Wilderness Tours
WT Founder Joe Kowalski imagined the 3 key figures on the Ottawa River - Champlain, Indian Chief Tessouat and Sir John A carved on a sheer cliff on the river.

Although the Ottawa River starts at Lake Capimitchigama, river running on the Ottawa had its start in Western Pennsylvania, where I was a student at Indiana University. It was early August 1970, and I had just finished reading J.R.R. Tolkein’s book "The Hobbit", about a mythical dwarf-like man searching for adventure. The Hobbit filled me with wanderlust and I set off for the Youghigheny River, in search of adventure. My whitewater baptism on the Youghigheny gave birth to my new student career as the founder and first president of the Outdoor Club. The Outdoor Club became the center of my senior year of student life. The highlight of our first year was a river trip to Canada’s Algonquin Park and the famous Petawawa River. I asked my Chemistry Professor, Ed Coleman, who had a small rafting company on the Youghigheny River, "Laurel Highlands River Tours", to be our faculty advisor. Ed subsequently asked me if I was interested in guiding for Laurel Highlands, which I eagerly accepted. Our plan was to establish a Canadian business in Algonquin Park (after my military obligation), which Ed would fund and I would manage. While I was doing a three-year tour of duty with Uncle Sam in Germany, Ed went to see local lawyer, Del O’Brien to incorporate our new business. Del is a pilot and flew Ed over the nearby Ottawa River to check out its rapids for a canoe trip. What looked possible in a canoe from above was huge at water level. All thoughts of canoeing went down river fast. After leaving Germany, Ed and I, along with some diehard river guides from the "Yough", headed north to Canada for our first season of commercial rafting. It was a hot August in 1975 when we journeyed to the Ottawa for several weeks of "trial" river running. Nervous apprehension filled the air as we drove down the dusty roads to the launching area. Since I was in Germany, I had missed the test run the previous summer. I heard stories of hydraulics, which could easily eat our 20-foot rafts. The river is surreal since the countryside is level farmland. The rapids are formed because the Canadian Shield happens to cross the Ottawa River at that point. It’s all flat water paddling from the launching area to McCoy Chute. Because we had our first paying passengers with us, we stopped to scout. Otherwise, I am sure the guides from the previous year’s test run would have gone straight down, just to give me the biggest whitewater thrill of my young life. Standing next to Phil’s Hole (ceremoniously named after Phil Coleman, of Upper Youghigheny fame), I felt somewhat nauseous. It was the biggest hydraulic I had ever seen. The whole river narrowed into a downstream "V", leading directly into the hydraulic. By looking carefully, you could see a soft spot in the middle of the hydraulic, with an unrunnable right side and a boat flipping left side. The soft spot appeared to be just about as wide as our raft. Nervously, we hiked back to the rafts and started down, one boat at a time, beefed up with extra guides and kayakers at the bottom. We weren’t so much worried about "swimmers", but with the forces, which come into play when a 20-foot raft, filled with 12 paddlers and a guide, flips violently, end for end. It was definitely the biggest water we "Yough" guides had ever seen. Luckily, we did not flip and more importantly, we did not surf. That did not happen until two years’ later when a raft missed the tongue and tried an unsuccessful right side run. Watching a 20-foot raft surfing wildly in a huge hydraulic is a sickening sight. As it turned out, there was a newspaper reporter on the trip who caught river guide heroics and it made the front page of Cana da’s biggest newspapers the next day.

 The history of river running on the Ottawa River and the growth of Wilderness Tours became forever entangled. Now almost 40 years later, the Ott awa River has become Canada’s most popular rafting and kayaking river and Wilderness Tours became Canada’s largest whitewater rafting and resort company. The growth of river running on the Ottawa came slowly in those days. If there were other paddlers on the river, we never saw them. It was several years later that we began to notice kayakers discovering the river. Probably the reason for such little interest in the Ottawa was the nature of the river itself. Coming to the Ottawa is somewhat like driving through Iowa, with lush flat farmland. You drive dusty roads, and then all of a sudden, you see bits of water. It doesn’t look like much at first, until you realize that the Ottawa is six miles wide. It is like a miniature Thousand Islands, with over 175 of them dotting the section known as the "Rocher Fendu". This is an old French Indian word meaning "Split Rock". In most rivers, the more the erosion of the water, the rounder and smoother the rocks become. The Ottawa is just the opposite, because of the type of rock, the more erosion, the sharper and coarser the rock becomes. Being first on the river gave us the opportunity to name all the rapids and after tearing a 20-foot raft on the rocks, we named that particular rapid "Butcher Knife", for obvious reasons. The Ottawa River truly is a whitewater paradise. Its hundreds of islands give way to many different channels, secluded beaches, waterfalls and a variety of paddling runs. The Ottawa is one of the few rivers where Class II paddlers can start off with Class V paddlers and meet at the end of the day, both having a great time. In addition to spectacular scenery and a variety of different runs, the Ottawa boasts big, clean and warm water. There are several large hydroelectric dams above us, impounding the spring run-off from 50,000 square miles and releasing it all summer to generate electricity. Because the landscape is basically flat, the lakes behind the dams tend to be large and shallow, warming up considerably in the hot, muggy Canadian summers.

The Ottawa truly is a river like no other. It is the only place in the East where you can find a rapid as big as Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon; hydraulics bigger than Crystal and water as warm as Miami Beach. The Ottawa even boasts re-runnable rapids. At certain water levels, the Lorne Rapids has such a strong eddy on river left with perfect rock formations, you can run the rapids, get into the eddy and it takes you back to the start for another run. As interest in the Ottawa River grew, so did Wilderness Tours. Since the whitewater section is not an overly long one and considerable distance from northeast U.S. population centers, developing a "Club Med" approach to river running seemed appropriate. In addition to pioneering the Ottawa River, Wilderness Tours developed the concept of an all-inclusive adventure resort, with whitewater rafting and kayaking as the lead activity.

 Rafting with WT is very much like a whitewater Club Med. In addition to exciting rafting, there are comfortable accommodations, great food, sports, activities, recreation and entertainment. There are canoes and kayaks dotting our mile-long beach, paddle tennis, volleyball, horseshoes, and large hot tubs for soaking after the trip, mountain biking, horseback riding and Ontario’s only Bungee Jumping site. Evenings at Wilderness Tours are just as exciting with sing-along at the campfire, dancing and romance under starry nights. I will take the credit for pioneering rafting on the Ottawa River, but when it comes to family programs, kudos go to my own children, Joel and Katie. Once Katie turned two years old, I felt she was old enough to go rafting. Joel was five at the time and my sister and her family was visiting from Atlanta. Her c hildren were a bit older than Joel and Katie, but not by much, so I had to figure out how to get them down the Ottawa River safely at that age. Halfway down the Ottawa’s Middle Chan nel, we stopped at Garvin’s Chute (an 18-foot waterfall) for lunch. Munching on sandwiches and gorp, my sister said it was the best time her family had spent together. It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out there are few family activities where the adults can have as much fun as the kids and vice-versa. Thus grew our family program, adding one more jewel to the Ottawa River’s fabulous crown.

 Another great program the kids had a hand in is the Keener Program. in the late 1980’s Jerry Marquis was our River Manager. Jerry was a high school teacher in Tupper Lake, New York. Jerry would always bring some of his best students with him to the Ottawa each summer for work and kayak training. Hand picked by Jerry, these kids were always "keen and enthusiastic" - hence the name Keener. Some the world’s best paddlers came from the first Keener Program. Unfortunately, Jerry was killed snowmobiling in the mid 90’s and the program died with him. Several years ago as Joel entered his teens, we had interest from parents wanting to send their teens to our kayak school for a month at a time. Remembering the Keener Program, it seemed appropriate to resurrect it. Did we ever! In 2004 the Keener Program produced the Canadian, US and Mexican National Junior Kayak Champions. Seven of our Keeners, including Joel and Katie went on to represent their respective countries at the World Championships in Sydney, Australia in 2005. At the North American Championships later that year Keeners took all 3 top spots in the junior women division with Katie winning gold and the 2 top spots in junior men with Joel winning gold. The 2007 World Championships saw more medals and in 2009 in Switzerland, 24 Keeners competed and 7 ascended the podium. Pretty good for a small program whose real goal is youth development. Paddling the Ottawa whether in a raft or kayak is a unique and wonderful experience. When other rivers start to run dry in the summer, the Ottawa’s towering waves and monster hydraulics attract whitewater enthusiasts who can find "mild to wild" and good reason to head to Canada’s top whitewater destination. Wilderness Tours and the Rocher-Fendu is truly a paradise. You now can own a piece of it by purchasing a fractional in our new Whitewater Village.

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