As commuters rush over the eastern leg of the Sir John A. MacDonald Parkway this fall, a building nearly 40 years in the making will finally begin rising beneath the overpass.
The Ottawa River Runners whitewater canoe and kayak club has broken ground on a new clubhouse and storage facility at its historic ‘Pumphouse’ slalom course. The course, which has been home to Olympians and local paddling enthusiasts alike, uses the outflow from a pump house at the end of Fleet Street to generate a turbulent whitewater stream that rejoins the Ottawa River at Victoria Island.
“It’s going to be a quantum leap for the club,” said president and founding member Doug Corkery.
For the past 20 years, three industrial shipping containers filled with equipment and a few makeshift change rooms have serviced the facility. The new building has storage for 200 canoes and kayaks, proper change rooms and a balcony overlooking the course.
National athlete Michael Tayler, who competed in the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Olympics, has been training for canoe and kayak slalom events at the Pumphouse since he was nine years old.
“It’s crazy for me having learned to paddle there and grown up there seeing how much it’s changed,” he said. “Now with the clubhouse project finally, finally coming and getting started — it’s pretty amazing.”
The clubhouse is projected to cost $325,000, with $150,000 coming from an Ontario Trillium Foundation grant and the remaining $175,000 supplied by the club.
The building was designed by lead architect Rheal Labelle at Barry Hobin & Associates Architects Inc. The firm is well-known in Ottawa for its contribution to the Lansdowne Park redevelopment and its partnership with the successful LeBreton Flats redevelopment bid.
The National Capital Commission turned down 12 other proposals before approving this design, according to Corkery.
“I knew if I was going to get approval from the NCC, I was going to have to have a pretty good design,” he said. “And I knew that if I had Barry Hobin at the meeting, the NCC wouldn’t necessarily approve it, but they would listen.”
Corkery still remembers the moment kayaking captured his attention. He was 18 and it was shortly after the slalom event made its Olympic debut at the 1972 Munich Games. He found himself browsing the displays of a Bank Street sports store when he saw a kayak selling for $200.
“It was love at first sight,” he said. “I went home and emptied my bank account, literally $200.”
The purchase was the unofficial genesis of the River Runners. Corkery and about a dozen other young paddlers began scoping out locations around the city to hone their skills. One site was the tailrace below the pump house.
“We thought it had potential, but looking at it then, all of the trees were overgrown and fallen in,” Corkery said of the course in the mid-’70s. “There was a good likelihood you would end up wrapped around a tree if you went in there.”
For the next 40 years, the River Runners made it their mission to turn the overgrown tailrace into the course it is today.
With the help of some generous donations and Corkery’s persistent negotiating with government officials, the River Runners installed permanent concrete slalom features in the late 1990s. The club went on to host the 2000 National Whitewater Championship.
What began as an idealistic group of young kayakers trying to find a decent spot to paddle has become a club with about 150 members.
“My vision on this was that if I was 18 or 20 again,” Corkery said, “to be able to take out a kayak, do actual whitewater paddling, and then go and change, pick up your bike and head back to school or home. That was the dream.”
“It has taken a lot of persistence to realize that vision,” longtime River Runner Jen Adams said. “Having a clubhouse is going to bring paddling to a whole other level in Ottawa — I have no doubt.”
Adams met her husband while car-pooling to the club’s winter training sessions back in the late 1970s. Both of the couple’s children are River Runners now, and her daughter Lois Betteridge is a promising young paddler with an eye towards the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. The club is a thread that has woven itself deep into the family fabric.
Adams hopes the new facility will attract other families to downtown Ottawa’s whitewater treasure. “To be able to go and grab your equipment from a facility that’s secure and a nice place to hang out,” she said, “it’s going to make it a lot more inviting.”
“I think we have a bright future with the Pumphouse and new clubhouse,” added Tayler. “It’s pretty cool to be speaking about this after so many years and not being sure it was going to happen.”