The French River is a phenomenal trip for those looking for a relaxed pace, beautiful scenery, and awesome fishing. It’s well suited for families and those heading out for the first time. Campsites are plentiful, well kept, and well marked. Additionally, the navigation and route finding on this trip are relatively straightforward. There are a few rapids that are all CI or CII at low water (summer levels), and can also be portaged really easily if they aren’t your thing.
I highly recommend bringing a fishing rod and taking a couple of casts! Pickerel, bass, and pike are all plentiful, and the muskies might bite as well. The French River area is rich in Indigenous history (the Ojibway name for the French is Amikziibii, which refers to the dense beaver population), as well as voyageur and logging history (watch out for old machinery in the water!). Samuel de Champlain also travelled these waters, although he was unimpressed with what he saw – he referred to the French River as “totally useless for agriculture”; that may have had something to do with the classic Canadian Shield / granite bedrock scenery that makes this area so beautiful.
Starting Point: Wolseley Bay Boat launch (call ahead to arrange parking as needed)
Ending Point: Dry Pine Bay (Loon Landing: $10 per day, per vehicle, bring cash)
Total Distance: 41 km
Duration: 4 days
This trip is located in the French River Provincial Park. You’ll need permits for the duration of your stay, however sites are first come first served. As you get closer to Dry Pine Bay you’ll notice more and more motorboat traffic and sites might be taken by motor boaters before you get there.
Maps & Resources
Guidebook: This route can be found in Kevin Callan’s Top 50 Canoe Routes of Ontario (it’s the downstream section around 18 Mile Island).
Map: French River Maps, published by the Friends of the French River
Camping Permits: You’ll need to book backcountry permits to be in French River Provincial Park. This can be done through the Ontario Parks Reservation System (select ‘Backcountry Registration’ on the far right, then select French River Provincial Park and Wosley Lodge as the access point). You don’t need to book specific campsites – these are first come first serve.
Outfitters & Shuttles
We used our own gear and set our own shuttle, however, there are a number of fishing lodges that looked like they offer rentals. There’s a detailed list of who offers rentals and shuttle services on the French River Map. According to the map, Loon Landing offers shuttle services and boat rentals. MHO Adventures also offers canoe rentals and shuttle services. If you’re coming through Huntsville, Algonquin Outfitters is always a great option for boat rentals.
Slef Shuttle: The drive between Dry Pine Bay and Wolseley Bay is about 30 minutes, making for a really quick shuttle experience. If you only have 1 vehicle and don’t mind spending a few extra days on the water, you can also paddle all the way around 18 Mile Island & Park at Loon Landing (check Kevin Callan’s 50 Canoe Routes of Ontario for more information).
Day 1: Dry Pine Bay to Site 323 (7 km)
We all met at 11:00 am at Loon Landing (Dry Pine Bay), to get ourselves organized and set up our shuttle. Once we were all set up, we ate lunch at the Wolseley Bay boat launch (there are bathrooms there, if needed), and then left around 1:30 pm. There can be a bit of boat traffic here so make sure to watch for motorboats and paddle together.
We opted to go for a really relaxed first day and camped at site 323 (all the sites in the French River area are numbered on the maps and in real life – from what I saw all the numbers correlated – if you ever need a quick sanity check on where you are, these help a lot).
This site easily accommodated 5 tents, had a nice wide-open rock to hang out on, and a lovely view. If you felt like going a little farther, site 324 or 400 would be nice options and would offer lots of fishing opportunities.
Day 2: Site 323 to Site 417 (9 km)
We had a lovely morning drinking coffee and enjoying the sun coming up, and left our site around 10:00 am. A short flatwater paddle brought us to our first rapid of the day: Little Pine Rapids.
A quick disclaimer: We had pretty low water levels, and I would always strongly recommend scouting rapids for yourself.
Little Pine Rapids proved to have a shallow entrance and then a fun bouncy wave at the bottom before a sharp right turn. If you aren’t feeling it, there’s a very short portage option on the right, over the rocks. There’s also a trail on the right for high water conditions.
A kilometre later, we arrived at Big Pine Rapids. This one was a little more tricky, but we scouted and ran the first bit down the right side, and then followed the water back to the left. There’s a portage on the right as well. There’s an unmarked swift by campsite 403 (this site also looked pretty nice), with a portage marked on the right (probably through the site).
Around the bend lies double rapids: at low water the Ladder is impassable, and Blue Chute is a very fun wave train. Keep your eyes peeled for blueberries while you scout. There’s a portage over the island as well.
Next up is Big Parisien Rapids. You can scout and portage on the right as needed. At low water, this was also a fun wave train. Devil’s Chute follows, and at low water, it wasn’t really a rapid – although with more water it could become really boily! Then came Little Parisien Rapids which was a fun little swift with a left turn. At low water, Crooked Rapids is just current.
We camped at site 417. Site 414 looked pretty cliffy, 415 was very nice but lacked firewood (come prepared and it would be sweet!), and 416 didn’t have enough tent spots. 417 hit the Goldilocks zone! At first glance, it doesn’t look like much, but there are some nice tent spots up and to the right. Overall we were on the water for about 6 hours, travelling at a relaxed pace.
Day 3: Site 417 to Site 407 (15 km)
As always, coffee first! We had a lovely sunny morning and left around 10 am. Today was all flatwater, and we enjoyed soaking up the sun. Between sites 417 & 418 make sure to go to the left side of the island, as the small channel on the right gets pretty shallow at low water.
We chose to camp at site 407, although all the sites in this area and into Lost Child Bend would be awesome sites (especially 416!). That being said, there is more motorboat traffic in this area, and many use motorboats to access campsites. As such, I’d recommend taking the first nice-looking site you see, otherwise, you risk some backtracking. We spent 6 hours on the water.
Day 4: Site 407 to Loon Landing (10km)
Morning rituals are important, and so is coffee drinking. We woke up a bit earlier today, trying to avoid traffic, and left the site at 8:30 am. We paddled through the Canoe Pass & Canoe Channel (super cool!) which is to the north of Fourmile Island.
Loon Landing is pretty recognizable by its white wall and mahogany roof, and it’s the largest marina in that area. It took us 3 hours to get there.
Overall this is a great route option for those looking for a relaxed trip, especially if you’re curious to try some whitewater (remember to bring a helmet and rescue equipment if you’re planning to paddle in whitewater), or love fishing. Due to the short portages, it would also be well suited for family groups. There are loads of nice campsites to choose from and beautiful scenery – what more could you ask for?
Greg Nettleton is a whitewater canoe guide and instructor from Toronto, Ontario. He’s been guiding and instructing for over 7 years. He splits his free time by paddling some more, skiing, taking pictures, fishing and reading anything he can get his hands on. You can find him on Instagram at @greg.nett.