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They say you can hear the screams of the dead loggers who drowned there decades ago, if you listen closely enough.
With those words spoken by our shuttle driver still echoing in my head, my partner launched us into the surging current of Slate Falls on the Madawaska River. My heart pounded in the bow and I strained to get every one of his commands perfect as we negotiated down jagged rock ledges and submarined into the froth.
The stretch is long and steep but, in no time, our water-filled canoe lumbered to safety at the bottom of the falls with my life still intact thanks to the extremely skilled paddler in the stern.
At that moment, my goal became clear – I too wanted to gain the expertise to stern an open boat down these challenging and dangerous falls – a section of the river that one guidebook advises against running at all.
A reminder of the unforgiving power of this part of the Madawaska can be seen on one of the portage trails around Slate Falls. There, etched in granite boulders, are the names of several young men who died driving lumber from the surrounding forests down the river during the late 19th century. A privately funded stone monument stands not far from the falls to commemorate those brave souls.
If you live in the Ottawa area and are into paddling whitewater, chances are you’ve been on the Madawaska River, otherwise known as the “Mad.” If you haven’t, and want to experience the thrill of running rapids, this gem is the perfect place.
So popular is the river that it attracts paddlers from across Ontario. Whitewater schools such as the Madawaska Kanu Centre rely on the waters for training people of all skill levels. I have been on the river numerous times and consider it a homeaway-from-home for its fun rapids, gorgeous scenery, exceptional campsites and ease of access.
The downside of its popularity is that on some long weekends in summer, you may have to wait in line to run a set of rapids.
Once, my stepson Conor and I watched in amazement as two macho fathers tried to show their families how to run a rapid. When paddling whitewater, control and positioning of the boat are extremely important, but they decided to paddle with all their might towards a drop with a large rock protruding high above the surface. The canoe hit it dead-on, slid on top, teetered for a moment, then paddlers and canoe careened to the side and toppled into the water. Fortunately, the men and their children and canoe came out of it soaked, but unharmed.
Despite the many paddlers, you can still spot a lot of wildlife on the Madawaska – great blue herons, beavers and muskrats. A few years ago, while I was looking for firewood on a portage trail, I nearly stepped on a young black bear that was sleeping in a large hole. On another trip, my wife Marilyn and I watched in shock as a white-tailed deer lost its footing and was swept down a set of rapids. We searched, but couldn’t find the hapless animal.
Today, the river is also home to many cottagers, but while it flows through villages and past farms, the water is still fairly clean – great for swimming on hot days, but probably not clean enough to drink untreated. Much of the river is also dam-controlled to generate hydro electricity, meaning the opening and closing of the dams as well as rainfall can dramatically change the character of the rapids.
There are two main whitewater paddling areas on the Madawaska, which flows 230 kilometres east from Source Lake in the highlands of Algonquin Park to drain into the Ottawa River at Arnprior.
The upper route is 27 kilometres long and runs from the village of Whitney to Madawaska. Unfortunately, it’s a spring run only since the water level is usually too low after mid-May to navigate. But, in spring, the 16 sets are challenging and a pretty good workout for experienced paddlers. On this section, the river winds through hillsides of roughlooking wilderness with lots of rockstrewn shorelines until it slows to a quiet winding river. It makes a good weekend trip and there are some nice campsites on Rapid Lake, which is about three kilometres from the start, and further downstream at one of the beautiful chutes or falls.
I’ve also run the nearby Opeongo River to add another fun day of whitewater paddling in the area.
The lower section begins near Palmer Rapids, about 15 kilometres southeast of Barry’s Bay, and ends 40 kilometres later at Griffith.
Palmer Rapids is considered one of Ontario’s best training rapids, offering chutes, boulder gardens and eddies where paddlers can develop skills, but it’s forgiving should your boat capsize. This section of whitewater also has a constant supply of water thanks to Ontario Power Generation, which provides daily water releases from a dam upstream. The Madawaska Kanu Centre is nearby.
From the rapids, the river continues to wind for a few kilometres through the village of Palmer Rapids, along Highway 515 and beside farmer’s fields with a couple of small rapids thrown in to break up the pace. Next comes a 24-kilometre-long portion from Latchford Bridge to Griffith that’s the most popular part of the “Mad”.
This area was designated as Lower Madawaska Provincial Park in 1987. There are well-maintained portage trails around all the rapids, the 36 designated campsites are usually kept clean and all the campsites have fire pits. Some sites even have deluxe seating thanks to huge logs left over from the days of logging.
Not only is the scenery exceptional, you can paddle it any time of year in nearly any water level. Lower water levels can be very interesting since there are a lot more rocks to navigate around. One particular rapid is notorious for causing problems. Paddlers must negotiate down a series of small tongues around an island and avoid a boulder that waits defiantly at the bottom.
In the fall, my two brothers-inlaw trained on the Mad for a future trip down the Nahanni River. They ran the top part superbly, but their bow clipped the boulder at the bottom, flipping their canoe and sending them for a long, cold and bruising swim. After gathering them up, we quickly made a fire to warm their bodies and spirits. Thankfully, the experience didn’t deter them from doing more whitewater canoe trips.
This spring, a former Madawaska outfitter told me that his paddling season was ruined last year when he wrapped his flatwater canoe around that same rock, which he has since named “the tombstone.”
You can get to a parking area near the top of the park on logging roads from Griffith or Quadeville. The area makes for a great two-day trip, though I have talked to people who love the section so much they stay for a week every year.
The first few kilometres are all flatwater, with thick forest growing to the banks of the river interspersed with a few areas of marshland. It’s smart to practise your paddling strokes here, since the river soon drops around an island, forming the first of the park’s 13 rapids.
Over the next four kilometres lies a beautiful stretch of river called Snake Rapids, featuring small islands, towering white pines and large flat rocky points that provide some of the best campsites I’ve ever stayed at. Here, the river flows through eight sets of rapids that are great to practise on – depending on your skill level, you should find them all fairly easy and, since the rapids are mostly quite short and the water not too deep, it’s easy to swim out should you flip your boat. A walking trail lines the length of this section, should you care to take a pass on a rapid.
If you want to call it a day, you can access a second parking lot shortly after Snake Rapids. It’s the last chance to avoid two monsters lurking downstream that most portage around – Slate Falls, mentioned earlier (though without the admission that it once put a long crack through the centre of my canoe), and another very big and technical one called Highland Falls, about a kilometre before Griffith.
This section of the river feels more remote, with few reminders of civilization, save for a couple of old hunt camps. It’s also home to a top-notch campsite with a view of the Madawaska braiding between three small islands that makes it worth getting past Slate Falls. About five kilometres from the takeout, a small rapid marks the beginning of cottage country and the end of a slice of Ottawa Valley paradise.
But the attraction of paddling the Madawaska doesn’t stop at the rapids. A public picnic area at the Griffith bridge makes a perfect place to load canoes and equipment for the trip home. And if you’re hungry, there’s a new pizza parlour and chocolate shop across the highway. Outfitter Don Adams lives across the river from the picnic area; he rents canoes and offers a shuttle service.
The Madawaska serves up an easy way to go whitewater paddling in beautiful surroundings. That’s why it’s brought me back time after time – so often, in fact, that I gained enough experience to finally try my hand at paddling Slate Falls several years ago. I ran them successfully, canoe full with water by the end and my heart pounding away in the stern. I still haven’t heard the screams of the loggers, though.
Ralph Plath teaches photojournalism at Algonquin College.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Take highways 417 and 17 to Renfrew. Then go southwest on Highway 132 to Dacre and continue on Highway 41 to Griffith. Just before the bridge over the Madawaska River in Griffith, take Aumond Bay Road to one of two parking areas within the Lower Madawaska River Provincial Park, or leave your vehicle at Latchford Bridge, just north of the park.
Doing the canoe trip oneway: You can set up a shuttle by leaving your second vehicle at the convenience store on Highway 41 at Griffith for a small fee. Or you can arrange parking with outfitter Don Adams (see ‘Where to rent’ below).
Where to camp: There are 36 designated campsites within the park. No camping fees or permits are required.
Where to rent equipment: Greater Madawaska Canoe Rentals is beside the bridge over the Madawaska River at Griffith on Highway 41. Owner Don Adams has been renting canoes and paddling equipment as well as shuttling canoe groups for many years; contact him at 1-613-333-2240.
Where to eat: Stop by the newly opened Jeeve’s ? ? Chocolate Creations and Pizzeria across Highway 41 from the Greater Madawska Canoe Rentals for some extremely tasty treats.
The Pine Valley Restaurant on ? ? Highway 41 in Griffith serves good homestyle meals.
More information: Madawaska River and Opeongo River Whitewater Guide by George Drought has detailed maps and information on paddling areas. It can be purchased at most Ottawa Valley outdoor stores that sell paddling equipment.
THE MADAWASKA RIVER
From the highlands of Algonquin Park to the Ottawa River, the Madawaska River flows 230 kilometres east. Once used to transport lumber, it now serves as a recreational waterway and a source of hydro-electric power.
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