Lower Petawawa River


This was the trip that really cemented for me that I needed to get back into photography. As such, none of these images are mine, but in fact the credit belongs to Sean.

Trip Details

  • Route: Input: Lake Traverse; First Night: Lake Traverse; Second Night: Rollaway Rapids; Third Night: Whitson Lake; Takeout: McManus Lake
  • Dates: Sept. 25 – 28, 2014
  • Group: 6 people

Trip Notes

Day 1: Toronto to Lake Traverse

Drove from Toronto in the early morning to reach Algonquin Bound outfitters around 1pm to sort out our rental canoe and shuttle. Registered at the Algonquin east gate, and parked the car at the pristine McManus Lake. Our shuttle driver was already on site with a 12 canoe trailer so we loaded up our personal gear and added our two white water canoes to the royalex rental.

After 6 hours driving it was amazing to sit back and enjoy the scenery as we bounced along the park roads up to our put in at Lake Traverse. When we arrived around 3pm, the put in was devoid of any other campers, and the rushing sounds of poplar rapids just upstream from the put in was a beautifully serene welcome to what resulted in an incredible trip.

We set off from the drop off point as our shuttle driver began to bounce back down the road, and soon there were no signs of human activity except us. We camped our first night just upstream from Bit Thompson rapids with a small creek winding out of a wooded cedar lowlands. After dinner we were treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever witnessed with the wisps of smoke from our campfire trailing up the river, hanging low in the cool evening air. One of our party had brought a new camera and managed to capture the incredible colours and impossibly perfect setting.

Day 2: Lake Traverse to Rollaway Rapids

Being so late in the season, the morning was quite cool and resulted in a thick mist which didn’t clear until close to 10am. As this was our first time on this river we decided that we would wait until the mist cleared before pushing towards our first set of rapids of the day.

Big Thompson Rapids was the first up, and after some scouting we pressed forward through the unseasonably high water levels. Rather unexpectedly we found the remains of the dam which once occupied the head of these rapids, and with some quick maneuvering my canoe partner and I managed to get ourselves over a piece of debris and into an eddy with only taking on a little water. The canoe to follow us wasn’t quite as fortunate as they hit part of the dam and spun sideways, immediately capsizing in the high water, and began to swim the remainder of the rapids after their gear. The third canoe along (my brother and sister) found a good route through the snags, and after a few bumps, came through the first part of the rapids unscathed. It wasn’t until later in the day that we realized that one of those bumps had actually driven a hole in the bottom of their canoe, which resulted in consistent bailing for the remainder of the trip!

After rescuing our second pair’s gear from eddies, and helping them right their canoe, we set off for Little Thompson Rapids, short a paddle, and of more concern, my friends backpack containing his truck keys and allergy medication.

Little Thompson is a much smaller rapid, but with a considerably more swifter elevation change. While the water level was high enough to turn one side of the rapid into a roller coaster of a chute, we opted to portage around this, given the time we had lost on Big Thompson. The swifts were easily passable, and Grillade was a fantastic slosh through a fun class I in high water.

Incredibly, my friend’s backpack was found bobbing against a sweeper, with the truck keys and allergy medication completely undamaged! Unfortunately, the spare paddle was never recovered.

The approach to Crooked Chute can be run all the way to the very top of the rapid, but can be exited at two other points farther upriver. The approach gets progressively more technical, but never more than a class II. Having never done this river before, we opted to exit the approach at the second take out, and portage the remainder. The take out at the top of the rapid is a quick eddy at the bottom of a relatively steep rock face, and would be a challenge to get our three canoes into at once. Having said that, the portage is very flat and well maintained so the extra walk was no issue. Crooked Chute itself was a roiling mass of white water, and rightfully deserving of the name as the angle of the falls to the approach would make this extremely difficult for even the most advanced white water tripper.

We headed into the current just downstream of the falls and let it carry us downstream as it petered out. The high water levels also made Rollaway Rapids a daunting undertaking, so with a leaking canoe, and a still soggy canoeing pair, we decided to portage past this and set up camp just upstream of the next swift in a deep gorge.

Due to the steep side of the gorge, the view from our campsite was limited, but the babbling river made for a fantastic evening of Euchre by the campfire.

Day 3: Rollaway Rapids to Whitson Lake

Day three started with the twinned Natch rapids. The Upper Natch had devolved into a 4′ waterfall due to the water level, but the Lower Natch looked like pure good fun for an empty canoe. We portaged our gear to the end of the portage, and went back to run it empty. As the river twists through the narrow rapids, a few rock walls and boulders make this a pretty fun ride especially in high water! Ultimately the size of the standing waves caused my partner and I to swamp, and the current pulled us clear past the end of the portage before we were able to get our canoe over into an eddy and pull it out.

Our other two crews were luckier (or more skillful!) and managed to avoid the worst of the chop downstream of the rapid, and came through unscathed. Both Natch portages are quite rugged, and cover steep elevation changes, so if in future these are able to be run full I would recommend it.

The river slows past the Natch rapids, and opens up to the site of Tom Thompson’s “Petawawa Gorges” painting. With the colours of the trees changing, and the crisp fall air around us, this was one of the most idyllic scenes I have ever had the privilege of witnessing.

As the river narrows again, Schooner Rapids (Class II) propels you through the next 3-4km past a logging bridge and hydro cut, which were the only signs of civilization we had seen thus far into the trip.

After that, Five Mile Rapids (Class II) finishes off the whitewater portion of the Lower Petawawa, eventually dropping you off at Whitson Lake. This lake can be accessed by people putting in at McManus Lake, and we saw a few fishermen and other campers as the lake opened up in front of us. Deciding not to take our chances on sites further down, we camped near the top end of Whitson in a campsite lined with airy white pine trees and watched the glow of the afternoon sun illuminate the far shore, eventually turning it a fiery crimson as the turned maple leaves caught the sunset.

Day 4: Whitson Lake to McManus Lake

The last day of the trip always heralds a certain longing to stay out longer, especially given the incredible weather and colours we had witnessed. However with the necessity of being gainfully employed, we set off down Whitson through a still morning towards McManus. While the takeout was hard to spot at first, the park boundary is unmistakeable as the Petawawa river runs into the property of CFB Petawawa with rather stern warnings against trespassing.

With a wistful look, we all loaded up our gear into our cars and headed back to the Algonquin Bound to drop off our rental and head for home. All were agreed that this was one of the most beautiful trips we had ever undertaken and would highly recommend it to anyone confident in their own whitewater skills.


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