Last revised on October 14, 2022.
Canoeing The French River From Top To Bottom:
Table of Contents:
- A Bit of History
- Where To Start? North Bay or Sucker Creek Landing?
- Alternative Put Ins
- Shuttle Providers
- New FRPP Campsite Numbers
- Ontario Parks Backcountry Permits
- Route Options
- Some Historical Context – Fur Trader Journals
- Memorable Campsites
- Trip Conditions
- Cell Phone Coverage
A Bit of History:
In 1989 the Ontario government created French River Provincial Park to protect and promote a river that 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. The voyageurs were on their way to the NWC warehouses and trading post at Grand Portage (and later at Fort William) at the west end of Lake Superior. There they dropped off the trade goods and collected the furs for the return journey.
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, the French River – La Rivière des Français – was chosen.
This June, my brother and I returned to the French River. A few years ago, we spent a memorable week paddling the French River Delta from our put-in at Hartley Bay Marina in mid-September.
Mid-1980s Visits to the French River:
In the mid-1980s, I had paddled the upper French River a couple of times. On both trips, we started off in Restoule Provincial Park and paddled down the Restoule River to where it meets the French.
[See 2020 Ontario Parks Restoule map for detailed canoe route info.]
Both times we also left the French River just before Highway 69 via Horseshoe Falls to access Cantin Lake and the Pickerel River system, which we paddled up to Dollars Lake and an eventual take-out at Port Loring.
The difference this time?
This time we planned 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 Chaudière and Portage Channel dams,
- the Keso Point pictograph site.
- the Gorge stretch from Highway 69 down to Ox Bay.
Every time we’ve crossed the Hwy. 69 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:
Another Ontario artist – Blake Richardson – takes the same view of the French River looking south from Hwy. 69 and draws you in with an image that is more than initially meets the eye, with elements not so much hidden as embedded in the surface view we all see. The artist explains his process here.
We would see the Richardson photograph/painting when we stopped at the French River Interpretive Center on our way back south after the trip. But first, we walked onto the Snowmobilers’ Bridge and got the shot you see above of the iconic view.
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 Brulé 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. Our ten-day trip would end when we unloaded our gear on the marina dock.
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’re going to 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 kilometres 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 much 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 that eliminated most canoe trips’ #1 logistical problem. Our vehicle would be waiting for us in the Hartley Bay Marina parking lot (a $10. a day fee). Note that the Marina no longer does shuttles or sells Park Backcountry camping permits.
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 pay them back.
So – Sucker Creek Landing it was.
There are other possibilities for those canoe trippers not quite so obsessed about entering the French River system from Lake Nipissing or those looking for a somewhat shorter trip length!
- The Restoule River entry I used on two previous occasions is one of them.
The map below shows three more:
- Mercer Lake – Hall River access trip report
- Wolseley Bay access trip report
- Dokis First Nation access trip report
All options require some sort of shuttle arrangement and vehicle parking.
A shuttle makes the trip logistics that much easier. Hartley Bay Marina had been our preferred option because a return from G’Bay does not require a paddle back to Hwy 69, especially up the Gorge section of the French itself.
2021 Update: A Hartley Bay Marine is no longer doing shuttles. A possible solution? Ask the Shuswap Camp folks if they can arrange a shuttle of your vehicle down to Harley Bay from their property on the final day of your canoe trip.
We only had one vehicle. With two, you would eliminate the need for a shuttle. Leave one at the endpoint – e.g. Hartley Bay Marina – and the other at the put-in – e.g. Shuswap Camp or Lichty’s Nipissing Marina or one of the Wolseley Bay lodges. You pay to park two vehicles instead of one and spend an hour driving back to the put-in at the end of the canoe trip.
Other possibilities for a shuttle driver and place to park your car for a week include
- The French River Supply Post and Marina
- Smith Marine on the Pickerel River by Hwy 69. Seb and Chantel Smith can arrange a driver and provide vehicle parking at the marina. Phone 1 705 857 2722 or email email@example.com
- Pickerel River Marina.
Paddling up the Pickerel from Ox Bay is better if your take-out point is back at Hwy 69. it would mean that you would not have to deal with Recollet Falls and the sometimes strong current in the Gorge section of the French.
If you’ve used any of these, a comment at the end of this post on your experience would be appreciated. It may help the next paddler decide which one to choose!
Friends of French River P.P. Map for campsite info
The official park map to get in 2022 is the 2021 4th. Edition of the 1:50,000 scale Friends of French River map. It has the new campsite numbers. The waterproof map is not only a good investment, it also provides the Friends with a bit of money to keep on 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.
Out-of-date older maps:
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 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. I’ve reviewed my report and changed many 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.
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.
The NRC maps are the most accurate. They lack two essential bits of info: 1. portage and 2. campsite locations.
Crawshay’s Topo Canada iOS App – free.
Thanks to its GPS capability, your smartphone is a helpful thing to bring along.
I also brought along my iPhone 6 with David Crawshay’s Topo Canada app with the topographic sheets above installed. The app is free, as are the NRC topo maps you need to download before the trip. 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 one thing I did not do was leave my iPhone on all day with GPS enabled.
ATLOGIS Canada Topo Maps for Android OS: free/$14.
There is an Android OS app from a German app developer similar to Crawshay’s Topo Canada iOS app. However, it costs $14. U.S. Given its usefulness, the one-time cost is a worthwhile investment that will 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.
Another useful map is the Unlostify French River map, also available for $20. in a waterproof plastic material here – and downloadable for free here. It covers the French River from just east of Highway 69 to Georgian Bay. (Scroll down to the bottom of the legalese and click ACCEPT!) Just print the parts of the map you need and slide them into a clear ziplock bag – or invest in the hard copy for extended use! Here is a sliver of the map to give you an idea of the look –
If the map’s overall style looks familiar, the reason is the involvement of Jeff McMurtie, who used to be Jeff’s Maps! It has dozens of campsites indicated (probably taken from the Friends of French River map) and provides some historical and geological background on notable spots. One caution – the 1:50000 NRC topos give much more accurate mapping of narrow channels and passages between islands. I wouldn’t rely just on the Unlostify map, as informative as it is. Note that the map and the digital download were published/uploaded in 2018, so they do not have the new FRPP campsite #s.
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. – would also be available.
Planning Our Route:
For the most part, a trip down the French River system is pretty straightforward: just stick to the main channel and cover the 110 km. to Georgian Bay in four or five days. It took us a day and a half to paddle along the south shore of Lake Nipissing from Sucker Creek Landing to the top of the French River at Canoe Pass.
Then there are four sections where you have some choice of route:
1. At The Top of Okikendawt Island:
You can go down the main channel on the south side of Okikendawt Island after doing the 580-meter Portage Channel portage and the Cradle Rapids portage, or 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.
Our Choice: We went down the main channel on the south side of Okikendawt Island. This is the route the voyageurs used. I planned to visit the pictograph at Cradle Rapids.
2. Eighteen Mile island:
You could choose to paddle the North Channel on the north side of Eighteen Mile Island instead of going down the main channel on the south side.
Our Choice: We went down the Main Channel on the south side of Eighteen Mile Island so we could experience the half-dozen sets of rapids in the Five Mile Rapids section. The Main Channel is the one the fur traders would have used. Also, the North Channel has quite a few more cottages along its shore and when canoe tripping, fewer cottages is always better!
3. From Ox Bay At the Top of the Delta To Georgian Bay
- Once you paddle down the Gorge section to 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!
The voyageurs used the Main Outlet (#4) and what we now call the Old Voyageur Channel (one of #5’s the Western Channel’s many outlets).
If this is your first time to Georgian Bay, you could take the historic Old Voyageur Channel with its one 10-meter portage at La Petite Faucille and the nice ride through the swifts at La Dalle.
Our Choice: 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. It was definitely not used by the voyageurs! See below for a map of the Henvey Inlet Fire 2018 and east end of French River Provincial Park.
4. The Return From Georgian Bay:
Return options to Hartley Bay include the Main Channel, the other channel used by the voyageurs. Both are easier to deal with than the Voyageur Channel to the west of the Old Voyageur Channel.
The easiest return route from Georgian Bay to Ox Bay is the Eastern Outlet via Bass Creek and Bass Lake.
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 did: Bad weather – rain and 30 km/hr winds – had us forego a visit to the Bustards. Instead we made use of the cross channel, an inside passage across the delta, to paddle to the westernmost campsite in the park and also paid a visit to a favourite camping spot of the voyageur brigades. We returned to Hartley Bay via a channel just to the west of the Old Voyageur Channel.
GPX/KMZ Files of our Route:
A GPX file of our route can be downloaded here: French River June 2019
Click here to access a kmz file of the 220-km route. You can open the file in the Earth app found within the Google Chrome browser.
- Day 1 – Lake Nipissing’s West Bay
- Day 2 – From Lafleche Point To Canoe Pass
- Day 3 – From Canoe Pass To Below The Portage Channel Dam
- Day 4 – Down the Five Mile Rapids Section of the Upper French River
- Day 5 – From CS503 (old #419) To Below Recollet Falls
- Day 6 & 7 – To Pickerel Bay and Down Fox Creek To Georgian Bay
- Days 8 & 9 – Across The French River Delta From East To West
- Days 10 & 11 – From G’ Bay Up To Robinson’s Bay and Hartley Bay Marina
Historical Context For the Journey
Eric Morse. Fur trade Routes of Canada/Then and Now.
In his classic Fur Trade Routes of Canada/Then and Now (first edition in 1968), Eric Morse devotes a couple of pages to what he noted was a pleasant one-day run down the French River from Lake Nipissing by the Lake Superior-bound voyageurs. (Click on the title to access a pdf file I created of the pages dealing just with the French River section.)
A free pdf download of the entire book is available from the Government of Canada Publications website.
A hard copy of the book is available at the Amazon site and would be at home on any keen wilderness canoe tripper’s bookshelf! (See Amazon.ca for more info.)
Toni Harting. French River: Canoeing The River of the Stick Wavers
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). A week later, I had my own copy of the single best 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 things that you’d never know otherwise as you paddle by. (Example: the Voyageur Channel is misnamed. It was not used by the voyageurs as a way to get to Georgian Bay!)
BTW -The reference to “stick wavers” in the title refers to the Jesuits with their wooden crosses!
Canoeing Ontario’s Rivers has been on my bookshelf for over thirty years and is one I have returned to often. The authors, Ron Reid and Janet Grand, highlight a couple of dozen Ontario river systems, providing insight into natural and human history that adds layers of context and enrichment to a simple canoe trip. The book includes a chapter on the French River – The French: In The Wake of the Voyageurs.
Unfortunately, a hard copy of the book is difficult to find these days. The Toronto Public Libary system has one copy – and it is for reference only and cannot be signed out.
Luckily, the book is available on the Internet Archive website. A digital copy can be accessed for one hour at a time after a free sign-up. It is easy enough to take screenshots of the pages and then have a copy of the chapter to read at your leisure.
An extract from Alexander Henry:
Alexander Henry’s Travels and Adventures 1760-1776 contains a brief account of his trip down the French River in 1761 when he was 21. First published in 1809, the book was meant by the veteran fur trader and merchant to set the record straight.
As the Dictionary of Canadian Biography explains:
Henry sensed, however, that new men were taking over the fur trade and in 1809 he wrote to Askin, “There is only us four old friends [James McGill*, Isaac Todd*, Joseph Frobisher, and himself] alive, all the new North westards are a parcel of Boys and upstarts, who were not born in our time, and suposes they know much more of the Indian trade than any before them.” To recapture his exciting past, he wrote a memoir of his life which he published in New York in 1809. Travels and adventures in Canada and the Indian territories, between the years 1760 and 1776 has become an adventure classic and is still considered one of the best descriptions of Indian life at the time of Henry’s travels. [See here for the entire Henry biography.]
Access a pdf file of the few pages that record Henry’s French River impressions.
Click here for a pdf file of the entire book, or go to archive.org here for yet more formats. You’ll find one great story after another, filled with perceptive details from what appears to be a very reliable narrator.
Macdonell’s Diary is included in Five Fur Traders of the Northwest, a 1933 collection of 18th C diaries edited by Charles M. Gates. In his entries, he recounts his journey from Montreal to Mackinac and then on to his first NorthWest Company job as a clerk at the Qu’Appelle post in Saskatchewan.
Click on the cover image or here to access a pdf extract from Macdonell’s entries dealing with the section from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay.
[See here for a 9 Mb pdf file of the text of the entire Macdonell diary.]
The above pdf files will make for some good canoe trip reading if you bring your iPad along!
Daniel Harmon’s Journal From April 1800 to 1819
Daniel Harmon was a native of Vermont who, after a year spent in Montreal, joined the Northwest Co. as a clerk at 22 and was assigned to a post in western Canada.
See Harmon – La Chine to Grand Portage for a pdf file of the first 18 pages of his journal. Covering the period from April 29 to July 14, 1800, he provides perceptive details on voyageur life and the route from Montreal to the west end of Lake Superior. His crew spent a day on The French River section of their journey! See also Chapter V of the Eric Morse book –
for a 1970s account of the voyageurs’ trip to the west end of Lake Superior.
Harmon’s entire journal can be accessed here. It is a very readable account of the fur trader’s life, his observations of the people and cultures he encountered, and the nature of the trade he was engaged in.
Once in the Park, we camped at eight different official campsites. Some are genuinely memorable; a few, especially in the Upper French section north of Highway 69, are mediocre. Their use by fishing lodge clientele may also explain the beer cans, related mess, and multiple fire pits at some sites. We just kept paddling after a quick look at some sites and wondered who decided to put the campsites there.
For the record, our favourites were the following:
634 (old 633) – on the north side of Pickerel Bay across from the beginning of the Fox Creek route. There are incredible elevated views in all directions and an excellent spot to put our four-person tent.
503 (old 419) – a campsite after the Five Mile Rapids section of the Upper French
726 (old 920) – a sheltered island campsite in Fox Bay where we hunkered down for a storm that never came!
838 (old 822) – the westernmost campsite in the Park, though 832 (old 816) on Eagle Nest Point across the Bay has better views of Georgian Bay and Green Island Bay
There were some nice campsites in the Five Miles Rapids section of the river. Big Pine Rapids was one spot that comes to mind. The campsites are available on a “first come” basis with no need to pre-book as you do with other parks like Killarney. That is always a plus. If you avoid July and August, there should be no worries about finding a spot.
Water Levels: This June, water levels on Lake Nipissing and the French River were quite high – a meter to 1.5 meters higher than usual. Portage take-out spots like the one at Recollet Falls were underwater; a stronger than usual current made paddling up some channels in the Delta area HIIT work-outs. Without a doubt, a September trip would eliminate some of our issues.
All in all, however, the French is a pretty mild river. There is only a 21-meter drop in water level from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay; half of that happens at the first portage, around the Portage Channel hydro-electric dam.
- 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
Wind: Our planned paddle out to and back from the Bustard Islands did not happen, thanks to the fairly strong 30 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 NoBugZone 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!
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!
However, you don’t really 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 could make phone calls! We were able to make a connection about 2/3rds. of the time. The Bell map below shows a large area – the Point Grondine Ojibwe territory to the west of the French River delta – without coverage. It 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 503 (old# 419): on the Main Channel of the Upper French below the Five Miles Rapids section
Access Bell’s coverage map here
- CS634 (old #633): on Pickerel Bay not far from Ox Bay
- CS726 (old #920) on Finger Island at the bottom of Fox Bay
- CS804 (old #723) to the east of Whitefish Bay on the Georgian Bay Coast.
- CS838 (old #822) at the west end of the Park.
An October 2022 comment (see the Comments section below) provided the following info about cell service – and “thunderboxes”:
- old 706/new 688 – had 1 bar signal and did have a thunderbox
- old 801/new 830 – no signal and no thunderbox (also saw a bear behind camp as we were paddling away)
- old 724/new 805 – sketchy one bar of signal and no thunderbox (fresh bear poop by the canoes in the morning)
- old 617/new 662 – 2 bars signal and did have a tricky to find in the dark thunderbox
If you’ve paddled the river, if you could email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) where you were able to make calls from – either campsite # or map location – that would be appreciated. Future paddlers will benefit. It is an added safety element in case of emergency, especially for those without off-the-grid devices like our Garmin inReach Explorer+ or the Spot Connect we used before.
The following post will get you started on all the details of a short yet multi-faceted canoe trip we are glad we made!