Trip Report – Upper Petawawa 3-5 Sept 2022

In preparation for our planned Nahanni trip next summer, my father needed a bit of a refresher whitewater trip! The objective was the Upper Petawawa from Cedar Lake to Lake Travers, about 40km of river.

We had been planning a trip later in September but my father was unavailable then and as another group of friends were planning this trip on Labour Day weekend, my wonderful wife suggested I go on both while she takes care of our 3 young children. Participants were Wissell, Sam, Dave, Dan Lev, Bernard and Sunshine.

Day 1 – Sept 3rd – Getting there and crossing Cedar Lake

We left early and met at Dan Lev’s house for 7 am, packed the barrels, loaded the gear and canoes on the trailer and left in one vehicle. We arranged a vehicle reposition with Algonquin Outfitters where we leave them a set of keys and they move our vehicle from the put-in to the take-out. Getting to the put-in requires a few hours of driving as getting to the access road requires a big loop around the river on the highway followed by a good section of on dirt roads. Our only other stops along the way were for breakfast (and Dave to get himself a helmet he forgot to bring!), for fuel and at a lookout. Just before leaving we had a sub (my father had found somewhere a really old sub recipe from the middle school most of us had attended) and complemented it with a couple mystery beers. The beers on this trip were mostly all mystery beers, meaning they were cans without any labels, the only way to know is to taste. (IPA, Pale, Pumpkin spice, red)

The paddle from the put-in to the start of the narrower river is just over 6km where an old dam must be portaged. We started in some fairly good sun and were stopped a bit before the dam by rangers who asked for our paperwork. Of course, the booking system is all online now and our phone was somewhere in a barrel obviously no signal would be available. So we ended up just chatting with the rangers instead of digging in our gear and were reminded to print paper copies to have available for inspection (this is the first time a ranger has ever asked us for it). Anyways after our chat, the weather started getting a bit more interesting with some wind and waves. Canoes were a bit difficult to handle and we had to fight a bit to avoid getting sideswiped by waves. It didn’t last too long though as the waves were smaller when we got into a bay just before the start of the river and just before the Dam.

GPS trace across Cedar Lake to mouth of Petawawa River
GPS trace across Cedar Lake

The river guide indicated we could portage 30m to get over the dam and then run the rest of the grade 2 rapid (960m total). Unfortunately when we scouted, the water level was so low, there was no obvious put-in for at least 100m and it would be an ankle-breaking type of portage. While Wissell and I scouted and looked for other options, 2 things happened. 1 – It began to rain, 2 – Our friends decided they were just going to portage and see if there was a put-in along the trail. When we got back, we hadn’t found any other option than to portage so we also grabbed gear and started on our way. The portage itself was well marked and not that difficult, but it was long especially with whitewater canoes and having packed to run rapids. In fact, we had an entire barrel that was just filled ice and beer, it must have weighed 100lbs.

After a lengthy, tiring and wet portage we re-evaluated our targets for the day. Portaging takes a lot more time than running a rapid, we had planned on camping somewhere on radiant lake, km 13, but clearly that would be pushing it too much. We decided to try for the campsite at km 9 and hope it was vacant. We paddled up to surprise rapids (Class II-III rapid) decided to run the first part and avoid the second part for what the guide described as “leg-breaking and skull-cracking rocks”. Once again, a portage, much shorter this time but we were tired from the day.

GPS trail on Petawawa river from after Dam portage, to take-out in middle of Surprise Rapids
GPS Trail from Dam to middle of Surprise Rapids

We portaged our canoes, set up our camp and saw a broken kevlar canoe at the end of surprise rapids. No doubt someone who didn’t know you shouldn’t run rapids with a kevlar canoe learned the hard (and very expensive) way. I still wonder how they got back, needing to cross at least 8km of lake with gear, hopefully they had friends with them!

A fire, a few beers, steak, potatoes and salad certainly helped with morale! The steaks were excellent, well cooked and really hit the spot. By the time we had things set up and dinner ready, I think it was 9pm. While eating dinner, Dave saw a few ziplock bags on the ground and threw them in the fire thinking they were the ones which had been used to transport the steaks. Unfortunately, they were not! I use old ziplocks to keep my cutlery together (and had packed a 2nd set for my father) and he mistakenly threw those in the fire. Thankfully, there was only a spoon left in there which Dave will replace. I think it was titanium and gold encrusted, for sure it had a few gems in it too ;). We laughed a lot about it and everyone talked around the fire for a little while before going back to bed.

Day 2 – Sept 4th 2022 – Lower than low

After a good night sleep, we were rested (some more sore than others) and ready for a good day. Breakfast consisted of eggs & bacon mixed with the leftover potatoes from the night before along with some bagels, fruit on the side and coffee.

We paddle just over a km to our first set of rapids for the day – Devil’s Chute rapids (Class II rapid). For the first section, right after a abandoned rail bridge, we looked around a bit to figure out where to run as there didn’t seem to be a very clear line even if it was very short. We figured it out, ran that small section of rapids and paddled to the right side of the first island. Once again, we scouted a bit and didn’t see anything clean. Dave and I opted to try and run at least the first part knowing we would likely get stuck but could avoid any real danger, while the others opted to rope around a smaller channel in between islands. We all ended up having to rope down the ledge at the end of that section.

After the first island we proceeded to the left channel where we stopped at the falls (Devil’s chute) and roped the canoes down.

We then kept going for the next 4kms until we hit Radiant Lake. We saw a cabin at the start of the lake and went to check it out and walk around for a bit. We’re not sure if they are privately owned, ranger stations or if you can rent them out but there were a number of these types of cabins around radiant lake. We decided to take our lunch on the beach after crossing the lake since we were a bit behind schedule and figured a push before lunch would be appropriate.

A couple beers, sausage, cheese, pita (stuffed with leftover eggs/bacon/potato from breakfast) and veggies with beautiful sunshine recharged our batteries. A few more kilometers before we hit Big Sawyer & Battery Rapids (Class II rapid) (Squirrel rapid was essentially nothing although rated at Class I). We knew coming in that the water level would be low due to the time of year, but by this point we had a bit of a hint that it was lower than “low”. This rapid confirmed it. The guide has indications of routes to take in various water levels but most of what is written for low water didn’t really apply. It was basically, find whatever channel has enough water and avoid scraping rocks and getting stuck as much as possible.

We went through Cascade & Whitehorse rapids (Class II rapid), paddled through Francis lake and noted the amount of deadheads on this river. It used to be a logging river until 1945 but there is still a large amount of lumber that hasn’t floated away. With the old train tracks likely used for ATVs, we wondered if there was a market (or incentive) to get all those logs out and clean up the river.

At the end of Francis Lake, we got to Francis rapid (Class II rapid) essentially a rock garden with giant boulders that need quite a few course corrections to correctly navigate!

I had gotten a sweet new paddle a few months prior and this was my first “real” trip with it. I lent it to a friend to try for a couple rapids but unfortunately with the boulders and course corrections it got damaged a bit on this rapid :(. Good thing we always bring some spares.

After crossing Killdeer rapids (Class I rapid), we took a look at the time and the map. Our objective was to camp close to the takeout near Devil’s cellar rapids so we could be home for dinner but it was clear that with the lower water levels and slower pace it wouldn’t be possible. We decided to camp at Wagtail rapids (Class II rapid) and leave more for the next day.

GPS trail from Radiant lake to Wagtail rapids on Petawawa river
GPS trail from Radiant lake to Wagtail rapids

We unloaded the canoes and set up camp on the island. It took about 20 minutes for the fire to be started, tents erected, water being refilled and dinner get started. We even had a bit of time for some fishing (it took no time to catch something, unfortunately it had worms so no go for eating). While trying to prep dinner, we couldn’t find the main course! We search and searched and figured out that the ravioli had been left at Dan’s house in a fridge! Well, we had sauce, Italian sausage and cheese so no biggie, whipped it all together and it made for an excellent meal, the ravioli would have probably been way too much!

Day 3 – 5 Sept 2022 – Low water is slow water

The morning meal was breakfast bagels, bacon and coffee. We started reviewing the beautiful 11-step (yes 11) process for the next rapid and then all the rest of the rapids that were awaiting us today.

The river guide shows the MacDonald rapid (Class II to Class V rapids) having 11 steps for the low water condition. This includes two sets of falls and two sets of ledges and three chutes. Of course because we are in “very low” water, the guide is just a suggestion, we basically had to stop at each section scout, and usually rope or lift-over. It really was a painstaking and slow-going process.

After Macdonald was a 200m portage around a set of falls before Rocky Chute Rapids (Class I rapids) and then a 550m portage around Devil’s Cellar rapids (Class V rapids). Here we had a very strange experience. Just as we were completing the portage (it took 2-3 trips each with all the gear we had), we heard a single whistle blast. We had 2 people just finishing up so we went immediately to go see if someone was in trouble but our friends were just coming out of the woods. Wissell responded by blowing his whistle (no pun intended) and I went with him to go check further on the trail. We walked for a while, heard the single whistle blast again and responded. Then walked around for a while, whistle, wait, walk a bit further, whistle wait… nothing. It was a bit odd that someone would signal but never respond and we didn’t find any sign of anyone in the area. We eventually came back to the group and asked them if they heard something else. They had heard us signal a few times but not once we were further so whoever whistled was much closer than our search radius. We were a bit puzzled and hoped it was just someone being careless and not someone in distress (you would typically whistle more than just one blast). It was odd though since we pretty far from anyone else.

In any case, it was time for lunch so we grabbed some food ( sausage, pita, cheese, veggies + gorp) , looked at the map and saw we still had a very long day ahead of us. The Temptations (Class I to Class III) were next with 6 sets of rapids. In low water these are rated as follows: Beelzebub’s (Class II rapid), The Dumplings (Class II rapid), Fury (Class II rapid), Dracula (Class III rapid), The Keeper (Class II rapid) and The Angel (Class I rapid) , but of course we were in VLW so it meant we probably had to just rope and carry over…

We did manage to run a few rapids in between (and Dan and Sam accidentally ran the Keeper… narrowly avoiding it), but the whole day felt like roping and portaging and not very fast. Shortly after the Temptations, we hit the 660m portage around poplar rapids and to the road (and the car!)

After loading up, getting changed, eating a bit and grabbing a beer, we headed out of the park and to Whitewater brewery for a bite to eat. Our plan originally was to lunch there but at this point it was dinner time.

After a good meal, we drove back to Dan’s, sorted our gear (with headlamps) loaded our respective cars and drove home. By the time I made it home (I had 2 others to drop off) it was 11pm and time for a rest!

Despite this part of the river really not living up to our hopes, we still had a good time due to the company. We all agreed we ticked the box and were unlikely to do this section of the river again. Without being able to run the majority of the rapids (and seemingly with higher water, they would just become dangerous) we figure there’s better trips to do!

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