I get asked this question a lot, and it’s taken me a while to arrive at a decent answer. See, I sort of got thrown into whitewater canoeing. I was working as a flat water canoe guide and the camp needed me to assist with a whitewater trip. I had never actually paddled whitewater myself! After that trip I became totally hooked on whitewater, and now it’s my absolute favourite way to spend my time.
But if you didn’t grow up at a canoe tripping camp or haven’t worked as a canoe guide, how do you get started in it? Without further ado, here is my answer!
If you haven’t already, get started in flat water paddling
Some people might think this is obvious, but I do have quite a few people tell me they want to plan a whitewater trip having never paddled anything before. Some guided river trips don’t require you to have experience, but generally I’d recommend a couple weekends of canoe camping in a provincial park before you start with whitewater. If you’re wondering how to get starting with flat water canoeing, check out my Guide for those New to Canoeing.
Do a weekend course
Paddle Canada has two excellent intro whitewater paddling courses – Moving Water I and Moving Water II, which are taught by Paddle Canada instructors at guiding companies or outfitters. You can find instructors and courses on the Paddle Canada website. I’d highly recommend taking one of these courses (I have myself and I’m going to get my boyfriend to take them next year). They often take place over the weekend, and in two days you’ll get to learn new paddling strokes and paddle some seriously fun rapids.
You can also get safety training for whitewater rescue by doing a Whitewater Rescue course. If you want to do any remote trips or bigger rapids, I’d highly recommend doing one of these courses. There are a few guiding companies that offer them (Boreal River is my favourite by far). You’ll learn how to rescue someone stuck in rapids, how to cross rivers when the current is strong, and lots more. Also, this is the most fun course I have ever taken! It’s seriously a blast and I’m already looking forward to my re-certification course (still over a year away!).
Start with small rivers close to home
If you live near in Ontario, I’ll have a post up this weekend with recommendations for what rivers are suitable for beginner whitewater canoeing. If you aren’t from Ontario, comment or send me a message with your location and I can help you find some rivers at your level.
The most important thing is to choose a river that isn’t too remote and has a good map. A topographic map (which you can find at stores like MEC or REI) is necessary, but guide books are also really helpful because they point out where all the rapids are and describe their features, so you know what you’re up against. Not all rivers have guide books, and it may take a little searching on the internet to find one for your river. Personally, I love maps by Hap Wilson because they are so detailed and he is basically the canoeing God of Canada, so everything he says in gold.
Consider hiring a guide
If you want to try some bigger rivers, but don’t feel confident in your paddling or rescue skills, consider hiring a guide. You have two options here: you can either go with a guiding company on one of their scheduled trips (Black Feather’s Nahanni River trip is a popular example), or you can hire a private guide to join your trip. The private guide can assist you with booking gear and transportation, and provide safety equipment like throw bags and a satellite phone. However, their primary role is join your trip as the safety and knowledge guru.
So what are you waiting for? (Other than summer, that is.) The only way to get started is to get started. If you have questions, please comment/send me a message and I will do my best to get you on a river.
Need more information about canoe tripping? I recommend reading these posts: