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Imagine having a backyard of over 20,000 square kilometres of rural country, with charming communities (the largest town counting about 18,000 inhabitants), vast stretches of Crown land and some of the fastest, cleanest, warmest and safest rivers in Canada. Now, look at the map and discover that this outdoor playground is less than five hours driving distance from Canada’s most densely populated urban areas: Toronto and Montreal.

It’s no wonder interest in the region has increased during the coronavirus pandemic, when many Canadians are drawn to less densely populated areas, says Nicole Whiting, executive director of Ontario’s Highlands Tourism Organization. “With so many natural assets – rivers, lakes, wilderness and hiking trails – there are abundant opportunities for every age group and ability.”

Melissa Marquardt, tourism development officer at the Ottawa Valley Tourist Association, agrees that with sunny days beckoning Canadians outside, Ontario’s Highlands – of which the Ottawa Valley is a part – are hard to beat. “We have great country roads for cycling or road trips where you don’t need to worry about the traffic,” she says. “And we have some of the best places for kayaking, canoeing and rafting – thanks to our warm waters, heated up by the summer sun.”

Signature whitewater experiences have helped to raise the profile of the region, and Ms. Marquardt credits leaders like Claudia Kerckhoff-van Wijk with providing world-class adventures.

Ms. Kerckhoff-van Wijk is the second-generation owner and operator of a family business specializing in whitewater recreation, which started in 1972, when her parents founded the world’s first whitewater kayak and canoe school: the Madawaska Kanu Centre.

With a passion for watersports running in the family, Ms. Kerckhoff-van Wijk became an internationally ranked athlete like her father Hermann, who emigrated from Germany and competed as a kayaker in the 1972 Olympics for Canada. Together, the father-daughter team were the first to descend the rapids of the Ottawa River by kayak, discovering this whitewater paradise locally known as the “Rocher Fendu (split rock)”– which has become a world-renowned rafting destination, only an hour upstream from our nation’s capital, she says.

This discovery inspired the creation of OWL Rafting, another arm of the family enterprise. “My parents had the vision of bringing more people into the wonderful world of whitewater,” says Ms. Kerckhoff-van Wijk. “And that’s something our daughters are as committed to as we are.”

Rafting the famous Ottawa River rapids is just one of the many highlights offered in Ontario’s Highlands, and tourism operators like OWL Rafting make visitor safety a priority.supplied

While physical distancing measures may seem easy to implement for kayak or canoe trips, Ms. Kerckhoff-van Wijk takes a thoughtful approach and even considers rescue scenarios where parties come into close proximity. “Masks are unpractical on the water, so we’re using buffs or bandanas that can be pulled over the mouth and nose,” she says. “And we only book rafting trips with social bubbles. For paddling courses, we have focused on our best program, the week-long kayak or canoe vacation providing sufficient time to master your new skills.

All aspects of the operation, which also offers camping, culinary experiences and other recreational pursuits, have been adjusted to meet the guidelines from health authorities, and Ms. Kerckhoff-van Wijk says comments from this season’s visitors confirm that they’ve felt very safe without overdoing it.

Health and safety are top priorities for all hospitality-related businesses, and Ms. Whiting believes a focus on catering to independent travel and small group experiences has made accommodating additional measures relatively seamless. “Businesses were able to respond quickly and have worked closely with local health units,” she says.

With about 3,400 businesses providing jobs for nearly a quarter of the workforce and $565-million in visitor spending, according to 2016 data, tourism is an important driver of the economy, says Ms. Whiting. “We have a history of collaboration since the region is best experienced by combining different experiences. COVID-related closures really had an impact, so everyone is working together to move forward with added caution.”

Ms. Marquardt, who frequently goes out on her paddleboard with her two-year-old, 65-pound wire-haired pointer Merle as a passenger, says, “We are so fortunate to have access to the water and outdoor experiences that can enhance our quality of life and mental health during the pandemic.

“We’re also seeing a growing sense of community pride with our local residents wanting to showcase what they have in their backyards,” she adds. “With more and more visitors coming back, I believe we’re going to be stronger than ever.”


Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.