The Arnprior area of the Ottawa River

The approach to Arnprior.

The waters above the Chats Falls hydro electric dam often appear to be forbidden territory for most people who sail the lower part of the Ottawa River which includes Lake Deschenes. However, this body of water is forbidden territory only for those people who are unable to trailer or transport their boats around the dam. Since our family has a highly trailerable Macgregor 25, we decided to explore these cruising grounds. Here is what we discovered.

Differences Above & Below the Dam

Although there are inevitable similarities between the parts of the Ottawa River above and below the Chats Falls dam, there are also some important differences. We noticed that cruising and overnight anchoring does not seem to be very popular on the waters above the dam. In fact, we soon realized that this was power boat country. It's not that people are into mega horsepower, it's just that sailing has never caught on in a big way. During our cruise, we could see sailboats here and there, but they were few and far between. The ones we did see tended to be dinghies or trailerable sailboats in the 20 to 25 foot range.

The actual body of water is a little smaller than what people are used to below the Chats Falls Dam. While this part of the Ottawa River is approximately 38 kilometers (23 miles) long, only 26 kilometers (16 miles) of it would be of much interest to anyone cruising with a sailboat. It also has quite a few shallow spots, especially in some areas along the Quebec side of the river that are littered with small islands. Shoals in these areas tend to spoil what might otherwise be very interesting anchorages. Whatever the case, it is still easy to navigate the main channel of the river with the aid of Canadian hydrographical chart #1551.

As we started our cruise, we made a number of other observation about this part of the Ottawa River. We found that there are no Gatineau Hills to dominate the view of the Quebec side of the river. We were surprised to see that, mile for mile, the shoreline of this body of water has as many cottages and built-up areas as the part of the river that we are familiar with. And we noted that, unfortunately, navigable access to and from this body of water is cut off by the Chats Falls Dam in the east, and the Chenaux dam at Portage-du-Fort in the west. On this last point, it is worth mentioning that by the summer of 2004 a special hydraulic trailer service operated by Lake Temiskaming/Ottawa River Waterway Project should be in place, and it will allow boats to bypass the Chenaux dam.

Starting off from the Madawaska River

Like many people visiting this body of water, we began our cruise in
Arnprior at one of several launch ramps located in and around the mouth of the Madawaska River. Arnprior Island was the first thing we noticed when heading out into the Ottawa River. Local boaters told us there are shoals roughly midway between this island and the Ontario shoreline which are somewhat more dangerous than the chart would suggest. Luckily, they are easily avoided by staying on east of a line drawn between the mouth of the Madawaska River and Arnprior Island.

We first headed east and quickly spotted the iron railway bridge which crosses the river further downstream. Clearance under this bridge is limited to 15 feet, meaning that larger sailboats will not be able to travel the final 3 kilometers (2 miles) of the river lying above the Chats Falls Dam. However, there is little reason to do so. The chart indicates that the area is peppered with shoals and there are reports that the current on this part of the river can be quite strong if the dam is spilling large amounts of water.

There is an anchorage in the northwest corner of Chats Bay, on the Quebec side of the river just opposite of Arnprior. It is not a spectacular anchorage in terms of view or privacy, but it has a good mud bottom and offers excellent protection from a wide range of winds, including the area's prevailing
The Gillies Saw Mill.
northwest wind. The main draw back to this anchorage is that it is within earshot of numerous cottages, although we did find a couple of spots where it was possible to drop the hook without being immediately in front of someone's residences. Once we settled in for the night, we also discovered that this anchorage is in easy earshot of a railway line that runs behind the cottages.

Heading up river means passing relatively close to the south side of Arnprior Island in order to avoid the shoals mentioned earlier. The Gillies Saw Mill is the next major feature of this body of water, and its tall stacks of timber dominate the scenery for several hundred feet of shoreline. When a west wind is blowing, the scent of freshly cut wood is enough to convince boaters that they are sailing through the middle of a lumber yard, which is almost the case.

Norway Bay: "Little Ottawa"

Once past the saw mill, Norway Bay quickly comes into view on the Quebec side of the river. The Chart indicates that the village of Norway Bay has a public pier which jets out some 600 hundred feet into the Ottawa River. Sand Point is located on the opposite side of the river from Norway Bay, and it has a wharf with a public launch ramp.

Because of the pier and relatively large size of this village, we figured Norway Bay would be a good place to stop to replenish our ice supplies and check things out. Unfortunately, this community does not go out of its way to make boaters feel welcome. Its east side is cordoned off for swimmers, while the rest of the pier has been stripped of cleats and any other appendages to tie up to. The west side of the pier has a ladder leading down to a 5 by 3 foot landing for a boat, but it too is lacking any place to tie a line to. We managed to tie our dock lines to the ladder, but this was not a satisfactory arrangement as the boat kept pivoting around the small landing.

(Update: It appears that Norway Bay has taken steps to make boaters feel more welcome. There are reports that the community has installed new docking facilities on the west side of the pier to answer the needs of boaters. Information provided in spring of 1997.)

The village of Norway Bay is apparently known as "Little Ottawa", and largely consists of rows upon rows of cottages, many of which sit on tiny lots and are equipped with satellite dishes. A ten minute walk up the road leading to the pier brought me to a convenience store where it was possible to stock up on ice and other supplies. However, I found myself waiting at the cash because of a lineup of people waiting to return and sign out video movies.

We didn't spend much time at Norway Bay, and we were soon heading up river. In order to avoid some shoals in the area west of Norway Bay, our route took us around the south side of Lighthouse Island. As we passed the island, we noticed that despite its name and what the current chart indicates, it no longer has a lighthouse! We could not tell if it is inhabited, but we did notice that its northwest side consists of a rock facade which drops almost vertically into relatively deep water. This should make it possible for boats to tie up right against the island, and we saw at least one powerboat doing this.

Anchorage Behind Boom Island?

Continuing further up river involves navigating through a shallow area just south of the Kennedy Islands, but this is fairly easy with the aid of strategically placed buoys. Beyond this lies Boom Island. Sailors in the Arnprior area report that there is an anchorage in the narrow strip of water between the island and the Quebec shoreline. Immediately to the east of Boom Island are two slightly smaller islands which are unnamed on the chart. Care should be taken not to drop the hook in what first appears to be an ideal anchorage behind one of these island. Although there is sufficient depth, a close inspection of the chart will reveal that this spot has a fouled bottom and is not suitable for anchoring.

We wanted to check out the anchorage behind Boom Island. We noticed a rather nasty looking rock (charted and buoyed with plastic bottles) guarding the southeast entrance of this channel between Boom Island and the unnamed islands. As we slowly motored into this area, we also spotted some other rocks/deadheads further in. At the time a fairly strong west wind and associated wave action was pushing us into this restricted channel faster than we wanted. We therefore decided to back out and come back later in our cruise to check out this anchorage under more favourable conditions.

It was hot and our kids were in need of a swim stop, so we crossed to the Ontario side of the river and dropped anchor behind McCrearys Point. This land formation appears to have been created by deposits flowing from the Bonnechere River. The point offers good protection from west to south winds, but not much else. It is also exposed to the wake of passing powerboats, and its shoreline is surrounded by cottages and houses. It was fine for a swim stop, but we were soon heading down river looking for a suitable overnight anchorage.

Stories of an Anchorage at Stories Bay

The train passing by the anchorage at Stories Bay.
We had our eyes set on Stories Bay on the Ontario side of the river southwest of Lighthouse Island. As we made our way into the bottom corner of this bay, we discovered a beautiful anchorage surrounded by an undeveloped shoreline. It is well sheltered from winds blowing west and south, and by tucking our boat in behind a prominent rock outcrop, we also assured ourselves full protection from any north wind. The bay has plenty of room for two or three boats, and its mud bottom makes for easy anchoring. Generally, it is deeper and offers more protection than the chart would suggest.

The only down side to this anchorage is that there is a railway line running right next to Stories Bay. If I recall correctly, my kids counted one train with four locomotives pulling a hundred and two cars. Mercifully, the trains do not have to blast their horns because of nearby road crossings.

Unfortunately, our cruise was cut short by inclement weather, and Stories Bay was our last anchorage on this part of the Ottawa River. We had planned to spend another day or two exploring this body of water, and obviously wanted to check out the anchorage behind Boom Island.

We were even thinking of poking our nose into the final seven kilometers (four miles) of the river leading up to the Chenaux dam. We probably would not have gone very far in this direction as the chart indicates that this stretch of the Ottawa River is very narrow, and that parts of it are stuffed with small islands and sand bars. The width of the resulting waterways range from several hundred feet to not much more than a thousand feet. One powerboater (and former sailor) familiar with the area believes that when the water is running fast, sailboats equipped the standard 9.9 horsepower outboard could have a very difficult time handling the currents in this part of the river.

Although our stay on this body of water was cut short, we saw enough of it to know that it can accommodate boats setting out on a three or four day cruise. There can be little doubt that people used to sailing below the Chats Falls dam will soon feel right at home on this part of the Ottawa River.

 Trailering to Arnprior

At highway speeds, Arnprior is only a 30 minute drive from the Lac Deschenes area in west-end Ottawa.

Turn off onto the Madawaska Road when approaching the town from the east on Highway 17. In a few kilometers you will come to a bridge that crosses the Madawaska River. Downtown Arnprior begins on the other side of the bridge, but if you want to go to the Chats Lakes Yacht Club, you will have to turn right on the first street before the bridge (appropriately named Bridge Street). You will then have to turn left onto Riverview Drive, on which you find the club. This is a residential area so it is fairly easy to find your way around.

The Chats Lakes Yacht Club does not offer services to the general public, but it often gives permission to members of other yacht clubs to use its facilities. Finding someone to ask permission could be a problem on weekdays when there may not be many people around this small club. I should add that I was made to feel very welcomed when using their facilities to launch and retrieve our boat. The club has a concrete ramp that is more or less in the same condition as the one at the marina. It is slightly steeper than normal.

On the other side of the Madawaska River is the HMCS Marina (behind the Catholic Church in the heart of town). This marina has a 100 slips and a full service launch ramp. It also operates the Fitzroy Ottawa River Bypass and can haul a variety of boats. To get there, you will have to cross the bridge into the beginnings of downtown Arnprior. You then turn right on the first street after the bridge (there is a small museum at the corner). The phone number for the marina is 613-623-5400.

One last word about launching and retrieving boats on the Madawaska River in Arnprior. There is a weir (a long mini dam) a little way upriver on the Madawaska. It is in easy view of the yacht club and marina. Quite a strong current will develop in the Madawaska River when the generating station further upstream causes water to spill over the lip of the weir. Local boaters say this can make launching and retrieving a boat very difficult, though not impossible.

Text, photos, and map by Michael McGoldrick.
(article first written in 1995, with a few minor updates)
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