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The Trip 1 Expedition Team had a physically demanding yet rewarding trip, departing from historic Fort Témiscamingue on the large body of water known as Lake Timiskaming and travelling 175 kilometres downstream to the town of Mattawa. Characterized by high cliffs, brown water and wild forest, this reach of the river is one of the longest and most remote sections being travelled during the Great River Project.
Lake Timiskaming is really the widening of the Ottawa River, which originates east of Lake Timiskaming in the Province of Quebec. The first people to live in this area were Algonquins who used the area for trapping, hunting and fishing. It is generally believed that the name, Temi-Kami, is derived from the Algonquin word for lake. The lake, in places approximately 200 metres deep, has been used for transportation purposes from early times.
The Parks Canada interpretive centre in Fort Témiscamingue is worth a visit to understand the importance of the Ottawa River in Canadian history. At one time the river was bustling with trading posts, coureurs de bois, log runners and steam boats. Now, aside from light boat traffic from the small communities on the shores of Lake Timiskaming (New Liskeard, Haileybury and Ville Marie), the river is empty.
The large clay deposits in the Lake Timiskaming region make the area suited to farming. In Ville Marie there is an appreciation for local, organic agriculture and fine food. On our first day of paddling we saw several large farms and many eroding banks. We were very happy to learn from Ambroise Lycke of the Témiscamingue watershed organization OBVT that he and his staff have been working with farmers and landowners to protect their shorelines and improve water quality. He showed us one of the successful restoration projects he has implemented with the cooperation of a local farmer.
The tributaries that fall into the upper Ottawa are steep and are constantly being eyed up for hydro power production. The Montreal River has many large dams, including one at the mouth of this large tributary, cutting access to this river off for anyone or any species that may wish to migrate up the tributary. We camped the first night at the mouth of the Kipawa River, also under threat to development by Hydro Quebec. We met with Scott and Pat Sorenson who host whitewater paddlers during the annual Kipawa River Rally. Scott is a member of Les Amis de la Rivière Kipawa who have been using the courts to try to stop a hydro project that would divert the entire Kipawa River from its natural course.
There was plenty of talk about the American Eel, a species once abundant in the Ottawa River, all the way up to the head of Lake Timiskaming. Travelling with eel expert Rob MacGregor, we learned that there have been no eel found upstream of the Otto Holden dam in Mattawa for many years. Unless we take immediate action to address the impact the dams and turbines throughout the length of the Ottawa River are having on the American Eel, we will lose this species that has been listed as endangered.
Paddling into the town of Témiscamingue, we were aided by our friends at the Algonquin Canoe Company who helped us get around the public works dam. Not only were they helpful in organizing aspects of the trip for us (and packing us amazing food for the trip), they were incredibly welcoming and generous. We met with Harry St. Denis, Chief of the Wolf Lake First Nation who shared with us the challenges his people are facing and the concerns they have with proposed hydro developments in the region. Norman Young, the Grand Chief of the Algonguin Nation and Mayor of Kipawa joined us for a dinner generously hosted by the Algonquins of Wolf Lake at their outfitting store on Long Sault Island. We were also greeted by the Mayor of Témiscamingue, Mr. Philippe Barette.
Across from Long Sault Island the view is not scenic as you are staring into the face of the Tembec Pulp Mill. This mill is most likely the largest contributor to point source pollution in the Ottawa River. Regulated by the pulp and paper effluent regulations under the Federal Fisheries Act, this mill has received the largest fines for environmental pollution in the history of Quebec.
Overall, the whole team was struck by the beauty of the river and also by the absence of people and development. We travelled for six days and only saw a handful of people on the river. The shorelines are pristine and there are only a few rustic cabins scattered along the way, accessible only by boat. We didn’t see any lawns until we were close to Mattawa and even then, it was only two or three properties.
Finding places to camp was not always easy given the steep rock and thick forests and on July 7th after a long day of paddling with no camp sites in reach we were delighted to meet up with Roy Sommers on the river. Roy is a North Bay native who has been cottaging on the Ottawa River for over 40 years. Roy knew all about Ottawa Riverkeeper from his daughter who lives in Ottawa. Roy invited us to camp at his cottage and we had one of our liveliest nights on the river listening to Roy’s stories and the sweet sound of guitar and banjo played by Ian Tamblyn and Bonnie Kumer. Roy showed me maps of the river and how it was before the dams were built. We are excited to add Roy to our growing list of Riverwatchers.
Waterfalls and eagles, music and stories, the river was unfolding before our eyes and we were sad to reach the Otto Holden Dam on our last day. It was a challenging portage to get around this massive dam and it marked the near end of an amazing trip on the river. A few hours later we were at the Valois Restaurant in Mattawa eating cherry pie.