Kayaking Quebec’s Rouge River

, December 19, 2011

Playing on the waves in the heat of Summer

Montreal is famous for many things, but its proximity to world-class white water is not usually considered one of its celebrated assets. Nevertheless, a 75-minute drive from downtown Montreal will land you in the beautiful Rouge River Valley. During the Spring, the mid-sized Rouge River can flow up to 450 m³/sec, while for the rest of the Summer and Fall one can expect anything from 30 to 200 m3/sec.

I spent last summer working full time on the gorgeous Rouge River as a rafting guide and white water kayaking instructor for New World Rafting, paddling well into the Fall. Over the last weekend of November I had the pleasure of getting out to the Rouge River with a paddling friend of mine and fellow Magnetic Junction blogger, Nick Bennett. We have had many stupid ideas in the past, but as we got suited up – Nick in his new dry suit and myself in old long johns – and put our hands in the frigid waters for the first time, Nick couldn’t help but comment, ‘I think this might be our worst idea yet.’ I was quick to agree, half-joking that I couldn’t afford to swim in these temperatures.

We set off from the put-in hesitant to get our heads wet with any practice rolls. The first rapids of the Seven Sisters section are class II and III – a perfect warm up when it’s not freezing outside. The air was crisp and the last of the leaves clung to the trees. At the first major rapid, Elizabeth’s Sill, I pointed out to Nick what the line was – it’s hard to go wrong on this one – and then paddled down ahead of him to take photos. After getting flipped on the way down I rolled quickly and got some nice shots of Nick.

Nick punching through 'Maxo Relaxo' wave before Elizabeth's Sill

After Elizabeth’s Sill, the river wakes up and it is a stone’s throw to the beginning of the next section, a nice long run of class III. It was great to be paddling and the standing waves were a blast to punch through. We rounded the corner of the “Himalayans,” a series of standing waves, and eddied out before the major rapid, a class IV wave, aptly named the Washing Machine. Nick decided he was too cold to get out and scout with me, so I pointed him in the right direction – basically down river – and ran down to take more pictures. Nick did just fine, albeit getting worked a little in the Washing Machine, before paddling to shore. He seemed quite surprised at having been flipped, but I assured him that having worked on this section all summer, the Washing Machine was nothing dangerous.

It was now my turn so I ran back up, and without second thoughts, paddled down to the Washing Machine. I missed my line by about a foot and it was my turn for a rodeo, which Nick found quite entertaining as he snapped away from the side of the river. 20 seconds passed and I was still wrestling with the wave, trying to stay upright so I could eventually get out. 45 seconds in, and I could see Nick’s thoughts as they progressed from ‘watching Matt surf,’ to ‘Matt getting surfed,’ to ‘Matt now in a rodeo,’ to ‘Matt might swim…’ and then quickly dropped his camera and ran for his throw line as I went under yet another time.

Getting Wrung out in the Washing Machine

Finally about a minute after hitting the Washing Machine, the river showed mercy and released me, but it was a humbling reminder of who’s stronger. It made me think that kayaking is a bit like wrestling with a friendly polar bear – you both know he can beat you but most of the time he lets you win.

As we finished the last section of the river, into the ‘Surprise’ wave and on through the ‘Rock Garden’ to collect ourselves after the Washing Machine, we spotted a bald eagle fly by overheard – a good sign. Hungry and tired by the time we got to the takeout, Nick and I decided that yes, in fact, this was probably the best worst idea we have had yet. All in all, it was a great way to wrap up the paddling season for 2011.

With snow on the way, it’s time to trade the plastic boat for plastic boots and skis, but it won’t be long before we’re chasing the ice down the Rouge next spring!

Visitors’ advice

The Rouge River is a great destination for all paddling levels, and is well suited for kayaking as well as open canoeing. For the more experienced, the Canyon section when the river level is above 150 m3/sec is wonderful class III-V, and at 150 m3/sec, both the Canyon and Seven Sisters section can easily be run in a day. The Seven Sisters section is good right down to 40 m3/sec. Under 40 m3/sec, find yourself a creek boat, some safety and look at doing the Seven Sisters waterfalls, immediately after the Seven Sisters section. There are in fact only six, and because they’re so close together, you will want to scout them first. This is the last section of the Rouge River and you can paddle it right down to where it flows into the Ottawa River.

Getting Flipped in the Canyon - Spring Levels

For those less experienced both sections at less than 80 m3/sec is a great run. For something slightly less intense, look at putting in at the Horseshoe Falls bridge (green metal bridge); it’s a nice 6-7 km section of gentle class II (with the first rapid an easy class III). The takeout is before Table Falls, which makes for a great picnic spot. Don’t run Table Falls.

If you feel like something a little different, the Rouge is a classic rafting destination as well!

Important information

Photo credit: Nick Bennett, Mads Modeweg