Regular visitors to the Elora Gorge Conservation Area probably don’t want me exposing their secret, but tubing down the Elora Gorge is something you should definitely add to your ‘must do’ list of fun family outings. I’ve been to the village of Elora several times before to look through the quaint stone shops and art studios, to eat at the cafés and even take a walk along and down into the Elora Gorge beyond the famous Elora Mill, but I had no idea that just minutes further downstream we could all climb onto tubes and ride them down the river, even through one set of class-3 rapids. I’m sure glad I finally found out.
Before we arrived at the Elora Gorge Conservation Area I spoke to my kids about whether or not they would feel comfortable riding a tube through a fast set of rapids and carefully explained what they would be getting themselves into. My six-year-old was quick to say he was definitely not going down a ‘waterfall’, which was a word I hadn’t used, but my nine-year-old, who is a strong enough swimmer to participate and the kind of kid who loves the wildest ride at the fair, was quick to sign up for the adventure. When we descended down into the gorge and arrived at the launch point, however, she took one look at the white rushing water, grabbed my hand and said, “I’m not going down that!”
I assured her she didn’t have to go and there were plenty of other ways we could enjoy the river and the beautiful gorge, but once she saw another group go down safely, she strapped on her helmet and lifejacket. My husband agreed to take her while I waited a little nervously at the side of the river to take pictures. Soon she bounced past me and disappeared downstream. When I caught up to her, she was dragging her tube to shore and had a huge smile on her face.
“That was FUN, can I do it again?”
And do it again she did. She did it six more times, actually, the last three times with me, when on our final ride she dumped out, dunked under the water and came up spluttering.
“Face downstream and keep your feet up,” I yelled back while I twisted around in my own tube and reached out to grab for her. She followed my instructions, but zipped past me yelling, “Now what do I do, Mommy?”
I looked ahead and saw a man standing in the shallow water where the rapids flatten out. He was reaching out his hand and I yelled to her, “Grab that man!”
He took hold of her as she floated past and I soon caught up with her. When we got to shore she was a bit shaken, but completely unharmed and by the end of the day when I asked her if she would do it again another time, she smiled up at me and said, “maybe”. If I know my kid like I think I do, I’m willing to bet she’ll be on a tube and down that rapids the next time too.
Beyond the initial rapids, which is by far the fastest and most adventuresome part of the trip, the entire ride took about forty minutes. The river includes both flat meandering sections and faster rushing rapids and the good part is that you can start your ride after the big rapids and take a comfortable, easy trip down the river. We held onto each other’s tubes and floated lazily down the river like a family of Huckleberry Finn wannabes. With the limestone cliffs rising high above and cedar trees clinging overhead, the scenery was beautiful. We exchanged a few words with other families as we drifted past, watched a group of young adults stop for a swim and thoroughly enjoyed the sun-drenched ride. Even my six-year-old loved some of the faster parts and he definitely enjoyed drifting down the river as a family. At one point we accidentally let go of him and as he floated away from us he had his face toward the blue sky and his eyes closed. I wasn’t even sure he was still awake.
The Elora Gorge Conservation Area, owned and operated by the Grand River Conservation Authority, is located west of the village of Elora and is open through the summer months. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable and you need to stop at the Beach House, which is just beyond the Front Gates, to register and sign waivers before continuing to the river. If you are new to riding rapids on a tube, I also recommend you check-in with a staff member stationed at the launch point to find out the best route to take through the rapids and the best way to ride the river should you happen to dump out of your tube. We saw a few people lose their tubes and if it happens to you, remember to face downriver and keep your feet up!
On the weekends the park is busy and there is a shuttle bus to drive you from the end of the ride back to the launch. During the week you can enjoy a more peaceful ride, but you will need a few bungee cords and some creative thinking so you can ride down the river, strap the tubes to your vehicle and start again.
Although you can rent all the equipment you need, it often sells out on weekends so arrive early. You can also bring your own. Remember, however, that properly-fitting, approved life-jackets and helmets with chin straps are mandatory. You are not permitted to participate without them. You will also want to wear strap-on sandals or running shoes. Signs at the launch remind visitors that this is not a controlled water park ride, which is true. In my opinion, this is way better.
The Elora Gorge Conservation Area is a great family destination for either a day trip of river tubing, or a longer stay at one of the more than 500 campsites. The campsites are varied: some are nestled among the refreshing shade of a cedar forest, some are grass-covered with shade trees and some line the edge of the 22 metre-deep gorge itself.
But the Elora Gorge Conservation Area isn’t just about tubing. Because the Grand River flows though the centre of the park and has been stocked over the years with brown trout, it has become one of the top trout streams in Canada for both spinning and fly fishing. There are also picnic areas, walking trails with scenic lookouts, the spectacular hole in the rock, a swimming area, sports fields and two children’s playgrounds. Please note the Elora Gorge has a year-round alcohol ban.
The price of admission to the Elora Gorge Conservation Area also allows you to visit the nearby Elora Quarry Conservation Area, which is on the eastern side of Elora. Once the home of a lime stone operation in the early 1900s, the Elora Quarry has long been a popular destination for cooling off on hot days. Surrounded by stunning limestone cliffs, the Elora Quarry is filled with warm turquoise water which makes it the perfect swimming hole. When we said it was time to get back in the car after a refreshing swim, the kids protested and I won’t tell you which bribe we used to get them moving again.
To plan your adventure at the Elora Gorge Conservation Area, especially to find out about safety and proper equipment, contact the Grand River Conservation Authority. Because river levels are assessed daily and tubing can be shut down without notice due to high river flows, you should also contact the park office the day of your visit. For more information go to www.grandriver.ca and look for Parks and Camping.
There are more than 250 conservation areas across Ontario, many which offer water activities. Many conservation areas are close towns and cities and easy to access. To find a conservation area near you, go to www.ontarioconservationareas.ca
Christina Kilbourne is an avid outdoor enthusiast and writer. She is the author of four novels, including Dear Jo, winner of the 2009 Manitoba Young Readers Choice Award , the 2010 Saskatchewan Snow Willow Award in 2010 and the 2010 British Columbia Red Cedar Award. She lives in Bracebridge with her family and various four-legged creatures.
Getting geared up to go
Everyone must wear approved lifejackets and helmets with chin straps
Riding the the Grand River together
Going down the rapids solo
Sometimes you go down backwards
It's not all wild water
Swimming at the Elora Quarry Conservation Area