Featured Destination: The Madawaska Kanu Centre

Famed paddling school named a 'Canadian Signature Experience'

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By Adrick Brock

Every place you visit has a must-do list. In Chile, it’s hiking in Patagonia. Australia is all about the outback; in Norway, you see the fjords. Natural attractions define a country, and they also pull in the rest of the world.

With this in mind, Canada’s national tourism board launched the Canadian Signature Experience designation in 2011. The premise, according to their mandate, is that travellers want to explore and “live a life less ordinary,” and that Canada is the place to do it. Among the two hundred signature experiences, travelers can tour behind the curtain of Niagara Falls, go heli-skiing in British Columbia or sign up for cowboy camp in the Saskatchewan prairie.

For paddlers though, the quintessential Canadian experience will always include a canoe and the thousands of rivers and lakes that crisscross the landscape. It’s no surprise then that Madawaska Kanu Centre has been named a Canadian Signature Experience, one of only ten launched for 2016.

Fall canoeing on the Madawaska.
Fall canoeing on the Madawaska.

MKC is the world’s first whitewater kayak and canoe school. It was started in 1972 by slalom champions Christa and Hermann Kerckhoff, who dreamed of growing the sport in Canada. They’d learned to paddle here, and saw an opportunity to combine world-class instruction with resort-style hospitality based on the alpine ski school concept of their native Germany.

The location they chose was half-an-hour drive from the southern border of Algonquin Park, in the forested heart of Ontario’s Madawaska Valley. Here the Madawaska River cuts through a scenic section of Canadian Shield, forming a compact procession of pools, swifts and Class II-III rapids. The Mad is remote without being inaccessible, and it’s proven to be one of the world’s best whitewater classrooms.

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Forty-four years on, MKC is now owned and operated by their daughter, Claudia, and her husband Dirk van Wijk. The pair has two adult daughters, Stefani and Katrina, who both instruct and help manage the business. That three generations have lived and worked at the school is not surprising––MKC has the feel of a family home.

There are a number of reasons both beginner and experienced paddlers alike should consider visiting. First is the instruction. Paddlers are grouped by boat-type and skill level, which means that you can come to the school with your kayaker wife and playboater daughter and still keep the peace while you go off and master the cross-bow draw with your ilk of canoeists. Classes are small, and the ratio of students to instructors never exceeds 6-to-1.

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Courses at MKC run all summer long, in both 5-day and weekend stints, and programming is varied. Women’s Retreat combines paddling with additional off-the-water perks such as daily yoga, a massage and wine-and-cheese tasting. Week of Rivers is offered to experienced kayakers and canoeists looking to explore five of the region’s best rivers in a compact, all-inclusive road trip getaway. Family Week have parents and kids enjoying an active paddling vacation together with kids learning to kayak with their peers, while parents enjoy the course of their choice. Canoeing classes have parents and kids paddling together preparing for future adventures on the river as a family. Après-paddling sees everyone re-unite at MKC’s chalet for good food and good times until the sun goes down.

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Four years ago, Katrina van Wijk started MKC’s newest program, a two-week teen kayak camp called Whitewater Riders. Katrina has gone on from her riverside upbringing to become one of the world’s most exciting extreme kayakers. Her recent feats include dropping both Metlako Falls (83 feet) and Toketee Falls (85 feet), as well as being the first woman to complete the North Fork Race in 2014. Her Riders program does not culminate in 80-foot waterfalls, but it does challenge teens to become whitewater leaders, skilled in more than just playboats. The camp teaches slalom, creeking, canoe tripping and swift water rescue.

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MKC’s base camp is nestled into the forest, just up the hill from the river. It features lodge accommodation and camping facilities, as well as a sauna and cold pool. The focal point of the grounds, however, is the large pine-beam dining chalet.

Food is a major part of the MKC experience. The school’s kitchen was recently awarded the Feast ON designation, meaning over a quarter of the ingredients they source are grown or raised locally. Meals are home-cooked, healthy, and so abundant it can be difficult to get back into a PFD after lunch. The running joke between returning students is that paddling is what happens in between the eating.

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At the heart of the MKC experience is something more than luxury and relaxation. When you sign up for a 5-day kayak or canoe course, you’re accepting a personal challenge to learn and improve a skill. You’re activating your body, meeting new people, and pitting yourself against your own fears. Yes, there’s the good food and comfortable sleeps, but there’s also something that no one can sell you: fun.

Claudia van Wijk is thrilled to see MKC added to Canada’s official adventure bucket list. “Canada wouldn’t be a country without the canoe,” she explains. “This simple, elegant vessel was invented by the first people to live here, and it’s still used today to access our beautiful wilderness. Our waterways are our roads.”

The Madawaska River, she says, is a perfect place to learn your strokes.

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More from C&K

Five Days, Five Rivers: An Instructional River Running Retreat in the Canadian Shield

Rivers are Playgrounds: Family Week at the Madawaska Canoe Centre