One of my favourite rivers in Ontario is the Mattawa River. It’s a rugged and historic waterway that’s been travelled for thousands of years. Indigenous Peoples first travelled the river, followed by voyageurs starting in the 1600s. In more recent years, the waterway has become a very popular canoe trip route for recreational paddlers.
The Mattawa River is an excellent paddling destination for just about any type of paddler. There are lots of flat-water sections with short, well-marked portages for beginners, while those with whitewater skills will be capable of paddling many of the rapids.
Paddlers will become immersed in the beauty of the rugged Mattawa River landscape that features rocky shorelines and powerful waterfalls, towering cliffs and pristine pine forests.
Informational plaques have been installed along the river at different important locations and portages, telling the story of the many interesting and important people who travelled these waters before us. Mattawa means “meeting of the waters” in the Algonquin language.
The total length of the Mattawa River is 76 kilometres. There are several different access points that allow paddlers to start at different points along the river and options for short day trips.
The most popular day trip along the Mattawa River is from Pimisi Bay to Portage Campion in Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park. The entire route, including both paddling and portaging, is around 12 kilometres one-way.
There are eight short portages along this section, between 30 and 400 metres long. Depending on the water level and your skill level, many portages can be avoided by paddling, except for one mandatory portage around a large waterfall.
This day trip can be completed in as few as four to six hours, but I’d recommend allowing yourself extra time to complete it, as there are many interesting spots that you might want to stop at along the way.
During summer of 2021, a friend of mine was coming to visit and suggested that while she was here, we paddle this popular day trip route. I had never paddled the Pimisi Bay to Samuel de Champlain route before. I was really looking forward to it!
As this is a one-way canoe route, you need to either leave a second vehicle at the end of the route, have a person who can pick you up at the end or use an outfitter shuttle service. As we didn’t have a second vehicle, we went for the shuttle option and arranged a shuttle pick up from Algonquin North Wilderness Outfitters that is located only a few kilometres from either end of the route.
We also did not have our own canoe to use so we rented one from the outfitters and arranged for them to drop it off at the access point. Algonquin North Wilderness Outfitters offers self-guided trip packages, including the Pimisi Bay Special, that includes everything you need to complete the day trip, from shuttle to canoe and safety equipment.
We arrived at the Pimisi Bay Picnic Area and Mattawa River access point, got our canoe that had just been delivered by the outfitter, and set off!
My friend had paddled this route before, so it was nice to be paddling this section of the river for the first time with someone experienced. Although she was familiar with the route, we still made sure to take a few photos of the map at the outfitters with my phone before heading out. The Adventure Map by Chrismar offers an excellent Mattawa River and Area map available for purchase on their website and at many outdoor stores.
We made our way across Pimisi Bay and found ourselves at the first portage. It was fairly short and easy, but the water levels were high enough, and my friend had whitewater experience, so we paddled the rapids instead.
There is quite a lot of poison ivy along the Mattawa River portages, so keep an eye out and stay on the trail.
Of all the sections of the Mattawa River, the Pimisi Bay to Samuel de Champlain route is the most untouched and natural. There are no cottages or motorboats, and very few man-made creations.
The river was narrow and quiet. We didn’t see another person the entire time. It gave me the feeling of what it might have been like many years ago when people travelled these waters. It was like we had gone back in time.
After paddling through a few rapids, we arrived at the first set that we would portage around. These rapids included Petit Paresseux Falls which we chose to avoid, but a more experienced whitewater paddler might attempt it.
A short paddle from there and we found ourselves at what is probably the highlight of this canoe route. After completing the longest portage of the journey, 400 metres, we came out to the bottom of the spectacular six-metre-high Paresseux Falls, that spans between the rocky shoreline at a sudden drop in the river.
Continuing down river we passed by Hell’s Gate, or Porte de l’Enfer, a cave that voyageurs once thought to be home to a demon. In reality, this cave was an Indigenous ochre mine.
The rest of the route was very enjoyable. The river became wider and calmer, there were lots of scenic views and a few more cliffs that we passed by. We paddled across a small lake and through a few more short sets of rapids before arriving at Portage Campion, the end of our adventure.
After a call to the outfitter, we had a short wait before we were picked up and brought back to our vehicle.
Overall, I really enjoyed this day trip paddle along the Mattawa River. It was an awesome combination of nature and history. I’d love to do it again in the future and would highly recommend it to others.