Review of Ontario’s Madawaska Kanu Centre
By Jon Nelson
Madawaska Kanu Centre is a well-known paddling school for kayaks and whitewater open
canoes. Located in Barrys Bay, ONT on the banks of the Madawaska River, MKC was
established in 1972 and is now operated by the founders’ daughter and her husband,
Claudia Kerckhoff and Dirk van Wijk. A basic objective of the school is to move beginning
intermediate paddlers quickly through the learning process and have them to safely run a
Class III river by the end of a 5-day course.
Recently, I spent a week at MKC and can report that they are very successful with this
task. There is a daily water release from an upstream dam on Bark Lake (a top release =
nice warm water). Basic instruction takes place on Chalet Rapids (Class-II). Immediately
upstream of Chalet is Staircase Rapids (C-III), where more advanced instruction takes
place. Students are grouped according to ability and experience, and progress during the
week is at a different pace for each skill group. The groups are small. During my week,
there were 24 paddlers (15 kayaks, 7 canoers, 2 sea kayaks) and 6 instructors (3 kayak, 2
canoe, 1 sea kayak). We spent about 3 hours on the river in the mornings and 2-3 hours in
the afternoons. The lessons are well-organized and the instructors are fun, entertaining,
and very knowledgeable.
Equipment can be rented or you can bring your own. Tent camping is available on-site, but you
can rent a chalet room or stay in a dormitory. The meals served on-site are excellent, with
many fresh local ingredients. Vegetarian alternatives are offered. A large beer/wine
cooler is available. After-dinner events usually included videos and the mornings included
yoga as well as group stretching before putting on the river.
Here is a synopsis of my week at MKC:
Monday – wet exit and T-boat recovery drills. Basic forward stroke; stroke and stroke combinations
for eddy entries and exits; and stroke and stroke-combinations for ferrying.
River run of the middle Madawaska (C-II) and rolling practice on Mud Lake at the take-out.
Some regrouping of paddlers was done after Monday’s river run.
Tuesday – we covered the three basic rules of river safety; river hand/paddle signals; how
to scout a rapid and pick a safe line; river classifications and features; and use of a throw
bag in a recirculating roller. We worked on duffek strokes, ferrying, and eddy drills in
Entrance and Staircase Rapids; river run of the middle Mad; rolling practice; and flexibility
drills. Evening instruction included group practice in the use of a throw bag and how to
unpin an open boat. Some photos of MKC instruction are here:
Wednesday – my group went to the fabulous Ottawa River and ran McCoys (C-IV-) and
the Middle Channel rapids (C-III), including two rapids that required scouting. We carried
around Garvin’s Drop (C-IV), but watched EJ’s kids run it. The other groups continued
working at the Madawaska. There was an evening barbeque at Bark Lake, with an
opportunity to tryout various types and models of boats. We watched kite-boarders on the
lake, with a strong on-shore wind.
Thursday – my group worked on eddy-hopping in Staircase and did some river play in the
waves and holes at Chalet. We also did videos of our forward strokes, eddy turns, and
rolls. In the afternoon, we again ran the middle Mad and did more rolling practice at the
take-out. We also helped some of the other groups get safely down the river. Beaver were
seen in the water at the bottom of one rapid.
Friday – the big MKC graduation day. We all went to the Ottawa, with additional guides.
The other groups (including the 5 open canoes) ran the Middle Channel, excluding
McCoys. My group again ran McCoys and then continued down the Main Channel (C-III+
at summer levels), which included two more rapids that required scouting. We marveled at
the abilities of the many play-boaters on the river. The evening graduation meal was an
outstanding steak dinner.
Summary – this was a superb week that exceeded my already high expectations. I was
especially impressed by the quality of instruction, emphasis on safe boating, and really top
notch meals. My week was billed as “senior’s week,” but only about half of the paddlers fell
into that age category. Everything at MKC was well organized, but not uptight. I did the
500-mile drive back to State College with a happy, if somewhat tired, state of mind. The
MKC web site is at http://www.owl-mkc.ca/ and a video can be found at
Ottawa River – the Ottawa is a different from every other big river that I have been on —
there is no canyon. It is comparable to the New River in WV, but the lines through the
rapids are not as difficult as the New. The Ottawa is bigger and has more boils and
whirlpools. The rapids are separated by large lake-like pools of water, which keeps the
water warm in the summer. The water depth means the bottom run-outs are reasonably
safe. It is considered the best play-boating river in the world. There are numerous Ottawa
paddling videos available on-line: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZacnidKcU8 and
The aerial photo shows Coliseum Rapids
on the Main. We ran down the middle rightside
to avoid pin-ball waves and a bottom
keeper hole. Coli is fast powerful water that
eats big rafts at higher levels. Here are
Jon Nelson has more than 40 years of whitewater kayaking experience, but thought his big
water paddling days were behind him.