Whitewater Canoeing Down the Lower Madawaska River

A whitewater canoe trip down the Lower Madawaska River in Ontario was probably the biggest physical challenge for me in 2017. It was one o...

A whitewater canoe trip down the Lower Madawaska River in Ontario was probably the biggest physical challenge for me in 2017. It was one of the most enjoyable trips at the same time. Successfully overcoming physical challenges always creates a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Combine this with a feel of wilderness and some of the prime sights Canadian nature has to offer, add lots of food and drinks, imagine sweating in a self-made sauna, taking a bath in natural pools, and having fun in a company of 6 like-minded friends, and you'll get the recipe for a great 3-day adventure.

But before we start, there is a short disclaimer: you may notice the quality of pictures is a bit lower than usual. This is due to the fact that I didn't bring my camera with me (thanks God), and all pictures were taken with cell phones. Why am I glad I didn't take my camera? Because I would have drowned it at least twice in mighty rapids of the Lower Madawaska river.
A piece of advice: don't use my article as a guide to navigate the river - get a professional book with maps instead. The one we had helped us a great deal as it showed each rapid's difficulty and the best way to run them.
The idea to paddle the river came up many months before the actual trip in July. Mid-summer is probably the best time for the whitewater canoeing down the Lower Madawaska river as the water level is still decent yet it's already nice and warm to swim should you get kicked out of a canoe. 
Trust me - you want the water to be warm as chances are you will get wet, at least for the first time.
Although the river is much longer, only a 42-km / 26-mile section between Palmer Rapids and Griffith is good for paddling.
Unless you have your own canoe and can tow it to and from the river, your best bet would be to stick with outfitters. Consider this a free ad, but we rented from a nice gentleman Don at Greater Madawaska Canoe Rentals. The good thing about renting there is that you finish your trip right across the river from his backyard, at Highway 41. So logistically it was the best option for us.
After we've picked our paddles, Don took us on his van to the starting point - a bit lower Latchford Bridge on Palmer Road right at the church. A good place to think about your sins before rushing into a dangerous adventure.
Making sure all our stuff is firmly attached to the canoe and getting ready to paddle.
The first couple of hours were flat and boring, but it gave us enough time to familiarize with paddling and getting used to working in pairs.
You will hear the roar of the first rapid at least 10-15 minutes before starting seeing it. For the first-timer like myself, that sounds made me excited and terrified at the same time, because I didn't know what to expect.
The most senior person in our group and the only one who made this trip before did a good job preparing us for what's coming and how to handle it. The bottom line - everyone enjoyed it and no one got wet on the day 1.
This part of the Lower Madawaska river is a provincial park and has designated backcountry campsites. No reservation is required, it's first come, first served. With quite a few paddlers on that weekend, securing a good campsite was a bit challenging as we had to compete with other groups. But luckily we got what we were aiming for. Remember - leave no trace and take only pictures.
The campsite was located on a peninsula right next to rapids. A great fishing spot with a big fire pit and some self-made benches. We used one of the canoes as a table. Very rustic but quite romantic.
Apparently, someone brought a door (!) to a campsite. I'm afraid to guess a reason for that, but we used it to cover the fire when it started raining. 
Day 2 was the most challenging both physically and mentally. We had to run at least two grade 4 rapids and many more smaller grade 2 and 3 ones.
There are two ways to safely take rapids - run with prior scouting and portaging. Scouting is getting out of a canoe before a rapid and planning a route to run it. Even the most experienced paddlers who have a prior knowledge of a section should scout the rapids before running them. 
You can scout from your boat or from the bank. The latter is more advisable as you never know what hazard might be waiting for you down there. 
Portaging is walking over a rapid instead of running it. We had one portage over the Slate Falls. The book says that there have been people who have successfully run the falls, but it's too dangerous to do so.
The portage was short, but painful. Lots of mud and mosquitos. Probably, the hungriest mosquitos I've ever seen. They didn't mind the DEET at all.
Where it got really funny is where my partner and I attempted to run a grade 4 rapid and pretty much passed it, but got too much water in our canoe, so it became unstable and turned over. I got re-e-eally scared even though I know how to swim and I had a life jacket, because I knew there was another rapid in about 300 m / 900 ft, and the river was pretty fast flowing. I finally decided to drop my paddle and swim perpendicular to the current. Here is the video of another group attempting the same rapid.
The key lesson I learnt - hold on to a canoe. So next time our canoe turned over again (yes, we got lucky), I was not scared at all. 
In case you wondered - yes, we found my paddle about 3 km / 2 miles down the river. But it was rather unexpected finding. 
The spot for the second night's campsite was terrific. The best one you could ever dream of in terms of quality and privacy. It was obvious that not many people knew about it, so I won't reveal its location to keep the place as pristine as possible. 
The highlight of that night was a sauna made of fiery rocks and an old tent. That's a kind of thing you'd least expect in a backcountry, but we did it and had lots of fun. It took us a bit over one hour to red-hot the rocks and voila. 
Fellow backpackers might be jealous here as a canoe allows you to bring extra food, drinks and stuff you would never carry on your shoulders. 
Day 3 was the most relaxing one. 
The river almost didn't have any rapids and took us through the cottage country. 
The only challenging part was the Highland Falls (grade 5) which only two people in our group dared to run. And they did it successfully!

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