Exercise Rocky Salmon
125km of lakes, rivers and rapids plus the dreaded portage lay ahead.
Following on from the previous year’s success of Ex Grizzly Tornado, the idea of Ex Rocky Salmon was born. Utilising the knowledge gained and being aware of potential pitfalls, the planning process was put into full swing. 13 personnel from RAF Marham and one from RAF Northolt would be attempting a self sufficient open canoe trip down the Petawawa River, Algonquin National Park, Ontario.
On the 7th of July, all 14 personnel arrived in Toronto, the many months of planning, endless phone calls and emails, were now coming to fruition. The first phase of the expedition was upon us, the drive from Toronto to Dwight was five hours and in true expeditionary fashion, was completed in a thunderstorm of biblical proportions. Perhaps we might need the canoes earlier than we imagined!
Our first day on open water began with the necessary safety briefings and equipment familiarisation. With the instruction finished, a chance for all to acquaint themselves with the water appeared. Some of the group took this rather literally, spending the majority of the morning swimming! With the mood lightened, we moved on to rescue drills. Whilst on the river, these would be performed in moving water, not in the serenity of a calm lake! The necessary skills were gained quickly and began to show through. Coupled with a healthy dose of teamwork, everyone left the lake with a new found confidence. We were made aware of some local areas of interest and subsequently headed off towards the local waterfall to take in the stunning scenery. One of the group (who shall remain nameless), decided this would be the ideal time to slip on a twig… Luckily, this resulted in nothing more than a bruised ego and gave a timely reminder of how quickly things could change during our time on the river.
The next unexpected challenge was the packing and organisation of all the equipment, seven days worth of food alone for 14 people is astonishing! That plus tents, sleeping bags, personal kit and cooking equipment was unbelievable. It was hard to believe there would be enough room left for the crew of two!
We unloaded our seven boats and mountain of equipment off the big yellow bus and after one last group shot before the real adventure began, the sheer size of the task ahead literally lay in front of us. Our starting point, Cedar Lake, is roughly the size of Norwich City Centre; we simply had to traverse this to our first campsite. As we began the long paddle across, with the boats fully loaded, the realisation that we were on our own was there for all to see. There was not a soul in sight, just vast amounts of water and trees as far as the eye could see, now was not the time for a capsize!
Our first campsite overlooked the lake and a nearby logging dam. It was here we quickly realised we were not alone, the mosquitoes making an unwelcome appearance. It seemed the insect repellent we applied acted as nothing more than a homing beacon with the swarms quickly upon us! It was amazing to see how 14 strangers began to gel almost instantly. The boats were unloaded and camp prepared as if by an F1 pit crew, something that would stand us in good stead for the week ahead.
The group set off down the river and we experienced our first taste of moving water. It was here we started to learn the art of communication, not only between crew mates, but also the other boats. It was imperative to maintain good communication at all times otherwise it could end in disaster. As we travelled down the river, our first Grade 1 rapid was quickly upon us. This was scouted from the top of a disused railway bridge, a line was decided upon and the group nervously began their first descent. Miraculously, we all completed the first rapid without incident, an achievement which would not be repeated until the final day!
The rapids came thick and fast, the likes of Big Sawyer and Battery Rapids were run and the inevitable swamping and capsizing began. All survived unscathed, although some were minus the odd shoe, paddle and bag. All of the rapids within our remit were run, which was not only testament to the skill of the group, but also the excellent instruction we received. Unfortunately some of the rapids along the Petawawa River were just far too dangerous to attempt. The only option was portage, this meant all the kit, including the boats, had to be carried around the rapid. On one particular day, the group portaged in excess of 15km with over 50kgs of kit! Physical and mental stamina was a must, with plenty of banter and deer fly mixed in along the way.
With the skill level rising everyday, we all took the opportunity to go solo, practise ferry gliding in the current and attempted to surf the white water. Great fun was had by all and the fear of swimming had now well and truly evaporated.
As we approached the final camp site of the trip, an eagle was spotted soaring along the water line; this was just one of the many stunning sights seen along the way. Algonquin Park is a fantastic place and the ever-changing topography provided some unbelievable challenges and stunning back drops for a truly memorable experience.
Every individual on the trip had pushed the limits of their comfort zone more than once and I’m sure many asked the question, how on earth can I do this?
The trip was an undeniable success, promoting all the pillars of Adventurous Training, which in turn links directly to operations, where your trust and ultimately your life is placed in the hands of those alongside you.