The Grand has a lot of history in its current. Linking the communities of Waterloo, Kitchener, Cambridge, Paris, Brantford, Caledonia, Cayuga and Dunnville – many of which were river hamlets that grew and grew—the Grand is one of our esteemed Canadian Heritage Rivers and one of the few non-wilderness rivers with such status.
Funny though, for all its rural presence, the river can also exude the essence of wilderness. Some sections are framed with tall greenery. Bald eagles soar on air currents above while great blue herons stalk marshy alcoves around the banks. So while paddlers are never far from a major community, they may seem to be light years away from the concrete bustle. Peace permeates.
Funny too how the Grand is so easily overlooked by avid paddlers. “There was a time when the Grand was heavily polluted and its flow inconsistent,” says Dave Schultz, communications manager for Grand River Conservation Authority. “It’s only been in the last 30 years or so that the river has become a place to enjoy. It’s starting to pick up now, but people still don’t know how easy it is to get to.”
Indeed, there are 30 different access points along this 300-kilometre waterway, running from its source in the Dufferin Highlands, northwest of Orangeville, southeast to Port Maitland and into Lake Erie. This allows for a whole range of possibilities from family-friendly hour-long glides to enthusiastic six-day-long paddles.
No pre-planning or even a canoe is required. Outfitters will provide equipment rentals, route suggestions and drop-off and pick-up services. And the Grand is not only suitable for canoeing; there are rafting, tubing and kayaking options too.
Paddling experience isn’t even necessary. While the river runs swift in spring with a few exciting rapids, the water flow in summer is generally slow and lulling, great for beginners and fabulous for families. (However, a rainstorm could suddenly change that making the water run high and fast for a spell.)
The gentlest section of the river is the upper third. “Past Elora Gorge, the river flattens out and remains very safe and shallow all the way to Cambridge,” says Ned Courtney, owner of Canoeing the Grand, a Kitchener-based outfitter who rents both canoes and kayaks.
This section also features Mennonite Country. Between Elora and Waterloo, paddlers cruise past pastoral landscape with cattle grazing in the meadows of rolling hills. It’s not uncommon here to see a horse and buggy crossing a bridge or people from nearby communities fishing along the riverbanks.
Striking relics from the past include the ruin of a stone mill and the great concrete pillars of a former railroad bridge at Glen Morris. In Six Nations territory between Brantford and Caledonia, the family home of the famous Canadian poet Pauline Johnson faces the river. It’s a National Historic Site where paddlers can stop and explore the location. Six dams require portaging, but they’re not long, and can easily be avoided on half-day trips. The dams are marked with buoys, and both the pull-out points and portages are well-marked.
You can camp right beside the river – but why tent it? The advantage of such a well-connected waterway is that there is no shortage of amenities close by. A day of paddling could easily be topped by a night on the town with dinner, theatre and a cozy stay at an historic inn or bed and breakfast.
Outfitters offer a kaleidoscope of self-guided (and guided) package tours. With Canoeing the Grand, which operates between Elora and Paris, clients have their pick of themes, topping their day with gourmet dining in the Waterloo region, St. Jacobs shopping, zip lining or a cultural experience. Paddlers can also choose dining options and accommodation, including the elegant Langdon Hall Country House Hotel & Spa near Cambridge or the historic Breadalbane Inn & Spa in Fergus.
Grand River Rafting, based in Paris, provides rafts, tubes, canoes, kayaks and even bikes for exploring. At the south end of the river, Grand River Kayak in Dunnville offers workshops such as how to pack a kayak for overnight camping and Photography for Paddlers, along with lessons and all kinds of combinations for paddling, hiking, yoga and photography excursions.