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French River - Georgian Bay - Pickerel River: Solo loop, start and finish at Hartley Bay (July 4-7, 2000)*

 

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Georgian Bay: mouth of the French River

I have been eager to paddle the French River for awhile now and I would have preferred to do it with a group but I just couldn't wait any longer so I decided to go solo in my 30+ year old flatwater fibreglass canoe. I chose the first half of the route from the description in Kevin Callan's book, "Further Up the Creek". That is, Hartley Bay - Western Channel - Old Voyageur Channel - West Cross Channel - East Cross Channel - and across the mouth of the Main Channel. But because of a disability, I did not want to do the 240 metre portage into Bass Lake (I wasn't sure if the tramway was still in use). Upon examining the French River map, I figured coming back by way of the Pickerel River may be a little longer but at least I wouldn't have to do any portaging. This was both a good and a bad decision. Good in that I had the opportunity to see the Pickerel River, which was quite beautiful and, aside from one other canoe, it was all mine! It was a mistake in that I had to do a 125-150 metre portage after all. Moreover, I would have preferred to take my time, sleep in, laze around my campsites, and generally have an easy and relaxing time. But 4 days is too short for this route, especially paddling solo. Five or six days would have made for a more relaxing trip - and I believe that would be the case paddling tandem as well. As it turned out, I was paddling between 8-11 hours and 16-22 kilometres (not including wrong turns and side trips) per day. Those distances may not seem like alot to experienced paddlers, but I had a medium to strong headwind most of the time, which made paddling solo quite tiring.

Day 1 Tuesday

After driving up from Toronto, I set out from Hartley Bay Marina just after noon. There were too many motorboats around for my liking. It took one hour to paddle to the mouth of Hartley Bay where it meets Wanapitei Bay. Some motorboats slowed down, some didn't. As soon as you enter Wanapitei Bay, there is a campsite on the first island you come to which is not a bad spot if you arrive late at the put-in. There is room for at least 3 tents. It was unoccupied on my way in but it was taken on Friday afternoon. There are other campsites on Wanapitei Bay for late arrivals. As for me, I had to make it past Crombie Bay Point if I was going to remain on schedule. If I couldn't do that, then I was going to revise my trip enroute. 

After driving up from Toronto, I set out from Hartley Bay Marina just after noon. There were too many motorboats around for my liking. It took one hour to paddle to the mouth of Hartley Bay where it meets Wanapitei Bay. Some motorboats slowed down, some didn't. As soon as you enter Wanapitei Bay, there is a campsite on the first island you come to which is not a bad spot if you arrive late at the put-in. There is room for at least 3 tents. It was unoccupied on my way in but it was taken on Friday afternoon. There are other campsites on Wanapitei Bay for late arrivals. As for me, I had to make it past Crombie Bay Point if I was going to remain on schedule. If I couldn't do that, then I was going to revise my trip enroute. 

I crossed Wanapitei Bay and headed south against a strong headwind. The wind became even stronger at Bad River Turn, where it was blowing north up the Main Channel. At one point I was paddling but making no headway! I made better progress once out of Bad River Turn and heading West again. I stopped for lunch on a little island two kilometres downstream. When I set off, I was fighting the wind again for the rest of the afternoon and evening. When the wind was not too bad, I averaged about 20 minutes per kilometre at a medium paddling pace - the time doubled in heavy wind. I reached Pig Island at 17:30 and it took one hour to paddle to the other end of the island, a distance of about 2 1/4 kilometres. Once I rounded the bend, the wind became even stronger blowing off Crombie Bay Point and until I reached my campsite, about 2 kilometres downstream and on the West side of the Western Channel. This was at about 20:30. Earlier I had been looking for the campsite indicated on the map across from Crombie Bay Point, on the east side of the river, and just to the south. But as far as I could tell it did not exist, or was overgrown. I even got out of my canoe and looked around but couldn't find it. Anyway, the campsite I stayed at, just across from a cottage, was situated in a little bay and had a lovely view of a mini canyon across the bay. However, the campsite itself looked as if it had been used only once this year. The firepit was under water thanks to all the rain we have had. There was only really room for one tent pad. And there were no logs or convenient rocks for sitting on, or flat rocks or makeshift platforms for laying out your gear. I guess it is not a popular site because of the cottage across the river. But the view suited me just fine. All in all, it was a long and tiring day. 

Day 2 - Wednesday 

I set my alarm for 6:00 but when the time came to get up I decided to sleep in a little longer. Finally, at 8:30, I decided to get up and I started planning my day. I hoped to make it out to Georgian Bay by tonight in order to keep to my schedule and be able to cross the large expanse of open water the next morning when the water would be at its calmest. 

I didn't leave the campsite until after 11:00 because I took the time to rig a sail prototype I have been working on. Once away, it took me 1 hour and 20 minutes to sail the 5 kilometres to the entrance of the Old Voyageur Channel. That included more time messing around with my experimental sail. It worked pretty good and I now have some ideas for a better version I will prepare at home. It is only a downwind sail. 

Finding the Voyageur Channel was not all that difficult. Even so, I was paying very close attention to my map and especially in conjunction with a compass. Throughout the trip there were many channels, bays, islands, and blind alleys in which to make mistakes in navigation. I utilised the compass more than I ever have before on a canoe trip. I have the map in plastic taped to the thwart in front of me and the compass resting on the thwart beside the map - this way I can check my navigation with a quick glance and frequently without hassle. First I identify the direction I want to go on the map from my present position and point the arrow of the compass in that direction, and adjust the north bearing to north on the map. Then I put the compass on the thwart with the arrow pointed to the front of the canoe. That way I just have to keep the north needle pointed north on the bearings dial (sorry but I don't know the proper names for the compass parts). It worked well for me and I only got semi-lost once. 

Part way down the Old Voyageur Channel there is a secondary no-name channel breaking off into a more southerly direction. It is worth getting out of the canoe here and walking over to take a look at the twin rapids shooting into the narrow gorge. The view is really spectacular so I decided to have my lunch here and snap some pictures. 

By 15:15 I arrived at Petit Faucille rapids (Class II?) After removing my pack over the 10 metre portage I ran the rapid down the left side of the right tongue, or chute. It was about a 2 1/2 - 3 foot drop but no major obstructions down the right hand chute. having said that, I did not make the sharp right or left hand manoeuvre after the initial drop so I did not avoid a minor collision with the opposing shore. The river makes two 90 degree turns in a very short space, so there is not much room or time to manoeuvre. That's my excuse and I am sticking to it! It may have been easier in a proper whitewater boat. Anyway, it is a good rapid to practice your eddy turns as there are three good strong eddies to choose from. 

Soon afterwards, you come upon Palmer Rapids. It was pretty straight forward and there was no need to unload the canoe. Even so, I took a more challenging approach on the right hand tongue of the right branch of the rapid. The right hand tongue crossed the stronger left tongue at about a 90 degree angle - so you are sort of coming at the main current from the side. As the nose of the canoe hits the stronger current of the left tongue, it spins the nose of the canoe downstream. As you can probably tell, I was pretty pleased with that move! Again, the water levels were good and this manoeuvre may not work in higher or lower water. I should stress here that running rapids on a solo trip is foolish and I would not recommend it. I have some whitewater experience and I always wore my PFD. If I had any doubt about my ability to run a rapid safely, I would not do it. These rapids had no secondary obstructions after the main drops, so even if I did spill, I would just be going for a short swim to recover the canoe. Near the end of the Voyageur Channel was La Dalle Rapid. It was the most fun. It almost looks like an amusement park log ride because of the long narrow section and steep smooth sides. It was just a matter of keeping the canoe pointed straight. 

Once I started heading east in the West Cross Channel, I took a wrong turn before the Cross Channel rapids - my one directional mistake. I soon figured it out and was back on track. There is a lower and upper part of this Rapid (this section you travel against the current). I lined the canoe up the first part but the water levels were too high for the second (upper) rapid. Kevin Callan mentioned lining his canoe up the Cross Channel rapids but the water levels must have been much lower on his trip. There is a 40-50 metre portage to the left of the upper rapid (that is, left when looking up river, my direction of travel in this section). This was not something that I had expected but I had no choice but to do the portage. Unfortunately, there is a large tree that has fallen across and blocking the trail. (A letter is on its way to Premier Mike Harris requesting that he personally go down there with a chain saw and remove the obstruction since his financial cuts to MNR means they no longer have the manpower to maintain portages.) 

Once past the Cross Channel Rapids I took a short detour up one of the no-name branches to take a look at a rather noisy rapid I could hear just to the north. I named it Thunder Rapids because it sounded like thunder. It was not very big and I think it was just the acoustics of the surrounding rocks, but it made this amazing rumbling sound I have never before heard on a rapid that size. 

About 18:00 I had reached Bad River Channel. Crooked Chute and Liley Chute were visible just to the north. When I approached Devils Door I could see it was aptly named. I tied off the canoe and climbed up the rocks to the north of the rapid. From the top it was obvious there was no way I could run this rapid. The water levels were such that it had become an extremely dangerous hydraulic. Even if the hydraulic didn't suck you under, all the force of the rapid was directed against the rock face on the north side. My guess was that it was near impossible even for a covered canoe or kayak. This rapid could easily kill someone. Anyone approaching this rapid should pull their canoe in to the small bay to the north, get out and take a good look. Do NOT paddle close to this rapid as the current is strong enough to suck you in. There is a very precarious portage immediately beside the rapid behind the large square rock. Though the approach can be dangerous at those water levels and should not be attempted by a novice. Paddle down to Jameson Rapids just to the south. There is a safe portage around that rapid. It means adding a couple of kilometres to the trip but it is the safe bet. A group of people camping on the rocks to the north of Devils Door told me about the precarious portage behind the square rock and that they had seen someone use it earlier that day. So stupid me decided to give it a try. I paddled well wide of the rapid and approached it from the south bank, hugging the shore/cliff. As soon as I reached the portage behind the square rock, I jumped from the canoe quickly so as to avoid getting sucked down by any delay in getting it secured. Once secured I checked out the very narrow portage. Part of it involved walking in knee deep water, but the actual portage length is only a few metres and it is more like a lift over. I was scared just looking and standing on the rocks beside this massive hydraulic. But it was also quite spectacular. I felt safer knowing that the entire group of about 8-10 people I had spoken to earlier were gathered around spotting in case something happened. If nobody was around I would surely have paddled around the extra 2 kilometres. Even the standing waves well below the chute were big enough to swamp any open canoe, so I stayed well clear of them. That was the second portage I was not expecting! 

Just past Devils Door is where the yachts and motorboats hang out. They occupied the campsites at the entrance to the East Cross Channel. I had no intention of camping beside motorboats even if it meant sleeping in my canoe! Besides, I wanted to make it out of the East Cross Channel and into Georgian Bay so I could get an early start across the open water in the morning. So I continued on. The water in the East Cross Channel was a brownish coffee colour. I would suggest filling up your water bottles before entering this section. Even if you use a water filter, why subject the filter to that if it is not necessary? There are several liftovers in this section. But it is worth going this way because the landscape is so unusual - it is like being on another planet. 

Coming out of the East Cross Channel into the islands in Georgian Bay is also very pretty. But I got a little off course paddling around some of them and felt kind of lost. This last stretch seemed to take longer than I thought it would from looking at the map. It was about 21:00 by the time I reached a campsite on the west side of Sand Bay. It was a nice campsite though, and I was surprised to find dead wood on such a barren piece of rock - it must be because it is still early in the season. 

Day 3 Thursday 

I headed out about 10:00. I was never quite sure where I landed the night before, but after paddling for about an hour I was able to identify my position by matching the landscape to the map and compass. Indeed, I was actually on the very campsite I had hoped to reach when planning my day the morning before! I paddled across the mouth of the French River Main Channel to Dorion Island. Instead of heading north up to Bass Lake, as Kevin Callan described in his book, I headed south-east through Paring Channel to Dock Island. From there I made very good time under sail and had lunch on a rock at the east end of the Outer Fox Islands. At 13:50 I set my heading to 120 degrees which put me right through the Dead Island Channel. The second half of this crossing the sail was less effective as the wind was on an angle. I beached the canoe in the Channel and took a short nap - I was having trouble keeping my eyes open and was sleepy all day. 

By 15:00 I had found the mouth of the Pickerel river. I chose to avoid the Main Channel or Eastern Outlet because the wind was now coming down from the north and I also wanted to avoid motorboats. The river is much narrower through the Western Outlet beyond Genesee Bay. Unfortunately, it didn't make much of a difference for the wind. It was blowing strong and paddling became quite an effort. Once in Genesee Bay, I chose the westernmost channel after discovering the smaller eastern fork was overgrown with reeds. Even this section of river was pretty shallow and probably impassable during low water. 

The wind was not letting up so I decided to stop at the junction to the Eastern Outlet at 17:00 where I made myself dinner in the hope that the wind would die in an hour or two and I could continue on. The wind was really wearing me out but I couldn't stop yet or I wouldn't be able to make it back to the car the next day. At 19:00, belly full and rested, I headed further up river. I even made a tea for the road, or the river as the case may be. The river was very pretty from this point on. There is a narrow canyon and interesting rock formations. By 20:45 I had arrived at a very nice campsite on the small lake above the narrow canyon. Again, it was the location as opposed to the campsite layout that was so nice. On the French River Park map, this campsite is located nearest to the northernmost "pimple" demarcating the eastern border of the park in this area. From the campsite I had an excellent view of the sunset. It was a very tiring day - I was in the canoe for about 10 1/2 hours and except for part of the stretch on Georgian Bay, it was mostly against a strong wind.

sunset on the Pickerel River.

Day 4 - Friday

I was up and on the water by 8:35, my earliest start so far. It was windy yet again, but at least this time it was on an angle across my bow. About 45 minutes upriver I came to a couple of liftovers in a narrow shallow "S" bend in the river. After completing the liftovers/lining the river opens up into a scenic little lake with an old derelict wooden cabin on the north shore. Head straight for it. It was too early for me but this would be a great place for a lunch break or to camp. It is such a beautiful little spot. This view alone was worth the trip! I wonder what the history of the cabin was? It is a dream location! 

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The cabin. Looking at the "false" stream where the pond is.

After looking around, be sure to portage to the right or east of the cabin, about 10-15 metres long. There is a pond and stream to the left of the cabin but that is not the way to go. I intended to go that way until I climbed up on a rock to take a picture and saw the main river behind me to the north. Lesson learned, always scout the area. I should have been suspicious because the other channel did not look right to me on the map and compass heading. Even so, I would have realised the mistake over the next liftover to see the left fork was a dead end.

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The pretty little pond beside the cabin

Not long after leaving the cabin I came to the area marked on the map as "Low water, dry area". I figured with the high water levels this year that I would be able to paddle or pole through. I got about ten metres into the overgrowth and saw it was impassable. So I had no choice but to portage the 250 metres. I couldn't turn back now! So I scouted left and determined to portage over a relatively smooth and barren rock ridge. There were two ledges or large steps but the rest was almost like walking on the sidewalk. I can't imagine that part of the river being passable at any water level other than flood conditions.

Immediately after the portage I stopped for lunch to rebuild some of that energy I drained on the portage. The last little lake before reaching the East-West part of the Pickerel river was quiet, calm and serene. All I could hear was the birds and the breeze through the trees. For me that is where my trip ended. For the next four hours to Hartley Bay I was back on the busy parts of the Pickerel and French where the motorboats ruled. At the Marina the attendant retrieved my car, helped me put the canoe on top, and charged me $24 for parking and docking fees.

Summary

The water levels were very good, except for the unmarked portage on the Pickerel River. During my entire trip, I saw only one campsite that was properly marked with a campsite sign. You really have to pay attention to every detail on your map, and even moreso for navigation. There are many bays, inlets, islands, and channels, so a compass and a good map are absolutely essential. It is not enough to have them with you in case of trouble: I found it necessary to pay very strict and constant attention to both map and compass. As for the duration of the trip, it would be better to plan for 5 or 6 days, that is if you want to enjoy some leisure or rest time. I found the Old Voyageur Channel, West Cross Channel, East Cross Channel and most of the Pickerel River to be very beautiful and relatively isolated, especially the Pickerel. However, all of day one, part of day two and half of day four were spent amongst motorboats. But there is no avoiding that and it is worth enduring to see the best parts of the rivers. The wind changed direction over my four day trip resulting in a strong headwind most of the time. Paddling tandem would make this less of a problem. I was lucky with the wind on the open stretch of Georgian Bay between the French and Pickerel rivers. But I can imagine that it could get pretty windy and choppy out there. It would be advisable to have a backup plan to return up the French river if wind is a problem on the Bay.

* In the routes section (Northeastern Ontario) of the Canadian Canoe Routes website you can read a route description and trip log by Ben, Rick and Carolyn from England. And go up one level for more.