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Madawaska Valley

Beginning at the aptly named Source Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park, the mighty Madawaska River courses down to the Ottawa River at Arnprior, some 225 kilometres to the east. The spectacular Madawaska River cuts through Renfrew County, gouging out deep gorges and widening out into lakes along the way. Foaming white-water rapids and scenic landscapes abound as the Madawaska drops 224 metres from its source to its mouth. A natural vacation area, the Madawaska Valley begs to be explored.

History at a Glance

11,000 to 8,000 BC—At the end of the ice age, the glaciers began to retreat northward. Early Paleo-Indians were present and lived by the abundant riches provided by the land. Artifacts found from this era include large stone chips taken from rock outcrops.

8,000 to 3,000 BC—Present-day plant and animal communities were shaped. Indians adapted to the environment and created tools from the many natural resources available. Constant travel was essential for their survival.

3,000 to 1,500 BC—Recently found burial sites display increased social behaviour and the creation of art and ceremonies. Seasonal gatherings of tribes, refining of tools, and the use of copper mark this period.

1,500 BC to contact with Europeans—Numerous First Nations settlements were established. Using canoes crafted from their environment, the Nipissing, Ottawa, and Cree nations of northern Ontario—and the Hurons and Iroquois to the south—developed extensive trading systems. Artifacts were often made of ceramics and clay.

The contact period—By the 1600s, European trade goods appeared. Trade with the Aboriginals flourished but caused disruption and tribal wars. European diseases decimated the Native population.

The Recent Past

Since the end of the last ice age, water has shaped the Madawaska Valley’s topography, flora and fauna. The rushing meltwater from retreating glaciers shaped today’s watershed in the form of valleys, hills, eskers, kames, lowland flood plains, lakes and rivers; it would provide important waterway routes for generations of Aboriginal peoples, mainly the Algonquins of eastern Ontario. European explorers, using Algonquin-made canoes, would also navigate these routes to lead them from Quebec City to Georgian Bay and beyond. The Madawaska River and its tributaries allowed smooth passage between the Ottawa River to the east and the highlands of today’s Algonquin Provincial Park.

The Native peoples made a good life, despite the harsh climate and rough terrain. They were masters of living in harmony with nature. Heights of land throughout the watershed offered them strategic defense. Lowlands and marshes yielded natural crops such as wild rice and berries. Harvesting from the wilderness, they were the last to truly co-exist with their surroundings. The earliest European explorers adopted these Native traditions as a means to survive and finally settle in a strange land.

The explorers would soon learn that to tame these wild lands they needed to understand the waterways as did the Aboriginal peoples. The first maps of Upper Canada included only settlements, lakes and rivers. Timber and trade goods would eventually traverse the seas to the markets of England and France. It would take several generations for their reliance on the rivers to diminish.

As European settlers colonized Upper Canada, they brought their own traditions with them. They cut rough roads that would lead them deeper into the forest in search of timber, minerals, and agricultural lands. These early roads, merely widened paths, were unsuitable for the safe passage of goods and people.

By the mid-1800s, a system of colonization roads, funded by the government, paved the way for greater prosperity for the growing influx of immigrants. Improved technology and engineering led to the construction of better roads capable of withstanding the harsh climate and heavy loads. The foundation for today’s roadways was now in place, leading settlers to friendlier terrain and newly found riches, fueling the wheels of progress for future generations.

River travel by boat and canoe had now been replaced by the horse and buggy, soon to be followed by the automobile. Rather than harmonizing with the environment, the settlers modified the environment to suit their lifestyle. The rivers and lakes that opened up this country became secondary to the settlers’ quest for progress. As the First Nations population dwindled or was relocated to reserves, the Native guides and their ecological lessons would be relegated to the history books forever.

The Early Roads

The first roads were strategically laid out to connect far away places for many reasons: For military travel, to access diminishing stands of timber, to find better agricultural lands and to carry goods to newly created—and sometimes booming—settlements. Remnants of these colonization roads are still visible today, and can be seen following some of our modern highways and back roads throughout the Madawaska Valley.

Today’s roads highlighted on these maps will lead the modern-day explorer to small communities throughout the Madawaska Valley, where bits of the past can be found in museums, abandoned homesteads, railway stations and settlements along the way.

The Ottawa and Opeongo Road

Originally created to open up the Ontario wilderness, this road started near today’s Castleford on the Ottawa River. Now simply called the Opeongo Road, it ran west through Renfrew County to just past Barry’s Bay. Free land was given to settlers who agreed to homestead along this road. Most of the settlers were soon defeated due to poor, stony soil and to lumbering practices which quickly depleted the forests, leading to closed mills and lost markets for agricultural products.

The Peterson Colonization Road

Built in 1858, this route served as an east-west road linking the Ottawa-Opeongo Road at Brudenell with the Muskoka Road to the west. More than 180 kilometres in length, this was the longest of the colonization roads. Today’s Highway 62 between Maynooth and Combermere, and the Rockingham Road shadow the original Peterson Road.

The Mississippi Colonization Road

Also known as the Snow Road, this route ran east from Bancroft through parts of the Madawaska Valley and on into modern-day Mazinaw Country. About 20 kilometres east of Bancroft, the Carlow/Combermere Road led north from the Mississippi Road and connected with the Peterson Road at Combermere. A water link also existed between Conroys Landing (on the York River Branch near Boulter) and Barry’s Bay via Combermere. Some of the old Mississippi Road is still visible today, crisscrossing modern Highway 28 East, but it virtually disappears at the end of the Hartsmere Road east of Weslemkoon Lake.

The Hastings Road

This colonization road started in the Madoc area and meandered north to Bancroft, connecting with the Peterson Road at Maynooth and continuing northward, following Highway 127 in places.

The Addington Road

Although many sections of the Addington Road have faded into the wilderness, remnants can still be travelled near Denbigh, south from Quadeville, and north along the Letterkenny Road to its junction with the Peterson Road near Brudenell.

Detailed maps, tour routes, and other interesting facts about these historic roads are available in back issues of The Country Connection Magazine.

Today these same roads throughout the Madawaska Valley continue to attract another kind of settler—people wishing to leave the noise and pollution of urban centres. An increasing number are choosing to live closer to the land, seeking a quieter lifestyle. The largely rural population of this area consists of many urban refugees living off the grid, unconnected to municipal services that most take for granted in towns and cities. Many have discovered the beauty of this area after taking journeys of their own along the back roads and into the wilderness for which this area is famous.

Driving the Back Roads

Country roads and trails crisscross the hills and valleys, offering access to a myriad of sights throughout the Madawaska Valley. Visitors should take the time to drive to the outlying communities spread throughout the country. Glimpse into this area’s rich history. Discover the meaning of small-town Ontario when you drive through such places as Combermere, Schutt, Palmer Rapids, Rockingham and other enchanting valley villages. Many provide a gateway to a deeper wilderness experience more closely related to the watershed than to the roads.

Forest Access Roads are usually marked and are especially useful for discovering Crown land forests and lakes. Primarily used by logging companies in search of timber, these roads are not regularly maintained. Drive these roads with caution and be vigilant for logging trucks.

The Railway

In the 1890s, the railway arrived. It ran from Ottawa through Renfrew, Eganville and Barry’s Bay and farther still to Algonquin Park, ending at Depot Harbour on Parry Island in Georgian Bay. Originally called the Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway, it was soon changed to the Canada Atlantic Railway and later sold to the Grand Trunk—the future CN—in 1905.

John R. Booth was largely responsible for this railway’s success. His success, however, was not only limited to rails. Known as the lumber king of North America—Booth owned the world’s largest lumber mill, in Ottawa—he had access to 7,000 square miles of timberland in the Algonquin area. The railway was able to reach giant white pine forests which, up to then, had remained inaccessible by the new roads. Trees could be transported without relying on poor roads or water levels of the rivers. Another of Booth’s business pursuits included the shipping of grain from the west by rail and steamship to the markets of Europe.

A fully restored railway station and unique wooden water tower stand in downtown Barry’s Bay as testaments to this period of history. Remnants of the old railway, now a Heritage Trail, can also be seen in other communities scattered across the Madawaska Valley.

Bicycle Touring

Cyclists will find a good variety of back roads and trails. Cycling is an ideal method of immersing yourself in wilderness areas. Because bikes are quiet—unlike motorized vehicles—chances of seeing wildlife are greatly increased.

Biking through the valley is also a great way to take in the rural sights. Communities like Barry’s Bay, Wilno, Combermere, Quadeville and Palmer Rapids are full of historic sights, which are easily missed when speeding by in a vehicle.

A network of surfaced township roads, less travelled, connect the smaller hamlets, allowing the cyclist to experience the history and quiet beauty of the valley with relative ease. Get away from busy provincial highways and smell the pine!

Back to the Water

Many of us yearn to stay in touch with nature, even if only for a few days at a time. Tourists journey to this area for a chance to get off the grid and rekindle their relationship with the earth. Just like the Natives and first European explorers, today’s travellers may find the starting point of their journey next to a gentle stream, a loon-filled lake or a rushing river.

A well-prepared journey into the wilderness begins with a good map. While this series is intended to introduce the traveller to the wilder aspects of this area, it is recommended that you obtain a good topographical map prior to setting off on a trip. These maps will show you where to safely put your canoe or kayak into the water and where to take it out. They’ll give you a good indication of hiking and cycling trails, as well as the availability of emergency services. More importantly, a topo map will show you the elevation of land and the low-lying wet areas, giving you a clear picture of the watershed.

The Madawaska River

The Madawaska’s big claim to fame is its whitewater. It is possibly the most famous river in Canada for paddlers seeking Class 2 to Class 4 rapids. Palmer Rapids provides prime white-water training for many paddlers. The river, however, is not always fast and furious, or “Mad,” as some folks say.

Upstream, from its beginnings at Source Lake in Algonquin Park running east to Whitney, the river offers miles of smooth water paddling. The Upper Madawaska runs from Whitney to the village of Madawaska. This section is rough in the spring but becomes tamer as the winter run-off subsides.

The Middle Madawaska courses between Bark Lake and Kamaniskeg Lake. The waters in this section are heavily influenced by a large dam at Bark Lake. Paddlers are advised to check on water levels before setting off.

The Lower Madawaska runs from Palmer Rapids to the village of Griffith, offering both rapids and smooth water for an exciting trek. Most folks do this trip to test their skill at negotiating the fast current. The water levels in this section are usually high, thanks to the additional flows of the York and Little Mississippi Rivers which head into the Madawaska. The Conroys Marsh Wetlands form this junction, offering paddlers a beautiful day trip well-suited to viewing wildlife, birds and plant life.

Historic Sites

Historic sites are plentiful throughout the valley. The following are recommended stops for the history buff:

Barry’s Bay
Historic Railway Station and Water Tower Park

Combermere
Crooked Slide Park
Madonna House Pioneer Museum
Mission House Museum and Gallery

Rockingham
St Leonard’s, a pioneer church built in 1875

Wilno
Site of Canada’s first Polish settlement
St. Mary’s Catholic Church

Killaloe
Old grist mill and pond, heritage streetscapes

Foymount
The highest inhabited point in Ontario, now a town site, built after WW II as an early warning radar station

Algonquin Provincial Park
Logging Museum and famous Visitor Centre with interpretive displays

Flora and Fauna

The Madawaska is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna. This eco-system, which once supported the Aboriginal peoples, now draws scores of tourists aiming to rediscover nature and their links to the past. The most immediate and obvious connections are evident in the wildlife and plants throughout the watershed.

Among the 60 species of birds in the area, you might catch a glimpse of an osprey diving for fish, a pileated woodpecker pecking on a tree, or a rare, bald or golden eagle soaring on thermal winds next to a rock cliff. Look for birds nesting in cavities of dead and dying trees. Watch for warblers, sparrows, indigo buntings and robins, which announce the changing seasons as they have for thousands of years.

Of the 14 species of mammals in this watershed, the moose, elk and white-tailed deer are often the most sought after. Seeing these large creatures roam effortlessly in the wild is a sight to behold.

The more common, smaller mammals, such as beavers, muskrats, raccoons and porcupines, provide as much enjoyment to observe as the larger ones. Watching a beaver glide across the top of the water is a sight that many relish as pure Canadiana.

A good explorer knows that to experience nature fully, all of the senses should be heightened so as not to miss a thing. The sounds of nature are a source of soothing pleasure, which cannot be duplicated by any other means. The wind blowing through the trembling aspen or the tall white pine is the same sound heard by explorers in years gone by. The chorus of mating amphibians has certainly diminished in modern times, but their song is reminiscent of days past.

Other wildlife to watch and hear along this watershed include
• great blue herons, kingfishers, ducks
• fishers, otters, hare, skunk, fox, black bear, red squirrel
• snapping and painted turtles, various snakes
• spring peepers, leopard, green, and bull frogs

Wetlands offer prime viewing of flora and fauna. Fairly undisturbed, free of noise and motorized boats, the following wetlands in the valley are sure to please naturalists: Moore Creek, Conroys Marsh, Griffith Area Wetland, Mud Bay, Black Donald Lake, Norcan Lake, Grassy Bay and the Springtown Marsh.

For more information on the flora and fauna in this area, consult one of the many field guides available. A full line of Peterson Field Guides and the handy, waterproof Peterson Flash Guides are available from Pinecone Publishing.

Trees and Shrubs

With roughly 45 species of trees and shrubs, the explorer will find a great diversity of habitat along this watershed. Hardwoods highlight the colourful show each autumn—maples, poplars, oaks and birches. This delightful display occurs only in this part of the hemisphere, attracting thousands of tourists to the back roads and waterways of eastern Ontario. Other significant trees to watch for are large hemlock, red and white pine, and eastern white cedar that grow in the lowlands.

Of special interest for wildlife enthusiasts are trees which are dead or dying. These trees often contain cavities near the top or at the trunk, providing hollow areas where a variety of species can live. Watch for the saw-whet owl, flying squirrel and pileated woodpecker. Careful loggers with an interest in protecting wildlife will leave these trees untouched, sparing enough surrounding habitat to ensure their continued survival.

This land is also rich in berries, a source of nutrients for mammals and birds alike. Wilderness travellers rejoice at the sight of a patch of fresh blueberries, raspberries or blackberries. These sweet delicacies are a welcome addition to any backpacker’s menu.

Conroys Marsh is a popular stopover for many who relish cranberries, which ripen in the autumn. Mushrooms, especially the much-sought-after morels, can also be found throughout this watershed in early spring. These are but some of the pleasures offered by Mother Nature.

Caution—beware of poison ivy. This green, three-leafed plant can give you a severe and itchy rash. Know how to spot it and learn how to deal with it. A natural antidote is jewel-weed, a slender, soft plant with orange flowers that often grows near a patch of poison ivy. The general rule: “Leaves of three, let it be!”

Parks and Protected Areas

Many travellers who come to this area will seek the safety of a park or established canoe route to experience the wilderness. The Madawaska River watershed has several provincial parks, waterway parks and nature reserves that offer the traveller easy and safe access to wilderness spaces.

For information call 1-800-Ontario (668-2746) or log onto www.OntarioParks.com

Algonquin Provincial Park

Situated on the rugged Algonquin Dome of central Ontario, this magnificent park cradles the headwaters of the Madawaska Valley. Established in 1893, Algonquin Park is Ontario’s oldest and best known park, encompassing 7,725 sq. kilometres of forests, lakes and rivers.

Algonquin Park can be reached from the east along Hwy. 60 by way of Whitney and Barry’s Bay. Come to view wildlife or take a guided nature walk. Hike, mountain bike, cross-country ski, canoe, camp or just relax. Many special programs are available daily throughout Algonquin, while both the Logging Museum and the Visitor Centre offer a unique view of the history of the Park. Various art exhibitions are also held throughout the year at the renowned Visitor Centre.

Lower Madawaska River Waterway Park

This 1,200-hectare waterway park features a number of interesting topographical traits. Eskers, kames, outwash plains, kettle lakes and sandbars—all associated with the retreating glaciers some 11,000 years ago—are a big draw for tourists with an interest in natural history. There is parking and 36 canoe-in campsites. It is located at Aumonds Bay, southeast of Quadeville.

Upper Madawaska River Waterway Park

This 1,085-hectare park is located two kilometres north of Whitney. It offers no visitor services, but is a great area for hiking and canoeing.

Bonnechere River Provincial Park

A scenic stretch of the Bonnechere River, known historically as the “Little Bonnechere,” connects Round Lake with Algonquin Provincial Park to the north. The Bonnechere Valley is part of the Ottawa-Bonnechere graben, a large block of land thrust downward along parallel fault lines.

Forested uplands tower 300 metres above the valley floor. This 1,198-hectare waterway park is 23 kilometres long and offers no services. There are a small number of campsites along the shore and several good access points. It is located two kilometres north of the Village of Bonnechere and 40 kilometres southwest of Pembroke.

Bonnechere Provincial Park

This park, located on County Road 58, gets its name from the Bonnechere River, which meanders around several oxbow lakes before reaching Round Lake. At 162 hectares, the park offers 128 campsites, rustic cabins, hiking, canoeing and five kilometres of groomed cross-country ski trails.

Egan Chute Provincial Park

This natural environment park is yet undeveloped and offers no services. Explore this rugged landscape where the York River drops through three sets of rapids and chutes. Access is from Highway 28 east of Bancroft.

Conroys Marsh Conservation Reserve

The total size of this wetland is approximately 2,400 hectares. This Provincially Significant Class One wetland offers an ideal day trip for paddlers of all levels of experience. Its smooth waters can be reached by the York River to the west, the Little Mississippi River to the south, or the Madawaska River to the northeast. Once out in the marsh, there are few dry areas to disembark from a canoe or kayak; one popular spot is locally known as Ring-on-the-Rock.

This area is rich in history and played an important role in the development of the Madawaska Valley. Early loggers and settlers used this waterway to access the York River Uplands to the west. The Craigmont Mine, at one time the world’s second largest producer of corundum, provided jobs for nearly 2000. Remnants of this old mine and load-out can still be seen on the north shore. A journey into today’s Conroys Marsh offers a host of natural features, including wild cranberries and wild rice fields. Local guides and outfitters can help to make this trek most memorable.

Bell Bay Natural Environment Park

Located 14 kilometres west of Barry’s Bay, this 404-hectare park features encrusted saxifrage on the cliffs of Bark Lake. Saxifrage is among the arctic relict species of plants, very rare to this area. Hiking and canoeing are the best ways to explore this natural area.

Services and Attractions

The Madawaska Valley is largely rural, with sparsely populated communities. Commercial services such as banks, liquor stores, service stations and accommodations can be found in the larger centres but become scarcer as the traveller roams throughout the valley. Gas and groceries are available throughout the region. It’s a good idea to make sure you have the essentials prior to heading out into the valley.

Inns, motels, B&Bs, restaurants, artisan studios, farmers’ markets, and many other attractions dot the entire Madawaska Valley. Whether you are on a guided tour, hiking, paddling, cycling or driving, you’ll find that the valley has everything to make your journey comfortable and memorable.

Driving Tips

Use Caution: Drivers are urged to use caution while travelling along these highways and country roads. While moose- and deer-crossing signs are placed at high traffic areas where the animals are most likely to cross the road, drivers should proceed as though moose, elk and deer may appear at any point along their route. A hit, direct or indirect, with a large mammal, will cause severe damage to your vehicle and/or serious injury or death to you or your loved ones. The general rule is to pay attention to the road, stick to the posted speed limits and drive defensively.

Other creatures to watch for are frogs, which are most often on the roads during and following rain. In the spring, there can be hundreds of frogs migrating, especially in low-lying areas near wetlands, streams and lakes.

Snapping turtles have discovered good man-made nesting grounds along the sandy shoulders of many country roads near low-lying areas. Be especially careful during the months of May and June. Stopping to watch a turtle lay her eggs is an exciting and interesting experience for all ages.

Be Prepared: Most service businesses in the Madawaska Valley are family operated. This means you won’t find many amenities such as gas stations and stores open 24 hours a day. It’s wise to keep your vehicle’s fuel topped up for early morning and late night trips.

Be sure to stock up on supplies and always have an emergency kit in your vehicle. Such a kit should contain basic first aid materials, a blanket, a candle, bottled water, and food that won’t spoil.

911: For real emergencies, on the road or off, the Madawaska Valley area uses a 911 emergency telephone service. Ambulances, Ontario Provincial Police and firefighters will be dispatched from the area nearest you for quick service. When you call for help, give your location, using the nearest posted number and road name.

The Metric System: Canada uses the metric system for all measurements. Here are some easy conversions to help travellers from south of the border.
1 kilometre = 0.63 miles 100 km/h = 62 mph
If you know Multiply by To get
Miles 1.6 Kilometres
Kilometres .62 Miles

Cell Phones: Few transmitters in this region means poor cellular phone reception—or none at all, especially away from the main highways.

Know Where You Stand

Travellers who wish to leave the beaten path should obtain accurate topographic maps. These maps show the many forest access roads and trails which will lead to a safer wilderness trip. Crown land and private land maps should also be consulted to assist your travels. Remember that trespassing on private lands is a provincial offence!

Be a safe traveller—always let someone know where you plan to explore and when you will return


Madawaska Valley Country Roads ISSN 1200-1724
The Country Roads map booklets are available at The Pinecone Forest Nature Sanctuary. Copies of the maps were reprinted in Issue 66 of The Country Connection Magazine and are available at the old train station in Barry's Bay.

Copyright 2005 by Pinecone Publishing. All rights reserved.

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