Turbulent times for whitewater rafting

David Sali
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Ottawa Valley entrepreneur Joe Kowalski calls himself a “modern-day crusader.”

Whitewater rafting

His mission? To get kids – and their parents – off the couch and into a raft or canoe on the region’s renowned rapids.

“When I was growing up, I was always camping, always outside, never indoors,” says the 65-year-old owner of Wilderness Tours Adventure Resort. “We have the largest wilderness on earth. I think it’s time to get Canadians back in the wilderness.”

Located about 90 minutes northwest of the city on the Ottawa River, Wilderness Tours offers a variety of outdoor activities, from whitewater rafting and canoeing to camping and bungee jumping. It draws tens of thousands of customers every year looking to get their fix of adrenalin and fresh air.

Mr. Kowalski, an American expatriate who moved to Canada in the early 1970s after serving in Vietnam, pioneered whitewater rafting in the Ottawa Valley when he opened his resort in 1975. He believes the rapids in the Valley are among Canada’s best, which is why he chose to make the region his home. These days, however, it seems fewer and fewer of the rest of us are willing to jump in our cars and head upriver to ride the rafts with one of his guides.

“Certainly, people aren’t as venturous as they used to be,” says Mr. Kowalski. His rafting excursions, which drew about 30,000 customers a year just a decade ago, will be lucky to attract 20,000 people this season and the number could be as low as 15,000, he says.

Profit margins in the business “have always been thin,” he says. “Now they’re thinner.”

Several factors are to blame for the steep decline, Mr. Kowalski says, including a drop in the number of tourists from the U.S. crossing the border since 9/11 and a less-than-robust economy over the past half-dozen years.

“People don’t have as much money to spend, so they’re watching it more carefully,” he says.

Perhaps the biggest reason of all, he says, is the changing nature of the city. He looks at the Ottawa of today, with its paved bike trails winding along the river from Stittsville to Orleans and its seemingly endless string of outdoor summer events such as Bluesfest, and sees a much different community than the one he first got to know 40 years ago.

“Cities weren’t like that decades ago,” Mr. Kowalski says. “People wanted out of the city. Now, what happens is the quality of life, in Ottawa in particular, in the city is so good that people don’t want to leave the way that they used to. They’re not clamouring to escape the city every chance that they get.”

Ottawa outdoor enthusiast Dave Stibbe, a former guide at Wilderness Tours, agrees businesses like Mr. Kowalski’s are facing a difficult challenge.

“The outdoor industry is suffering greatly because we’ve gone through a massive generational shift,” he says. “Kids today are growing up in an era where they don’t leave the cities. Their parents don’t take them camping, they don’t take them out of the city. Kids today don’t drive anymore – they don’t own cars. Cars are expensive, gas is expensive. People don’t want to drive those distances to experience those adventures anymore.”

Add in the fact that kids aren’t as physically active as they used to be – a city report released last week revealed that only one in four Ottawa students met the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for youth that recommend 60 minutes of physical activity per day – and it’s not hard to see why enterprises like Wilderness Tours feel like they’re swimming against the current.

“The world has changed since 2008, and we have to change, too,” Mr. Kowalski says, referring to the year the U.S. housing market collapsed, throwing the world economy into a tailspin that added to his industry’s list of worries. “I think almost every business today has to reinvent itself.”

Now, Mr. Kowalski and Mr. Stibbe are teaming up to try to reverse the tide of falling rafting revenues. 

Last month, they launched Wilderness Tours Ottawa City Adventures, which offers rafting trips right in the heart of the capital. The company’s whitewater excursion, which it says is a Canadian first for an urban area, starts at Britannia Beach and ends 9.5 kilometres later at Lemieux Island.

During the two-and-a-half-hour trip, customers ride three sets of rapids – Deschênes, Remic and Little Chaudière – and even have a chance to bodysurf. Along the way, they get a bit of a history lesson about the river and its role in Ottawa’s development, not to mention a view of the city and surrounding areas few have experienced before.

Mr. Stibbe said the idea for the urban tours came to him a couple of years ago when he worked at Mountain Equipment Co-op. He and colleague Neal Watts led their co-workers on field courses down the river and immediately noticed how much fun the group was having.

“Every time we ran that trip, the staff were like, ‘This is awesome,’” he says. “We looked at each other and said, ‘This is totally a commercial trip.’” 

He approached Mr. Kowalski, his former boss, who had actually considered launching tours within the city limits about 25 years ago but decided against it. Now, he says, if customers won’t go to his resort upriver, it’s time to bring the business to them.

“I want to bring people back to the outdoors,” Mr. Kowalski says. “The way to do that is to just get closer to the people in Ottawa and provide that easy stepping stone from the smaller rapids in the city to the larger rapids up in the Valley.”

Designed for those who want to figuratively dip their toes in the whitewater, the trip navigates through urban rapids rated two or three out of five on the measuring scale. That means they aren’t as turbulent as the water in the Valley, and Mr. Stibbe and his crew promise a no-flip experience. Guides will steer the route according to customers’ level of comfort, avoiding rougher patches if need be.

Mr. Stibbe says he’s targeting young families and tourists, but adds the excursions are also becoming popular with seniors – an 89-year-old is the eldest adventurer so far – and are accessible to customers with disabilities. He is hoping to get his tours approved for school field trips in the near future.

The trips, which are open to everyone aged six and up, will likely run until Thanksgiving at a cost of $49 for adults and $39 for children aged 6-12.

“The response has been amazing,” says Mr. Stibbe, adding he expects about 1,500 people will take the urban river run this season, a number he hopes will increase tenfold in the next few years. 

“Just being on the river makes (customers) feel like they’ve escaped the city even though they’re right in the middle of it.”

He envisions a day when his urban whitewater adventure is a must-do local attraction for locals and visitors alike.

“You have your paddle in your hand and you have the Parliament Buildings in clear view in the background. To me, there’s nothing more Canadian than that.”

Organizations: Wilderness Tours Adventure Resort, Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines, Wilderness Tours Ottawa City Adventures Mountain Equipment Co-op

Geographic location: Ottawa Valley, Canada, Ottawa River U.S. Vietnam Stittsville Britannia Beach

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