“The river is where I’m my best self. It doesn’t care who I’m pretending to be.”- Stefi Van Wijk, avid paddler.
It’s no exaggeration to say that water is in the blood for whitewater paddler, instructor, and paddle school manager, Stefi Van Wijk. Most days Stefi looks like she’s coming straight off a paddling trip (which in all likelihood, she is) complete with the calm that comes from spending the day on the water and pushing yourself every day to do your very best, and then doing it.
Stefi is so passionate about paddling that it’s hard to imagine there being a time when a life on the water wasn’t a given, particularly given her family background. Stefi’s grandparents founded the renowned paddling school, Madawaska Kanu Centre (MKC) nearly 50 years ago. Stefi’s grandfather, Hermann, and mother, Claudia, were the first to descend the Ottawa River, where they ultimately founded the world-renowned rafting resort, OWL Rafting.
Needless to say, the water has played a big role in Stefi’s family growing up. In fact, Stefi’s sister was known as the best female whitewater kayaker in the world for a number of years, and paddling and the water continue to be a passion for Stefi’s parents, Claudia and Dirk Van Wijk, one they have encouraged in their daughters.
“I grew up on the water in a canoe or kayak,” Stefi said. “My earliest memories are of being in the bow of my dad’s canoe, or my mom’s tandem kayak.”
Stefi’s childhood years were spent transitioning seasonally between winters in Ottawa and summers on the water in a canoe or kayak at OWL or MKC, or on family paddling trips. This lifestyle meant that Stefi’s relationship to the both areas wasn’t given a chance to deepen, as she was always moving and transitioning from one community to another.
Stefi explained there are many simple things she wasn’t able to experience as a result. As an example, she said she had “never seen all four seasons of a single tree in my whole life…so that was a really big deal for me.” After settling in the Ottawa Valley’s community of Barry’s Bay, Stefi has finally found a community to call her own.
While she is drawn to all waterways, for Stefi, the Madawaska River has been the one constant in a life spent transitioning between her life in the Ottawa Valley in the summer months, and the rest of her year spent in Ottawa going to school. Every summer, she and her family would make the annual drive to OWL or MKC, travelling the familiar roads drawing her back to her water girl roots.
“It’s being on the hilly roads around the Madawaska Valley and the familiarity there…it brings me home,” Stefi said.
So when you come from a family of passionate, avid, and competitive whitewater kayakers, one would think it would be easy to embrace paddling, but for Stefi, finding her way to the water was a route that wasn’t always clear. She explained the competitive nature of her family’s passion wasn’t something that resonated with her, and that for many years she struggled to carve her own path.
“I had to explore my personal reason or value of connecting to the river because it’s different than my mom and dad’s,” Stefi said. “My parents presented the way they connected with the river, and my sister loved that connection so I always kind of felt like the black sheep, but I just needed to explore and create my own unique way of connecting with it….in the end that way is almost valued more because it’s different.”
It was the opportunity to work as a young apprentice canoe guide at the age of 16 that gave Stefi the opportunity she needed to strike out on her own and establish her own connection with the water in a way that wasn’t based on competition, the way paddling had been presented to her.
After injuring both shoulders while guiding, Stefi was forced to take a temporary hiatus and turn her attention to the administrative side of the family’s companies, beginning her journey of facilitating other people’s introduction and experiences on the water.
These days, Stefi’s role is to help others learn to love the river as much as she does and bring more paddlers into the paddling community (“putting bums in boats” as Stefi’s mom Claudia likes to say). And as manager of MKC, she understands there are expectations that come along with that role, and challenges she isn’t shy about embracing.
“I run a paddling school so there’s a bit of an expected identity that comes with that, and I can put pressure on myself to live that way,” said Stefi. “I try really hard as an instructor, as a teacher, and as a leader to be authentic in my insecurities and my weaknesses so I can inspire others to hopefully show up and be who they are.”
Even after more than two decades of experience on the water, the river never stops teaching Stefi.
“Every time you’re on the water you learn what you need to learn, it teaches you, if you pay attention. Every lesson I’ve learned in life started on the water.”
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