The Ottawa – A Canadian Heritage River!
Well, it was about time! The Ottawa River was recently (July 2016) added to the list of Canadian Heritage Rivers. It is the 39th river to be accorded the honour. You’d figure that it would have been the first or second one on the list – but better late than never. Oddly – or perhaps typically – the designation applies only to the Ontario side of the river! How Canadian is that! The official government news release put it this way –
From the head of Lake Timiskaming to East Hawkesbury, 590 km of the Ottawa River bordering the province of Ontario now joins the Canadian Heritage Rivers System (CHRS).
In time perhaps the Quebec government will hop on board so that the stretch down to Montreal, as well as the section on the east side of Ile du Grand-Calumet will be included. Then the Great River of Canada – the Kitchi Sibi – will be fully recognized.
This August our canoe trip took us down one of the many tributaries of the river – we paddled the Coulonge River system from its headwaters in La Réserve Faunique La Vérendrye right to its mouth at Fort Coulonge. When planning the trip, we had decided that since we were already there we might as well continue on down to Ottawa and the Rideau Canal locks. It was a worthwhile add-on to our Coulonge adventure and one that fits in with a lifetime’s interest in the history of the river and its people.
It was also a part of our own history since we had spent our formative early years in and around the mining town of Rouyn-Noranda in the Abitibi. This was where our parents (occasionally called D.P.s or des fros depending on who was talking) ended up from Europe after WWII.
The Ottawa River – A Brief History
The Ottawa River has played a central role in the economic and cultural life of Canada for a thousand years and more.
- Before the European arrival, it was already a major artery for the transfer of trade goods among the various Algonkian peoples and, just as importantly, the transfer of culture in the form of ideas and behaviour patterns.
- With the arrival of the French in the early seventeenth century, it became the great highway into the interior of the continent from Montreal, bypassing the more southern route controlled by the Iroquois. Beginning with Champlain and Brulé a steady stream of European and native fur traders, adventurers, and Jesuits paddled up to the mouth of the Mattawa and then headed west to points beyond.
- From the early nineteenth century down its waters to the lumber mills in Hull floated forests of trees felled by the lumberjacks on both sides of the river.
- Since the early twentieth century, it has been harnessed as a source of hydroelectric power that facilitated the industrialization of central Canada.
What’s In A Name?
The changing nature of the river begins with its very name. The Anishinaabe people – we know them as the Algonquins – who lived in the river’s watershed knew it as the Kitchi Sibi – literally, the Great River. It was a name they applied particularly to the stretch of the river from Mattawa to Montreal.
When Samuel de Champlain produced his first map of what he called Nouvelle France, he named the river after them. It was apparently in Tadoussac at a celebration of Anishinaabe warriors from various tribes that he first learned what he thought was their name. They had just dealt their Iroquois enemies a defeat. On asking a Malecite chief who they were he was told that “they are our allies”. Supposedly this translates as Algoumequin in their language. We can see La Rivière des Algoumequins on an early 1600’s map; it goes all the way from Montreal to Lake Nipissing. However, the name’s use would not last long.
By the end of the seventeenth century, it was referred to as the Ottawa River. By then Algonquin communities had been all but wiped out in the brutal war against the Iroquois for control of the river and the fur trade. The spread of diseases like smallpox by the European newcomers only compounded the tragedy. Of the 2500 to 6000 Algonquins (estimates seem to vary greatly) spread out in various bands before Champlain’s arrival, there were perhaps 1000 left.
Now the river came to be associated with another Anishinaabe people – the Ottawa. While they did not live anywhere near the river, their role as traders (which gave them their name Odawa) brought them regularly down the Kitchi Sippi to Montreal from their Lake Huron heartland with their furs.
The Ottawa River As A Canoe Trip
We did not see any other paddlers on the river during the five days until we got to Ottawa itself and passed a canoe out for a day’s paddle above Chaudière Falls. Given all the other canoe tripping possibilities this is understandable. Why paddle past a string of camps, cottages, and riverfront homes for five days when you can go on a real wilderness canoe trip! Algonquin Park and La Réserve La Vérendrye are not far away.
Hap Wilson’s Rivers of The Ottawa River Valley does include a brief treatment of the river from Lake Temiskaming’s Devil Rock (the name a Christian renaming of an Anishinaabe sacred site) all the way down to Rocher Fendu. Included are overview maps of the Mattawa to Pembroke stretch and of the Pembroke to Rocher Fendu section of the river. Unfortunately lacking is the necessary detail for someone contemplating a canoe trip on this stretch of the river.
Below Fort Coulonge you have the Rocher Fendu section with its Class III-V rapids and chutes which will mean a few portages. After that the river becomes little more than three long narrow lakes – Lac du Rocher Fendu; Lac des Chats; Lac du Deschenes – interrupted by two generating stations with official portages of 3.8 and 8.5 kilometers. Throw in a strong wind coming from the SW and you have to ask – Who needs this?
However, having done it, we can say that our time and effort were amply rewarded. Not only do we now have a better understanding of the modern version of this section of the great river, but we also enjoyed the paddling and the portages turned out to be much less than advertised.
We also got to experience that famous Ottawa Valley hospitality thanks to those we turned to for help and advice on our way down. Jim Coffey and Dennis Blaedow at Esprit Rafting, the manager and bartender at the Riverside Hotel in Portage du Fort, Maureen Baskins at her riverfront beach Trailer Park and Campground …we met some really helpful people.
Planning A Canoe Trip Down The Ottawa:
Given that there is surprisingly little material online to help future paddlers plan their own lower Ottawa River trip, we’ve put together some information that should make the planning a bit easier. Read on and you’ll find links to the following information –
2. Camp spots/motel accommodation,
3. Rapids and portages you’ll face.
When it comes to maps, the archived 1:50000 Natural Resources Canada Topographical Map sheets can be a bit old – a few maps date to the mid-1970s – but they are still usually the best available. You can download the ones you need below from the NRC website. Click here and go to the 031 folder and then use the i.d. of each map to access and download.
Or just click on the specific topo title you want below …
- 1. 031F/15. Fort Coulonge
- 2. 031F/10. Cobden
- 3. 031F/08. Arnprior
- 4. 031F/09. Quyon
- 5. 031G/05.Ottawa
We also had the Garmin Topo Canada 4.0 map set installed on an eTrex 20. The CDN $190. price tag at the Garmin site in 2021 might have you looking elsewhere for a better deal – maybe on eBay or Kijiji. Or you could just accept the cost and divide it by the ten years you will be using it so that the per annum cost seems a bit more reasonable!
Google Earth will give you a less than ten-year-old satellite view of the river and what you’ll see on the river banks. It is very useful for planning purposes. There is no need to download the Google Earth app anymore – the Chrome browser-based version is available here; there is also an experimental version on Safari.
2. Where To Camp Or Find A Room Along The Ottawa:
Finding decent campsites can be a bit of a problem. The closer you get to Ottawa the more likely the land is privately owned and already has a camp, cottage or house on it. However, there are still places to pitch a tent – and in some cases, take a room for the night.
Here is what we’ve come up with as a working list of campgrounds/nearby motels. If you know any of them not to be a good choice – or if you know of yet other ones – let me know and I’ll take it off or add it to the list. I’ve highlighted the ones we used on our trip.
- Antler’s Kingfisher Lodge. 35 km east of Mattawa on the Ottawa River. See here. The vehicle-accessible tent site is $37.17! Maybe a price reduction for paddlers?
- Driftwood Provincial Park. 45 km east of Antler’s Kingfisher Lodge.
- Ryan’s Campsite – 6 km. west of Deep River on river right (the Ontario side) -link dead in July 2020 – property is for sale here. Maybe under a new owner in 2022?
- Petawawa – Black Bear Beach Campground
- Pembroke – Riverside Park in Pembroke – 961 Pembroke Street West
- Davidson – Esprit Rafting Base Camp just north of Fort Coulonge
- Rocher Fendu – Middle Channel – Chenal Letts – Esprit Rafting takeout spot. Contact Jim Coffey at Esprit for permission and directions.
- Rocher Fendu – Wilderness Tours – 503 Rafting Road, Foresters Falls, Ontario at the end of the Rocher Fendu section
- Ile du Grand Calumet before the Bryson Dam – Horizon X Rafting on Chemin Cadieux
- Bryson Dam area – Motel Bryson – 400 meters from the dam on Highway 148
- Portage du Fort – Riverside Hotel – we camped on their grounds after getting permission. No website but phone 819 647-5399
- Bristol/ Norway Bay – camping at Pine Lodge; rooms also available
- Arnprior – Quality Inn – 1/2 km up the mouth of the Madawaska
- Baie du Chat/Arnprior – Too Small Island – free camping on the Quebec side of the river – see the Day 3 post for specific info
- Fitzroy Provincial Park – below Chats Falls Generating Station. site map here
- Baskins Beach Trailer Park and Campground
- Ottawa – just before Chaudiere Falls G.S. – Motel Châteauguay on Boulevard de Lucerne – 200 m portage
- Ottawa – top of the Rideau Locks – Fairmont Chateau Laurier, Ottawa – 400 m portage from the river! Wouldn’t that be a buzz! Where would they store your canoe?
- Gatineau-Ottawa – just after the Alexandra Bridge – Best Western – 200 m portage
- And then it would be on to Montreal!
3. Info On Rapids and Portages:
See the day-by-day posts for the rapids we ran and or lined, those we portaged, and where we were able to put up our tent at the end of the day.
Get in touch if you have any specific questions that this series of posts does not deal with. Also, if you think any of the information we’ve posted is incorrect do let us know. We’d like the posts to be as accurate and useful as possible for any paddlers considering their own canoe trip down this stretch of the Ottawa River – the Kitchi Sibi – La Riviere des Algoumequins.