The Grand River has many faces, offering a variety of summer experiences as it flows more than 300 kilometres throughout southwestern Ontario from the highlands of Durham County to Port Maitland on Lake Erie.
Daytrippers and campers alike can dive into activities ranging from whitewater tubing and canoeing to “Huck Finn-style” lazy river rafting and dinner cruises along Ontario’s longest river – designated as one of 37 Canadian Heritage Rivers in 1994.
The Grand watershed, which includes four major tributaries – the Nith, Conestogo, Speed and Eramosa Rivers – meanders through farmlands, towns and cities.
And while the Grand River has a rich and vibrant history – native cultures have flourished along the watershed for over 10,000 years, and many towns built their industry and homesteads around it – it remains a vibrant part of Southern Ontario life. “The Grand River is a water system rich in historical and ecological value,” says Laura Hill, freelance writer with outfitter Treks from the Wild, Six Nations.
The Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA) is the custodian of the Grand River watershed for over 39 communities that line its banks. A great place to begin an outing then is the GRCA website, which will direct you to a number of the conservation authority’s parks. Of the 12 parks, eight offer camping, eight have beaches, three allow motorized boating, and seven non-motorized boating. Beyond that, you’ll find trails, playgrounds, mini-golf and tubing options.
So, where do you begin? For many, summer just isn’t summer without a trip to Elora Gorge and Quarry. Surrounded by 22-meter-high cliffs, the rushing Grand River is perhaps at its most picturesque as it rushes through the Elora Gorge. With campsites offered, it’s easy to make a trip to Elora a long and activity-filled one. One of the location’s biggest draws is tubing – the exhilaration of white water rapids and slower paced flows is a great way to keep cool in the summer. But, visitors beware: equipment rentals are very limited and are offered via the GRCA on a first-come, first-served basis only. And with between 30,000 to 40,000 tubers annually, it’s best to be there early (it’s easier if you’re already parked in a campsite).
Beyond tubing, be sure to visit the cascade falls “Hole in the Rock” and “Tooth of Time” – both beautiful natural elements in this area. Just a stone’s throw away you’ll find the Elora Quarry – a great place to jump in and stay cool. Affectionately referred to as the “old swimming hole,” the Elora Quarry Conservation Area was once a two-acre limestone quarry. Today, the beach and swimming area are encircled by sheer cliffs up to 12 metres high!
Elora isn’t the only attraction along this majestic river. Paddlers of all abilities enjoy getting onto the water and taking in the natural beauty that surrounds them – regardless of where it is they decide to push in. If you don’t own your own kayak or canoe, don’t feel discouraged. Many cities and towns along the water’s edge are home to a number of outfitters provide everything you need.
At Treks in the Wild (treksinthewild.com), located between Brantford and Paris, you’ll find fully guided backcountry canoeing and backpacking – and they have the inside edge on what this stretch of the river has to offer. “Our route from Glen Morris to Paris is one of the areas along the Grand where you can paddle for hours with little to no signs of human presence. This area is also very good for spotting wildlife and a number of iconic natural landmarks, such as a 300-year-old Sycamore tree hollowed out by carpenter ants,” Hill says. “You may also spot many species of plants and wildlife that are unique to this eco-region, including the Virginia opossum and the bald eagle."
“As we paddle through Paris on our way to Brantford, our clients will see abandoned gypsum mines. The gypsum from these mines was used to manufacture plaster of Paris, which in turn gave one of the most beautiful small towns in Ontario its name.” Beyond introducing you to the beauty of the Grand, Treks in the Wild is also focused on teaching any who stop by how to use our natural spaces in a sustainable way.
There’s also Six Nations Canoeing in Oshweken, located between Brantford and Caledonia where the Grand takes on an almost lake-like feel resulting from water backing up behind the Caledonia Dam.
Downriver in Dunnville you’ll find Grand River Kayak – the area’s not-so-secret place for paddlesports. Offering guided tours – between Caledonia in the north and Port Maitland, where you’ll see the Grand empty into Lake Erie – these recreational and informative tours feature the area’s unique wetlands, wildlife and various conservation highlights.
If you’d rather rest than paddle, don’t fret – the Grand River has things to offer you as well. “In spite of eight other outfitters, Grand River Rafting has carved a unique niche through the Lost Art of Knowing,” explains Garth Pottruff. “Our guided trips use rafts as a floating classroom to experience, instead of paddling. People can drink from cold springs, bodysurf in the river, do short hikes to discover edible and medicinal plants, and there is the chance to learn First Nation history, handle stone tools, and make fire without matches.”
Likened to a “Huck Finn” adventure perfect for families with children of all ages, this is another interesting opportunity to experience the Grand in a whole new way. And as Heather Gingerich offers, there’s no level of skill or expertise needed when you book a trip with them. “I specialize in adventure learning with children and accommodating special needs groups. We have such depth of experience on staff and we partner with so many businesses in the area that we can customize a trip for anyone of any age or ability.”
With lunch and dinner cruises available, Grand River Cruises provides casual fine dining and entertainment with some of the most stunning panoramas of the banks along Caledonia through to Brantford. It is a great way to unwind and take in the scenery, while enjoying a meal with friends.
While these are specific Grand River options, there’s nothing stopping paddlers of all types pushing in along any number of Grand River launch spots and floating along this majestic waterway. There are a number of entry points along the Grand, matching skill level and activity level. From slow and serene to white water ready, this river has something for everyone.
But, before you hop in the car and head to the river this summer, be sure to have all the necessities packed and on hand. If you own your own canoe or kayak, they’re a great place to start. Beyond that, pack CSA-approved life jackets, sunscreen, water and snacks. Depending on the time of year, you may want to include some bug spray!
Finally – if you enjoy the water from the banks, don’t fret, the Grand is still worth your visit. Hiking trails and picnic hot spots will call you to its banks, allowing you to see and enjoy the wildlife and natural surroundings, without having to find your sea legs!
Experience the Oldest Living History in Ontario
Your time on the Grand is the perfect opportunity to explore the rich and diverse history of the First Nations people. Six Nations of the Grand River is the largest First Nation in Canada with a total of almost 24,000 band members. It is the only territory in North America that has the six Iroquois nations – the Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida, Seneca and Tuscarora – living together.
A key landmark is the Chiefswood National Historic Site, built in 1856, Chiefswood was the birthplace and home of Mohawk Poetess Tekahionwake E. Pauline Johnson. Pauline Johnson’s father, a Six Nations hereditary Chief named George Johnson, built this stately pre-confederate mansion as a gift to his English bride Emily Howells. Chiefswood reopened on May 19 after renovations, and is now open to the public. chiefswood.com
Just across the road from Chiefswood, visitors can walk along the Six Nations Nature Trail, Oshweken. Formerly known as the Six Nations Hunter’s Trail, the trail highlights the natural beauty the Grand River system is known for, while featuring its historical significance to Aboriginal life.
The Woodland Cultural Centre, located in Brantford, was established in 1972 to “protect, promote, interpret, and present the history, language, intellect and cultural heritage of the Anishinaabe and Onkwehon:we.” Today, it is home to more than 35,000 artifacts, including archeological specimens, documents, furnishings, contemporary paintings, sculptures and more. woodland-centre.on.ca
The Royal Chapel of the Mohawks, built in 1785, is the oldest ‘Protestant’ church in Ontario. It is also the final resting place of Joseph Brant and his son John Brant. The Chapel is open to the public until the end of October. www.mohawkchapel.ca
To fully experience the culture of Aboriginal peoples, a don’t-miss event is the 33rd Annual Grand River ‘Champion of Champions’ Pow Wow July 28 and 29 at Chiefswood Park. The annual event features dancers and singers representing every major North American native cultural group dressed in their finest regalia. You’ll also find craft vendors, and a variety of Canadian and Native summer foods. grpowwow.com/geninfo.html
About the writer: Victoria Ford