Ottawa area paddler and friends run the Grand Canyon in tandem canoes
Christian Rolston is a paddler from a small town near Ottawa. He grew up an hour from the Ottawa River and since he was a kid and first dipped his paddle into the water he’s been hooked. Now, he says his life revolves around boating. He chose his schools to be closed to rivers. He got a ski patrol job because it was near the water. He spends his summer back on the Ottawa at Owl Rafting.
“I also really love deer hunting, snowmobiling, and dirt-biking, so on the road, people tend to see me as the Canadian redneck, but at home, my friends think I’m a hippy for travelling so much,” Rolston says. “I’m just doing my own thing I guess. I leave today for a trip to Ecuador, before starting work at Owl for the summer.”
He loves canoes and paddling so much when it came time to plan a month-long trip last winter before the days of COVID-19 on the river through the Grand Canyon, he decided a raft just wasn’t good enough. He had to do it in a canoe.
Together with seven other people — Ayden Dermenjian, Jerome Cote Jacob, Willa Mason, Caleb Roberts, Robert Norton, Margaret Fahey, and Alex Guimont — Rolston and the crew took 26 days to cover 279 river miles and about a hundred rapids by canoe — a Grand Canyon first, according to him.
Rolston is quite the storyteller, so we thought it best to let him explain how it all went down.
Tell me about this Grand Canyon trip in a nutshell.
It was an average leisurely paced trip by typical Canyon standards, and our canoes covered the flatwater quickly, which meant we had lots of time for running rapids, and fixing gear and relaxing in camps. A few times we hiked for miles, nearly out of the canyon, before returning to camp for dinner. We played a lot of cards. The vibes in camps were great, all eight of us on the trip got along really well, most of us knew each other to begin with, and by the end of the trip, we were all homies. Amongst the good vibes in camp though, somewhere deep in the back of my mind, there would always be a thought about what rapids still lay downstream, so there was constantly a tiny little bit of adrenaline going.
Though the trip’s pace was relaxed, the whitewater was anything but relaxing in a canoe. I would hazard to say that it is some of the largest to be attempted in loaded tripping canoes, and there was a lot of it. About 100 rapids of various difficulties and there were probably 10 rapids where I really wasn’t confident that we would be upright at the bottom. The whitewater in our silly boats really made this trip what it was, we weren’t just spending a month in one of the natural wonders of the world with our best friends, we were also doing something really rad. Well, the eight canoe nerds thought it was rad. We expect everyone else to think we’re just weird, which we are.
Why a canoe?
Though we could have rented rafts, I think we all like canoes because they are more personal. In a tandem canoe like this, you get to share all of your adventures with the other person, which makes it all the more fun. You also have someone to blame, which is nice.
I mostly paddled with Alex, who had hardly been in a canoe before, so I got to blame him lots. In a kayak you just have to be stoked by yourself until you paddle over to a friend, but with a canoe you get a buddy whether you want them or not.
Canoes make a lot of sense for long trips like this. They have enough room that you can bring the essentials and some whiskey, but you can’t bring 300 beers per person and a boombox, like a raft trip can, and usually does.
Rafts are like floating parties, but canoes force you to pay attention to what’s going on around you. You have to be reading the water all day in a canoe on the Canyon, riding boils from one side of the river to another, tilting into the turns the boils force you into, and slingshotting yourself downstream with the whirlpools. I like how they force you to pay attention.
Canoes also let you appreciate the Canyon itself more, I feel smaller in a canoe, and you can see more wildlife since you are paying attention and being a bit quieter.
Canoes have one downside, the hole in the top, but they have lots of benefits too.
What did you find most challenging?
A huge percentage of the trip was just pure fun, to be honest, but there were a couple of challenging moments in the trip too. One was the cold. Our permit was for late December and January, so it was chilly sometimes. For the first seven nights, our water bottles froze pretty solid. The worst part was actually trying to put on our frozen solid river shoes. Have you ever tried it? It’s hard to tie up a frozen shoe, even after you’ve wrangled it onto your foot. We wore drysuits on the river and brought good down jackets for in the camp, but there were times when I got a bit chilly. Luckily it warmed up considerably towards the end of the trip, so we didn’t have to deal with frozen shoes every morning.
And what were some of the highlights?
There were so many small highlights, I couldn’t name them all. The inside jokes that you can develop in 26 days of relative isolation are incredible. The view from standing just outside of a camp is etched in my memory. Seeing your friends laughing around a crackling fire beside canoes by the river, beneath an 1800-metre canyon wall lit up in the moonlight is something I hope to never forget.
For me, the best part was that a typical day in the Canyon felt totally normal. Just like you think it’s normal to get up and go to work in the morning, or school, or whatever. After a few days it became normal to wake up looking at cactuses and canyon walls, drink the morning coffee and go run big whitewater. Everyone you know goes to work, and everyone I knew was going canoeing. I was just living in the moment for 26 days.
A highlight you will hear any Canyon veteran mention is Lava Falls, as it’s considered to be the biggest rapid in terms of size and difficulty. We pulled up to Lava, hopped out on the right bank, and scouted for a long time. It’s big, and no-one really wanted to go first, so we all stood around scouting. While scouting Crystal, which is a few rapids earlier, I had told my bow paddler, Alex, that all the whitewater would “look small, feel big, and go well,” which turned out to be pretty true.
In Lava, Alex and I got pushed slightly right, into the rowdier crashing diagonal holes, but we managed to ride up and over what I thought was totally going to stop and flip us.
There’s nothing quite like tucking onto your deck to punch through a wave in a tripping canoe. It gets done in kayaking quite often, but I’m not sure it had ever been a necessary technique on a canoe before this trip, though I’m sure people must have done it somewhere. All four of our boats made it through Lava upright, which is quite miraculous considering its size.
Did you meet anyone on the trip and get some strange looks from the raft guides?
We got a few funny looks for sure. We were just below one of the bigger rapids of the trip, Hermit, when we got passed by a group attempting to do a speed record lap. They were in a 40-foot cataraft with three or four oars per side, and a guy steering at the back. It was quite the contraption, and when they passed us Alex and I kept pace with them for a minute and talked. They complimented us on our boat, and we complimented them on theirs, but I think it was obvious that each group thought the other group was off their rocker.
We also saw a raft trip on our first day, and expected to be bumping into them the whole way down the river, but they disappeared ahead of us for a full 3 weeks. When we finally saw them on day 24, we discovered they had been sure we ran into trouble and had to get pulled out by search and rescue. It was a logical thought considering our boat choice, but we had really just always been a turn or two behind them. We camped with them on night 24, and they gave us beers, which was super great.
Is this the most Canadian thing you’ve done?
I would like to think I fill most of the Canadian stereotypes, I play hockey on frozen lakes, often use a snowmobile for transportation, go deer hunting with my dad, I’m a big Tim Hortons fan, and yeah I’m a canoeist. I hadn’t thought of the trip as being particularly Canadian until Americans started mentioning it when we met them. I’m really happy that canoe trips are symbolic of Canadian culture, so yeah it was definitely a very Canadian thing to do.
You flipped only once? Tell me about it.
For sure, that was one of those challenging moments. The Canyon’s rapid rating system is one through 10. There are eight rapids with a rating of eight, and Lava is rated a nine. We were at our first eight called Hance. It’s long and more technical than some of the others, and my boat got spun around halfway down. We managed to bring it back straight pretty quickly, and thought we had everything under control until we went through one of the last waves.
As our bow started to climb the wave, our stern was pushed further into the water. We tail tapped our boat on a rock, and the impact combined with the wave at the front knocked us over. Swimming and paddling the upside-down boat to shore took a little while, but Alex and I were ok. The other boats had made it through and paddled up to us on a little beach to help empty the boat.
When we were flipping the boat to drain it, I got Rob to check where the rock hit the stern, thinking it might be scraped, but instead he discovered a huge crack, maybe two feet long. We had to spend about two hours stitching the crack closed with wires and then taping over the whole thing, and torching the tape so it would stick better.
The moment that I realized our boat was broken on the very first of the big rapids, and we had 15 days and eight even bigger rapids left to go, was the most concerned I’ve been in a while. In total we flipped 11 boats, everyone else swam more than me, but whenever I would say anything about that, I would get reminded I also cracked the most boats, so I’ll call it a tie.
How long have you been paddling and how long have you been a raft guide?
I’ve been in a canoe since I was little, but I’ve been paddling whitewater for about five years, and in the last couple of years I’ve been on the water about 200-250 days per year. These days, except for this trip, I only really paddle a tandem boat when I’m teaching at the Madawaska Kanu Centre. I usually paddle a C-1, which is more similar to whitewater kayaking than regular canoeing. I paddle whenever I possibly can, and work when I have to. Raft guiding is awesome because it combines paddling with work. I’ve been a raft guide at Owl, on the Ottawa river, for the past two summers, and I’m going back soon.
Would you recommend others attempt this trip by canoe?
For sure, if you are an experienced whitewater canoeist, and willing to work out all the logistics, there’s no reason not to. You’ll need a good crew and lots of time for planning and packing for a canoe-only trip. Doing a raft-support trip in an empty tandem boat with a centre bag and skirt would be super fun too.