Mattawa  River 

Total Distance: 36 km

Duration:  3 days 

Number of Portages: 9 (less if running rapids)

Total Portage Distance: 1.8 km

Level of Difficulty: Experienced Novice (Intermediate whitewater skills needed if running rapids)

Much like the French River, the Mattawa River is a must-paddle canoe route for Ontario backcountry trippers. 

The primary reason for this is the historical significance the river holds. It is the link between the Ottawa River and the Lake Nipissing/French River corridor to Georgian Bay. Thus, it has been used for hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years by the indigenous population of the area to connect the Ottawa River with the Great Lakes to the west. Logically, its name means "meeting of waterways" in Algonquin. Early explorers Étienne Brûlé and Samuel de Champlain were the first Europeans to travel the route with the assistance of the Algonquin people. To walk the same portages that so many venerable people of Canada's past have is an incredible experience.

The second reason is that the river is gorgeous. It exists on a geological faultline that is still seismically active. From Talon Chutes to the town of Mattawa, paddlers descend down a series of rapids and waterfalls through a canyon that has walls just shy of 500 feet in places. It is quite a sensation paddling beneath those towering cliffs.

As an avid canoeist who spends many nights each year in the backcountry, one may ask, "Hey! Canoe Daddy! Why has it taken you so long to dip your paddle in the Mattawa's waters?" Well, I'm a fellow who generally seeks out wilderness and solitude with my trip choices, and this particular route doesn't have a lot of that comparatively speaking. Except for the stretch between Pimisi Bay and Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park, canoeists can expect to be dodging motorboat wakes, glancing at shorelines dotted with cottages and homes, and sharing the waterway and trails with many other canoeists and kayakers, particularly near Talon Chutes. 

With the summer of 2023 nearing its end, my wife, Dahee, was making some subtle suggestions about joining me on a canoe trip. It was music to my ears. With the new school year approaching, I really wanted to get out on one more canoe trip before the summer ended and I was back teaching my classes. My wife had very few vacation days left for the summer, so the trip needed to be done in three days over an extended weekend. We were also looking for a river trip with some whitewater that wasn't too beefy. I thought the Mattawa River might just be exactly what we were up for in terms of time and challenge. After discussing the route details with her, Dahee concurred. Yes! I would finally be paddling the Mattawa and I was happy that my wife would be joining me. 

Day 1 - Trout Lake (MacPherson Drive Boat Launch) to Pine Lake (11 Kms)

Map provided courtesy of Toporama which contains information licensed under the Open Government Licence – Canada. I have made additional markings to show route information. 

Our first order of business was to arrange a shuttle since this wasn't going to be a loop trip. It was over a 4-hour drive from our home to the launch point and we didn't fancy taking two vehicles. 

After a quick Google search, we discovered that Algonquin North Outfitters, on Highway 17 at the turn-off to Kiosk Lake in Algonquin, could take care of us. For a fee, we could park our vehicle safely at their location and they would shuttle us, our canoe, and our gear in their own vehicle to the public boat launch on MacPherson Drive at the east end of Trout Lake, our put-in location. Two days later, they would pick us up at Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park and bring us back to our vehicle at their store. They were very accommodating and easy to work with. After arranging an 11 AM departure to our put-in, we were all set to go. 

We made good time on the road up to the outfitters and indeed a driver was ready at the scheduled time. We were pulling up to the boat launch by 11:30 AM. 

Unfortunately, the weather forecast for the day was not looking great. It was cloudy and there was a call for rain and possible thunderstorms later that evening. We launched onto the Mattawa under overcast skies. I took the following photo of the government dock as we departed. 

Within a few minutes, we were passing the Stepping Stones, a collection of rocks that stretch across the river, on our left. We assumed that this collection of rocks was deposited there from retreating glaciers in days gone by.

Twenty minutes later, after missing the turn to the north and having to backtrack a bit, we were paddling through a narrow passage called Portage de la Tortue. 

In the above photo, one may be asking why there would be a need for a portage at that location. Well, once there was a need. In the days of the voyageurs, there was a set of rapids at that location that have since been blasted away to create a seamless passage between Trout Lake and Turtle Lake. A plaque has been erected there to commemorate the portage. 

On Turtle Lake, canoeists can experience the beginnings of the dramatic shoreline indicative of a geological fault. Although pretty and photograph-worthy, these cliffs pale in comparison to what paddlers will see further downriver. 

Halfway through Turtle Lake, we could see the dam to the north that controls the outflow of the Mattawa. In high water conditions, paddlers can portage around the dam and enter into a series of small lakes, rapids and portages to get into the northwestern end of Talon Lake. 

It is a much less-travelled route, however. Our outfitter recommended we take the Portage de la Mauvaise Musique at the eastern end of the lake into Pine Lake at the end-of-August, low-water conditions. We took their advice.

The eastern part of Turtle Lake was gorgeous with its tree-studded rocky islands. 

Rocky shoreline gave way to a swampy wetland at the east end of the lake. We paddled through a shallow creek and lifted over a small beaver dam. 

Although the creek continued through to Pine Lake, we got out of the canoe at the well-marked portage on the right. 

Here is a look back from the take-out. 

Many of these historical portages on the Mattawa have commemorative plaques to inform travellers of the significance of the route, but they have definitely seen better days. I would have liked to learn more about the interestingly-named Portage de la Mauvaise Musique, but this is what the plaque looked like. 

Some subsequent Googling resulted in one possible reason for the ominous moniker of this portage. Alexander Mackenzie, one of Europe's more intrepid explorers of the Canadian landscape said the following about the portage,  "next to this, is mauvais de Musique, where many men have been crushed to death by the canoes, and others have received irrecoverable injuries." (taken from ) This was an excerpt from Mackenzie's works entitled  VOYAGES from MONTREAL THROUGH THE CONTINENT of NORTH AMERICA TO THE FROZEN and PACIFIC OCEANS IN 1789 and 1793

At the time of doing that portage, I wouldn't have believed that the trail I was on could be responsible for bone-crushing deaths.  It was a short and relatively easy trot of about 100 meters that was a little steep at the Pine Lake end, but not incredibly so. I am guessing the topography has changed much since the days of Mackenzie or perhaps the portage location is not quite the same. 

Pushing off at the put-in, the swampy conditions continued at the west end of Pine Lake. 

Soon we were in deeper water and we rounded a corner to enter into Pine Lake proper. 

Pine Lake was a small, roundish lake and sported cottages/homes on its northern and southeastern shores. There are two island groups in the centre of the lake, Baltic Island and Camp Comfort Island, each containing campsites. There was a great-looking site on the east side of Baltic Island, but a group was on it. The other island was vacant but the site wasn't too inviting. Not noticing any tents or shelters on the Baltic Island site, we paddled over and asked the group if they were, indeed, camping on the island. They stated that they were on a day trip and would be leaving shortly. That was good news for us because the site was a gem. The only downside was that the homes on the north shore were nearby and it didn't feel much like a wilderness campsite. 

Even though it was only a little after 2 PM, we decided we would camp there for the night. We had already encountered three other groups of canoeists heading in the same direction as us, and we weren't sure if we would be able to find a nice vacant site on Talon Lake. Besides, we wanted to make camp before the rain came. 

With the weather and forecast looking a little gloomy, we erected a tarp above the firepit.  

It did rain for a bit and we even heard thunderclaps for a while later in the afternoon, but the majority of the nastiness seemed to pass us by to the north. We ended up having a nice evening and enjoying steak, mashed potatoes, and some wine next to the fire. Incredibly and unfortunately, there were still some mosquitos at dusk at the end of August! Compared to June and early July, they weren't too much of a nuisance, though. 

Day 2 - Pine Lake to Mattawa River (Island west of Elm Point) - (19 Kms)

Map provided courtesy of Toporama which contains information licensed under the Open Government Licence – Canada. I have made additional markings to show route information. 

We woke up early and I checked the weather report on my phone. Some winds were forecasted, so we did something that I rarely do. We got up and broke camp without making our breakfast and coffee. The reason was that we wanted to get around St. Laurent Point on Lake Talon before the winds got too nasty to make the journey a problem. In retrospect, it was a smart decision; Lake Talon is a big lake and is known for its winds and waves. 

We were on the water by 7:30 AM. There were still a couple of straggling dark clouds from the day before, but we generally had blue skies. The wind was already blowing, however, and the previous day's rain had taken the humidity out of the air;  it was chilly. I turned to snap a photo of the east side of Baltic Island and our campsite as we paddled toward the portage. 

Within 10 minutes we arrived at our portage: Portage Pin de Musique. 

The portage was a wide and easy carry of about 450 meters. It crossed the road connecting to homes on the north shore of Pine Lake about 100 meters in. Despite the early morning wind, we didn't hear a lot of Singing Pines. We assumed that most of the big trees had been hewn long ago. 

The put-in on Lake Talon was at a nice sandy landing. The wind was definitely up and we worked hard to make it northeast through McCool Bay before taking advantage of that northwesterly wind and moving southeast around St. Laurent Point. 

Happy to have had the early start, it was easy sailing once we had the wind at our backs, but we were hungry and needed our morning coffee. 

We found an excellent little campsite that was vacant at the east end of an island near Sampson Point. We pulled ashore and made bacon and egg wraps with coffee. There was an adjacent cliff overlooking the site with fantastic easterly views over Lake Talon. We climbed up there after breakfast to finish our coffees and to experience the morning sun. 

Moving through Lake Talon, we passed Grasswell Point at the halfway point. It's a sandy point jutting out into the lake from the northern shore and is a well-used campsite. We assumed that on a weekend it would be inundated with campers and/or day trippers, so we did not aim to stay there. Indeed, there was a motorboat pulled ashore on it when we passed. 

Past the point, we were caught in a bit of a crosswind which threw some waves at us until we could get into the southern reaches of the lake. There were a ton of cottages on the southern shore in this section. 

We were glad to finally get away from the cottages and motorboats of Talon Lake and into the pretty narrows that would take us into Boivin Lake. There were some gorgeous rocky cliffs on the northern shore. 

As we approached Talon Lake Dam at the top of Talon Chutes, we saw the portage on river-right. However, our notes suggested that there was a trail on the left that would take us to a lookout spot to get a bird's-eye view of the gorge below the chutes. We found a take-out spot and began hiking on a trail that went due north. 

After a while, we came to a tiny quarry that had discarded bits of machinery remaining from bygone days. 

It was interesting to happen upon this relic from the past that was less than a kilometer from the river. I wondered what the story behind the place was.  We continued for some time on the flagged trail as it scrambled up a steep slope. We were on it for some time and had begun to suspect that we were on the wrong trail. After consulting my GPS, we realized that we were heading away from the river and obviously not on the trail to the lookout. We backtracked to our canoe, and the whole misstep took out about an hour of our day, unfortunately. It wasn't a complete waste, though; it was a nice little sidetrack walk in the woods. 

Back at the boat, we walked up to the edge of the dam before making the crossing to the other side to take portage. From there, we got a great look at the chutes from the dam. 

We paddled across the top of the dam to the portage and thought we had the area to ourselves. Boy, were we wrong! The portage itself was not an easy one. It had some steep ledges to negotiate toward the bottom and was a bit of a workout. It would prove to be the most difficult portage en route. Toward the bottom, overlooking the river and cliffs on the opposite shore, we could see kayakers in the pool below the chutes. 

At the put-in, a large group of canoeists were departing and we could see a number of kayaks coming in from Pimisi Bay. It seemed to be rush hour.

By the time we went back and retrieved our second load, there were so many kayaks at the put-in that I barely had enough room to put my canoe down. In fact, I had to politely ask someone to move their kayak just to get my canoe in the water. I turned to take this shot of the put-in once we got out on the water.  

Despite the armada of paddle craft, we lingered in the area to take some photos. It really was a beautiful spot, a man-made dam notwithstanding. 

I guess the crowds were to be expected. It was a beautiful Saturday at the end of August and we were at a gorgeous location on the Mattawa River just a short paddle from a launching point off the Trans-Canada Highway at the south end of Pimisi Bay. 

The paddle out into Pimisi Bay was sublime beneath the large cliffs along the shore. 

We paddled across the north end of Pimisi Bay. From that point, we would be heading downstream through a series of five sets of rapids before having to portage around Paresseux Falls. It was an exciting and beautiful part of the river. 

We paddled into the river from Pimisi Bay, ignoring the portage on the right, went through an innocuous swift, and pulled up on shore on river-right to scout the first set of rapids -- Décharge des Perches. It was there that the voyageurs would discard their poles that were used to move upriver while travelling west. For us, it was our lunch spot. We sat on the rocks and enjoyed some wraps of salami and cheese. 

The water was on the low side and the rapids were little more than swifts except for a small ledge at the bottom.  We found our way down the left and moved into the center, only to hang up on the ledge due to the water being too low. A quick push off the rocks got us downriver. 

After paddling through a small pool, we came upon the second set of rapids on our way to Paresseux Falls. It was this  set of rapids that would get us a bit in trouble, not because they were formidible, but because I made a silly error. 

We ran the top set of rapids seamlessly and eddied out to the right in a small pool to scout the bottom part of the run. I found our line and it was there that I made a very rookie error. I forgot to take my partner's abilities into account. I had done a lot of river running earlier in the summer with my father, who is a strong paddler, and I was used to distance and speed with his abilities. When we re-entered the current of the river, I didn't cross-ferry high enough and the current pushed us sideways onto a larger boulder before I could get the boat turned into the current. Dahee did nothing wrong, she was paddling hard; I simply cut the corner too tight. We got caught up on the boulder and dumped with the boat facing upstream. Yikes! The boat quickly filled with water. 

Dahee was amazing! She immediately stood up in chest-deep water and managed to catch our large bag and some other gear to stop it all from travelling downriver. We managed to pull all of our gear onto the rocks on the left. I went back for the canoe and using every ounce of strength that I could muster, I was able to move the boat off of the rocks. We pulled it ashore and flipped it.

I was very angry with myself for being far too lackadaisical and causing the incident by simply not paddling a few extra meters upriver to enter the flow at a safer distance. To Dahee's credit, she laughed off the incident and accepted my profuse apologies. We finished the run with a combination of lining and running and were able to pick up a couple of small pieces of gear that had decided to run the rapids on their own; we recovered everything in the end. 

Here is a shot of the rapids from the bottom. We dumped roughly at the halfway point. 

The next couple of rapids at Portage de la Cave were negotiated with a combination of running and wading. After that, we paddled through a small pool and then took out on the left at Portage de la Prairie which takes canoeists past Petit Parasseux Falls --  a bit of a misnomer since it is just a long rapid. At the landing was a group of guys on a day trip heading downriver. One fellow was portaging his canoe, while the other three were getting ready to run the rapids. 

The rapids looked a bit bony at late-August water levels and our trip notes said that there was a CII ledge at the bottom. Because of this and the nervousness still in place from dumping earlier, we decided to take a load of gear across the 280-meter portage and scout the run from the bottom.  The ledge didn't look too bad, but there was a thin needle that required threading. It was also a bit of trouble scouting the middle part of the run from the portage without a walk off the trail, so we decided to head back and portage the canoe and save the run for another day at higher water levels. After doing so, we put in and got below the rapids just in time to watch the group of fellows run it. They made it through with a bit of bumping and ironically the tandem canoe dumped when they were pulling ashore next to a little swift below the ledge after successfully running the hardest part of the run. They were laughing about it. 

A short 500-meter paddle then took us to the take-out for the 400-meter portage past Paresseux Falls on the right.  I took the following photo of the river above the falls. One would not know that the falls even existed there.  

The portage was downhill most of the way, but well-used and fairly easy, despite being a bit rocky in places. We ventured off the path on the return trip for our second load to check out the view of the falls from above. 

It couldn't compare to the view from the base of the falls, however.

By this point, it was more than apparent to us both why the Mattawa River is a well-travelled route. It truly was a gorgeous spot. 

A five-minute paddle downriver took us to the Porte de L'Enfer -- the Gate to Hell. 

We were neither attacked by a man-eating beast nor sucked through the gate into the underworld. The indigenous people of the region also evaded such horrible fates and used the cave to mine for ochre, the material used for creating pictographs and rock art. 

We contemplated climbing up to take a peak inside the cave, but it was a steep scramble up the slope and it wasn't an ideal spot to get the canoe ashore. In addition, it was already 4 PM and we were looking for the next available spot to camp. We thought we'd better get moving to claim one since we knew there were other canoe parties behind us.

About 15  minutes past the back door to Hell, we came upon an island on the right that had a nice west-facing campsite. Just past that was the much sought-after Elm Point beach site which we could see was already occupied by a large group. We claimed the island site and because it was on the west side of the island behind a steep rock, we could not hear the large group. It was a gorgeous little site, perfect for a couple in a single tent. 

While Dahee was setting up the tent, I crossed the river in the empty boat to collect firewood. We enjoyed a nice fire that evening and the views of the sun going down in the clear sky behind the high walls of the Mattawa River. 

Day 3 -  Mattawa River (Island west of Elm Point) to Samuel De Champlain Park (below Campion Rapids) - (6 Kms)

Map provided courtesy of Toporama which contains information licensed under the Open Government Licence – Canada. I have made additional markings to show route information. 

When we awoke, the air was chilly allowing for some scenic mist to rise from the river. 

We did not have far to paddle to our ending point of the trip, so we didn't rush to get up and on the water early. After a pancake breakfast and some coffee, we broke camp and were on the water just after 10 AM. I took a shot of our island home as we paddled away. 

The weather was perfect -- clear, cloudless skies, and very little wind. 

We paddled past the beach site on Elm Point. I would have liked to investigate the site, but the group was still on it and was packing up to continue their journey.  

Past the point, the river widened and the large 500-foot cliffs on the left made it feel like we were in a mountainous valley. 

There  were some dramatic cliff faces on the right just before reaching the rapids known as Les Epingles (The Pins). 

Les Epingles was just a little swift that we rode into Bouillon Lake where we saw a small cabin on the southern shore, the first sign of civilization since Pimisi Bay.  

Our next obstacle was Des Roches Rapids which was supposed to be a CII technical rapid, however, in the low water conditions, it was a straightforward CI that we were able to run.  

Around the corner in the bay below the rapids, we were fortunate to engage in a staring contest with a small doe for a minute or two on the north shore. 

At that point, noticing we had cell service again, we called for our shuttle since we would be arriving at our destination in about fifteen minutes. 

We passed through a couple of fun swifts, the confluence with the Amable du Fond River, and spotted the top of Campion Rapids ahead. There, the river split into two channels, and after standing and scouting from the boat, I could see a wonderful straight-line run through a fun wave train in the right channel. We rode the waves amidst some fun splashing and arrived at our take-out at the bottom of the rapids. Whoo-hoo! It was the best run thus far and a fantastic climax to our trip. 

We pulled our canoe ashore and began unloading it on a nearby picnic table. Dahee gave her final assessment of the trip in the following photo. 

All-in-all, I would say what the Mattawa lacks in privacy and wilderness, it more than makes up for in scenery, rudimentary whitewater fun, and historical significance, thus making it one of the best weekend trips to be had in Ontario. Much recommended! 

Until the next trip...