Five Classic Southern Ontario Whitewater Rivers

Lower Magnetawan River. Photo by Jim Baird.
Lower Magnetawan River. Photo by Jim Baird.

Lower Magnetawan River. Photo by Jim Baird.

Attention whitewater paddlers: Water levels are still high here in Southern Ontario due to a very rainy spring. Amidst all the flooding and “states of emergency” issued, river runners have been having a blast. And, due to the huge downpours in May plus succeeding heavy rains, the high-water season is pushing unseasonably late. Here’s a rundown on five classic Southern Ontario rivers, with all the info you’ll need to get out there while it still lasts and enjoy the best runoff season we’ve had in years. — Jim Baird


Paddling the Lower Madawaska River’s Rifle Chutes. Photo by Jim Baird.

Lower Madawaska River Ontario – Aumonds Bay to Griffith.  

The best starting point for the Lower Madawaska is Aumonds Bay where the river crosses into a non-operating provincial park (no fees).

The river rates “intermediate” for canoeists and all rapids of concern have portage trails. Access Aumonds Bay via a short road to the east off of Hyland Creek Rd. Pick up Hylan Creek Rd. north off of Hwy 41, immediately to the east of the Madawaska River bridge in Griffith. Or, take Addington Rd., to Hylan Rd., if coming in the other way (from Quadville, ON).

The whole route can be paddled in about eight hours at spring flows. And, it’s a 22-kilometer paddle from Aumonds Bay to the Hwy. 41 Bridge. If you wish to shorten your route, you can take out at Buck Bay, which will shave off about 10 kilometers of river and two portages. Buck Bay is accessed off the south side of Hylan Creek Rd.

The first stretch from Aumonds Bay to Buck Bay can be done in three hours in a lightly loaded canoe without portaging. The Greater Madawaska Canoe Rentals in Griffith can facilitate vehicle shuttles and rent canoes. This stretch of the “Mad” can be paddled from ice out to August, and is a popular route for paddlers of all kinds with a couple of nice play-spots at Split Rock Rapids, and Island Rapids. Most of the rapids rate Class II, but Rifle Chute will get your heart pumping if you decide to run it at spring levels when it’s a short Class IV. The Madawaska Whitewater Guide will give you more information on the river’s rapids.

Natch Rapids on the Petawawa River. Photo by Brad Thorn.

Petawawa River, Algonquin Provincial Park Ontario Canada

The section of the Petawawa most commonly run in the park is from the Lake Travers put-in reached via Achray Road and the Sand Lake Gate on the park’s eastern boarder. From Travers, most trippers take three days to paddle the 48 km to McManus Lake. Call Algonquin Portage Ltd. for a car shuttle and canoe rentals. This section of river incorporates about 13 rapids varying from Class I-IV. The most impressive being Rollway Rapids, an 800-meter Class III/IV, and then Crooked Chute, a Class IV chute immediately followed by a tough Class III during spring water levels. Several other exciting “big-water” Class III runs await in this section too, such as Little Thompson and Natch. But don’t let the whitewater scare you off if you’re not into that. These rapids can be portaged fairly easily and the runs are much calmer should you decide to do the trip in the summer or fall. The river also holds dramatic scenery, some of it captured by Tom Thompson of The Group of Seven in his paintings of the river. Possibly the most famous of them being “Petawawa Gorges,” which depicts the towering 100-meter cliffs of Precambrian granite that flank the river immediately succeeding Natch Rapids. Schooner and Five Mile Rapids provide long stretches of unbroken Class I-II rapids. These runs would require over 5 kilometers of portaging to bypass. So, it’s not a good idea to plan a spring trip on the Petawawa, unless you are comfortable running some Class II rapids. After all, Petawawa means “Noise heard from afar” in Algonquin, which is a reference to its many thundering rapids.

Lower Magnetawan River. Photo by Ted Baird.

Lower Magnetawan River

The Lower Magnetawan River is truly a quintessential Southern Ontario river, in both the whitewater thrill it offers and its rugged beauty. The river was made famous by canoeing icon Bill Mason when he featured it in his 1984 film Water Walker.

The most notable run on the river is Canal Rapids where at spring levels, a raging Class III rushes past the base of sheer 100-foot cliffs that rise directly up from the river banks on either sideHowever, the most challenging stretch of river is Thirty Dollar Rapids, a series of four consecutive rapids where an early upset could carry your canoe down the multiple rapids below. And, at lest one of the drops in this section is a mandatory portage (you can also bypass the entire stretch via a half-mile carry). If you’re an advanced whitewater paddler, however, you won’t want to miss the last drop of Thirty Dollar Rapids, its massive standing waves make it the most exciting run on the river!

If you’re an intermediate paddler, don’t let this river intimidate you, as even at spring levels, all the drops have established portage trails around them with easy approaches to the takeout. In all, the river boasts 21 rapids, and makes for a perfect three-day trip. Also, because of several flatwater lake stretches, the river holds its volume until later in the season, meaning it offers some more relaxed whitewater fun come summer. Much of the Lower Magnetawan lies within Magnetawan River Provincial Park, a non-operating park, where reservations, and fees are not required.

The put-in for the Lower Mag is at Bennetts Bay Marina (Whitestone, Ontario), on  Wah-Wash-Kesh Lake. Before you head out, arrange a shuttle by calling St. Amant’s Waterfront Inn & Marina near Britt, Ontario. Tell your shuttle driver to meet you at River Haven Resort which is at the mouth of the Lower Mag on Bing Inlet. Drive to River Haven, and arrange before hand to camp for a night (if you arrive late), and to park your vehicle there while you’re on the river. Meet your shuttle driver in the morning and drive him in your vehicle to the put-in at Bennet’s Bay, (it’s about a 1 hour and 40-minute drive), and then have your shuttle driver take your vehicle back to River Haven, where it will be parked for your return.

To get to the put-in, take Hwy 69 south from River Haven, which will turn into Hwy 400. Then, take Hwy 124 and go left on Lorimer Lake Rd. and keep left onto Bunny Trail Rd., which you then follow to a right onto 520, followed by a left on Wah-Wash-Kesh Lake Rd., which you’ll follow just past the Bennitts Bay Marina building (part of Wah-Wash-Kesh Lodge) to the put-in on the right.

Upper Madawaska River, Herman’s Chute. Photo by Jim Baird.

Upper Madawaska River

The Upper Madawaska River is an amazing portion of the Madawaska River System. It has about 15 rapids ranging from Class I to V with a couple of mandatory portages, such as Herman’s Chute (except for the expert whitewater kayaker) and Little Niagara. This section of the river can still be done in a day despite the portages, and most of its rapids can be run given the right skill level.

In total, from the town of Whitney to the Victoria McCauley lake road bridge, the trip is 27 kilometers long. Watch for a 300-meter Class III, and the rapid called Devil’s Elbow, which is referred to as a Class IV in high water by the Madawaska River whitewater guidebook.

The Upper Madawaska is a spring run and is usually too dry to run by the end of May. There is an old railway bed along the right bank, which makes scouting and portaging easy. The old rail bed can also be driven by ATV, or used as a walk-out route, should the need arise. If you choose to camp on the river, I suggest the site at Herman’s chute. The rocky cliffs and the cascading rapids are a nice place to take in the beauty of this river.

If you need a shuttle or canoe rentals, try Opeongo Outfitting Store in Whitney, or Algonquin Bound in the village of Madawaska on Hwy 60. Barkwick Camp on Bark Lake is also on Hwy 60 and provides camping, cabin rentals, shuttle services, and canoe rentals too. The Upper Madawaska is a non-operating waterway provincial park, and no fees are required.

Start your trip from Whitney, or shorten your trip by taking Nipissing Road in Whitney, then veer south over the river bridge, and then stay left to follow the unnamed road which turns into the rail bed as the end of Rapid Lake. Another possibility is to start your trip where the hydro-slash crosses the river, shortening the trip again. A rough road follows the slash off the north side of Hwy 60. Some paddlers will do both the Upper Mad and the adjacent Opeongo River back to back over a spring weekend.

Opeongo River. Photo by Jean Lefebvre.

 Opeongo River – Crotch Lake to Bark Lake 

The Opeongo is a spring run that boasts a nearly 5-kilometer stretch of continuous Class II and III whitewater through “Rollercoaster Rapids.” Combined with a couple of III-plus drops, and an absence of portage trails, it’s a challenging trip at high water, yet not as challenging as the Upper Mad. The narrow and intimate river can be run in one day from Crotch Lake down to Bark Lake.

Starting at Lake Opeongo, the first portion of the river is navigable by canoe in spring, but the whitewater doesn’t start until after Shall Lake with a couple Class I-II rapids before emptying into Victoria Lake. The section from Crotch Lake to Bark Lake is the section most commonly run. The put in for this portion is at Crotch Lake which is within the borders of Algonquin Park at the Shall Lake Park office. Yes – the Shall Lake 

Office isn’t on Shall Lake. It’s actually on Crotch Lake, which can cause some confusion. Barkwick Camp lies near the mouth of the river on Bark Lake along Hwy 60, and they can provide camping and shuttles.

There is about four kilometers of flat-water paddling before you reach the main flow of the river. Most of the flat water is on Victoria Lake; a beautiful lake surrounded by rolling hills, a few cottages and a large island. There is an old Salvation Army camp and an impressive log cabin in the middle of the property. From here, you can see the low wooden bridge that marks the beginning of the river. This bridge must be portaged or dragged around, but it’s only about a three- or four-meter carry. The Opeongo River whitewater guide provides details on the rapids, and the book also includes info on the upper, middle, and lower Madawaska River. The Opeongo River is a non-operating provincial park, and no fees are required.  

The author, Jim Baird, getting after it on the Lower Magnetewan River. Baird is a C&K contributor from Ontario who shares his experiences through writing, television, and web video. Adventure narratives include The Legend of Jog Goudie and Completing the Journey, a 33-day Canadian canoe adventure. Want to see how to properly use an axe or rig a canoe-sail? Check out Lessons from the Field, a multi-episode series on bushcraft, canoeing and survival skills. Photo by Ted Baird.

Helpful contact info for the accessing the rivers:

Barkwick Camp (Opeong and Upper Mad)

24423 Hwy 60, Madawaska, ON 613-637-5541

Algonquin Bound (Opeongo and Upper Mad)

Hwy 60 & Major Lake Rd., Madawaska, ON 800-704-4537

Madoc Taxi (Black River) 

189 St Lawrence St. W 613-473-9939

Opeongo Outfitting Sture (Upper Mad)

29902 Hwy 60, Whitney, ON 613-637-5470

Greater Madawaska Canoe Rentals (Lower Mad)

25775 Hwy 41, Griffith, ON 613-333-2240

St. Amant’s Waterfront Inn & Marina (705) 383-3234

River Haven Resort & Cottages (705) 383-2426

Wah-Wash-Kesh Lodge (705) 746-797

Note: has updated flow level information on several Southern Ontario whitewater rivers.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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