A Whitewater Initiation

James Smedley teams up with a first-time whitewater paddler on the Brightsands River.

The deceptively smooth water of the Brightsands River narrows, quickens, and drops ahead of us. Although we’ve inspected the rapids, it always looks different from the vantage point of a canoe in midstream. It’s a straight run through the initial chute, followed by a bit of technical maneuvering through a rock garden where the river widens into a deep slow pool. “Okay Janine, slow paddle forward,” I say to my bowsman as we propel ourselves to the point of no return.

I do a lot of paddling with my wife, but at this moment my wife is on shore watching as I paddle with my friend Patrick’s wife, Janine. Although we have known Patrick and Janine for many years, this is our first canoe trip together.

The Thunder Bay couple had heard many stories over the years of wilderness travel along remote northern waterways of the province from our longtime paddling partners Kathy and Neil Simpson. And this year, they are joining us on a five-day canoe trip along Northwestern Ontario’s Brightsands River.

Patrick and Janine enjoy a hearty outdoor meal.

So far we have experienced sumptuous outdoor meals, ancient Indigenous pictographs, and great fishing close to sloping rock campsites.

Ancient Indigenous pictograph along the Brightsands River 

But this is our first stretch of whitewater. I’ve always been transfixed by rapids. No matter how impassable they may be, I can’t help envisioning how I would navigate a canoe through the turbulent flows. I follow the water thoughtfully as it jostles between rocks, funnels through narrows, and drops over ledges.

The set of rapids ahead was no exception. After a quick inspection I knew I could run them, I just wasn’t sure who I could convince to join me. When I suggested the rapids could be run, my wife balked and the rest in our group averted their eyes. Except for Patrick’s wife, Janine, who expressed a cautious enthusiasm.

So while the others watch from the bank, Janine and I paddle towards the whitewater. I assure her we’ll be fine. It’ll be fun. She’ll just need to paddle forwards, or backwards as commanded. “And if we make any wrong moves, it will be well documented,” I say laughing with an eye towards the camera-wielding spectators perched on the big boulders of the shoreline. But as the bow drops into the first chute and the adrenaline pumps hard, all our concentration is on the undulating mass of water and rock ahead.

It’s really not a difficult run, but the standing waves squeezed through the initial narrows are large enough that we ship a few gallons of water into the 18-foot Wenonah. “Back paddle, back paddle!” I bark, as we slow the canoe and execute a series of back ferries around a peppering of subsurface boulders. As the river widens into a rock garden we navigate a labyrinth of narrow channels before slipping into the calm of the deep pool at the base of the rapids.

We made it through without so much as touching a rock. 

Christened with the spray from her first set of rapids, a broadly smiling Janine turns in her seat to give me a hearty high five. With water sloshing around at our feet, we share a moment of triumph. And in the days ahead, I’m pretty sure I see Janine thoughtfully studying the flow of rapids, with an eye towards running them.

Regional Travel Information

About James Smedley

Professional photographer and writer James Smedley’s contributions—more than 400 pieces and close to 1,000 images—to U.S. and Canadian books, magazines, and newspapers have earned him over 40 national and international awards. In addition to teaching photography workshops, James is the travel editor at Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine. James has fly-fished for brook trout and arctic grayling in far northern rivers and continues to cast for trout, bass, and steelhead near his home in the northern Ontario town of Wawa where he lives with his wife Francine and daughters Islay and Lillian.


Visit James at www.jamessmedleyoutdoors.com

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