There are few things more quintessentially Canadian than plying the pristine waters in a canoe or kayak.
Sandy Schofield quickly fell in love with paddling after making the switch from sailing, and now he wants to show others in Muskoka what it’s all about.
Schofield is one of the driving forces behind the Great Paddling Experience in Bracebridge, as well as the Muskoka Paddling Club. Now ready to enter its second summer on the water, the Paddling Club is rapidly growing membership, creating new programs and getting ready to start operations from a new clubhouse at Kelvin Grove Park.
Schofield says it all began from humble beginnings when he moved to Muskoka and found little here in the way of organized paddling activities. He said it was particularly disappointing in light of the fact that the perfect venue was right there on the doorstep.
“The Muskoka Paddle Club idea originated before Great Muskoka Paddling Experience got off the ground in October of 2011,” says Schofield. “I met up with an executive of Ontario Marathon Canoe Kayak Racing Association, Chris Near of Huntsville, who proposed founding the club. We discussed starting a race or club but we agreed to do the race, as we thought it would be easier to focus on a single day of racing.”
The Great Paddling Experience was set up as a fundraiser for the Muskoka Watershed Council, which helps to preserve the area’s waterways, and the club was put on the backburner for the time being. The Paddling Experience continued to grow, from 54 paddlers in its first year to 211 in 2015, but something was missing.
“The proportion of the local paddlers taking part in GMPE was rather small – about 15 per cent,” says Schofield. “Muskoka has three rowing clubs: Port Carling, Bracebridge and Severn River. Muskoka is surrounded by paddle clubs at Sudbury, North Bay, Barrie and a new one at Parry Sound but Muskoka didn’t have one of its own.”
The paddling club idea moved from the backburner to the front, and things really got moving last summer with the incorporation of the club and its acceptance as a member of Canoe Kayak Canada at both the national level and provincial level.
“That was huge,” says Schofield. “The Club is unique in that we will straddle the sprint and marathon affiliations. In the past all clubs were in sprint racing, and marathon racers were mostly individuals. Sport Canada has decided that has to change and we’ll be their trial balloon for establishing such a partnership within a club.”
The Club garnered a standing room only crowd for their open house in January, and has now formalized plans for a new home at Kelvin Grove for the upcoming paddling season. Schofield says the site is perfected located on a river terminus so paddlers don’t have to deal with waves created by passing motorboats, it’s easy to reach and a secure facility for the club’s inventory of boats and equipment.
The Club has big plans for the new site as well, starting with an open house at the facilities in May. A number of new courses and club events are also in the works.
“We’ll bring in marathon coaches to help improve endurance through efficient paddling and skills such as learning to read the water. If we can attract sprinters or white water paddlers we’ll organize coaching staff and programs as needed,” says Schofield. “If we have paddlers interested in longer trips we’ll seek out experts to support them. It all boils down to trying to meet the needs of those who join us.”
Getting the funding in place to create the programs and purchase insurance and safety equipment will be another big push for the club this summer, and they have a number of fundraising activities lined up.
“My long term plan is to develop the club into a paddling powerhouse encompassing all the types of paddling disciplines,” says Schofield. “We hope to have great showings in competitions, and enthusiastic recreational paddlers exploring all the beautiful and magnificent waterways of Muskoka.”