In 1615, French explorer Samuel de Champlain and his companions pulled up their canoes at a natural camping spot nestled in the junction of the Ottawa and Mattawa rivers. The site offered flat ground and a spectacular view of both rivers and the surrounding Laurentian Mountains. Four centuries later, the tradition continues. The idyllic location is now known as Explorer’s Point Park. Most of the year it serves as a boat launch, community space and picnic area to locals and visitors alike. But for four days every summer, Mattawa‘s Explorer’s Point becomes the home of one of the oldest and best outdoor music festivals in Northern Ontario, the Mattawa Voyageur Days Festival.
In 1997, a group of Mattawa organizations and individuals decided to create a multi-day event that showcased the region’s geographic and cultural blessings. “We knew we had a lot of potential here with the history and scenery,” says Jacques Begin, one of the festival’s co-founders. “We also had some very talented local musicians, artists and crafts people” The organizers chose the last full weekend of July to hold the event because that was when the weather was most likely to be perfect for outdoor activities. The backbone of the festival was to be a multi-day outdoor music concert but besides the music there would also be a range of other activities scheduled to entertain visitors of all ages.
Rock music groups Toronto, the Headpins and Trooper were the featured music performers for the very first festival in 1998, with tickets costing only five dollars for the whole weekend. A local funeral home served as a back-up dressing room for the bands. Ra McGuire, lead singer for Trooper, says “The setting, surrounded by rivers and mountains, is perfect for an outdoor rock show. The view from the stage is amazing. The Mattawa crowd is one of the friendliest in Canada. This may be because we’ve been there so many times that they’re all like old friends! They are always happy and rockin’—and really into the music.”
Since 1998, ticket prices have gone up but so has the length of the festival and the variety of the acts. Trooper has played the festival seven times, but other groups have included Prairie Oyster, David Wilcox, Colin James, White Snake, April Wine, Honeymoon Suite, Kim Mitchell, Loverboy, Blue Oyster Cult, Goddo, Teenage Head, The Stampeders, Glass Tiger, Alanna Myles, Barney Bentall & the Legendary Hearts, Cowboy Junkies, Randy Bachman and Cheap Trick.
“The venue is as good as it gets,” agrees bluesman David Wilcox who has also performed at the festival many times. “Playing in nature always inspires artists enormously and the Mattawa festival is a great example of this. The Mattawa festival is extremely well-run and always a highlight of any festival season.” Wilcox says the Mattawa audience is his favourite kind of crowd—superb energy and a rocking good time.
The festival now spans four days, from Thursday evening to Sunday night. Festival fans can buy admission wristbands for a specific day or one that covers the entire weekend. Besides music, there are plenty of things for the whole family to enjoy at the festival. Different organizations sponsor a golf tournament, a bingo game, nature excursions, and a junior fishing derby. Explorer’s Point is just a two minute walk to the down town core where visitors can find fast food vendors, restaurants, arts and crafts stores and all kinds of shopping.
The famous Mattawa River Canoe race is held on the Saturday of the festival weekend. Participants can trace the exact route of early explorers, voyageurs and First Nations traders as they paddle 64 kilometers from North Bay to Mattawa. For beginner and more moderate canoeists, there is also a 13 km Family/Junior race from Samuel de Champlain Park to Mattawa Island. For more information, click here.
The population of Mattawa triples during the festival weekend but there are plenty accommodations available. The Canadian Ecology Centre, located within Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park, offers clean cabin accommodations about 15 minutes away from the festival grounds. For visitors seeking a more traditional hotel, the historic Le Voyageur Inn is located right in the town centre and is just a short walk to the festival. If you’re looking for a riverside cabin with all the amenities you need, Mattawa Adventure Camp is about 5 minutes away from Explorer’s Point and offers pontoon and fishing boat rentals if you choose to explore the waterways.
With thousands of visitors converging on Mattawa every year for the festival, even Samuel de Champlain would be wise these days to make reservations in advance. This year’s Voyageur Days are July 22 to July 24, 2016. For tickets and the latest information on this year’s musical line-up, click here.