Paddle battle: Locals want return of free access to Ottawa River

Paddlers want the return of free public access to the rapids in Whitewater Region after a local company owner bought up all the land.

Local company owns every access point to river increasing cost to paddlers

Local paddlers push back as private company blocks free river access

4 months ago
Local kayakers Andrew Hill and Billy Harris say they’re upset that a private company, which owns 2,000 hectares of riverfront land, has blocked free public access to the Rocher-Fendu rapids and has introduced daily access fees, effectively pricing some local residents out. 1:26

Paddlers in the Ottawa Valley want the return of free public access to the internationally famous rapids that gave the area its name.

Since the 1970s, Joe Kowalski of Wilderness Tours has gradually purchased 2,000 hectares of riverfront property along the Ottawa River in Whitewater Region, about 100 kilometres northwest of Ottawa.

His goal, the 72-year-old says, has been to make the experience of descending the historic rapids as wild as when he first arrived in the area from Pennsylvania.

Kowalski, who established his company in 1975, has dubbed the land "National Whitewater Park" and charges daily access fees of $15 to paddle on the river.

Wilderness Tours owner Joe Kowalski now controls about 2,000 hectares of riverfront land along the Ottawa River. (Stu Mills/CBC)

He denies this is an effort to corner the rafting market or monopolize the river, but wants to preserve it and protect it from development.

The main east-west highway for Indigenous peoples, western explorers and the coureurs des bois remains undeveloped to this day, drawing bald eagles, osprey, and the world's best paddlers.

Some give Kowalski credit for protecting the land, while others have been frustrated by his decision to monetize access to the river.

Local kayaker and former guide Billy Harris worries the new access fees would price his family out of the sport and cut off access for many others. (Stu Mills/CBC)

"It is quite a bitter pill to move here and build a family and a life here and lose access to the section we all moved here to love," said local kayaker Billy Harris, who has always used a popular access point at Fletcher Road.

Andrew Hill, a local kayaker and paramedic, said barricading Fletcher Road with boulders could also make it harder for emergency crews to reach rafters injured in the rapids.

New public access sought

This week, Whitewater Ontario called on the township to allow volunteers to create a new public access road to the river by using a municipally owned right-of-way near McCoy Road.

"When a private landowner limits how [a] natural space is going to be used, then it's no longer inclusive and accessible," said Shawna Babcock, who is also a local user of the river.

Local kayaker and paramedic Andrew Hill said public access to the rapids needs to be preserved. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Babcock said the new fees would cost her and her three teens almost $1,000 per year to remove their boats from the river.

"In Canada, rivers need to have free access," she said.

The battle has divided the community between supporters of Kowalski, who credit him for protecting the river, and those who accuse him of a cash-grab, according to Michael Moore, the township's mayor.

He said councillors would consider the plan for the new public access road and make a decision in the next few weeks.

WATCH | Video of a trip through the rapids: 

See what it’s like on the Ottawa River rapids

4 months ago
Take a trip up the rapids in the Township of Whitewater Region. Residents are fighting to reinstate public access to the rapids as private companies purchase the surrounding land and introduce fees. 2:48


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