Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Canadian Adventures: Whitewater Rafting on the Métabetchouan River in Quebec

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to travel back to Quebec, Canada for some summer time adventures. If you're a regular reader of The Adventure Blog, you may recall that I had visited the province in February of this year when I not only had an unbelievable encounter with wolves, I also went dogsledding and snowshoeing in the breathtaking Valley of the Phantoms. But during that visit it was extremely cold (-40ºF/C) in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region so I was anxious to return to see the area for some warm weather exploration too. I did not come away disappointed.

The theme of our trip was "Much Love Water" as many of the activities revolved around exploring the region by some kind of watercraft. In fact, on our first morning in Quebec we decided to get things started by stand-up paddleboarding on lovely lake near La Cooperative O' Soleil – a rural destination about an hours drive from our starting location in the town of Chicoutimi.

Most of the folks I was traveling with had paddleboarded before, so after a brief get acquainted session with our SUP gear, we set off down a placid river that fed out into a large lake. The morning was quickly warming up, but a nice breeze coming off the water kept us cool as we spent about an hour or so getting a morning workout. For those who haven't been on a SUP before, it is a good way to not only test your balance, but also work your core.

Unfortunately, our stand-up paddleboarding experience was an all too brief one, and we were forced to come off the water sooner than we would like. But, there was a good reason for that, as we had to grab a quick lunch before launching into our true adventure for the day – whitewater rafting on the Métabetchouan River.

After turning in our SUP boards we headed over to Microbrasserie du Lac Saint-Jean, a local microbrewery where we had a chance to enjoy a tasty lunch and a flight of beers that are brewed right at the establishment. Both the food and the frothy beverages were delicious, surprising us with their rich and complex flavors. If you're in the area, and you're looking for a great place to grab a bite to eat, this is a spot that comes highly recommended.

Once we had our fill, it was off to H20 Expeditions for our whitewater experience. The company has been leading travelers on whitewater excursions for years, and the level of professionalism and experience showed. Not only were the guides personable and knowledgeable, they did everything they could to get us ready for our river adventure in as short of time as possible. That included safety demonstrations, training us on the best way to paddle, and what to do should you be thrown from the raft at some point.

We had signed up for their three-hour rafting trip down the Métabetchouan, which was still running surprisingly fast even late in the summer. The river passes through a hydroelectric dam which controls its flow, and while we certainly weren't visiting during a major release, the water levels were still at good levels and the rapids were plentiful. After donning our wetsuits and pfd's, gathering our rafting paddles, and completing our orientation, we were all eager to get started.

The Métabetchouan rafting tour with H20 Expeditions covers about 7 km (4.3 miles) of distance, passing through some beautiful landscapes along the way. All around you are towering hills and lush forests that help convey the sense of paddling through a remote region, even though you aren't necessarily all that far from town. This particular stretch of the river includes 12 major rapids, and a couple of smaller ones just to keep you on your toes.

Unfortunately, the put-in for the river isn't particularly easy to reach. We hopped a shuttle over to the starting point, only to discover that we had to actually carry the raft about 500 meters down a hill just to reach the river itself. The path was easy to follow, and there were wooden stairs at the steeper sections, but lugging a bulky raft through the forest while wearing a neoprene suit in the middle of summer has a way of getting you warm very quickly. Thankfully, it didn't take us too long to cover the distance, and once you hit the water you cooled off quickly.

It didn't take long to realize why wetsuits are needed, even in August. The Métabetchouan runs cold and stepping into it was quite refreshing following the warm descent while carrying the raft. Once our boat was in the water our guide ran us through a series of drills on how to paddle forward and backwards that helped get everyone on board operating like a team. Once that was out of the way, we were free to begin our descent of the river, which started with a wild rapid right out of the gate.

I was one of the lucky members of the crew who was chosen to sit up at the front of the raft, which is not always an enviable place to be. Anyone who has been in that spot will tell you that the bulk of the big splashes hit that section of the boat, dousing the paddlers who are there. That would be my experience throughout the afternoon as big rapid after big rapid deposited hundreds of gallons of water into the raft. Fortunately, its self-bailing floor whisked it out again quite quickly as we all had a rollicking good time on our aquatic adventure.

The first rapid of the day was actually one of the biggest, and it set the tone for the rest of the trip. By the time we passed through, most of us were already soaked as the cold water washed away all memories of the sweaty hike through the woods that we made on the way to the put-in. And once we had run that bubbling cauldron of whitewater, were able to turn our rafts around, paddle back into the rushing river, and actually surf the rapids for a bit. This had the effect of dumping even more water into the boat, but by then no one cared any longer.

Over the course of the three-hour trip, H20 Expeditions had a few nice surprises planned for us. The first of those was the option to leap out of the raft and body surf the second rapid on the river, a challenge that I eagerly accepted.

Upon rolling off the side of the raft, I was quickly caught up by the rushing river. Quickly I moved into the safest position to proceed down river, which involved going down feet-first while in a seated position. My pfd helped keep me afloat has I – and a number of my companions – bobbed through the water. It was a thrilling way to run the rapids, and a good reminder of just how powerful the forces of nature can be. Had that particular rapid been much stronger, it would have been difficult to fight your way out of it.

At other points of the excursion we would also stop to allow brave members of the team to leap off a high cliff and plunge into the refreshing waters below, and to body surf some other rapids that we passed along the way. Each of those were exhilarating experiences and a lot of fun. Each time I was thankful I was wearing a wetsuit though, as the water remained chilly the entire time we were paddling.

Each of the 12 rapids has its own name – such as The Dungeon, The Sphinx's Eye, the Great Wall, and so on. This helped us to remember them as we passed through, as they all had their own unique characteristics and personalities. Some were fast and wild, inducing an adrenaline rush. Others caused you to have to work harder to avoid rocks which threatened to stall progress or up-end the boat altogether. Some were a bit tamer, while others provided massive waves that would splash the entire raft from stem to stern. They ranged from Class I to Class III in terms of intensity, but they were all a lot of fun and helped make the rafting trip a true highlight of my second visit to Quebec.

After running all 12 of those rapids our raft was deposited out into a wide stretch of river that was positively serene. We spent the last 20 minutes or so leisurely paddling towards our take-out point and enjoying the lovely scenery that surrounded us. It had been a truly epic day out on the water, and one that none of us would soon forget. We were all happy to get out of the raft when we were done, but the excitement of the day remained a topic of conversation for some time to come.

As a travel writer, I occasionally get access to some amazing places and experiences that not everyone else can do. But, I'm happy to say that this is definitely one experience that you can take part in as well. H20 Expeditions operates throughout the summer and heads out on the water several times a day. If you'd like to experience a run down the Métabetchouan River yourself, I would highly recommend joining them. The entire staff was highly professional and the experience was great from beginning to end. You can find out more on the company's website.

For me and my traveling companions this was just the first of several waterborne adventures to come. But, it was a great start to a fun trip that reminded me of just how wild and beautiful Quebec can be. I'll share more from those adventures in future posts that will hopefully give you some idea of what to expect when in this part of Canada, and possibly plan a few adventures for yourself there too.

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