Esprit whitewater rafting lodge in the Pontiac destroyed in fire

Jim Coffey was paddling out in the Ottawa River to bring in a stray kayak when he noticed the main lodge of his whitewater rafting business — where he had left about 30 people, including his five-year-old son and mother — was engulfed in flames on Friday evening.

No one was injured in the fire in the near-century old pine lodge, owner of Esprit Rafting says

The main building of Esprit Whitewater Rafting, near Fort Coulonge, Que., was destroyed in a fire Friday evening. (Nancy Denault-Freeland/Facebook)

Jim Coffey was paddling out in the Ottawa River to bring in a stray kayak when he noticed smoke billowing out of the main lodge of his rafting business on Friday evening — where he had left his five-year-old son, mother and nearly 30 other staff members and guests.

"The smoke got bigger and bigger, and turned to a dark black colour. And I'm sitting in a canoe out in the middle of the Ottawa River so I paddled as fast as I could and I ran as fast as I could," he recalled Saturday. 

"The last I had seen of my five-year-old boy and my mother was upstairs in my office, which is probably the most challenging place to be in the event that we were to have a fire in our main building."

Everyone got out of the almost century-old pine lodge safely but the building where Coffey started Esprit Rafting near Fort Coulonge, Que., 25 years ago was destroyed, he said.

This is a pretty big test for us but we hope that we pass.- Esprit owner Jim Coffey

Still, he is grateful that the equipment, which is not stored in the main building, was preserved, as well as nearby hostel buildings and camp sites. 

Planned trips went ahead on Saturday, Coffey told CBC News from his cellphone on the shore of the river where he was preparing for a kayak trip.

"Our staff have sort of risen to the challenges of last night to pull together our operation as best we can — probably some of them without very much sleep," he said.

"We've got a lot of heart and a lot of character, and in general I think that we're considered to be pretty resilient. And, you know, this is a pretty big test for us but we hope that we pass," he said.

Coffey said the cause of the fire is not yet known. The Mansfield Fire Department could not be reached for comment on Saturday.

'Rubber barons' of Pontiac

Fire crews douse the smouldering remains of an Esprit Whitewater Rafting building near Fort Coulonge, Que. (Nancy Denault-Freeland/Facebook)

Once part of the timber trade on the Ottawa River, the building in the Pontiac region of Quebec was transformed into a gathering point for rafters and the greater community, with a restaurant, live entertainment and offices to run the business. 

"Although we're not timber barons, we became sort of the rubber barons. Instead of moving timber down the river, we moved tourists down the river," he said.

Coffey said he still needs to figure out if he can rebuild on-site, and whether he will set up a temporary location elsewhere.

"All those things are currently up in the air. But the good news is that as we make any changes or make any of these adjustments, that we do that looking forward knowing that nobody got hurt," he said.

"Any material thing can be replaced and if it can't be replaced, maybe it just wasn't to be. And sometimes there are different chapters in your life that lead on to a great sequel or might change the way that you do things a little bit and we'll just have to see what ends up happening." 

Esprit Rafting, headquartered in Davidson, Que., about 120 kilometres from Ottawa, does whitewater rafting, canoe and riverboarding trips on several rivers, including the Ottawa River, the Gatineau River, the Magnetawan River, the Petawawa River, the Kipawa River and the Magpie River.

Esprit also operates trips in Mexico and Costa Rica.

Coffey said his business runs special programs for people with brain injuries, as well an international program for children with autism.

An online fundraiser has been launched to help the business.