The Mattawa River is a natural passage through the Algonquin Highlands between Lake Nipissing and the Ottawa River. It rises 3.5 km east of Lake Nipissing and flows east along an ancient fault line into the Ottawa River. With the French River, which flows west from Lake Nipissing, the Mattawa provided a vital link for natives and early Europeans between the Ottawa River and the Great Lakes.
Europeans who first came to this area in the early 17th century followed this old Indian route and called it “La Petite Rivière”. Later, the river was named “Mattawa”, Algonkian for “junction of waterways” or “river with walls that echo its current”. The Mattawa was one of the most challenging sections of the Voyageur Waterway, the main fur-trade canoe route between Lachine and the northwest, Canada’s main highway of exploration and commerce for more than 200 years. Today the Mattawa is used mainly by tourists and day visitors, providing some of the finest canoeing in Ontario in a natural environment little changed from the time of the Voyageur.
On the basis of the river’s natural, historical, and recreational value, a 43 kilometre section of the Mattawa between the west boundary of Mattawa River Provincial Park and the east boundary of Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park was designated a Canadian Heritage River in January, 1988. In February, In February 1999, the La Vase Portages was nominated to the CHRS as a supplementary nomination to the existing Mattawa River CHRS designation. The La Vase Portages connect Trout Lake, at the head of the Mattawa River, to the La Vase River, leading to Lake Nipissing and the French River. The 11 km route entails seven km of water travel, and four km of portage trails.
When Alexander Mackenzie came this way over 200 years ago, it must have been a very well trodden trail, as this was the main fur trade route to the west. Mackenzie describes the portage in a dry, matter-of-fact tone, “one thousand, five hundred and thirteen paces to a small canal in a plain that is just sufficient to carry the loaded canoe to the next vase a narrow creek dammed in beaver fashion .a swamp of two miles to the last vase .care is necessary to avoid the rocks and stumps and trees.” The route had a reputation among fur traders as being the muddiest section of the entire trans-continental canoe route. This route is one of the oldest known trade routes in Ontario, if not all of Canada. But today, there is not a trace of the old portage left. It’s hard to imagine that this was the Trans-Canada highway for thousands of years. A community group called the Friends of La Vase Portages is dedicated to re-establishing the trail as it used to appear, so that modern-day travellers can once again follow this traditional route of the Voyageurs, fur-traders and First Nations peoples. Designation to the CHRS will help this dream come true.
The area covered by the Heritage River designation was also extended in 1999 downstream to the confluence with the Ottawa. Because the French River was designated in 1986, most of the historic river route linking the Ottawa River with Lake Nipissing and Georgian Bay is now protected under the CHRS program.
The Mattawa River rises in Trout Lake, 198.5 metres above sea level, and drops 50 metres over the 43 km distance to the Ottawa River. Its watershed is 117,000 hectares of forested Canadian Shield. Its vegetation and wildlife are typical of both Boreal and Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Forests. Large mammals here include white-tailed deer, black bear, moose, and timber wolf. Winters are cold (-10ºC or 13ºF in January) and summers are warm with average day-time temperatures of 22.5ºC (75ºF). Precipitation is low with 92cm (36") of rain during the summer and only 56 cm (22") of snowfall during winter.
The designated section of the Mattawa lies between North Bay (pop. 52,000) and Mattawa (pop. 2,686) along the imaginary line dividing northern and southern Ontario. It is protected within the two provincial parks administered by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. With the exception of a few private cottages on lakes bordering the river, this section is buffered by 122 m of wooded shoreline on either side and comprises 5,810 ha. of the Mattawa River watershed.
Upstream of the designated area, Mattawa River shorelands are developed with private homes and cottages. Downstream, lands are privately owned but mostly undeveloped. Both these areas are administered by the local municipalities and by the North Bay Mattawa Conservation Authority.
Designation of the Mattawa as a Canadian Heritage River was also based on its outstanding natural features:
The Mattawa’s heritage river designation was based primarily on its human heritage values which are associated with native history, exploration, and the fur trade. The river also played a brief role in the square timber trade during the 1880’s and in the mining era of the 1940’s and 50’s.
Native History: Archaeological evidence at 28 sites suggest that the Mattawa was travelled by natives for up to 6,000 years. One of only two ochre mines known in Ontario is located at Porte de l’Enfer, ochre being a reddish-colored pigment used by natives for drawing pictographs. Artifacts such as rock pits, cairns, arrowheads, and stone tools indicate native habitation and fishing sites along Trout and Talon Lakes, at Grasswell Point and at Campion Portage.
Exploration of Canada: The Mattawa was part of a traditional aboriginal route between the St. Lawrence valley and the upper Great Lakes, and it was over this route that natives led the first European travellers into the interior of the continent. Champlain sent the interpreter, Étienne Brûlé, the first white man to see the Mattawa, inland with a band of Algonquins in 1610, and five years later he himself accompanied a party of Huron over the route, producing the first published map of the area. As it had been for the native people, this became the major west-bound highway for the European traders and missionaries who followed Champlain.
Fur-Trade: For over two centuries, the fur trade was almost the sole reason for a European presence in Canada outside of the settlements along the Atlantic coast and St. Lawrence, and the Mattawa was an important link in the commercial network that eventually extended across the continent. This short stretch was perhaps the most demanding on the 2,000 km Voyageur Waterway between Montreal and Fort William, having 11 of the route’s 38 portages. Nine of the 11 portages are much as they were found by the Voyageurs, and all still have their original French names. The significance of the Mattawa Route is commemorated by a provincial plaque and a national Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque in Mattawa, and by a Canadian Heritage Rivers System plaque in Champlain Park.
The railway passed through Mattawa in 1881, ending the river’s use as a fur-trade and lumber transportation corridor. The Trans-Canada Highway opened the region to tourism and today the area is used almost exclusively for cottaging, boating, fishing and wilderness canoeing.
The Mattawa River’s designation was also based on the outstanding combination of recreational opportunities it offers annually to thousands of people from North Bay, Mattawa, Ottawa, and Toronto who visit the Mattawa River and Samuel de Champlain provincial parks. These include:
Canoeing: The Mattawa offers superb river and lake canoe trips of 1 to 4 days duration from May to mid-October. The river’s short, but exciting fast water gorges, and 9 well-marked portages – all shorter than 500 m – make it suitable for visitors with limited experience in open canoes and challenging for more highly skilled canoeists able to shoot some of the rapids. Visitors should be cautious crossing Trout and Talon lakes which can be hazardous in windy weather. Throughout the system, all drinking water should be treated.
Though the river is navigable in either direction, canoe trips generally commence upstream and follow three popular routes: a 2-4 day, 58 km trip from the west end of Trout Lake at Armstrong Park to Mattawa; a 1-3 day 33 km trip from the east end of Trout Lake to Campion Rapids in Champlain Park; and a 13.5 km day trip through the most scenic, natural section of the river, starting at Blanchard’s landing on Talon Lake and ending at Campion Rapids.
Access: The Mattawa is located 350 km via Hwy 11 north of Toronto and 300 km on Trans-Canada Hwy 17 northwest of Ottawa. It is also within a day’s drive of many smaller centres in central Ontario and western Quebec – Sudbury, Parry Sound, Huntsville, Barrie, Témiscaming, Noranda, and Rouyn. Several highways, including the Trans-Canada, bring visitors directly into the region.
Boat access points from well-developed gravel roads have been developed all along the river’s south shore and at Trout Lake. Access from the east by canoe from the Ottawa River or from the west via Lake Nipissing and the La Vase portages can provide continuity in retracing the Route of the Voyageurs.
North Bay is serviced by daily scheduled airlines and both Mattawa and North Bay have bus and passenger rail service. Most lakes in the system are also accessible by float plane.
Accomodation and Services: Mattawa and North Bay, the region’s primary service communities, provide the full range of community services and facilities year-round. Resorts, lodges, hotels, motels, and campgrounds are located along the region’s highways and in numerous communities within an hour’s drive. From late June until Labour day, Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park provides 216 developed campsites, two group campgrounds, visitor services, interpretive programs, and canoe rentals.
Topographic Maps: National Topographic Series Maps for the Mattawa River are: 1:250,000 scale – 31L and 1:50,000 scale – 31L6 and 31L7. They can be purchased from: Canada Map Office, 615 Booth Street, Ottawa, ON K1A 0E9.
“The Mattawa River, Ontario, 1988-1998, Report to the Canadian Heritage Rivers Board on the State of the River”, available from the Ontario board member (see “Contact Us”)
Mattawa River and Samuel de Champlain Provincial Parks – Services, Permits and Regulations: Ministry of Natural Resources, P.O. Box 3070, North Bay, ON P1B 8K7; or, Mattawa River/Samuel de Champlain Provincial Parks, P.O. Box 147, Mattawa, ON P0H 1V0.
Tourist Information: Ontario Travel, Queen’s Park, Toronto, ON M7A 2E5; or, Almaquin-Nipissing Travel Association, Regional Tourist Centre, Seymour St. and North Bay Bypass, Box 351, North Bay, ON P1B 8H5.
Canadian Heritage Rivers System: National Manager, Canadian Heritage Rivers System, c/o Parks Canada, Ottawa, Canada K1A 0M5. Tel. 819–994–2913, Fax 819–997–0835. E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org or, Ontario Member, Canadian Heritage Rivers Board, c/o Director, Parks Ontario, Queen’s Park, Toronto, ON M7A 1W3.
Check out http://www.city.north-bay.on.ca/mattawa/mw-mrpp.htm , http://www.venturenorth.com, http://www.nbmca.on.ca/sitemap.htm, http://www.city.north-bay.on.ca/lavase/index.htm, http://mattawariver.canadianecology.ca/english/english_friends.htm, for more information on this historic waterway.
The Canadian Ecology Centre, located in Samual de Champlain Provincial Park on the Mattawa River, facilitates informed choices – presenting a better understanding of the conservation and development issues and options, related to the environment and the forest industry. Check out their web site: http://www.canadianecology.ca/
Reid, Ron and Janet Grand. Canoeing Ontario’s Rivers. Douglas and McIntyre. Toronto. 1985.
Rumney, George R. “The Ottawa-Nipissing Canoe Route in Early Western Travel”. Canadian Geographical Journal. January, 1951.
Ontario Travel. “Ontario Traveller’s Encyclopedia”. Toronto. M7A 2E5. 1988.
Voyages: Canada’s Heritage Rivers – Lynn E. Noel, editor. Published by Breakwater Books of Newfoundland and sponsored by QLF/Atlantic Centre for the Environment. Newfoundland orders toll free: l–800–563–3333, Canadian orders and inquiries outside Newfoundland toll free: 1–800–387–0172, U.S. orders and inquiries toll free: 1–800–805–1083. Discount available from Canadian River Management Society, Tel. 613–824–0410
Finkelstein, Max, ‘Canoeing a Continent: On the Trail of Alexander Mackenzie’, Natural Heritage Books, 2002