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Paddling The French River

I entered the Voyageur Channel, one of several mouths of the French River, off of Georgian Bay, late on the afternoon of Sept. 21st, after completing the Lake Huron section of my paddling route. As I began paddling up the calm waters of the Channel, I was stunned with the beautiful scenery surrounding me. A bright, sunny sky overhead and above seasonal temperatures made for a great experience on the French.

This section of my route, from the mouth of the river where it enters Lake Huron, up to it’s outflow on Lake Nippissing is an upriver paddle of about 112 kilometres and includes numerous portages, the longest one being only about 600 metres, the rest being considerably shorter. Paddling French River is an enjoyable trip, one which can be quite easily undertaken in either direction as all of the fast water sections have easy portages around them and are all relatively short. These fast sections and rapids are separated long and easy sections of flatwater which feels more like lake paddling. The scenery throughout the full length of the river is impressive with it’s hardwood forests…especially nice during the fall colours…and the beautifully rugged Canadian Shield geology with it’s many rock outcrops and hundreds upon hundreds of scenic islands.

After starting up the river late in the day, I couldn’t believe the beauty of this scenic river. I waded through one minor rapid, lifting over a small drop before continuing on before doing a small portage of about 25 metres over another small drop over a ledge. I paddled through a couple of very narrow sections with smooth granite walls rising up on both sides of me. One section, the “Sickle” was less than a boat length in width, narrow enough that I could practically reach out and touch either side of the sheer rock walls as I paddled up the short section of swiftly flowing water. Yeah, I am liking the French River! Not bad at all! My campsite for tonight was at a nice campsite not far from the 25 metre portage, along a calm, lake like section of the river with a beautiful sandy beach and a nice little clearing in the woods for tents. I paddled about 40 to 45 kilometres in total today, most of which was on Georgian Bay before entering the French River this afternoon. The tent was up by 5 PM or so and I spent the rest of the day relaxing, admiring the rapidly emerging fall colours in the surrounding hardwood forests all around me.

When I awoke the next morning there was a thick fog hanging over the river, a fog which quickly dissipated after I broke camp and began today’s upriver paddle. This next section of the river was well built up with cabins and cottages but was still a beautiful paddle and had the odd wilderness campsite every here and there along the way. On my way up the river I passed a canoe and kayak travelling downriver, fully loaded with camping gear and then, shortly afterwards, another kayaker who was on a solo trip of roughly a week. By now it was a bright sunny day and the temperature was rising rapidly as the morning wore on.

Soon after a lunch stop on a rock outcrop along the river bank I had my first portage of the day, less than a hundred metres, around a very minor rapid with some swift water flowing over a small drop. The portage trail here is on river left…..upriver right in my case. A little ways upriver was another section of fast water through some shallows. Here I merely walked the canoe right up through the shallow rapids for a hundred metres or so and then was on my way once more. Not far from here though was another portage, this one around Recollect Falls, a fairly major waterfall and mandatory portage for both upriver and downriver paddlers. This was also a short portage, a hundred metres or so roughly. Back in 1955 there was a wooden boat slide built here to ease in pulling over small boats and this wooden boatramp/ boardwalk is still in use today. I set up camp for the night right at the upper end of the portage, near the top of the falls and was serenaded to sleep tonight by the sound of the river thundering down over the falls into the pool below.

Thursday’s paddling took me up from Recollect Falls, past the highway and rail overpasses just upriver and through some minor rapids later in the day. Along the way I had a closeup visit from a curious fox and managed to get a decent photo before continuing on. Today’s weather was perfect! Hot and sunny, a light breeze to keep the fall mosquitoes away and the scenery continued to be nothing short of epic! Tonight’s campsite was at the upriver end of the only portage of the day at “The Chutes”, a short portage (river right for downriver paddlers) of roughly 150 metres or so, maybe a touch longer. This looked like a fun little rapid to run down through and play in the waves a bit. Looking back, I should have relaunched the canoe after supper and played in the waves with the empty canoe. Instead though, I contented myself with a nice campfire and did some reading as the day faded away into night.

The next morning, Friday, I lingered in camp after breakfast, savouring an extra cup of coffee while reading a book while sitting on the rocks just above the rapids. Soon after getting back on the river once more, a short paddle brought me to the first portage of the day, a short carry of about 50 metres or so around some decent rapids. Not long after was another portage, this one about 165 metres around a nice set of rapids. Another short paddle brought me to the third portage of the day, maybe 100 metres or so around a fun looking rapid, one which would be lots of fun to run if going downriver. While having a lunch after doing the portage though I got to watch a pair of canoeists go down the rapid, leaning the wrong way and then reaching for the gunnels…sure enough, an unplanned swim soon followed as the paddlers and there canoe floated down into the pool just below the rapid. About a half dozen canoes went through during my brief break here, all but one going through without incident.

The rest of today’s paddling was done on lake like conditions with the exception of one 600 metre portage around a major waterfall and hydro dam. Darkness was now approaching after the portage and Lake Nippissing was still several hours away. It was a beautiful day though and there would be plenty of moonlight tonight so I decided that it would be a good time for a night paddle. As the sun went down and darkness moved in, the sky was lit by a brilliant moon and a multitude of stars. The wind died down and the lake settled into a glass like calm as I paddled quietly along, the canoe gliding effortlessly through the waters of the French River with the moonlight reflecting off the water’s surface.

The last few hours of tonight’s paddle was done in this manner, paddling by moonlight, navigating around the myriad of islands by compass and taking a bearing on appropriate stars in the night sky. Eventually I made it out onto Lake Nippissing, coming through a narrow, rock walled channel between a pair of islands, coming out exactly where I’d planned. This section of the river is more like a large lake in itself, very wide with hundreds of islands. Doing it at night turned it into one of the more enjoyable paddles of the trip and I really enjoyed it. There is something special about night paddling, it just adds an entirely different perspective to your paddling. Once on Lake Nippissing, I rounded Sandy Island and found a small island with some smooth, flat bedrock upon which to erect my tent for the night, setting up camp by the light of my headlamp.

Tomorrow, I’ll cross the lake into Cache Bay where I will pick up my next resupply box, take a day off with my friend Verdell’s family, pick up my new tent to replace the leaky nightmare of a tent I’ve had since the start, load up again and resume the trip by heading down the length of Lake Nippissing, portage through the city of North Bay and onto the Mattawa River. More on that in my next report.

Cheers…Joe O’Blenis