By Rob Story | Photo by Lee Cohen
They come, like hordes of hedonists, down from the mountains in great waves to the Ottawa River Valley. Every May, Canada’s freeskiers, snowboarders, telemarkers, and jibbers turn their backs on an alpine off-season and roll into the cornfields of Ontario, hunting for the flotation that has so recently left them.
These are your Ottawa River rafting guides, and they’ve discovered an unlikely wellspring of glissé—a French word that Canadians of English descent would not appreciate, but one that captures the fluid nature of their migrations nonetheless. Whitewater is a special commodity in Ontario. In America, rafting is something vacationing families do. Patrons include kids and parents and grandparents, but seemingly no one in their 20s. In Eastern Canada, conversely, water is how college kids and young Torontonians spend the year’s longest days in as little clothing as possible. They drive to “Rafters,” the sprawling compound of Wilderness Tours, one of the largest rafting outfitters on the planet. It’s here that the Canadian equivalent of spring breakers and ski bums following the snowmelt converge and mingle. At Rafters, “What’s your major?” is still an accepted pickup line.
It’s Canada’s Venice or Miami Beach, minus the old people and freaks. In many ways, it’s just flat out un-Canadian. At least to an American anyway. So much nubility. The transients bungee jumping off the 80-foot crane have apparently done their kettlebell workouts. Lithe, tanned folk play beach volleyball on three sand courts till they’re coated in a sheen of sweat and Coppertone. Of course there are three bars, and customers can order Molson pints without leaving the hot tub. (That’s more like it.) “The drinking age is 19,” says one former guide. “Busloads of babes come every weekend to get freaky.” Yes, he said that too. “Freaky.”
Wilderness Tours river guides actually get paid to rub life jackets with attractive college students while running Coliseum, one of the Ottawa’s biggest rapids. Famous among North American river rats, footage from the rapid earns thousands of YouTube hits. Rafts bounce into the upper part of the rapid, then disappear from view, sucked down into a huge chasm on the downstream side. Coliseum turns rafters into swimmers.
When my group ran it on a burly 12-person raft, we braced our feet under rubber pontoons. We leaned way back, preparing for a hydraulic bitch slap. It came, knocking the raft up and sideways, soaking us to the bone. We surged up, weightless, then crashed with a splash, and repeated. We howled with pleasure. It’s like 23 seconds of rollicking powder skiing. The closest most non-raft guides get to orgasm in Ontario.
See, the Ottawa River cleaves staid, English speaking Ontario from Frenchy, chain smoking, free lovin’ Quebec. You can’t even buy beer in Ontario convenience stores, while the Quebec side recalls another border town, Tijuana. Not to say there are theaters with shows involving donkeys. However, sufficient prurience exists to earn the nickname Quebexico. “We could party in Ontario, I guess,” said a guide. “But we can’t bring that many river guides to a city where there are cops.”
Most of the rafting companies running the Ottawa are on the Ontario side, in a township called Whitewater Region (which sounds kind of vague for a town, but let’s accept it and move on). To get loose, the guides migrate, again by the dozens, to Quebec. There, the parties get so wild you can sometimes order a beer naked. Prizes are awarded for depravity, like making out with a 70-year-old bartender whose breath reeks of deviled eggs.
A few hours after running Coliseum, I joined the guides in their compound for a seasonal highlight of their social calendar: Pimps ‘n’ Hoes night. Folks in revealing camisoles and purple pimp suits trimmed in leopard fur crammed onto a school bus for the half-hour rattle over dirt roads to Quebec. We disembarked at the Lakeview Bar in the tiny town of Portage du Fort. The Lakeview sits on a scenic bend of the Ottawa, where it widens and calms and looks like a lake. Skinny-dipping occurs en masse. But the highlight for the mountain folk is the Lakeview Beer Slide.
It’s an Indiana Jones move, surfing the beer slide. It takes a healthy disregard for propriety and personal injury. The beer slide is just that: A conveyor used by the Lakeview bar to roll crates of empty beer bottles 20 feet into the basement. The chute falls steeply into the darkness. Like Coliseum, river guides have found humans can survive it, barely. “You crash to a stop on a pile of beer bottles,” said one. “It’s not soft at all, but it doesn’t matter, because Canadian beer is so strong, and you’re so very, very drunk.”
Guides access the beer slide via a terribly small trapdoor. Sometimes, the trapdoor is locked, as the bar owners don’t care for drunks barreling into the cellar. But to my great fortune, it wasn’t locked on my visit. I felt a rush. A guide grabbed my arm, pulling me forward. While three stood sentry, blocking the staff’s view, I squeezed one shoulder at a time into the tiny hole, and then, whoosh! I careened to a stop atop pyramids of glass. I scrambled for the door, and sprinted triumphantly through the main entrance. “Yeah!” screamed my beer-slide guide. “We just rocked the catacombs of Quebec!” It was a moment of glisse shorter than the rapids. But still it was glisse.
From the Spring 2012 issue.