Ontario is a dream destination for avid paddlers looking for wild river action, as well as anyone keen to experience canoeing for the first time. Renowned as home to over 250,000 gorgeous lakes, including four of the ‘big five’ Great Lakes, Ontario is also blessed with countless mighty rivers and interconnected waterways. These waters served as the original highways for the first peoples of this land, and later explorers, traders, adventurers and settlers, and continue to attract outdoor enthusiasts today.
Though the number of thrilling and glorious waterways here is endless, here are 10 iconic Ontario rives that every passionate paddler should canoe at least once in his or her lifetime, complete with guiding suggestions, rental info and a tip of the paddle from local experts.
Paddle the first Canadian river to be bestowed with the historic designation as a national Heritage River in 1985. Its significance is due to its interconnectedness. This 110-kilometre waterway allowed access for Indigenous people, explorers, fur traders and Voyageurs to travel from Lake Nipissing in the east to the shores of Georgian Bay in the west, thus traversing the centre of Ontario. Today the river is just as exciting, with sections of rapids and whitewater, great wildlife viewing, fishing opportunities and top-notch lodges and camp sites along the way.
Don’t’ miss the award-winning French River Visitor Centre on Highway 69 for the “Voices of the River” exhibit.
It’s recommended that only experienced paddlers take on a self-guided trip. Outfitters, French River Adventures and Black Feather offer canoe and gear rentals, as well as fully guided voyages that suit all skill levels. Outdoor survivalist, Shawn James of My Self Reliance, offers an informative and moving account of his wilderness adventure on the French River, which is totally worth a read.
This scenic, rural waterway is the largest watershed in southern Ontario, meandering along its almost 300-kilometre route from Grey County, south of Georgian Bay, through southwest Ontario to the north shore of Lake Erie. It has also received recognition as a Canadian Heritage River System. The Grand plays a defining role in the character and quaintness of several towns and communities along its shores and flows into the beautiful Elora Gorge and rapids. The stretch between Grand Valley and Paris is popular for canoeing, where the river flows wide alongside pastoral scenery right out of a 19th century landscape painting. Closer to Lake Erie, the river cuts through beautiful Carolinian forest, another top spot to paddle.
The Grand is suitable for all ages and skill levels, including beginners and families. Canoeing The Grand, Grand River Rafting and Grand Experiences Canoe & Kayak Outfitter all offer a variety of guided trips in different vessels as well as rentals and outfitting services. You’ll find a great variety of places to stay; the Grand River Conservation Authority manages several conservation areas that offers great camping opportunities.
“August is laughing across the sky,
Laughing while paddle, canoe and I,
Where the hills uplift
On either side of the current swift.”
– Mohawk poet E. Pauline Johnson on the Grand River, from The Song My Paddle Sings
Another Heritage River, Missinaibi offers unparalleled paddling adventure. Many speculate the river was named after ancient rock pictographs witnessed along the shore, as Missinaibi means ‘pictured waters’ in Cree. It free-flows northeast across the Canadian Shield from Missinaibi Lake to the Moose River, and then travels up to James Bay, over 700 kilometres in length. It’s advised only paddlers with advanced skill levels tackle this unbridled waterway.
This is wild water! Look to MHO Adventures for a fully outfitted and guided adventure. Scott Elliott, outdoor adventurer, back-country enthusiast and Ontario Parks employee provides super helpful tips from his 9-day wilderness excursion.
The Saugeen is a major southwest Ontario tributary that journeys gently from Osprey Wetland Conservation Lands northwest for 160 kilometres to meet Lake Huron at Southampton. It snakes through scenic farm land and mixed forest. This riverway is ideal for beginners, with idyllic flatwater paddling, and anglers are treated to some of the best rainbow and trout fly fishing in the province. Once a key route for barges, today the Saugeen is made for lazy summer days with a veritable Huckleberry Finn vibe. There are 15 recommended launch points with various day trip canoe routes, such as Hanover, through Walkerton and Paisley to Southampton.
Thorncrest Outfitters in Southampton offer everything you need for an amazing day on the river including rentals, delivery, shuttle service and guided packages. Check out the water levels and paddling conditions before you set out. Outer Vision Adventure Tours, a Bruce Peninsula outfitter, provides a handy overview of route options.
This 230-kilometre river originates in the highlands of Algonquin Park and flows east to Arnprior where it merges with the Ottawa River, which eventually drains into the St Lawrence River. If only rivers could speak, the ‘Mad’ would have some fascinating tales. In the late 1800s, it served as a transportation means for the growing lumber industry as newly felled pine and oak logs were floated downstream to the mills. In the 1920s, dams were erected to harness hydro electric power along the river and its tributaries. With its neighbour, the Ottawa River, the Madawaska is a fierce and exciting ride with whitewater action at Palmer Rapids in the Lower Madawaska Provincial Park, but it also offers spectacular flatwater paddling experiences, particularly in the section between the towns of Griffith and Burnstown. There are maintained portages around the rapids and you’ll find camping along its shores in the park.
Mad River Rentals provides outfitting and rental services, as well as pick up and delivery. Or join a guided outing with Madawaska Kanu Centre based in Barry’s Bay. Need inspiration? Watch The Champion: Challenge Yourself by: Alexandra M. McGee, part of the award-winning film The Canoe. NOTE: if it’s whitewater action you’re looking for, you’ll find it here.
Photo credit: Colin Field
The Ojibwa translation of Magnetawan is ‘swiftly flowing waters’, aptly describing this 175-kilometre westward, downhill flowing waterway that springs from Magnetawan Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park and empties into Georgian Bay at Byng Inlet just north of Parry Sound. The Mag is characterized by over five sets of class I to class III rapids and falls that will require portaging; a great opportunity to stop and appreciate the tall pines and rocky shoreline.
The river is connected to several lakes worth exploring, many of which are home to fishing resorts and lodges. Quiet Bay Lodge offers paddling packages or gear up with Black Feather for a self or fully guided trip. Colin Field is a northern adventure writer who laughs about the spoiler alert he received before while tackling the Thirty Dollar rapids on a Mag canoe trip. He writes “The prophecy I’d been hearing for the past few days came true: “Everyone swims on the Magnetawan.”
Ontario’s rivers are like living and breathing natural annals, chronicling the ecology of the land they course through and the history of human activity on the water. Flowing 113 kilometres west from Dog Lake to deposit into Lake Superior’s eastern shore at Wawa, the Michipicoten is one such example. It has been honoured with a landmark plaque identifying how the river was a vital link in the canoe route from Lake Superior to James Bay for Indigenous peoples, and later Hudson’s Bay Company fur traders.
In conjunction with Rock Island Lodge, Naturally Superior Adventures offers a variety of guided or self guided day trips and tours of the river, with a cozy lodge or campsite to come home to. This paddler’s first hand experience will have you booking your adventure asap.
Photo credit: James Smedley
Attention: rock hounds, history buffs and amateur geologists! Paddle along a large moraine, some of the oldest rocks in the world, past ancient pictographs and to the remote three-story log castle on White Otter Lake, built single-handedly by recluse Jimmy McQuat from 1903-1914. Expect all this and more, like breathtaking, rugged landscapes, sheer cliffs and potential wildlife sightings, on a backcountry canoeing adventure on Turtle River in Turtle River Provincial Park. The closest community is Atikokan (aptly referred to as the canoe capital of Canada), and you can assess the river from a number of locations, but a common route has paddlers launching from the bridge on Highways 622, south from Highway 17 and following the river as it connects various lakes, rapids and falls to White Otter Castle. You’ll need to tackle a few portages, and camping is available along the way.
There are a handful of local fishing lodges that provide guided tours to White Otter Castle as well as canoe outfitting, such as Brown’s Clearwater West Lodge and Branch’s Seine River Lodge. Photographer and writer, James Smedley, set out on an amazing paddling adventure with his two teenage daughters.
Photo credit: Jeff Johnson
Another legendary river, the Spanish River was traversed by many including the Ojibwe, French fur traders and the English adventurer and conservationist, Archibald Belaney, who reinvented himself as Grey Owl. The 338-kilometre long waterway rushes from its source at Spanish Lake to its mouth at the North Channel on Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. There are a variety of routes along this river, and with fast moving water, swifts and class I and II rapids, an intermediate-to-advanced skill level is recommended. Launching site options includes road or train access.
Get your gear from Spanish River Outfitters, who also provide shuttle services. Or avoid the hassle of driving and arrive by air. Sudbury Aviation will fly you, your canoe and gear into your launch site and collect you from your final point by float plane. Jeff Johnson, an Outdoor Adventure professor at Algonquin College outlines the perfect intro to whitewater canoe tripping on the Spanish River.
Photo credit: Trish Manning
Lady Evelyn River
Most of the Lady Evelyn River flows in and around Lady Evelyn Smoothwater Provincial Park in the Temagami area, about 100 kilometres north of North Bay. The river serves as one of the park’s prominent features along with the famous old growth pine forests and pristine lakes. The river has four branches, some only accessible by water or floatplane and features several impressive cascades, like the 25-metre high Helen Falls. The remoteness, level of rough water and portage difficulty requires advanced canoeing skills to explore this wilderness waterway.
Smoothwater Outfitters and Lodge and Temagami Outfitting Co. are your best bets for guided or outfitted canoe trips. Outdoor adventure travel writer, Trish Manning provides a guide to start planning your epic Lady Evelyn adventure with more outfitting, accommodation and helpful tips.
These river adventures require preparation and planning. Safety precautions are paramount. Research your chosen waterway to understand the water levels, portage routes, be aware of weather predictions, and tick off a checklist of gear, like this handy MEC example.
From SUPing to scuba diving, you’ll find a lifetime’s worth of water-based adventures on Ontario’s lakes, river and waterways.