We left our final Lake Huron camp shortly after dawn in a gorgeous flat calm, painfully aware of our limited supply of wine gums. As we dodged the rocks and islands and turned into the bay marking the start of our journey up the French River we both felt quite emotional. We will miss paddling on these great expanses of water, that feeling of insignificance as you look out into the deep blue yonder, and the satisfaction of reflecting on hard fought miles, sat by the camp fire on a lump of smooth, flat granite. But we were soooo ready for some flat water and a change of scene, and as we headed for the old voyageur channel and a porcupine swam across the river in front of us, we knew we were going to enjoy this.
The French River, so named due to its association with the French explorers in the 17th century, flows 110km from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay. The mouth is a maze of narrow channels, some more paddleable than others, and our research had shown several routes up it. We opted for the old voyageur channel due to the sense of history, but soon found it was probably easier getting down it than up. An atmospheric narrow rock channel spat water at us quicker than expected and several attempts to get up it all resulted in pinballing off the walls and returning to the same safe eddy. After 20 minutes of this we decided it wouldn’t work, and Cas was despatched up the rock wall on the right with the painter to find a safe place to line from whilst I paddled hard from the back. Meanwhile I put my buoyancy aid on…of course I trust her implicitly, but you can never be too careful… Uneventfully we finally got the boat up and headed upstream, with a lively discussion of how we manage stressful situations…
After a short haul over some rocks to avoid a small shelf, this discussion was (fortunately, and unknowingly) interrupted by the arrival of another canoe heading downstream. Suntanned, sinewy, bearded, and wearing tilley hats I was immediately envious of, these guys clearly knew what they were doing (their first impression of us was of “rank amateurs” – yes guys, we read your CCR post, and we probably agree!). We exchanged pleasantries in passing, and they spun around as we said we’d been out for four months! We are quite enjoying telling people this now, although it seems a bit rediculous every time we say it. Peter and Martin are brothers from the Toronto area who still paddle together regularly, but had never paddled the French before. We loved chatting to this jovial pair, who clearly have so much experience to share. We were extremely grateful to learn of some shorter portages on the Ottawa than the ones provided by the Ontario hydro guys, and shared stories of paddles past. With their canoe weighing 15lb more now than when they bought it, it’s fair to say their stories were gnarlier than ours!
The flows moderated for the rest of the day as we happily headed upstream, rewarding ourselves with a slightly early finish (5.30pm) in the blistering heat. We even enjoyed a tail wind all the way. The next day saw more easy, beautiful upstream miles, other than for a bit of lining up Little Flat Rapids and an exciting entrance to the portage at the Recollet Falls. The day finished watching a beautifully, and reassuringly, healthy looking bear picking its way between the berry bushes under the autumnal trees along the shoreline. It managed to stay pretty cool and calm for the GoPro, but scarpered as soon as it was off camera! Day three was portage day, with 3 boat-on-head walks and a few drags and lines which were all despatched by noon and saw us with just the dam to get around before the home stretch to the lake. Deciding to use the trolley, we ignored the marked portage route and merrily wheeled past a “No Trespassing” sign on our way to the hydro station, where we reckoned we could get back in. The one car that passed us perfectly demonstrated the art of turning a blind eye and we re-loaded and searched for a campsite. Unfortunately our map for this section appears less reliable and the first one was definitely an ex-site. The second one was also imaginary, but a small island nearby provided a great little spot, complete with bench and fire pit. We were both exhausted. We’d noticeably lost weight again in the last few days paddling upstream and hadn’t had a break since The Soo, so the next day was to be short. But forecast building winds necessitated an early start. At first light we were on the water. Two minutes later the monsoon arrived, and stayed with us for most of the 15km we did to get us up on to Lake Nipissing.
Lake Nipissing. Our last big (ish) lake. We’d been warned that this lake was shallow, meaning short steep waves in the style of the Lakes of Manitoba. I was keen to get across, by any means, and as soon as possible. Cas was more rational (!), and knew we needed some time out, so we found a nice little island and settled down to watch the winds build. We also had good cell service, and found out about the arrival of our latest nephew, Turbo Teddy, who arrived into this world on September 24th over in BC. We also managed to reply to a chap called Paul who had contacted us from North Bay. Paul Chivers had found out about us through the myccr pages and got in touch with offers of help regarding our portage through from Lake Nipissing to Trout Lake. Paul was instrumental in re-instating the La Vase Portages, the original voyageur route through the high ground between the two lakes. Rather ashamedly, we had to say we weren’t intending on following this historic route as we needed to re-supply in North Bay itself, and have a portage trolley which makes our lives so much easier. However, we were still keen to meet, so made plans to see him in North Bay.
After our partial day of rest we headed out into what was meant to be a lightish northwesterly and slightly choppy seas. But Nipissing was in cahoots with her larger brethren and delivered a thoroughly rough morning and shouts of “you guys are mad” from one of the cottages we bounced past. Paddling deep into a large bay (the Garmin track is wrong, we did not cut this one at the mouth!) gave us some shelter, and the wind dropped early afternoon allowing us some respite. We figured this was the evening lull come early, and my frustration at the wind and paddling large lakes in general meant we decided to cut across the bottom corner and make for Sunset Park, around 6km away. With some hard paddling all went well, but the wind got up again with one kilometre to go making the last bit a little more uncomfortable. But our boat remained trusty and we limped in to the shore. Realising how much we both hurt we headed for the Sunset Inn, and a nice soft bed. We managed to meet Paul for a beer later at the nearby Churchill’s pub and thoroughly enjoyed a couple of hours chatting with him. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of paddling in the local area and helped enormously with our route planning down the Mattawa.
Looking out the next morning onto a cold, wet and windy scene, we decided a day off was warranted, and re-supplied, did some laundry and prepared ourselves for the last leg of the trip.
- Paul, for being such great company at the end of a hard day, and for your advice on the Mattawa.
- The lovely owners of the Sunset Inn for their warm welcome and enthusiasm!
- Peter aka True_North, for his post on myccr.