PETAWAWA – Rafters and kayakers braved the mighty Petawawa River to compete in one of the largest whitewater races in Canada over the weekend.
Clad in multi-coloured wetsuits, adventurers set off down the turbulent rapids during the sixth annual event Hell or High Water. The festival attracts whitewater enthusiasts from across Canada and around the world. This year, a team from Peru tackled the Petawawa.
“It’s one of the premier events of the spring,” exclaimed co-organizer Brad Wipp adding the sport is growing in popularity with 28 rafting teams alone registered for this edition.
Hoisting kayaks on their backs, competitors marched to the river’s edge above the Canadian Pacific Railway trestle. Here they set off to navigate the course beginning with the Railroad Rapids, perhaps the most violent current on the Petawawa River.
While kayakers continue to dominate at the event, other competitors are choosing to playboat – a discipline of whitewater kayaking where the paddler performs various technical moves in one place. The moves and tricks are often similar to those performed by snowboarders, surfers or skaters, where the athlete completes spins, flips and turns.
“It was quite a bit faster than last year,” conceded Jamie Knechtel as he hauled his playboat into the Catwalk after his run.
“The river was pretty awesome,” added Quinton Kennedy, who followed Knechtel down. “I had a good run up until I got to Luvers. I got flipped over and got my paddle stuck but it definitely feels a lot faster.”
The Petawawa remains one of the more technically challenging rivers in the province. Once competitors are launched above the railroad bridge, they are expected to shoot through a kilometre of Class III and Class IV rapids and finish at the Catwalk within a five-minute window. Beforehand, kayakers and rafters exercise caution by scouting the course ahead of time to check for fallen tree trunks, dead head longs and hydraulics, when water pours over the top of a submerged object causing the surface water to flow back upstream.
The fast-flowing conditions also created some drama tipping over complete rafting crews in Luvers, the last set of rapids before the Catwalk. Fortunately, boaters were standing by to pluck the soaked competitors from the water. Lars Romeskie, who paddles with the Canadian national team, said a river like the Petawawa with its big features presents the serious likelihood of rafts flipping but a faster current also means faster times.
With the Ottawa River sometimes still frozen in early May, they often race on the Petawawa before anywhere else. The team, competing here as the Petawawa Rafters, is preparing for nationals in Quebec in June. Last year, they joined 22 others countries to race in the world rafting championships in New Zealand. While many fast water events have elevated to the Summer Olympics, the consensus here is rafting should stay out of it.
“It’s still a fairly big event,” said Bill Leslie, a member of the team from Cobden. “I wouldn’t want to see it become an Olympic event. It will go to manmade rivers and I prefer the natural stuff like this.”
The whitewater community is breaking a guarded sigh of relief that plans for a hydro power station west of the railroad rapids appears to off the table with the Department of National Defence not authorizing use of its land for the project.
“That’s the reason we called ourselves ‘Team Petawawa’ even when we went to the worlds,” added Romeskie. “We wanted to draw attention to this issue.”
The two-day multi-sport festival also featured stand up paddle boarding and events for the kids such as rock climbing. The Dragon Boat Races set for Sunday were cancelled at the last minute.