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Follow the back roads to a must-do canoe route (6 photos)

Back Roads Bill says there is a must-do canoe paddle this year and offers a canoe route guide and a map that is yours to discover

There’s a “dog face” etched in the rock featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a spiritual cave, waterfalls cliff faces, vistas, potholes and natural/cultural heritage all in one go and accessible. It could have been a ship canal and you can participate in a marathon canoe race along this river’s entire course.

There are so many day and overnight canoe/kayak places and routes to take your boats to throughout Northern Ontario. We are blessed with countless mighty rivers and interconnected waterways.

These waters served as the original highways for the First Nations of this land, and later explorers, traders and settlers. They continue to attract outdoor enthusiasts/adventurers today. Often we go looking for detailed information.

This year, if you are a beginner, heritage buff or are looking for a day paddle or short canoe route to start and complete, the Mattawa River is one to put on your list. There are so many reasons why.

The Mattawa River is in our backyard and is one of Canada’s iconic rivers. It was the second river to be designated a Canadian Heritage River. The French River was the first. I was part of a committee that had the Mattawa River boundaries extended in 1999; we presented in voyageur attire.

Background River Profile

The Mattawa was designated in 1988 for its outstanding historical, natural and recreational values. It was then expanded to 76 km in 1999. The river formed a vital link in the fur trade route.

Today, paddlers follow the route and climb over portages that have not changed in more than 300 years.

The Mattawa River provides a natural connection between the Ottawa River and Lake Nipissing, following a 600 million-year-old geological fault line through the Canadian Shield. Visible at Paresseux Falls, it is the former Niagara Falls of the north.

It was a post-glacial spillway that once drained the Great Lakes into the Ottawa River. Geological evidence of the river’s past can be found at the glacial potholes at Portage de Talon and numerous abandoned river channels, 12 to 15 metres above the present river level. See the expansive Mattawa River Valley vista at Elm Point.

The river is associated with First Nation history, with the exploration of Canada, and the fur trade. Mattawa, in Algonkian, means “junction of waterways” and “river with walls that echo its current.” For the First Nations, as well as the Europeans who came to the region in the 1600s, this waterway was a vital link from the St. Lawrence Valley to the upper Great Lakes. Archeological evidence from 28 sites suggests the waterway has been in use by aboriginal peoples for more than 6,000 years. Stop and see the ochre mine a source of tempera for pictographs.

Samuel de Champlain’s interpreter, Étienne Brûlé, went inland with a band of Algonquin in 1610, and five years later he accompanied a party of Huron over the route, producing the first published map of the area.

The river then became the major west-bound highway for the traders and missionaries who followed, you are walking in the footsteps of legends.

This river was an important link in the commercial trade network that eventually extended across the continent. This short stretch was perhaps the most demanding on the 2,000 km Voyageur Waterway between Montreal and Fort William, as it included 14 of the route’s 38 portages. Nine of these portages remain much as they were at the time of the Voyageurs, and all still have their original French names. Then there was the thought of using the Mattawa for part of the Georgian Bay Ship Canal see the website.

The Mattawa offers an exceptional canoeing and cultural experience for both lake and river paddlers. The designated section falls mainly within the boundaries of Mattawa and Samuel de Champlain provincial parks, which are managed by Ontario Parks. The waterway’s place in Canada’s history is commemorated by provincial and national historic site plaques in the town of Mattawa and at Champlain Park in North Bay, the Lake Nipissing end of the historic La Vase portages.

Iconic Writer - Mattawa

Roy MacGregor is the acclaimed and bestselling Canadian author of Canoe Country.

Within his book, Original Highways - Travelling the Great Rivers of Canada the raconteur takes readers on a guided tour of the great rivers that stitched Canada together—where they’ve carried us and where they’ll take us yet, including the Mattawa.

I asked Roy about the Mattawa.

“I have canoed its length and love it.

"The Mattawa was THE link between the Montreal-Ottawa River run and the West, of course, but also the route of the priests who came to Huronia. In terms of fur and timber, it was as important as the Ottawa itself. It's also a beautiful river and one of the great paddles in Canada.

“It was the Talon Portage where I witnessed, first-hand, what difficult terrain an overdose of exertion can do to someone on an ostensibly relaxing canoe trip…Seeing that man struggle so foolishly up the high rocks at Talon Portage made me think of all those voyageurs who would have passed through exactly the same path, carrying in both directions…there is a rock formation known as the “Dog Face” that is convincing enough to have been featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not in the 1950s.

"At Pimisi Bay there is another rock – mammoth – with a high flat back where native people would leave offerings in order to give them safe passage over the rapids to come.”

You will want to stop here and do the same

“And further downstream near breathtaking Paresseux Falls, is the mysterious Porte de L’Enfer-Gate of Hell," MacGregor continues. "It is a deep hole carved out of the embankment, the hole surrounded by dark red crumbling rock-hematite, an iron oxide that area natives once used for rock paintings…In the side of a hill on the north side of the river recorded Alexander Henry, who passed by in the summer of 1861.

"There is a curious cave, concerning which marvellous tales are related by the voyageurs.”

See how important this ochre really is to others.

There are also the potholes at the Talon Chutes and here is the map of potholes at the chutes, of where many are specifically located by GPS.

Why Paddle?

On the western end of the Mattawa River/Trout Lake is the famed La Vase Portages.

Bernie Stockerrmans is the Chair of the Friends of La Vase Portages. Click here to visit the website. 

The La Vase Portages is a 10 km (6.2 mile) section of the historic Voyageur canoe route, which connects Trout Lake and Lake Nipissing.

Groups have been working since the 1990s on restoring the historic link between two watersheds and a height of land.

“The Mattawa River is an easy weekend paddling trip that introduces you to many historical places that voyageurs and early explorers travelled and wrote about," Stockermans said. "When you get to the headwaters of the Mattawa River at Trout Lake I welcome you to check out the La Vase Portage to Lake Nipissing. This portage crosses the height of land between the eastward flowing Mattawa/Ottawa River watershed and the westward flowing French River watershed.”

More on the La Vase here.

From this author’s perspective, I may have paddled the Mattawa more than most. Since I was a teenager it has been in my blood and, through leading canoe trips, I usually paddled it two or three times per year.

I never tire of the scenery and my favourite section is from Pimisi Bay, upstream to the Talon Chutes, then retrace a bit and downstream through the portages, past Parresseux Falls and the ochre mine, a stop to hike up to the Elm Point vista and then on to Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park; day or overnight you won’t be disappointed.

At the park, visit the Mattawa River Visitor Centre it showcases the natural and cultural history and the highlight is the replica canots du maître which would have carried a dozen voyageurs.

At most of the carrying places, there are troughs indicating the footprints of people walking in one place for more than three thousand years; the best is at the upper end of the portage at the Campion Rapids within Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park, see the map link below.

Mattawa Map

The Mattawa River Heritage Map first published in 1997 by this writer has been recently updated and now it is re-released. The two-sided, multi-coloured thematic map has been updated and modified and includes GPS coordinates and an insert of the Pimisi Bay to Elm Point section of the river that has most of the original rapids and portages.

It is a standard topographic scale of 1:50 000 and combines the North Bay and Mattawa topo maps. It is comprehensive and detailed - a book in itself. It is $20 plus postage and a fundraiser for the Canadian Ecology Centre – two flats or folded.

Here is an information gift, a detailed map link with coordinates and anecdotes. There are plenty of day-use access that highlight parts of the river you wish to access.

If you want the feel of a recreational marathon canoe race take part in one of the longest-running races in Canada, (45 years) through the North Bay-Mattawa Conservation Authority, this year on July 23, it is only 64 km see this link. Can you beat the 1995 record for the fastest finish of five hours, 27 minutes and 53 seconds? I have done this race but not that fast!

Here is more on ‘Canoe Country’ through a past Northern Ontario Travel article and more on the Mattawa see this link. There is now lots of information to become a voyageur. National canoe day is June 26. This paddling season, embrace our heritage through paddling on the back roads.

Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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