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OPINION: Kayaker makes waves

Accessibility of launch questioned

The City of Sault Ste. Marie’s Tourism & Community Development branch has installed a second kayak launch on the St. Mary's River inside of Roberta Bondar Marina.

Earlier this summer officials with the city introduced a brand new fully accessible combination kayak/canoe launch they had installed as an initiative to open up our waterfront by giving access points to tourists and local residents.

As an avid kayaker in the city since prior to 2009, I've come to understand why the St. Marys River is a great close-to-home, go-to place when time has been an issue. One of the best and out-of-the-way locations my husband and I have launched at until this spring when water levels dropped was inside Bellevue Park in the corner of the harbour for the sailboats.

Once the water levels dropped, the city began adding rock to the shoreline and building flower beds so access was not really possible.

The city felt Bellevue Marina was the best location for the new kayak and canoe dock because it is easily accessible to all, in a quiet bay away from boat traffic, but it did not respond to my questions about public consultations on its location.

The kayak and canoe dock heralded as the first of its kind in Bellevue Marina was not actually the first kayak dock in the city. 

There was a makeshift kayak dock/platform installed when the new docking system was installed at the Roberta Bondar Marina. Even though it was lower than the other docks, I have never seen it used. I couldn't say it was totally impossible to put a kayak in there, but the person launching would need to be extremely skilled since there was no support for the kayak. 

The city opened another access point on the St. Marys River when they quietly slipped another kayak launch into Roberta Bondar Marina recently. It was close to the makeshift one that had not seen much use.

This kayak launch is the same as the one situated at the Waterfront Adventure Centre and has a little different process for use. Instead of a top handrail, it has a notched paddle rail at intervals where you place your paddle into the notches to pull yourself up onto the platform. It's a progressive entry or exit.

While photographing I became aware of the fact that the paddle rail was lower than and too close to the dock the launch was attached to, thus making it unusable. This is the most important part of the launch. Without it, water entry and exit becomes very complicated and difficult.

Also, the launch is situated behind a locked gate because it is situated at the gas dock. This makes it only accessible during marina hours and is even locked during working hours. No signage exists telling users this. If you leave during marina hours you need to return during those hours as well.

It is also not accessible to people with handicaps and there is no parking in the immediate vicinity.

The city’s director of tourism and community development, Travis Anderson, explained the decision to locate the newest kayak and canoe launch where it is.

"The second launch is located in the Roberta Bondar Marina. This dock is intended to complement additional access to the waterfront for users in the marina location," Anderson said. "Due to its physical location, it is indeed more restricted for access being available only during marina operational hours. For users, however, they now have a choice of the two options to best suit their needs for access and location."

"Our plan is to monitor the use of these locations, which to date we have seen significant interest in. If continued interest arises we will explore the opportunity to install launches in other locations," he added.

Being very familiar with paddling the river, its currents and how the wind shifts, I tend not to use that end of the river or rarely on occasion if the conditions are right.

Just outside that marina, the currents are extremely hard to navigate. Given the right wind conditions, the currents become extreme because you get those huge dipping waves that you don't get anywhere else in the river unless you are whitewater kayaking the rapids or something.

Why would anyone consider letting a beginner get into a kayak and pop out at that spot? It seems more likely to scare them off than set them up for success. 

That does not mean all people who get into a kayak are beginners, but I would hazard a guess there are more inexperienced paddlers than experienced. This appears to be a blossoming sport especially since COVID lockdowns have kept people close to home.

I have some safety concerns that could become problematic in the future for the Bellevue Marina Launch. 

The approach to the west arm is impeded by a tree that is jutting out into the path making anyone wanting to use that arm go around it to align themselves on approach. I must add that there is room to align, however in waves it's not always comfortable or easy.

There were a couple of other items I found awkward about this launch like the bench and the sign being in the way. This launch does not work as smoothly as the identical one installed several years ago in Gros Cap. Although they have the same bench and sign they are set up in two very different ways.

Also, small watercraft (Seadoo's) are often seen whizzing along the shoreline in front of the Bellevue Marina launch, especially during off-hours and operators seem too busy enjoying their music to care for what is beside or in front of them.

People fish from or sit on the launch itself even as kayakers bring their kayaks out to launch or are trying to land. I have experienced these unsafe conditions myself while trying to use the launch and others using it have reported them as well.

Offering services and supports for people kayaking and canoeing is a huge opportunity for the city, its residents and visitors and it has been a long time coming for many. Unfortunately, those making these decisions need to be better at public consultation and making sound decisions. It's great on the surface to have a beautiful kayak launch, but if it's not usable then it's just pretty.

We are spending money on things that may not get used to their fullest potential in addition to influencing the outcome of someone’s paddling experience - maybe even their well-being and the way that tourists see us as a community.

I have watched people struggle at the launch at Belleview Marina - people trying to launch canoes and kayaks alike. I wonder how many of those people making these decisions have actually kayaked or better still have tried these launches.