If you’re a paddler you’ve most likely heard of Madawaska Kanu Centre, the Ivy League of whitewater kayaking, and this year they’re celebrating their fiftieth anniversary.
The strangely spelled organization began in Canada in 1970, long before whitewater paddling went from totally underground to, well, sort of underground. Since its founding, the organization has become known for its whitewater instruction that is modeled after a European ski school concept.
The organization is near the Ottawa River — the Mecca of whitewater — and they offer a number of different classes on the Madawaska River in Eastern Ontario from a 5 day whitewater bootcamp to a yoga whitewater week. And since opening the school has taught more than 50,000 students. And some of those students went on to become professional paddlers, like Sheryl Boyle, who got her start in the Madawaska kitchen and went on to win multiple World Cup medals and competed for Canada in the ’92 and ’96 Olympic Games in slalom.
Christa and Hermann Kerckhoff founded Madawaska Kanu Centre in 1970 and it continues to be owned by the family with a third generation taking over the Centre. Their mission: to create a safe, fun learning environment where beginners could learn the basics and expert paddlers could refine their skills. The common thread was to instill in everyone a love for the outdoors and the wonders of whitewater paddling.
MKC has been a family affair since the day it opened. Christa and Hermann’s oldest daughter Claudia took over operations in 1982, along with her husband Dirk Van Wijk. And, just recently, a third generation, Claudia and Dirk’s daughters Stefani (30) and Katrina (32) assumed responsibility of the Centre.
MKC also pioneered a landmark agreement with the hydro-electric authority that operates a dam on the Madawaska River, guaranteeing water releases on weekdays so paddlers have consistent flows to play in.
MKC is planning to host a gathering on the Labour Day weekend to celebrate its half-century anniversary. The Anniversary Recipe Book will be published in the Spring of 2023, filled with recipes and the many memories 50+ years on the river has generated.
And to mark the fiftieth anniversary, the Centre will hold a gathering on Labor Day weekend and a Anniversary Recipe Book will be published next spring that will boast recipes and memories created in the last half century of operation.
Historical Flashback—In Her Own Words: MKC Co-founder Claudia Kerckhoff-Van Wijk
“The Madawaska River, I remember was chosen for its guaranteed water. I was 8, when we walked the river left shoreline to choose where the future Kanu Camp was to be. My mom, my 4-year-old sister Annette and I, while my dad paddled his fibreglass, Canadian-made Femat kayak. He had started at the Bailey Bridge which crossed the Madawaska justly named Siberia Road, as we were in the middle of no-where. This section was called the middle Madawaska River, or Bells Rapids by the locals. A section getting water releases from Bark Lake dam a kilometre upstream.
I now know so much more about this incredible location, but at eight it was all fun and games and anticipation fueled by the excitement my parents exuded; dancing over the rocky embankment, trying not to get my feet wet, and keeping up with dad.
This was the beginning of the positive impact my parents had on the river community in Canada. This was also the beginning of me falling in love with the dream of my parents – to create a place to learn to paddle whitewater on an unspoiled river. For them, the sport of kayaking embraced all aspects: crossing a lake, running rivers, playing on a river feature and competition. It was this last aspect of both winning the Canadian Championships in men and women, that inspired their DREAM – a dream that would bring more people into this amazing sport of whitewater. Modelled off the alpine ski program of their youth where school classes spent a week each winter in the southern German mountains, or Alps. With the varying skill levels, classmates were divided into separate skill level groups, yet eating and staying together. This same concept became the template for their paddling school and is still the base of MKC’s programs today.
Paddlers were mainly men in these days, as the sport of whitewater was perceived risky this seemed to attract the adrenaline seekers. Yet whitewater paddling is a gravity sport, and soon our paddling school would teach how to use the water to do the work for you, and guess-what: Women seemed to learn more rapidly! Perhaps, we females didn’t have the same strength to power ratio and are dependant on finessing the boat over forcing it. Reading the currents is a fundamental part of learning to paddle whitewater. Watching the horizon line, learning how to place your boat well in advance of a move, and timing your paddle strokes – this is the beauty of harnessing the rivers energy. You become one with the water. If you hesitate, the water takes over. This can lead to unplanned consequences. Staying focused, believing in yourself, and practising in the same currents, helps to increase your skill level and confidence. Paddling whitewater needs pure focus. Now a-days this is called being in the zone. No other information can enter your mind. It’s part of what I find so alluring, and beautiful when paddling my kayak through the turbulent currents. It is my own form of meditation that the river instills upon me.
My parents always had a plan B. If this dream of a paddling school didn’t work out, this beautiful chalet in the woods across the road from the Madawaska River, would become the family cottage.
Our chairs are still with us today. Extremely creative, the newly felled hardwood tree trucks were sliced to be the tops of our chairs. My father’s main income was his hardwood flooring business; and we saved the many empty five-gallon drums of urethane, painted them, and screwed the wood cuts to the drums creating stump chairs. Our dining room today still boasts these beautiful wooden seats.
Many years later, the chalet grew by pulling down the roof of the original ‘cottage’ turning it into a true A-frame. One side to expand the dining area, then the other side, to expand the kitchen. Food has always been at the heart of repeat guests. My mother’s motto: happy belly, happy person still inspires the delicious hearty and healthy menu, today.
The original bathrooms were called the Howard Johnson’s. They were a fiberglass single room with a curtain that separated the shower from the toilet and sink, all in the same space. We had two of them.
The other interesting part in the first years was our fix-it tent. Because kayaks were made of fiberglass, they would break and every day we would bring one or two boats or paddles, up to the repair tent. It was a full-time position for Nat Wells, a talented paddler and repairman from Messena, NY. We were all good at fixing fiberglass, covering it with saran wrap to smooth the surface, and create a perfect finish. Fixing boats on a rocky river was a fulltime job. As Uli Kluth, a German instructor told us after choosing to rescue the kayak over a student, “the student can swim, the boat costs money!”
It wasn’t until late 70s that roto-molded plastic boats, led by the Canadian built River Runner revolutionized the sport. It was an inexpensive boat design, large and forgiving so anybody could use it and the sport of whitewater kayaking grew exponentially.
Why the Madawaska.
My parents had much foresight when choosing the river for their paddling school. They knew a school would need water throughout the summer season. I remember the three rivers that were in contention:
1- The Rouge River, where my parents won their Canadian champion title, a favourite.
2- The Petawawa River, the section in the town, and land where it merged with the Ottawa River was for sale.
3- The Madawaska River.
The middle Mad is between two release dams: Bark Lake and Palmer Rapids dams. Water in a river needs to flow downstream. And with Bark Lake being Eastern Ontario’s second largest water reservoir, it was the question asked by my parents that solidified the choice: “how much water has to flow downstream over seven days, even in a drought?” It’s really a mathematical formula, that spit out 26 hours of 900cfs (26cms) over seven days, now known as the recreational whitewater release.
Years later, I was instrumental in ratifying this loose agreement and helped form it into legal guidelines, known as the Madawaska Management Plan.
Madawaska Kanu Camp became the name of our paddling school. Kanu is the German term for kayak. Europeans call the canoe a Canadian. Canoe in Canada describes the open boat, originally constructed from birch bark by our indigenous peoples that inhabited this continent. The canoe was the vehicle that opened up our country. The combination Kayak and Canoe in a single word felt right for our paddling school, its acronym, MKC stuck. Locally we are known as the Kanu Camp, and internally as Madawaska!