Catching Biggie: Kayaker Benny Marr Braves a 100-Year Flood to Catch the Wave of a Lifetime

words :: Benny Marr

The wave face was clean as I dropped in—980 cubic metres of water moves downstream fast. I looked over my shoulder and pointed my boat upstream, leaving enough angle to try and slide to the peak at its steepest point. I was swept through the trough and rose the face, timing my last three strokes.

I caught the wave. After 13 years of trying—I caught it. But upstream, the century-old dam at Bells Falls on the Rouge River was barely holding back the flood. Three hours later, the entire lower Valley would be evacuated and off-limits. [In April 2019, flooding of the Ottawa River and tributaries in Ontario and Quebec led to the declaration of a state of emergency and deployment of Canadian Armed Forces.—Ed.]

The wave broke loudly behind me so I moved over to my left to play the shoulder. I couldn’t believe my luck.

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That first surf was joyous. I played tentatively, feeling the speed of the water connecting with my carbon kayak’s hull. The wave broke loudly behind me so I moved over to my left to play the shoulder. I couldn’t believe my luck. The wave cleaned up and I threw a trick, nowhere near the potential amplitude on offer, but a big and snappy aerial combo.

 

 

I’d surfed this wave before. My first attempt was in 2006—I was 20 and my friend Joel was 17. The older paddlers had left, which created a bonding experience for the two of us. We thought we knew something they didn’t. We didn’t catch the wave that day but we did name it: Biggie Smalls.

By April 2019 I’d surfed this wave in a variety of boats a total of 11 times. But I longed to surf it in my freestyle kayak. I’d been camped out beside the takeout for three nights, running the massive rapids upstream and keeping my eye on Biggie. This was certainly the year to stake out this feature, with both the Ottawa and the Rouge looking to peak well over anything myself or my generation had seen.

Illustration: Dave Barnes

I was looking at Biggie in the morning and saw the peak of the wave break, and crumble upstream. I couldn’t believe it. I was going to be able to catch this thing in my freestyle kayak. I surfed the wave, then I went upstream to session the rapids. I was planning to take the afternoon to session Biggie, but when I arrived at the takeout to switch boats, a man came purposefully toward me. (I later found out he was mayor of a nearby town.) He informed me the dam had failed. He tasked me with collecting anyone who I knew was in the area and getting out fast.

It was a misunderstanding: The dam held, but was not engineered to withstand such high volume. I returned two days later. The police at the parking lot told me there were more than 50 units protecting access to the river below the dam. I packed sandbags with locals for a couple hours then drove back to the Ottawa River where I paddled another new wave. Leading up to this day many people were forced to leave their homes due to the river. I love rivers and hope to live close by the sound of rushing water. I don’t wish rivers to affect anyone negatively. But they will. —ML

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