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Paddling with Canada's Ghosts

Travel with the Spirits of Days Past

For those with an open mind, canoeing on the French River is a surreal experience.



Standing in the parking lot at the end of Wolseley Bay, French River, I cannot help but think that this place is just another typical busy Ontario vacation spot – cottages, lodges, docks and boats of every shape and size fill my view. But, from past experience, I know better, and within a few minutes of leaving the dock, the reason we are here comes flooding back to me as we paddle past twisted rock and wind-blown pines along the shoreline.  The French River is a special place, a world-class destination and a historic travel route critical to the development of our great country, Canada.  Its history, and its ghosts, can be felt with every stroke of the paddle and each step along its many portages, and I am excited to be sharing this place with someone who has never experienced it. 
– Adam Waxman, Dine Magazine

Travelling by canoe down the mighty French River is a surreal experience. Located just three hours north of Toronto and six hours from Ottawa, the French provides its visitors with a unique and easily accessible glimpse into the history of Canada, both anthropologically and geologically speaking. Despite its close proximity to several urban centers, sections of the river are relatively unchanged from the day the Algonquian peoples watched with curiosity as the first Europeans paddled downriver more than 400 years ago. Looking further back in time, it is not too difficult to picture this rugged area of the Canadian Shield as young, towering mountains, now eroded by millennia of glaciation and extreme weather.

That first dip of my paddle into the dark waters of the French River stirs something primordial in me. When I finally step ashore on that first portage of the trip, I get a tingling sensation in the back of my neck, an eerie feeling that someone from the distant past is watching me. 

Deeply rutted paths provide safe passage around rapids and waterfalls - the same trails that have been traversed by man and beast for thousands of years. Indigenous peoples started referring to the river as the French after Étienne Brulé first paddled its waters in 1604, and it has changed very little since that time.  Its designation as a Canadian Heritage River in 1986 and a Provincial Park in 1989 will protect its wilderness in perpetuity.

The French River is a place that compels me to simplify, to harken back to the days before Canada was formally a country, when members of the First Nations guided Champlain’s disciples down the turbulent waters of the French River from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay as they set out to find out what lay west of Quebec City. 

To pay respect to our predecessors, I choose to leave my modern, Kevlar canoe at home, and decide to paddle my cedar and canvas canoe, a design that became popular 150 years ago and that is very similar to the cedar and birch bark canoes that floated over these waters for hundreds of years prior.

Just an hour into the trip, we are greeted by a black bear, who sits motionless on the bank of the river while we paddle by, casually standing and melting back into the forest as we drift closer to shore; us mesmerized by his appearance and he, seemingly unimpressed. 

Paddling around a bend in the river, we arrive at a fantastic campsite poised on a smooth bedrock point, sparsely populated with wind-blown White Pine and stunted Red Oak – classic Canadian Shield. It is getting close to sundown as we set up camp, and a bald eagle flies over and perches in a tall pine tree on the other side of the river, watching over us as we prepare dinner. Occasionally, I hear a twig snap and leaves rustle behind our campsite, evidence that the spirit bear is watching from the shadows – ensuring that we are respectful of his ancestral home and of the past inhabitants whose ghosts live here still.

We awake before dawn to monastic silence and absolute stillness. If our experiences the previous evening offer evidence that we are welcome here, the glorious sunrise that greets us as we stumble down to the shoreline confirms it. A dense fog swirls over the water, apparitions floating across the glassy surface before disappearing into the surrounding forest as the sun struggles to peer through their misty veil. Adam pushes off from shore in the old wooden canoe and paddles alongside these ghosts while I capture it on film from the water’s edge. It is surreal and we are both thrilled to be part of it – it is not diminished by the fact that this is a common experience for those who keep an open mind while travelling on Canada’s Heritage Rivers.

With the spirits now watching over us, we eat our breakfast in silence and set out.  We paddle safely through whitewater sections of the river. Peoples of the Shield Archaic, Algonkian, Huron and Ojibwa, French explorers, missionaries, and lumberman have all traversed the French River, and many lost their lives here in the numerous rapids and waterfalls scattered throughout its 105-km length. We feel their presence, and we are thankful for their guidance.

On day two, we camp on a beautiful high, rocky ridge overlooking the river, with a spectacular view of Cross Island, home of two Jesuit priests who were buried here centuries earlier.  A prominent white cross was erected here in 1989 in their honour, and we are respectively silent as we pay a short visit.  Returning to camp, I quietly prepare our dinner on the campfire while Adam catches a fish for his contribution to the meal.

As the sun sinks below the granite ridges to the west, Adam is compelled to go for one last solo paddle along the shoreline, silhouetted against the soft glow of the setting sun reflecting off of the now still water. 

The wind felt earlier has disappeared along with any lingering clouds, and the stars begin to appear in the dark sky, one by one, until so many are in view that the sky appears white, the milky way visible to the naked eye as it can be only in such a dark, undeveloped place. I let the campfire burn out so that only a few faintly glowing embers can be seen, and we settle into our separate beds. Adam is tucked away in a small tent, and I choose to sleep out in the open, en plein air, in order to fully enjoy the night spectacle. The spirits that watch over us offer reward in the form of a faint aurora borealis dancing in the sparse pine forest, perched atop exposed bedrock on the far shore of the river. I fade along with them, and we all sleep.

How to do this trip

Always keep in mind that the French River varies in depth and water volume continuously, and caution should be exercised at all times. Some sections of the river have rapids and waterfalls.

Local adventure companies offer guided, fully outfitted day or multi-day canoe trips, suitable for beginners to advanced paddlers. Professional guides will enhance your experienceby sharing their knowledge of wilderness canoe tripping, local history, ecology and more.  

Local outfitters offer specialized trip planning and advice, high quality equipment rentals, shuttle services and tasty meal options for self-guided adventures.

If you are a self-reliance paddler, be sure to talk to friendly staff at the Ontario Parks French River Visitor Centre about current water levels and route planning before setting out.

If camping is not for you, you can stay in rustic luxury at a unique wilderness lodge or cabin and explore the French on day paddling trips.

Exploring The French

If you have a few hours… stop in at the Ontario Parks French River Visitors Centre and explore the French River Gorge, selected as one of the Amazing Places in Georgian Bay UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.  Marvel at the spectacular view from the suspension bridge or hike the short trail to Recollet Falls.

If you have one day… Put in at Wolseley Bay and explore 5 Finger Rapids or 5 Mile Rapids. Guided day canoe and kayak tours and canoe/kayak rentals are available through French River Adventures.    

Alternatively, set out from Hartley Bay and check out the many channels and backwaters around Wanapitei Bay. Hartley Bay Marina offers parking, canoe rentals and shuttle services.

If you have three to four days… Take a guided, fully outfitted adventure with Black Feather on the most scenic section of the French. No experience is required.

If you are an experienced paddler and want to see as much as possible in a short time, consider one of these two options;

Hartley Bay to Georgian Bay

Starting out from Hartley Bay, just west of Highway 69, experienced paddlers can reach Georgian Bay in a day. The French and Pickerel Rivers have several channels and outlets in this area, so it is possible to create more than one interesting three-day loop for multiple trips to the area. 

Paddle south down the Main Outlet to Georgian Bay on your first day, spend a day exploring the countless channels and islands found at the delta, and then head back up the Eastern Outlet and Canoe Channel of the French River to Hartley Bay on the third day. Consult a good navigational map and exercise extreme caution around waterfalls and rapids.

Total Distance: 25-30 km

Start/Finish: Hartley Bay Marina (Hartley Bay Road) or Pickerel River Marina (at Highway 69). Hartley Bay Marina offers parking, canoe rentals and shuttle services.

18 Mile Island

Starting out from Dry Pine Bay, paddle east on the North Channel of the French River.  This is not part of the French River Provincial Park, but most of the river here is bordered by crown land so camping is allowed. Permits are not required for Canadian residents, but non-residents will need a crown land camping permit, which can be purchased from any one of the local outfitters.

Exercise extreme caution around rapids. Most of them are runnable for experienced whitewater paddlers, but water levels and conditions vary tremendously throughout the season and from one year to the next.

I recommend circumnavigating 18 Mile Island in a clockwise direction, as the current in the Main Channel can occasionally make upriver travel difficult, particularly in the five-mile Rapids section.

Spend your first night between Ash Bay and Wolseley Bay in the North Channel and your second night near Cross Island in the Main Channel.

Total Distance: 70 km

Start/Finish: Loon’s Landing or French River Supply Post near Highway 400, French River Adventures or Wolseley Lodge on Wolseley Bay

If you have a week… launch your canoe at Okikendawt Island at the east end of the river and paddle all the way down to Georgian Bay before looping back up to a car shuttle near Highway 400. 

Alternatively, start at Wolseley Bay, paddle west to Georgian Bay and return to your starting point via the North Channel.

Best Time to Go

The French River changes dramatically from one season to the next. Spring (April to June) is marked by high water, and is a great time to go if you are an experienced whitewater paddler. July to September are prime times to enjoy the river, with September being particularly scenic and quiet.

Fishing for Walleye and Pike is excellent in the spring and fall, and Bass and Musky are active during the summer and fall. Special rules apply for fishing in the French River region, so be sure to consult the Ontario Fishing Regulations.

Hunting is permitted in the Park, and is popular from late September to November for deer, bear and small game (subject to Ontario Hunting Regulations).

Regional Tourism Information

Explore French River

Other Useful Information

Parking Fees: $10/day parking at Hartley Bay Marina,

Parking Fees: $10/day parking at Loon’s Landing, $8/day parking + $7 launch fee at French River Adventures.

Camping Permit Fees (Daily): $10.20 (adult), $5.10 (youth). Permits can be purchased from the French River Visitor Centre, Hartley Bay Marina, Smith Marine on the Pickerel River, Wolseley Lodge or the French River Supply Post and Marina.

Best Eats

Wolseley Lodge is excellent if they have availability (Lodge guests have priority seating).

The Hungry Bear at the French River Trading Post is the most popular, and most convenient, restaurant in the area.

Must-Haves

Camera, fishing license and equipment, French River Provincial Park Map, Jeff’s Map, spare paddle, first aid and emergency kit. 

Books

French River: Canoeing the River of the Stick-Waivers

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