words :: Carmen Kuntz
Finesse versus force. Brain versus brawn. Adventure sports can highlight the physiological differences between men and women. They can also emphasize other less tangible differences. Whitewater is a unique element in this sense. Fluid, dynamic and powerful, it’s always changing yet predictable to those who spend enough time in it. Some paddlers muscle their way through whitewater. Others—like the following three women—use a blend of precision and grace to navigate rapids around Ontario. From a plastic creek boat or a carbon canoe to a stand-up paddleboard, the vessel and paddle may vary, but these women all share a common strength: harnessing the force of whitewater to race, play and enjoy whitewater.
The Competitor: Lois Betteridge
Lois wasn’t quite born in a canoe, but with ex-Blackfeather canoe guides as parents, she spent many hours, days and weeks in one. An introduction to whitewater via family canoe trips led her to seek out other opportunities for play in l’eau vive which she found close to home, in a channel of the Ottawa River. Lois got in a carbon slalom canoe during a summer camp with the Ottawa River Runners Club and never looked back. She has represented Canada on the international level in both the Under 23 category and Senior level canoe slalom—a type of competitive kayaking which involves navigating a whitewater course through upstream and downstream gates.
Training and racing keeps her on the road for most of the year. When Ontario’s rivers freeze, she heads to Australia, Europe or the southern US. “I really like the training aspect of canoe slalom,” she says. “Pushing yourself to be better, stronger, faster so that when you get to the start line of a race there’s the confidence that you can achieve what you set out to do.” That confidence has led the 21-year-old to national titles and semi-finals in the canoe slalom World Cup circuit. Now, her sights are set on the Olympics. “The Tokyo Olympic games are extra special for competitive women canoeists, marking the first year women’s canoeing will be a part of the Olympic program,” she says. “It’s been a long fight by generations before me and I’m super grateful that I have the opportunity to compete for the chance to go to the Olympics.”
Despite being highly competitive, fun is why she started whitewater canoeing, and fun is why she continues to paddle. “Reading whitewater, making a plan and then the excitement lining up before a rapid is pure joy,” she says. “The water is always stronger and will win if you try to fight it. But the feeling of using the power of the water to do what you want is pretty cool. There’s always that something that makes me feel so happy to be there, enjoying moments of complete control in a situation that is completely out of your control.”
The Teacher: Daryl-Lisa Oldham
For Daryl-Lisa Oldham whitewater represents personal challenge and growth. It’s also integral to work, play and… parenting. DL was introduced to whitewater via a kayak but SUP is now her paddlesport of choice. “Being able to share what I know about paddleboarding with others has been one of my greatest sources of joy,” she says. It’s also a source of income. Together with her partner Joey, they own and operate Liquid Skills paddling school, instructing all varieties of paddling, including teaching their four kids. DL is a
certified SUP fitness and SUP yoga instructor and also teaches kids’ kayak camps. She predominately sticks to flatwater with SUP clients but enjoys the challenge of whitewater SUP with friends and sometimes family. “The deep, warm water of the Ottawa make it very special for whitewater SUP,” she says. “Alongside the big water there are areas to practice in the flats and on smaller rapids as well.”
Last winter she traveled all over Canada to paddle indoors at outdoor adventure shows in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. But during the summer months she’s never far from her house on the Ottawa River, with its sandy beach always packed with boards, paddles, kayaks and kids. “Three of our kids are paddling their own boats/boards now, and two of them have been paddling in whitewater. As they grow, their desire to be in whitewater increases and so does my freedom.”
SUP can be a time for play with her kids, or a time of solitude. “What I love most about whitewater is the community. From continuing my own education to bringing others into the sport—from the littlest kids (including mine) to adults—everyone is just looking for adventure.”
The Explorer: Sydney Nixon
Despite growing up in the tight-knit kayaking community of the Elora Gorge, Sydney Nixon admits she hated whitewater kayaking until she was a teenager. “It was like a switch flipped once I got my roll,” she says. “After that, you couldn’t get me out of the water.”
Some of Ontario’s top paddlers have come from the small Elora Gorge paddling community and Sydney is proof of the support and encouragement the group provides to beginners. “There’s almost always someone willing to lend gear and take a newbie out paddling.” she says. With backing from the well-established Guelph Kayak Club the community also bands together to help established paddlers work towards big goals like making the national team. This support helped Sydney qualify to represent Canada at two freestyle World Championships. She is currently completing a nursing degree, and works on the river all summer to put herself through school. She’s a kayak instructor, a kayak camp coordinator and occasionally acts a video boater, filming for one of the busy Ottawa River rafting companies.
“I enjoy the chance to do something that takes all of your focus; you can’t think about other stressors in life when you’re on the river”
A product of kayaking camps and development programs, she is now a role model within these circles. “The number of women whitewater kayaking has grown since I started kayaking, “ she says. “When I was a kid there would typically only be a couple of girls in the kayak camps. Now there tends to be anywhere from six to ten females absolutely crushing.” Ladies are in whitewater for the same reasons as the boys: to have fun and challenge themselves. “I enjoy the chance to go do something that takes all of your focus,” Nixon adds. “You can’t think about your other stressors in life when you’re on the river.”