By Communications Intern Willa Mason, avid canoeist and nature-lover who travels south every March in search of melted rivers.
There is no organizer. There is no media budget, no marketing team, and definitely no planning committee. It wasn’t even supposed to have a name.
Thanks to the hospitality of local legend, “Louie”, every year Canadians explore southeastern rivers long before the ice melts in their hometowns. The group always gained a few new faces, until the festival atmosphere became so strong that someone decided it deserved a name. To which Louie replied: “Uh-huh…as long as it ain’t Louiefest”. The name stuck.
A grassroots whitewater canoeing festival held in Tennessee each March, Ain’t Louie Fest (ALF) is an event unlike any other. It’s a gathering of 200 whitewater open canoeists. This alone makes it unique, as most whitewater events are oriented towards double-bladed kayaks.
Misty mornings will have bed-headed canoeists rolling out of tents, truck-beds, hatchbacks, and camper vans. As sleepy paddlers stumble towards the smell of coffee and wipe frost off their paddling gear, it may look like there’s no plan for the day. However, there is a concrete plan: we’re going canoeing! We just don’t know where yet. Those details will be sorted out over steaming mugs of coffee, by shouting across the campground, and by phone calls to buddies who might “have eyes on the water level”.
Those details have been known to change even when we’re already en route to the river: a phone might ring, bringing news of rainfall in an obscure corner of the mountains. Suddenly, the leader of the roof-rack clad convoy may veer in the opposite direction, heading towards a different dream river that suddenly has enough water to be a viable option for the day. Those at the back follow along, confused by the change in direction, but always with faith that fun awaits.
Because of the steep terrain of the Great Smoky Mountains, water levels in the tributaries of the Mississippi River rise and fall much more quickly than those of the Ottawa River watershed. A river may rise to desirable water levels in under an hour. Hence the lack of plan and quick decision changes. There’s no sense trying to plan for rain that isn’t here yet!
Bewildered fisherman curiously strike up conversation, and the park rangers’ strict expressions twitch with amusement at the gleeful joy with which we bounce through the waves. The river brings together these separate communities in a way that nothing else does. Whether it’s a shoreline cleanup in Ottawa, American Whitewater advocating for free river access in Virginia, or paddlers bringing business to Tennessee pizza places, paddling trips like these have helped me realize that love for our rivers is universal.
There is no organizer, and there is no event promotion. Yet every year, during the Ontario March break, hundreds of paddlers will make their annual migration towards the steep creeks of the Smoky Mountains – even though nobody told them to. We just show up. From all over the world, paddlers just show up. We show up for the unique style of low-volume creeks caused by the local topography. For the music, for the friends, and for the tacos. Just like in our watershed, people show up for the river.