In a land of a 1000 lakes and waterways you can bet that North Bay can pull off one of the best canoe races in the country! Since 1976, the North Bay-Mattawa Conservation Authority has been doing just that. The Mattawa River Canoe Race is a tradition that has attracted paddlers to North Bay, Ontario on the last Saturday in July before the long weekend for more than four decades to take on the challenge along this spectacular Canadian Heritage River.
Canoe Racers Run a Set of Rapids on the Mattawa River – Photo Credit: North Bay-Mattawa Conservation Authority
The Mattawa River is an ancient water highway that served as an important trade route for indigenous nations for thousands of generations before European contact in the 1600’s. And, for another two centuries, the Mattawa River was the primary route for exploration and the fur trade for voyageurs, couriers de bois and lumberman as they ventured deeper into the wilds that would become Canada.
Portage at Campion Rapids in Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park – Photo Credit: North Bay-Mattawa Conservation Authority
Today, the 64 km canoe race from Olmsted Beach on Trout Lake in North Bay to Mattawa Island in the Town of Mattawa celebrates the Mattawa River’s long human history. With five mandatory portages skirting waterfalls and dams, and up to 7 other portages depending on water levels on race day, the Mattawa River Canoe Race is a challenging test of endurance, perseverance and determination. A shorter, 13 km Family/ Junior Race is also on the roster for burgeoning paddlers from Campion Rapids at Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park to Mattawa Island.
Start of the Family/ Junior Race at Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park – Photo Credit: North Bay-Mattawa Conservation Authority
The race attracts all levels of paddler with categories for the fastest Pro (Marathon) racers to recreational paddlers. Marathon canoers have the advantage of a longer, sleeker, feather-weight canoe to keep them cutting the water at top speeds. Equally as fast on portages, these racers are a sight to see sprinting with canoe overhead over rocks and roots that are plentiful on the many portages on the race course. The record set for the fastest finish was in 1995 at 5 hours, 27 minutes and 53 seconds! To put that in perspective, recreational paddlers finish the race on average in 10 to 14 hours.
Marathon Canoe Racers at Checkpoint One – Photo Credit: North Bay-Mattawa Conservation Authority
The race has evolved over the years with new categories added like Kayak and Stand Up Paddle Board. In celebration of the river’s heritage, there is even a Voyageur Canoe category where eight brave souls take on the challenge using a 300 pound replica voyageur canoe. A slight advantage would be that the modern-day voyageurs aren’t hauling an additional 160 pounds each of provisions and trade goods like their ancestors 400 years ago.
Modern-day Voyageurs Take on the Mattawa River Canoe Race in a Replica Voyageur Canoe – Photo Credit: North Bay-Mattawa Conservation Authority
Other modern-day luxuries plentiful in North Bay are the many eateries offered in the city whether fueling up the night before the race, a treat for non-paddling companions during the race, or as a welcoming place to share stories post-race. A popular lakeside experience is Average Joe’s Eatery & Patio with delicious food and stunning views of Trout Lake. Ice-cream, homemade fudge and local treats are available at The Green Store also on Trout Lake. Or, for a quick grab-and-go snack Orchards Fresh Food Mart has prepared meals, fresh produce and delectable treats for every palette.
An early start at Olmsted Beach on Trout Lake – Photo Credit: North Bay-Mattawa Conservation Authority
The Mattawa River Canoe Race has become a tradition for many paddlers with a handful of seasoned paddlers participating in 30+ races over the years. It is the stunning scenery, comradery with fellow racers and the physical challenge that keeps paddlers coming back. Whether it’s a bucket list challenge or an annual tradition, this is the canoe race of the summer.