The Petawawa River is a historical river in Canada, used in the past for moving logs from the logging operations in Algonquin Park and surrounding areas downriver to the mills. Fur trading, although done on this route, was less frequent, with fur traders electing to canoe the milder Mattawa River to the north. The Petawawa is currently used as a whitewater river with incredible rapids, waterfalls, and canyons over the 90 km it flows from Cedar Lake to McManus Lake. It cannot be canoed until its outlet as a tributary to the Ottawa River due to passing through a training range at the Petawawa Military Base. This river is best run in the spring when the water is highest, although it is still possible in mid-August.
This trip was completed by myself (Erin) and my friend Maddy. We both work as wilderness guides for a summer camp, running week to month-long traditional self-sufficient whitewater canoe trips. We decided to do this route in the summer that the camp could not run due to COVID-19 concerns as partially a scouting mission but also because we couldn’t pass a summer without a canoe trip!
Trip Completed: August 2020
Starting Point: Brent Access Point (Cedar Lake)
Ending Point: McManus Access Point (McManus Lake)
Total Distance: 90 km
Duration: 5 days
This route is located in the north and northeast part of Algonquin Provincial Park. The nearest town to the put in is Mattawa and the nearest town to the take out is Petawawa.
Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of the Omàmìwininìwag (Algonquin) peoples (source).
Maps & Resources
Map: Official Canoe Routes Map of Algonquin Park ($4.95). Note: We highly recommend using the Government of Canada 1:50,000 topographic maps. As well, the app “Avenza Maps” is also an incredible resource (free and paid geo-referenced maps that track your location without cell service).
Campsite Reservations: Yes. Reservations need to be made online on the Ontario Parks backcountry camping website.
Permits: Since the best course of action is to reserve the sites online, confirmation and the receipt will be emailed to the person who reserved it. A copy should be printed and waterproofed for the trip, or it can be electronic. If a park ranger were to ask for proof of booking, someone must be able to present it.
Outfitters & Shuttles
Outfitter: Since both of us work as wilderness canoe guides, we had much of our own gear. We decided to rent a canoe from Algonquin Outfitters – Oxtongue. Only the more southern Algonquin Outfitters (highway 60 and surrounding areas) have canoes available to rent. I believe that a fee can be paid to have the canoe shuttled up to Brent. AO also rents much of the bigger gear needed such as paddles, PFDs, packs, bailing kits.
Shuttle: Family members were able to shuttle us. We drove from Toronto up to Brent and picked up the canoe along the way. At the end of the trip, we were also picked up by family members and driven to our final destination after dropping the canoe off back along Hwy 60.
- RR = river right (when canoe pointed downstream, on the right-hand side)
- RL = river left
- RC = river center
- CI = class 1 rapids, swift water with some small waves and visible current
- CII = class 2 rapids, above with holes, visible rocks, and stronger current
- CIII = class 3 rapids, above with ledges, larger waves, and stronger current
Day 1: Brent Access Point to Cedar Lake (4.5 km)
Weather: Hot and sunny.
We put in at Brent Access Point at about 4:20 pm after picking up the canoe we rented from Algonquin Outfitters at Oxtongue Lake. The 40 km gravel logging road into Brent had a lot of washboard, although it was dry so there was still good traction. When dirt road is muddy, it would be highly recommended to have AWD.
We travelled ~4 km down Cedar Lake after loading up the canoe at the landing. The campsite had a nice sandy beach but was quite well used and there was some garbage around. We cleaned up as much as we could and made sure to practice leave no trace. Cooked pasta and sauce for dinner and had cookies for dessert. Went to bed early in anticipation of a long day tomorrow.
Campsite: 485 – Cedar. The site was fairly flat and had enough tent sites for at least one more tent. There was a small fire pit, although no metal grate and no thunderbox.
Day 2: Cedar Lake to Francis Lake (23 km)
Weather: Cloudy and thunder in the morning, sunny in the afternoon.
We woke up at 6:30 am and had coffee and burritos for breakfast. It was thundering in the morning with a bit of rain. Cleared up at around 8:00 am and we hit the water. We paddled out of Cedar Lake to the start of the main part of the Petawawa River. The first set was a dam, so we started with the 960 m portage. We found the trail on RR leading out just below the dam so followed.
We bumped and grinded our way down the next two-ish sets with scouting beforehand. The next set of two consecutive sets we ran as well. These were somewhat sketchy, being very wavy through a narrow canyon with a corner. There was nowhere to eddy-out so had to scout as we went. This ended up being a mistake as we hit a rock dead center hidden under a wave. Ended up swamping (we did not have a spray skirt) although the boat stayed upright. Maddy fell out of the bow as we spun around. Luckily no gear was lost, no one was hurt and the boat stayed upright, albeit we were a bit wet. It all resulted in a good laugh afterwards and better communication about river obstacles from then on out.
We portaged RR around Devil’s Chute (did not scout rapid, it sounded very loud). Then we continued downstream to Radiant Lake where there were some small private cabins. A beautiful spot! Radiant Lake was very windy and wavy. we cut across the lake to reach the river again at a slightly incorrect angle, so we had to turn more downstream to what looks like the left edge of the lake.
We ran Squirrel Rapids RL cutting RR. We portaged around Big and Little Sawyer Rapids.
The map says there is a dam to portage around – although we did not see the dam, it sounded very loud. The portage was very hilly, and our canoe was a heavy T-Formex, making it fairly difficult.
We ran the next swift (there is a 10 m portage around it). Next, we used the road RL to portage 500 m around Cascade Rapids. It looks like it could have been possible to run, but it turned a hard corner and it was very difficult to scout. When in doubt, portaging is always the best option!
There were a few more swifts before getting to Francis Lake. We saw no people aside from some on Cedar Lake today near the access point. We arrived at a nice site around 4:30 pm and had dehydrated chilli for dinner and Rice Krispies for dessert. Went to bed fairly early.
Campsite: 416 – Francis. Sandy flat site with benches. Firepit, and unsure if there was a thunderbox.
Day 3: Francis Lake to Little Thompson Rapids (23 km)
Weather: Thunder and rain in the morning, sunny evening
We got up at 6:15 am and had pancakes and coffee for breakfast. There was thunder and rain as we were leaving, but it wasn’t too bad. The thunder stopped more than thirty minutes before leaving. This later turned into a torrential downpour as we were on the water.
We portaged 140 m to Kildeer Lake. We were able to run the rapids with the 155 m portage. Next, we portaged 350 m around the next set. You could potentially run the lower sets, although we did not scout them or attempt to paddle them. Since there is an old railway (now just a gravel road) running along the RL side of most of the first section of the Petawawa River, there are many times that there are trails up to it and the marked portages are less frequented. Here we thought to use it again, although when scouting the portage it ended in a bridge that crossed the river with no easy put-in so Maddy and I elected to take the marked portage. There were marked falls under the bridge, but we didn’t see anything. The falls we did see were at the beginning of the set, not further downriver.
We saw a few more people camping as we passed them. I am pretty sure we ran rapids by the 200 m portage. We took the next two portages: 275 m and 550 m, the second of which was very slippery.
We did not do the 1050 m portage; we ran the upper sets and for the lower ones, we were able to do a quick carryover/short portage on RR. For some of these, we had to bushwack and others had trails that were more well-travelled. Some of the put-ins were very steep with slippery rocks. I had to slide down some rocks as everyone camped at the next site watched!
We made a poor decision by trying to line down RL by the 665 m portage. This was a bad idea and we had to go back upstream to portage. The waterfalls along this part of the river were very beautiful. This portage crossed an access road. The time taken to do this portage made us cross Travers Lake late in the day and we had to rush to do the next portage. We saw a number of people camping on Travers Lake.
We went on to do both the 345 m and 165 m portages (around Big Thomspon and Little Thomspon Rapids). Both of the sets looked to have ledges, although could potentially have been run in higher water. Camped at the site on RR at the end of Little Thompson Rapids after arriving at the site right as the sun was setting at 8:45 pm. Had curry (over the stove) and cookies for dinner and went to bed.
Campsite: 314 – Thompson Rapids. A very unused site (the last of a group of three) after Little Thompson Rapids. Directly across the river, there is a much better site that is more well-kept. This site was very overgrown with no fire pit and a terrible site for a single tent.
Day 4: Little Thompson Raids to Whitson Lake (29 km)
Weather: Hot and sunny.
We left the terrible site at Thompson rapids early in the morning in anticipation of a long day. We had oatmeal for breakfast and were on the water by 7:30 am. The current had definitely picked up and we were able to make much better time in covering distance.
Portaged 130 m. Next, we portaged 425 m around Grillade Rapids.
We got out at the second exit for Crooked Chute after running swift/C1 up top. Portaged ~1.4 km around Crooked Chute on the RR side. There were many warning signs on the river and map discouraging people from paddling down the chute. It is a dangerous rapid!
Next, we ran the rapids with the 120 m portage. We were able to run the top section of Rollway Rapids but pulled out RR and bushwhacked until we met up with the path of the regular portage fairly easily. We thought about running the bottom section of Rollway, but when scouting, saw that there was a big strainer blocking most of the river and it wasn’t worth the risk.
We portaged 275 m around the first section of The Natch Rapids. The portage was very steep with large cracks through the rocks. Put in before 250 m and ran bottom set RL. We saw family on route looking for 3 boats that were supposed to meet up with them, although we, unfortunately, we hadn’t seen the group. The cliff by The Natch is beautiful and there is a site there that many people like to camp at.
The rapids picked up intensity as there was more current in this section of the river. We ran the rapids by the 135 m portage. We were able to bypass the 2305 m portage by running Schooner Rapids. The rapids were very long, gravelly, and wavey. It was at most a CII, with most of it being a CI with a strong current. This was continuous for many kilometres and led us right by the 1400 m portage. It could be quite shallow in lower water, but we had high enough water levels to get through.
Five Mile Rapids were the same. It seems the river changed from pool-and-drop style waterfalls to long, continuous CI/CII rapids. There were some nice sites on RR. We had booked a site along this stretch but kept going to Whitson Lake since we had made such a good time.
We got to the site at 3:20 pm. It was a nice open site with benches and tables. It was the second site on Whitson lake in a group of four. We made stir fry (although it tasted terrible because our tofu had gone bad), but ended up eating left-over curry. Then we made chocolate Rice Krispies. We watched the sunset (we had good sunsets at all of our sites so far on this trip!).
Campsite: 321 – Whitson. Whitson Lake site. Nice and open site with some split-log benches and a good fire pit. The site is fairly sloped, but we were able to find one good tent site for our tent.
Day 5: Whitson Lake to McManus Lake (9 km)
Weather: Sunny and warm
We woke up early and were on the water at 7:00 after oats for breakfast. We paddled down Whitson Lake to the first two sets. The sets had decent portage lengths to do in the morning so we anticipated needing more time than we actually did. Both sets were little more than swifts.
Then it was a short paddle down McManus Lake to the takeout on RR. Most sites on this lake were taken by people canoeing from our take-out. We easily pulled canoes up onto the beach and then up a flight of stairs to the road/roundabout at the and of the access road. From the campsite to the takeout, it took us just under 1.5 hours. To exit the park there is about 40 km down a gravel road. We had to drive back down Hwy 60 and return the canoe before driving towards Barry’s Bay where we spent a few days after we finished the trip.
The Petawawa is a beautiful historical river with amazing waterfalls, massive cliffs and is known for its whitewater, especially in spring floods. As both of us are experienced whitewater guides with certifications in lifeguarding, swiftwater rescue and first aid, we were quite confident in our ability to run the river and be successful in completing it with just Maddy and me. If I were to do it again, especially with higher water levels, I would prefer to have at least another boat to alternate acting as safety. Overall, this was an amazing river to paddle and next time it would be interesting to start from the headwaters further upstream from Cedar Lake.
My name is Erin Fenton and I am a wilderness canoe guide and treeplanter across Ontario and Western Canada. As a child, I got introduced to traditional whitewater canoe camping through a summer camp in central Ontario. Recently, I have guiding month-long whitewater canoe trips for that same camp. Currently I am studying Forest Resource Management at the University of British Columbia and spending much of my time outside exploring BC.
YouTube: Erin Fenton