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Mystery Archives: Ottawa River, Quebec and Ontario By Scott Docherty

The Ottawa River is a fantastic big-water squirt run that defines the Ontario/Quebec border for much of its length.  Largely unknown and under-utilized by the vast majority of squirt boaters, it offers a myriad of big surfing waves, play holes and seams, as well as several truly superb mystery arenas that rank among the very best in North America. The best way to describe the various opportunities available to DT-hungry amphibians is to break the river down into three distinct segments:  McKoy’s Rapid, the Main Channel, and Middle Channel.

-McKoy’s Rapid-


At the top of McKoy’s (above Sattler’s Hole against the river left shore) lies what is perhaps the friendliest and most accessible DT spot on the entire river at levels between 2 and –2 on the OWL gauge. Deep and unobstructed, it is a clean and fairly innocuous-looking eddyline that bulges out from the shore into the current, which is accelerating downstream into the heart of the rapid.  The bottom of the eddy is defined by a large shelf of rock which captures water flowing downstream and feeds it back up to the top, creating a consistent and very supportive eddy/current structure which can yield smooth, controllable and very deep rides of over 20 seconds to serious and skilled riders. Aptly named “Smoothie” by Carl Gittings in August of 1999, the spot has been frequented by local squirt boaters for years and has just recently begun to attract the attention of squirtists from further abroad.

There are several ways to access the lower realms of Smoothie, but by far the best rides occur when the rider goes in “standard” – with the whirlpool energies.  The most popular entry seems to be to cross the eddyline just above the squeeze at about a 45 degree angle to the currents, and initiate your bow with a high-angle smash that snares the bow deep into the downstream currents close to the eddyline. Good timing is required, for as the boat spins with the momentum of the move and drifts down into the squeeze, you must simultaneously slam the stern down in and level the boat out, placing you about neck-deep and in perfect position to continue winging down, spinning along the seam and accessing ever-deepening realms.  This move is effective and flashy, and is an excellent way to get deep fast, avoiding the turbulence caused by the shallow water at the very top of the eddy.

Another common method is to approach the squeeze with your bow buried about a foot deep or so.  As you approach, you will notice a tiny curling wave that forms and disappears just above and to the eddy side of the squeeze – the trick is to penetrate the currents just above this little wave and wing down hard with a decisive impact from your right hip (crossdraws work well here).  Be sure and get back into the eddy immediately, as the downstream currents will want to pull you out into the main flow.  Once you spin back in, it’s easy to continue winging down using the support of the eddy – the experience is sublime, like floating down through thick layers of molasses.  There’s little sense of motion; even though your eyes are registering that the boat is spinning, the sensation of doing so is almost completely absent.

This spot can also be accessed using a backcut entry – the drop is fast, but the downtime is usually short-lived and not as deep as that of a regular entry.  There are those, though, who have managed to make it work quite well, with regular 4-5 second, fairly deep rides. Approach the squeeze running very close to the eddyline, and watch for that same little curling wave.  The aim is to cut back perpendicular to the seam, effecting a big left-hip impact as you pass under that wave.  The drop is immediate if you’ve positioned yourself properly…the trick now is to maintain your spin going against the whirlpool energies, not always an easy task.  

 Swirl-O-Gram Eddy

Above Horseshoe hole, on the river left side of McKoy’s, there is a huge eddy formed by the current slamming off the “Judging Island” and recirculating back upstream as the main flow swings around to the right. There are two mystery spots to be found here – the main eddyline, and a small reversal inside the eddy itself (sort of an eddy within the eddy).  This smaller seam is easy to access, but difficult to orient yourself with, as there is a lot going on as far as the currents around you are concerned. The best method is to backcut into it, paddling hard with your bow slightly submerged and hitting it decisively with your hip as you wing down.  The drop is always fast and immediate, and you can stay submerged and spinning for 3-5 seconds with practically no travel at all.  A boater will almost always resurface within a couple feet of where he/she went in.

The main seam is tougher to figure out, as there is a lot of turbulence to deal with as you hit the seam up high.  Backcuts are a fast way of accessing the seam and dropping quickly, but as the line varies in width and tends to surge, it’s easy to find yourself out in the main flow, where it’s tough to recover your charc and get back into the eddy before the pillow coming off the island rejects you, sending you on downstream into Horseshoe hole.  Not a bad place to play, but definitely not a DT theater. Instead, get way up high on the eddyline and drop in on a regular charc.  The squeeze is somewhat indistinct, but as you play it will become apparent that it rests just downstream of the end of the “Corner Wave”, a steep and stellar surfing wave that extends from the river right shore. The aim is typically to pick your bow deeply into the squeeze, then auger somewhat slowly down into the currents, feeling your way along the line and anticipating surges. Staying close to the eddy at all times is the safest way of making sure that you don’t get grabbed by the downstream currents.  There are no obstructions (ie. big pinning rocks) on the river bed but again, once you find yourself out in the main flow, it’s tough to get back into the eddy in time. Once you get a feel for how the spot works, it can be a very rewarding place to play…underwater travel is epic, and you can find yourself all the way down by the island when you resurface, just in time to hop back into the eddy and let it carry you back up to the top again!  This eddyline is also a fantastic place for long, extended cartwheel and screw sequences – if you get frustrated with trying to get down here, it’s just as fun to work the line vertically for all you’re worth.

-Main Channel-


At the very bottom of The Lorne, there is a fun little playspot known as Pushbutton.  A hole and wave train formed by a smallish ledge, it also features an eddyline that offers good DT potential where it encounters a very boily section a short distance downstream of the hole.  Often the best approach is to wait in the river left eddy for a big boil to surface close to the eddyline, then drop on in for a short, deep and safe mystery. Some boaters choose to tap into this spot by just entering the current below the hole and drifting down into the boil zone, winging down when the opportunity presents itself.  Downtime here is short but

sweet, and the tough part can be getting out of the current and back across to the eddy in order to access it again.  There is also a decent seam on the river right side, forming off a smaller side chute as the river turns right and heads toward the next rapid, Butcher’s Knife. This is one of the only river-right mystery spots on the river, and it’s a good one – just a clean eddyline formed where the current drops over a shallow ledge and encounters the main volume of water flowing past at roughly ninety degrees.  Again, the DT is short but sweet; head-deep, 2 to 3 second mysteries are most common here.

Brain Douche

This is easily the most famous (infamous?) mystery spot on the Ottawa.  Located at the very bottom left of Butcher’s Knife rapid, it is formed by the considerable volume of the entire main channel being squeezed between two points of land and spilling over a vertical ledge on the left.  The defining features of this spot are the huge whirlpools that peel off the edge of the pourover and spin downstream.  Immensely powerful and very deep, this can be an extremely dangerous seam to play in – losing control while down can lead to a very long, very deep, very violent double-suck that will expose a rider to pressures that can blow seams out of boats and eardrums out of boaters.  Though there has yet to be a death at Brain Douche, over the years there have been a number of very scary accidents that have led local squirtists to search out their downtime at safer, more controllable spots on the river.

That said, Brain Douche can be an entertaining (if somewhat unnerving) place to play for those who know to slake their thirst for downtime by taking SMALL sips.  Paddle up into the pourover, winging down gently as the immense power of the river grabs hold and takes you down.  No need to plant a big hip impact here – just a little angle is all you need to send you spiraling down into the depths.  Be very aware of how deep you are; keeping an eye on the wall that forms the pourover as you drop is a good way to gauge your depth initially, and the rapidly increasing pressure on your ears will suffice to remind you that you’re still dropping rapidly as you spin down the seam.  It pays to hit the up-button around the 8’-10’ level – any deeper than that and you’re asking for serious trouble. The double-suck usually occurs when the main seam encounters turbulence coming off the river right eddy – be sure to play gingerly until you figure out where this takes effect.

Those familiar with the New River (WV) will recognize the overall architecture of Brain Douche immediately; it’s a lot like the Halls of Karma, but on a massive scale. It was named by Eric Lindberg and Whitney Shields, back in the mid-80’s, for its tendency to thoroughly purge the sinuses on the way back up from very deep mysteries.

The Rock above Black’s

Just above Farmer Black’s rapid (the last rapid on the Main Channel), there is a comfortable little rock (at the terminus of a low shelf that appears in mid-current) that is an excellent place to pull rock splats and swipes. A well-defined seam extends downstream off the right side of this rock, and recently squirtists have begin to realize the excellent mystery potential of this otherwise innocuous-looking eddyline.  The favoured approach is to paddle up extremely close to the rock and snare your bow deeply into the curl coming off of it. As the bow sinks and starts to swing around into the current, drive your hip into the slab and wing down quickly, bringing your bow back around and into the eddy as quickly as possible. There’s a lot more depth here than is initially apparent, so don’t be afraid to get your bow very deep upon entry – there’s a lot of drop happening in a very short period of time, so the faster you get under, the faster you can get back to where you’re supported by the eddy and can sustain your DT. Backcuts also work here, but are less reliable than standard entries because those deeper currents aren’t as accessible further down the seam.

-Middle Channel-

The Pool below Iron Ring

There is a very fickle little interface between a boily, unstable eddy on river right below the main drop and the downstream flow rushing past it that can serve up some quick, juicy downtime to those willing to put in the time to figure it out. Weird, unpredictable whirlpools form at no apparent interval, and a boater who wants to get down here must be very patient, as not every whirlpool will offer access to the lower currents.  Though it can be quite a hit-and-miss proposition, occasionally you can slip through the ever-changing folds of the current and get a deep, turbulent mystery that will end almost as soon as it has begun. Gauging the shape and accessibility of these whirlpools is an arcane art that can border on alchemy for those with short attention spans and a big thirst for DT.

Basically the best way to get down here is to hang out on the edge of the eddyline, waiting for the whirlpools to reveal themselves.  As one shows up, dip your bow in just below it and let the current swing you downstream.  As the whirlpool enfolds you, slip your hip gently into it’s folds as you swing parallel to the current, and let it take you down.  Using force here will get you nowhere – the whirlpool will either let you in or it will not. If it does, the ride is very rewarding – if not, it is nonexistent.  There’s no such thing as a chin-deep mystery here; it’s a “gone ride” or a non-ride.

S-Bend Hole

Downstream and around the bend from Iron Ring rapid is a small play hole that extends from the river left shore, across from a mid-stream island.  There is a powerful, well-defined seam that forms off the side of this hole that is for some squirtists the best mystery spot on the Ottawa.  Access is straightforward – you can drop into the hole and wing down underneath it, picking up the seam as you pass under the foam pile, or you can auger down into the seam just behind the hole and spin your way along the line. Either way, the drop will take you to the bottom of the river (not that deep at this particular rapid) and you will scrape along the riverbed until the seam plays out and you pop back up. The dynamics of the hole/seam structure make this a prime spot for practicing loops and flamboyant, screwing black attacks.  The hole itself is an excellent venue for blasting, spins and low-angle cartwheels (verticality in the hole will guarantee a crunching encounter with the bottom in a low-volume squirt boat).

Hell’s Half-Mile

This is the stretch of low-gradient, class I riffles below the confluence of the Main and Middle Channels, but above Black’s takeout and River Run. There are a myriad of rocks and seams on both sides to play with here, most of which must be caught on the fly and offer excellent mush-move potential. A few of these offer tantalizing dips into the depths, never much more than head-deep or longer than 1-2 seconds, but they are enough to keep a boater entertained on the paddle down from the confluence to either takeout.

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