Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Adventure in Ontario's Highlands: Wilderness Tours - Protecting the Wild Ottawa River

A post by Scott F.

After a wild drive across the Trans-Canada Highway, we were primed for some adventure in Ontario’s Highlands. Our much anticipated Saturday stop on our three day trip to the region was Wilderness Tours, who have been offering whitewater rafting and a variety of other activities on the Ottawa River since 1975. While we were primed for adventure, that which Wilderness Tours provided in spades, we didn’t expect to learn that there’s a lot more to the company than thrills and a cool party atmosphere.

Our day was not quite this sunny, but was every bit as extreme. Photo courtesy of Wilderness Tours.
After checking in to our clean and comfortable deluxe cedar cabin, we received a knock at the door from a man who introduced himself as Joe. What we’d later learn, and wouldn’t have expected at first glance, was that Joe was one of the most extreme men we had ever met. He founded the resort 39 year ago and had actually been one of the first to run many of rapids we’d be hitting that day. In fact, he’d named most of the rapids too.

That's Joe, President of Wilderness Tours. Photo courtesy of Wilderness Tours.
Joe was instantly friendly, describing the Real Man Travels lads as the “last of a dying breed” of adventurous Canadians and promising to show us around.

After getting settled in we made our way to “Rafters,” the figurative heart of the Wilderness Tours resort situated right on the Ottawa River. With 30 minutes before our rafting instruction, we were eager to get our gear readied up; that was before we were intercepted by Joe who insisted that then was a perfect time for our tour. So we hopped in his GMC Envoy and sped into the resort.

Joe’s formality, if it ever existed, instantly broke down into a sincerity one rarely gets from the owner of a major company. He expanded on his “last of a dying breed” statement, explaining how the changing face of Canada and its inhabitants meant a declining interest in adventure and exploration outside city limits. We later heard from our guide that Joe had started an outdoor adventure club when he was in college and at the first meeting something like 200 people showed up; you can only imagine how many less students would show up today. He took us through the history of the river, including how it was the same route Samuel de Champlain navigated three centuries earlier, and how years of use for logging had left sediment at the bottom, tinging the water tea black.

Joe also discussed how the focus of his company was different than many might expect. The Ottawa River, he described, had been developed so rapidly that the land that Wilderness Tours had worked hard to acquire over the years represented the last wild section still in existence. You quickly learn what he means by “wild” as you make your way down the river. The cottages that one would expect to dot the banks of such picturesque surroundings are simply not there to break up the wilderness. Any buildings that exist are set far back from river’s edge, by Joe’s design.

Joe’s dedication to maintaining the “last wild section of the Ottawa River” can only be truly appreciated from the water. After he dropped us off we grabbed our wet suits (highly recommended to fully enjoy the rafting experience in comfort) and went to our briefing. A quick bus ride and additional safety instruction later, and we were ready to set out.

Being in a boat going through class four whitewater rapids simply can’t be described in words. The power of the water as it crashes into and over the raft is both thrilling and humbling at the same time. Our guide, Joel, a champion whitewater kayaker, did a killer job keeping us safe and motivating us to push the raft into the most extreme circumstances. Joking around and levying some hilarious criticism at our lazier paddlers kept things light throughout what ended up being a very rainy day on the water. Some surprises awaited as well, as a member of our group who we had been berating the entire row for being the only American amoung us, hopped out of the raft just before a rapid and proceeded to “steal” a whitewater kayak from the shore. Feigning understanding of how to work the kayak, he eventually got settled and dove into the rapids. The rouse was quickly revealed as “America,” who ended up being another champion kayaker, expertly navigated the rapids, throwing in a few barrel roles for good measure, and our amusement.

Photo courtesy of Wilderness Tours.
Mid-way through the day we pulled up in a small bay for lunch. A roaring fire, hot soup and coffee were provided the moment we were out of our boat to warm our soaked bodies. The snack was followed by burgers, sausages, salads, chips, apples, cookies and more. A perfect chance to recharge.

The remainder of the day saw us hit a variety of different rapids, swimming and jumping off the raft, and stopping in for a 25’ cliff dive into raging waters.

It was easy to appreciate Joe’s focus on retaining the wild. The unbroken wilderness at the riverbank was complimentary to the raging whitewater. Cottages, marinas and other buildings would have destroyed the marvel and the sense of true adventure the river provided. We were starting to understand why Joe had poured “every spare dollar” into protecting this shoreline. The log buildings that make up the resort were built by a local craftsmen to maintain a rustic, natural feel.

Back at the resort following a shower and change the rain lifted just in time for our most extreme challenge, bungee jumping! Wilderness Tours has a crane set up for a jump 150’ over the Ottawa River. Yep, this happened:

GoPro Selfie Extreme
Sammy doing the big dive
Exhausted, we tucked in to an incredible dinner at Rafters and a pitcher or two of Whitewater Brewery Farmer’s Daughter Blond Ale (quickly became our trip staple). There is no shortage of activities to fill your evening at Wilderness Tours: live music, hot tubs, a pool, basketball and ball hockey courts, a full serve bar, board games, pool tables, horseshoe pits, arcade games, special events… the list goes on.

The next morning we checked out the resort’s beach area and took a few plunges into the river from a rope swing suspended on an elevated dock.

We again met Joe, who offered to take us over to Whitewater Brewing Co., conveniently located just outside the resort on a plot of land owned by Joe and leased to the brewers. The three brewers include “the twins,” as Joe calls them, two unrelated lads with the same name, one of whom is an international finance major, turned raft instructor, turned certified professional brewer. The beer was phenomenal with their Midnight Oatmeal Stout (surprisingly approachable with great malt flavour) and Whistling Paddler English Style Ale (under-bittered for the style making it very sessionable) joining their Farmer’s Daughter Blonde Ale on our list of favourites. The guys use locally sourced hops for their beer, one of many attributes that add to the brewery’s local feel. Joe mentioned plans to turn the brewery, an old farm, into a destination with retail opportunities, which we would love to see. It already features a restaurant and tasting room.

Beer, taps
Everything is better on a stick, part deux.
With all the work Joe has done to conserve the wild of the Ottawa River, we were surprised to hear him call himself an "unreserved capitalist." He oozes business savvy and is easy to like. It’s good to know that Joe is “on our side” when it comes to retaining the beauty and awe-inspiring majesty of Ontario and Ontario’s Highlands. Against the pressures that must surely exist to use the land and river for other purposes, it takes a specific type of person to dig in their heels for what they believe, and actually be successful at it.

Cheers to Joe and all the good folks at Wilderness Tours. Special thanks to Ontario’s Highlands Tourism Organization for having us in to explore their region. Ontario’s Highlands is, truly, Ontario’s wild child!


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