French River: Otter Bay to Hartley Bay Marina (5 days / 75 km)

A beautiful view of French River Otter Bay to Hartley Bay Marina

I just got back from a fantastic 5-day canoe trip on the French River.  We went into it expecting a cold wet fall trip but were surprised with (mostly) great weather.  My first time on the French was 11 years ago with my summer camp and it was exactly as I remember.  There is some whitewater, but nearly all of it has well-marked portages. As beginners with whitewater, we portaged most of the rapids and paddled some.

The French River is a very important river in Canada.  It was used as a major transportation route throughout history and in the 1800s was used by loggers to send the logs downriver. Nowadays it’s a popular recreation spot for canoeists, cottagers, and fishing enthusiasts alike.  

Trip Completed: October 2021

Report Updated: September 2022


Trip Summary

Starting Point: Otter Bay

Ending Point: Hartley Bay Marina

Total Distance: 72km

Duration: 5 days

Difficulty: Intermediate (but could easily turn it into a beginner-friendly trip by adding days and reducing the distance covered per day)

Location

This route takes place in French River Provincial Park, north of Georgian Bay.

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

Maps & Resources

Guidebook: A Paddler’s Guide to Killarney and the French River by Kevin Callan

Map: Jeff’s Map (no longer available, see Unlostify for a newer map by Jeff)

Campsite Reservations: FRPP requires reservations. You can book online up to 2 weeks in advance through the Ontario Parks reservation site. You’ll book which zone you’re camping in each night, but sites within that zone are first come first serve. In the summertime, these permits will go quickly but this Fall I had no issues getting the zones I wanted.

Permits: Currently, you can just print off your confirmation email and take a copy with you as your permit.

Outfitters & Shuttles

Outfitter: We had all of our gear so we didn’t need an outfitter. If you need to rent a whitewater canoe, try Swift Canoe off the 400.

Shuttle: We were able to do a self-shuttle. We drove to Hartley Bay Marina (ending point) and parked the car there. Then my dad drove us to the put-in at Otter Bay, one hour away.

Trip Report

Day 1: Otter Bay to Double Rapids Island (15km)

In order to get an early start, we drove to Grundy Lake Provincial Park the night before and car camped there.  This is a lovely campground right in the French River area making it the perfect pit stop before starting your trip.  We woke up to a heavy rainstorm that would stick with us for most of the day.  After packing up and an oatmeal breakfast we headed out to Hartley Bay Marina to drop off our car. There is a fee to park at the marina.

We then loaded up into my Dad’s truck (who conveniently was camping in the area that weekend) and headed over to Otter Bay. The drive was about 1hr and you’ll definitely want to bring a road map, as both our GPS and Google failed to find the location.

Otter Bay was a beautiful spot to launch from. There are also a bunch of little campsites, nothing fancy but you could use to camp at the night before your trip.  We had an early lunch of cream cheese bagels and then headed out! 

After about 6km of paddling, we came to the first portage around the Five Finger Rapids (370 m). This portage was well signed and easy to find. There is also a nice little campsite on the portage overlooking the falls.  Leaving the portage there is a quick swift that shoots you out into Portage Bay.

The next part of the trip was navigating through a big channel with lots of islands.  It’s easy to get a little mixed up, but you can use the campsites to reorient yourself.  At this point, the French split into the North Channel and the Main Channel.  We went down the Main Channel and at the start of this channel you’ll encounter the Five Mile Rapids. This is a series of 5-6 rapids (depending on your route), each with clearly marked portages.  The portages range from 40-120m and are pretty quick, but be careful if it’s been rainy as the rocky portages get very slippery!  As it was getting late and we don’t have the most whitewater experience we decided to portage around all of these rapids. We stopped at a campsite across from Double Rapids Islands.

Campsite: #411. This campsite was on the top of a big rocky hill with a great tent spot.  It was also starting to rain so we set up the tarp as well. This site had a great view, a nice fire pit, but the thunderbox was visible from the main area of the site.

Day 2: Double Rapids Island to Dalton’s Point (21km)

After a very very rainy night, we were happy to wake up to no rain.  It looked like it could start again at any moment so we packed up and headed out. Within 300m we hit the Big Parisien Rapids, the last of the Five Mile Rapids.  Before getting to the portage you’ll go through a fast swift and need to get over to the right shore, the portage comes up quickly! After that, you have the choice of going right through the Little Parisien Rapids or left through the Devil Chute. The Devil Chute sounded scary so we went right. There are a couple of swifts leading up to it, this rapid wasn’t too significant so we decided to paddle it, but you could easily portage around it!  


The next big thing you’ll come across is Crooked Rapids. Just before the rapids, you’ll go through a narrow part of the Main Channel; be careful not to head down the much more obvious Hammerhead Bay to the right.  There is a short 69m portage around this rapid, but after a quick scout, we decided to paddle it.

After these rapids, it’s just a straight paddle down the river navigating through some islands.  There’s a bunch of cottages and campsites along this stretch. Between the Haystack Islands and the Owl’s Head Rock, we stopped for lunch at a campsite beside a historic portage to Bryne Lake. After lunch, we kept paddling for another 6km and stopped at a campsite just past the hydro corridor. 

Campsite: #534. This campsite was perfect!  The hydro corridor was out of sight and there was a great tent spot.  There were good spots for easily 2-3 tents.  The previous campers had left us a big pile of firewood and we used the afternoon to dry out all our soaked gear.  We also cooked our first gourmet backcountry pizza using the Outback Oven that I discovered in my parents’ basement this past year!

Day 3: Dalton’s Point to Flowerpot Bay (18km)

We woke up to another grey day and were anticipating rain.  But as we were cooking breakfast (apple pie granola!) on the campfire the clouds broke and the sun came out! Perfect start to the day!  Once we left our site we came across Four Mile Island which you could go around either way (straight: 4.8km or left: 3.8km), we went left.

Shortly after turning back into the Main Channel, you’ll paddle under several bridges, two of the new highway bridges (still under construction), the old highway bridge and a rail bridge. It was very weird to see highway construction signs along the river.

A little bit after that you’ll paddle under the green snowmobile bridge trail, which is also right beside the French River Provincial Park Visitor’s Centre. It’s too high up to get to it from here, but shortly downriver is Recollet Falls and a short trail (~1km) back to the Visitor’s Centre. It has limited hours in Autumn so check before you go! 

The Recollect Falls portage has a bit of a rough start; you can choose between going up a short but very steep hill or going around the corner close to the falls but has a much easier take-out. After that, it’s a short 50m to the other end. We took a snack break here sitting by the falls.

Leaving the portage you’ll go through some fast swifts and want to stick close to the left. There’s another rapid, First Rapids, marked on the map but we paddled right through it without even noticing! It was a gorgeous sunny day and we knew we were close to our campsite so we spent the rest of the afternoon lazily paddling down the river letting the current carry us.  After getting to our site we set up and went for a very chilly swim!

Campsite: #604. A lovely little campsite on a peninsula in Flowerpot Bay with tons of firewood!  There weren’t a lot of options for tent spots and we ended up sleeping on a bit of a slope. There also wasn’t a thunderbox on this campsite and some less than courteous previous campers had clearly forgotten their trowel as a result you’ll definitely need to watch where you step on the outskirts of the site.

Day 4: Flowerpot Bay to Turtle Island (15km)

We had a slow morning of cooking pancakes on the fire, but eventually packed up and headed out.  Shortly after Flowerpot Bay, there is a little rapid called Little Flat Rapids, we scouted out these ones and decided it was within our skill level to paddle. After that, you’ll come across a really cool rail bridge that goes from the left shore to an island and then to the right shore.  We chose to go left around the island and when turning the corner under the bridge we ran into a swift and three tin boats zooming up the river.  We had to do some quick paddling to dodge the boats (as they didn’t seem to want to go around us) and navigate the swifts!

Compared to that the rest of the trip, this part seemed uneventful until we paddled along the north side of Smith Island. The channel was so small on my map that I wasn’t sure if it was navigable or not.  And it turns out, it barely was!  Ahead of us, we noticed a small group of trees across the whole channel.  The water level was really high so we paddled straight through it which was a surreal experience. With the Fall colours and leaves floating on the water it looked magical. For the last little bit of the paddle, we had a tough headwind and we were very happy when we reached our site.  

Campsite: #651. We camped on a site on Turtle Island.  This part of the island was long and skinny so we could see the channel to our right and the bay to our left.  The previous camper left a ton of logs that we cut up and kept the fire going for hours. The site would be a good pick for a group with several good tent spots.  The thunderbox had a great view but unfortunately, that meant that any passing boats also had a great view of the thunderbox!

Day 5: Turtle Island to Hartley Bay Marina (3km)

It was another glum-looking day (but never actually rained) plus we had a long drive back to the city so we packed up pretty early and headed to Hartley Bay Marina. This was a short paddle past a ton of beautiful cabins.  Hartley Bay Marina was a bumping place when we got there, a large school group was just about to depart on a canoe trip and a few motorboats were being hauled out for the season.  We packed up the car, threw the canoe on the roof, and just like that our trip was over!

Reflections

We went into this trip knowing the forecast was for mostly rain and given that it’s October was likely going to be cold.  I’ve done other wet cold Fall trips with poor gear (think rain pants that aren’t at all waterproof) so we were sure to pack good rain gear and warm clothes.  Although it ended up being less rainy and much warmer than expected I was still very glad to have proper gear!

Gallery


Author Bio

I’ve grown up camping with my fam, spent a few Summers as a guide in Algonquin, and most recently on adventures with my friends!  I’ve covered 1800+ km in the last 5 years and hopefully even more in the years to come. 

Instagram: @crosscombee

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