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What does it take to build a world-class travel and tourism destination?
It’s a burning question in Renfrew County where the Madawaska and Ottawa rivers feature some of the best whitewater experiences in the world for rafting, canoeing and kayaking enthusiasts.
Two area businesses pioneered the adventure tourism potential of this area through the 1970s and ’80s. In 1972, champion kayakers Hermann and Christa Kerckhoff started the world’s first whitewater kayak and canoe school, Madawaska Kanu Centre. Hermann and daughter Claudia became the first kayakers to descend the whitewater region of the Ottawa River. In 1981, the Kerckhoffs founded OWL Rafting to give others the whitewater experience. Joe Kowalski, meanwhile, launched Wilderness Tours on the river in 1974.
Both businesses continue to thrive today. Claudia Van Wijk took over OWL and Madawaska Kanu Centre from her parents and runs it with her husband Dirk, with their two daughters assuming increasingly active roles in the business.
Over at Wilderness, the acquisition of a third local rafting company, RiverRun, has left the business primed for its own strong handoff to the next generation of Kowalskis. OWL and Wilderness have each expanded beyond whitewater to also offer other outdoor experiences as well as camping, RV and resort facilities.
Both Claudia Van Wijk and Joe Kowalski see so much more potential for the whitewater region of the Ottawa River than just supporting a couple of family-owned businesses. OWL, Wilderness and RiverRun together have earned an Ontario Signature Experience designation from provincial tourism organization Destination Ontario. OWL also holds a Canadian Signature Experience designation from Destination Canada – the only attraction of its kind in Ontario to do so.
It’s that kind of marketing and promotional horsepower from the federal and provincial governments that is key to drawing the volume of visitors and residents for the area to realize its full potential, said Van Wijk. Preserve the wild and untamed beauty that makes this section of the river unique and build off of that to make it a true signature destination that will attract greater numbers of year-round visitors and residents.
People who have discovered the area are drawn by the appeal of living close to that natural beauty, even if they have no desire to put an oar or paddle into the water, and the fact that Ottawa is only an hour down the road, said Van Wijk. Trail riding, mountain biking, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and even a new buy-local, farm-to-table agricultural industry have sprung up. All of it is supporting the growth of new local service and hospitality businesses.
“It’s the same as why people move to places like alpine ski areas where there is only snow in the winter – in the summer it is still unspoiled wilderness,” Van Wijk said. “People do want to move into an area that is vibrant but is still serene and connected to our land.”
This ultimately drives the need to strike that delicate balance between conservation and preservation while also engaging in new real estate development to provide accommodation.
Kowalski is convinced this balance can be achieved and that the area can “become the Banff of Eastern Canada.”
“What we have here in the Ottawa Valley is as nice as you would find anywhere and I am quite bullish on it,” he said.
So bullish in fact that he lobbied about 30 years ago for a new national park (the area already has two provincial ones). While that effort failed, Kowalski wouldn’t be deterred. Over the years, he has bought up every acre of waterfront he could as it became available. Today, he is the largest private landowner in the area, with about 5,000 acres of shoreline on both sides of the Ottawa River that he still intends to someday become a national park.
In the meantime, he is carving off about 10 per cent of his land where the whitewater section of the Ottawa River flows into Rocher-Fendu Lake for a new real estate development called Voyageur Bay. It features 23 one-acre waterfront lots surrounded by 500 acres of natural wilderness.
While he declined to get into the details, Kowalski also recently listed for sale the land on which his Wilderness Tours Adventure Resort has long operated. He’s not selling the business, just the land on which it operates. There is no word yet on a buyer, but with 323 acres of real estate available (listed for $5.35 million) that has 3,700 feet of waterfront, water and septic service already in place, and plenty of land that is still undeveloped, the site has a lot of potential.
Despite developments like Voyageur Bay and a new chapter pending for the Wilderness Tours site, Van Wijk said that the region remains challenged by a lack of sufficient accommodation. It needs more bed and breakfasts, more Airbnb rentals and more homebuilding overall.
One person with his eye on Renfrew County is Ottawa Senators founder and real estate investment coach Bruce Firestone, with Century 21 Explorer Realty.
The outdoor adventure and tourism sector is “growing twice as fast as the rest of the economy,” he said. “So places like Renfrew County with abundant lakes, rivers and natural features that are also close to fast-growing urban centres … are well-positioned to take advantage.”
“A couple of provisos though,” he added. “They have to offer the right high-end products and services plus local authorities can’t bog down landowners with approval processes that take forever.”