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

Related Post: Kayaking The Georgian Bay Coast From Killarney to Snug Harbour – Maps, Logistics, and Days 1 & 2

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.

Frances Hopkins - shooting the rapids

a painting by Frances Anne Hopkins from 1879, long after the demise of the transcontinental fur trade route

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 online source of the map: here

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.

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

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.

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

Mid-1980’s Visits to the French River:

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 buddy Cyril.  On both occasions, we started off in Restoule Provincial Park and paddled down the Restoule River to where it meets the French. [Click here for a 2020 Ontario Parks map of the Restoule river canoe route.]

Restoule Lake and River to the French below the Portage Channel Dam

Both times we also headed south just before Highway 69 to  Horseshoe Falls and into Cantin Lake and up the  Pickerel River system to Dollars Lake and an eventual take-out at Port Loring.

from French River to Port Loring via the Pickerel River system

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.

the French River from the bridge

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:

Pierre Sabourin. Land of the Voyageur

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!

La Vase Portage Plaque

Logistics:

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.

Lake Nipissing from Sucker Creek Landing to North Bay

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 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 much more sheltered and we’d be paddling east,  a more favourable direction given the prevailing winds.

Hartley Bay Marina header

A phone call to James Palmer at Hartley Bay Marina established a $140. shuttle cost, a reasonable expense that 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.]

Hartley Bay to Shuswap Camp

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 as a way of paying them back.

So – Sucker Creek Landing 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. 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  three sections where you have some choice:

  1. the top of Okikendawt Island. You could 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 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:

  1. We went down the main channel on the south side of Okikendawt Island.  I planned on checking out the pictograph at Cradle Rapids.
  2. 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 canoe tripping, fewer cottages is always better!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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

What We Ended Up Paddling:

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.

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 FOFR Map 2017River 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.

a view of the French River CS419 neighbourhood from the hilltop

 Trip Conditions: 

the Kennedy island pictograph site – the entire collection of images

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 underwater; 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. 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.

  • 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 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 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!

Other Maps:

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:

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,  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.

Unlostify:

unlostifyAnother 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 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 –

French River - G'Bay Coast

a slice of the Unlostify Map of West French River

If the overall style of the map 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 also provides some historical and geological background on notable spots.  One caution – the 1:50000 NRC topos provide much 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!

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

Bell Cellphone Coverage – French River Delta

  • 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.  

If you’ve paddled the river, if you could email me (true_north@mac.com)  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 element of safety in case of emergency, especially for those without off-the-grid devices like our Garmin inReach Explorer+ or the Spot Connect we used before.

For all the details of a short yet multi-faceted canoe trip we are glad we made, the following post will get you started!

Next Post: Day 1 – Lake Nipissing (West Bay) From Sucker Creek Landing To Lafleche Point

Lake Nipissing (West Bay) – Day 1 Sucker Creek to Lafleche Point – Day 1

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

  1. lloydwalton says:

    I admire your preparation, planning, attention to detail and situational awareness. I adopted these qualities I learned from being a pilot to being an artist. And finally the book I’ve talked about for years (including pictographs and petroglyphs) is now available first from the Friesen Press Bookstore. CHASING THE MUSE: CANADA, By Lloyd Walton.

    • true_north says:

      Lloyd, while you were flying and making films and painting, I spent my adult life with groups of 20 to 30 students in various Toronto classroms. My subjects were World Religions, Economics, Ancient History, Canadian History, Social Studies, English – really, anything that needed to be covered by someone on staff. Most of my students were keen to be taken on a journey, even to a place they hadn’t heard of yet. A few I had to work at enticing along! I fell into blogging when I retired and find that I use some of the same skills I used to survive at shool.

      Re: Chasing The Muse. I will be looking for it. Thanks for the reminder.

      Re: The French. Not exactly a wilderness river but so imbued with history and with such a variety of scenery that it is always a pleasure to spend time there. Amazing that it is five hours from downtown T.O. to putting your canoe in the water!

  2. Garry says:

    Peter, good to see you are closer to sea level this time, having returned from Kilimanjaro. And,. as always, an enjoyable and informative piece on your return to the French River. Makes me want to dig out my Dad’s Algonquin Black Cherry paddles to wet them again!! In 1976, I last returned to “Big Miss” to relive that first summer of ’67. This missive has rekindled those memories and I thank you for that. “inReach Explorer+” is an interesting rig…will have to check that out…would make a great gift for my #1 son. Best regards, Garry
    P.s. a little thought: I’d like to recommend a book authored by an acquaintance of mine titled “ORIGINAL HIGHWAYS: Travelling the Great Rivers of Canada”. Another, by the same author (Roy MacGregor) is “CANOE COUNTRY: The Making of Canada”. These are both very good reads and I believe you would enjoy both of them…if you ever make time to read!! lol /jgp

    • true_north says:

      Garry, good to hear from you! I hope you’re keeping well and busy. Still not too late to get a buddy and fly into Little Missinaibi Lake for a five-day fishing trip. You’d have a cottage and a boat and kicker and a can of gas – and you could revisit some of those spots from the summer of ’67! (The year the Leafs last won the Stanley Cup – yikes!)

      The inReach is a nifty device for sure. It isn’t cheap though – $500. for the device itself and then you need to be connected to the Garmin satellite. That is another $40. a month. It does lower the level of worry of the ones we leave behind for our continuing adventures! I’ll be taking it along in September when I go to Bhutan for a 24-day trek in the eastern Himalayas. My wife will be following our track as we skirt the Tibetan border.

      Thanks for the great book recommendations! Roy MacGregor is a name I know – excellent writer and journalist on things Canadian…hockey, politics, etc. Wasn’t he a Macleans writer back in the day when we still read actual weekly magazines? I had not heard of either of the books you mention. They sound exactly like what I enjoy reading these days. I am gong to check them out and will probably find another canoe trip or two that way!

      • Garry Paget says:

        Peter, things are well…inspite of myself…and I’m busy. And, yes, I’ve been talking of a trip to “Little Miss” with my #1 son…Kevin…he’s the outdoorsman of my 2 boys. He’s now completed his 1st year as an Engineering Officer with the Canadian Coast Guard based out of Parry Sound, aboard the “CCGS Samuel Risley” and he enjoys hunting and fishing.
        Re the Leafs…and I’m still saying…”Maybe next year”!! lol.
        I did check out the InReach unit before I commented (knew of its $500 cost) and, since I wouldn’t get one for myself, (I wouldn’t use it enough) I figured Kevin would use it and cover the $40/month connection cost, which I’m sure could be gotten on a month by month basis, as needed? I could always borrow it!!
        Yes, I believe Roy did write for Macleans…a few years ago…”A LIFE IN THE BUSH lessons from my father” is probably my favourite and a 3rd recommendation.
        I look forward to your next instalments on your French River trip and your upcoming Himalayas adventure. Oh to be young…eh??!!
        Garry

      • true_north says:

        My mother-in-law’s bit of wisdom was this – “You’ve got to keep movin’ cuz when you stop you’re in trouble!” She managed to pull it off until almost the very end. When I turned 60 I remember thinking – I have a decade of adventures left. Ten fingers’ worth. Now that I am almost 70 I am revising that end number to 80. Maybe I’ll start counting toes! Stay tuned for further revisions!

        I have ordered the two MacGregor books you mentioned – they are both available in the Toronto Library system…thanks for pointing them out!

  3. Anonymous says:

    I am breathless (but not speechless)! This is such a comprehensive and lush historic narrative and precise trekking itinerary. You must have been one heck of a great teacher (I couldn’t help noting your comments here). I am deeply inspired by your rigour and passion. As you journey this amazing victory lap in your life, thank you for so generously sharing your experience and insights.

    • true_north says:

      The “victory lap” – I like it! In the high school context it describes that self-indulgent extra year that some Grade XII grads put in before they finally go off to university. They come back and take a few courses – often ones they have already passed – with the expectation of improving their marks.

  4. Roger Lichty says:

    I am enjoying your blog – canoeing down the French. A friend of mine from Great Britain has been forwarding to me because, “you live on the French, and this guy might have passed by your place”. We do live on the French, but along the north side of 18mile island. My wife and I retired 5years ago, came home – close to where the two of us ‘grew up’.

    Your trip blog is especially interesting because you leave from almost exactly the place my brother and I and 4 of our childhood friends began a trip 43 years ago. Four of the group finished off at Key River Harbour, two had to leave earlier, so were picked up at Hartley Bay. The difference then was we simply jumped in canoes with our gear and started paddling (no permits, though I do believe we camped responsibly)

    Five of our group are still alive. I’m trying to entice the remaining (old codgers now…65 to 69) to go on an anniversary trip to commemorate the life of a great friend of ours – the one who normally instigated our more interesting adventures as young people.

    Thanks again for publishing this blog.
    Regards,
    Roger Lichty

    • true_north says:

      Roger, thanks. It is always nice to get positive feedback on my canoe tripping posts. I took up blogging after I retired from 35 years in various high school classrooms. It allows me to make use of the still images I spend a lot of time fussing about on my various trips!

      Your trip sounds like an excellent idea. Not only do you celebrate your friend but you get to experience again the sights and feel of the French with your old friends. Like you guys, my brother and I are getting on – he is 65 and I am 68. We hope to be doing this at least until our mid-70s…or maybe longer. And then we can chill and reread the posts!

  5. Barbara Crompton says:

    Hello Peter and thank you for the itinerary on your French River adventure! My partner and I are looking to do the same but we are just in the early stages of research. Having lost this year to COVID and our plans to canoe the Yukon River (next year! – fingers crossed!), we are focusing on Ontario. The French River has been on our bucket list for some time, so we may just consider it for this September. Here is my question. My partner Ian is looking at borrowing my sister’s old Coleman canoe tub that weighs about 75lbs. It is in excellent condition but so friggin’ heavy! I would like us to rent a Kevlar canoe to make any portages easier. We typically rent Kevlar’s for our Temagami trips as they are so easy to carry and manage! Your thoughts?

    • true_north says:

      The French River trip is a fantastic one. I liked how the logistics worked out with the Hartley Bay shuttle and the fact that it was June meant it was fairly quiet going down. You can expect the same in September after Labour Day. You will also not have the record high water we did that June; it should make the rapids somewhat less daunting! There will be little chance that your campsite will not be available. The bugs should be gone!

      Re: the Coleman. My wife and I paddled one down the French on her one and only canoe trip! [I should have introduced her to camping and canoeing with a four-day visit to Algonquin!] The Coleman is not a paddler’s canoe; it is a wide barge meant for cottagers and fishermen! Accept the cost of a canoe rental – about $40. a day – as part of the price of the adventure. If you live in southern Ontario, you could rent one from the Swift Canoe outlet at Waubushene on the way up. [https://www.swiftoutside.com] Or you could rent one from Hartley Bay Marina at the start of your trip. Here is what they’ve got –

      • 16 ft Nova Craft, Kevlar composite canoes weighing approx. 52 lbs.
      • 16 ft ABS composite canoes weighing approx. 58 lbs.

      Book early just to be sure!

      Re: Temagami. My bro and I will be up there after Labour Day. We are paddling the Lady Evelyn from Smoothwater Lake back to the vehicle at Mowat Landing after getting shuttled to a put-in on the East Montreal River via the Beauty Lake Road.

      BTW – I paddled the Yukon back in 1978 from Whitehorse to Dawson. It was my first real canoe trip. It was also such an awesome experience that I have been canoe tripping most summers ever since! There are now so many good guidebooks on the Yukon, as well as all sorts of online trip reports and free map downloads. And only one real set of rapids on a river that flows at about 5 km. an hour! We had 17′ Grummans on that trip as the pic below shows.

      https://albinger.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/group-shot-1.jpgThe Yukon crew - the summer of '78

      • Barbara Crompton says:

        Hi Peter. Thank you for getting back to me so quickly. Your information is helpful. Love the retro picture you included! As for your trip to Temagami in September, have a wonderful time! We love that area for canoeing. This year we did a nine-day loop that took us up through Kokoko Bay to Kokoko Lake, up the North Arm of Temagami to Sharp Rock Inlet, Diamond Lake, Wakimika Lake, down through Obabika Lake, Inlet and back to our put in place at the Lake Temagami Access Road. It was very quiet and we only saw a couple of other canoes in our entire 9 days. Temagami Outfitters has been a great resource for us and Erik (owner) is extremely helpful. Enjoy!

      • true_north says:

        So – rental it is? Sounds like that is what you usually do. Only a half-dozen easy portages – with the first one around Portage Dam at the top being the longest at 600m. Enjoy your trip!

  6. sarah says:

    After you spent a day and a half getting to the mouth… how many days did you take to get down the french (to the bustards)?

    I can’t seem to open your map… And I’m planning a similar trip myself, and curious about timing. There’s the distances, but also the portages… Thoughts on timing welcome!

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