French River Trip Report - September 20-21, 2008
Because this paddle trip was originally planned for September 2007, I was very much looking forward to kayaking on Ontario’s French River this August. As the date neared, my paddle partner had to again postpone our trip due to business commitments, and nearly cancelled when the stock market crashed just days before our trip in September. Still, my paddle buddy Brian managed to get away for our long anticipated kayak trip, but it had to be reduced in length from our original plan of 2 nights.
This is the story of…
Brian and Bob’s Great 30-Hour Adventure on the French River.
That’s right; we drove 300+ miles, paddled down the river to camp for one night, then paddled out and drove home. A 5 ½ hour drive up north to spend less than 30 hours on the river. You do what you can, eh? The weekend began at 4AM Saturday morning when I picked up Brian in a nearby Buffalo, NY suburb. After driving through Toronto, we continued north on Highway 400, which eventually turns into Hwy. 69 along the shores of Georgian Bay. Sometime in the recent past, the Province of Ontario made the French River area into a Provincial Park, which pretty much means only that they can collect over $8 per night per person for the privilege of camping up there somewhere on a rock. They don’t even provide a parking area or launch site. We had to park ($10 per calendar day) and launch ($8 per kayak or canoe) at a little gold mine of a marina called Hartley Bay. At least all of those parking and paddling fees made my wallet lighter for the carries! The marina obligingly offers “free valet” parking, which means they park your car after you unload, keep your keys while you’re out paddling (more weight savings) and give you your car back when you paddle out to pay the launch and parking fees for however long your were in there. Oh, and Ontario is also building and blasting through bedrock to construct a massive thruway sized 4-lane limited access divided highway along side of the seemingly ample Hwy. 69, which takes the occasional traveler to the great metropolis of… I’m not sure where… maybe Perry Sound or Sudbury!? It’s hard to believe that summer traffic could justify a project of this magnitude. Up there, projects like that are not called “pork” - it’s called “back bacon”, and you can have it either in the form of a huge, expensive, possibly unnecessary thoroughfare, or as a $1 add-on to your *Harvey’s Angus burger. I prefer the latter, and with poutine, please.
We loaded and launched our touring kayaks from the low dock (again, $8 each for that privilege), and headed out onto the river under cloudy skies and with the knowledge that a thunder storm was predicted for mid-day. Brian was the navigator by virtue of having the only map. There are many channels and islands all around the French River region, so following a particular course was challenging. Summer cottages are numerous there. Sometimes we would paddle for while in what seemed like wilderness, then we would come to a junction with an inn or several cottages all around us. There are a couple places where major channels cross, creating a giant intersection of waterways and private properties, and that allowed us to determine our location. We initially had a problem converting miles per hour and kilometers, while trying to estimate our speed in order to guess how long it would take us to paddle a certain distance. We arrived at the first major water intersection much sooner than we expected, causing us to doubt that we were actually that far along. Later, we measured our speed using my GPS receiver, and determined that we cruise at 4 to 4 ½ MPH, which converts to about 7 KPH. That explains how we covered the initial 3 KM in only 25 minutes.
After making our left turn at the big junction, we paddled along the relatively narrow channels toward Georgian Bay. The frequency of buildings lessened as we paddled closer to the outlet. Unlike most rivers that carve their own path out of the rock and soil on their way to the sea, the French River is a maze that seems to have been carved out of solid rock by the glaciers that also passed over much of New York State several thousand years ago. The French River’s source is the outlet of big Lake Nipissing to the northeast. There is very little soil to be seen anywhere along the river - mostly rocks and boulders. Even on the islands, the topsoil seems to be just a couple inches deep, and the trees are holding on only by spreading their root systems out across the rock surface and grabbing cracks in the surface.
We kayaked toward our first and only portage of the day. Just before reaching that point, I saw a large animal swimming in the river. I called out to Brian, who was close behind - “Moose in the water!”. As the animal turned to go back to shore, I noticed that the antlers were definitely not moose-like and changed my identification call to that of an Elk. I managed to get off a couple shots with my camera before the large animal reached shore http://tinyurl.com/ElkEmerging . That’s when I made the definite ID that it was a bull Elk, and I snapped off one more photo as he stepped out of the river. We had our first unique wildlife sighting, and had been paddling for only a couple hours.
Soon, we slid onto shore and began our short carry around a good-sized Class 2 rapids http://tinyurl.com/FrenchRapids1 . After unloading our gear and doing the carry, I saw another very short Class 1 rapids ahead. We put-in and first paddled to the bottom of the larger rapids that we had just bypassed, then one by one, Brian and I did the easy run down the second set. I spent most of my effort just steering and trying not to get turned around. It was fun. As we paddled down the rocky river channels, Brian monitored the map and looked for interesting parallel channels for us to explore.
As the day progressed into late afternoon, we finally approached the mouth of the river where it emptied into Georgian Bay among countless closely spaced rocky barrier islands of all sizes. The wind was blowing down the river and out onto the great Canadian bay as we began to seek a place to camp for our one-nighter. Unlike campsites in Algonquin Provincial Park that are indicated by very large orange signs, campsites along the French are marked only by small round discs on a tree. I never did actually see one of those markers, but the map indicated we must have passed many. One barrier island that we steered toward turned out to be occupied, as indicated by a canoe near shore. Brian got out at another spot and scouted for a flat place to put our tents, but had no success. The day was just beginning to fade into early evening when we paddled across the choppy water to another island. I got out and walked around a while before finding the only flat spot on the island. It was a soft patch of ground beneath a couple pine trees, surrounded by low brush and rocks, adjacent to a small stand of trees, and just big enough to pitch our 2 small tents. It would be our home for the night.
We both paddled around to a closer take-out spot, emptied our kayaks, dragged them up onto shore, and secured them to a tree. The wind was blowing steadily and pulling our body heat with it, so I tied a tarp across one end of our flat spot to provide a windbreak. That made a big difference as we set up the tents and began the business of making it comfortable for our short stay. The view was of other nearby islands http://tinyurl.com/CampView2 , and reminded me of a painting by a member of Canada’s famous **“Group of Seven” artists. The open water of Georgian Bay was still a couple more barrier islands away from us. We boiled water and had our dinner while Brian discovered cell phone reception and called home. We soaked in the great view and recounted everything we had seen that day, with the highlights being the Elk, the small rapids, and the satisfaction of knowing we had paddled 10 miles and made it out to Georgian Bay. After the previous night of almost no sleep, and our big day of driving and paddling, we settled down to rest before doing it in reverse order the next day.
Normally, I have a trip philosophy that the last day “belongs to the road”, so I don’t dawdle on driving days. Since we were there only one night, we treated the morning more as if we would be there for a second night, and took our time in order to “grab all the gusto” that we could muster in our brief time there. We slept as long as we needed to, and woke up without the aid of an alarm or the need to be up by a certain time. Day 2 dawned clear, wind-free, and consequently a bit warmer. Lucky for us, the cold inland temperatures were buffered by the warmer Georgia Bay water, and it never got below 50F on our island that night - much warmer than the frosty mainland temps.
After dipping lake water to boil for our breakfast of oatmeal, we began the melancholy task of breaking camp. We were in the midst of a rocky, water-filled maze, had a general idea of where we were, but didn’t know exactly where our route out would be. Brian had charted us a course that formed a big loop so we would have minimal backtracking and maximum new scenery to enjoy. There were some navigation symbols on rocks and nearby islands, so we took an educated guess and started paddling back up a different channel. Brian described the shape of our intended channel, and we dutifully followed the map, hoping we were on track. As Brian described what our goal might look like, I began to recognize those features around us. We were definitely paddling in the proper direction, and soon after that, I saw a dock at the end of the channel. We had managed to find the portage on our first try. The small wooden dock was linked to a boardwalk that had an old rusty 4-wheeled cart on it, also called a tram. We were again lucky that the tram was already at our end of the carry. Although the ancient cart had one or more split tires, the inner tubes still had enough air to carry a load. We hauled the fully loaded boats up onto the dock and began to conspire as to how to load the wagon. It was decided that we would put both loaded boats on at the same time and tie them into place with the thin line I used for my tarp. As I tied the lightweight cord around the kayaks, we remarked how much easier it would be if we had a couple cam straps. After I was about finished, Brian realized that he had 2 cam straps in his boat, “just in case”. Those 1-inch cam straps made the load much more secure for the not-so-long walk up the little hill to the other end of the wooden tramway that led to the inlet of Bass Lake, another part of the French River network. Mid-way through the portage, we saw a couple old wooden cottages built on the rocks close to the path. Seemingly abandoned, the small cabins might see occasional use in the summer, as they are sometimes used by weary travelers who decide to stay there for a night; we did not go inside. Just as we came to the end of our walk, we saw a couple canoes approach. They, too, were lucky enough to have the tram waiting for them at the right end of the carry. We slid our boats down the rocks to the water’s edge and were once again on our way. http://tinyurl.com/BassLakeTram1
Brian was always looking for an alternate and more interesting way get “there”, and one of those side tracks led us to what looked like a dead end channel. I was ready to turn back, but he insisted we continue, because “according to the map…”. Even when I told him that we were headed into an stand of small maple trees, he wanted to continue. I should note that water levels were high that weekend, with no high water lines visible on shore anywhere, so we were paddling during a high water period. We forged ahead into the grove, paddling and pushing our way through the trees, and forcing our boats over the muck in about 6 inches of “water”. At last, we emerged from the trees and now had only to paddle through very tall grass - it would have made a great video, with the bow of the kayaks splitting the thick grass as we blindly paddled through a marsh. As I approached a dead end, Brian called me back to take another path, and we emerged into the main channel again.
Different and interesting was the theme of our weekend. Soon after we entered open water again, while I was in the lead, I saw another animal swimming across a narrow river channel; I called out to Brian just before it climbed onto the rocks. I didn’t get a good look at it then, but Brian thought it was a coyote. As the animal swam and hopped across 2 more narrow parts of the river, I was able to observe it emerging from the water both times - it was, as we learned later, a timber wolf.
Soon, we were on the final leg of our trip, and some of the scenery became familiar once again. In short time, we were at the end of the final channel and at Hartley Bay - our paddling was done. As we unloaded our kayaks, the friendly staff offered to get my car, and collected their launch and parking fees. There was a officer of the Interior there who told us there probably aren’t any coyotes in the area, and that we had seen a wolf. I had no photos of the wolf, but everyone was very interested to see my images of the bull Elk. We learned that the Elk herd is very small, and sightings are few. Our lucky weekend was nearly over, but the wildlife sightings continued. While driving on the dirt access road that took us back to the main highway, a red fox crossed in front of us. It paused in the middle of the road to look at us as we looked at him, then continued on its way. That left us with just 300 miles or so to drive on Sunday. Earlier that day, Brian and I had both agreed that, even though we were there for only one night, it definitely was a “2 Thumbs Up” weekend!
Complete Photo Album http://tinyurl.com/FrenchSept2008
*Harvey’s Angus burger
** Group of Seven