Arguably one of the most frequently paddled waterbodies, the French River offers an incredible maze of channels that lead back to the Georgian Bay Delta. The Northern Ontario river runs along the boundary between Parry Sound District and Sudbury District. It starts at Lake Nipissing in a westerly direction towards Georgian Bay, offering vastly diverse sights and paddling opportunities.
Ontario is home to more than 250 000 lakes that contain 20% of the freshwater in the world. Every year, thousands of people paddle small sections of the river, but few have ever paddled the entire length, and explored the many historical sights along this stretch of water. Here’s a quick overview of what you can expect.
Paddling the French River North to South
The prospect of paddling the entire French River is certainly exciting and intimidating at the same time. There are so many unknowns that you can never be prepared enough. However, the sense of adventure should surpass many anxieties.
Loading up your kayak with all the gear you need for this trip along the same waters the voyageurs, the Jesuit missionaries, fur traders, and other explorers traveled hundreds of years ago, feels surreal. Lake Nipissing’s West Bay is the perfect starting point for this exciting paddle.
Lake Nipissing is one part of the French River. The 65 kilometer lake feeds the French River, and offers big waves, barren areas, and a five mile rapid section for the adventurous paddler. If you’re keen to take on the rapids, come prepared and bring a dry bag. Paddlers are often overwhelmed by the surreal, colourful natural beauty of the southern shoreline of the lake.
Sandy Island on Lake Huron is approximately 35 kilometers or two days’ paddling from Lake Nipissing and provides a canoe pass south into the French River. Lake Huron connects to a variety of other great lakes that formed a passage for gathering resources for thousands of years. First Nations people used these very lakes to trade with French Europeans.
Approximately twenty kilometers further and overland portage of about three-hundred yards will give you a back way into Site 107, where you can spend the night. Site 107 is approximately 350 kilometers from where the French River empties into Georgian Bay.
At Chodar Dam, you will encounter a 500 meter portage southeast of Dokie’s Marina. This is the longest portage on the French River and not all that hard.
just less than two kilometers downstream, you will encounter the rapids at Kiso Point. They appear as soon as you turn a blind corner and look easy upon first approach. However, this is a dangerous spot, especially in high water.
From there, head towards Big Pine Rapid. You could take the short portage river or you could try to navigate through the rapids. Up next, you have three options, namely:
- The ladder
- The gully
- Or the blue chute.
The ladder will bring you to another big rapid - the Upper Parisian Rapids. You can avoid them by taking a short portage river along the north shore.
Starting back at Devil’s Chute, you will go through Lower Parisian. That brings you to the end of the five-mile rapid section from where you can portage right towards the beautiful campsite 417.
The next stretch includes padding underneath Highway 69. Expect the current to steadily increase as you come closer to the mighty Recollect Falls about one and a half kilometers downstream from the bridge. Sadly, there’s a lot of evidence that indicates the demise of many people who have drowned here. If you want to avoid the falls, especially in high water, take the portage left just before the point at which the falls drop.
From this campsite, you can head west towards the Old Voyager Channel via Juanapate Bay and Oxbay. Along the way, you’ll find a nice beach campsite not far from Georgian Bay. Of course, there are many ways to reach Georgian Bay, but few are as peaceful and mystical as paddling from Lake Nipissing through the same channels that have been used for centuries.
Thinking about the struggles with limited technology, no internet on which to do research about navigating the treacherous parts of the French River, and the unpredictable weather must have made those old voyages extremely difficult. Today, we have GPS, established campsites, and incredible outdoors gear to turn a life threatening trip of old into a modern adventure that connects you with nature.
The French River Provincial Park offers many camping spots that don’t require reservations. Simply pull over after a tough day of paddling and take the load off at a nearby campsite. Pack wisely, because the weather can go from beautiful and sunny to stormy and freezing in minutes. Hartley Bay Marina is a favourite, especially since there are fisherman’s cabins and cottages when you want to sleep under a solid roof for a night or two.
Inspiration for article North to South