Dead heads and warm hearts

‘Apart from a few short sections of rapids this part of the Ottawa river can be considered a series of 3 long lakes’

Ah. Our optimism in the last post may have been a little premature…


North Saskatchewan-Saskatchewan-Cedar Lake-Winnipegosis-Manitoba-Assiniboine Diversion-Assiniboine River-Red River-Lake Winnipeg-Winnipeg River-Lake of the Woods-Kakagi-through to-Rainy Lake-Fort Francis-Namakan-Lac du Croix-Boundary Waters/Quetico-Border route-Pigeon River-Grand Portage-Thunder Bay-Superior-Georgian Bay-North channel-French River-Nipissing-Mattawa-OTTAWA-St Lawrence seaway!

This has been our mantra and chant all trip. See how near the end we are?!?! And now we were stopping in Montreal really the Ottawa was it. The last hurdle. We were really nearly there! And our first few km on the Ottawa in late afternoon light with a tail wind were quite lovely (though we may have been a bit taken aback by just how big the river already is). 

The fall colours here have been somewhat subdued and late in arriving due to all the rain (and ‘complete lack of summer’) this year. But in this channel flanked by steep hills on the Quebec side and gently rising forests on the Ontario side (the river forms a huge part of the boundary between these two provinces) we were still delighted by shades of yellow and orange and the occasional dazzling red. 

This bit was nice! 

We weren’t so delighted by the apparent absence of anywhere to camp… however we were (once again) saved by someone else’s account of paddling the river and were guided to the mouth of Edwards river where there is a well established and lovely wild camp spot (discernible from a tell tale ‘hole’ in the trees). We made risotto and fell into the tent to check the forecast and plan the next day. 

Considering this river and area has fairly reliable westerly prevailing winds the forecast was a little disappointing. Almost continuous easterlies and southeasterlies. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before but I HATE paddling into a headwind. Having been so excited about reaching the last watershed and the last hurdle and the last bit of downstream, to find out it was a) essentially a lake and b) any current was going to be negated by headwinds was a little disheartening. 

Ok, a lot disheartening.

We studied the maps and previous routes and marked every potential campsite, telling ourselves to be patient and do what we could. One day at a time – just like the beginning. 

The next day we managed nearly 40km and, after a lengthy search, stopped for the night on a fairly inhospitable rock in the middle of the river. The following day the winds only picked up more and we were soon at the boat launch in Stonecliffe having an early coffee and considering what to do. We met a few locals who asked if we’d stayed on the island? Well, we stayed on AN island…  The one with the big lovely beach?? No, I guess we didn’t find that one… But we did find out that, illogical as it may seem, the Quebec shore was sometimes somehow more sheltered from South/easterlies than the Ontario side. We considered for a bit longer during which time one of the locals had been across to the other side in his boat to double check: Yep, strip about 30 feet wide, flat calm. So off we set. It was still hard work but we were happy. 

We pulled up onto ‘Ryan’s beach’ where we knew there was a campground and looked for somewhere to check in. We got an encouraging wave from  someone on the deck of the house nextdoor and, grabbing the wallet, headed up. 

‘Hello hello! I’m Dan, this is Pam, join us will you have a beer? wine? Sorry about the lawn it’s just been seeded, sit down sit down’ 

So we did, thinking what friendly campsite owners! Eventually it came up in conversation: 

‘No no we’re not the owners but, the thing is, you can camp right here on the beach in front of the house! Now go get set up, come back for a drink and we’ll look at some maps and the weather and you can have a shower if you want do you need to do any washing…?’

And so on. We spent the rest of the evening talking about the trip and what lay ahead and about summers in Ontario and winters in Pinawa (we paddled past there!) which seemed to be the wrong way round but …

Setting off the next day with a fresh supply of tea bags, knowledge about logging and dead heads (‘the ones that got stuck, that didn’t make it’… ‘Maybe we’re deadheads!?’ I gasped) and advice that the Ontario shore was off limits for about 20km due to first a nuclear research facility and then a military base, we headed to the Quebec side.  However the winds had changed and we were soon forced to cross back over. Just at the moment an epic thunderstorm arrived… no choice but to land then! Government property or no – the lightening was all around us so we dived under some trees and set up the tarp to wait out the storm. Mike says that that storm was the first time I’ve ever looked remotely worried about lightening, but to be fair the ground was shaking… 

Standard lunch: crackers, butter, cheese and marmite

Hiding under the tarp

We were soon on our way again but the winds were still building and my shoulders were struggling. We stopped for more tea. We’d camp as soon as possible but the ‘unexploded ordinance’ signs littered the whole shore. Luckily we found ‘Gibraltar’! An island set aside and maintained by local cottagers for river users. Beach, fire pit and even a long drop! 

And we were within striking distance of Jeff and Joyce’s: incredibly, Ken and Diane (whose lawn we’d pitched up on on the Assiniboine back in Manitoba) had friends who lived right on the banks of the Ottawa river below Pembroke who they’d told of our adventure. They had emailed to offer food, shower, bed, logistics – whatever we needed. So we set off optimistic though Mike’s spirits (and everything else) were dampened at coffee time when he slipped under the boat… just as well we had somewhere to dry out…?

He saw the funny side… eventually

And so with a tail wind and some really fun rapids we made it to theirs for lunchtime, accepted a lift into town for a few supplies and a bed for the night. Back home anyone preparing for family coming for the holidays might be sent into paroxysms by the arrival of two smelly canoers but not these guys! They even made time for us to Skype Ken and Diane back in Manitoba. Total stars!

Jeff and Joyce! 

It was hard to leave the next day and we had a choice to make – take the main Ottawa river middle channel with flow and rapids and 6 portages or take the left branching Calumet channel with little flow but just one dam to portage. Our house (tent?) was divided over this one and we debated all morning – my shoulders hoping for a little rest in some decent flow and mike’s shoulders resenting the thought of 6 portages… Ultimately we called on the advice of true_north who very diplomatically suggested we toss a coin. We chose the easier but less dramatic channel and found a clear area at the bottom of a farmers field for the night, cooked and set up the tent in the dark and collapsed into bed with mixed feelings about the next day’s paddle into a headwind. 

The fact is we’re tired! Our shoulders are sore, our paddling cadence has dropped, and our ability to cope with set backs (and headwinds) is… diminished. We had hoped to return to the heady days of paddling 60+km, and now it looked likely that 30 would feel like a slog.

Ok, it doesn’t look windy but we stop in sheltered places!

The next day sort of dawned… it was hard to tell through the mist and rain, but we had a target in mind: we had been contacted by Stephen and Barb who have been following the blog and who have a cabin on this part of the river. They weren’t going to be there but were offering an outdoor shower, a refuge if we needed it, and, most importantly to Mike, a jar of Barbs homemade jam. SOLD!! 

We had a short, wet paddle to Bryson where we had a long wet portage around the dam after which we stopped for coffee in a Wendy house near the put-in (apologies to the owners, no one was home and we were drenched!). We carried on to Portage du Fort where Mike astounded me by resisting a chance to get Poutine and we got a bit more info about the river below from a friendly local. With the weather getting worse we skipped lunch and headed straight to Stephen and Barbs. 

Perfect size for me…!

Delighted at the thought of not having to put up a wet tent and with jam but no bread we decided to celebrate with pancakes for tea. Just pancakes. And the WHOLE jar of jam. And maple syrup. Unsurprisingly we were then comatose. We just had time for a chat with Stephen and Barb who called to see how we were doing and talk about the trip. Other people’s enthusiasm is really buoying us up at the moment and we went to bed happy. 

Warm, for the first time all day!

A stunning spot. Thanks Stephen, Barb and Barbs unwitting brother!!!

The next day we were woken by thundering rain and gusty wind and once again, didn’t feel much like leaving… we discussed taking their pedalo to save my shoulders but decided it would be trickier on the portages… reluctantly we packed up and headed out.

The wind was finally behind us and really blowing so we made good progress down towards Braeside and Arnprior. The slightly sheltered Ontario side of the lake was mostly cottages and cabins and whilst looking for somewhere to make coffee we met the owners of Cotters cabin and were invited in for coffee and panettone and general merriment – it was thanksgiving weekend after all! 

Carrying on we sped across the lake towards the portage at Le Barrage des Chats (True_north variant) and looked for the take out. Struggling to see any kind of trail we were getting frustrated but were lucky to come across a family walking along the barrier. Not only did they know exactly where we needed to go but they offered to help carry our gear! And so it was that this fairly rough rocky portage of about 1km was dispatched in under an hour due to many willing mules. They even smoothed the way with the lovely landowner (who was at that moment serving thanksgiving dinner…) at the other end! Henceforth we will remember it as the Lothian-Bryant portage. 

Family Lothian Bryant

They also gave us a top tip: there was ample camping at the public pontoon at Quyon, a poutine bus up the road and a garage selling beers just opposite. Happy thanksgiving to us!! Our evening was further improved by the arrival of 3 lads who came careering down the road with a huge floppy Pike and spent 20 minutes trying various methods of resuscitation, sadly to no avail.

On the pontoon at Quyon: beer, stunning sunset and finishing off my poutine = happy Mike

We woke the next morning doubly deflated:  the weather was appalling – headwinds and driving rain – a new low, and the mattress had sprung a new leak requiring urgent mid night reinflation.  We set off feeling pretty despondent. We stopped once for snack bars, but being cold and wet (through even our paddling gear) we couldn’t face staying still long enough to make coffee. A few km further on we pulled onto a shaly beach and hid under some trees to have an early lunch and feel sorry for ourselves. Mike suggested ending the trip in Ottawa. We were genuinely that glum. 

It was here that Eric found us: walking his dog Nougat he chanced first upon the canoe and then it’s miserable owners.  Nougat took to Mike instantly (something about a family resemblance…) and Eric offered and then came back and insisted we at least come up to his house and get warm and dry. We didn’t think too long about it. 

Within minutes of walking through the door we’d met Eric’s wife, Nadine, daughter Thalia and son Ulrich. We were dispatched for showers with a laundry bag and instructions to fill it. By the time we came back down our tent was up in the garage being fan dried and re-sealed, some of our gear was washing, some was drying in their tumble drier and some was next door in Eric’s parents drier. Nadine made hot chocolate and cookies, Mike and Eric found the mattress leak and fixed it and I  got my dreadlocks combed through by Olivia (sister in law) and then plaited by Thalia. We felt like we’d stumbled on Eden.
A dry tent!!!

The whole extended family urged us to join them for what was their thanksgiving dinner (even though Nadine had already packed us some as we insisted we should carry on) and stay the night. I accepted half a glass of wine and shortly after Mike relented too. We had the most lovely evening getting to know them all, talking adventures and the meaning of luxury and then slept like dead heads in a king size bed. 

The next morning we woke refreshed, refuelled, and infected by Eric and Nadine’s enthusiasm and excitement. We were finally raring to get back on the river, and just a bit hopeful about paddling to Montreal. 

Our Canadiangels…

Thanks go to: everyone!!! Thank you thank you!!! Your kindness and generosity has made a really tough week a happy memory.

Downhill all the way!

Pontoon at the Sunset Inn

We left the Sunset Inn and paddled the remaining 5km or so towards North Bay, coming off the water at a beach shortly before the main dock to get out of a bitterly cold northerly wind. Putting the boat on the trolley we headed through town, with a route planned to take us past a supermarket to pick up some things we couldn’t get the day before. This route also took us past a Saturday morning farmers market, though we resisted the urge to wheel the boat right down the middle of it. Eventually, after stocking up on Clif Bars, we found our way to the North Bay Canoe Club, our launching point onto Trout Lake. There were several canoes already out on the water, with a lesson clearly underway. We were hoping we might be able to sneak into the class and learn a thing or two, but were spotted unloading our gear by Jen and Otto who were instructing. They were teaching Jen’s Eco-Tourism students, and invited us to come and speak to them all about our trip. It was great fun chatting to this interested bunch and describing the highs and lows of our adventure. We reckon as eco trips go it’s probably not bad, once you discount the air travel to get us here. 

Urban portaging

Sadly we had to keep going though (but not before eating their delicious banana bread) and we left the beach and headed out across the lake. A small lake, not some monster with attitude! What a joy! And we had a tail wind, so we covered the 11km to the Mattawa River, and on to Turtle Lake, with ease. The Portage de la Mauvaise Musique through to Pine Lake was less easy to find, but after lifting over a beaver dam, with the water seemingly flowing the wrong way, we found it. A short paddle, another short portage and paddle on into the twilight and we camped for the night on a low spit of land, listening to coyotes howling across the lake.

No swimming, no camping, and absolutely no martinis…

We woke the next morning and looked out into….nothing. The fog was so thick we couldn’t even see the lake, and we were camped only 5m from it. We got on the water and took a bearing, heading for the far shore. This was easy. Following the edge of the lake towards a portage you know to be above a significant waterfall was a little more nerve wracking, but the waterfall turned out to have a dam above it and the portage was again obvious and well marked. It was a rocky path though, with a particularly high step our friend Paul described as a “hernia maker”! Not this time, but I’d be nervous if I was 10 years older. This second half of the Mattawa turned out to be great fun, with numerous short and runnable rapids and some larger falls and a dam, which need to be portaged. We made great time down this pretty, playful little river, which is lined with cliffs after the rapids giving a wild-west canyon feel. It also passes the Port de l’Enfer, one of only small number of aboriginal mines that go underground, though we didn’t stop to investigate – next time Paul!

Waiting for the fog to lift after portaging around the Talon Chutes

At 4.30pm, in the evening sunlight and falling wind, we paddled out onto the Ottawa River, which will take us all the way to Montreal. Quebec City, or Montreal to finish the trip? That question has been on our minds for longer than we’ve been on the water here, and we’ve discussed it many times in the last few months. Quebec City is where the St Lawrence becomes tidal, but there’s at least one more time zone before you actually reach the Atlantic. Montreal is where the Voyageurs stopped, unloading their 3.5 tonne cargo from their “Montreal Canoes” and sending them onwards to Europe by ship. This sense of history combined with the lateness of the season, our tired and variously broken bodies, and little appetite to dodge tankers on the St Lawrence, means we will be finishing in Montreal. We also might get to make a short trip to Newfoundland, where my (Mike) late grandmother was born, 100 years ago this month.

So, just 500km of downstream paddling to go then. And the Ottawa is a river, right…?

Paddling out of the Mattawa onto the Ottawa River