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It was an intriguingly simple idea – drive up to Ottawa, slip a canoe into the Ottawa River, and canoe back home to Montreal.
Why the Ottawa? Part of the appeal was the heritage of the river. This was the original conduit into the continent that fur traders and voyageurs followed three centuries ago, paddling from Lachine up through Lake of Two Mountains and along the Ottawa, the French River, the Great Lakes, and the lands beyond.
My canoeing partner, Henri Bettinville, and I had done wilderness canoe trips in Ontario and Quebec. This was going to be something a little different – 160 kilometres or so of uninterrupted river between two cities. (Well, almost uninterrupted. The only two barriers were the locks at Carillon and Ste. Anne de Bellevue.) We could paddle back to our homes by the shore of Lake St. Louis and pull the canoe out of the water.
On a beautiful sunny Sunday morning we slid our canoe into the water opposite Parliament Hill and a couple of hundred metres downstream from the Museum of Civilization. I’ve always loved that feeling of pushing off shore in the morning. One minute you’re walking around trying to organize your thoughts and gear. The next you’re floating in another world, gliding along and watching the scenery drift by.
It didn’t take long before we had slipped into that comfortable pattern of rhythmic strokes, with only the occasional passing motorboat to disturb the mood.
With a slight current in our favour and fresh muscles, we made around 40 kilometres before starting to look for a campsite for the night. We found a great spot on the southern shore of the river opposite Thurso – a tiny, secluded sandy beach with thick forest to shield us from detection. Unfortunately, we waited too long before setting up the tent, and hordes of mosquitoes appeared from nowhere with the fading evening light before we completed our task.
The next day was one of the hottest days of the summer with the temperature soaring into the mid-30s. Along the way, we got within 15 metres of a group of turkey vultures perched on a tree trunk over in the river. By the time we pulled into shore at the Chateau Montebello, spent from the heat, we were congratulating ourselves that we had decided to go upscale the second night out. Instead of the tent, it would be air-conditioned rooms and comfy beds.
The next morning, to beat the heat, we were in the canoe and paddling before 7. Shimmering in the summer haze, the countryside was mostly low hills with the occasional farm and silo. Just past noon, we pulled in underneath a small bridge at Hawkesbury, and while Henri tended the canoe, I scrambled up an embankment and walked 100 metres to a Tim Horton’s to pick up coffee and sandwiches. Civilization, it seems, has its rewards.
After spending the third night at a friend’s home, about 10 kilometres or so east of Hawkesbury, we set off for the Carillon lock. Seen from our 17-foot canoe, the lock looked truly gargantuan – a tennis court-sized “room” that could lower your craft from one section of the river to another.
Unfortunately, the lock didn’t start operating until 11:30 – three hours away – so we decided to make our first portage of the trip, hauling the canoe about 400 metres around the lock to the waiting channel below. On the way we passed the remains of one of the original Carillon locks, built between 1830 and 1833.
Back in the canoe, we passed the impressive 19th-century four-storey stone barracks that today houses the Argenteuil Regional Museum, with its items that catalogue domestic, working, and military life in the area.
We headed away from the lock and paddled hard. We had clocked 35 kilometres by lunch, an ideal time to stop at Willow Place Inn in Hudson. We docked the canoe and walked about 50 metres up to the restaurant for a meal of steak and kidney pie accompanied by a couple of pints of Guinness.
We continued into Lake of Two Mountains, where we scoured the shoreline for a suitable campsite, eventually settling for a small deserted island about 2 kilometres before the Ile aux Tourtes bridge that had a well-constructed wooden platform set on fieldstone pillars. As the sun set, we sat with our coffee and watched the lights wink on at homes in Senneville.
The next morning, we passed under the bridge, looking up at the commuters heading to work in the city. A half hour later we took the canoe out at the Ste. Anne locks. Again, too early, so we stopped for a fast breakfast in town before carrying on into Lake St. Louis. After a couple of hours of paddling past Beaconsfield and the church at the tip of Pointe Claire – where scores of pike were leaping from the water – we could see the Canadian flag flying at the Field and Stream Club in Dorval. We rounded the point and within minutes were hauling our canoe out of the water directly across Lakeshore Rd. from Henri’s house.
IF YOU GO:
Depending on your canoeing experience, the trip should take four to six days. In Ottawa we put our canoe in the river at the boat launch just east of the Alexandra Bridge. Take the first exit on your right after crossing the river from Ottawa.
With only two possible portages, you can afford to carry a lot of gear, including all your food and drinking water. You also can buy food at towns along the way.
The route. A road map of Ontario or Quebec will give you a vague idea of where you are. For more precise information, pick up topographical maps. Aux Quatre Points Cardinaux, 551 Ontario St. E. (514-843-8116) sells them.
Places to stay. There are several campgrounds but you can often find a secluded field or forest en route. You could also treat yourself to a night at the Chateau Montebello. It’s right on the river.