White water enthusiasts congregate on the Madawaska
Making kayaking waves
White water enthusiasts congregate on the Madawaska
Some 50 km from its source in Algonquin Provincial Park, the Madawaska River collides with Bark Lake Dam and, depending on whether it is spring or summer, roars or sighs over the top. There is something about the Madawaska River at this point—300 km west of Ottawa—that only a white water nut would notice, and one summer day 17 years ago Hermann Kerckhoff, an immigrant from Hamburg, West Germany, did notice as his kayak bobbed down the five kilometres of rapids below the dam: the water is actually warm! Turbulent water and warmth are a rare combination. But because the Bark Lake Dam releases its water from the top, unlike most hydroelectric dams, it releases only the sun-heated surface water. You don’t have to dress in a neoprene wet suit to survive a few hours of bouncing through a hostile current in a cigar-shaped, tissue-thin kayak that seems as vulnerable in a rock-strewn stream as a circus balloon in a pin factory.
Kerckhoff, a former floor refinishing contractor whose enthusiasm colors each word of his guttural English, dreamed of making a living “at something you enjoy doing.” From that day in 1964, he and his wife, Christa, pur-
sued the dream. Six years later, when they opened Madawaska Kanu Camp, his old Toronto friends at the Ontario Voyageurs Kayak Club laughed at them and their camp below the Bark Lake Dam. Ten years later they were sending their children to it.
There is a single-mindedness about Hermann and Christa Kerckhoff. They share enthusiasms and tend to finish off each other’s sentences. When Hermann was first exposed to kayaking in early 1964, he decided then and there that, “Awww, I had to do it.” They had just paid off the second mortgage on their Toronto home, Hermann no longer worked seven days a week “like any immigrant does” and they were looking for some outdoor recreation. After all, they had come to Canada for adventure. True to form, they also decided to become champions and, by 1969, led their respective sexes in the Canadian National Kayak Championship in Huberdeau, Que. At the 1972 Munich Olympics, Hermann, then 34 (most European competitors were half his age), represented Canada, coached by Christa. He finished last, but then Canada had never done particularly well internationally in this boat invented by its own Inuit.
The hesitant group of seven stands
along the river’s edge on the granite ledges that tilt into the rolling Madawaska. The river roars and midafternoon sunlight sparkles off the churning water. Maple saplings poke timidly from cracks in the rock, doomed to despoilation in next spring’s runoff, and a heavy scent of pine and cedar drifts from the overhanging glade. “Anyone who doesn’t want to run these rapids doesn’t have to,” reassures Rich Bryant, a lean, heavily tanned instructor. He wears a bathing suit and helmet, standard equipment. From his waist hangs the neoprene spray skirt that will seal him into his kayak so that, even when tossed upside down by the rapids, he can execute that most miraculous of kayak escapes, the Eskimo roll.
None of the novices has ever ventured into such turbulent water. The laidback Bryant continues his spiel, talking about currents and rocks, haystacks and eddies, and about scouting a river so you can follow the tongues of open water down to a safe and breathless conclusion. This is a Class II rapid. Just below the dam is Hermann’s Class III
site, called the Staircase Rapids. “Class
IV is where you usually have to work pretty hard,” Bryant continues. “You usually have to get out and scout. Class
V is like Class IV, only harder. Class VI is where the International Canoe Federation says there could be loss of life.”
Like these seven neophytes, Rich Bryant heard of Hermann through kayaking friends, that small fraternity of thrill-seekers whose churches are those tiny outdoors stores with kayaks hung from the ceilings, and whose Meccas are rivers like the Madawaska, or the Salmon in Idaho, or the Chattooga in South Carolina (site of the movie Deliverance). In this fraternal world, a kayak maker whose moulding machine spits out 4,000 boats a year is referred to in terms of a General Motors, and a national class champion, such as the eldest of the Kerckhoffs’ three daughters, 20-year-old Claudia, has fame akin to Wayne Gretzky.
With a few tentative strokes that send their kayaks skimming like water bugs into the glassy current, each novice alternately slides, bounces and splashes his way down his first 180 metres of white water. From above, Rich Bryant gazes impassively while Dana Chladek, his 17-year-old assistant, keeps the nose of her 10-kgkayak in an eddy downstream, waiting to pick up anyone who gets separated from his craft. Today there is only one dump— Ian McPhail, a young Toronto accountant, who makes good on his second try. Minutes later sun-reddened faces beam with pleasure at route’s end from bobbing slivers of fibre glass. “It’s really incredible for your ego,” proclaims Anton Tymoshenko, an 18-year-old art student from Mississauga, Ont. “You look at those rapids and if you don’t know anything about them you think it’s impossible to get through.”
Upon such genial banter rests the success of any white water school. Graduates, for example, are fully accre-
dited to gaze wistfully at some churning section of a river and, in a voice just loud enough for others to hear, murmur, “Now wouldn’t that be a nice set to shoot.” In such an aura Mike Taylor loves to bask. A Hamilton, Ont., orthodontist, Taylor pins kayaking brochures and photos to his office walls. “When the kids see that when they come in for braces, they get all psyched up about it,” Taylor beams, and declares himself signed up for a full week at Hermann’s in late summer.
Kerckhoff’s original idea was to build a racing school but the numbers just weren’t there. At the time nearly all the students came from the United States (where the sport bloomed earlier) and they were, to use Rich Bryant’s description, elitists. Hermann altered the axis of the school to encourage sports nuts, not just racers. “People talk about kayaking as a macho sport,” Bryant snorts. “It’s not. If you have the right
equipment, and you know the technique, and paddle with people who know the river—then anybody can do it. But this isn’t a real glamor sport. There’s a lot of adversity and that puts people off. It takes a special kind of person to want to put on a clammy wet suit or enjoy a sport where there’s nothing to come back to except a wet tent.”
As Hermann and Christa began to offer white water kayaking, sport canoeing and rafting, more Canadians signed up, to the point where they now account for half the school’s yearly enrolment of 500 to 600 students. The success was such that there has been the temptation to turn their stretch of river paradise into a Coney Island for the white water set. “We take only 40 people on the river a day but we could double that,” insists 45-year-old Christa, an accountant by training and inclination, whose white Pierre Cardin shorts counterpoint her husband’s old sweatshirt and faded blue jeans. “But the next year we would have an enrolment of 20, Christa,” he retorts. “People would go home and say it’s a zoo.” Fixed in his mind is the belief that his five kilometres of river can “absorb” no more than 40 people in either the five-day ($300 with food) course or the $120 weekend course.
The Kerckhoffs define themselves as “non-corporate” people. Hermann’s greatest thrill was watching the school grow by word of mouth, as white water folk stopped to chat on those swift clear streams buried in green wilderness. In such rarified circles the couple have won a degree of fame for running one of the continent’s best training schools, where U.S. and Canadian national teams come to train. In fact, it is in large part due to their school’s popularity-one of about 12 in Canada—that the ranks of the Canadian White Water Association have doubled in the past decade to 2,700 members. The initial tent of the Kanu Camp is now a chalet and dormitory complex and the Kerckhoffs’ property now includes 10 acres of campground where, for reduced rates, students can camp overnight and cook their own meals.
Hermann, now 43, finally quit his floor refinishing business this spring. These days he dreams of passing on the school to his daughters, since “it is a young people’s business.” He will still teach a bit, but he wants his freedom, too. Like Rich Bryant he still blocks off autumn months just to paddle, and the glories of such a life draw him irresistibly. While Christa keeps a file of things she wants to do when she has time, he has something simpler in mind. “I’m going to be a carpenter again and let Claudia and Annette run the business. I want to get back to paddling.” Back to playing, he is asked? “Yeah/” ^
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