The Great Northern Route


Midway between Pembroke and Renfrew, you can see the Ottawa River loop north around Cobden, a little town on Muskrat Lake. Renfrew, another of Ontario’s many Scots-founded towns, is now a center of high-tech industry.

Hwy-17 approaches the banks of the Ottawa near Arnprior 17 mi (31 km) east of Renfrew. Founded in 1823 by Archibald McNab, a despotic Scottish lord who imported dozens of his countrymen and women to the settlement and ruthlessly exploited them. This reign of terror ended when the townsfolk banded together and drove him away. There’s a museum in the old stone post office building, and downtown boasts some moderately priced motels and, best of all, Wes’ Chips (198 Madawaska Blvd., 613/623-5492, Apr.-Oct.), an open-air chip stand selling the exquisite Canadian delicacy Americans call french fries. Worth planning your day around, for sure!

East of Arnprior, Hwy-17 continues its trek toward Ottawa with a 90-km/h (55-mph) maximum speed posted; occasional passing lanes help you get around the timber trucks. The highway curves gradually southward, away from the Ottawa River, through mostly flat woodlands and a few farms, then converts to freeway for the run into Ottawa.


Offering the best views of Ottawa’s dramatic riverside setting, the Francophone town of Gatineau (pop. 284,557) is a nice change of pace from the Canadian capital. Known as “Hull” until a civic reorganization in 2002, when it was renamed, Gatineau is older than Ottawa and is French-speaking despite having been founded in 1800 by an American Loyalist, Philemon Wright, fleeing the Revolution.

The best thing about Gatineau, apart from the chance to walk across the bridges and wander the riverside parks that link it to Ottawa, is the Canadian Museum of History (100 Laurier St., 819/776-7000 or 800/555-5621, daily, C$20), a huge and fascinating institution, housed in two sinuously curving buildings that are a combined 100,000 sq m (more than one million sq ft) on the banks of the Ottawa River, directly across the water from the Parliament Buildings at the foot of the Alexandria Bridge. The main lobby is filled with historic totem poles and canoes made by Canada’s diverse indigenous peoples, and galleries elsewhere in the building highlight everything from whaling communities in Labrador to life on the vast western prairies. It’s a fun and educational place, well worth half a day at least. It has the added bonus of a nice restaurant serving lunch.

Related Travel Map

Map of the Great Northern through Canada (East).
Map of the Great Northern through Canada (East).

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