Madawaska Kanu Centre builds on success

Claudia and Stefani van Wijk

It’s no surprise that the van Wijk family of the Madawaska Kanu Centre (MKC) and OWL Rafting are “reading the river” ahead. The Current recently met with Claudia and Stefani van Wijk to learn their plans for the family business as it moves into the care of a third generation.

MKC-OWL has been an Ottawa Valley business for 46 years. Claudia’s parents, Christa and Hermann Kerckhoff – both Canadian champions – wanted to get more people into the sport of whitewater paddling when they opened the world’s first whitewater paddling school at MKC in 1972 and OWL Rafting on the Ottawa River in 1981. Since Claudia and her husband Dirk took over the reins of both OWL and MKC in 1988, they have worked to make the family business one of Destination Canada’s Canadian Signature Experiences (CSE) – the crème de la crème of Canada’s international tourist attractions. The CSE designation puts MKC into an exclusive collection of once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences that Canada markets internationally.

To get to this point they and their daughters, Stefani and Katrina, packed up the family home in Ottawa every year to spend the summers running MKC and OWL. Stefi recalls,

I was definitely paddling whitewater before I was born. I didn’t understand that no one else left their friends and their home every summer. To me it was always very exciting, the whole family getting ready to move up and unbatten the hatches at MKC. As a kid I didn’t love the sport as much as I do now, but I’ve always loved being a part of the tight-knit community that is MKC.

Claudia explains how the business grew through four decades of careful management and planning.

My parents were very practical. When they built the original building in 1970, they said if the idea of a paddling school flopped this would be our cottage. There was always a Plan B. They definitely taught me that and we have passed that on. We only expanded what we could afford to do ourselves. We never borrowed from the bank or over-extended. In the same way now, as we learn and listen and as it feels right, we make the next step.

Early sign MKC

From the early days of MKC (Photo MKC)

That approach has paid off. From just 25 students in the summer of 1972, MKC will host over a thousand students this season.

When Dirk and Claudia were ready to think about handing over the family business to the next generation, they experienced what Claudia describes as some “quite high anxiety.” However, friends in the MKC community quickly found them help in the person of a business transition coach – someone whose career involved helping executives transition at national banking corporations. Claudia and Stefi felt much less anxiety about the handover after a few coaching sessions.

Stefi says,

She just knows the kind of questions to ask to make sure that we’re thinking about all the right things. With a family company everything is emotionally-weighted because all the decisions have so much history and emotion around them. So it’s really good to have the comfort that we are thinking about the right things or that if we do forget and maybe trigger each other emotionally, at least we have the language and a mutual understanding to fall back on. And we have someone to call up if we need to.

Claudia explains,

We are at the beginning of the transition. This year Stefi takes on title of Director. Dirk & I are still equal shareholders/owners in the business. Stefi not an owner yet but the whole goal is to have Stefi as the owner of MKC. When she is ready to take that on will be up to Stefi and we’re still working on how exactly we’re going to do it.

Stefi continues, “The how will probably come before the when.” Her mother concurs, saying that within the next five years they expect the transition will be complete.

Initially their transition coach assigned each of them homework and observed as they presented three lists to each other:

  • What are your highest hopes for the business?
  • What are your highest hopes for yourself?
  • What are your highest hopes for your child/parent?

That opening exercise alone gave them clear boundaries and demonstrated precisely what Claudia’s and Stefani’s respective responsibilities were. Claudia gives an example.

Stefi’s responsibilities include the staff. Right away she asked if Stefi has signing rights on the cheques. And we hadn’t done that yet, so off we went to the Bank of Montreal in Barry’s Bay. It was a really special kind of celebration because everybody in the bank knows me, so they all came to get to know Stefi and congratulate her.

Stefani adds an emotional detail:

Then they looked through the history and the last time that Mom had changed the signing authority on the cheques was 25 years ago and my grandmother’s signature was on it. And she’s passed away now.

Claudia feels the benefits of the coaching.


Claudia van Wijk

Here’s what has happened already for me. I have a weight off my shoulders that has me smiling and a day-to-day happier person. I don’t have to think after 38 years. The things that were weighting me down are the things that actually Stefani embraces and is really good at: staff interaction, customer interaction and finding that perfect fit for the customer.

Stefi takes up the story,

Another part that was healthy in the transition is that I saw value in my stepping in because I was stepping into places where Mom was wanting to pull back from. And when you see you are impacting on something and making a positive change, that’s when you become invested.

She says,

At MKC I get to work with the best staff. The people who are here are awesome. The people who come here are awesome. I’m so proud of the program that we offer because I genuinely see value in it and believe in its positive impact. I know what people are going to enjoy. I tell them: it’s going to change your life.


Family rafting on the Madawaska with MKC guides (Photo MKC)

MKC hired their business transition coach because they acknowledged that they would not be able to do it as successfully by themselves, not just because of the limits of their knowledge but because of the emotional weight on the transition. Stefani explains about a mother/daughter relationship:

It’s not easy. There a lot of expectations and you don’t have the same kind of tact when you’re giving someone feedback who is a staff members vs. your mother, so having an awareness of that is really crucial. Having a facilitator to manage and understand it all — that is the thing that’s really big.

Claudia agrees.

I’m an athlete so I’m used to being coached and having professional guidance . But I haven’t had any business counselling since my mother 38 years ago so having that professional who works with the likes of national banks coming to guide us with current business knowledge was huge. I think every business should do this. You’re always in some kind of transition. To be successful in business today you have to change.

The MKC culture has had an impact on the local business community too. Over the years young people working at MKC have chosen to settle in the Madawaska Valley region. Entrepreneurial individuals from the paddling community have started local businesses such as Madawaska Coffee, Spring to Life Farm, and Seed and Stone Farmstead.

The MKC experience for students is very intensive and Stefi says it’s amazing to see people leave so fulfilled. As for experience at teaching people how to paddle, Stefi is completely self-assured having grown up around instruction.


Stefani van Wijk

It’s pretty powerful to feel that I have the support from both Mom and Dad to make decisions because they trust me.

Claudia agrees saying,

Stefi is the future.


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  3. Barb Cardwell

    MKC is such a great company! The van Wijk family and all of their staff are top notch and make everyone feel so very welcome. I’m excited to see Stefi taking over the reins and am looking forward to seeing MKC continue to succeed and grow under her skillful direction. Congratulations to all!

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