Katrina Van Wijk’s nose is just ever so slightly off centre. Hardly noticeable. It’s the badge of her passion. She earned it the sixth or seventh time she broke her nose. She’s not quite sure when it settled off centre or even how many times she’s broken it. Somewhere between seven and ten fractures.

Katrina Van Wijk is now a pro at setting it herself since most of the time she’s in the wilderness when it happens. “You take your index and middle fingers and hold your nose like you’re plugging it and then pull down as hard as you can. Then it realigns. You can really only do it to yourself.”

Homewaters: The Ottawa River

Van Wijk’s career as one of Canada’s top whitewater kayakers started when her parents dropped her in her first boat when she was three years old. The family connection to the Ottawa River’s white waters goes back three generations. Her grandmother and mother were national kayak champions before she won the mantle herself. Her grandfather and mother claimed first ascents of the toughest sections of that river.

Katrina van Wijk's mother, Claudia, and her grandfather paddling the Lower Madawaska River. Used with permission from Katrina van Wijk

Competition and exploration have propelled her down rivers from Patagonia to Norway. Though she started in slalom competitions, she’s abandoned those for the adventure of wild rivers.

“A lot of the slalom competitions happen in man made concrete ditches in the middle of cities. I wanted to get out and travel to where no one has gone, untouched areas of clean beautiful waterways.”

Gaining a perspective on water quality, from 25 meters up

When you think of whitewater kayaking, its speed, roar and crash of waves, dodging house size boulders, launching off eighty foot (25 meter) waterfalls into death defying aerials, you’d be forgiven for thinking adrenaline would swamp any notice of the waterways health. Not according to Van Wijk.

The trip to Norway’s Svartisen, or Black, Glacier was a case in point. Most of the trips she takes these days are multi-day explorations. Decisions need to be made around water supplies. Will we be able to drink from the river? Or need to bring a purifier, or is the water so dirty we need to haul in water. “At Svartisen we could drink from the streams. Most of Norway was like that for us. We could drink straight from the river, fish for our meals, and cut down on the weight of supplies we needed to carry in.”

On her home turf, the Ottawa River, she’s witnessed changes over the years. Mostly while working at the family business OWL Rafting and Madawaska Kanu Centre. More algal blooms from farm fertilizer and animal waste flushing into the river.

But it’s not all bloom and gloom. Her family has been involved in the annual River Clean Up since the 1970s and her mother says there hasn’t been much of an increase in the amount of trash along the shores. “The river is surprisingly clean considering the thousands of people who use it every season,” says Katrina.

In her search for the gnarliest natural waters she’s moved to British Columbia. “B.C. just has that wow factor of looking at a map and wondering where does that one go? There’s just so many rivers here that to this day have never been kayaked.”

Photo Katrina Van Wijk - with her photo permission.

The west might be a kayaker’s paradise but Van Wijk says it’s changing. Earlier snow melts mean some rivers are running earlier and earlier while others are running lower and lower as the glaciers recede.

“It’s alarming and sad from a recreational point of view and scary from an environmental view.”

Get down to the river

Van Wijk has signed up with Mountain Equipment Co-op to try and help get more people connected with the waterways that define so much of her life. As one of their kayak ambassadors she’s promoting MEC’s Homewaters Campaign which raises funds for the Canadian Freshwater Alliance.

She’s also founded TiTS Deep:a hub for women in extreme sports to connect and be empowered. In the male dominated world of extreme sports Van Wijk is a rarity. Something she’s fighting to change.

“TiTS Deep is about getting out there and getting deep into whatever sport is yours, getting deep into the snow, the dirt, or the water.”

Photo by Jordan Bastin

She was the first and only woman to race the boys through the gorges of Washington’s Little White Salmon race. A Class 5 competition, the top and toughest designation for the collection of waterfalls, whitewater, and boulders that make up race day. In 2012 years she was the sole woman, but now she’s happy to point out that the last race had ten women sign up.

For Van Wijk its the danger and challenge of whitewater itself that levels the playing field between men and women in competition. “The more powerful the river, the smaller the gap between men and women, because the harder the river the more the river is going to dominate and a good kayaker learns to use the river to their advantage.”

Which isn’t to say that you don’t need a bit of brawn to ride the waves. Van Wijk’s training sees her in the boat most every day, as well as running, cycling, swimming and yoga. But when it comes to the race, the river is always going to be bigger than anybody’s brawn, male or female. It’s the brain that will get you across the finish line in one piece.

There’s a kayaking term, “ride proud,” which means that when you are on the lip of the waterfall keep your head up, back straight, and don’t tuck or crouch as you’re about to plummet. Bend forward too soon and you’ll summersault as you fall.

Van Wijk regularly rides proud over the edge at 50 and 60 feet (about 15-20 metres). Her happiest day in the boat was also her most challenging, the day on Oregon’s Toketee falls on the North Umpqua River.

Photo by Paul Wittal

The Toketee race features a series of waterfalls. Kayaks cascade down the river and over 20 foot falls, then 15 feet, then another 20 foot, until finally there’s a large calm pool right before the payoff, the 80 foot drop.

“I was nervous but it was such a good feeling being in that calm pool just before the last waterfall. I figured out this is why I love kayaking so much. That clear head space you get when there’s only one thing to focus on. That final 80 foot drop. I’m addicted to it.”

Interview conducted July 2015

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