French River Delta: West Channel Loop (3 days / 52 km)

French River Provincial Park offers the perfect experience for beginner and experienced canoeists alike – in fact, this was my first canoe trip! Not only is the French River incredibly beautiful, but it is also a Canadian Heritage River System full of incredible history. Here you can paddle the routes of Indigenous people, French explorers, and fur traders. Despite the motorboat traffic and cottages, paddling down the river is like being transported back in time. 

Starting at Hartley Bay Marina, the river is wide and deep. As you reach the river delta, narrow channels project into Georgian Bay-like fingers reaching out into the cold waters of Lake Huron. The exposed Canadian Shield rock is a true Canadian oasis. It truly feels as if you are on a different planet. Words can’t describe it and photos will never do it justice. 

Trip Completed: August 2020.

Report Updated: September 2022.

Trip Summary

Starting Point: Hartley Bay Marina

Ending Point: Hartley Bay Marina

Total Distance: 52 km

Duration: 3 Days

Difficulty: Beginner

Location

This route is located in French River Provincial Park. 

Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of the Anishinabewaki (Mississauga) (source). 

Maps & Resources

MapUnlostify Maps

Campsite Reservations: Reserve interior permits on Ontario Parks. Select “Backcountry Registration”, and then select “French River Provincial” for the park and “Hartley Bay” for the access point. Campsites are first come first serve basis.  

Outfitters & Shuttles

There are many outfitters nearby. Due to it being a busy time of year, we could not secure a reservation for a canoe a month in advance at any of the nearby locations. Instead, we went to the first-come-first-serve outfitter for Killbear Provincial Park – The Detour Store (401 ON-559, Nobel, ON P0G 1G0). The owners here are incredibly friendly and helpful.

Other options for outfitters (depending on where you are coming from):

Shuttle: A shuttle is not needed, as this route starts and ends at the same place.

Trip Report

Day 1: Hartley Bay Marina to Pig Island (13 km)

A 5:30 AM departure from Hamilton was required so that we could secure a canoe rental at the first-come-first-serve outfitters near Killbear Provincial Park. Reservations for canoes were fully booked months in advance at every outfitter we called. We made it to the outfitters off of Highway 69 just as they opened and, with help from the owners, the canoe was strapped to the SUV, and off we went to our put-in at Hartley Bay Marina. 

We arrived at the marina by mid-morning and the place was very busy. However, there is ample parking available. There are fees associated with this put in. At the time of our trip, the parking fee was $12 per day with a $10 canoe launch fee. Make sure you have your camping permits printed or on your phone to show the marina staff. You are able to back your vehicle down to the boat launch, unload your gear, go park your vehicle and staff will drive you back down to your canoe. Before we knew it, we were fully loaded and ready to start our adventure. 

Being interior camping, the campsites are on a first-come-first-serve basis. This should be taken into consideration when you are planning your trip, especially when going during peak season. If the sun is setting and you are not prepared to canoe at night, it might be better to take the first campsite you see rather than risk going further only to find the next campsite has been taken. This is not to say that there are not a lot of campsites, because there are literally hundreds of marked campsites along the river. The Unlostify Map linked above has marked each one of these campsites, which was very helpful in planning. 

By the late morning, we were on the water and on our way towards the historic West Channel. As we turned out of Hartley Bay into Wanapitei Bay, we were hit with a strong headwind. Since the river is so wide here, this made for some rough travel, but nothing too extreme. There are many motorboats driving up and down the river, so be aware of where you are paddling. They are usually respectful and don’t create huge wakes when passing by. 

We headed west out of the Main Channel into the Western Channel where the waters were calmer. We stopped at campsite #619 for lunch and a swim. The summer sun was hot, and we were already feeling the sunburn starting. After some relaxation, we pushed on. We ended up stopping at campsite #701 on Pig Island. By this time it was only mid-afternoon and ideally we would have paddled further based on our short trip time of only 3 days but the idea of a relaxing afternoon on the riverside campsite was too alluring. We took the afternoon to enjoy some delicious beer and cook our steaks. We were treated to a beautiful sunset and were happy that we ended our first day earlier than planned. 

Campsite: #683. Not the flattest campsite but the location was very nice with rock cliffs coming steeply out of the river. There is a large makeshift fire pit, a thunderbox, and ample places to hang your food. 

Campsite Coordinates: 46° 0’52.90″N  80°53’59.73″W

Day 2: Pig Island to Georgian Bay to Dalles Rapids Main Channel (24 km)

Although we knew we had far to go, we were not in a rush the next morning. Waking up, the sun was shining, and a light fog was rolling off the water. We made our classic breakfast of oatmeal with dried fruit and dark chocolate and washed it down with a delicious cup of coffee. A few boats full of fishermen scurried by and we were greeted with friendly waves. 

We packed up and started our trip down the Western Channel towards Robinson’s Bay and the river delta. The river is still very wide here and the winds were not helping us get anywhere fast. We eventually made it to the river delta which is where the “choose your own adventure” game begins. You can go down one of the many narrow channels that lead to Georgian Bay (refer to the Unlostify Map). Take caution and know your skill level as some of these channels contain waterfalls and rapids, all of which can be portaged around. We were initially going to take the Voyageur Channel but because we needed to start heading back up the Main channel that day we opted for a shorter route. 

The water was quite low when we were there, and the rapids indicated on the map were not big. For example, we went down the path on the Unlostify map where it indicates Otter Rapids. However, there were no rapids there and in fact, we had to lift our boat over exposed rock. Water levels change quite drastically so always be prepared. 

We ate lunch and took a swim in what felt like a little oasis across from the old Voyageur camp. After lunch, we headed down the left channel towards campsite #693. Here the river was faster, with small rapids but nothing unmanageable due to the low water levels. We continued on towards Crooked Rapids knowing we would take the 110 m portage. The length of this portage depends on the water level as the portage is actually in a small channel between Crooked Rapids and Liley Chutes. We were able to canoe part of the way through this channel but eventually had to lift our boat up and over the rocks for about 50 m. This put us in the Cross Channel. If I had to do this trip again I would love to camp at one of the many campsites in the delta. This place felt otherworldly. 

Next, we headed east towards Devil Door Rapids. We were able to easily get through these rapids however take caution because I have seen pictures and videos of this section being very rough and with a 1m drop. There is a quick and easy 50m portage just to the left of the rapids. This brought us to the Bad River Channel where we saw many boats and yachts full of people enjoying the gorgeous summer weather. We continued down the cross channel towards campsite #812. 

Here the narrow river meanders through the land with tall grasses growing along the edges. It is amazing, the different landscapes you get throughout the French River. There was one single lift over, what I think was a beaver dam. Admittedly, we made a wrong turn and headed up a narrow channel for nearly an hour before we realized it led to nowhere. We were too awestruck with the beauty of this narrow channel to realize it. The rock along the river’s edge was eaten out by erosion making it look like a wave pouring over us. Despite the setback, on an already long day, in hindsight, I am glad we made a wrong turn. 

We got back on track and headed down the Cross Channel. Here you will exit the Cross Channel and be on Georgian Bay. Take caution here, as the waves on Georgian Bay will flip your canoe with no issue on a windy day. If there are strong winds, do not travel this section until the weather calms. It is always smart to plan an extra day or two in trips to account for these situations. There were moderate winds when we were there, and it was manageable. We weaved our way through the many little islands. We hit a few rocks that were hidden under the water so be on the lookout.

We headed up the Main Channel towards Dalles Falls. The sun was starting to set so we needed to find a campsite. We ended up taking campsite #736 which was in a little alcove just downriver of Little Dalles Rapids. It was a good thing we ended up taking this campsite because as we passed the ones further upriver the next day we saw that they were all taken and we would have been scrambling to find something late at night. 

Campsite: #736. Flat land with a firepit (with cook rack), picnic table, and a thunderbox. The water in the alcove was not the nicest looking water so we canoed out to the main channel to get our water. 

Campsite Coordinates: 45°58’0.05″N 80°53’3.42″W

Day 3: Dalles Rapids to Hartley Bay Marina (14.5km)

We woke up to pouring rain and a cold breeze. There was enough tree cover so that we could enjoy our breakfast and coffee. We packed up and headed upriver towards Dalles Rapids. At first, we thought the portage was right at the base of the rapids, where campsite #738 is, but we had to backtrack as it was a little bit south of there (refer to Unlostify Map). This portage was only 310 m and was a well-tracked trail. 

We loaded up our canoe upstream of Dalles Rapids and continued on our way. We passed the remains of an old “Alligator” boat, making us wonder about all the history this river has seen. We turned left up the Main Channel (east of Merranger’s Island). We made it back to Hartley Bay Marina by early afternoon. The staff helped us tie our canoe to the roof which was greatly appreciated as it was my first time. We headed back to Hamilton and had a few hours stuck in traffic to think back on our lovely trip around the French river delta. 

Reflections

The beauty of the French River delta cannot be described in words and pictures do not do it justice. It truly feels otherworldly. Almost like an alien oasis. In addition to its beauty, this area is rich in history. When I got home I found myself reading about the Indigenous peoples who traversed this river thousands of years ago, and the fur traders who used it as a commercial transport line. 

When I do this trip again, I would love to do it over more days and spend a few nights camping at the delta. This trip is perfect for beginners and experts alike, especially with the many different routes you can take through the delta. Experts can traverse the rapids, while beginners can watch in awe and take notes. The only downside of this route is the motorboat traffic which takes away from the serenity of being in the interior. 

Gallery


Author Bio

Sean Vandersluis is an outdoor enthusiast who loves exploring Canada’s outdoors. He always brings along his camera to capture some of Canada’s most beautiful locations. Mostly a backpacker in the mountains of western Canada, he has started to get into canoeing after moving to Ontario (but still prefers a good old fashion hiking trip). Follow his Instagram to follow along!

Instagram@seanmarksluis and @seanmark_photography

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