Preserve first natural course in multi-sport event
by Jenn Watt
The Gull River offers a challenging, natural course for kayak/canoe slalom. That’s why the Pan Am Games is hosting its event here and why those who know the course believe it’s set to become much more popular in coming years.
Eight-hundred metres of rolling, swirling water at the Wild Water Preserve has attracted thousands of paddling enthusiasts and curious beginners over the years and plenty of large events including canoe slalom world cups in the ‘90s.
On July 18 and 19, it will host perhaps its most well-watched competition: the Pan Am canoe/kayak slalom, with athletes racing down the river and bobbing through gates, for a chance to take home a medal.
“It can’t help but increase the profile of both the sport of canoe slalom and also the magnificent venue that we have on the Gull River and the Minden Wild Water Preserve,” says Jim Tayler, president of Whitewater Ontario, which co-owns the venue with the Township of Minden Hills.
“We’re going to broaden the depth of knowledge about the Gull to the other countries and the other athletes who are participating. My guess is that many of them have not necessarily paddled on a natural river like the Gull. Many of them are paddling on artificial courses.”
Pan Am is the first time the canoe/kayak slalom will be held on a natural whitewater course during multi-sport games. Generally, those who compete do so on manmade structures rigged with water pumps and concrete channels.
“It’s part of the way the sport has evolved,” says Tayler, “and I think everyone is actually kind of thrilled that we’re taking this particular event right back to the roots of paddling, which is on an open river in a beautiful environment with very challenging whitewater. It speaks to the original spirit of paddling in our country.”
The norm in major competitions, particularly in Europe, is artificial courses, he says.
Russ Duhaime is a local kayaker and property manager of the Minden Wild Water Preserve. He says competitors are likely ambivalent about the technical differences between natural and artificial courses, but he expects the physical beauty of the Gull will be striking for them.
“It probably doesn’t really matter all that much to the paddlers. They’re going to get similar features regardless,” says Duhaime.
“A manmade course is like a canal. It’s not visually appealing at all. You’ve got concrete banks and plastic boulders and whatnot. It feels safe and controlled.”
A natural course, on the other hand? It has the unexpected, thrilling experience of nature.
“Sitting on that river any given time, I’m not a religious person, but it’s almost a religious experience; the energy that comes from that water and you’re just surrounded by nature. It’s a beautiful place,” he says.
Duhaime first became acquainted with the preserve when his son, Connor, said he’d like to take a class about 15 years ago.
“At that point in time, there was one local instructor and we went out and the two of us took a course with her and afterwards ... I said, ‘that’s it for me. I don’t like it,’ and he said, ‘I love it.’”
To keep his son company, Duhaime kept with it, eventually growing to love it and teaching kayaking himself.
Perhaps because the preserve is nestled in the forest down Horseshoe Lake Road, visitors and even some residents don’t know it’s there. But in the Ontario paddling community, the site is well known.
“Outside of Minden, anyone who knows anything about paddling is very aware of the Gull River,” says Duhaime.
Besides being a technically challenging course, the Gull River is also special because of its long season, he says. While it’s common to find kayakers out as soon as snow begins to melt, on many natural venues, the water runs out in the summer. Not so for the Gull.
“We have a season that often starts as soon as snow begins to melt and runs right through until it’s too cold to paddle,” he says.
For instructors, the longer season offers opportunity not found in other places.
“The Gull, the way it’s designed, has good flow all year long,” says Randy Mitson, marketing manager for Algonquin Outfitters, which runs classes through Boatwerks in Minden. Because of the Pan Am Games, the company hasn’t been able to do the instruction it normally does, as the site is fenced off in preparation of the event. “Right now the river is closed down,” says Mitson. “For us, it’s a blessing and a curse. We don’t have access to ‘our river.’”
He explains that although the event has slowed their normal activities, in the end the improvements to the site – such as the upgrades at the Roger Parsons Centre – and the attention Pan Am will bring to Minden are worth the short-term inconvenience.
“The legacy of it though is going to put the Gull River on the map,” he says.
Right now, when people think of whitewater canoeing and kayaking in Ontario, the Ottawa River springs to mind. The Gull hasn’t received as much publicity and hasn’t become as commercial.
“It’s always kind of been the little gem in Haliburton County that isn’t totally on the map. A lot of people come because they know there’s not going to be a hundred other kayakers there.”
Mitson anticipates that after the games, some new faces will be seen at the river’s edge.
For Tayler, the Pan Am Games bring the possibility of more international events in Minden.
“There’s always the possibility that we’ll be looking at hosting other world-class events at the Gull now that we’ve got this improved facility there,” he says.
Whitewater Ontario’s capacity to put on big events has been enhanced by this experience, he says.
“Maybe this will serve as a catalyst for future world class events and I would fully expect the town would be behind it.”
Jenn Watt is the managing editor of the Haliburton Echo and Minden Times. You can follow her on Twitter@JennWattMedia.