Paddle to DC: Descending the Mattawa, a River to Remember

Dave and Amy Freeman below Paresseux Falls on the Mattawa River in Northern Ontario.
Dave and Amy Freeman below Paresseux Falls on the Mattawa River in Northern Ontario.

Long adventures usually contain a few memories or places that stick with us long after the sore muscles and bumps and blisters are gone. Being approached by humpback whales while kayaking off the coast of Alaska, dogsledding across Great Bear Lake in a blizzard, and sharing stories with a Cinta Larga elder while descending the Rio Roosevelt in the Brazilian Amazon are a few such moments that I hope to always remember. One such highlight from our current 100-day journey from Minnesota’s Boundary Waters to Washington D.C. was the three-day period of time we just spent descending the Mattawa River in northern Ontario. Numerous, run-able rapids, high water, stunning waterfalls and a wild river valley exploding with fall color made late September the perfect time to run the Mattawa.

The Mattawa River is a one of a handful of Canadian Heritage Rivers. It flows through the Algonquin Highlands between Lake Nipissing and the Ottawa River, and provided an important link for native people and early European explorers between the Ottawa River and the Great Lakes. Most of the river is protected by the Mattawa River and Samuel de Champlain Provincial Parks.

As we approached the North end of Pimisi Lake the current pulled us into narrow river channel and we could hear the dull sound of crashing waves around the first bend. We pulled into an eddy and carefully hopped along the slippery rocks to scout the rapid. The sun shimmered through the crimson maple and golden birch. It was the first sunny day after nearly a week of rain, which caused the river to rise to a level that was perfect for paddling. After deciding on a line we returned to Sig, excited that we would be able to skip a portage and have some fun in the rapids. Since our canoe, a 20-foot-long, fiberglass Wenonah Minnesota 3, is covered in signatures and not really the best choice for whitewater canoeing we had a few butterflies in our stomachs. In addition to the usual concern about damaging the canoe, we were worried about scratching off signatures if we made a mistake and bumped a rock. Luckily the rapid was easy and looked like the rocks were easy to avoid.

A few quick strokes brought us back into the current and canoe splashed through the waves as walls of color blurred past. Moments later we swung into an eddy at the bottom grinning ear to ear, having hardly shipped a drop of water and without a single new scratch. We quickly fell into a rhythm scouting and paddling many of the easier rapids, and portaging the larger drops and falls. A canoe coated in signatures certainly caused us to err on the side of caution and take a few of the portages, “just to be safe”, but the forest floor was carpeted in red, orange and yellow leaves. Walking slowly over the portages, soaking in all the color, made the portages seem short, even with a 65-pound canoe on my shoulders.

Dave and Amy Freeman negotiate one of the easier rapids on Mattawa River.
Dave and Amy Freeman negotiate one of the easier rapids on Mattawa River.

Sometimes you get lucky, the stars align, and you find yourself in the right place at the right time, or you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time and barely make it through. Either way, you often come away with memories about those brief moments that stick with you. For me, those memories are a big part of why I look for adventure and seek out wild places, and our three days of autumn on the Mattawa will likely stick with me for a long time. Why do you like adventure? What is the moment or place you will always remember?

National Geographic Adventurers of the Year Dave and Amy Freeman are on a 100-day adventure to celebrate the natural beauty and economic importance of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. All along their 2,000-mile journey, Dave and Amy are sharing their love of the Boundary Waters and collecting signatures in support of America’s most visited wilderness area.