Access to the Ottawa River’s world famous white water is free again.
The owners of Wilderness Tours announced this week that they were dropping access fees for a popular put-in and take-out spot, ending a long-simmering dispute over public access to the river playground.
“Wilderness Tours recognizes the strain the paid model has had on the community and the barriers it placed for some paddlers. We’ve reflected on this and with our core value of ‘sharing the magic of whitewater’ we are committed to access to the Ottawa River and to supporting the long-term growth and development of the whitewater community,” the company posted on its wildernesstours.com website.
“This is a long-term commitment to access that we feel is in line with our renewed commitment to community, economic equity, and to benefit our local tourism community who also depend on access to the world-class whitewater as part of their own destination marketing.”
Joe Kowalski established Wilderness Tours, the first rafting company on the Ottawa’s Rocher Fendu section, in the mid-1970s and now runs the company with his son, Joel, and daughter, Katie. The Kowalskis own about 2,000 hectares of the rugged, rocky terrain along the Rocher Fendu, about 75 kilometres west of Ottawa, and have earned kudos for limiting development and keeping the area wild.
But many whitewater enthusiasts were rankled by the company’s decision to charge a daily fee of $10 per adult and $5 per child at its access point on Fletcher Road, which it bought seven years ago from the former River Run outfitters. (River Run also charged a $7 per person daily fee when it owned the property.) Paddlers complained that made the sport too costly, particularly for those who ran the rapids frequently during paddling season.
“This was just something we wanted to do,” Joel Kowalski said. “It was clearly something that was important for the community. We figured it was easy enough to provide it. We had the access point. Our main business is rafting, anyway so charging for takeout isn’t a big part of the business. It was an easy thing to provide that is a big positive for the community.”
Wilderness used the fee to help pay for maintenance of the road and an outhouse on site and to defray the cost of liability insurance, Kowalski said.
Whitewater Region Mayor Michael Moore said the question of river access had been an issue going back at least two elections. The Fletcher Road access is used as a take-out for expert paddlers who run the bigger, more challenging rapids upstream and a put-in for families who float down the smaller, child-friendly rapids downstream.
“This is great news for the locals and the kayakers and, when I say kayakers, I mean families,” Moore said. “This has been one of the big issues for families that they haven’t been able to get down to the river.”
Paddlers are an economic driver in the region, buying gas and visiting restaurants, Moore said.
“There’s a lot of spinoffs from it. It’s good news.”
“Thank you for this important gesture towards the legacy of protecting access to such a wonderful resource,” said Christoper Doubt, administrator of a Facebook group Ottawa Region Whitewater Paddlers. “I’m sure the community can respect such a decision and work with (Wilderness Tours) to continue a harmonious relationship as stewards of the Ottawa, keeping it clean, and beautiful and fun.”
The advocacy group Whitewater Ontario has been working to secure better access to that section of the river, lobbying the township and private landowners with its Ottawa River Public Access Project. David Gillespie of Whitewater Ontario said that work would continue, but praised Wilderness for its “generous” move.
“It’s great news that they’re doing it, and we’d like to thank the Kowalskis,” Gillespie said.