The Ottawa Valley in Ontario is packed with recreation opportunities. The Ottawa River itself and its tributaries are famous for everything from flatwater standup paddleboarding to rowdy whitewater kayaking. Meanwhile, the forests sprawling around the river are loaded with rolling singletrack trails. One ambitious event plans to showcase all the recreation the Ottawa Valley has to offer this summer in a massive three-week outdoor festival called Water and Dirt.
“We want to bring people up for a day to participate and allow them to see what the Valley has to offer,” says Colin Coyle, the recreation program director for the Town of Petawawa. “I mean, we’ve got some of the greatest whitewater in the world, and we have Algonquin Park. The whole event has been built on all this stuff that’s naturally in our backyard. There are five municipalities involved and Wilderness Tours. And we’re gaining traction from all over to come to this little rural community to take part in a big festival.”
2023 will be the second annual Water and Dirt Festival organized by the Town of Petawawa, with events taking place in municipalities throughout the region. But the origins of the event stretch back more than a decade. In 2010, two friends Matthew Hinther and Duncan Keith started a fundraiser paddle called Stand Up for CHEO—a two-day, 150-kilometer standup paddleboarding trip to raise money for the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. Over the years, the fundraiser continued and turned into a community paddling event hosted in multiple locations, including Petawawa.
As the charity event evolved, it became connected to Petawawa’s annual Upper Ottawa River Race. Then, in 2022, Petawawa reimagined the summer event, transforming it into an outdoor festival over the course of two weekends. For 2023, the Water and Dirt Festival will have more than 14 outdoor events over three weeks, not to mention concerts and other entertainment.
Water and Dirt has managed to take many outdoor events occurring annually throughout the region and bring them into a coordinated, collaborative effort to celebrate the Ottawa Valley.
While many of the events are formatted as competitions with registration, the places they take place are always open for recreation. According to Coyle, competition isn’t the point anyways.
“There is the competitive component, but it’s more just about getting people who are outdoor-oriented to get together,” Coyle continues. “It’s the camaraderie between people in these different interests like paddlers and cyclists to come up and enjoy the Valley.”
There are plenty of options for non-competitive folks too, including entertainment and free activities.
7 More Reasons To Visit The Water And Dirt Festival This Summer
1. It Doesn’t Matter If You Finish First Or Last At The Upper Ottawa River Race
The Upper Ottawa River Race remains the marquee event of the festival. Participants race in everything from canoes to standup paddleboards and even outriggers. While the race may be a competition for some, for others it’s just a good reason to get on the water in celebration of the Ottawa.
There is a 13-kilometer option launching from the sandy beach at Petawawa Point and finishing downstream at Pembroke Riverside Park. Or a shorter, four-kilometer race that all takes place from Pembroke. Whether you reach the finish line first or last there’s music, food and some great swag waiting.
2. SUP For The Pups In The Doggy Paddle
The Doggy Paddle is a charity community outing in support of the Ontario SPCA and Humane Society. It’s the perfect opportunity to bring your furry paddling buddy and share the water in camaraderie in raising funds for the Renfrew County Animal Centre.
3. Partake In Every Paddler’s Favorite Non-Paddling Activity At The Forest Lea Mountain Bike Race
Just outside of Pembroke, Forest Lea Park offers 32 kilometers of technical singletrack. The trail network is gaining notoriety as some of the best riding in the province. Rocky and rooty are the words used to describe Forest Lea’s purpose-built loops.
The Forest Lea Enduro Mountain Bike Race will be an exciting 25 kilometers long, taking riders on a grueling course. The Forest Lea Enduro Race has been taking place for 15 years and is now partnering with Water and Dirt. Forest Lea will also be the event site for Water and Dirt’s trail run. So don’t worry if you left the bike at home—the festival has plenty of ways you can get some tread on the dirt in this prime Crown Land location.
4. Take In A Starry Night On The Moonlight Float
There are few experiences that rival a night paddle under a starry sky. The only way we can think of topping it is to join the Ottawa paddling community on a warm summer night. The Moonlight Paddle launches from Petawawa Point Beach onto the flatwater of the Upper Ottawa, and stargazers will be in for a treat. The event on August 17 is just a day after the new moon, meaning there won’t be much moonlight at all, and summer constellations will be on full display.
5. Watch Whitewater Racers Go Head-To-Head Right In Petawawa
The class III to IV Railroad Rapids on the Petawawa River make for an entertaining arena for whitewater kayakers to battle it out in a head-to-head race right in Petawawa. Extreme slalom is quickly gaining popularity in kayaking, thanks to its future inclusion in the Olympics. The Water and Dirt Extreme Slalom is just for kicks and the recreational event is open to any whitewater paddlers who want to have some fun and make the rapids even more challenging as a racecourse.
6. There Are Plenty Of Bass To Be Caught In The Kayak Fishing Tournament
The Kayak Anglers Association of the Outaouais has partnered with Water and Dirt to host their annual Ottawa Valley Kayak Fishing Tournament as part of the festivities. You know the deal. Five bass. Catch, photo, measure, release. Paddle, pedal, electric—all propulsion is good to go as long as it’s from the seat of your kayak. Even if there’s more fishing than catching, we can’t think of a better way to enjoy a summer Saturday morning.
7. Post Recreation Festivities
Come for a race, stick around for the party. The Water and Dirt Festival is about celebrating the beauty and opportunities of the Ottawa Valley, and there’s no better way to do that than with post-paddle or trail music, food and awards. The three-week Water and Dirt Festival coincides with Pembroke’s free nightly Waterfront Live Series and weekly Yoga in the Park. In addition, on Saturday evenings in Petawawa each weekend of the festival, Water and Dirt will provide festival entertainment including musical acts and medal ceremonies.
The Water and Dirt Festival begins on August 10, 2023 and wraps on August 27. Learn more at Water and Dirt.