Stefani Van Wijk, the third generation of her family to serve as director of Madawaska Kanu Centre talked about celebrating MKC’s 50th anniversary year. Her goal in 2021 is to “honour this amazing legacy – this seed that my grandparents planted, that my mom and dad nourished for so many years.” She said, “It’s a long time for a company in such a small niche market as the paddling industry. We’re really excited.” At top is a panorama view of Madawaska Kanu Centre Photo: mkc.ca
Three years ago when Stefani assumed responsibility as MKC director, her mother, Claudia Van Wijk, told The Current about the history of the family business. Her parents, Canadian champion paddlers Hermann and Christa Kerckhoff, adapted the model of European commercial ski schools to whitewater paddling to encourage more people into the sport. In 1972 they opened Canada’s (and the world’s) first commercial paddling school on the Madawaska River – an opening delayed until August of that year to preserve Hermann’s amateur status so he could compete in the Olympic Games. By 1981 they had also opened OWL Rafting on the Ottawa River. Through a combination of hard work and careful planning the family developed their whitewater business into one of Destination Canada’s ‘Canadian Signature Experiences.’
And it has been a family effort. Dirk Van Wijk joined the OWL Rafting side of the business, then he and Claudia married. Both their daughters, Katrina and Stefani, have competed or taught paddling and remain active in the family business. This family experience echoes one of the MKC themes – an opportunity for all ages in a family to experience the river – at a level appropriate to each individual.
This spirit of family and community spills over when it comes to celebrations. While the pandemic means some plans are not yet firm, Stefani points with pride to the 50th Anniversary logo designed by her sister Katrina, which shows the 50 “exploding with a kayaker, rafter, river, trees.” You will see this on commemorative T-shirts, as well as on commemorative anniversary plates made by local potter Jamie Turnbull (Whiteduck Pottery) which will be prizes during the paddling season. Stefani says her mom Claudia is putting together a webinar with MKC history that will feature some footage of “my granddad interviewed about the history of whitewater paddling in this area.”
Stefani said, “A dream of mine (if Covid allows) would be to have a River Knowledge and History Educational Weekend, as well as an entertainment weekend. We’re loosely looking at Labour Day Weekend for that.”
Also coming this year will be an essay contest, where people can submit an essay about “What can you learn from a river?” and have a chance to win a free 2 day paddling course, value of $600. And to echo the joy of summer suppers on the patio, MKC is accumulating stories to publish in an anniversary MKC cookbook that Stefani says “marries our love of food with our love of river stories and memories.”
Full time year round
Referring to her new permanent home in Barry’s Bay, Stefani said, “This is the first time in 50 years that MKC has been open all winter long. My grandparents lived in Toronto from September to May and my parents were in Ottawa. When I started as Director I extended the season, making it earlier in the spring and later in the fall.”
She said, “It’s so nice just to be on the river and know what the river is up to in the wintertime. We’re doing lots of cross-country skiing next to the river, and even paddling because there’s no ice formed on the river yet. Other than just being cold, it’s still relatively safe to paddle down the Mad.”
Followers of MKC have seen a recent Facebook/Instagram video that de-bunks winter paddling. In it, Stefani explains how experienced paddlers can paddle safely in winter.
Paddling past the pandemic
“People associate paddling with their identity,” said Stefani. During the coronavirus pandemic, Stefani and her team found a creative way to stay engaged with the paddling community, have fun and make sure they didn’t “lose that part of themselves.” MKC launched an online #couchsurfing photo competition with the prize being a free MKC paddling experience.
When last spring’s lockdown ended, Stefani explained that many people turned to MKC for an outdoor adventure because it is “a really accessible and facilitated experience.” People “create their own river journey outside of MKC. We … fill them up with knowledge about rescue and river stewardship, how to care for the watershed, [and] give back to the river community.”