Walking on water

danpaddle2When I got my first stand up paddle board last August — an inflatable from Ottawa-based Level Six via MEC — the water in the city’s Rideau River was already fairly low. It would have been impossible to paddle from the put-in spot near my house to the terminus, where it tumbles into the Ottawa River, without scraping along the bottom. This past weekend, the water in the Rideau was very high — and very fast. A few days of heavy rain and spring snowmelt had flooded some city streets, paths and parks — the biggest soaking of the last few years. The Rideau Valley Conservation Authority issued a warning and said that water levels would peak on Saturday, April 8 (an hourly flow of more than 323 cubic metres per second). That was my cue. Inspired in part by my spring freshet kayak adventure down Ottawa’s garbage-strewn Sawmill Creek a couple years ago, I hatched a plan.

I pumped up the board at the foot of a friend’s submerged street in Old Ottawa South, just west of Bank St., where the water was lapping beneath park benches on the submerged riverside path, and pushed off into the murky brown current. The ride was smooth at first, the river wide. There were strong headwinds and crosswinds, and in places I had to paddle hard to make progress and remain pointed downstream. I encountered my first set of whitewater under the Highway 417 bridge. No problem. Approaching the Adàwe Crossing pedestrian bridge, however, I dropped down to my knees as the current and wind pushed me toward the shore. I grabbed for a branch to steady myself, maybe rest for a few minutes — and the branch instantly snapped, my board was pulled out from under me, and I tumbled into the icy water. I was wearing a wetsuit (borrowed from my SCUBA diver brother), neoprene booties (purchased at Ottawa’s Surf Side) and PFD, and was tethered to the SUP with a leash — crucial safety advice picked up from Canadian paddle board coach extraordinaire Norm Hann on a recent tour/course I did, albeit in the Caribbean —  so I quickly caught up to the board and scrambled back on top. Naturally, I fell in right where a man and two young girls were sitting on the shore. “Is the water cold?” he asked. “A little,” I replied before zipping out of earshot. Still on my knees, I was pulled into a set of bumpy rapids, the board spinning as I held on. A couple somewhat frightening minutes later, I floated into a calm patch just shy of the Montreal Road bridge, stood up, and resumed paddling.

The rest of my outing was upright and uneventful. I stuck close to the eastern bank of the river and enjoyed the fast ride. The sun and activity kept me warm, and I stepped onto the marshy shore in New Edinburgh’s Stanley Park, just south of Sussex Drive. Three dudes drinking beer on a park bench told me the time; I’d be on the water for less than an hour (almost as long as I needed to duck behind a tree and peel off my wetsuit, and deflate the board and roll it up into its backpack). There was a bus stop two blocks away, and I was home in time for dinner.

Most of this blog is about walking, and how the act can reconnect us to natural and human ecosystems we often overlook in our urban, digital society. Paddle boarding can help us reconnect in an intimate with the waterways that surround us. It’s a simple sport, really. Look for more posts about walking on water — and perhaps a new book (working title: Born to Board) — in the months and years ahead.

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