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Travel: White knuckles, red river

The adrenaline rush is what rafters are after. And on Canada's Riviere Rouge they certainly find it. Cleo Paskal climbed into a kayak for a terrifying ride over the rapids
LET'S CLEAR two things up right away. First, the Riviere Rouge is not, I repeat not, named for the colour it becomes after an unsuccessful white-water rafting trip. And second, for some reason, river guides don't think that is a funny joke. Sadly it was the best I could come up with as my eight-person rubber raft plunged into the churning vortex of a rapid charmingly dubbed "Steep Throat".

Had I spent more time paddling and less time bantering, we might not have lost one of our crew members (Emma, an enthusiastic but unlucky 15- year-old on a school trip) on the very first stretch of white water. Live and learn. Hopefully.

Oh it's really all quite safe, of course. Before you are let anywhere near the water, you are equipped with a helmet and lifejacket and go through a safety drill. Guides assess the river each day to decide which rapids are safe to run and which are better left to next time.

Emma was retrieved, contentedly bobbing downstream, by one of the kayakers who follow the rafts in order to pick up "swimmers", and returned to us safe and sound (and soaked). She trilled out her story, reliving every nanosecond of her white-water baptism to the admiring gasps of her school chums. As we paddled through the post-rapid calm waters I even found myself vaguely envying Emma and her "swim".

That all changed as soon as we got to the next rapid.

Something primordial kicks in when a human being is faced with a surging, convulsive, aquatic pit. The world contracts to you and the patch of rubber that is keeping you from a certain watery grave. Time slows down. Directions are confused. You forget to paddle. You become alone with your terror.

And then it's all over and you go back to envying the swimmers who got to experience it all at even closer hand. Not that it ever occurred to you to jump out and join them.

That cycle: terror, adrenaline rush, calm, is what white-water rafting is all about. Some spots, such as the dreaded Zambezi, offer more terror. Others, such as the gurgling canyons of Oregon, give a consistent, low- level adrenaline rush.

The Rouge's speciality is that, when not plummeting to your doom, you float gently through some of the loveliest countryside Canada has to offer.

Rolling, wooded hills hug both shores. Water-worn granite boulders stand like Henry Moore sculptures at the water's edge. The underbrush rustles with wildlife.

I had a chance to appreciate the area's beauty from non-bucking ground when the raft stopped for lunch on the beach. Away from Emma and her coven, there was no sound but for the drone of the water and the piping of the birds. Around a bend in the river, I saw my first non-rafting person, a fly-fisherman casting from a low-lying boulder into the fast-moving current.

I clambered over the rocks and asked the man what he was fishing for.

"Trout," he said, not pausing to take a break from his physical mantra: cast, pause, reel; cast, pause, reel.

Between casts, the man, a grizzled river rat called Cal, told me a bit about the Rouge. He had lived beside the river for years. Cast, pause, reel. No, there was no official history of the region; all the stories were handed from the old-timers to the newcomers. Cast, pause, reel. According to what he'd heard, the Europeans first settled the area when Napoleon blockaded the Balkans, cutting off the supply of wood for ships' masts. Cast, pause, reel. That, combined with starvation in Ireland and Scotland, led to Scots and Irish being sent over to log the Rouge. Cast, pause, reel. Many of them are still here. Cal himself had heard Gaelic at a regional baseball game. Cast, pause, reel. There had been log drives down the river that were so thick, you couldn't see the water for kilometres. Cal had seen pictures. Cast, pause, reel. Logging stopped around '68 because so many men were getting killed on the river. No, that isn't why they call it the Rouge. Cast, pause, reel.

Up river, I could hear the guides calling for us to return to our boats. I asked Cal one last question. "You ever catch anything?"

"Oh yeah, of course, all the time. Why do you ask?" Cast, pause, reel.

"Er, no reason."

I returned to the beach. We got back into our rafts and paddled downstream, past Cal's graceful, fruitless casts and on towards the resumption of our own cycle.

Enough calm; we were due for some terror. I spent the rest of the day trying not to follow the perpetually disappearing Emma out of the boat.

I never did find out why the river is called the "Rouge". I bet Cal, still standing out on his rock, a monument to all the old-timers' knowledge, (except where the best trout holes are), knows.

British Airways and Air Canada fly between London Heathrow and Montreal.

The Rouge is half-way between Ottawa and Montreal, around an hour's drive from both. A variety of companies offer rafting on the Rouge. They all pretty much charge the same price, around pounds 25-pounds 35 for a full day of rafting, including a beach-side lunch and a steak dinner. They provide all the equipment. The season extends into the autumn.

Some companies offer other adrenaline-producing diversions as well, such as white-water kayaking lessons, paintball, mountain biking and rock-climbing. Most have free camping-grounds for their clients. It is a great area to unwind for a few days, if not an ideal trout-fishing river.

You need not make a reservation much in advance, so you can call and book once you arrive in Canada. I rafted with Aventures En Eau Vive, pounds 25, and camped on their grounds free. Telephone numbers: Aventures En Eau Vive freephone in Canada: 1 800 567-6881 or direct from the UK: 001 (819) 242-6084; New World 1 800 361-5033 or 001 (819) 242-2168; Propulsion 1 800 461-3300 or 001 (514) 229-6620; W3 1 888 RAFTING or 001 (819) 242- 6571.

Visit Canada Centre, 62-65 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DY (0891 715000, a premium-rate number).