- distance: 20 km
- time: start – 11:20 a.m. ; finish – 6:00 p.m.
- portages/rapids: 5/5
- – O-R1 C4/C3 PRR 200m “McKay Rapids”
- – O-R2 C3/C4? 150m PRL 150m “Iron Ring” / “S-bend”
- – O-R3 – C3/C4? 100m PRR 100m “Butterfly”
- – O-R4 – C3/4 PRR 150m PRR 105m “Garvins”
- – O-R5 C2(T ) / C1 / C2T 500m [LRL / run / PRL 280m ] “Chenal Letts”
- weather: Sunny most of the day, some clouding over in the p.m.
- campsite: CRCS11 – Esprit Rafting campsite at “Baie de Letts”
- topos: Fort Coulonge 031F/15 ; Cobden 031F/10 (click on titles to access)
- Google Earth satellite view: see here
Our first day on the Ottawa River was also our last day on the Coulonge.
The previous afternoon Dennis Blaedow of the Esprit Rafting team shuttled us from the top of the Coulonge Chutes to the Esprit Base Camp in Davidson where we tented the night. The next morning Dennis shuttled us back to the Coulonge – but to the bottom of the Chutes section. (See here for the post on our last day on the Coulonge.) As you can see on the map below we spent the morning meandering our way to the river’s mouth.
By 11 a.m. or so we were sitting on the Ottawa. A few distorted lines from T.S. Eliot bubbled their way through my mind as we entered the Kitchi Sippi, the Great River of the Algonkins!
Mind you, the dramatic chutes twelve kilometers from the end would definitely qualify as “a bang”! In the pic below we are staring at Ontario on the far shore and just about ready to turn left and head down towards the Rocher Fendu’s Middle Channel.
Once we entered the Ottawa River for some reason photos stopped. Within an hour we were in La Passe, having pulled up our canoe on the back lawn of the church whose steeple we had been staring at – and using as a target! – for most of the past hour. We had a leisurely lunch in the shade while we leaned back in our Helinox camp chairs. We both celebrated our Coulonge adventure and wondered about what the Rocher Fendu had in store for us. It is said to be the best stretch of whitewater in eastern North America – the half-dozen rafting companies on the river are a testament to the thrills it provides.
One of the first things our research led us to was an account of a trip up the Ottawa by Max Finkelstein. One paragraph I had saved read like this –
Given that he was coming upriver his choice of the Calumet channel makes sense. Out of the question for us was his Muskrat Lake portage route! There were other choices too. Here is what we had to choose from –
- The Calumet Channel – the route taken by the voyageurs of old. It would need some extra padding and there is a dam at the bottom of the channel at Bryson to portage around. To access this channel we would have to hang a left just after La Passe. This would have made a fine second choice.
- The Main Channel with its Class IV-V rapids and chutes sounded like the most turbulent of the bunch, which explains its popularity with the rafting companies. It runs down the Ontario side of the inter-provincial border. Given all the rafting groups coming down this channel, we figured we’d give it a pass.
- The Middle Channel sounded like the best choice, more direct than the Calumet but less hairy and less busy than the Main Channel. We would still get to see some classic rafting whitewater – mostly CIII and CIV runs – which we would portage around. We assumed there would be some good photo ops too!
- The Lost Channel sounded like the quietest option. It involves entering the Middle Channel but then turning right into a channel that runs parallel to the Main and Middle. Jim Coffey, the owner of Esprit Rafting, did not recommend it given the low water levels in mid-August.
The Middle Channel route was the one we would do and Jim Coffey at Esprit Rafting gave us a quick sketch of the various rapids and portages we would be facing. He jotted down some details and we listened intently – and got most of the info! It was 6:45 a.m. and he had already been answering emails from guests past and future for the past half-hour while we were having our oatmeal and coffee breakfast.
From La Passe, we headed down the river five kilometers to the first of the day’s portages – around the McKay Chutes (or McKay Rapids) between Sullivan Island and Cedar Island. [Note: a number of sources refer to it as McKoy.] The portage trail is on the top of Cedar Island and is very obvious since it is used daily by the playboaters playing in the rapids here. Looking back from the take-out we saw the spot on the mainland where they put in for the day’s fun in the rapids.
The pix below show parts of the portage trail as well as the rapids we were avoiding.
While we were doing our best to avoid the powerful curling wave action, these helmeted warriors in their stubby mini banana kayaks were seeking it out! It looked like fun – but not in an open canoe.
After we pushed off from the put-in below the rapids, we headed to the right of the waves you see in the pic above. The power of the current was such that we were given an unexpected 360º spin around. Nothing like losing control of your boat thanks to the unseen currents at play. Yikes!
After the Cedar Island portage around the McKay Chutes, it is a pleasant 2.5-kilometer paddle to the next portage. Islands all around – the GPS device was consulted once or twice to make sure we were still on course! Had we turned to the right we would have entered the Main Channel. On the map below the route to the Middle Channel runs across the page from left to right and, at the east end of Sullivan Island, it also crosses into Quebec territory. We’d stay on the Quebec side almost all the way down to Portage du Fort.
Iron Ring – is it considered the top of S Curve? – came up next. We pulled out just above the rapids on river left and scampered up the bank to find the portage trail. 150 meters and thirty minutes later we were looking back at the bottom of the rapids.
Some of that time was spent refilling our water bottle and taking a brief gorp break. We also had some entertainment before we got to the portage. Three Esprit Rafting/Wilderness Tour rafts were coming down the river and we watched them float effortlessly down the first chute you see a few pix below.
Then it was time to do the carry. The trail is in pretty good shape with only a bit of deadfall to deal with. Soon we were on our way to the next set of rapids – the topo map calls it Chute a Desjardins but the local Anglophone rafters call it “Butterfly” – 500 meters away.
We watched the Esprit Rafting group do some body surfing down the chute here for a minute or two. Then it was time to knock off a pretty short portage. We were moving on while the rafters were still playing – and maybe having a snack break up the river. While we had portaged “Butterfly” on river right the rafters were obviously using a trail on river left to get from their rafts up to the top of the chute before they body-surfed back down. It would be an optional portage route for paddlers.
Less than a kilometer downriver was another set of falls – Garvin’s Chute. It is maybe the biggest of the series. You can see why the rafting companies love this stretch of river – lots of action in a fairly compressed space.
The stats on the GPS track tell us that it took us fifteen minutes to do this short portage. It was now after 5 p.m. and we were getting a bit tired. Still to come – one more portage and then at the end of it a place to pitch our tent thanks to Esprit Rafting’s helping hand. As we approached Chenal Letts the rafters came floating by, their body surfing diversion done.
After they zipped by we got back to the problem at hand. This was the one portage whose details we could not remember. First, we went over to the island on river right, thinking there might be a portage there. No such luck – just impenetrable bush. Then we paddled over to the other side and I recalled Jim saying something about a dry creek and how we should follow it along until we came to the portage trail. Well, here was a creek! Okay, it wasn’t dry but maybe it was what he was talking about? Down we went – about 15 meters. Clearly a bad choice. The description definitely did not fit. We backtracked to the top of the rapids.
We ended up lining a forty-meter section above and below the chute and then hopped into the canoe for a one-minute ride down to what looked like a well-used take-out point. Out I got and walked along the trail a bit. There was the dry creek bed! We were on the right track. We walked to the end and met the last of an Esprit Rafting crew that was packing up after the afternoon’s run down the Middle Channel. All of the guests had already left in another vehicle or two.
By 6:30 our tent was up and water was boiling and we were feeling a lot better than we had as we were walking back up that not-dry-enough creek at the top of Chenal Letts. We made use of the two picnic tables to keep everything off the sand. Nearby was a covered eating area, toilets, the works. It was a nice way to end a long day that had started on the banks of the Ottawa at the Esprit Rafting Base Camp in Davidson. We had been very fortunate to get Jim Coffey’s help with the various rapids and offer of a spot to pitch our tent for the night.