updated on: November 22, 2016
Culinary Canoe Trip
Paddling through Northeastern Ontario's culinary history on the French River
I flip the wood and canvas canoe off of the truck and onto my shoulders, stumble down to the boat launch and drop it in the water between rows of fishing boats tied to the docks. We slowly paddle down Wolseley Bay on our way to the main channel of the French River. We admire cottages as we pass, marveling at the rock formations and windblown pines that make up the rest of the shoreline. The boats parked in front of nearly every cottage tell a story – the French River is a fisherman’s paradise. The countless pictures of trophy fish that plaster the walls of local lodges provide further testament to the river’s productivity.
I am here with Adam Waxman, Executive Editor of Dine Magazine, and our mission is to experience the culinary past of this region while exploring its topographic uniqueness and breath-taking scenery.
The French River region has been occupied and traversed by humanity for thousands of years - Shield Archaic, Algonkian, Huron and Ojibwa, French explorers, fur traders, missionaries, lumberman and sportsmen each had their heyday here. Throughout history, foraging, fishing and hunting provided the base ingredients for a unique local cuisine, and each group modified this diet in distinctive ways to fit their particular needs. Adam and I hope to connect with our predecessors through traditional meals that transcend time, and to sit around the same campfires that they did.
As we approach our campsite for the first night, a black bear watches us paddle by, sauntering back into the forest as we drift closer for a photograph. A bald eagle perches in a tree on the other side of the river, no doubt intrigued by the smell of dinner cooking on the fire. Our first meal includes duck, Ontario wild rice and cranberry sauce sweetened with maple syrup, a feast that would be as appropriate 200 years ago as it is today. Our campsite, located on the south end of Commanda Island, is a perfect place to spend a night before tackling the turbulent 5 Mile Rapids section of the river, and I can picture the spirits of countless historical figures huddled around the fire with us as we contemplate the challenges the next day will bring.
Sleep comes quickly tonight. In the morning, a surreal scene takes our breath away as the sun starts to rise and burn holes through a dense veil of mist that drifts across the river.
Breakfast consists of bacon, in homage to the French explorers and fur traders who gleaned much of their calories from salt pork, a calorie-dense food that stores and travels well, and eggs, a modern convenience here in September, and something that aboriginal people and travellers of the past would have access to during spring bird-breeding season.
We spend the morning running easy whitewater rapids, portaging the difficult ones and fishing for smallmouth bass along the way. Around noon, we stop for a lunch break on a smooth rock island and bask in the warmth of the early fall sunshine. We dine on an ageless meal of diced rabbit fried in duck fat and wrapped in bannock. Rabbit and duck, as well as big game, can be hunted in the French River Provincial Park and surrounding areas and, as a fresh source of protein, are as valued today as they were in the past.
Adam and I paddle steadily once we are downriver of 5 Mile Rapids, and we pull ashore at a marked campsite near Cross Island two hours before sundown. Like many campsites along the river, this one is lightly used and we have to clean moss out of the fire pit in order to prepare dinner. Accordingly, firewood is in good supply. Dinner is a feast; a well-earned meal after a long day of paddling and portaging. We dine on fresh fish (bass on this day) along with whitetail deer steak pan-fried with pemmican - a dense bar made from powdered, dried venison and blueberries mixed with tallow (rendered animal fat). This meal would have been very common during the time of the courier du bois and voyageurs, who at times subsisted almost entirely on pemmican while travelling through here on their adventures.
We are treated to another beautiful sunset, then a cool, clear night with a faint display of the northern lights and finally, a serene, misty sunrise. I say this as if it is commonplace, and on the French River, it is. The scenery here is simply spectacular; possibly the most interesting landscape I have ever paddled through. And the regional food - what food! Breakfast on our final morning is equally splendid; local pork and maple syrup served alongside pancakes loaded with blueberries picked from the surrounding shoreline earlier this summer.
Adam and I are both quiet as we push off from shore this morning. We have many hours of paddling ahead of us today, and more exploring to do, but the end is in sight and neither one of us is happy about it. It has been one of those trips that you never want to end, and I am tempted to ask Adam if he wants to tack on another three days and paddle down to the French River delta on Georgian Bay before returning home. The French River does that to you – no matter where you have paddled before, and no matter how many times you have driven over the bridge on Highway 69 without so much as a second glance at the river below, finally dipping a paddle into its waters is a homecoming of sorts. In fact, to call yourself an experienced canoe tripper in Ontario, the French River is a rite of passage; required reading before graduation. And I promise, once you have added this chapter to your life, you will want to read it again and again. I know I will.