Bhutan’s Snowman Trek: Day 1 – Paro To Shana to Thongo Samba

Previous Posts:  Bhutan’s Snowman Trek Preview- mostly images

Part 1 From Paro To Shana To Laya
Part 2 – From Laya To Chozo To Sephu

a satellite view of the first three days of the trek - the way to Jomolhari B.C./Jangothang

a satellite view of the first three days of the trek – the way to Jomolhari B.C./Jangothang

Day 1 –  Shana To Thongo Samba

  • time: 3.5 hrs.
  • distance: about 7.5 km.
  • start point altitude:  2885m. at the Shana bridge
  • endpoint campsite: Thongo Samba  3260m –  a clearing on the east side of the Paro Chhu just after the side trail to Tremo La and the Tibetan border.
  • Maps: Bart jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman Trek, as well as others.

The Dewachen Resort is located on the hillside to the west of the Paro Chhu and about three kilometers to the north of Paro’s small downtown area.  We spent two nights there as we got over the effects of jet lag and did some pre-trip preparation. We also spent a half-day visiting what is probably Bhutan’s #1 tourist attraction – the Taktsang Monastery (aka the Tiger’s Nest).

Taktsang Monastery to the north of Paro

At 8:30 a.m. of our third day in Bhutan, we set off for Shana.  (The Lonely Planet Bhutan guidebook names it Sharna Zampa. Zampa is one transliteration of the Dzongkha word for “bridge”.)) Since it is currently the end of the road from Paro,  Shana now serves as the starting point for most treks going up to Jangothang and Jomolhari B.C.

(We did later meet a group of four Canadian trekkers whose local agency had them start from Drugyel Dzong. The thinking may be that the 300 meters in elevation gain from Drugyel Dzong (2580m) to Shana are enough for Day 1 and that the 12-kilometer road walk makes for an easy introduction to the coming rigours of the trek.)

The Snowman Trek – the bus and pick up truck ready to take us to the trailhead at Shana

On the dirt road to Shana, we would get one more view of Taktsang Monastery, three kilometers away on the other side of the Paro Chu. Click on the image below to see the arrow indicating the Tiger’s Nest location!

Click on the image to see the arrow indicating The Tiger Nest’s location!

Then it was further up the west side of the river until we came to Drugyel Dzong, which was until a few years ago the end of the road and the start of the local/trader/trekker trail up to Jangothang and on to Lingshi and Chebisa and Laya.

a view of Drugyel Dzong as we approach from Paro

We walked up to the hilltop to see the fortress close up. While a photographer’s hope is a clear day so as to be able to frame a shot of the dzong with Jomolhari in the background, the cloud cover nixed that possibility!

Drugyel Dzong – a view from the south

The dzong (essentially a monastery fortress) was built in 1649 during a time of tensions with Tibet and turmoil within Bhutan itself as rival Buddhist sects challenged Zhabdrung for the control of what is now western Bhutan. It was one of a number that Zhabdrung had ordered to be built during the 1640s – e.g. Semtokha, Punakha, Paro.  Not far to the north of the fortress is Tremo La,  one of the passes over which Tibetan armies had come in the past, sometimes invited by those Bhutanese lamas opposed to Zhabdrung.

Over the years, earthquakes and in 1951 a devastating fire left the hilltop in ruins.  It was only in 2016 that work to restore the dzong to its former glory was started.

the Drugyel Dzong interior – a view from the north

After a walk up to the hilltop, we stood in the courtyard with a tall tower in front of us.  It was enclosed by three-storey buildings that served both as enclosing walls and as housing and storage for the dzong’s inhabitants.

Drugyal’s central tower – October 2019

At the site were perhaps thirty people engaged in restoration work, which will apparently be completed by December 2022. (See here for some background info.)

It is twelve kilometers from the Drugyel Dzong to Shana. We had a bit more narrow dirt road to go down before we got there.

building in the traditional Bhutanese style on the road to Shana from Drugyel Dzong

Just before Shana, we stopped for a few minutes at the army-manned checkpoint Gunitsawa while our local guide had our trekking permits checked by the official.  We would be entering one of Bhutan’s largest protected areas, the 4,349 sq. km. Dorje National Park. The trek to Jomolhari starts in the park’s south-west corner.

National Parks and Protected Areas in Bhutan – Jigme Dorje Park in deep blue

the road to Shana from Drugyel Dzong

the road to Shana from Drugyel Dzong

Just before noon, we arrived at Shana.  The satellite image below shows perhaps a dozen buildings in Shana and the broken red line the first 2 kilometers of the trail that we would soon be walking up to Jomolhari and beyond.

We were ushered into the yard on the side of a building where we were greeted by support staff belonging to the Thimphu adventure travel agency Yangphel in charge of the actual trek. [I booked the trip through World Expeditions,  an Australian company specializing in small group adventure travel that I had used before.]

A covered table was already set for lunch.   We didn’t know it at the time but we were not far from the footbridge across the river and the start of the horse trail up the Paro Chhu valley.

the lunch tent at Shana

Under his own umbrella sat a Buddhist monk/priest with all the paraphernalia associated with ritual – incense, special bowls, etc. I did notice that the carboard box which served as the altar had once held a couple of dozen whisky bottles. In the background as we ate lunch, I occasionally tuned in to the chanting and ritual gestures the monk was engaged in.  Before we left the grounds, we lined up for him to drape a khata, a white scarf, over each of our necks. I ‘m still not sure why he was the one bestowing the khata.  I figured in this situation it should have been we trekkers in thanks for his petitioning the deities on our behalf.

a Buddhist priest doing prayers for our benefit

Before we set off, there was one more issue to deal with.  We would be saying goodbye to the drivers who had driven the bus over the past two and a half days.  US$10. from each one of us was the suggested tip – $160. in all.  While I can’t say for sure how much a bus driver in Bhutan earns per day, $30. is I think a reasonable guess. (I base that on what someone in Nepal or India in the same situation might earn.)  Feel free to correct me on the actual wage if I am way off,  but in the meanwhile, I still find the idea of a $160. U.S. tip in this situation astonishing. If nothing else, we helped to raise not only Bhutan’s GDP but also its National Happiness Index number just a titch!

the start of the trek at the Shana bridge – 

Day 1 –  Shana To Thongo Samba

  • time: 3.5 hrs.
  • distance: about 7.5 km.
  • start point altitude:  2885m. at the Shana bridge
  • endpoint campsite: Thongo Samba  3260m –  a clearing on the east side of the Paro Chhu just after the side trail to Tremo La and the Tibetan border.
  • Maps: Bart jordans’ Trekking In Bhutan has some useful overview maps of the many possible variations of the Snowman Trek, as well as others.

After putting on our rain gear – pants and hooded jackets and, for some, gaiters – it was time to set off.   We set off in the rain at about 1:30 and arrived at the campsite around 5:00 p.m. – a four-hour walk.  The one defining feature was the muddy horse-shit littered “trail” that we walked up. I was also surprised to see the hydro-electric poles; we would follow the wires almost all the way to Laya.  They were a reminder that the isolation and rustic living conditions which once defined this area along the border with Tibet was ending. I sometimes consciously framed my images in such a way that the wires and poles would not be in them, and thus preserving the “used to be” look of the landscape!

hydro-electric poles on the side of the trail – a common site for the first ten days

a rainy – and muddy -introduction to the trekking trails of Bhutan

The Bart Jordans’ guidebook to trekking in Bhutan has this line about the first couple of days of the trek as you walk through the lush forested terrain on either side of the Paro Chhu –

The trail climbs steadily through a beautiful thick forest of oak, rhododendron, bamboo and ferns. Look out for birds: there are many species here.

Given the trail conditions, looking up at the tree canopy for birdlife was the last thing on our minds. Instead, we were focussed on the mix of mud and horse shit that we were walking through.  Every step involved an assessment that involved avoiding the mud and horse shit and stepping on something solid and flat enough to allow us to follow with another solid step. A couple of hours of this can get a bit tiresome! I slipped once thanks to a miscalculation!

another of the many muddy sections of the Day 1 trail from Shana to Thongo Sampa

walking the muddy trail from Shana to Jomolhari – Day 1

From stone to stone we made our way up the trail, occasionally rewarded with a stunning view of the Paro Chhu itself (Chhu is the Dzongkha word for “river”) or of streams running down into the Paro from the hillsides on either side.

a bridge crossing on Day 1 from Shana to Thongo Sampa on leaving Shana

one of the bridge crossings of Day 1 from Shana to Thongo Sampa

Also evident on occasion were reminders that we were in a cultural world defined by Himalayan (i.e.Tibetan) Buddhism.

We would pass by the multi-coloured prayer flags strung across a stream or alongside the trail. Later in the trek, the flags would be found at most high passes that we crossed, along with a pile of small stones, each one of which would have been carried up by a traveller and left as a sign of thanks for safe passage. See the following post for more on those prayer flags!

Blowin’ In the Wind: An Appreciation of Tibetan Buddhist Prayer Flags

In the video below you can see the water being used to spin a prayer wheel. Filled with thousands of individual “Om mani padme hum” mantras, the spinning action is believed to toss the positive energy of the mantras out into the world.

checking out the Paro Chhu from the trail to Jomolhari

Just north of Shing Karap and south of our Day 1 campsite we came to the fork in the trail pictured below. Take the right trail and, in a couple hours,  you will be standing at the top of the 4600m Tremo La and on the border with Tibet!

We took the trail to the right and after crossing a bridge to the east side of the Paro Chhu, approached our campsite.

the fork in the trail – Tremo La and Tibet to the left – Jomolhari B.C. to the right

Already at the site as we walked in were the tent/cook crew and the horse crew from Shana with their 43 horses! They would move us up the trail as far as Jangothang/Jomolhari Base Camp before they turned back to Shana. Meanwhile, a new horse crew from Jangothang would take over and move us up to Laya before they too would be replaced by a new team from Laya. In this way, the economic benefits of trekking tourism are spread out among the various local communities.  If I got the information right,  each horse earns  US$20. a day, a nice infusion of cash into the region and a good reason to take care of the aminals, each of which carry about 60 to 70 kilograms.

Thongo Samba camp – Day 1 of the Snowman trek

a few of our horses – Day 1 Thongo Samba

Jordans labels the campsite as Thongo Samba.  Thongo may be his transliteration of thang meaning flat area and samba his version of zampa meaning bridge.  The site is indeed not far from a bridge we crossed to get there from the river’s west side.

a view of our first camp on Day 2 morning

We were now at 3250 meters, about 400 meters in altitude higher than Shana.  While the World Expeditions guide had encouraged me to forego my use of Diamox,  I had started taking the tablets the day before as an aid in the acclimatization process.  While he was probably right,  I figured that I had used them on a half-dozen previous high altitude treks and had not experienced any acclimatization issues, not even a headache. So I continued with the twice-a-day ritual – a half-tablet (125mg.) on waking up at 6:00 a.m. and the other half just before supper at 6:00 p.m.

Snowman Trek – the effective amount of oxygen at different elevations

I was only one of three trekkers – of a group of 16 – who made use of the Diamox and none of us suffered any acclimatization issues during the trek – but then again, neither did the other thirteen.  Make of that what you will!

N.B. If you are going to suffer from acclimatization issues on the Snowman trek, it will likely be in the first week or so. After that, your body should have made the adjustments necessary.

Coming Soon!  Next Post: Day 2 – Thongo Samba to Thangthangka

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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek Preview: Part 2 – Laya To Chozo To Sephu

Previous Post: Bhutan’s Snowman Trek Preview: Part 1 – Paro To Shana To Laya

After a rather cool and rainy rest day spent in Laya, it was time to move on. We hoped for some better weather as we set off.

Bhutan - Snowman Trek Route

The day’s 17.6 km. walk was a tough one. Starting in Laya at  3800m, we would descend past a military camp/checkpoint to the left fork in the trail at 3240 m.  and then scramble on some fairly rough and, in the forest sections, muddy “trail”.  Cloud cover and occasional rain had me wondering if we would ever get some decent weather. By the end of the day, we were back up to above 4200 meters!

the forest trail to Rodophu from laya

the trail to Rodophu – yaks on the way to Gasa

the trail to Rodolphu - a short section gone after landslide

the trail to Rodophu – a short section gone after a landslide

approaching Rodophu campsite

The next day was a shorter one – 11 km. and included another pass, Tsemo La at 4905 m.

approaching Tsemo La on the way to Narethang

descending from Tsemo La

descending from Tsemo La

panorama from the east side of Tsemo La

Narethang camp in the morning

Narethang camp in the morning

our dining tent at Narethang

yaks coming from Lunana on the east side of Karakachu La

a free-roaming dog surveying his Himalayan domain

Just around the corner from where the dog was,  we walked into this stunning vista; it was perhaps the most spectacular of the trip so far.

a stunning Himalayan view from the Narethang-Tarina section of the Snowman route

a makeshift bridge across a side stream on the way to Green Lake (after Woche)  from Tarina

flowers on the hillside above Green Lake campsite (4450m)

Some two hundred meters above is Keche La (4666m). The two following images show the initial section above the campsite and then the nearby Keche La itself.

leaving our Green Lake campsite the next morning

a last view of Green Lake and a second higher one from Keche La (4666m)

Over the pass and down the other side.  Now we were definitely in the isolated district of Lunana with its river, the Pho Chhu flowing down from the three glacial lakes above Chozo and Thanza.

In 1994 a glacial lake outburst flood had a catastrophic impact on the swollen river all the way down to Punakha.  In reading about the event I had worried about our campsite location at Chozo.  The village of Lhedi pictured below sits high above the flood plain.  I remember thinking -“I hope the same is true of Chozo.”  (It was!)

the first view of Lhedi and the floodplain of the Pho Chhu

After a lunch stop at the east end of Lhedi (just beyond the school), we continued on to Chozo, sometimes walking on a rocky but dry “trail” on the floodplain itself and sometimes on one side or the other – as in the image below.

following the Pho Chhu up to Chozo

Chozo was another point on the trek at which one horse team would turn back to its starting point (Laya in this case) while a local team would be hired to take us to the next point (in this case, to the very end of the trek at Nikka Chhu).  We spent two nights in Chozo.  Since the second day out of Laya, the blue skies in most of the pix in this post show that the weather had improved. We’d get more sun in the days to come.

panorama of the seasonal village of Chozo in Lunana district – October 2019

our Chozo campsite

the Chozo dzong

The resident monk would let us enter the dzong and see the second -floor shrine room.

the resident monk at the Chozo dzong

As I look at that team of horses crossing the bridge below Chozo in the image below, I realize now that they may have been some of the horses that the guide had hired for the last leg of the trek – i.e. the section from Chozo down to Nikka Chhu.

a local horse team crossing the Phu Chhu just 1 km downriver from Chozo

a small section of the days 1200 meters in ascent to get to the day's pass - Sintia La

a small section of the day’s 1200 meters in ascent to get to the day’s pass – Sintia La

precarious footing – for horses and humans  – as we make our way to Sintia La (5020m)

 

 

morning snow shower at our campsite above Tshochena

Less than forty-five minutes later here is what things looked like at the same campsite!

twenty minutes after the morning shower at our above Tshochena campsite

panorama of Loju La and the glacial lake below

yaks starting the descent from the highest pass of the Snowman trek – Loju La at 5100 meters

No matter where we were, lunch involved a full sit-down with folding tables, table cloths, plates and cutlery, and super comfortable Helinox chairs!  Three horses and three three staff members made sure that it all happened quickly. The food was prepared at breakfast time and then kept on heat-retaining containers until lunch.

Here is what it looked like on the day we crossed Loju La – it was a rather exposed spot on the high altitude plateau we were traversing.

lunchtime a few kilometers after Loju La

In the next couple of days, we would go from the stark and treeless vistas of high-altitude Himalayas – what you would expect to see on the Tibetan plateau – to increasingly luxuriant foliage as more and more plants appeared.

a glacial lake bed drying up as we make our way to Jichu Dramo from Joju La

lake on the way to Rerethang after crossing our last pass Tempe La

approaching our last camp at Rerethang

the lunch table at Sephu – trek done!

On the last morning, we covered almost twenty kilometers before arriving at Nikka Chhu. There to greet us were staff members of – Yangphelthe Thimphu adventure travel agency which had organized the actual trip.  I learned that this was the second year that Yangphel had done the trip for the out-of-Bhutan company through which I actually booked the trip.

[I booked the trip through World Expeditions, an Australian-based company that I have used before. Their website attracts the clients and creates the small groups that make the adventures possible for solo travellers like me. My contact was with one of their sales agents in Ottawa; they dealt with the Bhutan visa requirements and provided prompts on all the other things I needed to take care of before departure – current passport, Indian visa since I was flying to Paro via Delhi, mountaineering-level insurance, special dietary requirements, etc.]

The Yangphel staff had prepared another sit-down lunch complete with red and white wine and beer. I’ll admit I stuck to apple juice and water, knowing how the alcohol would affect me after our 20 km. hike that morning!

the Punakha Dzong – a view from our resort on the west side of the

By that evening we had driven to Punakha and a fantastic hotel (the Zhingham Resort)  overlooking the Punakha Dzong.

Over the next two or three weeks, I hope to upload a more detailed day-by-day account of our Snowman trek, complete with maps and more images and the occasional video I shot. By the end of it all, my last post will have my definite response to the overarching question

Is the Snowman Trek worth the US $300. a day, given other Himalayan trekking options?

Here are a couple of the treks in nearby Nepal that I’ve done. They rival and perhaps surpass the Snowman as epic trekking adventures – and like the Snowman Trek, they include the Tibetan Buddhist cultural overlay that I have until recently found especially enchanting.

The HighPasses of Everest Trek:

The Upper Mustang-Phu Valley Traverse Via Saribung La

 

Previous Post: Bhutan’s Snowman Trek Preview: Part 1 – Paro To Shana To Laya

 

 

 

 

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Bhutan’s Snowman Trek Preview: Part 1 – Paro To Shana To Laya

I spent most of October in Bhutan, a small country just south of Tibet in the eastern Himalayas. What drew me there was the epic Snowman/Lunana Trek, supposedly one of the world’s toughest. Covering over three hundred kilometers in twenty-three days at high altitude means there is lots of time for something to go wrong –

  • external factors like rain at lower altitudes, snow-covered passes,  and delayed horse and yak arrangements;
  • personal factors like aching joints, especially knees; unplanned-for slips and falls; respiratory problems thanks to the dry air combined with increased breathing rate; food or hygiene-related stomach issues; and inadequate acclimatization.

Now back at Base Camp Toronto,  I am happy to report no real problems except for

  • some pretty crappy weather for the first ten days (it rained some mornings and overnights and most afternoons) and
  • the puzzlement of the unprepared local cook team at what to do with a vegan who had made his dietary requirements clear months in advance and had been assured that it would not be an issue.

What follows is a sample of the 500 images I framed during the first 12 days we spent going from Paro to Laya.  I tried to limit myself to one or two images per day!

Part 2 – coming soon – will finish off the trek from Laya to Nikka Chhu. Click here for a copy of the World Expedition brochure to see how travel agencies market the trek!

Bhutan is a country with a population of 800,000. While its capital and largest city is Thimphu, its one international airport is just south of Paro, a town of 11,000 or so pictured below.  I flew in from Delhi where I had overnighted.

the town of Paro with the Paro Chhu flowing down

We spent Day 2 visiting Bhutan’s single most famous tourist attraction – the Taktsang Monastery (aka the Tiger’s Nest) perched high on the side of a steep vertical rock face. It is a 10-km drive from Paro followed by a two-hour walk from the carpark at the entrance to the site.

Taktsang Monastery to the north of Paro

We set off the next morning for the trailhead at Shana in the twenty-seater bus. An extra pick-up carried our duffels and backpacks.

Drukyel Dzong on our way to Shana and the trailhead

The map below shows the variation of the Snowman Trek route we did.

Bhutan - Snowman Trek Route

It was raining when we set off from Shana around 2 p.m.

a view of our first camp on Day 2 morning

There were 16 in our trekking party, most with a tent of their own. As well, perhaps ten locals – guides, cook team, tent team, horse handlers.  The horses made up the single largest group – there were 43 of them.  We were a village on the move!

horse being prepped for the day’s carry

The first three days were spent walking up the Paro Chhu (chhu is “river” in Tibetan). Never far away were the hydro poles and wires that were installed in 2015 to bring electricity to this isolated area of the country.

the Paro Chhu – we followed the wires to Laya!

our Snowman Trek village on the move!

break time by a chorten (i.e. stupa) as we walk up the Paro valley to Jangothang

We got to Jangothang (“thang” means flat area!) and spent two nights there to help with acclimatization. It is at 4100 meters. The big attraction is a view of the 7315-meter Jomolhari.  This is the view you hope to get –

Chomolhari and Jigku Drake from Jangothang

However, the low-hanging cloud meant we were to get only very early morning glimpses of it. Here is the afternoon view from Jangothang!

first view of Jomolhari from the Jangothang stupas

And here is a morning view! It is one of my first pix with a blue sky in it!

morning view of Jomolhari

On our off-day, we walked up the hillside behind the tents in the image below to access the plateau and its two small lakes.

the Jangothang campsite at Jomolhari B.C.

Our morning hike took us up another three hundred meters and served as a good acclimatization exercise.  The image below has us up on the plateau with the lakes just around the corner to the right.

On our way back to camp we got a glimpse of the lower flanks of Jitchu Drake (6850m), one of Jomolhari’s neighboring peaks.

an afternoon view of Jitchu Drake, one of Jomohari’s neighboring peaks

We’d get a better – but not complete! – view the next morning as we set off for Lingshi via our first pass, Nyile La (5090m), the first of our eleven high passes of the trek.

Jitchu Drake the next morning as we set off for Lingshi

a bit of a tease – a false pass before  we actually got to Nyile La

a stream flowing from a glacial lake on the north side of Nyile La

The next morning we would visit the Lingshi Dzong (4300m) on the hill above our campsite. The fort was built in the 1660s, partially destroyed by an earthquake in 1897, rebuilt in the 1950s, and badly damaged again by the 2011 earthquake.  Some bad karma here? Local workers were busy with reconstruction when we visited.

the Lingshi Dzong – under reconstruction in October 2019

This day we would walk as far as Chebisa (3990m), one of the three biggest villages we would visit during our 23-day walk. Our orange tents are already up as we approach.

Chebisa panorama

After putting my duffel and packsack in my tent I went for a walk to the fall end of the village to see the waterfall. It was harvest time and some locals were working in the fields.

Chebisa village and waterfall at west end

A recurring post-supper topic dealt with the exploits and the significance of the Buddhist monk Drukpa Kunley, aka “the Divine Madman”.  His “thunderbolt” is sometimes depicted on the sides of buildings as a good luck charm. With his “crazy wisdom” as perhaps the precedent, exporters of Himalayan (i.e.Tibetan) Buddhism to the West – supposedly enlightened beings like Chogyam Trungpa of the Shambhala Movement and Sogyal Rinpoche of Rigpa – were able to pass off their sexual abuse as Buddha-like behaviour.

Drukpa Kunley's thunderbolt on a chebisa house

Drukpa Kunley’s thunderbolt on a Chebisa house

From Chebisa it was on to a camp near Shakyapasang. On the way, we would cross Gombu La, at 4400m one of the lower passes of our trek.

break time at the top of the day's pass -.Gombu La at 4400m

break time at the top of the day’s pass – Gombu La at 4400m

approaching our Day 6 campsite - the blue dining tent and the sleeping tents are already up

approaching our Day 6 campsite – the blue dining tent and the sleeping tents are already up

flowers on the Himalayan hillside

flowers on the Himalayan hillside

trekkers approaching a makeshift bridge

a few of our horses and the end of another day

a few of our horses and the end of another day – Robluthang campsite

The next day involved our highest pass so far – Sinche la at 5000m. In the image below the tent crew and their horse team is approaching the pass.  About ten minutes later it started snowing!

the tent crew approaching Sinche La

the tent crew approaching Sinche La

We ended up setting up a lunch shelter on this side of the pass before continuing. By now everyone had on their rain gear – top and bottom.

Sinche La and our lunch tent just below

We would lose almost 900 meters in altitude by the time we got to our Limithang campsite. The tent crew was still putting up the sleeping tents. Already up was the blue cook tent on the left, the double green/blue dining tent for 16 trekkers in the middle, and the small army green toilet tent on the right-hand side.  The members of the tent crew really knew what they were doing – our tents were often down by the time breakfast was over and often all up by the time we got to the day’s camp.

Limithang campsite

The first leg of our trek ended at Laya, the layout of which reminded me of what Namche Bazaar in the Nepalese Khumbu may have looked like fifty years ago.

the village of Laya on an overcast October morning

We would spend two nights in Laya, using the day off to rest for the second leg of our trek. Meanwhile,  the guide finalized arrangements for a new horse team to take us from Laya to Chozo in the Lunana district.

Once we got to Chozo, the horses and their handlers would return to Laya while a new set of yaks or horses would be hired to take us down to the end of the trek. The local agency which actually organized the did the trek had all of this figured out and everything – the logistics and camp set up and take down – unfolded without a problem.

the dining room of the Laya lodge we used d

the dining room of the Laya lodge we used during our stay

horses coming up main street laya on a sunny afternoon

horses coming up main street laya on a sunny afternoon

Next Post: Bhutan’s Snowman Trek Preview: Part 2 – Laya To Chozo To Sephu

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November 7, 2019: Viggo Checks Out The First Dusting of Snow In Toronto’s Riverdale Neighbourhood

Well, that was early!  We woke up to a light dusting of snow in Riverdale; it is only Nov. 7. I decided to take my camera along on our morning ramble as Viggo and I checked out the first little bit of snow of the 2019-2020 winter season!

Viggo doing his business in our backyard – 8:00 a.m.

off on our morning adventure – garbage day in Riverdale

a light dusting of snow covers Riverdale Nov 7, 2019

looking down Riverdale Avenue

Riverdale streetscape with a light dusting of snow

Our morning walk will take us up the Don River valley; it is hidden in the tree cover that goes from left to right across the middle of the panorama in the image below. It is a favourite ramble Viggo and I have done hundreds of times over the past decade.

looking west from Broadview Avenue

For the past two months, dump trucks and tractors have been working on the slope you see below.  They have been regrading it to eliminate bumps and cavities which were thought to be too dangerous for the many tobogganers who make this hill one of Toronto’s most popular winter sledding destinations.

The Broadview toboggan hillside – under renovation!

We bump into Uba (“little bean” in Estonian) and her owner and Viggo does what he needs to to get a treat!

Viggo and Uba – treat time!

Viggo being incredulous – “You’re kidding? You mean only one treat?” Charming, eh!

We headed down to the bike trail which runs up the Don River valley; it makes for a nice one-hour walk. The occasional Zen moments when I forget that I am in a city of millions of people is my reward. The snow also means that there will be a bit less bike traffic for Viggo to hyperventilate over!  We also make use of the riverside trail and takes us away from the bike path and Viggo gets to walk off-leash for a while.

down on the bike path

The Don River south of the Prince Edward (Bloor Street) Viaduct was straightened in the late 1800s and has all the charm of a canal.  North of the viaduct, the river is still the way it was  – bends and all.  This is our favourite part of the walk! As we head up the riverside trail I do some basic maintenance, putting my little portage hand saw to work to clear branches and fallen trees.

From the footsteps in the snow, I can see that a couple of other dog walkers have already been by this morning.  The two tents south of the viaduct, however, are abandoned, as is the tarp-covered camp spot to the north.  Left behind were also piles of garbage. Over the next month, it will all get moved to the bike path where the City garbage crew will hopefully deal with it.

Viggo approaching the river – will there be ducks?

no ducks – but maybe a dead fish carcass to roll in

Viggo giving me that “It’s treat time”  stare on the banks of the Don

a section of the” trail” along the riverside

a view of the Don River from the trail

the Don River – one of the stretches left untouched

our trail just north of the Prince Edward Viaduct

back to Broadview and another view of downtown T.O.

Just across the street from the view in the image above is the Rooster Coffeehouse, the perennial winner in Now magazine’s “most popular coffeehouse” category.

The Rooster Coffee House on Broadview – Toronto’s most popular coffee spot!

lingering snow on flowers as we walk down Riverdale

We walked by two of the original houses on Riverdale Avenue.  They go back to the 1890s when the street was still called Preston Street. One of them still has a two-storey stable in the backyard.   Our semi-detached house was constructed in 1907, with no stable included!

typical semi-detached houses on Riverdale Avenue – including ours in the middle of the image

The pic below of our backyard 1 1/2 hours since we set off on our walk – and the snow is already disappearing.  By tomorrow it will all be gone and it may be a week or a month before we get another installment of the white stuff!

Viggo and I are looking forward to a more substantial snowfall that will turn the Don River Valley into a bike-free zone for a few months!

In retrospect, that little dusting of snow chronicled in the above post did not deserve all that fuss.  You want fuss – look at this from five days later – the biggest one-day snowfall in Toronto in 70 years –  now that’s snow!

Nov 12 – Viggo scanning the Don River beach for ducks

 

Posted in Ramblin' With Viggo, Toronto | 2 Comments

Canoeing The French River From Top To Bottom: Days 8 & 9 – Across the Delta From East To West

Previous Post: Days 6 & 7 – From Pickerel Bay to Georgian Bay Via Fox Creek

Day 8 – From Fox Bay CS920 To CS723 W of Whitefish Bay

  • distance: 15.4 km
  • time: 8:45 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
  • portages/rapids: 0/0:
  • weather:  a drizzly morning with some sun in the afternoon; a strong wind (20+ km) from the WSW
  • campsite: CS723 – good shelter for 1 x 4-person; possible for 2-3 x 2- person tents; on the cross channel side of the delta; there is room for more, depending on how fussy you are for a ‘flat’ or sheltered spot.
  • NRC topo sheet: Key Harbour 041 H 15
  • our GPS tracks – 2019 French River (3.2Mb Dropbox file)
Day 8 - From Fox Bay To W of Whitefish Bay

Day 8 – From Fox Bay To W of Whitefish Bay

The big rainstorm we had been expecting the afternoon and evening before never did happen. Instead, we got more of the low-grade drizzle of Day 7 with one added element – a strong wind blowing from the southwest.  We had planned to spend a couple of days in the Bustard Islands but the whitecaps on the waves that we saw rolling our way made us change our plan.

Cantin Point to the Bustard Islands

The crossing at its shortest (i.e. from Cantin Point to Tarpot Island)  is 1.7 kilometers. There are a number of smaller rocks and shoals that can shorten this distance a bit. Given the 25 km./hr.  wind and the waves, even a half-hour in an open canoe to do the crossing was taking a needless risk.  There certainly wouldn’t be any passers-by to help if things went south!

one last shot of CS920 as we head out on a windy morning

So –  a new goal! Instead of a couple of days out on the Bustards, we’d aim for the westernmost campsite in the Park and make use of the many islands en route to provide us with some shelter from the wind.  As we headed west from CS920 in Fox Bay, we made a point of paddling past the abandoned Georgian Bay Fishing Camp.

Georgian Bay Fishing Camp- – an abandoned look

The Fishing Camp – actually quite the complex consisting of a marina, lodge, restaurant, cabins, a store, boat rentals –  closed in 2016, two years after the death of the owner, Dave Bulger.  Bulger had owned and run the camp since the 1980s.  His son Matt tried to keep it open but was unsuccessful.  It had been in operation since 1928.  With its demise, the closest similar camp is probably Camp McIntosh on the French River’s Main Channel.

docks in front of the main service building of the Georgian Bay Fishing Camp

In September 2017 we had paddled by Dock Island just a half-kilometer NE of the Fishing Camp.  Sitting on the south shore of Dock island was a dock and I made a wrong connection between the two.  A reader of that post did write to let me know that the dock actually belonged to the Fishing Camp and had drifted across.

Georgian Bay Fishing Camp – main service building

Georgian Bay Fishing Camp – main dock area and gas pump

Georgian Bay Fishing Camp – dock and gas pump

Our brief paddle visit along the Fishing Camp shoreline brought home the transient nature of all things. If time itself is not the ultimate destroyer, then a changing culture and different notions of leisure time make casualties of things like fishing camps and, I hate to say it, wilderness canoe tripping and camping!  Other than maybe ten fishing boats we saw no one on our ten-day trip down the French and across the delta! Maybe parks need to provide free wi-fi and more designated selfie viewpoint spots to lure potential users in!

a last look back at the Georgian Bay Fishing Camp buildings.

We would spend the next hour and a half dealing with a strong WSW wind by deking behind a string of islands and making our way along the Georgian Bay coast to the French River’s Main Channel at Bluff Point. The reward: 5.5 km. of forward progress!

French River Delta – Georgian Bay

Crossing the Main Channel to the west side. we took advantage of the protected passage provided by the long narrow islands which run parallel to King’s Island.  Once past Sand Bay, a couple of times we got blown into bays that looked like channels.  By 1 p.m. we were just west of Whitefish Bay and at CS723.

our tent spot at CS723 on Georgian Bay

We have used this site before and like the tucked-in and sheltered nature of the tent site combined with the easy walk to the exposed shore of Georgian Bay.  Thanks to this year’s high water, that walk was much shorter than it was two years ago!  The wind continued to blow hard all afternoon.

The Bustard Rocks Lighhouses – so close!

In my hands, I have a Sony HX80 with a 24-720mm reach!  I had bought at it Henry’s for $160 CDN for a trip I did to Tanzania.  It came in very handy there on the short safari I did after my walks up Meru and Kilimanjaro.  On this French River trip, I left behind all the heavy gear – the Sony A77, even the Sony A6000 — and just took the HX and my Sony RX100.  I kept the RX100 in a Pelican case and the HX 80 inside two medium-sized Ziploc bags. Max had his Canon SX280 with its 25-500 reach, also in a Pelican case.  Maybe like the Fishing Camp my huge DSLR has seen its day!

Unfortunately, the Bustards were not a part of this year’s ramble. However, if you find yourself anywhere near the islands and the wind and waves are agreeable, the time you spend there will be among the highlights of your trip. See the following post for some background on the Bustard Rock lighthouses on the west side of this group of islands.

Canoeing Georgian Bay’s French River Delta:  Day 3 – The Bustards To Eagle Nest Point

It is 3.5 kilometers from where CS723 is to the Bustard Lighthouses. We walked to the east end of the island we were on and were amazed to see something else.  Well, we could barely make anything out of it but here is what popped up on our camera viewfinders when we zoomed in!

We counted about fifty wind turbines (of a total of 87 planned) on the Henvey Inlet First Nation land some twenty kilometers away!  It was the turbine construction crew working on this project in July 2018 that caused the massive fire labelled Parry Sound 33 thanks to their continued blasting in tinder-dry conditions in mid-July.

While in the long run the energy generated by the wind turbines will be a “plus”, for some reason the notion of corporate responsibility for the costs of the fire has never become an issue.  See this CBC report by David Seglins for more background –

Why it’s difficult to make industry pay when it’s accused of starting costly wildfires

Day 9 –  To The West End of French River Prov. Park

  • distance: 17.7 km
  • time: 8:20 a.m. to 3:35 p.m.
  • portages/rapids/linings: 3/1/1: 
    • 22m – empty the canoe, liftover and repack
    • 60m – over the hump around Devil Door Rapids
    • 40m – short 20-meter  La Petite Faucille portage; repack canoe and line for a few meters
    • 40m – high water level meant very fast water, lined short section to by-pass worst of it.
    • 130m – fast water section above the real ride!
    • 230m – all in less than 2 minutes!! looks rough but rides nice, vigilance still required
  • weather: sunny all day
  • campsite: CS822 – last ‘official” campsite at the west end of FRPP; lots of room for multiple 4 person tents; a couple of nicely sheltered spots, the rest are more open.
  • Natural Resources Canada Topo Sheet – Key Harbour 041 H 15; Collins Inlet 041 H 14.
  • our GPS tracks – 2019 French River (3.2Mb Dropbox file)
  • Unlostify: West French River covers the river from a few kilometers east of Highway 69 to Georgian Bay. It has all the official park campsites indicated.  Click on the title for access to a free digital download – or buy the $20. waterproof copy.  Note: do not rely just on the Unlostify map – make a paper copy of the relevant bits of the topos above for the detail you will need.

The French River Delta East Cross-Channel:

Just a couple of kilometers in from the Georgian Bay shore is an interior passage that allows you to make progress on days when the full force of the wind and waves are hammering the coast.  It presents few difficulties and some incredible scenery to paddle through.

  • The 4.4 km. East Cross-Channel goes from Whitefish Bay to the bay below Devil’s Door;
  • the 3.2  km. West Cross-Channel stretches from Devil’s Door Rapids to Black Bay.

We had done the entire Cross-channel a couple of years ago from west to east; now we would be doing at least a part of it – the East Cross-Channel in reverse. At Devil’s Door Rapids we would be at the bottom of the French River Delta’s three Western Outlets:

  1. the Bad River Channel
  2. the Old Voyageur Channel
  3. the Voyageur Channel

The plan was to go up the Bad River Channel via Lily Chutes all the way to the beginning of the Old Voyageur Channel.  Then we would come down the Old Voyageur Channel to the end of the West Cross-Channel and paddle down the Voyageur Channel to Batt Bay and our campsite at 822.

And that Plan B  – Plan A had been a visit to the Bustards – is what we ended up doing!

a slice of the East Cross Channel in the French River Delta

The map below shows the East Cross-Channel route from 723 to Devil’s Door Rapids and Portage and then the turn into one of the Bad River Channel’s sub-channels.

East Cross-Channel – French River Delta

Fifteen minutes into the day’s paddle and we just had to stop. We were paddling through a very scenic section of the cross-channel when we spotted what looked to be an excellent campsite somewhat elevated from the surrounding terrain.  A minute later we had assigned a grade of A to the site and agreed that if a quieter interior site was what you wanted instead of our CS723 of the night before with its access to Georgian Bay, then this would be an excellent choice.  [Note: I have since learned that camping at FRPP sites other than official designated ones is illegal and subject to a fine. Proceed with caution!]

the view from a potential East Channel campsite – French River delta

We also paddled over to the other side of the channel from the above ‘campsite’ location and found another pretty decent one.

a view of the above campsite from the other side of the channel

Shortly afterwards we faced our first mini-portage of the day – a 10-meter lift-over which the image below somewhat captures!

a 10-meter lift-over on the East Cross-Channel French River Delta

As we approached the bay below Devil’s Door Rapids, we saw our first bit of graffiti since Gibraltar Point on Lake Nipissing.  We did not go up to take a closer look but some of the letters already seem to be fading.  Hopefully next year it will be all but gone.

some graffiti on the sloping rock near the west end of the East Cross-Channel French River

And then it was a paddle into the bay before Devil’s Door Rapids. As we came to the end of the east cross-channel I noticed a No Camping sign on the NE point, a first anywhere in the park. Perhaps it is aimed at sailboaters or larger watercraft that might park in the bay for shelter? There was a sailboat anchored in the bay as we paddled by but no one seemed to be around.

Devil’s Door Rapids (Falls)

We approached the bottom of Devil’s Door Rapids. There was the 1.5-meter drop we remembered from our last time there.  Then we headed to the north side of the bay for the take-out spot for the 40-meter carry around the rapids.  The higher water level meant that the landing we used last time was under water!

Devil’s Door Rapids – a shot from the east

The portage trail was somewhat overgrown and we spend a few minutes trimming the junipers to make it more obvious.  Typical for the park’s portages, neither end of the trail is indicated by a portage marker.

the turtle on the Devil’s Door portage trail

There is a stupendous viewpoint on the rock overlooking the rapids and we spent some time up there taking in the neighbourhood.  Here is a view looking east to the rapids, the bay, and that anchored sailboat.

Devil’s Door Rapids – a shot from above

We turned around and looked west up the cross-channel; it goes all the way to Black Bay and the south end of the Voyageur Channel.  However, the plan this day was to head north up one of the Bad River Channels – the one with Lily Chutes at the bottom. The map below shows our route.

looking west from the great viewpoint above Devil’s Door Rapids

The Bad River Channel was probably named as such by the voyageurs thanks to the larger number of rapids and chutes they would have had to deal with and explains why they avoided its various options.

We did a lift-over and then lined the canoe up Lily Chutes and then were able to paddle up to the top of the Old Voyageur Channel.  Along the way, we did encounter some stretches of fast water coming our way that required some intense bursts of paddling to make forward progress.  We rounded the corner (see the map below) and began our descent of the Old Voyageur Channel.

The French River’s The Old Voyageur Channel

The Old Voyageur Channel runs 3.2 kilometers from top to bottom with only one portage.  Along with the French River’s Main Channel a bit to the east, it would have been the one most used by the voyageurs of old.

Toni Harting’s The French River: Canoeing The River of the Stick Wavers (1996, Boston Mills Press) is by far the best book out there on the French River. It takes you from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay and covers everything from geology to history and canoe-specific topics. Included are useful maps, as well as some excellent photos, both colour and black and white.

Of the Channel, Harting writes:

…the Old Voyageur Channel was probably only used by the voyageurs at quite high water levels and by the big brigades of fur trade canoes. Smaller fur-trade canoes and specialized big canoes carrying only passengers, mail, and other important cargo would also have used this channel. These express or light canoes had less weight to carry and therefore enjoyed more freeboard to run rapids and shallow parts. [110]

At the top of the channel are some swifts. A bit more than half-way down you come to a set of rapids named La Petite Faucille.  These rapids were until recently mistakenly identified with the set of rapids depicted in a Paul Kane painting titled “French River Rapids”.  Harting writes:

The existence of the Petite Faucille is mentioned a few times in the notes of the old travellers. The artifacts found in the late 1960’s on the river bottom below the drop are another indication that this route was used by the fur traders. In his 1845 painting, French River Rapids, Paul Kane gives a curious artist’s impression of what presumably is the Petite Faucille. [109]

Harding’s use of the word curious is fitting because the location does not really look like the one that Kane painted!

[In 2006 Ken Lister located the actual site some 830 kilometers to the west in northwestern Ontario between Lake Superior and Rainy River. See here for his account.]

The painting a part of the Royal Ontario Museum’s collection.

Here are a couple of shots of La Petite Faucille – the first is the section below the rapids and the second continues the view up to the top.

La Petite Faucille Rapids on the Old Voyageur Channel

Other than the short 20-meter or so portage around La Petite Faucille there is little to deal with.  Above these rapids are some swifts; below the rapids is a 100-meter stretch of fast water known as La Dalle before you reach the West Cross-Channel.  We enjoyed the ride as we zipped down, hitting a top speed of 11 km/hr. for a few seconds according to our GPS track data!

looking east on the French River Delta's West Cross-Channel

looking east on the French River Delta’s West Cross-Channel

We stopped for lunch on the southeast corner of the island at the bottom of the Old Voyageur Channel and then continued our way westward along the southwest end of the channel referred to as the Voyageur Channel.

Not far from our lunch spot we passed by a landmark identified by Harting as The Fort, a supposed ambush site used by Indigenous pirates to rob the voyageurs of their trade goods.  The site is a jumble of rocks that may or may not look like a fort depending on how much you want it to be one!  Again, to quote the best book written about the French River:

On the south shore of the West Cross Channel, close to Black Bay, there is a peculiar collection of tumbled-down rocks where several circular openings seem to have been constructed. This was possibly used as a shelter by Natives lying in ambush for the treasure-filled fur-trade canoes that would pass down the channel, which is quite narrow at this point. This could well be the “Fort” talked about in some old reports and after which the Fort Channel is named. [Harting 32]

The story itself left us skeptical. How often could it have been used as an ambush site before the fur brigades would clue into the fact that there would be trouble up ahead? It is no more amazing an ambush site than a multitude of others that they could have picked.

Just which Indigenous tribe would be doing the hold-up? If it was an Algonquian (i.e. Anishinaabe) people, they would only be ticking off their many fellow tribesmen who worked with the French?  If it was an Iroquois tribe from upper New York State area, it would seem a long way to come to steal goods that could be taken much closer to home. It would also date its use to the 1600s when the Iroquois were still a military power.

Update: By chance, while reading the  Journal of a John Macdonell in a collection titled Five Fur Traders of the Northwest, I came across this entry from June 26, 1793:

Click here for the online text of Macdonell’s Journal – and of the other fur traders in the collection

It puts a different spin on the story than Harting does. For one, it sounds like a one-off ambush and not an oft-used spot; it makes clear who the attackers were – and also how unsuccessful they were!

As for a photo of the jumble of rocks – as we passed by I figured we would get one the next morning on our way back.  The next morning we amazingly missed it!  Lesson: get the shot while you can!  If you have a photo of the site you’d be willing to share, I would love to insert it right here!  Email me at true_north@mac.com Also another reason/excuse to perhaps revisit the Delta in the future.

Given the still-blowing southwest wind, we made as much use as possible of the numerous island in Batt Bay as we headed to CS822.  Along the way, we passed by another voyageur landmark identified by Harting. It was known as La Prairie. As with the Fort, we did not stop to take any pix. Unlike the Fort, we did spend fifteen minutes at the site the next morning! [See the next post for what we found!]

FRPP CS822 – the furthest west campsite in the park

822 is the westernmost campsite in French River Provincial Park.  It is easy to imagine it as a stopping place for the fur brigades at the beginning or end of the French River part of their journey.  There is ample room for many tents.  Behind the flat rock outcrop are a number of sheltered sites. We were able to peg our tent down, a novelty at a Georgian Bay campsite.

Next Post: Day 10 – Heading Back to the Western Channel From Georgian Bay

 

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Canoeing The French River From Top To Bottom: Days 6 & 7 – To Pickerel Bay and Down Fox Creek to Georgian Bay

Previous Post: Day 5 – From E of Cross I.  to Below Recollet Falls (CS522)

Day 6 – The Lower French From CS 522 To Pickerel Bay (CS 633)

  • distance: 12 km
  • time: 9:00 a.m. to 11:40 p.m.
  • portages/rapids: 0/1:  Second Rapids – 5 minutes spent lining
  • weather: sunny all day, light wind from NW?
  • campsite: CS633 – another haul up the hill (~100 m) and totally worth it! the stern paddler’s favourite site of the trip; multiple sites 1 fair, semi-sheltered one at top suitable for 4-person tent, one at the bottom in a pinch; more possibilities in the open and on rock – your choice; 2 boats the whole evening, 2 sea-doos earlier and after that it was just us.
  • Natural Resources Canada topos: Delamere 041 I 02; Key Harbour 041 H 15
  • GPS tracks – 2019 French River (3.2Mb Dropbox file)
  • Unlostify: West French River covers the river from a few kilometers east of Highway 69 to Georgian Bay. It has all the official park campsites indicated.  Click on the title for access to a free digital download – or get a hard copy you will be using often!

Lower French River – CS522 to Pickerel Bay (CS 633)

The sixth day in a row of sunny warm weather!  We slipped our canoe into the water and could feel the noticeable current as we headed down the Gorge section. There were a number of stretches where the GPS device recorded speeds of 14 and 15 km/hr.

Little Flat Rapids: Then it was through a stretch of fast water our Garmin topo map names “Little Flat Rapids”. Another name may be Second Rapids, the First being just after Recollet Falls.  The Friends of French River indicates a portage of 25 meters here.  We spent less than five minutes lining our canoe through.  The June 1793 entry from John Macdonell’s Journal (the quote is immediately below) refers to a Derraud’s Rapids two leagues or six miles below Recollet Falls. Six miles or ten kilometers is approximately the distance from Recollet Falls to these rapids. Breaking a canoe here would certainly qualify as a freak accident!

pictograph or not? iron oxide stain on the French River rock

the north side of the French River – Gorge Section near Ox Island

From here it is 2.5 kilometers to the railway trestle crossing the French River at the east end of Ox Island.  After his comment about the rapids, Macdonell goes on to discuss the presence of Anishinaabe pictographs (images “painted” with a mixture of iron oxide powder and fish oil) and lichenographs (images carved out of the lichen and moss which cover the rock face):

See here for the entry – pp.84-85. The entire journal makes for interesting reading, as do the others included in Five Fur Traders of the Northwest edited by Charles M. Gates.

Given Macdonell’s observation, Ox Bay would have gotten its name from the animal figure scratched out of the lichen on a prominent rock face nearby. It was likely not an ox!

Ox Bay:/Pickerel Bay area French River

We rounded the point at the east end of Ox Bay and headed into Pickerel Bay and one of our favourite campsites ever, the one numbered 633 on the map above. We had camped there for a night in September 2017 at the end of our one-week ramble up and down and across the FrenchRiver Delta.  Day 6 – To Pickerel Bay (The Elephants)

It was not even noon and we were done for the day – an unusual occurence for us! Adding the 12 km. we had done this morning to the 30 from the day before helped us rationalize it! Being at 633 clinched it. We had thought that the site may already be taken but given that it was a Thursday in mid-June reduced the chances of anyone being there. In fact, the entire area was pretty much devoid of anyone. Over the next day we would  count a couple of motor boats pass by below us as they made their way to or from Pickerel River.

looking east towards the Pickerel River

Those chairs in the image below is where we spent quite a bit of time until past sunset! Every once in a while we would face them in a different direction as we took in the views on a beautiful clear day on Pickerel Bay.  Just behind the chairs was our kitchen/dining area, complete with our overturned canoe as table top. And a bit further behind the trees was our tent, sitting on a patch of earth that we were able to use tent pegs on.

French River Pickerel Bay CS633 – the hilltop view looking east

looking south to the start of the Fox Creek route to Georgian Bay

This following bit of video  gives a 360º panorama of the view from the top of CS633. It starts looking south to the series of bays in the image above and then pans east up the narrow bay you see two images above. Then it is west into the sun – and you’ll notice the image quality degrade in a hurry.

We took quite a few shots of what we were looking at as we sat there sipping on Gatorade, coffee, and later, our single shot each of whisky – here are a few that you can scroll through quickly.The magic was in being there!

Max and his camera facing west as the sun sets

looking west towards Ox Bay

portrait view of the sunset from Pickerel Bay CS633

looking west to Ox Bay French River

sunset view of Pickerel Bay French River

Day 7 – The Fox Creek/Lake/Bay Route to Georgian Bay

  • distance: 12.2 km
  • time: 8:20 a.m. to 1:10 p.m.
  • portages/rapids: 3/0:
    • 150 m – along the lower ridgeline from the take out spot to a long narrow ‘pond’
    • 230 m – more rugged with  multiple and possibly confusing trails
    • 195 m – likely longer in low water
  • weather: overcast most of the day; some intermittent rain; all added to the gloomy atmosphere paddling through the edge of 2018’s burn area.
  • campsite: CS920 with “thunderbox”! – very sheltered, 1 x 4-person; possible for 2-3 x 2- person tents; with high water (and likely any heavy rainfall) butts up to a swampy area, bugs were not bad though!
  • Natural Resources Canada 1:50,000 topo sheets: Delamere 041 I 02; Key Harbour 041 H 15
  • GPS tracks – 2019 French River (3.2Mb Dropbox file)

One of the highlights of our French River trip was the half-day we spent going down to Georgian Bay via the Fox Creek route, which starts right across from our favourite Pickerel Bay campsite. While we have paddled up the Pickerel from G’Bay to CS 633, we had never made use of the Fox Bay/Lake/Creek route before.

Henvey Inlet Fire 2018 – and east end of French River Provincial Park

There was an additional pull this year – we wanted to see the impact of Parry Sound 33, the 2018 Henvey Inlet Fire which had blown out of control and spread westward to the Pickerel River and to Fox Creek.

Alternative Routes To Georgian Bay from Ox/Pickerel Bay: 

The Fox Creek route is not the easiest way to get to Georgian Bay.  There are alternatives and all of them are quite scenic

  • the Bass Creek Route – arguably the easiest with just a lift-over and an easy 100-meter portage
  • the Main Channel via the Dalles Rapids portage
  • the Pickerel River with just one 250-meter carry
  • the Old Voyageur Channel with a 20-meter portage at La Petite Faucille and some swifts before and after.

See the Unlostify West French River map for a clear visual image of the options. You can download a digital copy of the map for free.

The Fox route is a bit more work than all of the above but is worth it, getting an A+ for scenic views and enchanting paddling.  The more paddlers who use them, the more clear the portages will become.

Unlostify – the two Fox portages at the top end

My copy of the 2012 Friends of French River Park Map (pink cover) does not have any information on the Fox Creek portages, nor does the more recent 2017 third edition (blue cover).

The overall lack of portage information and on-the-ground signage for paddlers is puzzling, given that FRPP has now existed for thirty years.  The Park needs – but obviously will not be getting – more attention than the commendable volunteer service that the Friends of French River provide in campsite monitoring and maintenance as well as map production.

the take out for the first of the Fox portages on the south side of Pickerel Bay

We paddled across Pickerel Bay to the beginning of the portage that would take us into Fox Creek. The Unlostify map above has the portage indicated as a 140-meter carry. It is an easy one; it could use some trimming and signing.  According to our GPS track we spent less than twenty minutes dealing with this portage and were soon at the top end of the long narrow lake you see in the image above.

One moment of concern –  Max had slipped on a section of sloped rock in his not-very-grippy L.L. Bean boots and went for a tumble, bags and all.  While they provided a bit of a cushion,  for the next couple of days as we paddled to the west end of the park, his hip was a bit sore.

I’m looking south at the take-out spot for the second of the Fox portages

Fox Creek - the small lake between the two portages at teh top of Fox Creek

the lake between the two portages at the top end of Fox Creek in the French River delta

After paddling south down the lake, we scrambled to a hilltop on the southwest end  in hopes of another “wow” view or two but could not get to that one vantage point that would deliver. Here is what I came up with!

a view from SW of the lake between the two Fox Creek portages

And then it was on to the second portage; the poorly maintained 230-meter trail would require more effort thanks to an initial uphill and then the scamper across a rocky ridge to the final downhill to the north end of Fox Creek.  All in all, we put in about forty-five minutes to haul everything up and over.  We also added some orange duct tape and did some bush trimming to help make the trail a bit more obvious.

Two Portages – Pickerel Bay To Fox Creek

When we got to the put-in we found a collection of four abandoned boats, seat cushions and fishing gear belonging to Camp Wanikewin Lodge located on the Pickerel River just east of Highway 69.

the put-in at the end of the second Fox portage from Pickerel Bay

With the two portages done by 10:15 or so, we now had six kilometers (one hour) of easy paddling until the third and last portage at the south end of Fox Lake.

Fire damage on upper Fox Creek – French River delta

It would not be long after setting off from the put-in at the top of Fox Creek that we would see evidence of 2018’s fire (named Parry Sound 33 to the consternation of people living in the town itself!).  It had started on the Henvey Inlet First Nation land below Key River, thanks to the wind turbine construction crew who continued blasting in spite of bone dry earth and windy conditions.

[A few days later we would count fifty wind turbine pillars from our campsite just east of Whitefish Bay some twenty kilometers away. See here for one of the images.]

some burn on the west side of Fox Creek as we paddle down

fire damage on Fox Creek -a view from June 2019

Fox Creek -French River delta – June 2019

signs of new growth after the fire on Fox Creek June 2019

Fox Creek green and charcoal

heading for the third (and final) Fox portage

The third and last portage on the Fox Creek route to Georgian Bay took us about thirty minutes.  Given the water levels in June 2019 we were able to paddle a middle section of the portage, which may not be possible at other times of the year or in lower water years

Fox Portage – From Fox Lake to Fox Bay

In the image below, I am stuffing the silnylon tarp back into its bag at the top of the portage trail.  As the above images make clear, the weather had changed from sunny to intermittent drizzle this morning and the tarp had covered the bags and duffels. At the start of the portage is a  boat, perhaps left by a fishing lodge for clients.

the south end of Fox Lake and the start of the portage into Fox Bay

At the end of the initial carry Max is looking at the trickle of Fox Creek and the patch of water we will paddle down to access the final bit of the portage.  The Unlosity map has the entire thing as a 220-meter carry.  With lower water levels you may be walking down that short stretch of water!

the water we paddled across to get to the last bit of the portage into Fox Bay

And that is it for portages on the Fox Creek Route.  Next up – Fox Bay and the hunt for a decent campsite.

heading to Fox Bay after the portage

more dramatic scenery as we head down the narrow channel right after the last of the Fox portages

There are (on paper) quite a few campsite choices.  In reality, some of them are mediocre and will definitely be paddled by. The Unlostify map (see below) provides some info on the condition of some of them.

Fox Bay area in French River Delta on Georgian Bay

Unlostify – campsite locations in Fox Bay/French River Delta/Georgian Bay

We would find our campsite at 920, a well-sheltered spot inside a stand of pines and behind a rock outcrop that rises up to a nice hilltop sitting area. The shoreline to the south is accessible and we went for a walk after setting up camp.

Fox Bay – CS920 NW of Finger Island

our campsite (920)

For the second day in a row, we had stopped somewhat early.  Both our Garmin weather app information and an email from back home were telling us that a heavy downpour and a thunderstorm were expected in our area and we were ready!

the  Campsite 920 – well sheltered

Next Post: Day 8 – From Fox Bay To W of Whitefish Bay CS723

 

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Canoeing The French River From Top To Bottom: Day 5 – CS419 To Below Recollet Falls

Previous Post: Day 4 – The Upper French Five Mile Rapids Section to CS 419

Day 5 – From CS 419 E of Cross I.  to Below Recollet Falls (CS522)

  • distance: 30.5 km
  • time: 8:15 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.
  • portages/rapids: 1/0: around Recollet Falls (~100 m), then eddy and rock face fun
  • weather: sunny all day, light wind from NW?
  • campsite: CS 522 – a carry up the hill!, 1 ok spot for 4-person; possible multiple 2- person (fair weather) sites; another long veranda to the water, cottages across from site – lawn work was finished by about 7 p.m., the site had a nice bed of chives though!
  • Natural Resources Canada topo: Noelville 041 I 01;  Delamere 041 I 02
  • GPS tracks – 2019 French River (3.2Mb Dropbox file)
  • Unlostify: West French River covers the river from a few kilometers east of Highway 69 to Georgian Bay. It has all the official park campsites indicated.  Click on the title for access to a free digital download – or get a hard copy you will be using often!

Day 5 – Upper French River – CS419 to CS522 – the first part

Day 5 – French River – CS 419 to CS 522

We set off planning to stop at a campsite somewhere on the east side of Highway 69; we ended up putting in our biggest travel day, covering 30 kilometers and putting up our tent a few kilometers west of Recollet Falls.

Just across the river from our campsite 419 is 421. We took a look as we passed by and found a sheltered site with room for multiple tents. It would make a better foul weather site than the one we stayed at but it did not have the excellent hilltop view that 419 did.

Not far downriver from our CS419 is Cross island. We saw the white cross as we came to the west tip of the island and pulled in to have a look.

the white cross at the west end of Cross Island: – French River

Attached to the center of the cross was a dedication plaque erected by a local branch of the Roman Catholic service organization The Knights of Columbus. It read –

  • In memory of one of our Canadien missionaries
  • Cross dedicated by the Reverend Father Rondeau
  • The 15 of June, 1982
  • erected by The Knights of Columbus
  • Noelville, Ontario   Council 4435

Unclear is who the missionary was, when and what happened to him, and why he was being honoured on this particular island.  The lack of concrete detail makes for an ideal situation for conflicting stories about the significance of Cross island – and there are a few out there!

Without a doubt, these Roman Catholic missionaries laboured hard in the fields of the Lord to bring new souls to their God and some gave up their lives trying to make it happen.   It was the Recollets who  first journeyed down the French River in 1615 on their way to Huronia; their work was later carried on by the Jesuits, whose meticulous recording of their mission work and observations of Huron and Algonkian life and culture can be found in the multi-volumed Jesuit Relations, a piece of work considered among the first examples of New World ethnography. It covers the period from 1632 to 1773.  Further downriver, we would come to Recollet Falls, named (according to one story)  in memory of a number of missionaries who drowned there.

plaque on the white wooden cross on Cross Island on the upper French River

Across from Cross Island and all the way down through the Gorge section of the river are impressive stretches of rock face, some of which look like spots that would host pictographs or lichenographs.  While the iron oxide-based “paint” of the pictographs can last for hundreds of years, the images carved out of the lichen on the rock face are more transient.

In spite of claims of a multitude of such sites on the French River system, we are only aware of five claimed sites and have seen one (See our Day 3 post).  Thor Conway, who worked in the area as an archaeologist for the Ontario Government in the 1980s, has the number at eight.

rock face just south of Cross Island – no pictographs to be seen

After our scan of this particular rock face, another 30 minutes of paddling and we hopped ashore to check out CS501, a campsite on river left just south of Parisien Island.  The mediocre site had us wondering who picked this spot and why! Maybe we are just overly particular?  A bit further on 503 looked like a better choice but we did not get out to take a closer look.

Checking out CS501 on the French River (just south of Parisien island)

French River CS501 – fire ring and exposed rock

Then it was on down the Main Channel.  Just 1.5 km. from CS501 we passed by the Haystack Islands and decided to see what the neighbourhood looked like from its hilltop viewpoint.

approaching the Haystack Islands from the east – Upper French River Main channel

As we rambled around and up to the top of the rock we did look around for a potential campsite but found nothing note-worthy. [Note: it is apparently illegal to camp at any but  official campsites in French River Provincial Park.]

We did get this west-looking view of the French River as we stood on top. According to our GPS device, we were 17 meters higher than the water level.

a view from the top of the large Haystack Island

On the smaller of the Haystack Islands sits a camp that looks like it has not been visited much lately. At least it blends in nicely with the surroundings, something which cannot be said for other newer and louder cottages we saw on our trip down to Georgian Bay.

camp on the smaller of the Haystack Island on the Upper French River

Yet a bit further down and it was time for a short break to stretch our legs and pass around the water bottle.  We also had a bit of our snack allotment. [Over the past decade, we’ve settled on one Clif Bar and a 3-oz. (90 gm.) Ziploc bag of gorp per person per day.]

looking back at our canoe from our shady rest spot on the upper French River

One more stop to check out a potential pictograph site – it had some of the ingredients of actual sites we have visited:

  • one of the more dramatic rock faces in the vicinity and
  • a noticeable overhang
  • pronounced cracks in the rock face
  • streaks of calcium or quartz

rock face on the upper French River just east of the Power Line

a close up of the rock overhang – but no pictographs

I got excited as we approached and saw the red iron oxide streaks. However, while you could certainly will a pictograph image into existence, I have learned to resist “picto fever” over the past few years. In a pinch, Max is always ready to curb my enthusiasm.  The saying associated with St. Augustine – I believe in order that I may see – doesn’t really cut it as you stare at natural iron oxide stains in the rock!

We paddled under the power lines around 11:30;  a bit further and it was time for lunch. We made use of CS517 as our lunch spot, hauling our chairs to a shady spot that gave us an hour’s relief from another full-out sunny day. There were no cottages in view and room for multiple tents.

French River Prov. Park campsite marker

We stared out at the river; to the west was another channel with the name “Canoe Pass”. We’d be going down it on our way to the Gorge section just west of the Highway 69 bridge. To the south is Lost Child Bend and Lost Child Rock, the locale of some voyageur and Nipissing folklore.  An entry in the diary of John Macdonell from 1793 is the oldest telling of the story I have found.  His June 26 entry read –

[ See here for an online source of Macdonell’s Diary. There is also a cleaned-up version found in a recent series of posts based on John Macdonell’s diary by Nikki Rajala.  See John Macdonell’s Journal: part 4.   Seven years after Macdonell wrote down his account of the story,  the fur trader and diarist Daniel Harmon recorded another one in 1800. (See here.). More recently,  Thor Conway in  Discovering Rock Art (2016) recorded other variations of the folktale still being told in the1980s in the French River area.

The French River – From Lost Child Bend To Below Recollet Falls via Canoe Pass

Lunch over at 1,  we decided it was way too early be stopping for the day.  We figured a couple of hours and we’d be through Canoe Pass and down Dry Pine Bay to the river’s Main Channel where we could finally paddle down the Gorge section of the river.

Once under the rail trestle crossing the river,  we approached the Highway 69 bridge and saw a section of the new one already in place.  In a year or so this stretch of 69 will have been upgraded to a divided highway.

The thought of dropping in at the marina just before Highway 69 to pick up a few cans of beer did cross our minds – but as we passed by the marina on river right we decided to just push on.  We just went with the flow and let the 15 km/hr. current carry us under the bridge – and past another pictograph site!  We should maybe come up in winter and check out the rock face on snowshoes instead of by canoe!

We were now on a stretch of the river we have often looked down on our rides up and down Highway 69 to other northern Ontario canoe trips. Here is a shot from a couple of years ago from the snowmobilers’ bridge just west of the Highway 69 bridge:

a look down the French River from the snowmobilers’  bridge by Highway 69

A more enticing rendition of this majestic stretch of the French is captured by the painter Pierre Sabourin in this work, The Land of the Voyageur, which could easily hang in a collection of Group of Seven paintings –

Pierre Sabourin.Land of the Voyageur

Thanks to this year’s unusually high water level and the current, we zipped down!  The day’s one complication – Recollet Falls – was approaching faster than we wanted.  A couple of years previously we had walked down to the falls on the 1.5 km. trail from the Visitors’ Center and even in September it looked impressive –

a view of Recollet Falls on the French River

From the same page of John Macdonell’s diary quoted above comes this passage –

~ A league below is the Grand Recolet Portage. Here one of the North West Company’s canoes manned by the Majeau brothers was upset and lost half the cargo about 15 days ago. They had made portage and loaded the canoe below the portage but neglected to put a man on shore with a line to stem the strong eddy which carries back to the falls. In consequence it was drawn down by the eddy under the falls and was instantly filled and sunk. The few survivors and the goods that floated were picked up below the rapid by other canoes of the brigade. Seven crosses are erected here, as well as seven others of former casualties.

Just above the Falls on river right is a lone pictograph.  Looking for it given the water conditions was not even a possibility!  We were focussed on the Falls coming up.

The late-season portage take-out is fairly close to the falls on river left; we would pull in some distance above that spot for the high-water portage landing, which I think was indicated with a portage sign.  For the next forty minutes, we hauled the gear over to the put-in and then dealt with the challenging water currents at the bottom of the rapids. The one thing we did not do was take any photos!  In retrospect, a shame because that satellite image above is not the Recollet Falls we had to deal with!

The carry itself was easy. It was the twenty minutes we spent trying to get downriver after we pushed off at the bottom of the rapids that proved to be the challenging part. Thanks to an interesting combination of currents, we were initially spat back to the put-in. It was only on our third attempt when we headed further out into the middle of the main current and then knifed our way between it and the one which was curling back to the falls,  that we made forward progress! Along river left below the Falls is a one-hundred meter stretch of vertical rock. We rode the three-foot waves, skimmed by the rock face and quickly headed downriver.  Goodbye, Recollet!

a view from our campsite CS 522 to the Lower French River

An hour’s paddle down from the Falls are the first campsites – 521 and 522.  We checked out 521 tucked inside a bay; it was a sunless spot. You would have to be desperate to stop here for the night.

Around the corner was a better choice  – 522,  an open hilltop site with decent views of the neighbourhood. Had there not been four cottages on the other side of the river – with two of them in use – it would have been even better.  We got to listen to one cottager cut his lawn for forty-five minutes! It spoiled the illusion of being in the wilderness – or even in a provincial park. Luckily there was not much motorboat traffic.

our tent going up on CS522 on the French – and our canoe set to do table duty for the evening

a chive patch at CS522 on the French River – Max’s flower pic of the day

Thanks to the fast water the 30.5 km. we had paddled this day would stand as our longest single-day total of the trip.  We revisited one more time the jumble of currents and standing waves at Recollet Falls and sipped on our Crown Royal as we watched the sun set downriver. The next day we would reward ourselves with a stay at one of our favourite campsites in French River Provincial Park.

Next  Post: Days 6 & 7 – To Pickerel Bay (CS 633) And Fox Creek To Georgian Bay

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Canoeing The French River From Top To Bottom: Day 4 – Down The Five Mile Rapids Section of the Upper French River

Previous Post:  Day 3 – From Canoe Pass To below Portage Dam

Day 4 – Along Eighteen Mile Island From CS304 To CS 419

  • distance: 21 km
  • time: 8:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.
  • portages/rapids: 2/7 
  • weather: sunny all day, light wind from NW
  • campsite: CS 419;  1 so-so fair-weather spot for a 4-person tent; possible multiple 2- person tents; longish sloped outcrop to water, cottage across from the site, views are good, especially at sunset
  • NRC topo sheet: Noelville 041 I 01
  • GPS tracks – 2019 French River (3.2Mb Dropbox file)
  • Garmin Mapshare: French River 2019 (click on view recent tracks on top right)

Day 4 – Upper French River From CS304 to CS419

After we had retired to the tent the night before we were treated to what sounded like a rain shower – it was just the sound of bugs hitting the outside of our tent wall and ceiling. We were expecting more blackfly and mosquito action when we crawled out the next morning – but all was good.  In fact, for most of our 11 days on the river, bugs were not a problem.

We usually bring along two 10′ x 14′ MEC silnylon tarps – one to put over the tent fly for the ultimate peace of mind and the other over our dining and sitting area.  On this trip we left one tarp behind and brought our Eureka No Bug Zone shelter,  We bought it two years ago just for June canoe tripping in Missinaibi country near Chapleau.   However, on this trip, it only got put up twice and never for its intended purpose.  At the start of  Day 2, we had used it for breakfast during a brief rain shower.

As we paddled downriver we stopped at CS306, just 1.5 kilometers from where we had stopped the night before.  We found a better campsite with more shelter for the tent and better water drainage. The photo below is a shot of the site from the water. As with other sites on the Upper French, it looks like it has been co-opted as a lunchtime spot by fishermen from the nearby fishing lodges of Wolseley Bay. We looked around for a “thunderbox” but did not see one.

CS306 – a view as we paddled by

The Five Mile Rapids on the Upper French River:

The Five Mile Rapids Section of the Upper French River

Hooligan nylon pack

Hooligan nylon pack

By ten o’clock we were coming up to the Five Mile Rapids section  of the river. It is an eight-kilometer stretch of the river running along the south side of Eighteen Mile Island that has a few rapids, some of which require scouting and a bit of caution and perhaps a portage around.

Given that we travel alone and since we still have all our gear in two old-fashioned Duluth-style packs (110-liter volume) and  two duffel bags, as opposed to those nifty 60-liter plastic blue barrels, we lean towards the caution side in our approach!

We would spend two hours on this section before stopping for lunch on the island just above the last set of rapids,  Crooked Rapids, which we dealt with after our almost two-hour break.  Mid-June 2019 water levels were about 1.5 meters higher than usual.  Our GPS device recorded speeds of up to 17 km/hr on at a few points along the way!

  1. Little Pine Rapids – took a look and then lined and ran
  2. Big Pine Rapids – 20-minute portage
  3. Double Rapids – went through
  4. 4. The Ladder –  lined – 5-minute job
  5. Big Parisien Rapids – a 20-minute portage
  6. Little Parisien Rapids – paddled down –
  7. Crooked Rapids –  we spent 30 minutes here – no idea what was going on!

Big Pine Rapids: 

After zipping down Little Pine Rapids, the first of the rapids in the Five Mile Rapids section, we came to Big Pine Rapids. Later in the season, we would have run it but, given the unusually high early season water levels,  we figured we would carry around it.

the portage trail at Big Pine Rapids

The easy 100-meter trail on river right makes use of the rock outcrop running alongside the river.  Twenty minutes later we pushed off at the bottom of the rapids, having stopped to take a few photos of this very scenic spot on the French. And who knows – maybe that lone tall pine in the image below is the one which prompted the name of the rapids?

looking up the French River from the top of Big Pine Rapids

sitting by the side of the French River at Big Pine Rapids

Here are a few seconds of video which capture a bit of sitting there and taking in the energy of the spotb –

max’s flower of the day

Big Parisien Rapids: 

After Double Rapids, which we floated down, and The Ladder, which we lined and ran, we came to Big Parisien Rapids.

If “Big’ implies more turbulence and a bigger drop than “Little” then having the rapid’s name correct does matter!   Unfortunately, there is some confusion here.  Our Garmin topo map, for example, labels the rapids we now came to as Little Parisien Rapids!

The French River’s Parisien Rapids – N.B. Big is upriver from Little!

So too does the archived Federal Government’s Natural Resources Canada topo sheet from 1994 [Noelville 041 I 01] –

On the other hand, the Friends of French River map has it correct – it calls it Big Parisien. So too does the more recent one at the Natural Resources Canada Toporama site.  It has Big Parisien upriver from Little Parisien.

French River – Big and Little Parisien Rapids

the French River just above Big Parisien Rapids

Max checking out the top of the Big Parisien Rapids on the French River

our portage route around Big Parisien Rapids

the top of Big Parisien Rapids on the French River – June 2019

We spent about twenty minutes on the portage around Big Parisien Rapids.  Max, going by what he was seeing on his Garmin eTrex – i.e. Little Parisien – later mentioned that he was expecting something much more intense as we approached what he thought was Big Parisien. As it was, we were through the next set of rapids in a half-minute!

Without a doubt, Big Parisien is upriver of Little Parisien!

We stopped soon after at a shady spot on an island just above Crooked Rapids. It was time for lunch, this one an uncharacteristically long one from 12:15 to 2:00! Mostly we wanted to sit out the heat of the day instead of being on the water in full sun. It was that hot!

French River – Crooked Rapids:  

Then it was on to the last of the rapids in the Five Mile Rapids section of the French River’s Main Channel.  I will admit I have only a rough idea of what is going on in the GPS track from Max’s eTrex 20 shown below –

We paddled over to check out the vertical rock face on the off chance that four hundred years of paddlers had somehow missed the rock paintings there! Then we turned back to deal with Crooked Rapids, avoiding the main channel and opting for the narrow channel on the left side of the small island.  I think we did a partial carry and a line job here though the details escape me!  The lesson here –  we need to make more use of our cameras’  video mode and shoot a little movie of the situation, even if just for future reference!

Day 4 CS 419 –  An Elevated View!

From all the images which follow it is fair to say we enjoyed the half-day we spent there.  Admittedly, the initial impression was not positive.  Below is what we paddled towards.  As we approached, we wondered where we’d find a flat spot for our four-person tent.

the view of CS419 from upriver – not too promising!

We paddled around the left-side of the island to find something much more to our liking – a gently sloping rock face that went up to a flat spot sheltered from the north wind by more vertical rock and capped with a great hilltop patio.  While we prefer our sites more sheltered and with more tree cover, this fair-weather site would  do thanks to the weather we were having.

our Day 4 CS on the French River – CS419

CS419 on the French – a excellent fair weather site

Dusk on our hilltop patio – and you can see our Helinox Chairs  and our whisky glasses – repurposed 35mm film canisters which conveniently hold a bit over an ounce. We’re not big drinkers but every once in a while – and sometimes as a reward after an especially rough day – we’ll have an ounce or two as we watch the sun go down and point our cameras in different directions.

looking over French River CS419 from the hilltop patio

a view of the French River CS419 neighbourhood from the hilltop

a spider web that caught Max’s eye

sunset on the upper French River – CS419

sunset on the French River – CS419 – take 2

Next Post: Day 5 – From CS419 To Below Recollet Falls West of Highway 69

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Canoeing The French River From Top To Bottom: Day 3 – From Canoe Pass To Below The Portage Channel Dam

Previous Post: Day 2 – Lafleche Point to South of Canoe Pass

Day 3 – From Canoe Pass to Below Portage Channel Dam

  • distance: 27 km
  • time: 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
  • portages/rapids: 1/0: ~570 m (FoFR says 600m), around the channel cut, easy trail for the most part, especially near to and after the road.
  • weather: sunny all day, light wind from NW
  • campsite: CS304 w/TB up the hill; room for multiple tents however nice spots for a 4-person not so much
  • GPS tracks – 2019 French River (3.2Mb Dropbox file)

Day 3 – Upper French River – Canoe Pass To Portage Channel Dam Portage

Day 3 – Upper French River – From the 580-meter Portage  to CS304

Gibraltar Point: 

We were on the water early and heading to Gibraltar Point and another narrow channel with a warning to boaters to slow down.  Gibraltar’s vertical rock face had us looking for evidence of pictographs. We knew that Selwyn Dewdney had seen something here on a visit in 1960. In Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes he wrote:

The paintings on “Gibraltar”, as it is called locally, are badly weathered, and little can be deciphered but a few canoes. [, p.93]

Other than the four canoes, he also recorded a stick figure, a round smudge, and some horizontal and vertical lines.  More recently there was apparently graffiti on some of the rock face (mentioned by Nick Adams in a mid-1980’s paper – see below) and then, even more recently, whitewash on top of it.  Perhaps we should have spent more time looking for evidence of the ochre canoe images and the covered-over graffiti.

As it is, all we saw in our quick scan was a painted name which someone felt compelled to leave behind. If you visit, you may want to give the rock face a more intensive examination than we did!

The Kennedy Island Pictograph Site:

Just around the corner from Gibraltar Point, we approached the rock face pictured in the image below. Along with the Gibraltar site, Dewdney had examined this site in 1960.

Site #80…is in clear, strong pigment. Only the thunderbird, turned on its side, is somewhat obscured by lichen. The stick figures remind us of those at Diamond Lake and Scotia Lake. Among the others are a canoe, a pig-like bear, and a likely fish. [93-94]

And that is it for his cursory treatment of this site, which hosts the single largest collection of rock paintings on the French River system.

The Kennedy Island Pictograph Site – and location of a plaque honouring Bill Kennedy

As we paddled towards the site, our attention was first drawn to a metal plaque a few feet to the north.  The Island’s name is Kennedy; the massive plaque explains why. We did wonder why they chose to place it so close to the Anishinaabe pictographs.

Kennedy Plaque next to the Anishinaabe Pictographs

To the south and below the plaque is the panel of rock paintings.  It covers a small  .6 sq. meter area.  Also evident below the plaque on the right-hand bottom corner of the white-painted square is what may well be another image, badly faded and indecipherable.

Kennedy Island – plaque and pictographs

As for the main panel, pictured below, it has over the years been seen by many boaters staying at nearby fishing lodges and cottages, as well as the probable descendants of those who painted the images some two or three hundred years ago.

the Kennedy island pictograph site – the entire collection of images

A study by Nick Adams, a field archaeologist in  Ontario’s Ministry of  Culture and Recreation,  published in 1985 provides some analysis.  [See here for a pdf copy.]

Adams contrasts the general condition of this site with the Gibraltar Point site –

…the proximity of the Kurtz  cottage clearly discourages would be vandals from paying any attention to the site. Another nearby pictograph site in a more isolated location [i.e. the Gibraltar Point site] has not been so fortunate and many of the paintings there have been painted over with recent graffiti.

Another more recent source is Thor Conway’s Discovering Rock Art: A Personal Journey With Tribal Elders (2016).  An entire chapter is dedicated to the French River and the Kennedy Island site is given some coverage.  As well,  an explanation offered as to the meaning of the panel and the relationship of the various images to each other.

The most vivid images are captured in the photo below.  These may

  • be newer than the other images or
  • have been painted with a better formulation of the iron oxide powder/fish oil “paint” or
  • have weathered better than the images closer to the water surface.

close up of the right side of Kennedy Island pictograph site

Using Adams’ paper to identify the images, here is what we see –

So – what does it all mean?  

My guess is that various “painters” over an extended period of time visited the site and left their particular image(s) for shamanistic or vision-quest reasons. While the animal figures on the top right are vivid and deeply coloured, the dog or wolf image on the bottom left is badly faded. So too is what looks like another Y-shaped figure below the bear and to the right of the beaver (skin).  Even more, remnants of other faded images have been painted over.  Some flaking has occurred – see the thunderbird’s triangular body for a section that has flaked off.

I will admit that it does seem odd that they would choose a site so close to major summer tribal sites at Frank’s Bay and  Campbell Bay, no more than seven kilometers away.   Other sites we have visited – the Cliff Lake and Artery Lake sites come to mind – are isolated and require some effort to get to. However, the channel between Eliot Island and Kennedy Island is somewhat tucked away from the main passage to the Lake Nipissing outlet at Chaudiere Falls and would have seen little traffic.

Kennedy Island Pictograph site – entire panel and surrounding rock face

While I resisted the temptation to create a narrative for the collection of images drawn over a period of many years by various people from their common mythological image bank,  there is a more satisfying alternative!

Indeed, the human impulse is to find (and even impose) meaning on random events, objects, or marks placed close to each other.  Think of what we have done with stars or Tarot cards or severe weather events!  We love explanations in the form of stories and coming up with one for this collection of images is certainly possible.  While neither Dewdney or Adams recounts a story that they heard from the distant descendants of those who painted the images, Thor Conway includes several in his chapter on the French River.

One story connects the pictographs to the supposed massacre of a 300-to-400-strong Iroquois raiding party during the great Algonkian-Iroquois War of the mid-1600s. The stick figures represent the headless Iroquois warriors, while the Thunderbird leads the Nipissing warriors, represented by their clan totem animals.  Even the possible canine image is incorporated in the story; it is connected to a white dog sacrifice ritual practised by the Nipissings.

The Lake Nipissing Outlet Dams:

The Three Lake Nipissing Outlet Dams

After our brief stop at Kennedy Island, we switched into “git ‘er dun” paddle mode and covered the 14 kilometers to the top of the portage around the Portage Channel Dam!  There was a bit of wind blowing our way and we made use of the string of islands to avoid the boat traffic on the main channel.  Our cameras did not come out for a couple of hours as nothing really caught our eye.

Perhaps another time we’ll slow down and visit the Dokis First Nation museum on Okikendawt Island.  Another thing we could do is visit the Big Chaudière Dam, largest of the three dams which control the water level of Lake Nipissing:

  1. Big Chaudière Dam – the original opened in 1916; replaced by the current dam in 2016. It is made up of north and south channel gates.
  2. Little Chaudière Dam – the original opened in 1916; current dam opened in 1996.
  3. Portage Channel Dam – first opened in 1951; replaced by the second one in 1992; replaced by the current one, which also serves as a 10 MW hydroelectric facility,  in 2015. The Dokis band invested in its construction.

Note: the satellite image has South at the top and north at the bottom –

The Portage Channel was created to provide a third major outlet for Lake Nipissing water. The deep channel was blasted through of the rock outcrop. Work started in 1946 and the dam opened in 1951.  Of the three dams, only this one has been upgraded to makes use of the water flow to generate hydro-electricity.  We would have to portage around it.

The map below – taken from the essential book on the French River by Toni Harting – shows both the original pre-Channel Dam portage trail and the one which the dam and the man-made channel made necessary.

We paddled to the end of the bay and the beginning of the 570-meter portage trail, indicated by a portage sign and a visible landing, even given the high water.  Looking back from the landing the safety boom is visible, as are other dam-related buildings.

Portage Channel Dam

The Portage Channel Dam portage trail

the Portage Channel Dam take-out spot across from the dam

The trail was in good shape and we were at the put-in about forty minutes after setting off from the take-out point pictured above.  It would have been faster had I not somehow gotten disoriented on my way back to the canoe, after having dropped off my share of the bag carry at the halfway point!  The photo below shows the put-in below the dam.   By the time I arrived the Helinox chairs were set up, water was being filtered and lunch was being organized. A 30-minute post-lunch snooze helped to beat the heat of the mid-day.

lunch break at the bottom end of the Portage Channel Dam portage

the French River below the Channel Dam Portage

Max finds another flower on The Channel Portage

After our break, we pushed on to Cradle Rapids. Higher than usual water levels made it a bit more work but a combination of carry, line and run got us through this section in about 45 minutes.  Perhaps becasue we were among the first of the season to go down, there was little evidence of a portage trail and we felt like we weere improvising one as we pushed ahead.  One thing we did not do wasstop to  look for the solitary pictograph at Cradle Rapids.  We didn’t even take any pix, so focussed as we were on just getting the thing dealt with.  Too bad! Here is our GPS track of our passing through the Cradle Rapids area –

Cradle Rapids – French Rive – portage, line, and run

We did not know it at the time but afteer the trip on looking more closely at the maps in the Toni Harting book on French River, an alternative popped up.  Harting labels it Leonard Portage.  If you know anything about this possible alternative portage around Cradle Rapids, pelase make a comment or email me at true_north@mac.com.  The Leonard looks like aless complicated and faster way around!

Cradle Rapids and Leonard Portage

Done with Cradle Rapids, it was on to the number of official campsites further down, beginning with the one on Boom Island.

Passing by CS 301 at the south end of Boom Island, we took a quick look and figured we could do better. Off to the next one – CS304.

CS 304

CS 301 Boom Island

The scale of the Friends of French River map is such that sometimes the exact location of the campsite is not clear.  We paddled south along the island you see in the image above and then realized that CS304 might be on the other side!  When we got there we found a site a half-grade better the one that we had just left.  It was 4:15 – and we had done 27 kilometers.  We decided to make do with mediocre instead of pushing on to the next one.

The next morning we paddled by and checked out CS306 about 1.5 km. downriver.  It would have been a much better choice!  None of the campsites looked like they had been used yet this year and, given the proximity to the fishing lodges down at Wolseley Bay, are probably more used by fishing parties for shore lunches than by canoe trippers.

Day 3 – French River CS 304

checking out CS304 – we decided to call it a day

Some of the upper French campsites are outfitted with tables and, at 304, with a left-behind cooler! Also typical of these sites are three or four fire pits where one would do.  304 was one instance where we spent some time eliminating a couple of fire pits from the site.

CS304 on French River – “it’ll do”

Next Post: Day 4 – Down The French River’s Five Mile Rapids Section 

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Canoeing The French River From Top To Bottom: Day 2 – From Lafleche Point to Canoe Pass

Previous Post: Day 1 – From Sucker Creek Landing To Lafleche Point

Day 2 – From Lafleche Point to Canoe Pass

  • distance: 25 km
  • time: 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
  • portages/rapids: 0/0: another nice easy paddle!
  • weather: sunny most of the day, light wind from NW?
  • campsite: CS105 room for multiple tents, nice veranda, better than CS 104 which we checked out, some sites along the south shore of West Bay
  • GPS tracks – 2019 French River (3.2Mb Dropbox file)
  • Natural Resources Canada 1:50,000 topos: Noelville 041 I 01; Nipissing 031 I 04
  • Garmin Mapshare page

Lake Nipissing From Lafleche Point (West Bay) to Canoe Pass below Sandy island

Day 2 – and our first full day on the water.  Our goal for the day was to paddle east on Lake Nipissing to Canoe Pass and then head south to the first decent campsite we found.  Conditions were ideal – almost no wind and mostly sunny all day as we paddled along the south shore of West Bay and then east past a string of islands until we came to the single largest island in the lake, Sandy Island.

Lake Nipissing – Lafleche Point to Canoe Pass – Day 2

As noted in the Day 1 post, less than a kilometer from our Day 1 CS we found a much better one at Lafleche Point itself. About an hour later we would check out another site as we were paddling through Hay Narrows, the entrance of West Bay.

West Bay Lake Nipissing – the shoreline of an abandoned camp property

Initially curious about an iron post embedded in the sloping rock face, we walked up to see the concrete foundation of what was once a camp.  Other than the post and that foundation, the site was remarkably clean, with little of the usual debris you often see at abandoned sites.  It would make a good campsite for multiple tents.

the concrete foundation of a camp on West Bay Lake Nipissing

Max gets in his flower shot of the day!

site reconnaissance over – Max on his way back to the canoe

Ten minutes after passing by Jennings Island (top left on the map below), we pulled up on a point and set up our Helinox chairs in the shade of some pines. Out came the butane stovetop and butane canister – it was time for our usual Thai soup and peanut butter on Wasa bread lunch!

An hour later, we were back on the water and, once we passed by Wigwam Point, paddling along the south side of Sandy Island.  While we were struck by the number of camps/cottages, few of them seemed to be in use. One motorboat did come ripping by and was the object of a curse or two as he seemed oblivious to the impact of the wake he was leaving for us to deal with. We also saw our first paddler – a kayaker from one of the camps out for an afternoon paddle.

[We would not see any other canoes or kayaks until Day 11 when we approached the Hartley Bay dock! As for motorboats – we saw perhaps a dozen over the following ten days. It was pretty quiet on the French, just the way we like it.]

Sandy Island Lake Nipissing

In his study of Ontario pictograph sites, Discovering Rock Art, Thor Conway recounts a story he heard from an elder named John Fisher from the Garden Village reserve in the early 1980s.  It involved an ambush by his Nipissing ancestors of a group of invading Iroquois during the Iroquois-Algonkian War of the mid-1600s. Supposedly, three to four hundred Iroquois were killed in the surprise attack while they slept. It is not clear on which exact island the ambush and ensuing massacre took place; however,  it was in the vicinity of the Sandy Island we were paddling by.  Fisher says he visited the site with his father when he was quite young and said he saw bones and skulls laying on the ground.

While Frank’s Bay at the east side of the entrance to the French River system is known to have been the site of a pre-1600s Nipissing summer tribal gathering site and has seen archaeological excavation, none of the literature makes reference to this incident.

I guess it comes down to how reliable a historian our storyteller was about an incident that happened 330 years before he recounted it.  As he is quoted –

And they [the Nipissing warriors] got their clubs. And they’re [the Iroquois raiders] all sleeping, the others.

And they clubbed them. Oh, yeah.

They killed them all. And then….I didn’t know anything about that very much because they used to talk about it. But I never paid attention, you know. When you’re young, you don’t bother to listen or anything like that. [Conway 117]

The next day we would visit the single largest pictograph site on the French River and it too would be connected to a story about Iroquois raiders.

the west end of Sandy Island

Canoe Pass is a narrow 600-meter channel along the west side of Burnt Island.  To us it represented the end of Lake Nipissing paddle and the start of our trip down the French River system to Georgian Bay.   At both ends of Canoe Pass are signs telling motor boats to reduce their speed. Given that it was a Thursday afternoon in mid-June we were not expecting much traffic!

the south end of Canoe Pass at the top of the French River system

At the south end of the channel we stopped to examine more closely the vertical rock face on the west end of Burnt Island.  While the hope is always that we will find a pictograph or two, the fact is that they are actually fairly scarce on the French and, in any case, the entire surface of this particular rock face was covered with moss and lichen.  So – nothing to see; move along!

the rock face at the south end of Canoe Pass – French River

It was only 2:30 when we came through Canoe Pass. Since we wanted to keep our visit to the Kennedy island pictograph site until the next morning, we switched into campsite hunting mode. The Friends of French River map has all of the French River Provincial Park campsites indicated; we were close to a couple of them – 104 and 105.

First we checked out campsite 105; it looked fine. But just to make sure we didn’t pass up on an even better one, we did paddle over to CS104 to see what it was like.  A quick look and it was back 500 meters to the first one!

CS 104 just south of Canoe Pass –  Lake Nipissing /French River

CS 104 and 105 French River Park

By 3:30 we had both our tent and the bug tent up and we were chillin’ on the rock outcrop ont the water’s edge with our freshly brewed cups of coffee.

our Day 2 Campsite – French River Park CS105

Day 2 had been an easy day with no drama; we were looking forward to the next morning’s visit to the Kennedy island pictograph site and then the 15-km. paddle down to the Portage Channel hydro-electric dam.  It would be there that we would face the trip’s single longest portage, the 600-meter carry around the dam.

Next Post: Day 3 – From Canoe Pass To Below The Portage Channel Dam

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