Canoe Trip Down the French River

Filed Under Nature

Wilderness canoe tripping is more than a recreational past time for me. When I’m paddling in the pristine Canadian Shield, I feel a sense of peace and connectedness that no other experience brings me. It has been something I have been doing since I was a teenager growing up in Winnipeg.

Camping in Birds Hill Park, circa 1975. Ron is second from left.

Camping in Birds Hill Park, circa 1975. Ron is second from left.

Every summer my friends and I would go on one, two or sometimes three canoe trips a season. It was through these trips that I learned how to take care of myself in the wild. How to lead and how to follow. How to be part of a group. How to deal with myriad foibles and personalities of my tent-mates living in close quarters for an extended period of time. I learned how to be resourceful and to “MacGyver” my way out of trouble. I learned the importance of planning and the even greater importance of how to deal with the unexpected.  I use these skills everyday in my personal and professional life.  It was leadership training like no other.

Canoeing (and being outdoors in the wild) is one way that I identify myself. It is a source of my self-confidence and self-reliance. It is the reviver of my perspective and the maintainer of my mental health. Photos of me in the wild are the photos I choose for my personal profile pics in social media. By doing so, I say to the world that the outdoor Ron is the real Ron.

The stress and hectic life in the city drains away after several days travelling by paddle stroke and portage step. The days are spent talking, singing, having long philosophical discussions with my fellow campers without interruption or distraction. We prepare food and eat every meal together. We prepare our site, keep our clothes dry, set up our tent, tend to each other’s needs, and pay heed to ensuring we are protected from weather and critters. We go to sleep and get up with the sun. We see wildlife as it is and has been for thousands of years. We take our time. We are in the moment.

Lately I have had the immense pleasure of paddling with my three adult sons. It has become a way for us to connect that rivals no other.  We get to build a shared experience and have uninterrupted time together. I get to pass on my outdoor skills to them which, given how much they love canoeing in the wild,  I expect that they will use their whole lives and pass on to their kids in turn. No computers, no cell-phones, no TV nor any kind of distraction gets in the way. It’s wonderful.  In Yiddish, we call the feeling of spending such time with our children as Nackas.

On August 25th, 2015 I set out for a 4 night / 5-day trip to paddle the French River down to Georgian Bay and back with my 3 sons. I kept a travel journal, which follows:

Day 1: Hartley Bay Marina to Sturgeon Chutes (Site #605)

Distance: 10 Km

Time: 3 hrs (easy, lazy paddling)

Notes: No portages. Open water with wind off of Georgian Bay as we exited the shelter of Hartley Bay. Site #605 was on high-ground with a lovely view of the chutes. Site #604 was a bit hidden but looked reasonable if #605 was taken.

 

We left Toronto at around 9:30am. Stopped for gas and bait along the way. The boys were excited — this trip was months in planning.

Arrived at the French River Provincial Park Interpretive Centre at around 2pm to buy a camping permit and to get any advice on wildlife and weather. We were told where to avoid camping (bears have been seen on various sites this year) and how to keep away from the Massassauga Rattlers that love the rocks in the park.

Drove across the French River bridge and turned left onto the 17km long Hartley Bay road (dirt road, no 4 wheeler needed, but drove slowly). We got to the Marina and did the paperwork with the nice people at Hartley Bay Marina. I had reserved a pair of 17′ Nova Craft canoes a couple of weeks earlier.

We put into the water and were under way at 2:30 under overcast and threatening skies.  There was little wind and we paddled along the bay seeing several cottages and fishing resorts. We knew this park had a long history including the fir trade, logging and mining. There are several private islands and a modest traffic of outboard motor boats. We didn’t expect complete remoteness, but it was still a bit off-putting to see motorized and electrified civilization in an otherwise wild part of Ontario.

Light rain as we paddled. Everyone was dry — I’m glad I upgraded my ancient sets of camping rain jackets and pants.  As we made our way down the low-lying, grassy river on the way to The Forks, we saw a young bear foraging in the grass on the far bank.  We were down-wind and it didn’t smell or see us for a while. But when it did, it quickly melted into the forest.

Site #605 was nice; it’s on high ground with a lovely view of the chutes. Tent areas were scarce — the site is not for big parties. We were all happy and comfortable. I enjoyed preparing our steak and potatoes meal sitting in my new Helinox camping chair (Thanks for the tip, Stew!).

Overcast skies as we retired to our sleeping bags.

Day 2: Sturgeon Chutes to French River Western Channel (Site #702)

 

2015 French River Map Day 2
Distance: 16 Km

Time: 2.5 hrs (easy, lazy paddling)

Notes: No portages. The Wanatipei River is a lovely paddle. Narrow but navigable with interesting rock formations and lots of wildlife (turtles, geese, heron, duck). The Western channel can be windy. Site #702 was great — high up on a knoll with a great view of the surrounding area.

 

No rain overnight. Up at 8-ish and broke camp by 10:30.  As we were having breakfast, the boys saw a movement on the grassy island in the middle of Wanatipei River. A mother bear and her two cubs were rummaging at the shore no more than a kilometre away from us. We watched as they moved on into the water and across to the main land.

On the lovely paddle through the Wanatipei River, we saw beaver, cormorant, heron, duck. Entering Thompson Bay, we saw several buildings and camps on islands and boat traffic. We made our way south until we found the shoreline and turned right to follow the shore along the Western Channel of the French. We stopped at site #702 for lunch. The site was so nice, we decided to stay over. The boys were anxious to have some time to fish anyway.

In the afternoon, Noah and Carmi got it into their heads that they wanted to gather clams and crayfish for dinner. A major project ensued (gathering, scrubbing, boiling, opening/peeling, etc.).  Some fresh shellfish meat was eaten, but in an abundance of caution, I abstained.

As the boys set off from shore for another fishing attempt, they spotted a bear on the hill quite close to our camp site. It watched them as they returned to shore. We set about putting all our food away and gathering pots and pans to bang together should it be necessary (It wasn’t).

That evening a rousing game of hearts was played in the tent. Prior to turning in, we went out of the tent for a final pee only to discover that the skies had cleared. There was an Aurora Borealis lighting up the western horizon. Noah had never seen one before and was mesmerized.

 

Day 3: French River Western Channel to Bad River (Site #730)

2015 French River Map Day 3
Distance: 14 Km

Time: 4 hrs easy paddling, but with stops to enjoy rapids, portage and ponder the map.

Notes: Need to do lift-overs and portages around rapids or dried-out channels. The lower Western Channel is full of narrow rock-islands, fiords, rapids, swifts, etc. Fun, beautiful but easy to get lost (We did). Map and compass have always served me well, but not this time. Water levels were low at this time of year. Some spots just barely floated our canoe. Some of the chutes looked inviting for a swim, but we heeded the warnings on the park map and stayed away.

 

All through the night, we were serenaded by whippoorwhills exchanging calls. Early in the morning a pair of chipmunks got into an argument and it made me think of my new waterproof food duffel bad hanging in a nearby tree. Fortunately, neither chipmunks nor bears troubled our food through the night. The morning started sunny, but the skies clouded over as the day progressed.

We made good time paddling down the Western channel. We pulled over at camp site #709 to take our bearings and prepare for the complex navigation to come. Dense thickets of islets, inlets and passages were to our south. I consulted the map repeatedly. We portaged through a dry watercourse and thought we were in the right place. Later, I discovered that I failed to find the right passage into the Old Voyager Channel, our route for getting down to Georgian Bay. Instead, we ended up in (what I thought was) Black Bay, the western most of the Five Fingers of the Western Channel. We paddled south east looking for land marks to help us confirm our location. No luck – I couldn’t place ourselves on the map. There were many islands, inlets, swifts, chutes, rapids and whale-backed islets to entertain the eye, challenge the man in the stern and confuse the sense of direction.


 

Travelling by dead reckoning, we headed east as soon as I could find an opening, hoping to catch Cross Channel – an east-west passage through the wondrous delta of the French. Eventually, we found some fisherman in a dingy and asked where we were. The guy in the stern, encouraged by Ariel’s offer of a tot of Highland Park 10 year-old whiskey, pulled out a GPS. The guy’s GPS map wasn’t nearly as detailed as the park map, but I could make out that we were in the easternmost of the Five Fingers. This was significantly further east than I thought. We must have never been in Black Bay! After some friendly chat and more than one pull on our dwindling supply of whiskey, we parted with the fisherman and headed south. Soon, Ariel’s sharp eyes picked out a campsite and we made out way over to see the number on the blaze was #731, confirming where we were. Well, no harm done — we were about where we needed to be and had some fun getting here.

Some more portaging over fast-flowing chutes we found ourselves at Devil Door rapids. With the water level so low, this narrow passage was nothing more than a fast squirt through the rock walls into the open bay of Bad River. We passed some big sail boats and lake cruisers here as this opening connects directly to Georgian Bay. We checked out both site #730 and #729 and found that #730 was better, albeit quite far back from the water’s edge and little exposed. Luckily the winds were light off of Georgian Bay.  We nestled in by late afternoon.


 

The boys went out fishing and came back with a nice bass, which I boiled up and made ready for an appetizer to tonight’s dish noodles, spicy tuna and Wensleydale cheese sauce. They also reporting seeing a moose calmly grazing nearby. In bed by 10 pm, tired but happy.

Day 4: Bad River to Wanapitei Bay (Site #617)

2015 French River Map Day 4
Distance: 18 Km

Time: 7.5 hrs paddling including portaging, lunch and exploring.

Notes: Quite a few lift-overs and small portages through the first river segment. Breathtakingly beautiful islands and islets on the north shore of Georgian Bay, but the wind coming off the lake can be challenging -we stayed in the lee of the islands. Camping spots at The Elbow were snapped up quickly — you need to arrive early if you want one. We had a south wind at our back up the Main Channel. It would have been tough going had the wind been in the other direction.

 

Heavy, unsettled weather started the morning. Clouds moving north rapidly through the sky off  Lake Huron. Broke camp and set out east at 10:30am. The nameless river (perhaps it’s part of the Cross Channel) is shallow this time of  year and was broken by dry breaks and beaver dams. Several easy pull-overs and portages got us through. The boys found some snake skin and saw catfish in the shallows.  The weather gradually improved with sunshine and warm winds. We stopped at site #723 for lunch, a wander over the Georgian Bay flats and a swim. The water was cold — even for August. We also took the traditional Tuchas Shot (don’t ask).

Breathtaking paddle through the seemingly torn islets of northern Georgian Bay. Hundreds of bald, pink, whale-back islets. Even with light winds, there were whitecaps out in Georgian Bay. Paddling in the lee of the islands helped keep the waves at bay. Navigated by compass — keeping an eastern course we worked our way around the islets and eventually found the wide open mouth of the French River Main Channel.  Highly visible navigation markers made this opening obvious.  With a light but steady wind at our back, we made great progress through the channel. Our canoes surfed on the waves coming from behind us. We made The Elbow in good time and found the 180 metre portage without difficulty.

I expected to see turn-offs to the 3 campsites from the portage but there were none. I suppose you need to access them from the river.  There was some rusting derelict heavy machinery on the upstream part of the portage that was part of the earlier settlement of what what is now the Provincial Park.  Unfortunately, most of the half dozen campsites at The Elbow (besides the three at the rapids which we didn’t check out) were taken. One was available (site #624) but it wasn’t very nice. So, we decided to carry on up the Main Channel.

 

On the route, we saw a smaller bird harassing a bald eagle and what we thought was a weasel (marmot? mink? otter?).  With the wind at our back, we flew upstream and got to site #621 in good time. It wasn’t very good so we continued on to site #618. Also, not great (far back in the trees and somewhat buggy and claustrophobic). After checking out #619 (not good), we settled on site #617 which was relatively nice. By this time, it was 5:00pm and we were feeling quite tired from the sun and a full day of paddling.

We got a fire going and I sparked up my trusty MSR stove and cooked up that night’s supper: Mennonite sausages smoked over fire with a side of boiled couscous with fried onion and garlic.  Tired as we were, we put up a tarp and hoisted the food duffel in a tree (as always ). After the obligatory marshmallow roasting, we turned in.

Day 5: Wanapitei Bay to Hartley Bay Marina

2015 French River Map Day 5
Distance: 8 Km

Time: 2.0 hrs paddling.

Notes: We had a steady drenching mist in calm air. Had there been wind, this piece of open water would have been challenging.

At 4 am “flash-lights were flashing, zippers were zipping” (Carmi) because the Nalgene water bottle had sprung a leak and soaked the ends of two sleeping bags. The incident was managed and folks eventually went back to sleep. Later  a steady rain started to fall. When we woke to pale morning light, everything outside the tent was thoroughly wet. We were glad to have set up the tarp. Our packs were dry and we had a cozy spot to sit and have breakfast (Coffee, oatmeal, orange slices, dates). We took our time that morning.  We spent the better part of an hour gazing out at the lake, smoking tobacco pipes with the sound of the rain on the tarp above our heads.

We were trying to decide if we should have a layover day here at this site, continue on to a different site or  head for the car.  After lunch, a quick fishing trip (Noah caught a small sun fish) and a few more hours of on-again / off-again rain, we decided to declare victory and head for the car. We waited for a lull in the rain and collapsed the tent and packed it wet. All of our gear was secured and we set off in the canoes at 2:30 in the afternoon in a steady misting rain.

We pulled into Hartley Bay Marina at around 4 pm. We settled up our bill, stuffed the wet and dirty packs into the car, took the final photo.  Ariel drove home with a stop in Barrie for some dinner.


 

Post Script

I bought a great little rugged camera for the trip, an Olympus TG-4 . Shock proof, water proof, etc. You can see all the photos of the trip by clicking the picture below.

French River Canoe Trip 2015