The world’s first whitewater school is celebrating its 50th anniversary—and it’s still a family business
Madawaska Kanu Centre, a three-generation, family-run paddling company located just south of Barry’s Bay, Ontario, operates with a lot of heart and passion. With a dream of expanding the whitewater community, slalom canoeists Hermann and Christa Kerckhoff started Madawaska Kanu Centre (MKC) in 1972 as the world’s first whitewater kayak and canoe school.
As the family business passes from one generation to the next—Hermann and Christa’s daughter Claudia Kerckhoff-Van Wijk and her husband Dirk took over in 1988, and their daughters, Stefi and Katrina Van Wijk, entered leadership in 2018—MKC’s dedication to the sport, the environment and the visitor experience is unwavering.
I chatted with Stefi, the current director of MKC, about the vision behind her family’s centre, why Madawaska is their river of choice, the range of paddling courses offered, their 50-year legacy and, finally, their work in creating an atmosphere that inspires connection to nature, community and self.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about Madawaska Kanu Centre? I heard that it’s been in your family for three generations. What’s the story behind that?
When my grandparents immigrated from Germany, they wanted to pursue “the Canadian thing to do,” as in, be in nature! Also, to do something active in nature, and so, they fell in love with whitewater kayaking. Recognizing that it was such a small sport and really hard to get into, they started a centre, like a resort, based off of the alpine ski lesson model—everyone can come on the same days, and be divided into different skill levels. The design of our 5 Day course was then made: five awesome, full days of paddling, where everyone is learning at their own pace. We have a very beautiful chalet and we're quite famous for our home-cooked gourmet meals. Folks can stay in our Lodge, our off-grid cabins, or they can camp.
Q: Why is Madawaska your river of choice?
The Madawaska River has the ability to challenge everyone. There are sections that are perfect introductory areas, and it’s not too intimidating. The water is warm and clean, and there’s really consistent water levels, which is hard to find for whitewater—we have whitewater that's the perfect level to train on from April to September, which is amazing.
Q: Give me an idea of the paddling courses you offer. Are they suited to all skill levels? What can one expect?
Our 5 Day courses are our bread and butter, and we have different themed 5 Day courses. Right now, we’re in our Family Week—that’s when we offer programs to a multitude of ages, and the kids of different ages have different progressions. The cool thing about our Family Week is that kids get to meet other kids that are paddling and they’re not necessarily just learning how to do the sport with their parents. And then the adults aren’t stuck learning at the same pace as their kids—they’re in their own classes, learning what they want to learn and then everyone is together during mealtimes and overnight. It’s like a family vacation, but everyone is challenged in their own way that they want to be. We have Women’s Week, Senior’s Week, Slalom Week which has more of an athlete’s vibe to it, and weekend courses, as well.
Q: What differentiates your operation from the rest in the area? What makes MKC stand out?
I think we’re super unique and that is why a lot of people are intimidated by our sport. But it’s such a beautiful immersion; connecting to rivers is an amazing way to connect to nature. We’re so inclined to connect to water, and whitewater especially is such an amazing force. To be able to navigate and dance with whitewater and rivers... to be able to read current and anticipate how your boat can perform in moving water… it is an incredible thing to watch someone learn.
Whitewater itself is quite a unique activity, and people definitely have a conception that whitewater is really dangerous, scary, and a high-adrenaline junkies’ sport. But, I always say it’s kind of a similar situation to biking… like you have your extreme bikers that huck themselves off of cliffs and then you have grandma biking to the grocery store. You have a similar range of intensity in kayaking, but the only kayaking that is in the media is going to be the hucking off cliffs. So, because it’s such a small sport, the only exposure that people have is the extreme.
Q: This year marked MKC’s 50th anniversary—how exciting! What are the core values that have enabled your paddling company to thrive for so long? What’s next for Madawaska Kanu Centre?
Being stewards of the river and the land. Bringing and sharing the passion for the river to a wider audience, but also in a deeper way, like deepening and widening the river community. And, offering a high-quality, nourishing experience for visitors.
I’m absolutely honoured that I'm able to spend my life sharing a sport that I truly believe has a positive impact on the world and people. I find that MKC does that really well—it brings people together and brings people to appreciate nature, to connect with nature and also connect with themselves.
Currently run by the family’s third generation, Madawaska Kanu Centre was the vision of Christa & Hermann Kerckhoff. Winning the individual Canadian Whitewater Kayak Champion title in 1968 the couple was inspired to get more paddlers out on rivers. The first whitewater school in the world was born. Modelled after the European ski school concept where paddlers are divided into skill level groups, good food, and a great atmosphere lead to the ‘Rapid Education’ we know as MKC today! The Madawaska River location became the river of choice with its technical rapids and guaranteed surface water releases providing warm whitewater all summer long.