River Idiot no More: Learning to Whitewater Canoe in Five Days

As we crash through each recirculating wave, I watch my bow partner grab the gunwales and yell at him to keep his paddle in the water. Each wave that breaks over the bow fills our boat a little more. Finally, when we reach the eddy out, we’re nearly full. The boat is tippy and as we cross the eddy line, no amount of bracing will hold us up. We tip slowly into the ice cold water. It’s fun. And I consider it a successful run down Island Rapids on the lower Madawaska.

 

Words and photos by Colin Field

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It’s early June and I’m on day five of a five-day tandem canoe course at the Madawaska Kanu Centre (MKC), and today is our river trip. We’ve gone from being borderline river idiots to full-on river runners. And it’s all thanks to this incredible place and the amazing people that work here.

MKC is a staple of the Canadian paddling community. There couldn’t be a friendlier, more welcoming place to learn about whitewater paddling. Perhaps it’s because of the history here. MKC was created by Christa and Hermann Kerckhoff back in August of 1972. They’d immigrated to Canada from Germany in the late Fifties and fallen in love with whitewater paddling, both winning Canadian championship titles. They wanted to introduce more people to the sport. The section of the Madawaska River downstream of Bark Lake Dam was the perfect spot for the centre and a partnership with Ontario Power Generation (that continues to this day) meant scheduled water releases throughout the summer.

 

 

That first summer saw 25 students come from across North America. Instructors were all world champions. These early classes, modelled on the ski school concept from the Kerckhoff’s native Germany, divided students into skill level classes. The wilderness resort combined good food with great instruction and a welcoming atmosphere. And those core concepts remain to this day.

Now the centre is managed by Claudia Kerckhoff-Van Wijk and Dirk Van Wijk. Claudia, the daughter of Christa and Hermann Kerckhoff, grew up at MKC. And like her parents, she became a Canadian paddling champion, ten times over. Dirk, formerly a northern river guide for Blackfeather Wilderness Adventures, met Claudia in an eddy on the Gull River in 1979. They married in 1985 and took over MKC in 1988. They’re still very much involved in day-to-day operations, and their daughters, Katrina and Stefani Van Wijk are now part of the summer instructor roster. Katrina holds three Canadian championship titles and Stefani is a guide with Blackfeather. So when you’re learning to paddle at MKC you are, without a doubt, learning from the best.

 

“All you need to do is show up, be ready to get in the boat and be ready to get wet. There’s nothing to think about except whitewater.”

 

With courses for everyone from the absolute beginner to seasoned river rat, they offer courses for tandem canoeing, solo canoeing, kayaking and SUP. There are weekend courses, women’s retreats, and instructor certificate courses, which can all be catered to any budget; stay in one of their cabanas with a full meal plan, or stay in your own tent and cook your own meals.

If you’re in the cabana, just think of this as an all-inclusive resort: everything is taken care of. All you need to do is show up, be ready to get in the boat and be ready to get wet. There is nothing to think about except whitewater. Instructors will teach strokes like prys, draws and forward strokes. You’ll learn how to enter and exit flowing water. You’ll learn how to safely swim down a section of whitewater. They’ll use video to analyze your stroke, and help you perfect it (a lifelong pursuit). You’ll learn rescue techniques, river etiquette and acronyms for reading sections of river. They’ll teach you what you need to know to paddle whitewater.

 

 

‘It’s on my drive home that it finally hits me. “Holy shite,” I say to myself out loud. “That was awesome. Paddling whitewater is so freaking fun!”

Over the previous five days, I think I’ve been too busy learning, concentrating and thinking. Today, we let it all hang out. We paddled every challenging rapid in the Lower Madawaska Provincial Park, some of which were Class III. And it was super, super fun (even the rapids I ended up swimming through).

The Madawaska Kanu Centre was the first whitewater paddling school in the world and remains one of the best. My bowman came from California. There are people from all over North America in my five-day course. It’s easy to see why; if you’ve ever wanted to learn to paddle in whitewater, this is the place to do it. And it’s only 3.5 hours from Yonge and Bloor.

 

 

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