Ottawa’s Esprit Rafting Base Camp Goes Up in Flames

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On Friday, May 20, the Esprit rafting team were returning from a big training day, polishing up their lines on both the Petawawa and Ottawa rivers. The bus had stopped at a gas station to fill up when a call came in bringing us the news of a fire at basecamp.

Initially when we were told that Esprit was on fire, nobody was really sure the extent of the damage. We optimistically presumed it would be contained and continued our journey back towards base. The last ten minutes of that bus ride was a strange mix of speculation, optimism and nervous jokes, but it was not until the final kilometers, when we could see the peninsula of our base, that we realized the reality of how big the fire was.

In the last minute or so we got a glimpse of the fire and destruction that was once our rafting base: electrical cables sparking as they came down, thick black smoke billowing from the building and nothing but charred remains to be seen through the inferno, a site that once held a 70 year old lodge. As the bus pulled in, fueled by concern of what we would find at the other end of the driveway, we all began to run down to assess the situation. Everybody wanted to help where possible and salvage whatever we could.

Realizing the significance of the situation and laying eyes on the scene, our minds raced to some of our most important personal items. For Esprit trip leader Jesse, his dog, for me, my passport and Vegimite, and a variety of other cherished items for our other guides. The four local fire departments that had rushed to our aid quickly deflected our concerns. Jesse’s dog Saidy had been saved and all of our other less significant concerns were less of a priority as the scene had been deemed unstable due to the potential explosive hazard created by three highly explosive propane tanks.

At this stage we all began to regroup, discussing what we could do and attempting to piece together the story of what had happened. Although the source of the fire is unknown, one of the first on the scene was Josh, who after attempting to extinguish the blaze (while fellow Esprit employee Justin called emergency services), joined other staff in evacuating everyone from the building and then heroically managing to salvage two pints of beer from the bar – a tale that is sure to become local lore.

After realizing there was little for us to do that wasn’t being managed by the local fire crews, our attention turned to Esprit owner Jim Coffey for instruction and direction — a man who just saw 25 years of work and memories disappear in smoke. Despite the chaos and uncertainty of the future, Jim seemed remarkably composed, he consulted with a few staff members about logistical matters and returned to discuss the situation with the guide staff.

Jim gave us all roles for the night in order to get ready for the following days trip. “The show must go on,” was the message, there was no time to sit around worrying about what has or could happen, we had a trip to run and a lot of work to be done, and Jim wasn’t going to let that be forgotten. It was about 8 p.m., and a lot of work had to be done, clients were being informed of the situation, police reports and interviews were underway, customers staying at the hostel or in the campground were having other accommodations organized, and food for the trip the following day was being bought and organized. Our friends over at Horizon X Rafting housed some of our guides that night, assisted in food prep and stored our lunch overnight.

Perhaps one of the most unique memories I have of this day involved a few of the staff, exhausted at 11 o’clock after a very long, complicated day, inside a warehouse full of all our gear down the road from our base and luckily remained unaffected by the fire. We were content and comfortable that we were ready to go the next day. We were finishing off pumping the rafts and packing the buses for two separate river trips we had going out, but coming to terms with the situation and enjoying each others company over a quiet beer. There seemed to be an unspoken readiness, that despite the adversity everything was going to be fine.

The next morning we woke up early and ready, smoke still pouring out of the wreck that was our old base. There were two four-boat trips to be run, one on the Petawawa River and one on the Ottawa River. As most of the gear had been organized the day before, roles were rearranged so that staff were able to redirect customers to alternate meeting points and organize an array of unusual problems that come from having a rafting base burnt down.

A gourmet breakfast for guides of peanut butter sandwiches, fruit and gas station coffee was served on Jesse’s tailgate, as the trips began to get organized and take place. Confusion from the local area and customers was understandably difficult to manage, many were unsure if we were still rafting, many volunteering help and many concerned about how our rafting operations were going to pan-out.

The good news is that rafting operations continued successfully that weekend as Esprit took out a total of 16 rafts full of satisfied customers. But the damage of the fire extends beyond the whitewater community — Esprit’s bar and restaurant operated as a valued social hub for the local community, as a source of live music, great food and an awesome bar/deck atmosphere for many years. The community is at a great, but temporary, loss. Fortunately through the help of many generous volunteers and hardworking staff, we have resourcefully created a make-shift office and the process of resetting and rebuilding has begun. The show does go on and as a company, Esprit will rise above these circumstances and continue to be successful.

For more details on this event there are articles and information on Esprit’s Facebook page and website. There is also a crowd funding site set up to help.

–Essay by Greg Pippett and Ian Bailey, Esprit Rafting, Quebec