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.