CANOE TRIP ON THE FRENCH RIVER
The first day of the Labour Day weekend and four cars congregate at 9:30 in the morning beside Highway 69 and the French River, about four hours drive from Toronto. One car is left at Shell's Marina, the planned end of the trip, and the gear redistributed amongst the other cars for the drive to the start of the route. After another hour, much of it over the dusty washboard road leading into the Dokis Indian Reserve, we stand below the dam at Lake Nipissing.
The mood is good - blue sky above, the air full of the scent of pine trees, and the river carries water enough to promise fun in the rapids. Soon we are on the water and digging in with the paddles against a brisk breeze. No rapids for today, and so we are struggling into the ever-growing wind, bouncing over whitecaps and cling close to shore to take advantage of even the smallest dent in the shoreline, only to be nearly blown back where the wind funnels between islands. Soon we redistribute partners among the canoes to give each boat equal strength, and keep going. By mid-afternoon we are tired and frustrated and we scout for a site for the night. Maybe the weather will be better tomorrow.
For thousands of years this river has been the door to Canada's trade highway. It was well documented in paintings and reports during the days of the Montreal fur trade. Little has changed; the water and the polished rocks must have looked the same to those travellers as they do to us. Their trees were taller and white pine was maybe more dominating in this beautiful landscape.
We camp on a small island, with plenty of flat spots for the tents, ample firewood and a clean drop for the evening swim. As the tents are raised the fire is started and tea water is heating. Ever had Labrador Tea? It's made from a shrub that grows on close to shore up north. Dinner is ample and good. There is lots of time for a swim or just rest. The fire is rekindled at night, a centre point for good company, with lots of stories, harmonica music and more tea. Above us arches a deep and dark sky, dusted with myriads of stars.
Around seven in the morning the camp stirs and after breakfast we are off to another great day. The wind is there again, but to our relief it has turned and is blowing from behind us. Paddling will be easy today! We are on the water at nine heading for the first set of rapids.
The river has split here, with at least two ways to go through, neither of them "nice". Everyone handles the rapids their way; one canoe party clips along a rock wall and nearly swamps in the swell; the other slides over a shallow spot towards the clear "V"; another canoe is lined down; and the last canoe is portaged.
As we get ready to set off again a flock of mergansers, dull brown diving ducks, comes down the rapids. Fifteen little Bill Masons (if you don't know: Bill Mason is Canada's Patron Saint of canoeing), all expert in dodging rocks, skitting across eddies, ferrying across the powerful current and even happily shooting back upstream to do it all over again.
A mile further down are the Big Pine Rapids with deep water in the main channel and a zig-zag run with big eddies, a ledge and enough obstacles to make this fun. We all get through; some canoes have more water in the bottom than others. Further down, the Blue Chute squeezes the river into a narrow channel, and we ride out big standing waves. We marvel at the high water lines, sometimes six feet above the current, telling a story of a maelstroem chocked with ice that would crush any boat during spring break-up.
Further on we pass through rapids with names recalling the old days: Parisien Rapids, Devil Chute, and Crooked Rapids. Then it's lake paddling again for the remainder of the trip. Vultures and ospreys circle overhead and, of course, the numerous seagulls that make this area their home soar by. Loons greet us, bobbing on the water with their low sharp profile, and sometimes high in the air with their "upside down" look and their strange call. We camp early, the going has been great, under a blue sky, with a steady breeze from behind Again we stop on an island and soon settle into the social camp mood. Long talks carry us into the evening and the jackets come out because there's a cool wind. A quiet night under a nearly full moon.
The following morning we are tardy, knowing that the earlier we are on the water the sooner will we have to trade this paradise for the return to the city and the canoes spread out further today. We are sure of the route and our abilities. A number of times we stop to swim and at lunch time, there's a bit of a snooze. Motor boats become more frequent, but the river still has beauty with its shimmering water, polished rocks - like elephant's backs - and the silent seam of the forest. The shores along the last few kilometers are lined with cottages and all the reminders of the presence of people. Around four in the afternoon we arrive back at the marina. A long car shuttle and the trip is over.
We heartily say goodbye to each other and to the beauty of the last three days. Many thanks to each one in the group for their contributions of work, ideas, and good will and good company.
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The advice provided in "French River Trip, by Erhard" has been compiled based upon 30 years experience canoeing in Ontario. Every effort has been made to ensure that the advice in this web site is correct. Even so, I do not accept any responsibility for errors or misrepresentations contained herein.
WARNING! This advice is intended for use by those with some prior experience in camping, canoe-tripping and backpacking. I do not assume responsibility for the safety of individuals, nor do I accept liability for any loss or damages that might arise in the course of following the advice presented in this web site.