Canoeing Quebec’s Coulonge River System – Introduction, Planning, Maps

Table of Contents:



Esprit Rafting: Shuttle Service – And More

Day-By-Day Trip Reports – Maps, Satellite Images, Photos, Campsites, Rapids

1. The Headwaters In La  Vérendrye Park

2. The Coulonge R. from Lac Ward To The Ottawa R.



Sandwiched between Ontario’s Algonquin Park and Quebec’s Réserve Faunique La Vérendrye is the upper Ottawa Valley, the core of the traditional homeland of the indigenous people known to us as the Algonquins. It was an early source of beaver pelts for the fur trade, but from the early 1800s onwards, it became a region associated with the lumber industry. In time, hunting and fishing camps were added to the Canadian Shield landscape.  In the past generation or two, it has also attracted other visitors, including those with canoes strapped on top of their vehicles and with back seats filled with gear, canoe packs, and enough food for a week or two of downriver adventure.

wilson-upper-ottawa-valley-2004Hap Wilson’s 1993 guidebook Rivers of the Upper Ottawa Valley: Myth, Magic, and Adventure (and a 2004 reprint)  was my introduction to the various possible canoe trips in the region. As well as information about some rivers on the Ontario side, the book has a chapter on each of the three great canoe-tripping rivers that tumble down to the Ottawa River from the boreal Shield on the Quebec side – the Dumoine, the Noire, and the Coulonge. The book has sat on my bookshelf for over a decade, waiting for my full attention!

Sometimes called “The Three Sisters,” these three rivers have attracted paddlers keen on whitewater play, and wilderness feel over the past few decades.  Since the mid-1980s, the rivers have no longer been used for logging runs. Looking at the Google satellite images of the region, you can see that logging continues with the rough logging roads taking the place of the fast-moving waters of the springtime rivers. These same roads also give paddlers shuttle access to various points on the river of their choice.


Why The Coulonge?

This August (2016), we finally got to the Pontiac region on the Quebec side.  Having to choose one, we settled on the Coulonge.


The length of the river was, for us, a major attraction.  Of the Three Sisters, it is the longest. Our 271-kilometer paddle started in La Vérendrye Park (officially named La Réserve Faunique La Vérendrye), where Highway 117 passes by Lac Larouche. Lac au Barrage, the official headwaters of the river system, is about ten kilometers west of the put-in at the boat launch on Lac Larouche.  La Vérendrye Road #28 takes you from Hwy 117 to a put-in on Lac Au Barrage if you would rather start at the headwaters.

Another positive feature is the 260-meter (850 feet) drop that the Coulonge makes from its headwaters in Lac Au Barrage to the Grand Chute just before Fort Coulonge on the Ottawa River. It has extensive sections of fast water and swifts (estimated at 52 kilometers by Wilson) and 69 runnable rapids (70% of which Wilson grades as Class I).  Given that the more technical rapids are easy to portage around, the Coulonge makes for an excellent river to introduce “newbies” to the adrenaline-pumping aspect of canoe tripping.

Yet one more “plus” was this: the portages are mostly around ledge-type rapids, so they tend to be short. Again, Wilson’s estimate for the total portage distance, if all 19 are done, is a mere 3.5 kilometers. This makes the Coulonge a relative piece of cake compared to, for example,  the 16 kilometers of portage trail (and 32 kilometers of actual walking!) we had to deal with on our 350-kilometer trip around the perimeter of Wabakimi Provincial Park.


Layers of History To Contemplate:


an extract from Chaplain’s 1634  map with the name “La Rivière des Algommequins”

Of interest to us since our immersion in the world of Canadian Shield pictographs some three years ago is this –  the region is the traditional heartland of the Anishinaabe people known to us as the Algonquins. With their great river as the spine – they called it the Kitchi Sibi (or Sipi), but we know it as the Ottawa – their traditional territories reached inland on the various tributaries that make up the Kitchi Sibi watershed. The Coulonge is right in the center of that world.

from Bonita Lawrence. Fractured Homeland. UBC Press. 2012.

from Bonita Lawrence. Fractured Homeland. UBC Press. 2012.

They were among the first indigenous peoples Champlain met while exploring the lands up the St. Laurence River from Quebec. In a map from 1634, Champlain labelled the great river, which runs through their lands, La Rivière des Algoumequins and noted their presence on both sides of this river. Before contact with the Europeans in the early 1600s, this hunter/gatherer culture may have numbered 3000 to 6000. (Estimates seem to vary wildly.)  The terms Algoumequins or Algonquins derive from what Champlain heard when he asked his Micmac hosts who they were.  The term translates as “they are our allies” in their Algonquian language.

Mazinaw Rock - Dewdney's Face II

Mazinaw Rock – Mishipeshu and war canoes painted with ochre

The Algonquins are associated with such sites as Oiseau Rock, the dramatic pictograph site on the Ottawa River on the Quebec side across from Deep River.

The Mazinaw Rock pictograph site on the headwaters of the Little Mississippi River on Mazinaw Lake in what is now Bon Echo Park is yet another significant Algonquin cultural site.

The petroglyph site on the north shore of Stoney Lake near Peterborough, Ontario is a third site that drew generations of Algonquin shamans and vision questers before the arrival of the French in the early 1600s.

Check out these two posts for more info and pix of the above –

The river would see its name changed perhaps fifty years after Champlain’s time and the decimation of the various Algonquin bands in the war against the Iroquois and by smallpox. With the loss of an Algonquin presence, the river’s use by the Odawa fur traders from further west to access Montreal would mean the river would come to be associated with them.


Admittedly our trip down the Coulonge did leave us wondering about the extent of the Algonquin presence. There are very few Anishinaabe echoes to be heard along the river in the form of names of rapids, falls, and other noteworthy landmarks.  It may be another example of the ethnic scrubbing of any Anishinaabe place names from the maps created by the Canadian Shield’s new masters. However, even this Anishinaabe website, The Land That Talks (see here), while providing names for locations elsewhere in the upper Ottawa Valley, leaves the Coulonge untouched.

My brother and I were born In Noranda on the west shore of Lake Osisko at the Hôpital Youville. Just two short portages away is the Kinojevis River, a tributary of the Ottawa.  Another one hundred kilometers west and the Ottawa reaches Notre Dame du Nord at the north end of Lac Temiskaming.  Mattawa is a few days further to the south.  Somehow travelling up Highway 117 to our put-in was like going home – while we were not quite up in the Abitibi, the topography was very familiar.



1. Hap Wilson’s  Rivers Of The Upper Ottawa Valley: Myth, Magic and Adventure


The obvious starting point for any canoe tripper planning to spend time on the Coulonge River system is Hap Wilson’s  Rivers Of The Upper Ottawa Valley: Myth, Magic and Adventure.  Like his tripping guidebooks to the Missinaibi, the Temagami area, and Manitoba, it has remained the definitive and most reliable source of information and advice since it was published in 1993.

My 2004 copy is a reprint and has the cover pictured here.  In the Preface of the reprint, Wilson notes:


Aside from a few obvious changes to the appearance of the book, I present Rivers of the Upper Ottawa Valley  as it originally appeared when it was released a decade ago.

We take it as a good sign when a canoe-tripping guidebook is still accurate and relevant a quarter-century later.  If nothing else, we see our series of posts as a visual accompaniment for the Wilson maps.  These posts may give potential canoe trippers a better idea of what they will see when they embark on their adventure on the Quebec side of the upper Ottawa Valley.  It is definitely a journey worth making.


2. Federal Government Topographic Maps (1:50000)

The 1:50,000 Canadian Federal Government topo maps are available for a free download if you want to print them – or parts of them – yourself.  The maps can be accessed at this government site – here. All the maps for this trip are in folder 031 –  open it and use the specific letters and numbers for each map to get what you want.  Even better – click on the specific map below for the direct link!

The 1:50,000 topos you would need for the entire Coulonge River system are the following:

  1. Lac Jean-Péré  031 N 02
  2. Lac Nichcotéa  031 N 03
  3. Lac Brûlé           031 K 14
  4. Lac Bruce          031 K 11
  5. Lac Doolittle    031 K 10
  6. Lac Duval          031 K 07
  7. Lac Usborne    031 K 02
  8. Fort-Coulonge 031 F 15

At $20. for a sheet, the cost of having professionally produced copies of the maps quickly becomes very expensive!  It is also unnecessary.  We just printed copies of those parts of the topo maps relevant to us.  Kept inside a waterproof map case, they served as our main map set in the canoe.


3. GPS Devices and Topo Canada maps

We also had a Garmin eTrex 20 with a copy of the Garmin Topo Canada (version 4) map set.  We used it to track our route daily, record points of interest and potential campsites, and other details.  It also provides another perspective on those occasions – there may be one or two! – when you might be unsure about your exact location.


I also took my iPhone 4S for its GPS capability.  I had already downloaded the  David Crawshay ios app Topo Maps Canada and the various 1:50000 topos.   You can find the app here at the iTunes site.)  There is a German-developed Android app that seems to do the same thing. See here for details.

While battery concerns would limit smartphone use, it complements the paper maps if you only want the occasional confirmation of your location and do not want or need all the other stuff that a dedicated GPS device offers.



The biggest headache is figuring out how to return to your vehicle(s) at the end of a down-the-river trip.  Recent solutions for some of our canoe trips have included: $2400. de Havilland Beaver pick-up on Lake Winnipeg to get us back to Red Lake;  and a trip down the Steel River system, which amazingly ends up close to where it starts.

For the Coulonge, our friend Cyril in Ottawa made it easy.  He rode up with us to the put-in point at Lac Larouche off Highway 117, about 60 kilometers NW of Le Domaine and then drove the car back to Ottawa.  Then we spent the next two weeks paddling back to Ottawa, knowing he was okay with coming to get us at Fort Coulonge or Renfrew or Arnprior if things didn’t work out.

Click on the More options prompt in the top left-hand box to enter a full-screen view of the Google map. The route indicated goes right to Lac Au Barrage, the actual headwaters of the Coulonge River system. We started about 10 kilometers to the east on Lac Larouche.

Esprit Rafting Shuttle Service – And More


There are also some outfitters’ shuttle services available.  For example,  Jim Coffey’s whitewater rafting and canoeing company, Esprit Rafting,  is based in Davidson, Quebec, just north of the mouth of the Coulonge. Its website has a web page dedicated to canoe trip shuttles.  (See here.)  For the Coulonge, several possible insertion points are listed in the table below. Prices are from 2016…

2 days put in • above Chutes a L’Our 2 hrs $250
3-4 days put in • Rapides Enragé 3 hrs $350
5-7 days put in • Bryson Lake bridge or 
   Chutes Gauthier
5 hrs $650
7-10 days put in • Meanders 8 hrs $950
10-12 days put in • Bridge above Lac Pompone 10 hrs $1500
12-14 days put in • Lac Barrage or 
   Hwy 117 (Lac Nichcotéa)
9 hrs $1350
 Note: The price includes the use of their vehicle.  

Obviously, the more canoes and paddlers you have, the lower the “per person” price goes.  For example, a four-paddler/two-canoe shuttle to Lac Barrage would cost $1350. / 4 = 340., which is not a huge price to pay for dealing with the biggest headache of non-loop canoe trips, the logistics of getting back to your vehicle.

All this shuttle talk brings back memories of  an early 1980’s trip down the Missinaibi.  It began with a ride on the Sudbury-White River train from Sudbury, where we left our car.  We got off the train just before Missanabie at the west end of Dog Lake’s Fifty Seven Bay.  Then we  did the Height of Land portage, and canoed down the Missinaibi  to the Moose Factory Island campsite.  One morning before dawn we paddled over to Moosonee and took the Polar Express back to Cochrane.

While I did the Ontario Northland train with the canoe and gear down to North Bay,  Max set off from Cochrane for Sudbury  to get the car.  He hitchhiked!  At 2:00 a.m. as the train pulled into the North Bay station, there he was waiting. We loaded up the car and headed down to Toronto, coming into town at dawn, having started our day 24 hours before on James Bay.  An epic shuttle!


Our Day-By-Day Trip Report –

                   Maps, Satellite Images, Photos, Campsites, Rapids

1. The Headwaters In La  Vérendrye Park

2. The Coulonge R. from Lac Ward To The Ottawa R.

When we got to the Ottawa River, we turned left and continued on down to Ottawa and the Rideau Canal Locks.

Canoeing The Ottawa River From fort Coulonge To Ottawa’s Rideau Canal – Introduction, Maps, Campsites and More


Other Sources:

Trip Report At the Canadian Canoe Routes Forum

The Canadian Canoe Routes site has a 2009 trip report by Robert Pavlis, which covers the Coulonge from Lac Pomponne down to the Chutes Coulonge and has many excellent observations, especially about campsite possibilities. See here for the report. I only found it after the trip – it would have been good to have had a copy come along for the ride.


A Great Book For Context of the Region

last-of-the-wild-riversA book we read in the early spring after we had decided to do the Coulonge was an ebook version of  Wallace Schaber’s The Last of the Wild Rivers: The Past, Present, and Future of the Rivière du Moine Watershed.  While the book’s main focus is the Dumoine River, Schaber provides all sorts of historical background and personal reminiscences to make it an enjoyable read for anyone interested in the upper Ottawa Valley in general. Along the way, you also get the story on the origins of the famous canoe-tripping company Black Feather and the canoe gear retail store Trailhead! The book added a bonus element to the seed-time part of this year’s canoe trip.


Black Feather Wilderness Adventure Company


Black Feather, the wilderness adventure company started by Schaber,  has a massive list of offerings. [ I’m considering one of their Nahanni trips next summer.] It offers a Coulonge canoe trip – a nine-day one from Lac Pomponne to the Chutes Coulonge. (See here for details.)  It would make a great introduction to wilderness canoeing for someone short on time and willing to spend some money.  What they would get in return is a fantastic canoe trip where someone else takes care of all the details and experienced guides take them down a river they have often done. They’ll know the story of the river and all the great campsites and places to play in the rapids.


Esprit Whitewater – Rafting and Canoe Trips


Esprit Whitewater (aka Esprit Rafting) does not just do shuttles up to various points on the river.  Their website also lists several organized Coulonge trip possibilities: a two-day, a four-day, and a ten-day like the Black Feather one.

You’d be getting a trip guided by locals who are very knowledgeable and passionate about their rivers.  For first-timers, a guided trip makes a lot of sense and would allow them to learn camping and canoeing skills which will soon have them organizing their own increasingly ambitious trips.


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2 Responses to Canoeing Quebec’s Coulonge River System – Introduction, Planning, Maps

  1. Elijah Cole Sherk says:

    Hey there, Looking at planning a trip on the coulonge/ Noir. your trip details are awesome that you so much! I was wondering if you have any details on pemit booking?
    thanks again for all the info.

    • true_north says:

      Elijah, re: the permit issue. It may all depend on the following:

      1. if you are a Canadian or not
      2. if you will be paddling in Reserve Faunique la Verendrye itself

      The first two days of our route were in La Verendrye. On the way to our put-in we passed the Park headquarters at La Domaine. We should have dropped in to ask about camping permits for the two nights we would be in the park. We didn’t. At our second night camp spot on Lac Ward we did meet two park rangers and chatted with them for ten minutes. They never asked about permits. We thought that was strange – and maybe lucky, given that we did not have any!

      Once you are on lac Pomponne, you are out of the park and in the Quebec equivalent of Crown Land. If you are Canadian, camping is free.

      You could email the Park directly and see what they say. Either that, or send Esprit Rafting an email and see what they say. They handle Coulonge/Noire canoe trips and do shuttles too. They will be able to give you the info you are looking for.

      Their website is at

      Enjoy your canoe trip down the Coulonge!

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