There’s something magical about the rushing waters of a river that make you want to sit back and immerse yourself in the sights and sounds. Spending some time on the water is the perfect way to explore a region’s natural beauty, while also getting away from the nonstop barrage of modern life. On the water, there is no wifi, email, or social media, nothing but you, your companions, and miles and miles of nature.
In Ontario’s Highlands, canoeing and kayaking are something of a tradition – here, we’re surrounded by such beauty it’s impossible not to long for a chance to explore it at your leisure. Looking back, some of my best experiences have been on the water, but it’s been a few years since I’ve had a truly epic paddling adventure, and I’m determined that will change this summer.
Far from a whitewater expert, I do enjoy paddling in Class 1 or Class 2 whitewater conditions, but am not ready for anything more than beginner to intermediate, so when planning my paddling getaway it’s important to choose my destination carefully. In the past, my husband and I have paddled the Mississippi River between Sheridan’s Rapids and Playfairville, a quick day-trip adventure with manageable whitewater, depending on the season, and also took a weekend whitewater kayaking course with Madawaska Kanu Centre – MKC.
So where should our next paddling adventure take place, and are we looking for a whitewater or flatwater experience? For the answers to these questions, and more, I turned to Madawaska River Rentals’ resident experts (and owners) Deedee Sanderson and Trevor McGarry.
With more than 20 collective years of experience, Deedee and Trevor seemed like the perfect people to ask for the inside scoop on some of the best paddling spots in Ontario’s Highlands, along with any tips and advice for my husband and I. Deedee has been running Madawaska River Rentals for more than six years, and this year is transitioning to her new, flatwater business, Boondock Bliss.
Trevor, on the other hand, purchased Madawaska River Rentals from Deedee in 2019, and brings to the business his experience as a whitewater expert, with more than a decade spent guiding in the Madawaska area, along with certifications as a teacher, guide, and instructor/trainer. As of 2019, Trevor has taken over the day-to-day management of the outfitting operations, and has plans to branch out into guiding in the future.
From the Experts: When to Start Planning
When I approached the pair to feel them out about my plans, straight away Trevor told me I was on the right track, not only asking all the right questions, but asking them early enough that I would be able to plan a memorable paddling adventure.
“You want to figure out the basics of what you want in advance, to have an idea of the kind of experience you’re looking for, and what you want to get out of it,” Trevor said, “The more information you have, the more we can help you have the adventure you’re looking for.”
Planning a paddling trip calls for a high attention to detail, and logistics like overnight accommodations, food, and equipment should be planned out in advance to ensure smooth sailing when the day of your trip comes. Trevor and Deedee recommend starting the planning process as early as possible, in order to ensure equipment and accommodation rentals aren’t already booked up on your dates.
From the Experts: Choosing the Right Water
Now that I knew I was on the right track, I explained I was looking for a beginner to intermediate whitewater experience of three days, with two nights spent on the river either camping or in some other accommodations. No problem, I was told, there are plenty of locations in Ontario’s Highlands that will allow for the kind of trip I was looking for. It was so nice to get some advice from someone with so much experience; I felt like I was in good hands.
Although I was looking for some whitewater, there was one experience Deedee couldn’t rave enough about for flatwater paddling that nearly convinced me to try a flatwater adventure instead. According to Deedee, Conroy Marsh is the place to go for a stellar flatwater experience – a more than 3,000 ha of conservation area with a complement of three rivers.
“The Little Mississippi, York, and Madawaska Rivers all converge in this bowl in Conroy March,” Deedee explained, “It’s a peat bog and fend, and it’s breathtakingly beautiful, so full of life, especially migratory birds, it’s unbelievable. If you look at it on a map you’ll see the vast maze of wetlands that support so much wildlife.”
I considered changing my plans to a flatwater trip, especially when I found out there were two fantastic accommodations at Silgrey Rustic Resort at Conroy Rapids and also Pinecone Forest Nature Sanctuary, but in the end, the whitewater experience was what I was looking for the most.
For whitewater, most of Deedee’s and Trevor’s suggestions naturally included locations along the Madawaska, Opeongo, Ottawa and Petawawa Rivers, for what they called “an experience on the greatest whitewater water around.”
Given my limited experience, I was a little worried that we would be outclassed by the rapids, but Trevor was quick to assure me that there’s always plenty of time to scope out a set of rapids in advance (always recommended for any paddler) and if it looks too much for us, there are portage trails around the rapids.
They recommended we bring a river guide published by the Friends of Algonquin Park to refer to as we paddle. Trevor also assured me that the Lower Madawaska is the perfect place for my husband and I to get our whitewater feet wet again.
“The Lower Madawaska River is a premier whitewater destination for beginning paddlers, we get a lot of school groups through here for that reason,” Trevor explained. “In the summer months, we’re usually running a Class 1 or Class 2 and maybe the odd Class 3 on the Lower Madawaska; it’s really accessible.”
From the Experts: Planning a Route
Both Deedee and Trevor recommended our adventure involve paddling the 42-kilometre stretch of the Madawaska River that runs through Lower Madawaska River Provincial Park, putting in at Aumond’s Bay, where the Lower Madawaska Provincial Park officially begins. From there, we would paddle to Griffith, which would take at least two days of paddling. We would spend the night in the park at one of the first-come-first-served leave-no-trace, paddle-in only campsites, that also happen to be free!
The best part of this trip is once we’re on the water in the park, we can take as long or as little time paddling as we liked to make the trip to Griffith. The whitewater in that area would be manageable for our skill levels, Trevor assured me, which was good to know in advance. And, of course, Madawaska River Rentals would manage the gear rentals and even shuttle us to and from our destination so we could paddle one way without having to worry about heading back up river.
If we decide we want to extend our trip we could put in at Palmer Rapids, tune up our skills, and paddle to Aumond’s Bay, spending the night at Jessup’s Campground or Paddler Co-op Camping for reasonable rates. This addition would add approximately 17-kilometres of paddling to our trip.
From the Experts: Final Words of Wisdom
Parting words of advice from Trevor: Keep your trip small. Smaller days mean less time on the water, and although you might think that you want as much time on the water as possible, a common misconception of canoe trips is you need to be paddling the whole time.
“If you’re doing a family trip and have a shorter day on the water then you have more time to enjoy the campsite and the wildlife,” Trevor explained. “Smaller days mean you have more time to enjoy the experience, without the rush.”
Well said, Trevor! We’ll have to remember those words of advice this summer. I’m already looking forward to the adventure.