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Lake Nippissing and the Mattawa River

Yesterday’s paddle ended in darkness as I finished off my upriver jaunt on the French River and set up camp in the dark on a small island close to the river’s outflow.

Normally the route from here would be to head east down the south shore of Lake Nippissing towards North Bay. This is the most direct route and was the route used during the era of the fur trade in years gone by. My route however would be to cut directly across the lake to the north shore and Cache Bay on the outskirts of the town of Sturgeon Falls. My reason for this departure from the traditional route was due to the fact that my next food drop & resupply was awaiting me at Cache Bay at my friend Verdell’s parents.

From my island campsite, it was a relatively short paddle across the lake and into Cache Bay. High winds and building wind driven waves kept the speed down but I was across the lake and through the shallow bay in no time, pulling ashore at a local campground where I phoned the Jessup’s, Verdell’s family, and let them know that I had just arrived. Before long Scott Jessup arrived and we loaded my gear into his truck and headed out to their house. First order of business was a very hot shower and a change of clothes. Scott then brought out my food box, some mail that had arrived for me from friends and my brand new tent from MEC….a much needed replacement for the leaky, broken poled tent that I’d been struggling with for so long now. I was happy to know that my nights in the Kelty tent were now over!

Next was the “Feast!” Well, I can’t remember ever having a better meal than what was served up next. Roast beef, salad, potatoes, a variety of vegetables, fresh from the family farm . . . and best of all was a HUGE helping of homemade ice cream. I eventually left the table feeling full and very content. The Jessup’s, Scott and Virginia, definitely know how to serve up a fantastic meal urged me over and over to not be shy, help myself to seconds . . . and thirds for that matter. Yeah, I can’t remember ever tasting a better meal than this one!

The next couple of hours before bedtime were spent on the computer, going through dozens of emails, answering as many as I could before calling it a night and heading off to bed for a very good sleep. I took the following day off as well, going through my gear, putting together a box to ship east to my parents place….maps I was finished with, books I’d already read, the Kelty tent (good riddance to that one) and whatever else I could get rid of. More internet time, more great food and good conversation with some great people. Scott & Virginia, their friend Karen, Verdell’s brother Scott and his family…I really enjoyed meeting these people and they made me feel right at home and I can’t thank them enough for their hospitality!

Monday morning, after breakfast, it was time to pack up, pick up a few last minute supplies and head back down to the water to resume my trip. Once out on the water, the winds were again crazy, whipping the lake into a white capped frenzy, spray from the waves running down my face as I paddled on. Lake Nippissing is a fairly large but shallow lake, subject to big, steep wind driven waves and can be quite chaotic when the winds begin to howl. Today was no exception as the strong winds were creating some challenging conditions. My campsite for tonight was on a low, mostly flat island of rock with plenty of exposure to the high winds. Perfect conditions for testing out my new tent!

Once I had the tent set up and guyed out, which took some doing as the blustery winds repeatedly tried to pick up the tent body and blow off the little island and onto the lake. A bit of a struggle ensued as the wind pulled on the tent as I kept hold of it as I stretched for whatever was within reach to use as a temporary anchor to keep the tent on the ground until I had it properly up and guyed down. Yeah, it was interesting but it all worked out fine in the end. Once it was up, I was impressed with the spaciousness of my new tent, especially considering it was now getting dark much earlier and I tended to be spending more and more time in the tent at night before going to sleep. I awoke in the middle of the night to a torrential downpour, the rain pelting the tent’s exterior and the even stronger winds putting the new tent to a real test. Fortunately though, the tent stayed up and remained dry throughout the night. I’m sure I’d not have been so lucky with my former tent!

Headwinds again buffeted me early the following morning once again for the first portion of the days paddle. Soon however, I was paddling along a more protected section of the lake for the rest of the way to the city of North Bay. Here, after unloading the canoe and setting up my portage cart, I had a 5 kilometre portage, right through the streets of North Bay and up to Trout Lake, the start of the Mattawa River. I had more than a few funny looks as I wheeled my canoe through the city streets, I guess the folks here are not used to the sight of somebody out taking their canoe for a walk through the city.

By the time I arrived at the Trout Lake put-in, I had about 1 hour of daylight remaining. I also happened to have about a 2 hour paddle to tonight’s destination at “Camp Island”, pretty much the only undeveloped spot on the lake to camp. Once I had the canoe cart taken apart and the canoe ready to go again, I was down to about a half hour of daylight left. The rest of tonight’s paddle would be under a brilliant moon and star-filled sky. The lake was mirror calm and the forest was alive with the colours of fall as I paddled on, the canoe gliding effortlessly along the water’s surface. Before long I arrived at Camp Island and proceeded to set up camp again by the light of my headlamp before preparing a late supper, washed down with a couple of beer that I picked up during my portage through North Bay.

Lake Nippissing and the North Bay portage now behind me, the Mattawa River lay ahead, a river that I’ve been looking forward to paddling for a very long time. Approximately 64 kilometres long, the Mattawa, a Canadian Heritage River, is a river of the Canadian Shield, characterized by it’s numerous rocky rapids separated by stretches of calmer water. There are many islands along the length of the Mattawa and the rapids all have easy portage trails, worn down from centuries of usage, from the aboriginal peoples of the land through to the Voyageurs of the fur trade era right through to the modern day trippers of today.

Being late September as I made my way down the Mattawa, the fall colours were gradually taking over the surrounding hardwood forests, providing a beautiful backdrop to this scenic river as I made my way down river and towards it’s confluence with the Ottawa river. In addition to a few minor rapids, there were two notable waterfalls along the Mattawa, Talon Falls and Paresseux Falls. The portage around Talon Falls was particularly rocky and rugged, with one spot in particular with a “step” of about three feet up a nearly vertical piece of rock partway along the trail. The portage itself was only a few hundred meters long and it was actually a pretty enjoyable portage. The Paresseux Portage was of comparable length and followed along a well worn trail to just below the base of the falls. Both of my campsites along the Mattawa were on islands, the first on a decent sized, hardwood covered island on Talon Lake beside a centuries old firepit, the second on a much smaller island just down river from Paresseux Falls.

On Friday, my final day on the Mattawa, I lingered late in camp, relaxing over a couple extra cups of coffee, reading from my book as I watched the morning fog burn off from the river valley. I was in no hurry to set off today, instead savouring this beautiful river, not really wanting to leave. Eventually however I did finish packing up and slid the canoe into the river once more, setting off in the slow current and making my way towards the river’s confluence with the Ottawa River at the town of Mattawa. Along the way there were several rapids marked on the map, most of which were easily paddled in the shallow waters or, if the water proved too shallow, easily lined through and around the rocky channel. The rapid at Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park was the nicest rapid today and has an informative display partway down along the easy portage trail. After walking the portage and checking out the display, I returned to the canoe and easily ran through the rapid, scraping against several rocks along the way. In higher water, this must be a great river for tripping. As it is now however, many of the rapids are so shallow that there is barely enough water to get through. On the positive side though, at this time of year you pretty much have the river to yourself. I’ve heard it can be a busy river during the peak months of July and August.

Not far from the town of Mattawa was the final portage of the river, around the Plain Champ Dam, a short carry along an easy walkway. Back on the water below the dam, it was a short paddle into the town where I stopped to make a few phone calls before continuing on through the town and onto the much larger Ottawa River.

I’ll leave off here for now and my next trip report will cover the section along the Ottawa river all the way down to Montreal where I finished off the trip for this year.

Cheers…Joe O’Blenis