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The Best of the Mattawa and a Bit of the Ottawa - 2011


   Imagine, without paying a cent at a tourist booth, that you are stepping on the very stones that  Champlain, Brule, the early Jesuits and all other major historical figures of Canada, and later, MacKenzie and Thompson, had stepped on hundreds of years ago! 

   The Ottawa River and Mattawa form Canada's historical gate when you came from the east, and it is historically as significant as the old Roman roads in Europe, the ancient Nile River route that made Egypt prosper from the treasures that came out of Africa, or the Incan roads of South America that held their empire together. Only the arrival of the railroad in the 18th century displaced the need to use this gateway, and plane and automobile eventually made us forget the significance of that area. Until that time, if you came into Canada, you probably started in Montreal and worked your way up the Ottawa River until you came to a smaller side branch - the Mattawa - where you turned left to travel towards Lake Huron and then further inland.

   Today, the Mattawa is well-known fun trip to the locals North Bay and other nearby towns and its easy rapids and intact wild nature make it a choice destination even from further away. But the Ottawa has been dammed and instead of a river with steady current it has been turned into a sequence of large lakes. Even so, its undeveloped shore on the Quebec side makes paddling there a wonderful nature experience. So, in August 2011, four of us did just that: Dorothee, Herbert, Peggy and myself.

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   We started at Pimisi Bay, half way between North Bay and the town of Mattawa, and thus were within a few hours' reach of the Mattawa's highlights: two beautiful water falls (Talon and Paresseux) and the Porte d'Enfer, an ancient Native ochre mine. We then proceeded down the river past the benign riffles of the Epingles and carried across the Portage des Roches, careful not to trip, just like the ancient canoe crews with their huge loads had done for centuries. We made camp for a few days upstream of the Campion Rapids (taking advantage of the road access to the river in order to attend a wedding in Ottawa) and then two of our group stayed put while the others attended the wedding.


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   The Mattawa in this section shows its origin in a major geological fault: the mountains have split apart and deep waters lie between high cliffs. The river is small, and often widens into lakes with dense forests on the sides - but it has a steady flow and is passable throughout the paddling season. Spectacular waterfalls need to be bypassed via the ancient portages (this route has been in use by Canada's First Nations for hundreds and probably thousands of years) and the handful of rapids may be paddled at high water or the boats may  be lined and walked down the rock-strewn shallows. DSC01820_resize.JPG (135394 bytes)DSCF2390_resize.JPG (97029 bytes)

   Some of the camps sites are noted as traditional stopping places of the voyageurs (at the Portage de la Prairie, CAMP 1 on the map above,and at Elm Point - maybe even at the place above Campion Rapids, CAMP 2). No, we did not walk up towards the nice museum of Champlain Park - it's a long walk from the water and we had expected that our visitors would go there there while we had left them during our Ottawa absence. They were happy to explore via canoe, one day moving upstream and the next down from the Campion Rapids.

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   The shore in Mattawa village offered a picnic table (but no washrooms) for our lunch stop, and before we proceeded, we were warned by locals that the upcoming railway bridge over the Ottawa River just below the forks has powerful eddy currents when the water is high - for us it was a pretty harmless stretch since the river was at summer water levels.

   It became a long day's paddle until we discovered generous camping at the mouth of the Edwards River (CAMP 3). Just like at Elm Point on the Mattawa, the river has pushed out a large level area that probably was used by groups of voyageurs, but we found that previous visitors had made "improvements" that we didn't appreciate and thus we stayed on the smaller area located a hundred feet upstream from the major camp area. It was a nice site, big enough for two tents, and with the added benefit of a clear rushing brook that runs 50ft behind the tents.

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   The next morning we resolved to paddle fewer hours to keep everyone happy - and it was a good decision since a front with heavy thunderstorms moved in during the early evening, and we had arrived at CAMP 4 early enough to cook and eat dinner before the skies opened up with heavy rain. That camp site is at the landing of an old logging operation, and much of the area is covered with poison ivy. We were careful where we put the tents, marking off "safe" areas with twigs, and if we had needed a tarp, we would have had to look for a place inside the sloping forest. And we did have a good sleep...

   We had originally expected to paddle to at least Driftwood Park, but we now realized that it would make us paddle longer days than our little group wanted to do. But the endpoint of our trip was really flexible and so was the arrangement of the shuttle pick-up. So, the next morning we had two more nights to go, and so we decided that Deux Riviers would be a good finish for our trip. We did not know what to expect in this "village", and first checked out the Hill Top Camp that Kevin C has described in his book as the "lap of luxury" - tongue in cheek, as we discovered. There is little there of interest, and we had hoped for a store, associated with a camp ground - but a fellow I talked to directed us instead to the corner store beside the highway, a km downstream. We paddled on and got out there - only to discover it had closed its doors as well. But a friendly woman there offered us two garbage bags that we intended to waterproof a leaking dry bag. Thanks - Northern Hospitality is alive and well, even beside the TransCanada Highway!

   Just a bit further is Antlers Campground, well-run and in a nice setting, not a bad place for anyone. Once we got into "puttering around" mode, we figured we talk to some of the folks there and so we did. We ended up in their waterside "pavilion", drinking coffee and enjoying a good talk. Did I mention Northern Hospitality? OK, I did and this was another example.

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   Eventually we moved on, with a bit more info on camp sites, and the idea to paddle down river, camp for two night and then to return to Deux Rivieres for the pick-up. Nice spots for lunching along the next few kms, but nothing suitable until we came to CAMP 5, al long sloping rock with two small spots high up. It was ideal for us: picturesque, big enough and cozy, and a good place to put up the tarp for the kitchen.

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  The next day, we stayed put. In the morning three of us paddled across the river (a large lake, really) and explored the creek that tumbled noisily over the rocks, while Peggy stayed behind to read. After lunch, Herbert and Dorothee took the canoe and explore down-river on their own. They came back reporting another nice campsite on river-left and confirming the beauty of the area. But the day was spent just enjoying nature. It is that sort of heaven that keeps calling us back north every summer...

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   The last day had us paddle back to Deux Rivieres, call the shuttle and just wait for them to arrive. Back at the outfitters, the cars were waiting faithfully to take us back to "civilization", but not before we had our trip celebration at Myrt's Diner. It had been a great trip!

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Pictures: by Peggy, Dorothee, Kailey, and Herbert

Logistics and general travel hints:

  • Shuttle services and canoe rentals: Algonquin North provided the shuttle service and parked our cars while on the river. They are a friendly family business, the grown-up sons are seriously into canoeing, and we got excellent service. If you think the shuttle cost is a bit high, just consider the annual cost of two pickup trucks and maybe other vehicles needed to keep this business going. I recommend them strongly.
  • Supplies along the way: Mattawa would allow you to shop (I didn't verify this), but Deux Rivieres was a bust. The former town looks significant on the map, and it once held several hundred people. During the 1950's, it was flooded by the new dam at Rapides des Joachims and has been getting smaller and smaller since. A few houses remain, but the store has closed, the Hilltop Cottages (a place that Kevin Callan mentions as an overnight stay) have seen better days, and only Antler's Fishing Lodge is very much alive as a public camp ground.
  • Restaurants for your pre trip lunch or the final trip's dinner: A good restaurant in Mattawa was Myrt's, on Highway 17 in town. We ate there on Sunday morning before heading out towards Ottawa - the place was full with local folks and French was the language that dominated the room, the breakfast was good and reasonably priced, and such good impression was maintained during two more visits later. It's an excellent place to celebrate when you have finished your trip...!
  • Portages: From Pimisi Bay down to Champlain Park, you have to handle about 5 portages - some of which you can avoid by running or wading. In Mattawa is the Hurdman dam with a 300m portage - and then no more as you paddle down the Ottawa to Deux Rivieres. Past that point, the next one is at Rapides des Joachims, with a 2.5km carry - ouch! Kevin Callan's book "..." is the latest publication with descriptions, an older book by Reid and Grant "Canoeing Ontario Rivers" has a bit more background on the special natural features there. That latter book is out of print and you may have to try your local library for a copy.
  • Nature beside the river is wonderfully intact, especially on the Quebec side. But the TransCanada Highway runs within a few kms of the river, and on might hear the noise of the trucks. On nights with air moving from the south, it was quite noticeable.  Poison ivy is encountered frequently where logging has broken the forest canopy and especially at sites where horses were once used. Know how to recognize it and stay clear...
  • Camp sites are a bit rare, typically small and some of the advice I got on where sites would be did not pan out: the "camp sites" turned out to be fishermen's lunch spots, without an even or level site suitable to pitch a single tent. Adopt a strategy to camp early in the day if you find a site and thus avoid having to paddle into the evening as the planned site turned out to be non-existent.
  • Further information:





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