French River: Lake Nipissing to Hartley Bay Marina (8 days / 172 km)

In the deep autumn of 2020, we took on the challenge of canoeing the entire length of the beautiful and historic French River in northern Ontario, Canada. Over 170 kms of water was ahead of us, ever changing from wide, to narrow; from ambient, to violent. The season brought us many challenges with the fluctuating weather and temperatures, but also brought a beautiful display of fall colours for us to soak in as we paddled the historical routes of Champlain, the Hurons, and the Voyageurs to name just a few. 

Trip Completed: October 2020

Night 2 at Campsite 107
Night 4 on Campsite 417
At the Put In
Lake Nipissing
Night 3 at Campsite Downriver to Little Pine Rapids
Cross Island
Camp on Lake Nipissing
After Crooked Rapids
Recollect Falls

Trip Summary

Starting Point: Lichty’s Marina – West Bay, Lake Nipissing

Ending Point: Hartley Bay Marina – French River Delta

Total Distance: 172 km

Duration: 8 Days

Difficulty: Intermediate 

Location

French River begins at Lake Nipissing (directly southwest of North Bay) and flows to the north shore of Georgian Bay.

Traditional Territory: The French River is located on the traditional territory of the Mississauga and Anishinabewaki (source).

Maps & Resources

Guidebook: French River: Canoeing the River of the Stick Wavers by Toni Harting

Map: Unlostify – West French River, Garmin Earthmate App

Campsite Reservations / Permits: In this park you don’t book specific campsites, however you do select a “Zone” to camp in. Each of the campsite numbers corresponds to a zone (i.e. campsite 106 is in Zone 1, campsite 723 is in Zone 7).

This can be booked on the Ontario Parks website. On the booking portal, click the last tab labeled “Backcountry Registration”. Then you can book the zone you will be camping in each night.

There is an option to pick up paper permits, however it’s more common to just keep an e-copy on your phone, if you were to come across a park ranger.

Note: Our Lake Nipissing camp was located on crown land. All other campsites were within French River Provincial Park.

Outfitters & Shuttles

I hired a private shuttle driver to pick up my vehicle from Lichty’s Marina and drive it to Hartley Bay Marina and park it there. Hartley Bay offers this shuttle service normally, but was not doing so during 2020 due to COVID-19. 

The following companies offering outfitting / shuttles on the French River:

Note: There is only one access point located in the park itself (at Otter Bay). The rest of the access points are either through private businesses or public boat launches. Parking is not included in your permit.

Trip Report

Day 1:  Lichty’s Marina to Crown Land Site at Hay Narrows (17 km)

After driving north from southwestern Ontario, my cousin Bill and I launched from Lichty’s Marina on the very southwest corner of Lake Nipissing at 10:45am. The morning was silent, and the water was calm. There was no sound to be heard other than our paddles dipping into the water as we began this highly anticipated journey.

Our goal was simple; to paddle the entire length of the historic French River, from where it begins on Lake Nipissing, to where it ends on Georgian Bay. 

There are very few reports or videos that mention this paddle along Lake Nipissing’s winding southern shore. Both of us were stunned at the beauty that we witnessed as we paddled by a multitude of islands and a zig-zagging shoreline that proudly boasted the most brilliant colours of the fall season. There were some scattered cottages along the way, but most had a friendly and rustic look to them, a place we could see ourselves maybe living one day. 

The waters of West Bay are shallow, and there are many areas that are heavy with vegetation. This never caused us a hindrance, as there are many deeper channels that are easily navigated. I have to think that the fishing in this area in the summertime would be spectacular, as northern pike and largemouth bass thrive in this type of environment.

We had a slight tailwind behind us as we paddled by Lafleche Point on the southern shore, 11 kms east of our starting point. I had initially planned on camping here, as I had read a report of a nice crown land site at this spot. The day was young and we were in high spirits, so we paddled on.

We paddled to Hay Narrows, which is where West Bay ends, and Lake Nipissing begins to open up to reveal it’s massive, intimidating true size.

We found a campsite on the southern shore, where there were remnants of an old building. There was ample room for tents, but the moss was saturated with all the water from many recent rains. We headed back into the sheltered woods to pitch our tent. Dead standing, dry firewood was abundant, and we harvested what was needed. There was no thunderbox here, which didn’t bother either of us. We settled down for a relaxing evening, fully alive with the excitement that the early stages of a trip brings. We had no idea what was ahead of us, and that suited us just fine.        

Campsite: Crown Land, southern shore at Hay Narrows

Day 2: Hay Narrows to Hunter’s Bay (21 km)

We awoke to high southwest winds with gusts of 40km/hr. Thankfully we were fairly leeward as we continued paddling along the southern shore. As the lake continued to open up, the barren feeling of our location hit home. The rocky islands began to disperse, and the northern shore began to get further from our view.

The southern shore has many large bays that exposed us to the high winds whenever we rounded a corner, and this resulted in paddling with 3-4 foot swells that lifted us from stern to bow before dropping us again like dead weight. There were tense moments as we had to fight to maintain control, but whenever we had a moment of calm, we found ourselves again admiring the beauty of the almost desolate looking crown land shoreline. We noted many locations for campsites, and vowed to one day return to spend more time in this under-appreciated land. 

At 1:30 pm we reached Canoe Pass, which was our backstage entrance into the French River. With the wind barreling up the river’s wide main channel, we knew we could not risk paddling into the mouth of the French at its widest point. Canoe Pass heads south into the river, and is 5 km west of the river’s main channel at Lake Nipissing. As we ended our 35 km paddle on the beautiful and under-appreciated big lake, the French River now greeted us with stiff 30 km headwinds.

The French River is not your typical river; it’s a complex system of bays, small lakes, winding narrow channels, rushing whitewater, and everything in between. It is very easy to take a wrong turn and end up paddling for several kilometers into a dead-end bay. Use of GPS or having a good understanding of topographic maps is pivotal

We paddled past Gibraltar Point, where we stopped to try and locate pictographs that I had read reports of. Due to the stiff headwind, locating them was impossible, and we moved on only another 1.5 km to site 107, inside Hunter’s Bay. This was a more rugged site, with just one smooth area for a tent and no thunderbox. Again, this did not bother us, but some campers may opt for a more developed site than this. For us, it was a welcoming home as we sat under the tarp by a warm fire, waiting for the wind and rains to die.   

Campsite: French River Provincial Park Campsite 107

Day 3: Hunter’s Bay to Little Pine Rapids (32 km)

An early morning had us on the water shortly after 8 am, paddling into moderate headwinds. Our goal today was to put the miles behind us and push as far as we could. We were entering into the Dokis section of the river, one that is rarely mentioned among the multitude of French River canoe trip reports. We found this section to have a more remote feeling to it, the cottages were few in number and very scattered. The ruggedness and the beauty here were genuine, and we truly enjoyed making our way from Hunter’s Bay to Chaudiere Dam, where the single longest portage on the entire river is located.

Portage around Chaudiere Dam (570 m): Found below Dokis Marina, Chaudiere Dam (also known as Portage Channel Dam) is one of three dams built to help control the water level on Lake Nipissing. The takeout for the 570 m portage is easily visible just south of the dam. The portage is fairly easy, and only has slight changes in elevation. Keep your eyes open towards the end of the portage though, as it crosses a gravel road. We didn’t see any traffic on it when we crossed. The put-in back into the French is located beside a rapid, and it may take some effort to paddle out through the cross-currents that are created as a result of this unnamed rapid. 

Shortly downstream is Cradle Rapids, and during high water this can be a dangerous spot! The rapid is located around a blind corner, and the full force of the standing waves is not visible until you round the corner on the southern shore. Stick to the north shore as you approach the rapids, and then eddy out river right as soon as you can to avoid being pulled in. We got through here without an issue, but our hearts were racing!

The winds increased as the day went on, and a thunderstorm kicked up quickly. We took shelter on an island and waited for the storm to pass. The wind and rains were heavy and lasted almost an hour, but when conditions calmed, the colour of the skies and the calm water created a beautiful paddling experience! We pushed hard all the way to the start of the 5 Mile Rapids section, and paddled ashore upstream of Little Pine Rapids to view what awaited us.

We scouted Little Pine Rapids and decided to run straight through the noticeable center V. It was a fun rush of a ride! There were no obstructions in the path and we had fun barreling straight down the center. It was just after 5pm when we reached the first campsite downstream of Little Pine Rapids.

The site was marked with a campsite sign, but had no number on it. We happily took it as we had been on the water for the whole day. The site was rugged, with one tent pad and no thunderbox. However, the many whirlpools spun the mist on the water’s surface in a myriad of ways as the setting sun broke through the colourful clouds, and the evening turned into the most beautiful that I have ever witnessed.

Campsite: Marked Campsite (no number) downstream of Little Pine Rapids, south shore

Day 4: Little Pine Rapids to Crooked Rapids (8 km)

Today was the day I had been losing sleep over; we were to take on the renowned 5 Mile Rapids section. A morning thunderstorm kept us off the water until 11am, when we set out to explore the first rapid of the day, Big Pine Rapids.

Approaching the rapid, it became easy to hear it’s force. We went ashore river right to investigate, and without question we chose to take the short portage that is found there. Someone with more experience could run through a noticeable lane towards the opposite shore, but we were novice white water paddlers at best, and chose to play it safe. The portage was quick and easy.

The next rapid is Double Rapids, which in high water is nothing more than a tiny swift, and we paddled through here with ease. In lower water, a sunken island is revealed that creates two noticeable rapids, hence the naming. 

Just downstream, there are three options to choose from; The Ladder, The Gully, and Blue Chute. After scouting all three, we chose to run The Ladder. The other two options looked far too turbulent in this high water period. The Ladder takes a bit of an ‘S’ bend, and after running the first section, we knew we had to veer to the right to catch the center V on the next smaller section. While trying to do this maneuver, somehow our stern end tipped, and Bill went tumbling into the frigid moving water! As I turned to see what happened, Bill was climbing back up into the boat as quickly as he went out of it, and somehow he managed to climb up in the boat without tipping us over. I paddled us through the second smaller rapid as his paddle was floating away, and we went immediately to shore to regroup after grabbing Bill’s paddle. 

As Bill was changing out of his soaking wet clothes, we made a devastating discovery; my GoPro was gone! It had been clamped to the side of the canoe for some action shots, and the force of the moving water must have ripped it away as the canoe tipped. I wasn’t as concerned about the loss of the camera; rather it was the valuable footage on the SD card that was now lost forever that broke my heart. Thankfully so far during the trip I had been recording a lot on my bigger mirrorless camera, but we had some valuable footage on the GoPro’s card of the wind, waves, and rain we had encountered thus far. Thankfully Bill had brought an older GoPro with him and we could use his going forward. Still, I had been filming scenes for a documentary on the journey and the river’s rich history, and the loss of the footage hurt deeply!

After refocusing, we moved forward to Upper Parisien Rapids (some maps refer to this as Big Parisien). Feeling anxious and underconfident, we portaged river right on the north shore. Upper Parisien is absolutely runnable, but make sure to run it closer to the north shore than the south, as the south shore has a rocky point towards the western end that cuts into the rapid, and it’s only really visible in lower water.

Next, a series of small islands creates several smaller channels and small rapids that you can choose between. The most direct route is what we chose, and we ran through Devil’s Chute, followed by Lower Parisien Rapids. You can follow along the northern shore and bypass both of these, and run Little Parisien Rapids if you choose. Devil’s Chute and Lower Parisien were both straight forward and fun so I would recommend taking this more direct route. 

The final challenge of the day was Crooked Rapids, which as the name suggests, takes a big ‘S’ bend in the middle. Still not feeling up to the challenge, we portaged river right. There is a narrower channel on the opposite shore of the portage that tempted us to run straight through, but the turbulence of the standing waves there wasn’t something that we wanted to tackle. A quick and easy portage led us to a campsite, 417. 

What we found at the campsite felt like a sign from above; dry, split, and stacked firewood! Even though it was early in the day, we opted to make camp early and take advantage of the sunshine. We had been packing up our gear wet every morning, so we strung all of our gear up to dry on clotheslines or over rocks warm with sunlight. After our anxious experience earlier, we were content to rest.

Site 417 had one just usable tentpad, but it had a thunderbox which was a welcomed luxury. Unfortunately the site had quite a bit of garbage around, which took some work to clean up. With the garbage we found, along with the stack of firewood, I imagine this is a common shore lunch spot. We had no guilt using the firewood we found after cleaning up someone else’s garbage! We relaxed and recuperated by the warmth of the fire and the ambience of the moving water next to us.           

Campsite: French River Provincial Park Campsite 417

Day 5: Crooked Rapids to Recollet Falls (32 km)

Dreary skies and threatening rains loomed as we pushed off early in the morning. We had a goal of putting on more serious distance on this day as we hadn’t made much progress on the previous day. No matter what conditions we faced, we were determined to paddle underneath the Hwy 69 bridge today. 

Our first stop was Cross Island, located 5 kms west from where we launched at site 417. There is a white wooden cross mounted on the island’s west end; keep your eyes open as you paddle by from the east, or you might miss it. We went ashore to document the area. There is a metal plaque on the cross with text written in French. It translates as follows:

In memory of one of our Canadien missionaries

Cross dedicated by the Reverend Father Rondeau

The 15 of June 1982

Erected by The Knights of Columbus

Noelville, Ontario Council 4435

I have found no information online about who this person was, and I’ve attempted to contact the branch of the Knights of Columbus to inquire further, sadly with no response. It remains a mystery to me why the cross is mounted where it is, and for what reason. I chose to view it as a monument to the many fallen or martyred missionaries that had travelled this river since as early as 1615, bringing the message of their god to the Native tribes; namely the Recollet Fathers, followed soon by the Jesuits.

The wind and rains began before noon, and we had a lot of miles yet to cover. We paddled underneath the power lines east of Hwy 69; the first big reminder of the modern times we live in that we had seen since Chaudiere Dam two days prior. The paddle forward was against stiff headwinds and hard rain now, but we pushed on all the way to the bridges at Hwy 69. A railroad bridge comes first, followed by the new bridge being constructed that will transform the highway into two separate northbound and southbound roads. The steel beams reached all the way across the river as of Oct 2020 when we paddled through. We continued on, paddling underneath the original Hwy 69 bridge which was rumbling with lots of vehicle traffic. This felt like a milestone, as I can’t count the number of times I’ve driven over this bridge and vowed to one day paddle the river beneath.

The current picked up swiftly as we paddled underneath the bridges; we knew the mighty Recollet Falls was near. The rain was pounding, but we had no place to stop. We knew we must be alert here, as the thunderous falls have claimed many lives of unsuspecting paddlers who have missed the portage take out river left, located very close to the fall’s devastating drop. We knew which side of shore the portage was on, and we hugged it until we found the take out. The high water covered the landing, making the take out a steep and difficult one. The portage was short, and took us past the historical plaque which reveals a taste of the history of these thunderous waters. 

The put-in back into the river was a very, very difficult ordeal. The high water caused the force of the falls to be even greater, causing countless currents to form in every direction beginning at the put-in. We paddled with all of our might hugging the left shore, powering through the currents that were sucking us back into the deadly falls. Adrenaline kicked in for both of us, and through furious paddling and determination, we made it safely away. Not far downstream of the falls, the adrenaline wore off. We began to feel just how soaked and freezing our bodies really were. The day had been a long one, paddling over 8 hours, and the majority of those were during constant rain, fierce headwinds, and temperatures close to freezing. We pushed to the first campsite that we found that offered decent cover to string up a tarp, campsite 523.

We hastily pitched a tarp and began the battle to get a fire going with wet tinder and firewood. Eventually the battle was won. We striped down and got into drier clothes and sat under the tarp by the fire to bring our body temperatures back up. The rain did not die that evening, and we had to set up the tent during its constant downpour. The floor of the tent got soaked in the process as we had no option to avoid it, and the night that followed was long, cold, and wet.

Campsite: French River Provincial Park Campsite 523          

Day 6: Recollet Falls to the Delta (25 km)

What a relief to wake up to the sunshine over the misty, glassy waters after a rough night. The tent floor was so wet that everything in the tent was soaked, including our sleeping pads and sleeping bags. The warm sun on this morning was welcomed, and we took the time to once again string all of our gear up to dry before packing it away. 

We didn’t get on the water until close to noon, but the entire river was glassy calm and the sun shone as if it were the middle of August. Tee shirts were in order for travel today, a welcomed break from our usual warm base layers. We pushed hard as we paddled directly west towards Ox Bay. A couple of small swifts were easily paddled through, and the rocky shorelines on both the north and south sides offered us plenty to look at.

This entire section is in close proximity to Hartley Bay Marina, and it is the busiest area on the whole river. As we entered Ox Bay, the number of cottages increased, as did the boat traffic. Still, being October, we only encountered a few fishing boats during our whole trip. Quickly following Ox Bay is Wanapitei Bay, again a busier section. I had paddled here a few months prior with my wife, and we encountered fierce southern headwinds in the 30 kph range. Thankfully today was the polar opposite, and we flew over the open bay on the glassy waters in the warm sunshine. 

The cottages and camps disappeared past McCullam’s Narrows, and the river again began to feel more remote and rugged. We pushed all the way to the western arm of the river, where the main channel diverts to the southwest towards Georgian Bay. Our goal was in sight, and we knew that on the following day we would be tasting victory. We made camp at a lovely beach campsite, 708. 

This was a wonderful campsite with several good tent pads and a thunderbox to boot. We built a firepit on the beach and enjoyed hot chocolate while watching the sun setting, cheery and nostalgic from all we had encountered, and in anticipation of what was to come. There was no debate on which path we would take in the morning to reach Georgian Bay; it simply had to be…the Old Voyageur Channel.

Campsite: French River Provincial Park Campsite 708 

Day 7: The Delta to Georgian Bay, return to Wanapitei Bay (36 km)

Full of vigor for the victory to come, we rose early to push forward. I was excited to see the Old Voyageur Channel for my second time, but even more excited for Bill to see it for his first. Less than a kilometer from our camp was the entrance to the channel, and before 9 am we were winding down it’s narrow path.

The Old Voyageur Channel is synonymous with the French River. Many photos of this channel are used to promote adventures to the area, and most people will picture this channel when they think of or speak about the river. Without a doubt, the beauty here is on another level. The high water levels made paddling through here a quick and exciting ride. One small portage is necessary around Petite Faucille Rapids, a waterfall with a drop of about one meter. After the southern paddle through the majestic channel we reached the east/west cross channel, and we turned right to find a path to the mighty waters of Georgian Bay. There are many options to choose from as there are a multitude of islands and channels present here. One could spend a lifetime exploring the maze of beautiful canoeing pathways in this picturesque delta.

We veered south into a nameless channel which soon began to open up, and before long, we set our eyes on our goal for the first time. Georgian Bay was in sight, and we increased the intensity of our paddle strokes to reach the sweet embrace of victory. We paddled into the mighty blue waters of the enormous bay and set ashore on an island to take it all in. It was an emotional moment for us both; to have accomplished this goal together remains as one of our fondest memories. The celebration couldn’t last too long as we had a lot of kilometers left to paddle. We ventured back up to the western arm of the French via the nameless channel directly east of the Old Voyageur Channel. It was another beautiful way, but the high water created many swifts which required us to line them as we pushed upstream heading north.

We began our backtracking up the western arm, through McCullam’s Narrows, and up into Wanapitei Bay. At the top of the bay is a turn to the east towards Hartley Bay Marina, and we pushed to the very last campsite before the marina, campsite 600. It was late in the day and we wanted to camp for one more night before the long drive home. Site 600 had one suitable tent pad and a thunderbox. We relaxed our weary bones for our last campfire of the trip, and reminisced about all we had encountered the last week, and anticipated our reward meal on our drive home the following day.    

Campsite: French River Provincial Park Campsite 600

Day 8: Site 600 to Hartley Bay Marina (2 km)

A wet and cold morning was our sendoff, and we paddled the short jaunt to Hartley Bay Marina, where I hoped my truck would be waiting for me. Sure enough, it was there as the private shuttle driver had promised. We packed our gear and meandered home, making “reward stops” at a restaurant and a brewery. The smiles couldn’t be wiped from our faces; and the glee of excitement from accomplishing our goal still remains to this day.

Trip Video

Reflections

The trip went according to plan for the most part. We knew the rapids could cause us problems and we dealt with them as best as we knew how. The entire route is straight forward, and only requires a beginner/intermediate skill level to accomplish. I would recommend that paddlers explore the lesser travelled sections that I’ve written about, in particular the southwestern shore of Lake Nipissing and the Dokis section of the French River. 

Gallery


Author Bio

My name is Pete Parke, and I have been a longtime outdoor adventurer, and more recently an amateur filmmaker. My desire for all of the people who read my reports or watch my videos is to be inspired to explore; to break away from the mundane norms of society and technology, and embrace the simple, endless, and bountiful beauty of nature.   

Instagram: @latitude.films

YouTube: Latitude – Wilderness Films

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