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"Junction of the Little River with the Ottawa", (1821-1823) by Charles Ramus Forrest courtesy National Gallery of Canada.

Ottawa River

By paddle: 450km; By air: 370km.

Satellite photograph of the Ottawa River from Montreal to Mattawa (courtesy NASA)

Scale: 1pixel=1km

Departure in the rain, Oka.

Departure in the rain, Oka.

"If we make it through the first two weeks, we'll make it the whole way" is what we told people in the UK who asked if we were really going to canoe across Canada. We nearly didn't make it through the first two weeks.

The Ottawa River is mentally the toughest section on the route. You're new to canoeing—just going in a straight line can be a challenge; it's upstream; it's spring, so the current is strengthened by the winter's snow melt-water and it rains frequently (don't underestimate the demoralising effects of rain); you're physically unacclimatised—your muscles burn, your head thumps, and your back aches; much of the river bank is privately-owned or wooded or flooded, especially further downstream, so it's hard to find good camping spots; and you are faced with your first dams, your first portages, and your first arguments.

Portaging through Gatineau (Ottawa, Québec side.)

Portaging through Gatineau (Ottawa, Québec side.)

After only three days, we were mentally and physically exhausted, we had sunstroke (no one told us April could be sunny in Canada, so we had no hats or sun cream), and we were dehydrated and diarrhoea-ridden after being poisoned by the questionable river water.

Tip: Don't give up...cheer up...and cheat!

Don't jeopardise an entire trip because you've hit a mental or physical limit. You'll be amazed at how a few days off can cure almost any ailment, and when you've invested so much in a trip (emotionally as well as financially,) it's worth sacrificing a few principles to keep going.

The Ottawa River is largely flat and wide, but there are physical obstacles: the water flowing under its bridges can be fast and sometimes rough; there are six dams from Montréal to Mattawa (Carillon, Chaudière Falls in Ottawa, Des Chats near Arnprior, Chenaux, Bryson and Des Joachims) posing different challenges—though we had access to a car, we gratuitously portaged around Chaudière falls just so we could portage along Promenade du Portage in Gatineau; there are rapids which have to be portaged, though the rapids for which the Ottawa River is famous, along the western edge of Île du Grand Calumet, can be avoided by following the Chenal du Grand Calumet to the east; portage trails can be indistinct in an area which sees very little canoe tripping.

Awoken by migrating Canada geese, Ile Mohr.

Awoken by migrating Canada geese, Ile Mohr.

To many canoers, the Ottawa River may seem like "small potatoes" compared to the "big boys" (Lake Superior, Quetico, Lake Winnipeg etc.) that follow, but its obstacles, combined with unfitness and inexperience, make it just as challenging. On the evening of our second day, wind was blustering down the river valley from the west, drawing up small waves with white-caps, pinning us to the reeds and marsh on the north-east shore of Grenville bay. There was nowhere to camp without retreating (we weren't willing to give up an inch,) and to progress we had to head straight into the wind—we couldn't head straight even under ideal conditions! We eventually zigzagged our way to a public park in L'Original to camp, but it took more strength than wrestling the largest waves Lake Superior threw at us. The next morning there was no wind and the river was glass.

Tip: Don't struggle against the wind. Be patient—it will calm down.

Our Itinerary

DateFromToDistance (paddle/air)
26 AprOka, opposite Montréal Island
(18 571702E 5034628N)
Golf course near Rivière du Nord
(18 551828E 5041040N)
25.0/20.9km
27 AprGolf course near Rivière du Nord
(18 551828E 5041040N)
Public park, L'Original
(18 524517E 5052601N)
34.0/29.7km
28 AprPublic park, L'Original
(18 524517E 5052601N)
Island between Montebello and Papineauville
(18 501795E 5052994N)
23.0/22.7km
29 AprDay off sick in Montebello.
30 AprCheated! Due to sickness, took bus from Montebello to Ottawa returning by hired car to pick up the canoe, tent and gear.
01 MayDay off in Ottawa.
02 MayDay off in Ottawa.
03 MayDay off in Ottawa.
04 MayDay off at cabin outside Ottawa.
05 MayDay off at cabin outside Ottawa.
06 MayDay off in Ottawa.
07 MayBritannia Bay, Ottawa
(18 437036E 5023628N)
Ile Mohr
(18 410277E 5041148N)
33.0/32.0km
08 MayIle Mohr
(18 410277E 5041148N)
Island above Des Chats (Quyon) Dam
(18 400623E 5036061N)
12.0/10.9km
09 MayIsland above Des Chats (Quyon) Dam
(18 400623E 5036061N)
Island between Ile Elliott and Ile Reid
(18 372131E 5045313N)
30.5/30.0km
10 MayIsland between Ile Elliott and Ile Reid
(18 372131E 5045313N)
Chenal du Grand Calumet
(18 368510E 5073916N)
37.5/28.8km
11 MayChenal du Grand Calumet
(18 368510E 5073916N)
Chapeau, Île aux Allumettes
(18 339734E 5086445N)
36.0/31.4km
12 MayDay off in Chapeau.
13 MayChapeau, Île aux Allumettes
(18 339734E 5086445N)
Island, Lac aux Allumettes
(18 326505E 5088398N)
13.5/13.3km
14 MayIsland, Lac aux Allumettes
(18 326505E 5088398N)
Deep River
(18 307693E 5108978N)
31.0/27.9km
15 MayCheated! Portaged by car around Des Joachims Dam (the Swisha) and then some—hired car and drove gear from Deep River to Mattawa. Returned car to Deep River; hitched back to Mattawa.

All coordinates are UTM/NAD83.

Boggy portage around Rapides de la Culberte, Chenal de la Culberte around Île aux Allumettes.

Boggy portage around Rapides de la Culberte on Chenal de la Culberte, Île aux Allumettes.