Dave and Amy Freeman had just left their sailboat in Georgian Bay on the northeastern end of Lake Huron the last time that we checked in with the canoe-tripping couple headed from Minnesota to Washington, D.C. They’ve since switched back to their signature-laden canoe, heading up the French River to Lake Nipissing. Here, they check back in on the Mattawa River as they continue east across the Canadian Shield, plugging along with their message about the sulfide ore-mining threat to the Boundary Waters, and continuing their series of dispatches on tips, destinations, and lessons learned during their 2,000-mile expedition across the Northeast.
(Read the previous dispatch, Part III: Upstream Travel Advice.)
By Amy Freeman
The Mattawa is a Canadian Heritage River that flows along a 600 million-year-old fault line. Peering up and out of the deep valley and canyons, I can just imagine the forces that shaped the area. As glaciers from the last ice age melted, this river was a drainage channel for meltwater lakes 10,000 years ago. There is archeological evidence of people inhabiting this region as far back as 6,000 years ago.
The Mattawa was also an integral yet challenging portion of the voyageur’s highway. Stretching between the towns of North Bay and Mattawa, Ontario, rapids and falls are common sights along the river’s 47 miles. As we paddled on the dark tannin-stained waters, I could imagine brigades of voyageurs paddling their canoes, singing songs and carrying their heavy loads of beaver pelts across the rock-strewn portages.
There were 11 portages that the voyageurs used to travel around rapids and waterfalls. If traveling upstream, they would pole some of the easier rapids. Today there are several dams along the river that have changed the water level from the time of the voyageurs. However, nine of the original 11 portages are just about the same as they were when voyageurs trudged across, shouldering their heavy burdens.
Dave and I have paddled the Mattawa River twice now—once with sea kayaks. (It’s a long story, but suffice it to say I would recommend using a canoe.) Paddling the river in the summer of 2012, the water was low and other boaters were numerous. I’m sure savvy Canadian canoeists were rolling their eyes as we awkwardly struggled through portages with our kayaks, tediously unloading and loading our small drybags at each end of the portage. Why did we do such a foolish thing? Well, we had been paddling on Lake Superior and Georgian Bay—and we were on our way to the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the temporary awkwardness, we would need the seaworthiness later.
This time around, paddling the Mattawa was a breeze. Fall weather brought cooler temps and rain. That hardly mattered as we took in the golds, reds and oranges of peak fall colors lining the steep sides of the river valley. A wet fall also meant a much higher water level than what we had seen before; many of the rapids were easily runnable. Portaging Sig (our Wenonah MN 3/petition canoe) around rapids and dams was simple. We didn’t see another party during our three days on the river. I would describe the feel of the route as similar to a Boundary Waters canoe trip with one exception: Highway 17 parallels the river, so unless you’re camped right near rapids, you’ll hear the distant hum of traffic from your tent at night.
If you’d like to experience the Mattawa for yourself, here are a few pointers to keep in mind before you go: The Mattawa River Provincial Park is a “non-operating” park, so be prepared for backcountry camping on its designated sites. Most sites do have fire pits and “thunder boxes” (aka latrines). If you are not Canadian, you’ll need to get a Crown Land camping permit. The benefit of being near Highway 17 is that you have plenty of access point options if you don’t want to do the entire river. There are also private campgrounds—and Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park—accessible from the highway. Check out more info on the Mattawa River.
National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, Dave and Amy Freeman, are in the midst of Paddle to DC, a 100-day, 2,000-mile journey by water from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., in order to protect the Boundary Waters from sulfide ore mining. Check out PaddletoDC.org to learn more about the project and to sign the petition. Read more about Dave Freeman’s 400-mile canoe descent of the Brazilian Amazon’s storied Rio Roosevelt, and more about the Freeman’s 11,700-mile North American Odyssey.
The Freemans will be sending in a series of dispatches from their Paddle to D.C. journey, highlighting skills, destinations and lessons learned as they paddle, portage, and sail SIG across the country.
Click to read Part I: Lessons from the Grand Portage, Part II: Superior Paddling Destinations, and to read Part III: Upstream Travel Advice
—Check out MORE PADDLING DESTINATIONS from C&K.