Canoe crazy on the Otter

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Man down! Man down!

With much of the grace exhibited by Alexandre Despatie, if slightly more entry splash, Darryl Smart succumbed to, unofficially, the seventh submerged obstacle the Otter Creek had thrown at us in the first kilometre.

Judging by his gesticulations and remarks, the water’s gentle caress was even more refreshing than the air’s ambient 14 Celsius. “Flip!” Smart was heard to exclaim (in all honesty), before regaining his equilibrium, a shade over waist deep in the gently flowing Otter.

It was 10:04 a.m. and we were 50 minutes into a six-hour-plus paddling adventure that had taken a sharp turn south, both literally and figuratively.

The idea – of the ilk of those arising late at night and deep into the cup - had seemed like such a good one inside The Tillsonburg News office. Smart, a passionate paddleboarder in search of new territory, fastened on a chance remark about a 30-year-old canoe race from Otterville to Rock’s Mills.

“Hey, that sounds like fun,” interjected photography student placement Bethanie Wood, and in less time than it takes for a paddle to J-stroke through the water, an odyssey was born.

The guy who had done it before should have known better. But human memory tends to emphasize the positives and thus, in the same canoe purchased 30 years ago for $50 (including a pair of paddles and strangulation-model lifejackets and worth every cent), upgraded with pounds of fiberglass patches, a plywood rear seat and two coats of snazzy blue marine paint; and accompanied by Smart on his paddleboard, initial launch took place shortly below the Otterville dam Wednesday, July 24 at 9:16 a.m.

Twenty feet downstream we ground to a halt on the creek bed. Happy to be wearing quality, if old running shoes to protect my feet, I disembarked for the first of many such excursions and 30-year-old memories came flooding back: dragging the boat through rocky shallows, struggling through submerged rocks and logs, tangled in-stream barriers, downed trees blocking the entire creek, a mosquito or two and the odd horsefly.

Driving from that point to Rock’s Mills represents a brief vehicular jaunt of around nine kilometres, considerably less as the crow flies. If you happen to be a paddling human, rather than a flying crow, you will become acutely aware Otter Creek’s meandering nature adds considerably, and every chunk of impassable shallows, submerged barrier and deadfall costs time and energy.

The first inkling our three-hour estimated timeframe was wildly optimistic came 20 feet downriver from the launch site. Constant reminders followed our laborious course for its duration, through landmark bridges at Cornell Road and Middletown Line, to the former dam site at Rock’s Mills.

There is no doubt that section of the Otter Creek flows through beautifully-natural countryside mixed with farmland and the manicured Otter Creek Golf Course. The banks are lined with young to mature trees, in spots with roots artistically exposed, stretching back through forested country appearing untouched by civilization – save for the occasionally jarring reminder presented by discarded tires and other human detritus.

Beautiful ground is also good ground for critters and particularly at dawn or dusk, one may see a variety of fauna among the engaging flora, including deer, wild turkeys and a wide variety of birds, water and otherwise.

But the experience comes with a price tag, and the Otter extracts it in full on both creature and craft: those looking to follow our course can simply follow the streaks of blue marine paint left on assorted rocks and logs. By the time we pulled gratefully ashore on a gravel bank just below the former dam at 3:29 p.m., paddleboard, canoe and passengers had all taken their share of a beating.

Before heading out again, the venerable blue canoe will need yet another pound of fiberglass, and the three participants a bit of time for short-term memory loss.

For the record, the challenges, in rough order, included the requirement to drag one’s craft through shallow and rocky, or (near the former dam), fast-moving and deeper rocky water; battling through submerged barriers and deadfalls; irregular forays by horseflies (not around all the time, but timing their most vicious attacks to when targets are hung up and most vulnerable); and for the arachnophobic in the crowd, a memorable multiple spider encounter.

The trip’s chronological progress is included in the accompanying feature story: Somewhere down the crazy Otter. The video ‘Canoe crazy on the Otter’ is on The Tillsonburg News website: www.tillsonburgnews.com. Those considering their own foray might benefit from the advice in the sidebar: If you go.

Admittedly, it has one serious, and possibly the most important omission: go with people with a sense of humour and adventure, the kind who can hop, still dripping, back onto their paddleboard with a trademark laugh; shake off a deadly spider attack; or beat the crap out of a deadfall with a branch in a fit of frustration; drop a few verbal ‘bombs’ and carry on with an innate sense of the ridiculousness and humour in it all. And if you do, you’ll have far more fun that one would think possible, despite the inherent challenges.

Enough even, that well before boat, board, backs and horsefly bites have fully healed, you’d already be considering a sequel.

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