the blade out in an arc until it reached the back of the kayak. I used the opposite manoeuvre to go left. The reverse back sweep was the reverse of the forward sweep, and by alternating the two I was able to spin the kayak in circles. Then there was the stern rudder and bow rudder, the cross-bow rudder, the hanging, standard, and sculling draw — all of which were somewhat similar to what I use to paddle a canoe. What wasn’t comparable was the tactic of leaning the kayak in one direction to move it in the other, which was absolutely critical for keeping the kayak in a continual forward motion but still in a straight line.

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The steering techniques came in handy when we reached a cluster of islands near the Otter Rapids Dam. Here, the landscape looked more like what you’d find along Georgian Bay than in the James Bay lowlands. The current squeezed through mounds of granite, causing moderate swifts and large boils of water that required some interesting manoeuvres in order for me to stay upright in the kayak. I kept close to Rick’s boat, followed his every move, and came out of the rough water without mishap.
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At first glance, the islands looked like a great place to spend our last night on the river. No campsites existed, however, and we were forced to set up our tents alongside the helicopter pad at the Otter Rapids Dam site. The large clearing was on the right, but we took out on the left, loaded our gear in Luis’s truck, and shuttled it across the dam.
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This is where the road ends in Northeastern Ontario. The railway continues on to Moosonee and back to Fraserdale, near Canyon Dam.

Onward, to the Great Canadian Kayak Challenge

Some paddlers doing this route will flag down the train for a ride back, but we drove to make it back in time for the big kayak race in Timmins — the Great Canadian Kayak Challenge. It’s a long drive, of course, and Rick and I arrived twenty minutes before the first heat of kayakers — titled the Celebrity Challenge — paddled off the starter line. I was one of the chosen “celebrities,” and quickly floated my kayak, still with Abitibi mud smeared along its hull, alongside the mayor, the police chief, the fire marshal, a couple of radio hosts, and an assortment of councillors.

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It was an odd feeling to be a southern Ontario canoe guy turned kayaker for the week, trying to mingle with a bunch of local northern Ontario heroes who had been training for the race all season. I felt somewhat like a donkey put in the starting gate with Thoroughbreds.

Just as I started to blend in with everyone and feel a little less intimidated, the starter horn blew and off we went down the Mattagami River. It was like a game of bumper boats at first, with each kayak trying to push into the lead. In the panic I drifted off toward the right bank and separated myself from the crowd. From there I simply picked up the same paddling momentum I had out on the Abitibi, remembering the key instructions given me by Rick. I kept my blade low and propelled it from tip to hip, used my torso rather than my arms, and made sure to relax each and every stroke.

By doing so, I reached the turnaround point with a collection of good paddlers: the mayor, a councillor, and a Quebec radio host. We stayed together in a pack right up until the last few hundred metres. That’s when my lack of competitiveness failed me, and the others were able to get ahead. Except for the mayor. He was still deck to deck with me until just before the finish line. Then, rather than pushing myself to try and pass him, I placed my paddle down and yelled at the crowd, “Should I let the mayor win?” There were some laughs from the audience — together with some distasteful glares — followed by a media frenzy that had me promising on radio, and in print, to return to Timmins (and to my training grounds on the Abitibi River) to beat the mayor in next year’s Great Canadian Kayak Challenge.

It was a great few days spent in the north. I was able to paddle one of the most historic rivers in Ontario. Got a kayak lesson from Rick Isaacson of Howling Wolf Expeditions — and Rick won gold in his race, the master’s elite division. Way to go Rick! More importantly, however, a true-born canoeist like me was able to enter a world-class kayak race and not only come in sixth place, but also enter and exit the boat without looking like a complete idiot.


About Kevin Callan

Kevin Callan is the author of fifteen books, including the bestselling The Happy Camper, and a popular series of paddling guides. He has been a key speaker at all the major outdoor events for over 25 years. Callan is also a frequent guest on radio and television and a regular contributor to Explore and CanoeRoots Magazine. He is a winner of several National Magazine Awards and film awards and was listed as one of the top 100 modern-day explorers by the Canadian Geographical Society. He was also made Patron Paddler for Paddle Canada.

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