Canoeing Georgian Bay’s French River Delta: Logistics, Maps, & Day 1

Table of Contents:

Maps

  • Official FRPP map – 2021 Edition
  • Garmin Topo Canada
  • David Crawshay’s Topo Canada for iOS devices
  • ATLOGIS Canada Topo Maps for Android OS
  • Federal Government 1:50,000 Topos
  • The Unlostify West French River Map
  • Google Earth

More Info

Day 1 – Hartley Bay to “The Elbow” On The French River’s Main Outlet  

                              has detailed  maps and basic info

Day 2 – From The Main Channel’s The Elbow To The Bustard Islands

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Setting The Scene – A Bit of History: 

The French River Delta and the nearby off-shore islands of Georgian Bay are a part – the most scenic part – of Ontario’s French River Provincial Park.  The Park was created in 1989 to protect and promote a river that was once integral to a transcontinental water highway.  It stretched from Montreal to the Canadian Rockies via the Ottawa River, the Mattawa River, Lake Nipissing, the French River, and the Great Lakes.

Samuel de Champlain Map from 1618 – Lake Nipissing is at the top left

[Note that on Champlain’s map, he names the entire river stretch from Montréal to Lake Nipissing La Rivière des Algoumequins.  After the Algonquian-Iroquois War and its devastating impact on the Algonquins, by the late 1600s the river would be associated with the Odawa.

Stretching 110 kilometers from the south side of Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay, it was used as part of a transcontinental trade route by both Indigenous Peoples and, after 1615, by French and Canadien and (after 1763) British fur traders and missionaries.  The river system’s integral connection with Canada’s early history meant that the French River was chosen when the newly formed federal government program, The Canadian Heritage Rivers System, named its first river in 1986.

Canadian Heritage Rivers plaque – French River Visitors’ Center off Highway 69

I had already paddled the upper French River twice in the mid-1980s – once with my wife Laila and another with my friend Cyril.  We started in Restoule Provincial Park on both occasions and paddled down the Restoule River to where it meets the French.  At Highway 69, we headed back up the Pickerel River system to a take-out at Port Loring.

Restoule Lake and River

Restoule Lake and River

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Print Sources Worth Checking Out:

This September, I finally got to see the river below Highway 69.  The intervening years also meant that there was much more information to add to my understanding of any challenges presented by the rive and an appreciation of the area’s history and natural beauty.  Toni Harting’s French River: Canoeing The River of the Stick Wavers (1996) was one great find.

 

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Friends of French River PP Map for campsite info 

The official park map to get in 2022 is the 2021 4th.  Edition of the 1:55,000 scale  Friends of French River map.  It has the new campsite numbers.  The waterproof map is a good investment and gives the Friends some money to keep doing their work.

The map needs more canoe paddler information on the relatively few portages in the Park.  The one thing it is helpful for is indicating campsite locations.

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Kas Stone’s Paddling And Hiking The Georgian Bay Coast (2008) is an essential guidebook for anyone spending time on the G’Bay Coast.  It is a well-researched combination of history and practical paddling advice and has numerous detailed maps and some great colour photos.  Earlier this summer, I read the book before our kayak trip down the coast from Killarney to Snug Harbour near Parry Sound.  See chapter 6 – “The French River Delta And The Bustards.”

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Where To Start:

See here for a live interactive Google map of the area

Our preferred starting point is  Hartley Bay Marina.  It is at the end of a 14-kilometer gravel road from Highway 69.  After a 2 1/4 hour drive from downtown Toronto to Parry Sound, it takes another 1 1/4 hours to get to the Marina.

Hartley Bay Marina header

We were going up on a Wednesday in late September, so we knew it would be pretty quiet in the Park.

The plan:  leave our car at the Marina for a week.  The cost: $10.  a day for parking + $10. for a canoe launch from their dock.  Valet parking – no extra charge!

Another Option – Key Marina Resort

The Hartley Bay Marina put-in/take-out is the best choice if the French River delta is your destination.  Another option is the Key Marina Resort off Highway 69.  However, it involves a 13-kilometer paddle down the Key River to get to Georgian Bay (and one you’ll have to redo on your return).

Given the usual motorboat traffic on Key River and no way to escape, it can become tedious in a hurry!  Once you pass Key Harbour, you are at the far east end of the delta!

Better to leave from Hartley Bay Marina – 13 kilometers brings you to The Elbow, the hub of the various French River channels to the Bay.  On the way back, there are at least a half dozen other channels and route options, so you will not have to repeat the entry route.

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Maps:

The 2021 French River PP Map for campsite info 

2021 Edition

Out-of-date older maps:

2017 Edition

In 2021 the FRPP managers decided to retire a few campsites and renumber many others.  The result is that pre-2021  Unlostify and the Friends of FRPP maps and trip reports with specific numbered

2006 edition

campsites are now outdated.  Some campers will be confused as they try to match the number on their pre-2021 map to the one nailed to a tree.  Here is a list of the campsites with their old and new numbers.

 

Campsite Re-Numbering Reference

I’ve reviewed my trip report posts and changed most of the campsite #s I mentioned.  The new # appears first; the old # follows.

Getting a copy of the new park map at the Park Visitors’ Center along with your backcountry permit might be the easiest thing to do.

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Other Maps:

Garmin Topo Canada – nice to have but not needed

Along with our copy of the above map, we also had Max’s Garmin Etrex 20 GPS device with the Garmin Topo Canada 4.0 map set.  The paper map occasionally does not provide enough topo detail, and the Etrex helped.  However, a dedicated GPS device is not necessary these days.  A smartphone will do the job just as well. 

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Crawshay’s Topo Canada iOS App

I brought along my iPhone 6 with David Crawshay’s Topo Canada app and the required Topos installed.  On a few occasions, as we paddled through a maze of channels and islands, I fired it up to see where we were.  I did not, however, leave it on all day; it would eat up battery like crazy compared to the Garmin device!  There is an equivalent app available for Android OS devices.

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ATLOGIS Canada Topo Maps for Android OS: free/$14.

The Android OS app from a German app developer is similar to Crawshay’s Topo Canada iOS app.  However, it costs $14.  U.S.  Given its usefulness, the one-time cost is easy to justify and may save you time and aggravation.

Click here to access the Google App Store page –

Note: The free version of the app may be enough for your purpose.

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Federal Government Topos

Natural Resources Canada

If you want to download and make your own paper copies of the relevant bits from the Natural Resources Canada 1:50,000 topos check out these links from the Government of Canada’s geogratis site –

Note: the Federal Government provides the maps for “free” but is no longer in the map printing business.  Some entrepreneurs have stepped in and set up businesses to print the maps.  Most use plastic material (Dupont’s Tyvek?) instead of paper, and individual sheets cost $20.  CDN or so.

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Unlostify West French River

unlostifyAnother useful map is the Unlostify French River map, also available for $20. in a waterproof plastic material here  –  and downloadable for free here.  (Scroll down to the bottom of the legalese and click ACCEPT!)    Just print the map parts you need and slide them into a clear ziplock bag – or invest in the hard copy for repeat use!  Here is a sliver of the map to give you an idea of the look –

French River - G'Bay Coast

a slice of the Unlostify Map of West French River

If the map’s overall style looks familiar, the reason is the involvement of Jeff McMurtie, who used to be with Jeff’s Maps!  It has dozens of campsites indicated (probably taken from the Friends of French River map) and also provides historical and geological background on notable spots.  One caution – the 1:50000 NRC maps provide more accurate mapping of narrow channels and passages between islands.  I wouldn’t rely just on the Unlostify map, as helpful as it is.

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Getting a satellite view of the terrain gives you a different perspective.  Click here to access the view at the start of this one-week French delta adventure at Harley Bay Marina.

Hartley Bay Marina – satellite view

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More Information

Ontario Parks Online Backcountry Permit:

Backcountry camping permits can be purchased online at the Ontario Parks website.  Click on the Reservations option in the header and then the “Backcountry Registration” prompt on the right-hand side of the page.

The 2022 French River fee structure looks like this:

Another option is to stop at the French River Park Visitor Center and get your camping permits there.  Maps and up-to-date info on matters relating to the park – fires, bear sightings, water levels, campsite closures, etc. –  will also be available.

Hartley Bay Marina also handles the park camping permits.  I got the senior rate for six nights of “backcountry camping”; Max got to pay “regular”!

Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 1.08.38 PM

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Our Route:

When we left Toronto for Hartley Bay, we were still unclear about how to let the following seven days unfold.  In doing some pre-trip reading,  I created a list of spots to include in our one-week ramble.  They were –

  • the remains of French River Village
  • Dalles Rapids
  • the Bustard Lighthouses
  • The Elephants in Pickerel Bay
  • Eagle Nest Point
  • the Pickerel River
  • the Bass Creek portages
  • the Old Voyageur Channel
  • Devil’s Door Rapids
  • the Cross Channel From west to east

By the time we got to the Marina, our route was somehow fleshed out.  The 110-kilometer track indicated on the overview map above is what we came up with to hit all those spots listed above.

The numbers 1 to 6 show where we camped at the end of each day.  They were all designated French River Provincial Park campsites, as shown on the map first published in 2006 by The Friends of French River volunteer group.  My copy was the blue third edition from 2017 pictured here.

2017 – 3rd edition

The campsites are available on a “first come” basis with no need to pre-book as you do with other parks like Killarney.  The waterproof map is not only a good investment; it also provides the Friends with a bit of money to keep doing their work.  I still remember when we had a Provincial Government department taking care of parks and maintaining portages!

We made the route happen, thanks to favourable wind and wave conditions.  For example, the paddle out to and back from the Bustards could not have been on calmer water.  We also had a string of seven sunny days and occasionally complained about the lethargy induced by the stifling heat.  It was July weather in late September!

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Favourite Campsites:

We only stayed at designated campsites on this trip; we did note some spots where we would have pitched our tent had it been later in the day.  Our three favourite sites?

  • CS 900 (old 735) on the east side of the Bustards
  • CS 832 (old 816) at Eagle Nest Point – west end of the Park
  • CS 634 (old 633) on Pickerel Bay (The Elephants)

Even the worst one – CS 672 (old 624)on our first night – would be pretty good anywhere else!

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Cell Phone Coverage:

Bell Cell Phone Coverage - French River Delta

See here for the Bell network coverage map

Given the map above, making a cell phone connection in the French River delta seems unlikely.  However, we could phone home from most campsites, especially those on Georgian Bay.

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Day 1 – From Hartley Bay Marina to “The Elbow” On The French River’s Main Outlet

  • distance: 12.7 km
  • time:  4:15 p.m.; finish 6:50 p.m..
  • portages/rapids:  0
  • weather: sunny/cloudy periods;
  • campsite: room for multiple 2-person tents, 1 x 4-person spot

We loaded the two Hooligan canoe packs and the two duffels and pushed off from the Hartley Bay Marina dock shortly after 4:00 p.m.  While an earlier start would have been nice,  we did have enough time before the 7 p.m. sunset to get closer to Georgian Bay.  Our target was a designated tent site in The Elbow area.

The Hartley Bay Marina dock – loading the canoe

A Wednesday afternoon in late September would explain the lack of motorboat traffic.  We saw maybe two during the 2 1/2 hours it took us to get to The Elbow junction.  Given the poor review of CS 670 (old #622) –  too many poorly placed “thunderboxes” (box toilets)!  According to the marina front desk person,- we left it off our list of possible tent spots.

French River - The Elbow campsites

Note: the CS #s are the old ones.  See this list for the new 2021 ones which replaced them.

With its southern exposure, CS 672 (old # 624) was where we ended up.  We saw another canoe on the far shore as we reached the site.  They were nearby campers out for an evening paddle.

Paddlers near CS 672  as we approach

The daylight was already fading as we put up the tent.  We also put up the über tarp.  (Some rain was forecast overnight, and we wanted to ensure a dry tent and easy take-down if it was still raining the next morning.)

Out came the headlamps as we prepared our supper.  We had cut it a bit close!

We took very few pix this first afternoon, so intent on living up to the Albinger Bros. motto of gittin’ ‘er dun!  We would up the chill level and the photo count in days to come!

Campsite 672 near the Elbow on the Main Outlet

The pix here would be among the few with the colour of deciduous tree leaves in them.  The closer you get to the Bay, the fewer maples and birches there are; the pines, cedars, and spruces take over completely.

looking out at the Main Outlet of the French River at The Elbow CS 672 (old CS #624)

dusk view from CS #672 near the Main Outlet’s Elbow

Day 1 – with its 4 p.m. start – had been a bit of a rush.  Still, we had managed to put in 13 kilometers.  As we sat on the rock patio on the side of our tent spot and sipped on our post-supper whisky in the dark, we were already easing into that canoe trip groove.  Day 2, with its great weather and eye-popping scenery, would complete the transition.

Next Post: Day 2 – From The Main Channel’s The Elbow To The Bustard Islands

Day 2 - from The Elbow (Main Channel French River) To The Bustards

Day 2 - Cantin Point To the Bustards

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Related Posts:  

 Kayaking The Georgian Bay Coast: Maps, Logistics + Days 1 and 2 – Chikanishing Creek To Solomon I.  To Point Grondine

Canoeing The French River From Top To Bottom: Intro., Logistics, Planning, and Maps

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10 Responses to Canoeing Georgian Bay’s French River Delta: Logistics, Maps, & Day 1

  1. Garry Paget says:

    Ramblin’ Boy, you are entrapping me again!…beautiful photos and a compelling narrative. I want to visit “the French” so I’ll be more attentive. Garry

    • true_north says:

      Garry, you’ve got a gorgeous cedar strip that needs to be put in some water. “The French” is that water! Close to the big city and yet a world away. What an incredible treasure!

      • Garry Paget says:

        I agree! Canoe is ca 1976 and very well maintained by my Paget cousin…Jim.

      • true_north says:

        Very little portaging to do in the French River delta with a bit of route planning. That classic canoe would be ideal!

  2. Allison says:

    I’m wondering,
    Can you canoe from the Hartley Bay Marina to the CS 735? Is that too much of a stretch? Is there a faster way for a 1 day and 1 nights trip?

    • true_north says:

      Allison, that is not really enough time! You’d need a full day to get from the marina to that great campsite on the east side of the Bustards – and there is no guarantee that it will be available when you arrive. (It is 26 km. from the marina to CS735. You also need to factor in weather conditions, especially wind.) The first time we paddled by someone was already there and we went south a bit and camped at the next designated CS.

      You could get taxied there – but that is not going to be cheap! I know the marina at Hartley Bay does taxi service (including your canoe); I have heard of a similar service offered by the Key Marina Resort by Hwy. 69. You’d get there in a couple of hours and have the day to explore the Bustards; you could paddle back the next day or arrange to get picked up by the taxi.

      Let me know what you decide to do! It sure is a beautiful place to be – even for a couple of days! Maybe go during the week when it should be less busy?

  3. Scott Heywood says:

    I worked at the Bad River Lodge (hence Lodge Channel) as a fishing guide in the mid-80s for Larry and Angie Henderson and my father had a camp in Ox Bay, just east of French River Lodge where the Pickerel and French Rivers converge, so your trip brought back many good memories. The lodge buildings remain but are now private camps I understand. Your photos really capture the terrain and vista well.

    One insider note for your readers is that there’s a wind-protected way to get from Batt Bay to Green Bay through a narrow channel visible on your trip overview map on the extreme left between the No.3 and where it says French River Provincial Park. The channel is adjacent to the white and it saves the trip around the point if Georgian Bay gets rough. I’ve seen 3M rollers with 1M waves breaking on the top out there. I’ve often seen painters on top of the rocks at the south entrance.
    Anyway, thanks for the tour 🙂

  4. Pingback: French River Delta Kayak Trip Report – Tangram

  5. David says:

    My son and I just completed a nine day trip based on the trip you describe in this article. We stayed at three sites you recommended – The Elephants, Bustard Islands and Eagle Nest Point. We kept to the inland route going west along the Bay due to high winds, but still faced some challenging paddling at the mouth of the Fort Channel. We ran Devil Door Rapids, which was just a swift due to low water. We came back via Fox Creek instead of the Pickeral River, with its three memorable portages. They are pretty well marked now, but I think there was still tape left from the trip you described in a different article. It was a great experience and we really profited from your great article.

    • true_north says:

      David, the French River delta is one of my favourite places to paddle. Glad to hear our route write-up was of use to you and your son. What an excellent adventure to share!

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