Travelers from all over the world come to Ontario to witness the incredible scenery, endless lakes and rivers, and the seemingly infinite, uninhabited woodlands so unique to our northern landscape. To truly take in the essence of Northern Ontario, you need to get off road, as there is so much more to see than can be viewed from a car, bus, or train window.
It is this “Off Road” experience that drew three travel journalists from near and far to Mattawafor the experience of a lifetime: an ATV ride into the wilderness. Mattawa—situated just north of Ontario’s famous Algonquin Park, where the Ottawa River joins the Mattawa River on its way to the St. Lawrence—is wrought with history. The area was well known in the fur trading days as the Voyageurs made their way up the Ottawa River looking to trade with the locals—in fact, many historic figures such as Champlain, Brulé and Radisson passed through on their way west. Later, in the 1940s, the area was mined for mica, commonly used in gypsum board, paints, and additives in well drilling. Now Mattawa is a vacation town simply synonymous with relaxing holidays, outdoor adventures, friendly people, and home to one of the province's largest maintained off-road trail systems.
Our journalists made their way north from Toronto, taking in the gradual change in scenery, from concrete and skyscrapers, to farm lands, and finally the visually stunning Canadian Shield. As much of Northern Ontario is comprised of red and brown granite, it is quite apparent as huge cuts are made in the rock allowing for a smooth highway journey north. The rock colors are breathtaking, and often become one of the most memorable features of the area. Heading east from North Bay, Highway 17 becomes increasingly wooded, until you crest the last hill before Mattawa and all you see is green, with a hint of blue in the distance as you spot the mighty Ottawa River.
As Arienne, Christen, and Danielle entered town Jeff McGirr, Economic Development Officer for the region, and I met them at the local Museum. This log structure, a tribute to the area’s rich heritage lies at the confluence of the Mattawa and Ottawa Rivers, and boasts a huge wood statue of “Big Joe Mufferaw,” a French-Canadian folk hero from the Ottawa Valley. Poised beneath Big Joe was one of the ATVs we would be riding the following day: a 2013 Can Am Outlander on loan from from St. Onge Recreation in Barrie Ontario, and the three ATV novices were certainly curious. Having never been on an ATV, they each took turns climbing on, and imagining what the ride would be like. Following our introductions and Jeff regaling us with some area history, we were off to our destination, the Moosehead Estate & Retreat.
As we arrived, our travelers were greeted by a row of off road vehicles, each requiring its own introduction. John Michaud from Mattawa Sports & Marine, a Mattawa ATV dealer had provided two units from CF Moto, a Tracker 800 side by side, and a Terralander 800 ATV. An Arctic Cat 700 Core on loan from Bayou Sports And Marine, and of course the Can Am Outlander, rounded out the lineup. Everyone was excited about the next day’s trail adventure.
As we rounded the main building we began to take in the full beauty of this location. Moosehead’s majestic mansion sits on a small part of the Mattawa River called Lake Champlain, with a huge grassy shoreline yard, dock, and sandy beach. Our stress had begun to fade already as we listened to the uninterrupted sounds of the water, frogs, and a small stream that ran along the side of the property.
Once inside we met our host, Mel, a delightful French Canadian who made us all feel immediately at home. We were invited to choose our rooms and explore the estate, and we did just that, like school kids on a field trip. Each room was unique with photos of Mel and her adorable family, antiques, and of course a gorgeous view of the lake.
Before dinner, Mel took some time to sit with us and share some of the highlights of the Estate’s history, beginning with its construction in 1900 by the Timmins brothers (famous for gold mining in the Timmins area, and subsequently having the town named after them). As a lodge for the rich and famous, the estate had regular visits from the likes of Roy Rogers, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mae West, and many other famous personalities. It was obvious that the property would lure such names, with its relaxing ambiance, and serene views, most notably the fall sunsets over the valley on the far side of the lake.
Needless to say, the meals were extraordinary, and the atmosphere made us all feel like the famous personalities who had graced this gem with their presence. As the gals enjoyed the food and surroundings, I couldn’t help but wonder: what were they expecting from the next day’s trail ride?
The next morning, after a wonderful sleep, and a scrumptious breakfast we were all eager to “Hit the trails!” Rex Wood, a local off road enthusiast joined us form nearby North Bay for the day, bringing with him his Arctic Cat ATV with full snorkels and rad relocate: Rex is always ready for the deep mud, as is obvious from his YouTube channel. We began with a brief operator/safety talk, followed by some monitored laps around the parking lot, and soon Arienne, Christen, and Danielle were confident and comfortable, and anxious to get moving faster than the blackflies. As we paraded down the country road, we soon turned and the group had its first taste of trail—a rocky path up a slow hill. Smiles were plentiful as the newbies became more and more in tune with the operation of these big off road machines.
We spent the day travelling Voyageur Multi Use Trail System, enjoying the breathtaking scenery, stopping for all kinds of photos by the rivers, lakes, several look outs over huge valleys, and seeing all kinds of trails. We even encountered some deep muddy sections, and I am sure the gals were wondering how they would make it through, but after watching Rex and a bit of coaching by Jeff, they knew just what to do.
“Low gear and four wheel drive, right?” Danielle said as she hit the first hole on the Terralander. She walked through it without any problem. In fact, when Christen came through on the Arctic Cat she proclaimed “That’s how you do it!” while Arienne was more precise on the Can Am: “I shifted my body weight and gave it some gas and had no problem.” You could see it in their eyes, the feeling of triumph—they had conquered the mud!
Just when they thought they had seen it all, they rounded a corner on this hot sunny day and suddenly felt some very cold air. Behold: the abandoned mica mine, deep in the forest. Now they understood why the trail had been sparkling for the last 10 minutes: there was mica everywhere! The mine was exhilarating. We walked inside for a good 500 yards, using our phones as flashlights and found the inner chamber, a large open area in the mine with a 40-foot ceiling, all of which sparkled with the mica left behind. A floor of ice, some more than a foot thick, kept the air very cold and the bugs away. We explored inside and out: what a unique experience!
Following the mine visit, we headed back for another evening at the resort: this time Jeff and I had a surprise for them. Following another incredible meal, the gals were busy blogging, posting, and tweeting until just after dark when they noticed the huge bonfire I had started at the water’s edge. As they pulled up benches fireside, I alluded that Jeff had left us the ingredients for s'mores, because no Northern Ontario experience is complete without a campfire and s'mores. They roasted their marshmallows, listening to the loons, and the silence between the crackles of the fire. I think we nailed it: the perfect end to the perfect day!
To make the journey complete Jeff treated the three to a brief visit to the local art gallery where they met with local artist, author, and spirit Clermont Duval, who shared stories and legends about the area, its history, magnificence, and inspiring landscapes.
I think all three of these travel bloggers will agree: if you really want to see Ontario, you need to get on an ATV in legendary Mattawa Voyageur Country