Labour Day weekend 2020 was nearing, and we were itching to get back out on the water. Antoine and I managed to convince our friends Simon and Emmanuel to join us for another canoe trip adventure. With the holiday Monday, we decided to take a few extra days and tackle a 74km stretch of the Upper Ottawa River from Mattawa to Driftwood Provincial Park. The trip was guided by Kevin Callahan’s Top 60 Canoe Routes of Ontario.
The route was touted as being fairly easy with no portages, although Kevin warned it offered minimal options for campsites. I had a busy week leading up to the trip, so the packing and planning was all done by Antoine. He did an awesome job, scouting the entire route using satellite photos from Google Earth and punching important GPS coordinates into his old school Garmin. We used the coordinates to chart our paddle and get a sense where we were in relation to the various “campsites.” The sites were few and far between as warned, and the rugged landscape along the Upper Ottawa River made it challenging to set up just anywhere with one, let alone 3 tents.
We booked campsites at Driftwood Provincial Park on our first and final evenings of the trip for simplicity. We hit the road Friday evening at around 4:30pm, encountering the usual Labour Day weekend traffic jams as well as a 40 minute wait for fast food in Arnprior. We arrived at Driftwood around 8pm and pitched our tents in the dark, discovering overnight that our campsite was on a wee bit of a slant. This would not be the last sloped sleeping arrangement we’d encounter on the trip (see photo above for evidence 🙂 )
We rose early the next morning to hit the road, opting for a quick camp takedown and Tim Horton’s breakfast and coffee in Mattawa. As this trip was a straight paddle down the river, we had to leave one vehicle in Mattawa and another back at Driftwood. Antoine always drives, so I volunteered to do the car ferry back to the park. It was about a 40 minute drive, leaving Antoine, Simon and Teddy with plenty of time to kill. They took the canoe across the river to tackle the 3 Crosses Hike on Laurentian Mountain. The hike offered panoramic views over the town of Mattawa, and helped fill in the time waiting for our return. Unfortunately, an impending storm was spotted on the horizon during their hike. When Manny and I pulled into the parking lot, we found the 3 boys donning ponchos, huddled in the canoe at the marina dock as the rain poured down. Shortly after, it began to hail! We couldn’t help but laugh. Our first day was starting off strong, as we began the first leg of our paddle thoroughly soaked and chilled.
Lucky for us, the weather started to clear halfway through the afternoon and the sun began to peak out from behind the clouds. Our first destination was a highly recommended beach campsite only 11km from Mattawa. The trip guide was right – this campsite is worth the stop! It features plenty of room and separation for multiple tents, with a sandy beach and sounds of a waterfall nearby. We set up shop, with everyone claiming their own section of the site. Later we explored the nearby falls and followed this with a refreshing dip in the river. Starting a fire proved to be a little tricky after all the rain, but the boys rose to the challenge and got it going with some major coaxing. And good thing, too, as our dinner really benefited from the flames! We enjoyed fire roasted sausages and grilled veggies that night, with a little wine mixed in. It was an awesome end to our first day on the river.
The next morning we rose and packed up camp somewhat early. Antoine and I were up first with Teddy. Antoine was making coffee in the bug shelter while I packed up our sleeping bags, when he suddenly shouted “Liz grab Teddy!” My first thought was a bear. Instead I emerged from our tent to see a beautiful bull moose, 10 ft ahead in the river. And of course neither of us had our phones to capture a picture!!! After that eventful start to the day, we had 18km to cover according to our trip plan. The weather was cooperating, with cool sunny skies and flat water which made for easy paddling. We stopped for lunch at a scenic set of waterfalls mid-way. There are so many tributaries which fall into the Ottawa River, and this meant quite a few scenic falls along the way. However, the elevation along the sides of the Upper Ottawa make it especially challenging to pitch your tent just anywhere. We would shortly discover this the hard way; accidentally miscalculating the location of the campsites for our second night.
At around 20km we discovered our mistake, but we didn’t want to backtrack to the last flat spot (aka campsite) we’d passed to pitch our tents. We decided to continue on to the next group of campsites on the route, which were marked to be just after Deux-Rivière. The sun was shining, there was little to no wind, and plenty of sunshine left in the day. Where those 3 campsites are, we may never know…. After 26km, we found the best spot we could on the Ontario side of the river and set up camp. The ground was sloped and uneven, but thankfully covered in a thick moss. Everyone tried their best to claim a level spot to pitch their tents. We created a small fire at the top of a rock lookout above our makeshift campsite that night, and even met a local Karen in her pontoon boat! It was another fun evening, with delicious food, cool temps and little to no bugs.
One of the bright sides of this route is that you maintain cell service along the entirety of the river. This allowed us to check the weather forecast, so we knew that heavy rain was expected overnight, ending around noon the next day. We’d made up extra ground that day, which meant we only had to tackle 14 or so kms, rather than 20 for Day 3 on the river. We made a team decision to sleep in and rest the next morning due to the rain. This proved to be a good choice as we stayed dry and were still able to arrive at our next campsite in good time the following day. We were aided by strong westerly winds along the river, which helped us surf / push our way to the next campsite. The final campsite was located around 22km before Driftwood Provincial Park, and this one was an actual site! It featured a beautiful fire pit overlooking the Ottawa River, and we found plentiful deadwood for our fire that night. We enjoyed a beautiful sunset and one too many bug bites (which we only discovered after the fact!!) at this campsite.
Tuesday was our last day on the river. Our muscles were starting to feel it, but luckily the waters were calm for the start of our final paddle. As with other days, we discovered a lack of places to land on either side of the river thanks to thick bush and steep shores. This made finding a spot to stop for lunch somewhat challenging. We eventually just had to make do, stopping and climbing through brush to perch on some rocks for a quick lunch.
After lunch we rounded the bend and found ourselves in Driftwood Bay. The last few kms were a struggle; the winds started to pick up at this point, and not in a favourable direction. We felt like we were there, but in actuality we had about 2-3 more km to go. We were rocking and rolling on this last leg. Driftwood campground awaited us. Emmanuel had booked beach site #38, so we were able to paddle right up to our campsite. One car was still in Mattawa, so as a group we decided to treat ourselves to an outdoor meal of pizza and burgers and caffeinated coffee (for some 😉 ) at Myrt’s Family Restaurant. It was a lovely way to cap off our trip along the Upper Ottawa River.
We really loved our time on the Upper Ottawa River. It started to feel like fall, with signs of colour just beginning and crisp temps, particularly at night. We were surprised how few people we saw out there! No other canoes or campers, just the occasional fishing boat and rare cottage sighting. We couldn’t believe how uninhabited the river is, with the exception of Mattawa, Deux-Riviéres and Stonecliffe. It would be a neat spot for a camp! The only downside to this route would have to be the highway noise. On particular parts of the river, the traffic noise can be heard, including transports and vehicles as they hit rumble strips. There is much more Ottawa River to explore, including the stretch from Temiscaming to Mattawa. Perhaps a future adventure?
Thanks to Simon and Emmanuel for joining us on this paddle trip!
Liz, Antoine & Teddy