How to get into Whitewater—and Become an Independent Paddler

Paddling club and course resources

Author: Willa Mason, Whitewater Guide and Instructor

After your first experience on the river you may be left wanting more but wondering what the next step is. We know that the dynamic environment of flowing water can make it intimidating to venture out on your own, so we’ve broken down some great options based on the experiences you might be looking for.

The bottom line: take action! Join a club or learn with the guidance of outdoor professionals. Becoming part of the local outdoor community can give you access to expertise, equipment, and time on the river that you can’t get on your own.

Whitewater canoeing

Join a club:

Local paddling clubs offer instructional sessions, as well as organized trips on local rivers. If you’ve dabbled in rafting, canoeing, or kayaking—paddling clubs are a fantastic way to improve your skills or try a different watercraft in a relaxed and informal environment. See our sample list of clubs at the bottom of this post.

Take a whitewater kayaking or canoeing course:

Building your own skills is the key to independent decision-making and being able to help your friends out. Taking a course is a great way to do that, and there may just be a paddling school not too far away from you. Madawaska Kanu Centre (Barry’s Bay), Padder co-op (Palmer Rapids), Paul Mason’s Canoe Instruction (Ottawa Area), Aquabatics Outdoors (Calgary) are just a few of many paddling schools scattered across Canada.

While clubs offer great opportunities to get on the river and meet people, formal instruction can create the unique learning environment best suited to some people. Paddling schools generally have smaller group sizes, allowing instructors to tailor the program to better fit your goals. Outdoor professionals who spend their full time developing their skills and teaching abilities always have lots of tips and tricks up their sleeve to help accelerate your learning curve, setting you up for success and preventing hours of potentially frustrating trial and error.

whitewater kayaking

Learn safety and rescue skills:

Whitewater rescue and wilderness first aid skills go hand in hand with paddling skills if you’re going to be venturing out on rivers.

Full disclosure: we teach these courses through Boreal River Rescue.

Often, beginners think that they should get experience before taking a swiftwater / whitewater rescue course, but actually—these courses are a great way to start because you’ll:

  • Practice and get comfortable swimming and self-rescueing in rapids
  • Open your eyes to risks you aren’t even aware of—and allow you to differentiate ‘real risk’ from ‘perceived risk’
  • Aquire experience and judgement so you can make good decisions about which rapids to run
  • Gain confidence and competence setting up safety for other boaters

A foundational principal of whitewater rescue is ‘work with the water, not against it’—and practicing this will make you a better paddler too.

Paddling Club Resource List:

Ottawa area:

Ottawa River Runners (ORR)

With a whitewater facility in the heart of Ottawa, ORR offers instructional kayak programs and camps for all ages and skill levels, as well as slalom paddling programs for those looking to refine technical skills. ORR also hosts recreational pool sessions throughout winter.

Recreation Association Canoe Camping Club (RACCC)

Based in Ottawa, RACCC has a whitewater program, flatwater program, and family program, all centered around friendship, volunteerism, and environmentally-friendly recreation. Organized river trips, training sessions, and camping trips will help you explore local rivers with people who are already familiar with the rapids.

Club de canot-camping Pierre Radisson

Based in Gatineau, Club de canot-camping Pierre Radisson organizes courses, day-paddling excursions, and multi-day river trips. This club specializes in whitewater canoeing—and is very active, with groups going to different local rivers every weekend from spring through fall.

Carleton University Kayak Club (CUKC)

Hailing from Carleton University in Ottawa, CUKC runs pool sessions throughout the winter, and river trips throughout the spring and fall seasons. Introductory lessons are organized for newer paddlers, while seasoned
experts can join a group on challengning local rivers. CUKC has something for everyone.


Kawartha Whitewater Paddlers (KWP)

Organizing pool sessions, paddling festivals, and day trips on a variety of rivers, the Kawartha Lakes area is home to KWP and is a great option for paddlers living between Toronto and Ottawa.

Guelph Kayak Club (GKC)

With Elora Gorge as their home turf, GKC is based in Guelph hosts paddling sessions twice weekly, including pool sessions and river trips.


Les Portageurs

Based in Montreal, Les Portageurs is a paddling club that values good food and good humour, while learning to paddle. Their 2021 calendar includes day outings on rivers of all difficulty levels, multi-day camping trips, and online virtual gatherings to learn about heritage canoe camping traditions.

Le Club Rabaska

A community of over 225 paddlers, Le Club Rabaska is based in Quebec CIty and aims to facilitate safe canoeing and kayaking on Quebec rivers. With introductory lessons each year, as well as skill refinement clinics, expeditions, and winter activities, this outdoor club has something for everyone.

Kayak Valleyfield

With the goal of growing the paddling community, Kayak Valleyfield has a river-front home base just south of Montreal. The club offers instructional sessions, weekly informal group paddling outings, and high performance competition training.

Club de Kayak Riviere aux Sables

Club de Kayak Riviere aux Sables based in Saguenay Lac-Saint-Jean, is a canoe and kayak club that explores rivers and north of Quebec City.