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CANOEING ON THE ROUGE AFTER THE HURRICANE OF '72

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If you had to name a première river that flows from the very heart of the Laurentians, you would surely choose the Rouge. The Rouge River runs 220 km, originating in the Réserve Faunique Rouge-Matawin, northwest of Mont Tremblant, and follows a winding course southward. Eventually it tumbles down the south face of the Laurentians and empties into the Ottawa River, just west of Calumet, near the very place I was born. The Rouge has everything; slow meandering turns, lots of white-water rapids ranging from Class I to V in intensity and several spectacular un-runnable waterfalls.

The path of Hurricane Agnes, 1972. (Photo - Gordon Rainey)During May 1972, my brothers Winston, Johnny, Clarence and myself began planning a Rouge River expedition for late June. This would be no picnic because the Rouge had a bad reputation for drownings, dating back to the days of the “draveurs” who had to free up log jams with pike poles in treacherous spring conditions, so that logs could flow down to saw mills on the Ottawa River. Legend has it that many “draveurs” are buried right along its shores.

Who would have thought that a hurricane would play a role in our adventure? Hurricane Agnes, the first hurricane of the 1972 Atlantic hurricane season, spawned as a large disturbance over the Yucatan Peninsula on June 16, then drifted north over the Gulf of Mexico where it gained hurricane force by June 18. It made landfall on the Florida Panhandle, before proceeding northeast, ravaging the Mid-Atlantic region as a tropical storm. Regaining hurricane strength over North Carolina, it moved out over the Atlantic on June 21 only to veer northward and slam into New York City, continuing to plow inland and northward from there. The storm merged with a non-tropical low over our area on June 23, with the combined system affecting the northeastern United States and southern Ontario and Quebec until June 25. It dumped a record rainfall and caused rivers all across the Ottawa Valley to flood their banks. Besides the dirt road wash-outs, strange weather phenomena occurred. On June 24, a rare eastward-moving tornado, spawned amid the remnants of Hurricane Agnes, raced through Maniwaki. The stormcut a wide swath and the weather remained unsettled for quite a while in the area.

Undaunted by the recent turbulent weather, we stuck to our plan and headed north towards the headwaters of the Rouge River on June 24. We figured the high water levels would speed us along and cover over the rocks in the rapids. We travelled up into the Laurentians with our gear and delivery/recovery team, who were to drop us off as far up the Rouge as we could drive on Saturday, June 24, and pick us up two days later, downstream at Harrington on Monday, June 26. The plan was to be home in plenty of time for the Canada Day celebration.

I had bought, copied and marked up the government topological maps of the river that described the rapids and waterfalls, which made us feel that we could anticipate and master any situation.

We drove about 15 km north of L’Ascension to the gate of the Réserve faunique Rouge-Matawin, northwest of Mont Tremblant. According to the gatekeeper, the Rouge was very rough, with high canyon walls farther up, and no easy access from the road. So we decided to launch our expedition at that point. We placed the gear into our canoes, said goodbye to our delivery team and pushed off. We left the park gate about 4:30 in the afternoon. The weather was beautiful and we figured we’d make good time. I paddled stern with Winston in the prow in our aluminium Springbok canoe, while Johnny paddled stern with Clarence in the prowof their fibreglass canoe. Our descent was underway.

The Rouge River in tamer times. (Photo - Matthew Farfan)Réserve Faunique Rouge-Matawin to L’Ascention:
The Rouge River was running fast, with high water, but smooth. We passed a trailer campsite that was flooded, with RVs over their wheels in water. That section of the river is fairly tame and consists of a series of looping turns. In some cases we were able to take shortcuts over submerged necks of land to save time, instead of going around the usual oxbow bends in the river. We cut “cross country” over fences and farm yards. In one case a pump handle was barely visible above the water level. There was also a guy barbequeing in hip-waders.

We canoed right through a campground where the water was so high we could touch the eaves of the buildings from our canoe seats. There were two signs over the toilet doors: BRAVES and SQUAWS. Johnny grabbed one as a souvenir, but I can’t remember which one.

The rapids, if any, that might have been rocky and more of a challenge in lower water, were covered over. It was pretty easy going to L’Ascension, a distance of about 15 km.

L’Ascention to L’Annonciation:
We continued on. This section passed through scenic landscape and meandered around oxbows. It was an easy descent of about 25 km, with a few navigable rapids. We camped for the night on a sandy beach, just downstream from L’Annonciation. We could hear the sounds of the annual Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebration and the dance music from a hotel in town. Over and over again they played “Knock Three Times” by Tony Orlando and Dawn. The loud music and all the foot stomping that went along with it blasted our way from the town, from twilight time until after 3 a.m. Although the first day on the river had been fairly straightforward, we should have chosen a campsite further from town. It was hard to get much shut-eye that night.

L’Annonciation to Labelle:
This 25 km section of the trip was more turbulent, punctuated by pleasant rapids: the Rapids of the Farm, the Rapids of the Squirrel and the Rapids of the Italians. As we paddled through the Rapids of the Italians, such a mound of water was in the center of the river that both canoes were projected unceremoniously towards the right bank where we came to rest among alders growing along the flooded shoreline. We managed to back-paddle and resume a course closer to shore.

Somewhere along that stretch we stopped for lunch at a bridge over the river. We noticed a convenience store nearby so Winston went to buy a few things including some wieners. We had been drinking fluids and eating soup and wanted some more substantial food. This was when Winston came up with his memorable phrase “much needed bulk.” Once in a long while, an expression so fitting to the situation at hand is uttered that it startles with its appropriateness and so galvanizes the situation that it gets indelibly etched in memory. Such was the occasion and those present still laugh about it all these years later.

We were so hungry we each grabbed a wiener and started eating them cold, with initial gusto, but to our disgust we found them to be stale, mouldy and sour and quickly spat them out. There had been a power black-out in the region and the wieners had lacked proper refrigeration. We blamed it on Agnes, so we didn’t go back to the small store to complain or insist on a refund.

We took a good look at a long stretch of rapids just above Labelle and decided it was too rough for us. A local bystander said that he knew of only one person who had negotiated those rapids in an open canoe-- supposedly a "one-armed Indian" many years before.

We knew about the falls in the centre of the village, so we prepared to portage our canoes and gear into Labelle. Fortunately another canoe support party gave us a hand. They hauled our canoes and gear along with theirs down to Labelle, a distance of three or four kilometres. They had a Landrover-type vehicle and a trailer.

The Labelle falls was spectacular. Below the falls was a large eddy where the water churned around in a forbidding whirlpool. Quite a bit of debris and logs from the flooding were circulating there. We launched our canoes on the east side of the bridge and, as it turned out, we were still a little too close to the falls. The big whirlpool was as wide as the river with all manner of junk swirling in the middle. Centrifugal force made the water at the edges higher than in the middle. The current was against us at that point, threatening to draw us back under the falls. Then we got into alders. We could hardly paddle and took to desperately clutching and pulling on the alders to make it through. That situation was tense and that gave us a boost of adrenaline allowing us to finally fight free of the back-tow, although nightmares of getting drawn back into the cataract at Labelle apparently persisted for some time in the group.

A placid stretch. (Photo - Matthew Farfan)Labelle to Huberdeau:
It was in this section that we were overtaken by a pair of guys paddling butt naked in their canoe. They were travelling light and had a support crew in a jeep along the highway, with camping provisions. Because they had very little gear on board, they easily overtook us, which we considered at the time an affront to our paddling prowess. They were French Canadians reliving the exploits of their voyageur ancestors. They said they planned to canoe all the way down the Rouge, the Ottawa and the St. Lawrence rivers, all the way to Sept Isles, over the rest of the summer. Well good luck to them, and bon voyage. They should have a real good tan by then!

Between Labelle and Huberdeau we camped for the second night near a railway track, on a very narrow shoreline with a very steep bank to the river. It was raining miserably, and we had trouble finding any dry kindling or firewood to get a fire going for supper. But we finally got a fire going in the rain and had a bite to eat. Then we pitched the tents near the raging river. The tumultuous water nearby made it hard to sleep for a second night in a row.

Huberdeau to Harrington:
Day broke and the rain had stopped. The sun was shining and spirits were up. This would be our last day. After a hasty shoreline breakfast we launched the canoes and were once again paddling down the Rouge. Rounding a bend, we came in view of the bridge across the river at Huberdeau. Locals on the bridge began to wave their arms frantically to catch our attention and wave us away from the dam below the bridge. The head of water going over the dam was unusually high and the current so strong that it presented a real danger. Anyone swept over would almost certainly have been killed.

With that warning we quickly changed our course and headed for shore. Feeling the pull of the river towards the lip of the falls and the increasing din of the cataract below gave us another boost of adrenaline, propelling us to safety. I often wonder what might have happened if thosepeople had not warned us. We heard one lady say, “Ces gens sont des experts…. Ils savents ce q’ils font.” Sure we were experts. It was our first canoe trip andwe had everything under control. Right! In retrospect, after examining what was ahead, under the bridge and over the dam at Huberdeau, we sure dodged a bullet.

Portaging our canoes, we noticed kayakers in the white water rapids below the falls. The rapids looked too turbulent for our open canoes so we portaged to beyond them, as well. Then a phone call was made to our retrieval crew to let them know we were on our final leg of the journey and that it was time for them to head up to our rendezvous point at the Harrington CIP tree farm, just above a not so navigable stretch of turbulent rapids called Harrington Canyon, better reserved for rafts and kayaks.

Between Huberdeau and Harrington, it was an easy stretch of flat water. Our retrieval party greeted us as planned. We unpacked and drew our canoes from the river. We loaded the canoes onto the double roof rack of my 1966 Plymouth Belvedere II and headed back to civilization. During our return down the steep Kilmar road, the heavy load of people and equipment taxed my suspension and the passengers and equipment were tossed left and right through the sharp turns.

During our trip, with the bad weather and all, my father is supposed to have said, “I wonder what possessed the boys to do that?” Of course, my father couldn’t swim and never went on water unless his life depended on it.

And so these are a few memories which have withstood the test of time. Some say our trip was inspired in part by the 1972 movie, “Deliverance.” Although our adventure on the Rouge was not as hair-raising as the guys in that movie, it was a real challenge for us. We took some risks, given the fact that we didn't have much experience. We can credit our success more to the primal survival instincts we possess, and a bit of luck, than to our prowess with the paddle.