Petawawa – 1978 & 2006 – by Ted Johnson
When Samuel de Champlain paddled up the Ottawa River in 1615, he passed a substantial river falling in on his left. He was told by his native guides of a family of Algonkians whose hunting grounds lay several days’ travel up the ‘river where we hear loud noise’, or in their language, the “Petawawa”. It was probably another hundred years before the first European would ascend it. It’s a rugged river with frequent ledges and boulder gardens, providing an outstanding whitewater challenge. The loggers’ graves and poignant memorial cross along its shores testify to its relentless power.
Many of us paddled the Petawawa at various times over the years – some encountering more excitement than they’d anticipated – but the first organized outing of the nascent Arctic and Rideau Canal Canoe Club was in July, 1978.
This was a three-day shake down cruise for the Noatak River trip in Alaska slated for the following month. Steve Blair of Wally Schaber’s Black Feather Outfitters did the organizing and came along in order to sharpen the group’s paddling skills.
The famous freezer box had yet to be created by Tim and David. And there was no wanigan; everything was carried in camping packs. Food – Blackfeather state of the art – could be considered serviceable but not up to the standard to be reached a few years later. Most importantly, thanks in at least some measure to Steve’s professional touch, nobody overturned!
Canoe Team: Steve Blair, Tim Kotcheff, David Silcox, Craig Oliver, Peter Stollery and John Godfrey
Flash forward ten years. We hadn’t paddled together for ages. Pierre had passed away in September, 2000, and six of us – Oliver, Kotcheff, Stollery, Godfrey, Macfarlane and I – thought it would be fitting to commemorate the tenth anniversary of our last trip with him. We set out on the same weekend – the third one in July – under a sunny sky made fresh by a mid-Friday thunderstorm. Late that evening, a whip-poor-will called to us as we chewed the fat around the campfire at the outlet of Lake Traverse. None could recall hearing one in years. A good omen.
Although none of us was as old as Pierre had been when we ran the Petawawa in 1996, it became apparent that the ravages of age were taking their toll. Big Thomson Rapid, a raging Class III torrent in spring, morphs into a simple Class I rock garden by high summer. Those of us who had run it were stunned to see the crew of the slowest canoe staggering along among the boulders and gravel, lining their canoe. Their confidence, their white-water skills and some of their faculties had evaporated.
The chefs, aided by two bull cooks anxious to avoid dish duty, had prepared a culinary masterpiece for Saturday night. But it wasn’t until almost dark that aching backs and backsides settled into lawn chairs at a cramped campsite. Despite Peter’s complaint, “Craig, this drink is a placebo,” the rum daiquiri worked its magic. Spirits recovered even further over an outstanding dinner under the stars. After celebrating our good fortune at being out there, and toasting absent friends, everyone was in his sleeping bag by eleven.
Shortly thereafter, on the beach at MacManus Lake, several of our number announced that this was to be their last trip. Ted Johnson