Posted by Ed 13 days ago

Damp brush crackles in the fire, hissing with moisture as last night’s embers ignite. The first rays of muted, golden sunlight cut through the smoke as it climbs into the cloudless autumn sky. Fall has arrived on the Nelson River in northern Canada. The morning is completely calm. Except for the thunder of whitewater.

A lone figure ambles around the riverside camp and into the makeshift kitchen crafted from tarps tied to rough cut logs. Camp stoves and cutlery are lightly dusted with bonfire ash. Moving aside an empty whiskey bottle, he boils a pot of river water for coffee. There is no plan for today. No agenda. Imagination is the only limiting factor in this whitewater playground. And drinking coffee may be the only grown-up element of the day.

Camping this close to roaring whitewater might keep some from finding sleep. But for the 11 kayakers tucked in sleeping bags nearby, the whitewater vibration is a lullaby. The sharp, northern air feels severe compared to Eastern Ontario’s heat and humidity that they left a few days ago. Perched on the edge of the Nelson River, the soft, hazy, dream-like light is absorbed by the water.

Mornings are slow here. A couple of sips of coffee later, tired bodies begin to emerge from hammocks, tents and tepee-like structures, like lost boys coming out of the forest. Beer cans and boxes of wine are scattered around the fire, like crumbs left from a feast. The scene and atmosphere – the texture of morning – feel like a Canadian version of Neverland. Within the hour, the sleepy scene transforms into the rhythm of daily life that revolves around kayaking on one of the world’s finest river waves.

When packing for a multi-day whitewater trip, carbon kayaks aren’t usually included. But a week ago, a gang of whitewater kayakers – friends, rivals, competitors and brothers – packed into a van and drove for two days from the Ottawa Valley, outside Canada’s capital city, to the flatlands of central Canada, and carefully loaded freestyle kayaks into rafts. Visible from the camp kitchen, two 12-person rafts are parked in a calm eddy called ‘the garage’. Loaded with food, gear, cameras, kayaks, and two propane-fuelled motors, they pushed off shore from the northern community of Cross Lake. The goal: to find big waves and high flows in the wilds of Manitoba. 

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