The Grand River flows 300 kilometres from its source near Dundalk, south of Georgian Bay, to its mouth on Lake Erie at Port Maitland. The section between Paris and Brantford has come in for special attention, an “Exceptional Waterway” area that offers some of the river’s best paddling, fishing and wildlife viewing. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Wondering why the Grand River is a heritage waterway?
Find out by paddling a canoe, sleeping in an old factory ...

Since 1984, a national organization of volunteers has been working to preserve Canada’s most historically, culturally and environmentally important rivers.  

One of the first rivers to be recognized in the Canadian Heritage Rivers System is one that might have fallen victim to the urban pressures of our modern lifestyle, but which has instead been protected and promoted.  

The Grand River flows 300 kilometres from its source near Dundalk, south of Georgian Bay, to its mouth on Lake Erie at Port Maitland. Along its length, it drops 352 metres in elevation and drains 7,000 square kilometres of southwestern Ontario. It passes through farmland, natural areas nearly untouched by human hand, through a dramatic gorge and past bustling industrial cities.  

“Much of the Grand’s charm is the aura of history that still clings to its banks,” the Heritage River organization says in its description of the Grand. “The riverfront in rural and urban areas retains much of its early architectural flavour. Many 19th-century mills, foundries, factories and engineering works still stand.”  

Good examples of mills and factories, both operating and converted to new uses, can be found in Cambridge along the Grand River.  

Volunteer-driven program

Many of Canada’s rivers have been inundated with dams and diversion projects, sullied by pollution and development. It was in recognition of how the pressures of our way of life were impacting our rivers that the Canadian Heritage Rivers System was established as the country’s national river conservation program in 1984.  
While it was created by the national, provincial and territorial governments, the program is operated and overseen by volunteers. The CHRS has no legislative authority and exists to promote, protect and enhance Canada’s river heritage through persuasion and goodwill.  

The first designated heritage waterway was Ontario’s French River, which divides Northern and Southern Ontario, followed by the Boundary Waters-Voyageur Waterway between Ontario and Minnesota. Then came the Grand, the first designated river in Southern Ontario.  

Designating a river is not a quick and easy process. Criteria essential for consideration include significant natural value, historical importance, recreational potential and support from the public. The Grand proved itself worthy.  

It flows through the Carolinian Forest zone, which includes stands of black walnut, oak, hickory, sassafras and sycamore trees. Wildlife includes beaver, muskrat, mink, white-tail deer and possum, as well as 292 species of birds.  

Nature galore along the winding Grand River

The Grand is a bird-watcher’s paradise, with turkey vultures, bald eagles, red-tailed hawk and osprey, as well as the more common Baltimore oriole, cardinal, kingfisher and ruby-throated hummingbird. The section between Paris and Brantford has come in for special attention, an “Exceptional Waterway” area that offers some of the river’s best paddling, fishing and wildlife viewing. A total of 114 species have been confirmed on this stretch of river, 64 of which come to the area to breed.  

The cold water entering the Grand in this area makes it an excellent habitat for a wide range of fish species, including smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pike and rainbow trout. It’s home to two at-risk species, the black redhorse and river redhorse.  

The Grand has been known by several names over its years of human habitation. The Mohawks called it O:se Kenhionhata:tie, or willow river. The early French explorers named it La Rapide or La Grande. And for a while in the late 18th century it was called the Ouse, before the name Grand was finally selected.  

In the early 1800s, locks and canals were constructed to make it navigable between Lake Erie and Brantford and the Grand became a place filled with ships. There were regular cargo and passenger ship voyages between Brantford and Buffalo.  

The Grand River Conservation Authority was established in 1938 and became the first water management agency in the nation. The watershed also consists of four main tributary rivers, the Speed, the Conestoga, the Eramosa and the Nith.  

Today, about 900,000 people live within the boundaries of the 38 municipalities that line its banks.  

There are many ways to enjoy the charms of the Grand River today. You can take a driving tour to the diverse array of communities along its banks and take in the many festivals held along the route. There are studio tours and festivals covering dance, multiculturalism, jazz, maple syrup and art. There are wood and stone mills where you can sleep, eat, shop and even buy flour.  

You can pick up information and detailed maps covering the many hiking and birding trails that cross the region. There is also a book, Paddling the Grand River, available from the conservation authority and from local shops, containing canoe maps, aerial photos of dams and their portages, details and co-ordinates of river access points, outfitters, camping and everything else needed for your voyage.  

Among the interesting facts connected to the Grand River:  

• The West Montrose or Kissing Bridge, first built in 1881, is Ontario’s last remaining covered bridge.  

• You can see the world’s largest pothole, one of a concentration of 300 similar features created at the time of the last Ice Age by rocks swirling in a glacial melt-water stream. The Devil’s Well, which is nearly six metres wide and more than 13 metres deep, is the granddaddy of them all. Many of the potholes are contained within the Rockwood Conservation Area on the Eramosa River, northeast of Guelph.  

You can learn more about the Grand River online. - June 2010