Exercise Grizzly Tornado Canoeing Expedition to Canada
On a wet and cold November day, a plan was hatched to transport 14 personnel from RAF Marham to Ontario, Canada.
The aim, a self sufficient open canoe trip down the Petawawa River, renowned for it’s picturesque scenery, it’s isolation from civilisation and more importantly, white water rapids that would test the nerve and skill of any aspiring canoeist. On the 17th of July, 14 budding explorers landed in Toronto brimming with excitement for what lay ahead, all the briefs and planning were over, this was it. The drive south saw the lights of the city disappear, replaced with sporadic motels and road side stops, with open expanses of wilderness dotted with lakes that were larger than counties of the UK.
The first real day of the expedition was upon us, as the group began to practice rescue drills, a real sense of foreboding began to bubble in the humour that was being exchanged. The idea of saving yourself in a fast moving river, isolated from civilisation was a daunting one; team work was going to be on the top of the agenda. However, the mood soon changed when during one particular drill, our instructors unintentionally demonstrated how not to perform a self rescue, cue much laughter.
With new found confidence and perfect conditions to practice our new skills, the group set about a short paddle to a nearby waterfall. On the return journey the weather changed in an instant, it was only after our rescue off the lake we realised that a tornado had just passed through the Algonquin Park. This sudden change in weather conditions re-enforced how quickly things could change during our time on the river.
It is difficult to imagine how much food 14 people can consume over seven days, this was soon realised when we loaded eight barrels full of it! This was before packing our camping equipment, plus our own personal kit. Our final brief was held under candle light due to there being no electrical power; this provided us the perfect preparation for the following week.
We unloaded our seven boats and equipment off the big yellow school bus and the driver took our group photo before we loaded our boats. As he drove away we all realised that this was the moment we had been waiting for, what none of us had expected was the nervous feeling we all had as we set off. As we paddled, we all looked across from our starting point on Cedar Lake and couldn’t see the other side, we were speechless and on our own in bear country for the first time. None of us were sure if it was fear of the un-expected or the way the boat handled when it was full of kit whilst paddling into a strong cross wind 800m from the shore, but I don’t think anyone fancied a rescue here!
Our first campsite overlooked a dam and was the perfect location to discuss our plan for the following day, oh, and introducing ourselves to the locals. The mosquitoes, horse and deer flies swarmed upon us, the repellant we were showering ourselves in seemed to act more like a pheromone, and gave no respite; this, we heard later is the other thing Algonquin is famous for.
It was amazing to see how a group of strangers could, over night gel so quickly. The camp site was stowed away and boats packed in quick time, this set the tone for the coming week; we had roughly 100 miles of lakes, rivers, and portages plus grade 5 rapids ahead to navigate. We set off down the river, the group’s first experience of moving water was interesting and desperately wanted, for some, this was the major factor for their application. So much so, after an hour of practice, one instructor was heard saying ‘we will be walking a lot on this trip or my pension will be going down the river’. However, we learnt quickly, both in how to handle our canoes and more importantly, how to help each other. As we travelled the river, the rapids and challenges grew, as did the time some spent out of the boat, but so did the efficiency of the team rescues that followed.
As the days passed, individuals quickly realised that to successfully navigate the complexity of a fast flowing rapid, it was imperative to communicate continually with the other member of your boat. Every individual developed an understanding as to their role in the canoe and how to exchange information rapidly to prevent disaster.
This was immensely useful as the rapids came thick and fast, this including Big Thompson and Little Thompson (the second being harder?) and Grillade were run successfully before approaching the ‘piece de Resistance’ of Algonquin, the Rollaway Rapid. After a good scout it was decided that we would get in just after a huge boulder and run the rest. Some decided to walk others ran it and followed the white horses, there were no swimmers amongst the group who had a go, amazing! There was a great piece of fast moving water at the end and everyone took the opportunity to practice ferry gliding in a strong current followed by surfing the white stuff, what a difference a few days make, unanimously we agreed that the instructor’s pension was now safe!
This was a huge turning point for some, and meant we all began to enjoy the challenges the river was delivering; cooking through thunder storms or tackling a grade three rapid was met with humour from all corners. By the penultimate day, everyone was capable of scouting a line through which the rest of the group would follow; the skill improvement was unreal, as was the ever-changing topography of the river. One minute we found ourselves in steep V shaped valleys of fast moving water which would quickly give way to vast expanses of endless lakes and panoramic scenery.
In searching for our last campsite some of the group caught sight of a bear and her cubs which reinforced the reason why for the last week our food and equipment were strung from trees every night.
Every individual found themselves in a situation where they encountered the limits of their comfort zone and had to ask themselves, some more than once, can I do this and can we make it? We all continued to push hard, and in some cases bantered hard to maintain morale, particularly whilst portaging our boats and equipment over difficult terrain for up to seven miles.
The expedition was a great success promoting team work, determination, physical robustness and leadership. Every member of the team learnt valuable personal lessons and communication skills that can only be learnt in a situation were your safety is ultimately linked to the person you are with.