Chapter 1: People of the Shallows

Neil Miller|Published 08-13-2008

“People of the Shallows”

 

     With only very limited archaeological records, little is known of where the aboriginal peoples of Canada came from and why specific groups settled where they did.  Within the 75,000 square kilometer region south of Lake Nipissing, with Georgian Bay to the west, the Ottawa River to the east and Lake Ontario to the south, the primary tribes were Huron, Algonquin, Ojibway, Ottawa and Iroquois.  These Native Canadians all spoke some derivative of what came to be called the Algonquin language and each of the main tribes were broken into numerous smaller clans or sub-tribes. 

 

     One clan that was part of the Algonquin tribe settled along the upper regions of a long swift-flowing tributary of the Ottawa River that had its source in the highlands that would one day become a great provincial park.  This Algonquin sub-tribe was known as the “People of the Shallows” or Matouweskarini and in time the swift flowing river adopted this name which was then slightly modified by the early European explorers to become the Madawaska River.

 

     The day before Day One of whitewater camp, approaching from the west, we dropped down from the Algonquin highlands and into the Madawaska basin at Whitney.  The weather was balmy and partly cloudy with the afternoon high hitting 18°C and we were relaxed as we made our way from the provincial highway onto the county road that would lead to our destination.      

 

     Tucked into the rugged hillside, nearly hidden by the mature deciduous forest, along the banks of the swift river, sat the commercial whitewater instructional camp called Madawaska Kanu Centre or more simply, MKC.  Fourteen kilometers south of the small but bustling resort village of Barry’s Bay, the approach to the camp had a rural, almost remote, feel until you came to an intersection along the county road where there were signposts with as many as a dozen signs pointing in every direction, including the commercial logo for MKC. 

 

     The camp was a cluster of 5 or 6 buildings all with a pseudo-rustic yet modern architecture organically sharing space and appearing to give way to the interspersed trees and boulders that dominated the acreage. Terraced into the forested hillside behind and above the compound were numerous private campsites. This is where we put up our tent on Friday afternoon, the day before the start of the whitewater program and our subsequent struggle with intra-canoe control and coordination.

 

     After we set up our camp, we walked down to the river’s edge and it was a sobering sight.  The Madawaska was roaring through its channel and we were both left momentarily speechless.  After we got all of our exclamatory and expletive outcries out of the way, we studied the river more closely, removed most of the emotion and started discussing the best lines through the roughest stuff.  Falling back on reason and logic was somewhat therapeutic for both of us and we carried this attitude through dinner.  Then we met the rest of the people we were going to be up close and personal with over the next three days.  

   

     First impressions are generally insightful but not always wholly accurate.  Our head instructor seemed to be a somewhat somber paddling “bum” (and I mean that in only the most respectful way) and the assistant instructor was quiet but she seemed very steady.  Our instructional group was to consist of eight adults in four tandem canoes.  As the introductions continued, we met two young couples from Sudbury who were neighbors and who were at MKC to hone their paddling skills and two middle-aged ladies who were best friends scheduled to make a guided trip down the Nahanni River later in the summer.

 

     These last two had the least amount of whitewater experience of us all and were hoping to become more comfortable with the skills required.  My partner and I were wilderness trippers who were hoping that a better understanding of the techniques and situations regarding rapids would give us the skill and confidence to run more of them and portage less.

 

     We had made a trip in the previous fall on a remote river in the Moose River basin and on several occasions we could have really used the skill to perform back ferries.  The most notable was a “must-make” landing just in front of a deadly souse-hole which we accomplished but at the cost of driving into the rocky shore at, more or less, full speed.  That back ferry would have given us a much cleaner, controlled method of landing.  There were also rapids that we were not physically able to completely scout from shore so we portaged but if we had been comfortable with eddy-turns and front ferries, we could have saved ourselves time and the grunt of the carry.

 

     In the next three days the training would be very humbling.  There would be times when we would have to reach down inside ourselves, to pull up some reserve spirit because physical effort and cold water can really combine to drain your strength, both physically and mentally. 

 

    In the best case, the sky was partly cloudy and the temperature was 12°C but most of the time there was only overcast conditions with intermittent rain showers and the temperature was more in the range of 6° to 8°C.  There had been a lot of snowmelt and a lot of rain in the spring and the river was at near high-water conditions.  Although I didn’t know what the actual water temperature was, I can say with complete authority and experience that it was cold – real cold.     

 

     MKC’s dormitory was completely full with thirty adolescent boys and their counselors from Camp Hurontario in Georgian Bay working on a fast water certification program.  This left only two other rooms available and these had been reserved by the two ladies in our group and one young lady from the kayak group.  The rest of us were camped out with the single exception of a middle-aged couple from the kayak group who were staying in a local Bed and Breakfast.  The camp staff had created a schedule in such a way that only on a few occasions, mainly a few meals, did the adult group interact with the young boys.  The only time we ever really felt their youthful exuberance was on the second evening when the boys managed to completely plug both toilets in the “Men’s” bathroom.  Fortunately (for the adult males) MKC also had a relatively new multiple-stall composting toilet but within a couple hours, the Hurontario counselors had unplugged the main facility.

 

     MKC is a working resort run with military precision, but with all the comfort and charm of a classic Canadian lodge.  The lodge staff is completely accommodating and the instructors are all experts who have paddled some of the biggest waters  in the hemisphere.  The whole program is closely supervised by the owners, Dirk and Claudia Van Wijk. 

 

    If you seek a north-woods vacation where you can rise late and drink a Bloody Mary before breakfast, book yourself into Arowhon Pines or Killarney Lodge. 

 

     But if you want to challenge yourself by day and relax comfortably at night, you can become one of the “people of the shallows”, if only for a period of from two to five days, at Madawaska Kanu Centre.

 

Neil E. Miller

Copyright © August 8, 2008