Canoeing The French River From Top To Bottom: Day 5 – CS503 (old 419) To Below Recollet Falls

Last revised: May 22, 2022.

Previous Post: Day 4 – The Upper French Five Mile Rapids Section to CS 419

Day 5 – From CS 503 E of Cross I.  to Below Recollet Falls (CS601)

  • distance: 30.5 km
  • time: 8:15 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.
  • portages/rapids: 1/0: around Recollet Falls (~100 m), then eddy and rock face fun
  • weather: sunny all day, light wind from NW?
  • campsite: CS 601 – a carry up the hill!, 1 okay spot for 4-person; possible multiple 2- person (fair weather) sites; another long veranda to the water, cottages across from site – lawn work was finished by about 7 p.m., the site had a nice bed of chives though!
  • Natural Resources Canada topo: Noelville 041 I 01;  Delamere 041 I 02
  • GPS tracks – 2019 French River (3.2Mb Dropbox file)
  • Unlostify: West French River covers the river from a few kilometers east of Highway 69 to Georgian Bay. It has all the official park campsites indicated.  Click on the title for access to a free digital download – or get a hard copy you will be using often!

Day 5 – French River – CS 503 (old #419)  to CS 601 (old #522)

We set off planning to stop at a campsite somewhere on the east side of Highway 69; we ended up putting in our biggest travel day, covering 30 kilometers and setting up our tent a few kilometers west of Recollet Falls.

Just across the river from our campsite 503 is 505. We took a look as we passed by and found a sheltered site with room for multiple tents. It would make a better foul weather site than the one we stayed at but it did not have the excellent hilltop view that 503 did.

Not far downriver from our CS503 is Cross island. We saw the white cross as we came to the west tip of the island and pulled in to have a look.

the white cross at the west end of Cross Island: – French River

Attached to the center of the cross was a dedication plaque erected by a local branch of the Roman Catholic service organization The Knights of Columbus. It read –

  • In memory of one of our Canadien missionaries
  • Cross dedicated by the Reverend Father Rondeau
  • The 15 of June, 1982
  • erected by The Knights of Columbus
  • Noelville, Ontario   Council 4435

Unclear is who the missionary was, what happened to him and when, and why he was being honoured on this particular island.  The lack of concrete detail makes for an ideal situation for conflicting stories about the significance of Cross island – and there are a few out there!

Without a doubt, these Roman Catholic missionaries laboured hard in the fields of the Lord to bring new souls to their God and some gave up their lives trying to make it happen.   It was the Recollets who first journeyed down the French River in 1615 on their way to Huronia; their work was later carried on by the Jesuits, whose meticulous recording of their mission work and observations of Huron and Algonkian life and culture can be found in the multi-volumed Jesuit Relations, a piece of work considered among the first examples of New World ethnography. It covers the period from 1632 to 1773.

Further downriver, we would come to Recollet Falls, named (according to one story)  in memory of a number of missionaries who drowned there. A less dramatic explanation has the falls named after the Rapides du Sault de Recollet on the Rivière de Prairie between Isle de Jésus and Isle de Montréal. Apparently, the French River rapids reminded the Canadien voyageurs of the ones back home.

plaque on the white wooden cross on Cross Island on the upper French River

Across from Cross Island and all the way down through the Gorge section of the river are impressive stretches of rock face, some of which look like spots that would host pictographs or lichenographs.  While the iron oxide-based “paint” of the pictographs can last for hundreds of years, the images carved out of the lichen on the rock face are more transient.

In spite of claims of a multitude of such sites on the French River system, we are only aware of five claimed sites and have seen one (See our Day 3 post).  Thor Conway, who worked in the area as an archaeologist for the Ontario Government in the 1980s, has the number at eight.

rock face just south of Cross Island – no pictographs to be seen

After our scan of this particular rock face, another 30 minutes of paddling and we hopped ashore to check out CS512 (old #501), a campsite on river left just south of Parisien Island.  The mediocre site had us wondering who picked this spot and why! Maybe we are just overly particular?  A bit further on 514 (old 503) looked like a better choice but we did not get out to take a closer look.

Checking out CS512 on the French River (just south of Parisien island)

French River CS512 – fire ring and exposed rock

Then it was on down the Main Channel.  Just 1.5 km. from CS512 we passed by the Haystack Islands and decided to see what the neighbourhood looked like from its hilltop viewpoint.

approaching the Haystack Islands from the east – Upper French River Main channel

As we rambled around and up to the top of the rock we did look around for a potential campsite but found nothing note-worthy. [Note: it is apparently illegal to camp at any but  official campsites in French River Provincial Park.]

We did get this west-looking view of the French River as we stood on top. According to our GPS device, we were 17 meters higher than the water level.

a view from the top of the large Haystack Island

On the smaller of the Haystack Islands sits a camp that looks like it has not been visited much lately. At least it blends in nicely with the surroundings, something which cannot be said for other newer and louder cottages we saw on our trip down to Georgian Bay.

camp on the smaller of the Haystack Island on the Upper French River

Yet a bit further down and it was time for a short break to stretch our legs and pass around the water bottle.  We also had a bit of our snack allotment. [Over the past decade, we’ve settled on one Clif Bar and a 3-oz. (90 gm.) Ziploc bag of gorp per person per day.]

looking back at our canoe from our shady rest spot on the upper French River

One more stop to check out a potential pictograph site – it had some of the ingredients of actual sites we have visited:

  • one of the more dramatic rock faces in the vicinity
  • a noticeable overhang
  • pronounced cracks in the rock face
  • streaks of calcium or quartz

rock face on the upper French River just east of the Power Line

a close up of the rock overhang – but no pictographs

I got excited as we approached and I saw the red iron oxide streaks. However, while you could certainly will a pictograph image into existence, I have learned to resist “picto fever” over the past few years. In a pinch, Max is always ready to curb my enthusiasm.  The saying associated with St. Augustine – I believe in order that I may see – doesn’t really cut it as you stare at natural iron oxide stains in the rock!

We paddled under the power lines around 11:30;  a bit further and it was time for lunch. We made use of CS537 (old #517) as our lunch spot, hauling our chairs to a shady spot that gave us an hour’s relief from another full-out sunny day. There were no cottages in view and room for multiple tents.

French River Prov. Park campsite marker – site renumbered in 2021 to 537!  Why?

We looked out at the river; to the west was another channel with the name “Canoe Pass”. We’d be going down it on our way to the Gorge section just west of the Highway 69 bridge. To the south are Lost Child Bend and Lost Child Rock, the locale of some voyageur and Nipissing folklore.  An entry in the diary of John Macdonell from 1793 is the oldest telling of the story I have found.  His June 26 entry read –

[ See here for an online source of Macdonell’s Diary. There is also a cleaned-up version found in a recent series of posts based on John Macdonell’s diary by Nikki Rajala.  See John Macdonell’s Journal: part 4.   Seven years after Macdonell wrote down his account of the story,  the fur trader and diarist Daniel Harmon recorded another one in 1800. (See here.). More recently,  Thor Conway in  Discovering Rock Art (2016) recorded other variations of the folktale still being told in the 1980s in the French River area.

The French River – From Lost Child Bend To Below Recollet Falls via Canoe Pass

With lunch over at 1,  we decided it was way too early to be stopping for the day.  We figured a couple of hours and we’d be through Canoe Pass and down Dry Pine Bay to the river’s Main Channel where we could finally paddle down the Gorge section of the river.

upper French River – CS 537 (old 517)


Once under the rail trestle crossing the river,  we approached the Highway 69 bridge and saw a section of the new one already in place.  In a year or so this stretch of 69 will have been upgraded to a divided highway.

approaching Hwy 69 with a section of the new bridge already installed

[Update: A CBC news item discusses the construction progress up to May of 2021. See here for text and video –New bridge over the French River, but its twin won’t be ready for another year]

This aerial view from the south shows the current Hwy 69 bridge and the new ones being constructed for the soon-to-be-divided highway through this section. The image is a still I took from an excellent Youtube video posted by Larry’s Drone Zone that takes you on a drone trip from the highway past Recollect Falls and the First Rapids.

aerial view of Hwy 69 – the old bridge and the two new ones under construction  – source here

The thought of dropping in at the French River Supply Post and Marina just before Highway 69 to pick up a few cans of beer did cross our minds – but as we passed by the marina on river right we decided to go with the flow and let the 15 km/hr. current carry us under the bridge – and past another pictograph site!

The two rusty red markers on the map below indicate their approximate locations.  We should maybe come up in winter and check out the rock face on snowshoes instead of by canoe!

We were now on a stretch of the river we have often looked down on our rides up and down Highway 69 to other northern Ontario canoe trips. Here is a shot from a couple of years ago from the snowmobilers’ bridge just west of the now-decommissioned Highway 69 bridge:

a look down the French River from the snowmobilers’  bridge by Highway 69

A more enticing rendition of this majestic stretch of the French is captured by the painter Pierre Sabourin in this work, The Land of the Voyageur, which could easily hang in a collection of Group of Seven paintings –

Pierre Sabourin.Land of the Voyageur

Thanks to this year’s unusually high water level and the current, we zipped down!  The day’s one complication – Recollet Falls – was approaching faster than we wanted.  A couple of years previously we had walked down to the falls on the 1.5 km. trail from the Visitors’ Center and even in September it looked impressive –

a view of Recollet Falls on the French River

From the same page of John Macdonell’s diary quoted above comes this passage –

~ A league below is the Grand Recolet Portage. Here one of the North West Company’s canoes manned by the Majeau brothers was upset and lost half the cargo about 15 days ago. They had made portage and loaded the canoe below the portage but neglected to put a man on shore with a line to stem the strong eddy which carries back to the falls. In consequence it was drawn down by the eddy under the falls and was instantly filled and sunk. The few survivors and the goods that floated were picked up below the rapid by other canoes of the brigade. Seven crosses are erected here, as well as seven others of former casualties.

Just above the Falls on river right is a solitary pictograph.  Looking for it given the water conditions was not even a possibility!  We were focused on the Falls coming up.

The late-season portage take-out is fairly close to the falls on river left; we would pull in some distance above that spot for the high-water portage landing, which I think was indicated with a portage sign.  For the next forty minutes, we hauled the gear over to the put-in and then dealt with the challenging water currents at the bottom of the rapids. The one thing we did not do was take any photos!  In retrospect, this was a shame because that satellite image above is not the Recollet Falls we had to deal with!

The carry itself was easy. It was the twenty minutes we spent trying to get downriver after we pushed off at the bottom of the rapids that proved to be the challenging part. This aerial view from Larry’s Drone Zone gives you a better idea of potential drama as you put in on the edge of the falls on river left.

We were initially spat back to the put-in thanks to a challenging combination of currents. It was only on our third attempt when we headed further out into the middle of the main current and then knifed our way between it and the one curling back to the put-in that we made forward progress!

Along river left below the Falls is a one-hundred-meter stretch of vertical rock. We rode the three-foot waves, skimmed by the rock face, and quickly headed downriver.  Goodbye, Recollet!  Be careful if you come down this way! As the Majeau brothers found out, the currents can be deadly.

a view from our campsite CS 601 (old #522) to the Lower French River

An hour’s paddle down from the Falls are the first campsites – 600 and 601.  We checked out CS600 (old #521) tucked inside a bay; it was a sunless spot. You would have to be desperate to stop here for the night.

F.R. park boundaries with private properties indicated

Around the corner was a better choice  – 601,  an open hilltop site with decent views of the neighbourhood. Had there not been for cottages on the other side of the river – with the two of them right across from us in use – it would have been even better.  We got to listen to one cottager cut his lawn for forty-five minutes! It spoiled the illusion of being in the wilderness – or, for that matter,  even in a provincial park!  Luckily there was not much motorboat traffic.

our tent going up on CS601 on the French – and our canoe set to do table duty for the evening

a chive patch at CS601 on the French River – Max’s flower pic of the day

Thanks to the fast water the 30.5 km. we had paddled this day would stand as our longest single-day total of the trip.  We revisited one more time the jumble of currents and standing waves at Recollet Falls and sipped on our Crown Royal as we watched the sun set downriver. The next day we would reward ourselves with a stay at one of our favourite campsites in French River Provincial Park.

Next  Post: Days 6 & 7 – To Pickerel Bay (CS 634) And Fox Creek To Georgian Bay

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