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Sports Pan Am whitewater canoe and kayak events put Gull River on the map

Canadian white-water paddler Haley Daniels works her way down the Gull River during training for the Pan Am Games. Haley is in the women's white-water C-1 event.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Gull River meanders peacefully through the town of Minden, a picturesque dot on the map of Ontario cottage country, just off Highway 35.

But that bucolic image will change this weekend. The Minden Wild Water Preserve just north of town, on a much more challenging stretch of river, is host of the fiercely competitive whitewater canoe and kayaking competitions of the 2015 Pan Am Games. And the events being staged at the Pan Ams' farthest-flung venue, 191 kilometres northeast of Toronto, are also the toughest tickets to come by.

Sluggish sales were a big story before the start of the Games, but the small allocation of whitewater canoe and kayak tickets were snapped up almost instantly, largely a function of how small the viewing area is. Some parents of competing athletes were unable to land tickets to watch their children compete because demand was so high.

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Haley Daniels, who is paddling for Canada in women's slalom canoe (C-1), counts herself among the lucky ones.

Pan Am Games medal standings, updated daily

"My parents were the only parents of all the athletes who got tickets through the lottery," Daniels said, whose sport is making its Pan Am debut. "The Canadian Olympic Committee released some tickets [last week], but still, half the families that have athletes in the event aren't able to come see their kids compete."

Daniels is from Calgary, and for years she did most of her paddling on the Bow River near the downtown community of Inglewood, where they had what she calls "a really good training site. Unfortunately, it got ruined in the flood. So now most of our training happens out in Kananaskis Country, which is really cold, but really picturesque and has good white water, which is what we need."

Daniels's reference was to Calgary's 2013 flood, which devastated the downtown area and among other things, left the Scotiabank Saddledome under water. But two months before that natural disaster in the largest city in Alberta, a similar chain of events on a much smaller scale unfolded in Minden, with its population of 5,655.

In April of that year, the Gull River overflowed its banks because of high water levels in the Trent-Severn Waterway System, leading to a state of emergency in the town. Businesses were closed for months. In the midst of the summer tourist season, the local beer store had to temporarily relocate. Fundraisers were held to assist the many uninsured home owners, including a benefit concert held at the Kinmount Fairgrounds later that summer, by Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo. Keelor is a cottager in the area, which relies heavily on summer tourism as its economic lifeblood.

That summer, White Water Ontario, the sport's provincial governing body, had scheduled selection trials on the river. But with water levels reaching unprecedented levels, they had to decide whether to go forward with them.

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"We had to adjust the course below the drop because the volume of water was huge," explained Jim Tayler, the president of White Water Ontario and one of the driving forces behind the Pan Am Games effort.

"We had never ever seen anything like that before. Mother Nature definitely changed the makeup of the river. Rocks moved and it required some rehabilitation to the retaining walls. We lost some docks.

"But the fact is, that's part of the cycle of a river's life. Once we got through that and the water levels came back to normal, everybody was back on the river and enjoying it and sort of re-learning it too."

In all, four Canadians will compete for gold in five events over two days. Apart from Daniels, Jazmyne Denhollander of Chilliwack, B.C., is entered in women's K-1. On the men's side, Cameron Smedley of Dunrobin, Ont., is paddling in men's C-1 and C-2, while Ben Hayward of Edmonton is competing in men's K-1 and C-2.

Nowadays, most white-water courses (including the one used in London in 2012 and the one being prepared for Rio de Janeiro in 2016) are man-made.

"Compared to the artificial courses of London and Rio, the Gull may not be the most spectator-friendly because it's out in the middle of nature, but that adds to the beauty of the event," said Tayler, whose son Michael paddled for Canada in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

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"It strikes a chord about the sport because the sport developed outdoors. Based on conversations I'd had with some of the competitors, the Gull River is one of the most enjoyed rivers and competition sites – and it's partly because of the natural water. I think it brings out the best in people. People appreciate and recognize that we have a real jewel in the Gull River."

Mark Coleman, the director of community services for the township of Minden Hills and also the staff co-ordinator for municipal services for the Pan Am Games, believes the event will help showcase the area to a broader audience.

"If you're an international traveller to this part of the world, when you get off the plane in Toronto, you're usually going to Niagara, to the CN Tower or to Algonquin Park," Coleman said. "Our Haliburton County landscape is the gateway to Algonquin. It brings more international attention to our community – and it will show just how accessible our facility is.

"You can go to the Colorado River or the Ottawa River or some of the other big-name rivers in North America, but accessibility sometimes becomes the issue. We have a very condensed course with a lot of features and technical parts. Some of it is natural. Some of it is man-made – engineered and constructed where we helped nature out a bit. It's a paddler's dream to have that in your backyard. And it's very picturesque so even if you're not a paddler and you want to just see people do their thing on the river."

Daniels competed in the national team trials back in May and thus won her Pan Am Games berth here, which gives her a little bit of a home course advantage.

Daniels described the Gull as "a very challenging river. There's a big slide in the middle of the course we call The Falls. It has sharp rocks on either side, but there's a nice tongue, you can go down the middle. You really want to catch the tongue, because if you don't, you can tear up your boat or hurt yourself. It has small eddies, which are harder [to navigate] because that's where we do our upstream gates. It's really fast – it has a lot of volume going through it. Really just trying to get ahead of the water is our goal there."

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Minden previously hosted World Cup slaloms as far back as 1991, but according to Tayler, the Pan Am events represent a far greater logistical challenge for his small volunteer association, which has been building toward this moment for nearly six years.

"Generally, a race out here would attract 50 or 100 people at best," said Tayler, who believes any the spectators lucky enough to get a ticket won the lottery – both literally as well as figuratively.

"This is a gorgeous sport – very challenging and very unique. Standing on the river, watching the athletes perform, you'll be asking yourself, 'How do they do that?' And the answer is, 'thousands upon thousands of hours on the river.'"

And that river will remain the focal point of the town, even after the excitement of the Pan Am Games passes.

"The river is part of the life and blood of our community," Coleman explained. "Most communities in Canada settled on a waterfront or a river. It's no different for us here – because of the fur trading and logging that occurred at various points in history. I guess if you were planning an ideal community in the future, you wouldn't necessarily build on a flood plain.

"But Minden's not alone. There are hundreds of communities in North America in the same situation and some of them flood every single year. But life carries on. People learn to live with it and adapt because of the values it does bring – in terms of the transportation and recreation and aesthetics it offers; and the fact that it's part of our energy system.

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"It is very much part of our life. We take the good with the bad – and at the end of the day, people see the tremendous value and beauty the river brings."

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