Even today the Mattawa River is best travelled by canoe, the same way it has been travelled by First Nations for hundreds of years. The first Europeans to travel up the river, Etienne Brule (1610), and Samuel de Champlain (1615) did so in the canoes of their First Nation guides.
For some 200 years thereafter, the Mattawa River formed part of the important water route leading from Montreal west to Lake Superior. It was the primary access to the vast Canadian interior in the days of the fur trade.
During the early days of logging in the area, the Mattawa was used to float logs downstream to mills.
The arrival of the railroad to Mattawa in 1881 was the biginning of the end of the Mattawa as an important transportation link. Since 1970, much of the river has been protected as the Mattawa River Provincial Park, and remains a premier recreational paddling route.
Each July recreational paddlers challenge the rivers entire 64km length from North Bay to Mattawa, in the one day Mattawa River Canoe Race.
The river can be broken up into various day and multi day paddling trips, by either canoe or kayak. The most popular day trip is from Pimisi Bay (Hwy 17) to Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park. The Mattawa River canoe route map published by The Adventure Map company is available at Algonquin North Wilderness Outfitters on Hwy 17, or at the Park Store in Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park. One day Guided Trips and Self Guided Trips on the river are available from Algonquin North Wilderness Outfitters.
Voyageur Canoe Tours are offered by the staff of Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park in July and August.