How to Get Started in Whitewater Canoeing

by voyageurtripper

How do I get started in whitewater canoeing? I get this question I lot, and it has taken me some time to arrive at a decent answer. See, I sort of got thrown into whitewater canoeing myself. I was working as a flat water canoe guide and the camp needed me to assist with a whitewater trip. I had never paddled whitewater but needed to learn quickly. After that trip I became totally hooked on whitewater, and now it’s my favourite way to spend time outside.

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 whitewater canoeing? 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 canoe 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, I have some resources that will be helpful.

Beginner’s Guide to Canoe Camping

Do a weekend course on whitewater canoeing

Paddle Canada offers some excellent courses to help you get started in whitewater canoeing. You can find instructors and courses on the Paddle Canada website. I recommend Moving Water I for new whitewater paddlers.  The courses 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.

Start with small rivers close to home

If you live near Toronto, join the Wilderness Canoe Association. Every so often members host day paddles at some of the rivers near Toronto. It’s a great way to meet some friends and paddle some moving water. You can also search for rivers near you on Google Maps and see if anyone online has written about them. You want something with moving water but no serious rapids.

Advance to bigger rapids with support

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 a necessity. 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 whitewater canoe 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 in whitewater canoeing is to just get started! If you have questions, please comment/send me a message and I will do my best to get you on a river.

Related posts:

Beginner’s Guide to Canoe Camping

The Ultimate Canadian Canoeing Bucket List

A beginner’s guide to scouting rapids

Where to hike, camp and paddle in Central Ontario

Which Wilderness Medicine Course should you take?

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