In the five years that I’ve participated in Paddle the Don event, I often get a reaction of mock-horror whenever I explain it to someone. “What if you tip into the water?” they exclaim, as if this would be tantamount to plunging headfirst into a nuclear waste pool without a HazMat suit. Well two years ago, I did happen to swamp my canoe in a shallow part of the river and it wasn’t horrible at all. Plus, it’s really handy now that much of my skin glows in the dark, so there.
Now sponsored by Manulife, Paddle the Don is an event that allows Toronto’s urban paddlers a unique opportunity to paddle down the Don River. It’s flooded for the event so that the waters are high enough to make it navigable (and some sections still seem quite shallow towards the end of the day). Since 2002, it’s also been a fundraiser for the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), with paddlers collecting pledges or donating out of their own pockets. There are rewards for fundraising – my $50 donation got me a BBQ lunch at the end of my paddle, and this year’s event T-shirt which is a bright blue and says “Eat, Sleep, Paddle” under iconographic images.
Every year I feel the event becomes more organized. From the moment you drive in to park, there are volunteers directing you where to go and instructing you on what to do. After registering and filling out the requisite paperwork and waivers, you get in line to start paddling at the Ernest Thompson Seton Park departure point. At that put-in, and each of the three weirs or portages along the route, there are friendly volunteers waiting to help you in and out of your boat, then to get your boat out of the water. The Wildness Canoe Association and Scouts Canada were among the helpful volunteers this year. The Canadian Coast Guard Agency is also on hand to watch over the more dangerous areas of the river.
This paddle is a bit above beginner level – you’ll at least want someone with some canoeing experience in the stern. The first section is the trickiest with fast moving water and some class one rapids that demand your concentration. A lot of fallen trees, rocks, and the odd shopping cart will create obstacles to go around in the water.
I’ve never seen so many tipped boats at the event as I did this year. Most of the swamped canoeists were unhappy and soaked, but there was situation our canoe came across where people seemed to be in real danger. Coming around a bend and approaching a small rapid, we saw a swamped canoe and its occupants now trying not to get sucked downstream and over the rocks. A boy, who looked to be about 13, was trying to stand up and fight the current. He was cursing a blue streak and I could sense that he was panicking. On the other side of the river was a gentleman who looked unhappy, but was making his way towards the shore.
I steered towards the boy and shouted to my bow paddler that we’d try and pick him up. We got close enough that I was able to shout to him to grab on to the back of the canoe – it was not possible to stop and let him climb in with the current. The boy shouted back “OK” and then clutched the stern as we headed down the rapid. While we travelled, he cursed in pain and shouted out. I called back, instructing him to keep hanging on. A few seconds later, we were done the rapid and in calm enough water to move to the bank. The boy wanted to cross the stream and attempt to get his canoe, but I told him to stay where he was. At this point, a couple other onlookers had joined us at river bank. We turned to see the gentleman, who had apparently not reached shore, float by us. He gained his footing a few meters downstream and also made his way to shore. After making sure the boy was unhurt and seeing that there were others around to assist with the clean-up, we continued on our way.
If you ever find yourself in a situation where your boat is swamped and you’ve got no choice but to swim down rapids, assume a posture facing downstream. Stick your feet out in front of you and try to bounce off of any rocks you hit, keeping your feet-first orientation. As soon as you’re able to get to the river bank, do so, and don’t go back into the moving water for any reason.
The rest of the trip was less eventful. I had more time to take out my camera and snap shots of the city along the river banks, and the birds that make a habitat out of the river. There were many Canadian Geese with young goslings, mallards, red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, and another dark-blue and black bird I couldn’t identify. Being in a canoe, you get the unique perspective of seeing the underside of the numerous bridges that cross the river – for cars, pedestrians, and rail lines. In past years, I’ve parked my boat right underneath a low bridge as a train thundered across it. It’s a real rush.
The paddle ends with a barbeque party featuring some live music, and a beer tent area. Hamburgers and hot dogs can be purchased for a few dollars and eaten at tables sitting in both sun and shade, as you watch the remaining paddlers come off the river.
A bus transports you back to the starting point, then it’s up to you to drive back down to the end at Keating Channel and pick up your canoe. After paddling all that way, it almost feels like cheating to drive down.
How to do it
If you’re interested in participating in Paddle the Don next year, be sure to join the mailing list and register as soon as the opportunity arises. Individual boat registrations fill up very quickly, and there are more spots available for corporate teams now if you want to get your office involved. If you don’t keep a canoe down in the city, you can rent one that will be brought to the event for you. Check the official Web site for information.