Every weekend during the last 40-odd paddling seasons, vehicles topped with canoes and kayaks have turned right at a non-descript sign and rolled down a gravel lane and into a campground beside the Madawaska River.
Soon after, Harold Jessup would coast up in his red Jetta sedan and lift himself out to gently extract the modest $10 nightly camping fee, no reservations necessary.
He never kept you talking too long himself. Like many men of his generation and geography, Jessup said more with his eyes than his words. But he had a way of maintaining easy eye contact, which tended to make his guests offer up more than his fair share of small talk.
Harold Jessup’s Paddling Legacy
Harold Jessup died this past fall after 93 years living in Palmer Rapids, a small town split by the Madawaska River east of Ontario’s Algonquin Park.
Since the mid-1970s he ran Jessup’s Campground, a decidedly undeveloped but comfortable stretch of forested riverbank located, to many people’s great fortune, beside a compact collection of challenging but welcoming whitewater.
Thousands of people came every spring and summer. For many it was their introduction to the sport, so much so that longtime Whitewater Ontario mainstay Gary George credits it with having profound importance for the growth of whitewater paddling in Canada’s most populous province.
“His influence was somewhat inadvertent, I suppose, but when he opened his campground it exponentially affected the sport,” says George. “Half the Ontario-based community learned to roll there.”
“You have the ripple effect, the butterfly wing thing. It absolutely affected the trajectory of the sport in the province in a way that will never be fully understood.”
Beyond the easy manner of the proprietor, the campground offered a rare combination of easy access, reliable water levels, diverse rapids and the beauty of a riverside left mostly in its natural state.
Because Jessup kept it unaffiliated with any commercial enterprise, it’s been the go-to stop for instructional groups of all kinds.
Black Feather Wilderness Adventure Company owner Wendy Grater says since the mid-1970s they’ve taught close to 2,000 paddlers at Jessup’s. She credits geography with how influential it’s been as a launching pad.
She notes the main drop has a lively class-III chute, but also big eddies and two lower-volume alternate channels. The washout is into a large, calm pool, so the consequences of a capsize are low. Just beyond the pool is a long, class two rapid hooking around a point of land, effectively making the portage half as long as the rapid.
“Within 500 meters there was so much opportunity,” says Grater. “Where else would you go?”
Grater says over the years Jessup would visit their campsite and from time to time would look out over the water and say, “Someday I’m going to try that.”
There’s no indication he ever did run the rapid that took his name, but he became part of the paddling community all the same. Of the dozens of remembrances posted to the obituary tribute wall of the funeral home website, all but one was from those who described themselves as paddlers.
His daughter, Verna Jessup-Mantifel, says Jessup looked forward to the campsite opening every year. “Come May 24th weekend, his step quickened.”
Jessup-Mantifel confirms the campsite will be open as usual for the 2019 season.
“After reading all the tributes to my dad, I’m well aware that we have big shoes to fill.”
And so, the gate beside the nondescript sign will continue to swing open, leading to a rapid with reliable flow and rocks in just the right spots.
“Even at low levels, it’s still useful and functional in some way,” says George. “It’s always there. It’s never not there.”
For decades, the same could be said for the welcoming farmer with the kind eyes. A paddling champion, whether he knew it or not.
Harold Jessup, at age 91, with TWO of the thousands of whitewater paddlers who got their start at his campground beside the Madawaska River. Text and Feature Photo: Ian Merringer