A rough, steep and muddy trail runs along the right side of the falls and the crown jewel of our trip on the Abitibi was walking up along side the 120 meter cascade and gawking down at silt-laden chocolate colored water that connects the Abitibi with the Little Abitibi, two rivers that run parallel with each other. This link makes for an excellent future canoe route to try out, paddling down the Little Abitibi and back up Canyon Dam or down river to take the train back out. Problem is, New Post Falls is slated for a dam soon!
Rick Isaacson is a known advocate against most future dams in the region - including New Post. He definitely doesn't hold back his feelings to anyone. I wouldn't classify him as a blind, emotional activist. At fist glance, maybe. But the more I got to know Rick, the more I realized how insightful he was, a deep thinker, a northerner that cared for the rich history of the region but also of its future. His passion has gained him allies with local Cree and Ojibway, politicians and hydro workers, and of southern Ontario canoeists and kayakers. On a recent trip he even guided Gordon Downie of Tragically Hip and Robert F. Kennedy - representing Waterkeepers Canada. It's also made him some enemies. But that comes with the territory I guess.
From New Post Falls we paddled downstream towards a second hydro-electric dam at Otter Rapids and it took us most of the day to navigate the twenty five kilometers 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. Being able to maneuver 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 leaning forward and placing the left blade of the paddle up towards the front, by my feet, and then sweeping the blade out in an arc until it reaches the back of the kayak. The opposite maneuver was used to go left. The reverse back sweep is the reverse of the forward sweep, and by alternating the two I was able to spin the kayak in circles. Then their 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 art of leaning the kayak in one direction to move it in the other. This tactic was absolutely beneficial to keeping the kayak in a continual forward motion but still in a straight line.
The steering techniques came in handy when we reached a cluster of islands near the Otter Rapids Dam. Here, where the current squeezed through mounds of granite and the landscape looked more like what you'd find along Georgian Bay than in the James Bay lowlands, moderate swifts and large boils of water made for some interesting maneuvers to stay upright in the kayak. I kept close to Rick's boat here and followed his every move and came out of the rough water without mishap.
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 Rick's son's truck and shuttled it across the dam.
This is where the road ends in the north. The railway continues on to Moosonee and back to Fraserdale, near Canyon Dam. 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 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 its Abitibi mud smeared along its hull, alongside the mayor, police chief, fire marshall, a couple of radio hosts and an assortment of councillors. It was an odd feeling to be some southern Ontario canoe guy - who turned kayaker for the week - trying to mingle with a bunch of local northern Ontario heros who had been training for the race all season. I felt somewhat like a donkey put in the same starting gate as thoroughbred horses.
Just as I started to mingle 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, each kayak trying to push into the lead all at the same time. In the panic I drifted off towards the right bank and separated myself from the crowd. From there I simply went into the same paddling momentum I had out on the Abitibi, remembering the key instructions given 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 turn around 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 meters. That's when my lack of competitiveness kicked in and the others where able to get ahead of me. Except for the mayor. He was still deck to deck with me until just before the finish line, and then, rather pushing myself to try and pass him, I placed my paddle down, 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. Get a kayak lesson form Rick Isaacson of Howling Wolf Expeditions -Rick won gold in his race - the masters elite division. Way to go Rick! More importantly, however, a true-born canoeist like myself was able to enter a world class kayak race, and not only came in 6th. place, but entered and exited the boat without looking like a complete idiot.
Can't wait until next year.