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

Last revised: October 12, 2022.

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

Day 3 – From Canoe Pass to Below Portage Channel Dam

  • distance: 27 km
  • time: 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
  • portages/rapids: 2/0: ~570 m (FoFRPP says 600m), around the channel cut, easy trail for the most part, especially near to and after the road; messy portage around Cradle Rapids (see map and comments below)
  • weather: sunny all day, light wind from NW
  • campsite: CS304 w/TB up the hill; room for multiple tents, However, not a lot of spots for a 4-person tent.
  • GPS tracks – 2019 French River (3.2Mb Dropbox file)
  • Federal Gov’t (Natural Resources Canada) Topos:  Noelville 041 I 01 and Nipissing 31 L 04
  • Parks Ontario Map – Restoule and the Upper French River

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

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

red dots indicate the approximate locations of picto sites

Gibraltar Point: 

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

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

Other than the four canoes, he also noted

  • a stick figure,
  • a round smudge,
  • and some horizontal and vertical lines.

More recently (in the early to mid-1980s), there was apparently graffiti on some of the rock (mentioned by Nick Adams in his study – see below) and then some whitewash on top of the graffiti.  We really should have spent more time looking for evidence of the ochre canoe images and the covered-over graffiti.

As it was, all we saw in our quick scan was a painted name that someone felt compelled to leave behind. If you visit, you may want to give the rock face a more intensive examination than we did! Since the site faces west, a mid-afternoon visit would mean the sun would be at your back and lighting up the rock face. That may bring out detail that we did not see. Good luck!


The Kennedy Island Pictograph Site:

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

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

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

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

As we paddled towards the site, our attention was first drawn to a metal plaque a few feet to the north.  The Island’s name is Kennedy; the massive plaque explains why. Given the ample space on that rock face, we wondered why they thought it was a good idea to place it close to the Anishinaabe pictographs.

Kennedy Plaque next to the Anishinaabe Pictographs

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

Kennedy Island – plaque and pictographs

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

the Kennedy island pictograph site – the entire collection of images

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

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

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

discovering-rock-art-cover_300x454Another more recent source is Thor Conway’s Discovering Rock Art: A Personal Journey With Tribal Elders (2016).

An entire chapter is dedicated to the French River, and the Kennedy Island site is given some coverage.  An explanation is also given as to the meaning of the panel and the relationship of the various images to each other.

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

  • be newer than the other images or
  • have been painted with a better formulation of the iron oxide powder/fish oil “paint” or
  • have weathered better than the images closer to the water surface.
  • have been painted first before the person applying the “paint” started running out and had to draw the stick figures with what was left. This assumes the entire panel was done in one session.

close up of the right side of the Kennedy Island pictograph site

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

So – what does it all mean?  

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

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

Kennedy Island Pictograph site – entire panel and surrounding rock face

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

Indeed, the human impulse is to find (and even impose) meaning on random events, objects, or marks placed close to each other.  Think of what we have done with stars or Tarot cards or severe weather events!  Finding meaning in coincidence …

We also love explanations in the form of stories, and coming up with one for this collection of images is certainly possible. I am reminded of a Wim Wenders quote: “Stories are impossible, but it’s impossible to live without them.’  While neither Dewdney nor Adams recounts a story that they heard from the distant descendants of those who painted the images, Thor Conway includes several in his chapter on the French River. The go-to story often involves invading Iroquois.

The most fantastical story I have come across is one Bill Steer recounts in his North words: highlights of the near North’s History (1990).

Steer. North Words. 1990.p.13.To connect this story, undoubtedly some non-Native’s late 1800s attempt to outdo Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, to the collection of images on the Kennedy island rock face shows the lengths the mind can go to bend boring fact into stirring fiction. Admittedly, Steer does begin with a note of possible skepticism with his “The symbols may tell us…” as does his Wayne Bliss quote with “It is still said…”

Another story connects the pictographs to the supposed massacre of a 300-to-400-strong Iroquois raiding party during the great Algonkian-Iroquois War of the mid-1600s. [See the Day 2 post for more discussion.]  The stick figures represent the headless Iroquois warriors, while the Thunderbird leads the Nipissing warriors, represented by their clan totem animals.

Even the possible canine image is incorporated into the story; it is connected to a white dog sacrifice ritual practiced by the Nipissings. The story is undoubtedly a piece of revisionist history more flattering than the reality, described in the following quote about the Nipissing:

A tribe of the Algonkin. When they first became known to the French, in 1613, they were residing in the vicinity of Lake Nipissing, Ontario, which has been their home during most of the time to the present. Having been attacked, about 1650, by the Iroquois, and many of them slain, they fled for safety to Lake Nipigon, where Allouez visited them in 1667, but they were again on Lake Nipissing in 1671. (source)

A similar interpretation of a collection of images has been made of Panel III at Agawa Rock on Lake Superior. This panel, attributed to an Ojibwe warrior named Myeengun (“Wolf”),  apparently depicts a historical event from the mid-1600s, the confrontation of the Anishinaabe of the area with an invading Iroquois war party.

Agawa Rock Panel 3 – “The Wolf’s War Party” Paintings

Okikendawt Island:

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

The name Okikendawt is an Ojibwe word that comes from the many circular depressions – i.e. potholes –  created by fast-moving water swirls over the centuries on the rock outcrop on the sides of the falls. Bill Steer (aka Backroads Bill) got this explanation from  Clayton Dokis while on a hike in the area.

“The main settlement or community is located on the northern island called “Okikendawt Island” (meaning island of the buckets/pails). The name is derived from several bucket formations in the rock due to centuries of water flows to these areas. The buckets were often utilized for tobacco offerings for safe passage through the territory.” See here for source

Perhaps another time, we’ll slow down and visit the Dokis First Nation museum on Okikendawt Island and see some of those potholes for ourselves!

The Lake Nipissing Outlet Dams:

The Three Lake Nipissing Outlet Dams

Another thing we could do is visit the Big Chaudière Dam, the largest of the three dams which control the water level of Lake Nipissing:

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

The Portage Channel was created to provide a third major outlet for Lake Nipissing water. The deep channel was blasted through the rock outcrop. Work started in 1946 and the dam opened in 1951.  Of the three dams, only this one has been upgraded to make use of the water flow to generate hydroelectricity.  We would have to portage around it. The satellite view below shows our approach from the top right – i.e. the northeast.

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

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

Portage Channel Dam

The Portage Channel Dam portage trail

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

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

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

the French River below the Channel Dam Portage

Max finds another flower on The Channel Portage

Cradle Rapids As A Local Ojibwe Cultural Landmark:

After our break, we pushed on to Cradle Rapids. Higher than usual water levels made it a bit more work, but a combination of carry, line, run, and carry got us through this section in about 45 minutes.  We thought it was because we were among the first of the season to go down since there was little evidence of a portage trail, and we felt like we were improvising one as we pushed ahead.  We later discovered that this is not where the portage around Cradle Rapids is located!

See below for where to access the 55-meter Leonard Portage.

Click on the header above or the title below to access the article.

the red dot marks the pictograph site location – 17T  574058 5107295

Paul Kirtley’s Frontier Bushcraft website has an entry from 2013- Finding The Lost Bundle – by Norman Dokis of the Dokis First Nation. In it, Dokis includes a few images of the Cradle Rapids/Keso Point pictograph site, including this one by Kirtley. Given that the pictograph site is usually referred to as Keso Point, I assumed it was on river left. It is not! The site is misnamed; the use of a more fitting Anishinaabe name should be encouraged.

If we ever come down this section of the French again, the UTM coordinates above and the Kirtley image details below will make it a much easier find!

Keso Point picto site - labelled "Miidewiin Rock with-Offering Shelf"

Keso Point picto site – labelled “Miidewiin Rock with-Offering Shelf” – photo by Paul Kirtley

In her Reading Rock Art: Interpreting the Indian Rock Paintings of the Canadian Shield, Grace Rajnovich includes a sketch (p.33) of the above pictographs.  Click on the book title above to access the Amazon web page for a Kindle download of a very informative book on the topic of Anishinaabe rock paintings. The Internet Archive has an online copy available to borrow. Sign-up is free, and you can access the digital copy for an hour at a time.

Given the scale indicator, the illustration below (done by Wayne Yerxa) looks like it covers a 60 cm x 60 cm (2′ x 2′) area. The colour looks much stronger than in the photo above.

Rajnovich is either acknowledging the existing view that the site is associated with the Midewiwin, or Norm Dokis is using her early 1990s interpretation of the site as the basis of a new “oral tradition” that connects it to the Midewiwin, the exclusive Ojibwe shamans’ society.

Dokis goes on to speculate that the red smear is a sign left by the shamans to indicate that a medicine bundle is nearby, a supposedly hidden bundle whose existence he was told about by a Dokis elder,  sometime in the early 2000s, some three hundred years after it was “lost.”  For more details and images, see Norm Dokis’ article here.

the red dot marks the pictograph site location – 17T  574058 5107295

The usual view of rock painting sites involves the rock-dwelling maymaygweshiwuk (one of many spellings!) to whom the shaman or vision quester came searching for medicine or favour.  On the ledge below the pictographs, they would leave an offering of tobacco or some other gift.

Other Dokis First Nation members have proposed other meanings or purposes for the painted rock images. A Jan/Feb 2010 issue of the Ontario Archaeology Society’s Arch Notes included an article by W.A. Allen – Anishinaabemowin: Traditional Languages in the Naming of Archaeological Sites.  (Click on the title to access).  In discussing the pictograph site with various members of Dokis First Nation, Allen noted this –

See here for more info on the Cradle Rapids/Keso Point site.

Another point of interest to look for is a rock from which some can derive the shape of a cradle.  It helps to be told it is a cradle to see it as such!  Bill Steer (aka Backroads Bill) paid a visit to the Dokis First Nation and was given an eco-tour by Clayton Dokis. Here is the story that Dokis relayed:

Clayton recalls the oral tradition of the legend. “During the Indian wars with the Iroquois, in a panic, a baby was left in a cradle as our people fled.   The baby turned to stone to avoid being taken by the captors and was immortalized forever; you can see the cradle leaning against another rock on the south-east side of the river at the narrowest, upstream point of the rapids.”   See here for Steer’s article

Our Portage Around Cradle Rapids:

We were so focused on just getting the portage dealt with that we did not make a major point of looking for the various Ojibwe cultural landmarks at Cradle Rapids. As mentioned, our assumption that they were on river left, given the Keso Point name, was wrong.  BTW –  thanks to the reader of this post who emailed the UTM coordinates!

We didn’t even take any pix as we made our way around and down this stretch.  However, here is the GPS track of our route through the Cradle Rapids area.

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

We did not know it at the time but after the trip on looking more closely at the maps in the Toni Harting book on the French River, we finally noticed an alternative!  Harting labels it Leonard Portage.

Update: thanks to a reader (see John’s comment below) I can confirm that the Leonard Portage still exists!   Here is a segment of the current official Parks Ontario map which shows the immediate area of the dams and Cradle Rapids.

The Leonard Portage – 55 meters – See here for the entire Parks Ontario map – Restoule and the Upper French River –  in pdf format

Looking For a Campsite:

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

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

CS 304

CS 301 Boom Island

The scale of the Friends of French River map is such that sometimes the exact location of the campsite is not clear.  We paddled south along the island you see in the image above and then realized that CS304 might be on the other side!  When we got there, we found a site a half-grade better than the CS301 that we had just left.  It was 4:15 – and we had done 27 kilometers.  We decided to make do with mediocre instead of pushing on and hoping that the next one would be better.

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

Day 3 – French River CS 304

checking out CS304 – we decided to call it a day

Some of the upper French campsites are outfitted with tables and, at 304, with a left-behind cooler! Also typical of these sites are three or four fire pits where one would do.  CS304 was one instance where we spent some time eliminating a couple of fire pits from the site and tidying things up.

CS304 on French River – “it’ll do”

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

This entry was posted in Anishinaabek World, Georgian Bay, Pictographs of the Canadian Shield, wilderness canoe tripping and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. John says:

    Hi, I really enjoy your writing about your canoe trips, great work!
    I happened to research the Restoule-upper French canoe route, on this map (see link below), the marked p55m may be the Leonard portage you missed.

    Click to access restoule_backcountry.pdf


    • true_north says:

      John, thanks for pointing that out! It clears up something I wondered about; it explains why the portage we did to the west of it was non-existent! We thought it was so rough because we were so early in the year!

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