From First Nations to whitewater rafting, the Ottawa River mirrors the heart and soul of Canada.
My romantic imagination soars when I’m exploring this majestic river of many names: Kichi Sibi. Great River. Grande Rivière. Rivière des Outaouais. Ottawa River.
It flows 1,271 km from Lac des Outaouais, 250 km northwest of Ottawa, into the Lake of Two Mountains, west of Montreal. Near its headwaters, it courses alongside historic Obadjiwan–Fort Témiscamingue National Historic Site. This Parks Canada destination interprets the First Nations life, voyageur traders, and fierce rivalry between the Hudson Bay and Northwest companies’ fur-trade interests.
And the Ottawa simply courses on, passing wild forests, soaring cliffs, undulating farmland, heritage villages, and the twin cities of Ottawa-Gatineau before greeting Montreal.
Whatever language we speak or name we call it, this Canadian Heritage River represents the first Trans-Canada Highway stretching into the Pays d’en Haut – the hinterland. 9,000 years before European contact, Anishinabeg peoples’ ancestors traded along the network extending along the Ottawa into the Great Lakes and beyond. In its First Peoples of Canada Hall, the Canadian Museum of History displays a copper spear tip dating back 6,100 years and discovered in the Ottawa Valley — proof of this astonishing, ancient trade route.
This spearhead is apropos, because the Odawa First Nations, Canada’s capital city, river, and the French word Outaouais derive from the Anishinàbemowin (Algonquin) word adàwe: “to trade.”
Anyone looking at the Ottawa – from anywhere along its length – can respect those paddling upstream against its current. Author and canoeist Max Finkelstein adventured across Canada in the paddlestrokes of Scottish explorer Alexander Mackenzie. In his book, Canoeing a Continent: On the Trail of Alexander Mackenzie, Finkelstein describes the voyageurs’ remarkable endurance, paddling their canoes against the current, loaded within six inches of the gunnels with several 41 kg pièces (bundles). These were what the coureurs de bois (runners of the woods) would carry – while racing on rock-strewn portages skirting rapids too dangerous to paddle.
Finklestein describes the voyageurs’ prowess, where canoes “were paddled by a crew of twelve … Normal cruising pace was about five knots, or 50 strokes per minute, but this could be increased to 60 or even 70 at times.”
Want to try canoeing? Check out the Canadian Museum of History’s Rabaska Canada program. In the company of a costumed guide, learn about the river while paddling a canot de maître – at 50 strokes a minute, you think?
Today we possess easier transportation options. We can drive or bike alongside the Ottawa, criss-crossing via bridges, ferries, and dams to appreciate its immensity, power — and tranquility. Plus, we can get a sense of why First Nations offered tobacco ceremonies for safe passage while hurtling through the hydraulic waves of the Colosseum with Jim Coffey’s Esprit Whitewater Rafting, out of Davidson, Quebec.
Let’s take our own exploratory drive and discover Kichi Sibi’s moods.
From Ottawa, head to the Aylmer sector of northwest Gatineau, the Parc des Cèdres beach, immediately west of the Aylmer Marina. Beloved of picnickers, swimmers, SUP (stand up paddleboards) and kiteboard enthusiasts, the widening of the river here forms Lac Dechênes.
Farther upstream, Quyon provides a glimpse into the past. Immediately west of the village stood Joseph Mondion’s trading post, built in 1786, which became a Hudson’s Bay Trading Post. Quyon recalls the days of the fur trade – along with the “magnificent failure” of the late 1800s Grand Canal scheme at the once-mighty Chats Falls. If completed, this canal would have formed the northern navigable route from the Great Lakes to Montreal. The Friends of Chats Falls offers guided tours of the historically rich Quyon area, including snowshoe excursions come winter.
Usually operating from April through late November, the Quyon Ferry links Quebec to Mohr’s Landing on the westernmost outskirts of Ottawa. The ferry landing is near Fitzroy Harbour Provincial Park. Popular with families because of its beaches, quiet and spacious campgrounds, fishing and boating opportunities, this park features a stand of 200-year Bur Oak and a 100-year-old white pine forest. It’s a good spot to appreciate these majestic pines which formed the basis of the fabled lumber history of the Ottawa Valley.
Beyond Fitzroy Harbour village, Morris Island Conservation Area beckons, where tranquil backwaters of the Ottawa River are perfect for kayak, SUP or canoe. Forested trails lead to rocky outcrops or park benches overlooking the river. Take binoculars for birdwatching or spying turtles sunning on logs in the wetlands.
Back on the Quebec side and providing dramatic contrast to such bucolic riverine parklands, Quebec’s Portage-du-Fort is an historic village featuring plaques highlighting the history of its heritage buildings. Two artists’ organizations: Artistes de la Rivière and the Pontiac Artists’ Association exhibit art here.
Portage-du-Fort is linked to Ontario via the 1950 Chenaux hydro-electric power plant and dam. Park and walk on the sidewalk to gaze eastwards at the tumult of water spewing from the sluicegates. During the 2019 spring floods, the flow was frightening . . .
As you start ascending the hill after crossing the Ottawa into Ontario, turn sharply right onto Kerr Road (here marked with a Hydro sign) to discover a pastoral route featuring prosperous heritage farms. One was likely built in the mid-1800s by Scottish stonemasons who, after the completion of the Rideau Canal in 1836, constructed many a residence for Valley homesteaders.
Watch for Acres Road heading north to the Ottawa. Take it to one of the several free public boat launches constructed in 2001, where you can slip your canoe, motorboat or kayak into the river.
Press on, to enter Ontario’s whitewater country around Foresters’ Falls, where whitewater rafting companies (Wilderness Tours, RiverRun Rafting and Owl) will take you onto the river. All offer accommodations. Still further on, visit another boat launch at La Passe. It’s perfect for accessing a broad stretch of river where islands and beaches on the Quebec side offer destinations. On the Quebec shore approximately opposite, is Fort Coulonge – accessible by road via Pembroke and Île des Allumettes. Back in 1613, Champlain arrived on-island by canoe – so we’re still following his explorations.
Returning to Pembroke, cross Île des Allumettes into Quebec: destination Fort Coulonge, where Spruceholme Inn awaits. Built in 1875 by George Bryson Sr — one of the Ottawa Valley’s renowned lumber barons — Spruceholme is operated by his great-granddaughter, Jane Toller. You can be sure of a grand welcome, informed history of the premises, and a comfortable stay.
Continuing the Bryson forest industry theme, a detour to Chutes Coulonge Park reveals this powerful waterfall on the Coulonge. Bryson had a challenge because the 42-metre waterfall would have ruined the white and red pine logs he needed to float downstream to the Ottawa. Despite formidable engineering challenges, he constructed a log chute built into the rock wall, enabling timbers to bypass the chutes. Some of its iron supports remain visible.
This park features a superb video depicting logging in the old days, when men lived in shanties in the forests, logging with broad-axes and hauling timbers with teams of horses. Why not try the zipline, which zooms over the chasm?
Next stop would be Esprit Whitewater’s base camp, in Davidson. This outfitter offers rough camping or the luxury of a B&B. Esprit offers a wild’n wet menu of activities from canoeing to heart-thumping whitewater paddling.
Another outfitter, HorizonX, offers full-moon paddles of the Ottawa River – this is exhilarating, where the sound of raging rapids is amplified in the silvery light of the moon.
From here, it’s 1.5 hour drive back to Ottawa where, of course, en route you’ll be watching for glimpses of Kichi Sibi.
Kichi Sibi? Bicycle or drive along it. Paddle it. However you travel, you’ll surely hear the echoes of the past… the paddlestrokes of First Nations, songs of voyageurs – and perhaps the toot of a steamer.
Canada? This is your heartline.
COVID-19 Note: Please double-check all destinations involving tours, museums or forts. All are re-opening as they can. Also take all recommended precautions such as wearing masks, gloves, and socially distancing.