Canoeing The French River From Top To Bottom:
A Bit of History:
In 1989 the Ontario government created French River Provincial Park to protect and promote a river which was once an integral part of a water highway that stretched from Montreal to the Canadian Rockies. Flowing downstream 110 kilometers from the south side of Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay, it was a short but crucial section of a transcontinental trade route used by Indigenous Peoples and then, after 1615, by French and Canadien explorers, coureurs de bois, and Roman Catholic missionaries.
With the British take-over of Canada in 1763 and the establishment of the North West Company in Montreal, the interior route to the fur riches of the west continued to flourish. Down the French River each spring came the twelve-meter-long canots du Maître with their 4 tonnes of cargo and crew. They were on their way to Fort William at the west end of Lake Superior where they dropped off the trade goods and collected the furs for the return journey. Some Canadien crews did the descent of the French River section in as little as a day!
The river system’s integral connection with Canada’s early history meant that when the newly formed federal government program The Canadian Heritage Rivers System named its first river in 1986, it was the French River that was chosen.
This June my brother and I made a return visit the French. A couple of years ago we had spent a memorable week in mid-September paddling the French River delta from our put-in at Hartley Bay Marina.
In the mid-1980s I had also paddled the upper French River a couple of times – once with my wife Laila and another with my bud Cyril. On both occasions, we started off in Restoule Provincial Park and paddled down the Restoule River to where it meets the French.
Both times we also headed south just before Highway 69 to Cantin Lake and the Pickerel River system, which we paddled up to a take-out at Port Loring.
The difference this time? We wanted to include the Upper French above the mouth of the Restoule River and see for ourselves the following landmarks –
- Canoe Pass,
- Gibraltar Point,
- the Kennedy Island Pictograph site,
- the Chaudiere and Portage Channel dams,
- the Keso Point pictograph site.
We also wanted to do the Gorge stretch from Highway 69 down to Ox Bay.
Every time we’ve crossed the bridge on the way up North to another canoe trip and again on the way back, we’d look down that dramatic corridor and say – “Someday we’re going down that!”
Pierre Sabourin (click on his name to access his website) captures the feel of that stretch just south of the bridge in a Group of Seven kind of way:
Where To Start?
The original plan was to start at Champlain Park in North Bay. The Park is located on the shore of Lake Nipissing at the mouth of the La Vase River. It is at the end of the portage route which Etienne Brule in 1610, Champlain in 1615, and everyone who followed made use of to get to the shore of Lake Nipissing from the Mattawa River and Trout Lake. If we were going to retrace the route taken by those voyageurs this was the place to start!
The plan was this: we would get Hartley Bay Marina to provide a shuttle driver, whom we would pick up and then drive over to North Bay. He would drive the vehicle back to Hartley Bay while we set off on our little adventure.
However, a closer look at the map had me reconsidering the point of driving to the east end of the lake just to paddle southwest across a very exposed section to get to the Upper French.
The conversation in my head went something like this –
- It’s the route those voyageurs took on their epic journeys. That’s the route we gotta take!”
- “Aren’t we getting a bit obsessive about all of this? They did it because they had to. We don’t have to!”
- “It would only take us a day and a half to cover the 40 kilometers from Champlain Park to the top of the French.”
- “But look how exposed we’d be to winds from the northwest or southwest. That is some pretty open water there. Surely we could find an alternative that would be less stressful!”
Sucker Creek Landing (Shuswap Camp):
At the west end of Lake Nipissing is Sucker Creek Landing. It is a one-hour ride from Hartley Bay Marina to Shuswap Camp just off Highway 64 at the west end of West Bay, a long narrow bay with a string of islands along its south shore. Compared to the open water from North Bay to the top of the French, it is more sheltered and we’d be paddling east, a more favourable direction given the prevailing winds.
A phone call to James Palmer at Hartley Bay Marina established a $140. shuttle cost, a reasonable expense which eliminated the #1 logistical problem of most canoe trips. Our vehicle would be waiting for us in the Hartley Bay Marina parking lot (a $10. a day fee) and we’d be able to get our French River Park camping permits at the Marina main desk when we picked up our shuttle driver. [You can also get your backcountry camping permits online here.]
I also phoned Shuswap Camp to see if we could put in at their dock. Their response: no problem! I figured we’d have lunch at their restaurant to even things out.
So – Sucker Creek it was.
Planning The Route:
For the most part a trip down the French River system – from top to bottom – is pretty straight forward: just stick to the main channel and you will cover the 110 km. to Georgian Bay in four or five days.
The three sections where you have some choice are these:
- the top of Okikendawt Island. You could go down the Little French River channel on the north side of the island and then rejoin the main channel after portaging Five Finger Rapids.
2. Eighteen Mile island. You could choose to paddle the North Channel instead of going down the main channel on the south side.
- Once you get to Ox Bay at the top of the Delta section of the river, you have five main channels or outlets to take you down to Georgian Bay. If you choose the Western Channel you have another three possible options – a. the Bad River Channel; b. the Old Voyageur Channel; and c. the Voyageur Channel. Within these sub-channels, there are yet more possible routes!
We made the following choices as we planned our route:
- We went down the main channel on the south side of Okikendawt Island after doing the 580-meter Portage Channel portage and the Cradle Rapids portage. I planned on checking out the pictograph at Cradle Rapids.
- We went down the south side of Eighteen Mile Island so we could experience the half-dozen sets of rapids in the Five Mile Rapids section. Also, the North Channel has quite a few more cottages along its shore and when paddling, fewer cottages is always better.
- We chose the Fox Creek route to Georgian Bay since it was one we hadn’t done yet. The 2018 Henvey Inlet Fire had apparently reached as far as Fox Creek and we wanted to see how things looked a year later. Once we got to Georgian Bay and spent a couple of days out on the Bustard Islands, we planned to head back to Hartley Bay and our vehicle via Bass Creek and the Eastern Outlet. We had already checked out the Bass Creek portages in 2017 and figured this would make for an easy return route with one easy portage and one lift-over.
What We Ended Up Paddling:
A GPX file of our route can be downloaded here: French River June 2019
Click here to see the 220-km route as it appears on Garmin’s Mapshare page. On the Garmin map, I’ve indicated the ten campsites we stayed at, as well as the five pictograph sites that we had intended to check out. Other than the Kennedy Island site, this aspect of the trip was not a great success!
Useful Sources of Information:
Tired of waiting in line for the one copy in the Toronto Library system of Toni Harting’s French River: Canoeing The River of the Stick Wavers (1996), I turned instead to Amazon and found a used copy. $20. (shipping included) and a week later I had my own copy of the best single source of information on the French River.
It has everything from geology to history to topography and canoe-specific information. While a few things have changed in the past quarter-century since it was written, it has aged well. Any time spent on the French can only be enriched by reading this well-researched book; Harting points out all sorts of things that you will paddle by that you’d never know otherwise. (Example: the Voyageur Channel is misnamed. It was not used by the voyageurs as a way to get to Georgian Bay!)
We also got a copy of the third and latest edition of the 1:50000 scale Friends of French River map, which was published in 2017. The waterproof map is not only a good investment; it provides the Friends with a bit of money to keep on doing their work.
It replaced our older one from 2011 though we didn’t really notice all that much new on the map. The one thing it is useful for is indicating campsite locations. However, their exact locations are sometimes difficult to figure out given the map scale.
Once in the park, we camped at eight different official campsites. Some were truly memorable; too many, especially in the Upper French section north of Highway 69, were mediocre. We just kept on paddling after a quick look at a number of sites and wondered who it was who decided to put the campsites where they are.
For the record, our favourites were the following:
633 – on the north side of Pickerel Bay across from the beginning of the Fox Creek route. Incredible elevated views in all directions and a good spot to put our four-person tent.
419 – a campsite after the Five Mile Rapids section of the Upper French
822 – the westernmost campsite in the Park, though 816 on Eagle Nest Point across the bay has better views of Georgian Bay and Green Island Bay
The campsites are available on a “first come” basis with no need to pre-book as you do with other parks like Killarney.
Water Levels: This June water levels on Lake Nipissing and on the French River itself were quite high – a meter to 1.5 meters higher than usual. Portage take-out spots like the one at Recollet Falls were under water; a stronger than usual current made paddling up some channels HIIT work-outs. Without a doubt, a September trip would eliminate some of the issues we faced. All in all, however, the French is a pretty mild river.
- 196 m asl – Lake Nipissing
- 185 m – below the Chaudiere Dam and the Portage Channel Hydro Dam
- 180 m – below Five Mile Rapids
- 180 m – Dry Pine Bay
- 177 m – Ox Bay
- 175 m – Georgian Bay
There is only a 21-meter drop in water level from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay; half of that happens at the first portage, the one around the Portage Channel hydro-electric dam.
Wind: Our planned paddle out to and back from the Bustard Islands did not happen thanks to the fairly strong 20-km.+ wind and drizzle coming from the southwest. Instead, we spent a couple of days paddling inland from the Bay across the sheltered Cross Channel and going up and down some of the channels at the west end of the Park below Robinson Bay.
Bugs: Given that it was June, we were expecting much worse! Our Eureka Bug tent did get put up twice in ten days, mostly so we could refresh our memories on the best way to put it up! We sat inside the tent just once and that was to escape a shower which coincided with our first breakfast at Lafleche Point on Lake Nipissing!
Along with our copy of the Friends of French River map, we also had Max’s Garmin Etrex 20 GPS device with the Garmin Topo Canada 4.0 map set installed. There are times when the paper map just does not provide enough topo detail and the Etrex helped.
I also brought along my iPhone 6 with David Crawshay’s Topo Canada app and the required topos installed. On a few occasions, especially as we paddled through a maze of channels and islands, I fired it up to see where we were.
The iPhone screen is certainly much larger than the eTrex ’20’s and that makes it more useful in getting some more context as to your location. I did not, however, leave my iPhone on all day; it would eat up battery like crazy compared to the Garmin device!
Federal Government Topo Maps:
If you want to download and make your own paper copies of the relevant bits from the Natural Resources Canada 1:50,000 topos, just click on the following map titles. The links will take you to a tif file at 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 are using a plastic material (Dupont’s Tyvek?) instead of paper and individual sheets cost $20. CDN or so.
Another 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 parts of the map that you need and slide into a clear ziplock bag – or invest in the hard copy for multiple use! Here is a sliver of the map to give you an idea of the look –
If the overall style of the map 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 some 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 useful as it is.
Cell Phone Coverage:
Along for the ride was our inReach Explorer+ with its two-way email communication and a once-every-ten minute track uploaded to the Garmin website so the folks at home could follow along. We’ve come a long way since the unforgettable summer of 1981 when we said we’d be back in six or seven weeks and paddled from Pickle Lake to Attawapiskat without any contact. Now that was off the grid!
Click on the following link to see what the Garmin web page I mentioned above looks like; it will show our 2019 French River route.
However, you don’t need an inReach for a French River trip. Your cellphone will allow you to connect with the folks back home from most locations.
We should have kept a record of the campsites where we were able to make phone calls! We were able to make a connection about 2/3rds. of the time. The Bell coverage map below shows a large area – the Dokis Reserve to the west of the French River delta – without coverage. It also shows coverage along the French River’s Main Channel right down to Ox Bay/Pickerel Bay.
Calls that we were able to make include:
- campsite on Lafleche Point on the south shore of Lake Nipissing’s West Bay
- CS 419: on the Main Channel of the Upper French below the Five Miles Rapids section
- CS633: on Pickerel Bay not far from Ox Bay
- CS920 on Finger Island at the bottom of Fox Bay
- CS723 to the east of Whitefish Bay on the Georgian Bay Coast.
- CS822 at the west end of the park.
Access Bell’s coverage map here
Check out the Whistlestop website for more info, as well as a comparison of Bell and Rogers coverage. Scroll down to Ontario Network Coverage Maps and choose your cell provider from the scroll-down window.
For all the details of a short yet multi-faceted canoe trip we are glad we made, the following post will get you started!