Going up the creek with a paddle

RYAN PYETTE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:09 AM ET

The on-going Springbank Dam rehabilitation project has devastated the London Canoe Club -- but kayaker Keir Johnston is determined it won't slow him down.

The 15-year-old Strathroy native rises and shines in time to hit the road at 5:15 a.m. -- usually with his older sister and fellow competitor Carlyn -- for early morning training at the club's temporary home on Fanshawe Lake, considerably further east than their usual spot just off Wonderland Road on the Thames River.

Despite the added trek, the Johnstons are two of 10 local athletes who will make their way to Ottawa next week to take part in the National Sprint Canoe/Kayak championships at the Rideau Canoe Club. All qualified at a Western Ontario regatta and competed at the provincial championships last weekend in Welland where Keir won the midget K-1 1,000-metre crown and teamed with Alex Bogorin for the K-2 1,000m title.

"It's been tough not getting to train at our regular spot. but we're being told that's going to happen next summer," Keir said. "We practise twice a day -- once at 6:30 in the morning and at 6:30 at night. I got a job working at Fanshawe (Lake), so it's been OK. I don't have to go back and forth all the time."

Other than a small group of stalwarts, membership in the canoe club has dwindled -- a development blamed on the delays of the dam re-construction.

Heavy rainfall and high water levels were cited originally by the City of London as major factors in the hold-up, then the work was pushed back for three more months on Ministry of Natural Resources orders to chart the spring fish migration.

"When you don't have access early in the season and can't get the kids out on the water right away, then they're going to do something else, like play soccer, and that's what we've seen," said club head coach Jordan Clarke. "Our summer program is critical to the club and the way to get interested in the sport is to get the kids in the boats.

"That's how I got involved -- my parents drove me down to the club, I started paddling and I enjoyed it. Before, we had about 60 kids involved."

"We used to have to borrow extra boats to fill the demand. But when you can't get on the river, you end up with boats sitting empty and it's hurting the club," Clarke said.

Upper Thames River Conservation Authority marketing specialist Steve Sauder said the dam work is expected be completed this fall and the canoe club will be back on the river next summer. Club members are hopeful, but are taking a "believe it when they're out there" approach.

The Ontario government gave the club a $12,800 grant this week to help with the temporary move to Fanshawe and to support its summer program. A helpful club in Richmond Hill will transport the London team's K-4 boat to the nation's capital to help ease travel concerns.

London's competitive sprint team includes the Johnstons, Clarke, Bogorin, Melanie Baker, Natalie Bolichowski, Nik Sofalvi, Chris Trites, Braedy Walker and Cameron Walker. They won't be focusing on their issues back home when they get on the water next week.

"We're excited about getting the chance to go to Ottawa and see how we do there," Keir said. "It makes you a little nervous because you haven't seen the other competitors before. All you can go on is their times.

"The good thing is I'm the youngest in midget and no matter what happens, I'll be able to come back in the same age group next year and hopefully, do well."


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