Saint John New Brunswick


Veteran kayakers take paddling to the extreme
by skillfully navigating in the Reversing Falls

   It is dusk on a rainy evening at Falls view Park. As the light fades, three completely soaked men in helmets and wet suits appear above the Reversing Falls, carrying tiny multicoloured boats. After five hours of heavy duty thrills in the thundering waters, these are happy kayakers.

   Bruce Shields and brothers Gilles and Richard Durepos are not your average recreational kayakers. They are paddling fanatics.

    "We got here just as it was starting to build and paddled right through low tide until slack - about two and a half hours on either side of the tide," explains Mr. Shields, who works as an engineer for Fundy Communications.

    Three to four nights a week in summer and most weekend days in winter, he pulls his paddling skirt tight on a rodeo style play boat and plunges into Falls, in the channel between Goat island and the rocky shore. With only three years paddling experience, he attributes his skill to local veteran kayakers Richard Tremblay and Greg Lisson, as well as to lots of hours on the water. It's an incredible thing to be a part of, you can imagine the rush people like Bruce get out of kayaking.

   "They've been doing the Falls regularly for the past six years, and they took me under their wing and taught me," he says gratefully. "They keep saying that I've paddled more than some people do in 10 years, so the skill level accelerates."

    This is not water for everyone. Water in most rivers typically flows between 3,000 and 8,000 or 9,000 cubic feet-per-second. In contrast, it thunders through the Reversing Falls in excess of 100,000 cubic feet-per-second.

   "The water's deceiving here and very dangerous. The average competent paddler can't paddle in this," Mr. Shields emphasizes.

    Out of approximately two hundred beginning paddlers he has worked with, Mr. Shields estimates that only three have become full fledged white water paddlers.

    "These are the people who take it to the extreme, who want to practice every week and get the skill level It takes both desire and a bit of a special personality Some people, it's just not there."

   Gilles Durepos is one of the dedicated few. After less than a year kayaking, the native of Granil Falls is a fast fearless learner.

   "I don't think everybody's made for it. You have to have a lot of guts and determination," he states with a grin. "I like to have thrills and rushes, and this is a big rush for me compared to skiing, or mountain biking. Some people would be too scared and not like to do it."

   A fan of extreme sports, he had admired the kayakers playing nearby during white water rafting trips. After moving to Saint John for a university work term with Irving Paper, he jumped at the chance to take a kayaking course through Eastern Outdoors. With Mr. Shields as instructor, he advanced rapidly from pool, to river, to the tidal rips at Maces Bay. Eventually, he was invited to try the Falls.

   "It's the biggest challenge. It's just the water's so fast. Sometimes you get tired and want to take a break, but you can't," he explains. "You've got to paddle, paddle, paddle. You don't want to end up in the main channel because we've heard horror stories about that."

   With a meagre three months of kayaking behind him, his brother Richard Durepos is an equally avid learner. He credits time On the water with experienced paddlers for his quick progress, while acknowledging that he still has fears to Conquer.

   "I'm a bit more cautious than Gilles, but Gilles has had more hours on the river too, so it shows," he excuses, before explaining why he's drawn to the sport.

   "The challenge is second to none and the rush is just amazing," he notes with enthusiasm, echoing his brother. "Once you're in there, you have to get out of the wave to safety. You have to paddle and you can't think, just paddle."

   Their instructor adds his perspective to these impressions.

   "When you begin, everything is moving at a blur and all you can focus on is the front of your boat," he laughs, before giving them hope of less hair-raising days to come. "As you progress and get the skill level and comfort level, you are able to take in the surroundings. Everything comes down a notch."

   While he also enjoys the rush of the water and thrill of adventure, Mr. Shields is most drawn by the challenge of keeping calm under pressure.

   "It's no place to be panicky," he says in a masterpiece of understatement. "You have to have a cool head if you're going to be in this sort of water."

   That is another reason why kayakers must have sufficient paddling skills, proven in action to the more senior kayakers, before they are welcome to join in at the Falls. As Mr. Shields points out, it is not only the newcomer's life that is put in danger, but also the lives of those who might have to perform a rescue. All the veteran paddlers have appropriate first aid and rescue training, as well as carrying throw bags, tow lines and medical kits for emergencies.

   Aside from the Saint John kayaking contingent, there is a group from UNB Fredericton, as well as four or five Halifax paddlers, who regularly come to town to test their skills. Visitors to Fallsview Park have a good chance of seeing them at extreme high, or low, tide. Regardless of where else they've paddled, from the famed Colorado River, to the Honduras, these white water warriors give top ratings to the Reversing Falls.

   "When you've seen this water there's not much bigger," concludes Mr. Shields. "If you can paddle here, there's not much else you can't paddle. "