French River: Eighteen Mile Island Loop (5 days / 75 km)
This is a classic Canadian canoe route with historical significance and incredible river scenery. Paddlers on this route travel a key link on the water highway that connects Montreal to Lake Superior and beyond. This canoe route had been used for centuries by the indigenous people of Canada, the early European explorers and the voyageurs involved in the fur trade.
The definitive Canadian Shield topography is made of rugged, glaciated rock dramatically positioned over an ancient fault line filled with water flowing in from Lake Nipissing. It’s simply breathtaking in its sublime natural beauty, especially in the Five Mile Rapids section where burgeoning whitewater paddlers make their way through a series of river drops in the main channel. It’s a bucket-list trip that every canoeist should try.
Trip Completed: August 2021
Starting Point: The trip starts and ends on Dry Pine Bay at Loon’s Landing campground and marina. There is a moderate fee for parking and launching.
Phone: (705) 857-2175
Ending Point: As it is a circuit route, the trip ends again at Loon’s Landing. Paddlers will portage into Eighteen Mile Bay travel up the north channel against the current and then back down the French River’s main channel. It could be done in either direction, but it is strongly recommended to go clockwise as there are more rapids and stronger current on the main channel where it would be beneficial to be heading downstream.
Total Distance: 75 km
Duration: The trip can be done comfortably in 5 days.
Difficulty: Beginner. This is an excellent introduction to whitewater canoeing for those who would like a taste of it. Flatwater paddlers can enjoy it, too, as there are portages past all dangerous whitewater.
This route is on crown land and in French River Provincial Park.
Refer to the map below for starting point, portage and route information.
Tradition: This route is on the traditional territory of the Anishinabewaki and Mississauga. (Native-Land.ca)
Maps & Resources
Guidebook: Kevin Callan’s Top 60 Canoe Routes of Ontario
Map: Regional Topographic Maps
The best canoe route map is the Ontario Parks’ French River Provincial Park Map. You can buy it at the visitor’s center and many of the lodges in the area, but I recommend picking up a copy in advance. This way, you can get familiar with the map and use it to plan your campsites. You can order it from Chrismar Adventure Maps.
Campsite Reservations: N/A – All sites are first come, first serve.
Permits: Permits are required within the park boundaries and can be purchased from and reserved online through the Ontario Parks Reservation System. Select “Backcountry Registration” on the far right, and then select “French River” for the park and “Other” for the access point if beginning at Loon’s Landing. Select the appropriate zone for the appropriate date as you progress through the route. Note that you do not need a permit to camp along the North Channel.
Outfitters & Shuttles
No shuttle is required as this is a circuit loop.
Contact the following for canoe rentals:
- Algonquin Outfitters (Huntsville – Algonquin Outfitters – Outdoor Adventure Store)
- Swift Canoe and Kayak (Rentals – Swift Canoe & Kayak Outdoor Centres)
It had been a couple of years since my old friends from high school, Jason and Scott, had joined me on a canoe trip. The Covid-19 virus had prevented us from doing so, but in August 2021, Jason made his way from his home on Vancouver Island back to Ontario for some paddling. Scott and I joined him at his family cottage near Gravenhurst for a fun night of catching up before heading north the following morning to tackle the French River’s Eighteen Mile Island Loop.
We were excited for the trip because that summer had seen quite a bit of temperamental weather, but on our departure day we actually had a great forecast for the week.
Day 1: Dry Pine Bay to Wigwam Islands (17 km)
Shortly after 11 am on our departure day, we were pulling into Loon’s Landing, a marina on the west shore of Dry Pine Bay. I had called ahead earlier in the week to arrange parking for our vehicle and to obtain use of their boat launch. By noon, we had the boats loaded, had paid the owners for their services, and were paddling across the bay — Scott and Jason in my Scott Wilderness and me, alone, in my Swift Prospector. We were happy to start our trip.
The bay was a little gusty, but not enough to hamper our crossing to Meshaw Falls. The people at Loon’s Landing had told us that the owner of Meshaw Falls Cottages was no longer allowing canoe trippers access to the short portage past the Falls. Indeed, when we paddled up to the resort, we saw a massive ‘No Trespassing’ sign where the take-out to the portage was. So, we reluctantly paddled south to the Stony Rapids portage. Not only did this add an extra hour to our trip, but we were denied a view of the interesting swirl hole found at Meshaw Falls.
The portage past Stony Rapids was on river right and it ascended a couple of hundred meters over a pretty run of whitewater. We got into our canoes off of a steep bank, paddled for a couple of minutes, and then disembarked again on river left. There, we made quick work of the short portage through a vacant campsite, but stopped to have some lunch wraps before getting back in the canoes and moving on.
As we paddled out into Eighteen Mile Bay, I gawked at the number of cottages there. This only spurred us on to paddle harder in an effort to find wilder locales.
As we rounded a bend and headed north toward Cow Bay, we saw an old cross on the point that most likely holds some historical significance. We couldn’t make out what was written under it but didn’t want to get out to investigate as it was private land. We were curious to find out but subsequent internet research yielded no results.
A short time later, we found ourselves in the northern end of the bay and we could see Gibraltar Rock to our east.
By 3:30 in the afternoon, we found ourselves in the North Channel heading east and the cottages that dotted the shoreline got fewer and farther between. By 4 pm, we were approaching Ouellette Rapids.
Reaching the rapids, we half-lined, half-portaged up the left bank. Just as we were about to reload our canoes, a jet ski came flying up behind us and jumped the rapids! It then sped away upriver. That certainly wasn’t something I was used to seeing on a canoe trip, but this is what can occur when tripping through cottage country.
Just upriver from Ouellette Rapids, the river narrowed as it passed under a bridge. There, we had to paddle hard to fight the current. At one point my boat was pretty much at a standstill as I was giving it all I had. Perseverance won the day though and I eventually made it through. Scott and Jason had an easier time as they were fighting it in tandem.
We found ourselves in another cottagey area again as the river widened into a massive bay dominated by massive cliffs on the southern shore. I was aware of a couple of campsites adjacent to the cliffs, so we made a beeline for them. It was getting late, and we were getting a little tired and hungry. We were looking forward to setting up camp and relaxing over dinner.
We approached the campsite to the left of the cliffs. There was a motorboat pulled ashore and a young couple was relaxing and having a picnic. We didn’t see any camping gear or equipment, so we asked them if they were planning to camp on the site. They said that they were just about to leave and we could have it. Good news for us because it was a great site, despite the view of cottages across the bay and the number of motorboats whipping about in the late afternoon.
After setting up camp and collecting some firewood, we enjoyed a steak dinner at the fire and ate it atop the cliffs facing the western skies. The views from there were amazing as the sun went down. We spent the rest of the evening relaxing by the fire and enjoying the clear skies as the moon rose over the cliffs.
Campsite: This would be an A1 site if it were not for the fact that it is smack dab in the middle of cottage country. It is very large and at the base of a steep ridge that ends atop massive cliffs overlooking bay to the west. There is a fantastic slab of rock leading to a deep drop-off at the shoreline. It does appear to see a lot of use, but was relatively clean at the time. Flat tent pads can be discovered here and there with a bit of walking.
Day 2: Wigwam Islands to North Channel near Wolseley Bay (18 km)
When I awoke, the river was like glass. The boys were still snoozing in their tents, so I immediately hopped in the canoe in the hope of catching a walleye for breakfast. I fished for about a half-hour at the drop in front of the site and around the point below the cliffs. It was a humbling and amazing experience paddling below that massive face of granite in the calm and quiet of the morning. Despite returning to the site empty-handed, it was a great moment of solitude in the early morning calm and a fantastic way to start the day.
When I returned to camp, the fellows were getting up. We took our time breaking camp and enjoyed some bacon and eggs with coffee. We eventually got on the water and were heading west by late morning.
Within an hour, we were gliding past the Caulkins Islands and were watching all of the activity at the cottages. Even though it was a Monday, most of the properties there had people present doing cottage-y things.
Another hour upriver and we were approaching the first set of whitewater at Cedar Rapids. Though the portage was only 60m long, we were able to line the boats up the northern bank, saving a bit of energy. It was in peak afternoon heat on a scorcher of a day, so we jumped in the river for a swim. We then took a break for a bit, had a snack, and fished for a while in and around the rapids. We got a couple of hits, but again had no luck bringing anything in. We were getting the feeling this river was well-fished.
A fifteen-minute paddle upriver took us to the second and largest section of Cedar Rapids. The river narrowed considerably there and was dotted with several small islands.
We arrived at a spot where the river was split by a centre island. There were boney rapids in the north channel and a ledge drop-off in the south one. We had a 10-meter lift-over on that centre island and put in from a rock ledge. There was only room for one boat at a time, but with the three of us, we made quick work of it.
Back in the boats, we paddled for a few more minutes only before we needed to portage again. Between the two portages, there were a couple of large crosses erected on a west-facing point on one of the islands. We assumed it was in memory of a father and son that often frequented those waters.
We had a bit of trouble finding the portage at first. There was no familiar yellow portage sign; this area wasn’t in the provincial park, so no such luxuries were to be found. We originally got out on the north bank at a sloping rock that we thought might have been the start of the walk but found only rocky bush that had no apparent trail. As I ventured into the bush for a bit, I saw that the way was impeded by a ravine, so that was a no-go.
The only other option was up a steep embankment immediately to the left of the rapid. I got out, while Jason and Scott held my boat in the moving water, and walked up the incline, and thankfully discovered the trail. The take-out was very narrow and had room for only one canoe at a time, so I hauled my canoe and gear up first to get it out of the way. This took a bit of time and a couple of trips. Then, I returned to give the boys a hand with their loads since they then had room to unload, as well.
This left us fairly gassed in the 30-degree heat, but once we were at the top of the ridge, the remainder of the portage was pretty straightforward. Flagging tape and rock cairns were guiding the way, however, they were somewhat unnecessary as the trail itself was well-worn and easy to follow. Toward the end, we had to guess a bit where to put in. We found a faint path on our right, down a slope to a rock ledge just above the rapids.
We were drenched in sweat and it felt exhilarating jumping off that ledge into that cool water to wash the portage off. We filtered more water to drink and mixed it with drink crystals to replenish some electrolytes. After that, we felt somewhat refreshed and ready to continue.
Continuing east above the rapids, the river was rugged and pretty. We paddled for another hour and we passed several campsites on the northern bank. A few were occupied, but most were vacant. We moved past them though as we wanted to get as close to Wolseley Bay as possible while the paddling conditions were good.
We were about a 45-minute paddle west of Rainy Island at the mouth of Wolseley Bay when we cruised past a small island. At the east end of the island, we saw a fire pit and a crude shelving structure tacked to trees, letting us know that we had found a campsite.
It was a pretty spot, though the site was a bit used and abused. We decided to take it anyway because it was the last site before the channels met up again at Wolseley Bay and we were getting tired and hungry. There were two firepits on the site and the one closest to the shelf was disgusting. The ashes were deep and it was filled with bits of garbage, so we used the smaller one closer to the water. We cleaned up the site somewhat and made camp, finding a couple of nice tent pads on the rock bluff above the site. Once again, after dinner, we were treated to a cloudless evening as the sun went down. We moved down to the water’s edge to get a better look at the half-moon rising from the south before the darkness descended.
Campsite: An island site that definitely gets a lot of use from the fishing community. It seemed to be feeling the effect of the overuse. The views west downriver were fantastic. It is quite rocky but a couple of semi-flat tent pads can be found on the ridge up behind the firepit. There was no thunderbox.
Day 3: North Channel (near Wolseley Bay) to Little Parisien Rapids (12 km)
We woke up to a sunny morning, but it didn’t last long. By the time we had packed up and got on the water, it was beginning to cloud over and look like rain.
While cleaning up after breakfast on a walk down to the river to get water, we had a run-in with a large snake coiled up among the rocks. I thought it resembled a Massasauga Rattler, having seen one the year before in the delta on Georgian Bay, but this one didn’t seem to have a rattle on its tail. Perhaps it was an Eastern Hog-nosed Snake, which has similar colouring. Whatever it was, we gave it a wide berth.
We departed our island home by mid-morning. By the time we reached the eastern end of Eighteen Mile Island and were heading south toward the main channel, the sky had become completely overcast.
Our plan for the day was to get through most of the section known as Five Mile Rapids. That was the part of the trip that I was most looking forward to; it was devoid of motorboats and known for its scenic beauty. However, first, we thought we’d saddle up to Crane’s Lochhaven Wilderness Lodge, a fishing resort across the bay from Little Pine Rapids — the start of the main channel. We weren’t sure if the resort was open to the public, but we’d thought we would try to see if they had any treats for sale. We tied our canoes to the docks and went up to the resort. We met the owner there and she said that it was private and open to clients by booking only, but she was very kind and sold us some treats that we enjoyed on the deck overlooking the bay. Sweet! How often does one get to have ice cream on a canoe trip?
Soon after, we had made our way back across the bay to the west and were scouting Little Pine Rapids. It was little more than a ledge that dropped a foot or two and looked like a straightforward run, but we were reluctant to try it in kevlar canoes. The river water level was low and it was rocky. Prudently, we opted for the 25-meter portage along the rock on river-right. Since we were now in the provincial park, the portage was marked with that familiar yellow sign.
After a bit of fruitless fishing below the rapids and paddling downriver for fifteen minutes or so, we were getting out of our canoes again to the right of Big Pine Rapids. This set of rapids looked runnable in high water but was extremely boney at the time, so we opted for the portage again. The topography was rugged and the area was something to behold.
Below the rapids, we paddled out and tried our luck at fishing again. This time we had better luck. We tapped into a school of bass and spent about 45 minutes having fun reeling them in.
Paddling a few minutes downriver brought us to a vacant campsite. There, we cleaned our catch and enjoyed a fish-fry shore lunch.
We had taken our time with the fishing and eating our catch, and it was getting late in the afternoon; we needed to get downriver and through more of the Five Mile Rapids. The sky was still dark, but miraculously the rain was holding off.
Ten minutes past Big Pine Rapids, we came to Double Rapids which was a small drop on either side of a granite island in the middle of the river. It was an easy little run and a good warm-up of what was to come.
Almost immediately following that, the river split into two channels around a land formation called Double Rapids Island. The right channel is known as The Ladder and the left, further south, is a whitewater section called Blue Chute. Originally, we thought we would just lift over The Ladder, but upon closer inspection, we saw the water levels were quite low and it looked to be more of a long scramble over a series of rocks with some questionable footing. So, we paddled a little further down to Blue Chute, which looked like it would be runnable, but again in kevlar canoes at lower water conditions we were afraid of hanging up on rocks. It looked like a fun run, but a couple of larger standing waves deterred us somewhat given the fact that some of us didn’t have any whitewater experience.
We ended up paddling into a narrow crevice of an inlet to the right of a little island that had a campsite and did a short, but precarious portage up a steep rock face and put in our boats near the marked campsite below the rapids. From there, we slid into the bottom of the rapids and rode our way downstream.
Our next hurdle, just a five-minute paddle past Blue Chute was Big Parisien Rapids. The trip reports that I had read stated that the first and most frothy set of whitewater should be portaged on the ridge looking over the canyon on river-right, while the bottom section could be run. So, when we came to it, that is what we did.
We carried our gear over first and left it at the put-in below the rapids which is also the location of the campsite. A couple was camping there. Jason chatted with the man for a bit and he said that the rapids could easily be run. So, I walked up to the ridge and got a better look. Indeed, it looked like a very straightforward run except for a right turn at the end to avoid hitting a large boulder on the left bank.
I’d had enough of portaging past all of the fun, so after conferring with the boys, we decided we’d give it a shot. We carried our PFDs and paddles back to our canoes and ran the 40-meter long rapid. It was a lot of fun and one of the highlights of the day.
Just downriver from Big Parisien Rapids, we came to a very pretty part of the trip with thick coniferous forest sitting atop steep rocky river banks. In addition, we were beginning to see breaks in the clouds; it all made for a stunningly beautiful landscape.
The river split into a few channels a little further downstream just above Little Parisien Rapids and Devil Chute, where there were a couple of islands dominating the center of the river. The larger one to the south is called Big Bluff Island. We ended up staying at a campsite (now numbered 412, it used to be 410, I believe) on the smaller island just to the north of Big Bluff.
It was incredible to have this wonderfully scenic part of the river to ourselves. As we were setting up camp, the sun came out to play and we could hear the gurgle of rapids just to the west of the island. The ambience was off the charts.
Jason and I paddled to the north bank of the river on a firewood expedition and we returned with a load to last us the night and the morning. We all went for a swim in the current between the islands to wash off the sweat of the day. After that, it was dinner and then basking in our surroundings for the evening.
Campsite: Site 412 on the new French River numbering system just above Little Parisien and Devel Chute Rapids. Scenic large site with fantastic views upriver on an island in the river. Large fire pit area and spots for a number of tents. There is no thunderbox or available firewood, so short trips across the river will be necessary.
Day 4: Little Parisien Rapids to Owl’s Head Rock (17 km)
I slept like a log that night. I must have because I didn’t notice how much the temperature had dropped. I was snug as a bug in my hammock cocoon. When I poked my head out, I couldn’t see far; fog had enveloped the area.
It didn’t last long though. By 9 am, the sun was high enough to begin burning the mist off. It lent quite an eerie feeling to the river landscape. It’s these in-between moments that are so beautiful on a canoe trip.
We knew we didn’t have any portages that day, so we took our time in the morning breaking camp and didn’t get back on the water until mid-morning.
An island forced the river into two channels, each with a set of rapids — Little Parisien Rapids on the north channel and Devil Chute on the southern one. Since it was on the same side as our campsite put-in, we tried paddling to Little Parisien first but ground to a halt because the rapids all but disappeared in the low water. It was pretty, though. So, we backtracked to the east of our island campsite and ran Devil Chute, which was little more than a swift in the low-water conditions.
By 11 am we were paddling past Deadhog Point where we saw another pair of canoeists occupying the site there.
The last bit of discernible moving water in the 5 Mile Rapids section of the French River was Crooked Rapids. Again, with the low water levels, we barely even knew that we were at them as we paddled through. We had to move aside for a motorboat after doing so. Sigh…we were back in motorboat country unfortunately.
The French River can get windy as it becomes a tunnel between the large open expanses of Georgian Bay and Lake Nipissing, but on that particular morning, we had a wonderful calm and a mirror-like water surface. These conditions, mixed with the rocky topography of the northern riverbank, made for some spectacular scenery.
We spent the next hour and a half working our way east. About 30 minutes past Crooked Rapids, a rescue helicopter flew in behind us and circled above us several times. This went on for about 10 minutes. He got low in the sky and fairly close to us on a couple of these passes. It was curious. I wasn’t sure if they were engaged in some sort of training exercise or if they were actually on a search and rescue task. It seemed like they were concentrating on us, and for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why. At one point, I checked my satellite device to see if the emergency button had been triggered by mistake somehow, but it couldn’t have been as there was a protective lever over it. It kept circling to the south of us and back again, so perhaps they got a call from a nearby canoe party and were confusing us for them? We just kept paddling and eventually, it flew away. We knew enough not to wave at it for fear of indicating that we might need help when we certainly didn’t.
Some months after the trip I came across a Youtube post of a helicopter extraction in the same area on the same date that we were there. A woman had fallen on a portage into a neighbouring lake and had broken her arm. They used their satellite device to call for help and they extracted her in the helicopter to take her to Parry Sound hospital. I am guessting the first responders confused me for them because I was paddling a red canoe, as was the pair in trouble in the video. We didn’t come across the couple at all so they must have been further downriver. I was happy the woman received the help she needed, and there ended the mystery of the rescue helicopter.
We arrived at Cross Island just before 1 pm. We paddled to the west end of the island where a large white cross has been erected by the local Knights of Columbus chapter to commemorate Jesuit missionaries who were allegedly killed there by a raiding Mohawk party from the south in the 17th century. It was a reminder of the incredible history that is connected to the waters we were paddling.
We had a lunch wrap at the site and sat for a while. We had sweltering hot temperatures on the first two days of the trip and that fourth day was, perhaps, the hottest of them all. There was a nice rock ledge next to the spot where we beached our canoes and enjoyed jumping off the ledge into the deep water below to cool off. I felt refreshed and replenished as I turned to get a last look at Cross Island before continuing east.
45 minutes later we reached the Haystack Islands. The southernmost island is an impressive mound of rock jutting out from the middle of the river. A half-hour after that, we were approaching Owl’s Head Rock Island, where an industrious property owner managed to perch an impressive collection of cabins on the rocks at this unlikely location.
We could see the power lines downriver past the island and according to Kevin Callan’s report, the sites near there weren’t great. Worse still, he mentioned that the hum from the power lines could be heard there; for our last night of the trip, we wanted to stay upriver of that.
I was aware of a campsite located on the north shore just past Owl’s Head. We went there and discovered a nice spacious site in a grove of pines high on the rocky bank. It even had a small beach below the rocks. Though it was still only mid-afternoon, we decided to make camp there and relax for the rest of the day on our last night of the trip.
One odd thing about the site was the weird bushcraft construction projects that previous campers had left behind. I’m not a great fan of them and would much rather stay in as natural surroundings as possible, but with the amount of traffic the French River gets, this might be wishful thinking.
We set up camp and swam on the beach to wash the paddling sweat off. It was still only mid-afternoon, so we napped in our respective tents and did some quiet reading for a while.
It was our last night of the trip and we talked a lot about life, our families, music (Scott is a musician), and anything else that old friends talk about as we consumed our dehydrated meals next to a roaring campfire. Again, we enjoyed the beautiful colours as the sun went down.
Campsite: Spacious site in a pine grove on a rocky bluff on the north bank. There is a small beach to access the site below the rocks. The site looks heavily used, but despite the bushcraft constructions, was clean. There are cottages not far to the west on the shore, but around the point. We could neither see nor hear them.
Day 5: Owl’s Head Rock to Loon’s Landing (11 km)
We were up, canoes loaded, and on the water before 9 am. We only had about two hours of paddling to get back to our vehicle, so we were in no rush. As we paddled away from the site, I turned around to take my customary photo of it.
We paddled under the power lines once again and past Dalton’s Point. We hit the jackpot on this trip in terms of paddling conditions; luckily, we had very little wind to contend with.
We passed Lost Child Bend on the Cantin Island to our south, named after a legend about an indigenous child that went missing in the water there. He appeared to be pulled under and when his parents and others dived into the depths for him they could not find him. The legend says that the boy’s cries were heard for six days, including from under the ground that the group was camped on. He was never found despite the many days of searching for him.
As we moved through the channel north of Fourmile Island, the river narrowed and some pretty islands were dotting the river there. We decided to stop on one of these islands and have a mid-morning swim and a snack. Unfortunately, the tranquility of the moment was interrupted by a man and his son flying through the area, rather close to our beached boats, at top speed on a jet ski. Sigh.
A short paddle downriver from this, we were moving through the narrow opening known as Canoe Pass that leads back into Dry Pine Bay. Again, we had to move aside for the motorboat coming up behind us there. On a river trip in cottage country, it is certainly difficult to avoid them at times.
The paddle across Dry Pine Bay was easy. The wind was staying down and we beached our canoe at Loon’s Landing just before 11:30 am.
We had a thoroughly enjoyable trip on French River’s Eighteen Mile Loop. We didn’t get a drop of rain in five days on the river during an otherwise wet summer and had no problems with wind whatsoever. The temperatures reached uncomfortable heights at times, but nothing a quick dip in the river coudln’t solve.
Though, hardly a wilderness trip due to the long stretches of cottage development and motorized boats, especially on the north channel and on Eighteen Mile Bay, we did have short, scenic sections of incredible wilderness topography. This was primarily along the Five Mile Rapids section, undoubtedly the highlight of the route. The campsites in that area were fantastic.
Blue Chute and Big Parisien Rapids are great learning rapids for those wanting to try their hand at whitewater canoeing. Although we encountered a handful of other canoeists throughout the trip, it was much less busy than the delta where I have struggled to find available campsites in the past. For the above reasons and coupled with the historical significance of the area, I do believe this route is a must-paddle for backcountry paddlers.
About The Author
Steve writes the Canoe Daddy website where he shares his canoe trip reports in an effort both to encourage others to try the routes themselves so that interest in the routes may help protect them from industrial exploitation and to just simply remember what happens on them! He has been an outdoor and adventure travel enthusiast all of his life. Born and raised in Peterborough, Ontario, Steve spent nearly 20 of his adult years living abroad and has traveled much of the world. Upon returning to his hometown in 2014, Steve began avidly canoe-tripping and hopes to see all of Canada one lake and river at a time. You can read about his canoe trips on his blog (canoedaddy.com).