If you think about the days of the voyageurs, when rivers were the "highways" through much of Canada, the town of Mattawa would have been one of the most important intersections in the country. Situated near the junction of the Mattawa and the Ottawa rivers in Northeastern Ontario, this town was a bustling place when it came to the fur trade, and later the logging industry. Both industries used these transportation routes to move goods from the backcountry downriver, and the town was an important trading post and commercial centre.
But before some of those goods could be moved downstream via the Mattawa River, voyageurs and loggers had to negotiate one of the most dangerous, but picturesque, locations along the Amable du Fond river that feeds the Mattawa: the Eau Claire Gorge. Here, the river drops down a short but steep gorge, roaring through a rocky pass before flattening out and continuing its journey. This natural wonder is one of Mattawa’s best-kept secrets, so it seemed like the perfect place to explore on a hike.
Amable du Fond Park
The Gorge is located in the Amable du Fond Provincial Park, and is part of the Eau Claire Conservation Area. After following the sign that led us to the trailhead (see below for access details), Henk and I were happy to find interpretive trail maps at the trailhead, since this little map turned out to be a great guide for giving us some details and history of the Gorge.
Besides pointing out the various species of old-growth trees along the trail and other details about the Amable River itself, the trail map also identified where lumbermen in the 1850s constructed a log slide to bypass the steepest part of the Gorge. This allowed them to transport logs safely downstream.
Today there is little that remains of the slide, other than some of the original trench, but as we travelled farther downstream, it soon became obvious why another option for moving logs downriver was needed.
The Eau Claire Gorge
The waterfall that is the highlight of the Gorge announces itself before you even see it, thanks to the force of the roaring cascade as it drops 40 feet through the narrow pass about midway along the trail.
To get the best view of the falls, you’ll need to climb down a short, steep trail through tall pines that take you right to the edge of a 60-foot cliff from where you can see the river rushing below. This vantage point offers a great view of the powerful waterfall but this is definitely not a place you want to lose your footing. It’s easy to see why voyageurs needed to portage here, and why logs would have jammed or been crushed while hurtling through this chute.
Danger aside, this was a great opportunity for photography, so after taking several shots (and taking care not to get too close to the edge), Henk and I continued along the trail that follows the river downstream. The trail has a few ups and down, but there were wooden "staircases" on some of the steeper slopes, and eventually the river flattened out and slowed down, and the trail took us right along the water’s edge.
One of our last stops on the trail before completing the loop back to the trailhead was Godin’s Cabin, a reconstructed log cabin that marks the place where a squatter lived for years until 1940. The story goes that Godin came here from Gaspé to avoid being prosecuted for the accidental shooting of his brother, and after living in the abandoned lumbermen’s hut in the Gorge for years, disappeared and was never seen again.
Eau Claire Gorge was one of my favourite hikes in Northeastern Ontario, partly because of its pretty, red pine forest and the dramatic waterfall in the Gorge itself, and partly because of the history of the area represented in the points of interest along the trail. Even though the Gorge may have presented an obstacle to voyageurs and lumbermen, I’ve no doubt they were just as impressed by its beauty as we were.
Take Hwy 630 south off of Hwy 17 about 15km west of Mattawa. At Peddlers Drive, go right (west) to Graham Rd (you’ll see a sign for the Eau Claire Conservation Area on your right). Take Graham Rd to the parking area.
Trails are generally easy to moderate, but right near the falls the path down is quite steep, and pine needles underfoot make for loose traction. Be particularly careful near the edge and do not let children get close as there are no fences here.
Parking, a well-maintained bathroom, and trail maps are provided at the trailhead.
WHERE TO STAY:
Le Voyageur Inn, built in 1881, is an historic landmark on the main street of Mattawa, and the oldest building in town. Despite its age, the inn is well-maintained by the Thai couple who own it, and the rooms are clean with updated décor, and comfortable beds and furnishings. The adjacent building is more motel-like, with smaller rooms and bathrooms, but these have been updated as well. The Inn offers affordable rates that include breakfast, and a restaurant that serves good Thai food.