Swapping the anxiety of a pandemic for the thrill of whitewater rapids.
As an avid paddler, Mike McKay (Creative Director, Five2Nine) is used to tackling turbulent waters. But the emotional twists and turns of a pandemic are difficult to navigate. 7 years after a particularly daunting expedition, he returns to the West Magpie River with a small but mighty team.* Together, they lose themselves in a familiar challenge and paddle to peace of mind.
When everyday life doesn’t feel normal, McKay says that paddling brings him back to himself. Before going on his latest expedition, he had started to get used to the limited contact, mask-wearing, and constant application of hand sanitizer.
“I’ve been alive on this planet for 42 years now. And it took only 6 months to shape our reality and change it that fast,” he says.
In the summer of 2013, McKay’s normal was what it would have been any other year: seeking new adventures in his kayak. He had wrapped a mini-documentary on the Magpie River and, having heard about the whitewater on the western arm, took the opportunity to explore.
“I rallied up with some friends and said ‘we’ve gotta do this section of the Magpie river, I’m up in the area let’s go do it,’” he says. But things didn’t go exactly as planned.
“When I did the regular Magpie, it wasn’t very high. It was actually quite low,” McKay says. “So I [said] ‘yeah don’t worry guys, it’s gonna be a real cruise-y trip, the river’s low, so…’”
He laughs, remembering the far from cruise-y trip they ended up with.
“After being dropped off via train in Northern Quebec and paddling on the 150km flatwater section to get to the whitewater section, the river spiked like crazy. We rode the bubble of a flash flood all the way down the river, and it was really, really difficult. Like extremely difficult,” he says.
He’d wanted for years to go back and get a more authentic experience of the West Magpie. “I wanted something that was an appropriate amount of challenge and fun,” he says.
As people retreated into their bubbles, the expanse of the river was increasingly attractive. “You don’t really get to be on the water kayaking that long in everyday situations,” he says.
“Waking up in the morning and kayaking 9-5 like you would a regular job. There’s just not sections big enough in most of our areas to be able to do that. And for somebody like me, what a luxury.”
McKay jumped at the chance to join some friends who were planning a trip out to the river. Different paddlers joined the trip at different points, but all together, McKay was joined by 7 people and paddled for 9 days.
Among those paddlers was Johno Foster, an experienced canoer and student of geomatics. He’d been working on his kayak skills and was ready for a challenge.
“When the opportunity to participate in this trip came up, I saw it as a great chance to start to put some of those skills to the test,” Foster says.
For McKay, the trip was more leisurely than his first visit. But it had enough challenges to keep him interested. “All the really really big stuff was still pretty big,” he says. “It involved some sneaking of monster rapids and some portaging. And you know, portaging is always difficult when you’re living out of your kayak.”
As they focused on the task at hand, McKay says the pandemic’s weight seemed to dissolve.
“In a sense, it didn’t even enter my brain,” McKay says. “We’re living out of a small whitewater kayak, sleeping under the stars, things like that. That’s not normal for most people. But in a way, it was the first time I’d felt normal since March.”
Foster agrees, echoing McKay’s statements. “This heightened sense of anxiety that, for me, is our culture right now… It’s hard.
“It’s not like we weren’t thinking about it out of disregard for our personal safety or anything,” Foster says. “We were all in an appropriate social bubble, in a situation where we could kind of responsibly ignore what was going on.”
For McKay, the opportunity to immerse himself in that world was restorative. Paddling has always been such an integral part of his routine, his social circle, and even his personal identity.
“I could feel like I was attached to the community again,” he says. “I could feel like I was attached to my boat again, and the movement that I achieved from my body that I so crave.”
Both say the trip was an excellent time in world-class white water, made even better by a great group of people.
“I’m not sure if I can speak for everyone,” Foster says. “But paddling with that group just made everything so much less stressful and more enjoyable than it would have been if we weren’t connecting as well as we did.”
The only downside, as with any great adventure, is coming back to reality.
“It’s not like much of the news we get now with COVID and all that is very positive. There’s viral videos of people yelling at each other about wearing a mask or not,” McKay says. “I really try and surround myself with positivity and positive people and things, but I mean, we’re all living it.”
As for coping skills? Right now, it’s about planning the next thing to look forward to.
“There’s things that are just kind of weighing me down. And I can’t help but think all week ‘boy I wish I was out on the river,’” McKay says. “It’s my escapism right now. But I think it’s a pretty healthy escape.”
*at the time of the Magpie expedition, Covid restrictions allowed for outdoor activity in small groups.