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Running the River

October 15, 2004—When Joe Kowalski started the IUP Outing Club in 1970, he didn’t know the profound impact it would have on his future.

Jet Boats

Joe Kowalski and family. Left to right: daughters Sarah and Katie, wife Susan, and son Joel

Joe Kowalski and family. Left to right: daughters Sarah and Katie, wife Susan, and son Joel

His experiences in the club led him into business operating Canada’s largest whitewater rafting and resort company and a company that runs jet boat tours on the Niagara Falls rapids. The jet boat business is the largest of its kind in the world, he said.

It all began in the summer of 1970, when he decided to add a minor in chemistry to his studies as an IUP math major and attended summer school to take organic chemistry I and II. While at IUP that summer, he read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of The Rings.

“By the end of the summer and the end of the books, I was filled with a longing for adventure,” Kowalski said.

When someone suggested “shooting the rapids” on the nearby Youghiogheny River, he and a fellow student bought a cheap raft and went to what is now Ohiopyle State Park in southwestern Pennsylvania for his first stab at river rafting.

“It seemed like common sense to launch below the waterfall,” he said. “Hopping in the raft, we headed down river. Miraculously, we survived the trip totally unscathed. We did miss the take-out, which was only a path leading from the river, and paddled all the way to Connellsville.”

That fall, he “ran the river” as much as he could, sharing his passion for whitewater with fellow IUP students and Theta Chi Fraternity brothers. His physical chemistry teacher that fall was Ed Coleman, who operated a rafting company, Laurel Highlands River Tours.

Wilderness Tours

Left: Wilderness Tours’s first guide staff, 1976: Sean Mannion, Joe, Jim Casilio ’72, Rob Rosenberger, Ken Czambel ’75, Paul Fogal

When Coleman started the company, it was one of the first outfits to run raft trips down the Youghiogheny River near what is now Ohiopyle State Park. (More on the company, now owned by Mark and Linda McCarty, can be found on the web at www.laurelhighlands.com.)

Kowalski told Coleman of his plan to start an Outing Club, and asked the chemistry professor to be the adviser. Kowalski put up posters and booked a lecture room in Weyandt Hall.

“Expecting twenty-five people, I was overwhelmed when 250 showed up,” Kowalski said. “Running the river was a lot easier than public speaking.”

The inaugural meeting was a success, and Kowalski was elected president. Helping him plan events were fellow IUP students who loved the outdoors.

Kowalski spent his last year at IUP working as a river guide for Laurel Highlands River Tours and leading Outing Club trips. The highlight was a trip to Canada’s Algonquin Park, five hours northeast of Toronto.

“As adviser, Ed attended some trips. On the Canadian trip, he and I discussed partnering in a Canadian business when my military obligation ended,” Kowalski said.

Honorably discharged from the U.S. Army as a captain in 1975, Kowalski began his Canadian rafting career with Coleman. The professor, who is now deceased, soon decided to focus his efforts in the United States, teaching at IUP and operating the Ohiopyle raft trips.

“I ended up staying in Canada and slowly grew Wilderness Tours into Canada’s largest whitewater rafting and resort company.”

Select for a photo gallery of Joe Kowalski and his river tours. 

Jet boating on the Niagra

Jet boating on the Niagra

That first trip to Canada also resulted in a second business for Kowalski. The club members stopped in Niagara to look at the rapids below the falls, a view Kowalski would carry with him.

“Regarded as the largest rapids on the planet, the Niagara left a lasting impression,” he said. “Years later, I would return to Niagara to challenge the rapids in a jet boat, which is a high-speed, jet-powered boat built for whitewater. We opened Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours in 1992 and have introduced a million people to the rapids of the Niagara in the past twelve years.”

Although Kowalski’s businesses are far from the Oak-tree lined walkways of the IUP campus, he has left behind a legacy. The IUP Outing Club he founded is currently active for students who enjoy camping, whitewater rafting, cave exploring, and other adventurous outings.

Kowalski can be reached at 1-888-RAFT NOW or joe@wildernesstours.com, and he would very much like to welcome his IUP alumni friends to visit him on the Ottawa River.

(Read more at his websites  www.wildernesstours.com and  www.whirlpooljet.com .)