Learning Lessons While Paddling the Churchill River's White Water

The rushing water slams into my 12-foot solo canoe as I paddle out of the calm eddy I was resting in. Vigorously digging my paddle into the bubbling white caps, I try to defy the force that is determined to push me downstream and away from my goal.

I am attempting to paddle upstream across a set of rapids on the Churchill River in northern Saskatchewan in a maneuver called a front ferry. By description - and for any paddler who has mastered this maneuver - it should easily and effectively allow me to move the canoe sideways across the river and through the current without being pushed downstream. But to a beginner white water paddler like me, this theory seems simpler than the actual task I am embattled in.

A dull throbbing spreads across my shoulders. The ache of muscle fatigue ripples down into my biceps. The tension is a reminder that this isn’t my first attempt at ferrying across these rapids. Nor is it my second. And if I don’t make it across this time, I will have to paddle back to the crossing point for my fourth try.

canoeing Churchill River northern Saskatchewan

I angle my canoe sharply into the oncoming current, focusing ahead on a slab of rock jutting out from the shoreline. Behind this jagged piece of Precambrian Shield beckons the safety of another eddy – a calm spot in the river along the shoreline created by the deflection of water off the rock. Three other white water students and our instructor are waiting for me, their canoes bobbing leisurely in the soft ripples created by the moving water. They are watching to see if I’ll make it across.

Tilting my canoe against the current, I manipulate the paddle, holding my angle steady while propelling myself forward. Success in fast-flowing water is only found through a careful yet quick orchestration of paddling, steering, angling and tilting. The way to earn that success is through continual practice, which seems to be something I am good at today. As I draw my paddle alongside the canoe repeatedly, keeping the angle of the bow tight against the flow of water, I manage to cross the eddy line into the safety of calmer water.

white water canoeing Churchill River northern Saskatchewan

Although breathless from the exertion, I whoop out loud in triumph. I’d fist pump, but I don’t want to drop the paddle in my fatigued excitement. My Paddle Canada instructor, expert canoeist and outdoor enthusiast Geoff Horn, grins back at me. He recognizes and understands the effort and what I’ve just achieved.

Canoeing Surf City Rapids White water Churchill River Northern Saskatchewan

These Class I rapids may seem small if viewed by an outsider standing safely on shore – particularly when compared to the Class II and III rapids found further upstream at Surf City. But to me, this small section of current is a challenge accepted and conquered: a stepping-stone in my quest to become a skilled white water canoeist.

Thankfully, I live in the right place to make that goal a reality. Few people realize Saskatchewan is known to have some of the best white water to paddle in the country. Translated from Cree, Saskatchewan means “swift flowing river,” after all.

White water canoeing Churchill River Northern Saskatchewan

Having completed several multi-day flat water canoe trips over the years, my taste for adrenaline and my penchant for learning new skills are what led me to signing up for the three-day Moving Water Intro Course through the North Face Store in Saskatoon. I live only a five-hour trip south of the northern community of Missinipe, the gateway to the province’s northern river systems. It’s a reasonable drive to make considering the immense geography of the province and the calibre of world-class rapids and waterfalls that connect the Churchill River system.

White water Churchill River Northern Saskatchewan

Although I learned many lessons throughout the weekend, from paddling techniques like hanging draws, braces and sweeps to how to read the movement of the water, I also learned the importance of perseverance and determination. With white water canoeing, just as in life, it’s not about working against the flowing water. It’s about harnessing its power and energy through calculated movements to reach the end goal safely. But arguably, the best part of it all is the epic rush of adrenaline along the way.

Canoeing Churchill River Northern Saskatchewan

Plan a White Water Canoe Trip:

Missinipe is a canoeist paradise. Located 80 kilometres north of La Ronge, the small community is the ideal launch point for a northern Saskatchewan trip. Canoe trippers have access to a variety of flat and white water routes, with the option to portage (carrying your gear and canoe) around the rapids. For those in search of a true off-the-grid canoe trip, a chartered fly-in experience can be booked through Osprey Wings.

Paddle Canada certified courses (flat water, tandem, solo, canoe tripping and white water) as well as canoes can be rented at a variety of places in Saskatchewan, including Churchill River Canoe Outfitters in Missinipe, Montreal River Outpost in La Ronge and The North Face Saskatoon, Eb’s Source for Adventure, Classic Outdoors and CanoeSki in Saskatoon.

Author & photographer: Ashlyn George

Ashlyn GeorgeAshlyn George lives for travel and outdoor adventures and manages to make it happen full-time by moonlighting as a digital media content creator and motivational speaker. She’s also a former Saskatchewanderer. A prairie girl to her roots, you can find her online at The Lost Girl's Guide to Finding the World.
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