The Petawawa River is a whitewater river in the northeast corner of Algonquin Provincial Park. It has some excellent rapids, many nice campsites and takes you through a less-visited region of the park. The geographic gem is The Natch, a red granite cliff that extends upwards out of the dark green water.
This route has at least nine rapids between CI Tech and CII Tech. There is only one definite portage, however there were a couple of times when we needed to line our boats. Less experienced canoeists may feel more comfortable portaging, rather than lining, these sections. There are also a few rapids that would easily pin / wrap a tipped canoe, so ensure members of your group are familiar with whitewater rescue.
Overall, it’s a super fun river with great campsites and beautiful scenery.
Trip Completed: July 2020
Starting Point: Lake Travers
Ending Point: McManus Lake
Total Distance: 49 km
Duration: 4 days / 3 nights
The Petawawa River is located in the northeast corner of Algonquin Provincial Park. The nearest town is Petawawa.
Traditional Territory: This route in Algonquin Provincial Park is located on the traditional territory of the Omàmìwininìwag (Algonquin) and Anishinabewaki (source).
Maps & Resources
Guidebook: Rivers of the Upper Ottawa Valley by Hap Wilson
Campsite Reservation: You can reserve campsites through the Ontario Parks Reservation System. You don’t actually reserve the specific site, but rather the generic area of the campsite. For example, you can reserve “Crooked Chute”, which actually has three campsites.
Outfitters & Shuttles
Outfitters: I paddled this trip as part of a guided trip with MHO Adventures. This meant they coordinated the gear and shuttles for our group. If you’re going to be paddling the Petawawa self-guided, I believe MHO can provide outfitting and shuttles. Another option would be Algonquin Bound, which you’ll pass on the drive into Algonquin Park.
Self-Shuttle: Depending on how many cars and canoes you have, you could do this route without hiring a shuttle. One car would park at McManus Lake (the end) and then all participants and canoes would drive to Lake Travers (the start). At the end of the trip, everyone would drive back to McManus Lake to grab the other car. This wouldn’t be too inconvenient because the distance between the put in and take out is about 40 km.
Day 1: Lake Travers to Big Thompson (9 km)
We launched our canoes at Lake Travers after having a pre-trip lunch and getting the thigh straps on the boats. We left the put-in around 2 pm.
Lake Travers is deceivingly long and we had quite a bit of wind, so it was a slow paddle to the other side of the lake. In a storm, I imagine the water could get quite wavy here.
We were originally going to stay at the site at the top of Big Thompson Rapids, however the site was too small for our group so we had to double back. This meant we really only covered 6 km on the first day. I’d recommend paddling to either Big Thompson Rapids or pushing it to Little Thompson Rapids if you can.
Campsite: We camped on at a site at the end of Lake Travers, pretty much where the lake meets the Petawawa River. This campsite was actually quite nice. It was large enough to accommodate six tents and had a large area around the fire pit. There were also great views on two sides, perfect for watching the sunset and doing a little astrophotography.
Day 2: Big Thompson to Crooked Chute (10 km)
We made a good breakfast and were on the water a little after 10 am. This day had a lot of rapids. All were runnable up until Crooked Chute.
Big Thompson Rapids: This was a great rapid to get started on. It had some good volume to it and several rocks / ledges to avoid, but there was a clear line and we navigated it fairly smoothly (the hull of the canoe might disagree, however).
Little Thompson Rapids: This was a short rapid, but had quite the ledge on the River Right side so we scouted it. The scout provided a great angle to get some photos so that was a nice bonus.
Grillade Rapids: Grillade Rapids occurs during a wide section of the river, and was really more of a high volume swift for us. We didn’t need to scout this one, but you should stay alert throughout the run. There were a few rocks just below the surface of the water that we had to navigate around.
Crooked Chute: The current picks up upstream of Crooked Chute. There are three opportunities to take out, depending on your comfort paddling in swifts / Class I rapids upstream of a waterfall.
We paddled to the second takeout, keeping snug to the River Right shoreline. We lined / walked the canoes between the second and third takeout because it was rocky and shallow along the shoreline.
Campsite: On the second night we stayed at the last campsite at Crooked Chute (at the third takeout). There were excellent tent spots and an exposed area where we could see the current picking up right before entering the falls. We portaged our gear to the campsite but left the canoes near the start of the portage trail.
Day 3: Crooked Chute to Schooner (8 km)
Crooked Chute Portage: We started the day with a portage from the campsite around Crooked Chute. I actually love camping at the start of a portage since I like starting the day with a portage, rather than having one in the middle of the day. The portage is very well maintained and not too challenging. It’s got some ups and downs, however it’s a smooth trail for the most part.
There are two places to portage to. You can portage all the way to the end of the Chute (what we did) or you can portage to the last ledge of the Chute, where it becomes a wavy CII for a hundred or so meters.
After some calm paddling we came to our next rapid.
Rollaway: We had to line the top part of Rollaway because a fallen tree was sweeping across the river and creating the perfect strainer. We lined River Right until we were past the strainer.
From here it was a fairly rocky Class I / II. When you walk along the portage trail to scout, watch out for a cross in remembrance of Blair Fraser, an accomplished canoeist who drowned on the rapid in 1968.
The rapid is tricky. We had one boat get stuck against a rock at a precarious angle, then flip. The barrels went cruising down the river; the boat got pinned on a rock.
Getting the boat unpinned added on an hour or so to the set, but such is to be expected when paddling whitewater.
The Natch Rapids: There are two short rapids upstream of The Natch. An experienced paddler could canoe down the first, but there are a few nasty holes so you would want to be extremely confident you wouldn’t tip. A much better choice would be to line down the River Left side or portage (we lined).
We paddled down the second set of the rapids, though we did a quick scout first.
The Natch: The Natch is this incredible cliff face along the side of the river. If you have a little time on your hands, there is a hike you can do to the top of it.
Campsite: We had hoped to stay at one of the campsites around The Natch, but by the time we reached there all the campsites were taken. Instead, we camped just upriver to Schooner Rapids. I wouldn’t recommend this campsite – try to stay at The Natch instead! It was right in the forest without a nice view. The ground was super uneven; I think everyone slept at a slight angle.
With the portage, rapids and rescue, we only covered about 7 km on the third day.
Day 4: Schooner to McManus Lake (22 km)
We had a quick breakfast on the last day and were off the site fairly quickly. This was our longest day in terms of distance paddled, but we were actually only on the water for less than four hours. This is because there are two really long swifts / Class I rapids so there’s a nice current to assist with paddling. Plus there are no other rapids or portages to stop for.
Schooner Rapids: This is a long rapid that alternates between swift and Class I. The quick current for so long makes the kilometres fly by. Easy peasy.
5 Mile Rapids: 5 Mile is actually only 3.8 km, which is both confusing and annoying because the swift current is so nice I’d like it to stretch on a lot longer.
Neither of the rapids above needed to be scouted, however don’t let your guard down. There are some sneaky rocks lying just below the surface of the water ready to catch a canoe.
The take-out on McManus Lake is a long stretch of beach. From there you can carry your boat up ~10 m or so to a roundabout. Here you can meet your car.
Overall the Petawawa is a great river! It’s the perfect river for novice paddlers if they have a guide; otherwise, it’s good for paddlers with some experience in whitewater and rescue. There are no Class III rapids and only one definitive portage.
If I was to plan the trip myself, I would probably do it in two nights instead of three. You could probably do:
- Lake Travers to Little Thompson Rapids (12 km)
- Little Thompson to The Natch (11 km)
- The Natch to McManus Lake (26 km)
We had pretty short days (with the exception of Day 3), so I think condensing the route would be reasonable. However, it was super nice to stay at Crooked Chute, which would be hard to coordinate in a shorter trip.
Also, although you’re supposed to book a specific set of campsites, I’m not sure how many people were actually following that. We were supposed to have a campsite at the Natch but they were all taken, so I suspect one group was staying there that shouldn’t have been.
Despite this, it was still a fantastic trip overall. It was great to see a lesser-known section of Algonquin Provincial Park and introduce my dad and my brother to whitewater paddling.
Mikaela is the voice behind Voyageur Tripper, an outdoor adventure blog that enables people to improve their skills in the backcountry. She previously worked as a wilderness guide, leading trips in Ontario, Quebec and Nunavut. Mikaela is also the founder and operator of Trip Reports.
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