Ottawa - What have I gotten my self into? I'm in the palm of Mother Nature's hand, careening down the mighty Ottawa River in an inflatable yellow raft with 11 silent strangers. It's too late for second thoughts. "Get ready for the real thing!" yells Rhino, aka Brad Crawford, our goateed guide.
You hear the rapids' roar before you see them. Our bow drops suddenly and dives out of sight into a deep chasm. A volcano of white water explodes outside our fragile domain. Inside, a crushing force launches us skyward like a rocket.
My stomach flutters as I hold my breath. "We're going to die," I whisper to myself.
Seconds later, the silent strangers are a gaggle of gasping, giggling fools. And I'm one of them.
Ottawa Whitewater Lovers Rafting, OWL Rafting for short, has evolved into a premier spot for adventure-seekers. This eco-adventure playground, 120 kilometres from Ottawa, near the hamlet of Foresters Falls in Renfrew County, is sandwiched between dairy farms on rolling hills and the lush forested border between Quebec and Ontario
In preparation for the excursion, a guide gives us a 20-minute orientation session, demonstrating paddling techniques and life-jacket procedures and briefing us on the all-important liability release forms. We're reassured that, should we come to a rapid we do not wish to tackle, we can be put ashore safely at any time.
Outfitted in wetsuits, helmets and paddles, our ragtag gang now looks like an overweight bunch of Navy SEALs. A school bus races us to the launch site at a section known as the Rocher Fendu rapids.
We're flying now.
"Oh my god, I can't see anything," yells my mate, Steve.
Waves of icy water that look as high as the CN Tower loom above us, drenching us from head to toe. In the raft ahead, a middle-aged man tumbles overboard, his arms flailing.
It's easy to understand how you could get lost in the wilderness. Glacial erosion has left piston-like igneous intrusions erupting from the rock face lining the river. Giant spruce and pine grow above the banks. Against an Impressionist's speckled blue sky, ospreys scan for prey from their skyscraper nests.
The Algonquin and later the fur traders stayed clear of these mighty rapids, whose volume and velocity rivals the Grand Canyon's Colorado River. The waves can reach a height of 2 metres in early spring.
Paddling in double time, Rhino yells, "Fast forward. Fast forward." We make it to a place known as Butcher's Knife.
"Keep your fingers inside the raft or your knuckles'll be ripped off by the razor-sharp rocks," he warns. Gulp.
My body is jolted backward by a wall of crashing water. I fly off my seat and land hard on my derriere. Another thunderous wave bangs the rubber raft against the sharp granite, then spins us uncontrollably into a vat of foam that looks like whipped egg whites in a giant mixing bowl.
Next up is Big Friendly Rock, or BFR. A single line of eager swimmers wend their way up the rock face. One after another they jump like lemmings directly into the raging current to be swept downriver. The sun's reflections bounce in the gentle waves that lightly tap the side of our raft.
We've passed through eight natural obstacle courses in this six-hour trip. Rapids called Black Chute, Garborator, Muskrat and Horseshoe have appeared before us. Have we leapt the last hurdle? We hear a faint puttering as a small boat approaches.
The flotilla of rafts is hitched to a barge that's been converted into a mini-restaurant. As we board, the aroma of marinated shish kebabs wafts through the spring air. Sipping a tall, cold glass of Canadian beer, I laugh nervously, almost drunk already from the afternoon's ride. I've challenged the mighty rapids feared by the Algonquin.