The Mattawa River provides a natural connection between the Ottawa River and Lake Nipissing, following a 600 million year-old geological fault line through the Canadian Shield, visible at Paresseux Falls.
The Mattawa was a post-glacial spillway that once drained the Great Lakes into the Ottawa River. Geological evidence of the river’s past can be found at the glacial potholes at Portage de Talon and numerous abandoned river channels, 12 to 15 metres above the present river level.
The Mattawa remains largely undeveloped and heavily forested. Plants and mammals within the watershed are typical of the Canadian Shield – moose, black bear, timber wolf, white-tailed deer, more than 200 bird species, red and white pine trees – and also include such rare plant species as the Awlwort and waterwort.
The river is associated with First Nations history, with the exploration of Canada, and the fur trade. Mattawa, in Algonkian, means “junction of waterways” and “river with walls that echo its current.” For the First Nations, as well as the Europeans who came to the region in the 1600s, this waterway was a vital link from the St. Lawrence Valley to the upper Great Lakes. Archeological evidence from 28 sites suggests the waterway has been in use by aboriginal peoples for more than 6,000 years.
Samuel de Champlain’s interpreter, Étienne Brûlé, went inland with a band of Algonquin in 1610, and five years later he accompanied a party of Huron over the route, producing the first published map of the area. The river then became the major west-bound highway for the traders and missionaries who followed.
The Mattawa was an important link in the commercial trade 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, as it included 11 of the route’s 38 portages. Nine of these portages remain much as they were at the time of the Voyageurs, and all still have their original French names.
The waterway’s place in Canada’s history is commemorated by provincial and national historic site plaques in the town of Mattawa.
The Mattawa offers an exceptional canoeing and cultural experience for both lake and river paddlers. Paddlers use the same portages and campsites travelled by First Nations, fur traders and voyageurs. The Voyageur Heritage Centre in Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park offers exhibits and interpretive programs.
Other recreational activities on this river include fishing, camping, hiking and ice fishing.
Over 10,000 years ago, after the melting of the ice sheets that used to cover Ontario, the Great Lakes emptied into the Ottawa River via the Mattawa River instead of via Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.
Canada’s first known, and Ontario’s only major, deposit of brucite marble, a colouring agent used in paper production, is located on this river near Talon Chute.
The Mattawa was designated to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System in 1988 for its outstanding historical, natural and recreational values. The designated section was expanded to 76 km in 1999. The river formed a vital link in the fur trade route. Today, paddlers follow the route and climb over portages that have not changed in over 300 years.
The Canadian Heritage River plaques offer a brief glimpse into why a river has been designated to the System. They are often located nearby one of its historically significant locations, and highlight some of the most important natural, cultural and recreational values of the river.
Mattawa River Plaque Text
The Mattawa River - Derived from the Algonkian, Mattawa means “junction of waterways” or “river with walls that echo its current”. In the exploration and fur trade era of 1610 to the 1800’s, its nine rapids and two falls were portaged by voyageurs carrying birch bark freight canoes. It was perhaps the most demanding waterway between Lachine and Fort William (Thunder Bay). Today, Mattawa River and Samuel de Champlain Provincial Parks protect the river. For its outstanding historical natural and recreational value, the Mattawa has been designated a Canadian Heritage River.