Written by: Graeme Singleton (@instagraemethis)
- Total Distance: 72 km
- Portages: 12 (Many can be lined if comfortable paddling whitewater)
- Total Portage Distance: 945m
- Longest Portage: 400 m
- Portage Difficulty: Easy (Many short portages, all well maintained)
- Number of Days: 4-5
Canadian Canoe Routes
French River – 18 Mile Island Loop
We departed from Toronto at 6pm on route to our launch location of Loon’s Landing. Before we were able to launch and begin the trip, we had to purchase permits to camp on the Provincial Park land that we would be paddling through at some points. Due to the late start, we arrived long after closing and were forced to find a place to sleep and wait for the supply post to open in the morning. We settled on the sanitation station of Grundy Lake Provincial Park, as it was closing in on 2:00am and we were to have an early start the next day.
After what ended up being a rough sleep, in the car for myself and in a half set up tent on a gravel parking area erected at 3:30am by Noah and Alex, we left Grundy’s sanitation station and headed back to the supply post to purchase our permits and start paddling. After the short drive from the Provincial Park to the supply post, we found it to be still closed so we settled to wet our lines just off Hwy 69 in a nearby lake. A few casts later and a few small bass hauled in, we were getting excited for the trip to begin. After purchasing the permits, we arrived at Loon’s Landing at 9:00am, parked, loaded up the canoe and set off towards the North Channel of the French River.
Not long after we began paddling we made our first mistake of the trip. We were aware of the first portage’s approximate location and that it was not too far from the launch, however, what we first saw was a waterfall (Meshaw Falls) and all agreed that there was no way that was where the portage could be. About 600m to the South of Meshaw Falls was another opening where a set of rapids emptied out into the lower part of the river. We decided that this must be the portage and set out to complete it. The portage turned out to go around the ‘Stoney Rapids’ which, as fate would have it, proved to be a fairly tough and “lightly” maintained portage, approximately 250m in length. Once we were done, about 45 minutes later, we realized that the current was fairly strong where our launching location was. These initial thoughts proved to be true as we set out and even with all three of us paddling as hard as we could our canoe was being pulled backwards. We were forced to jump out and pull the canoe along until we made it out of the strong current and could paddle safely again. Needless to say, we were wrong about the portage location, if you are deciding to follow this route, go towards the waterfall, not only will it be an easier portage but it will also save you time as it ends up in the same location eventually.
Other than this first mishap, the day was amazing: perfect conditions, bluebirds out and warm. Due to our incorrect portage, we ended up paddling by some reeds where we were able to snag what would be the largest pike of the trip, estimated length of 25”. The only downside to the beginning of this loop is the number of cottages that you pass by at first. The North Channel of the French River is quite inhabited and as we were looking for a more remote camping experience, we decided to take advantage of the conditions and set out with a goal in mind of the first area where we weren’t seeing the markings on our map of cottages, about 26km’s from Loon’ Landing. After about 12km’s of paddling we arrived at the first set of rapids we would encounter. We decided with it being around 1:00pm to stop and try our luck with the fish and hopefully have a shore lunch. As luck would have it, we were able to pull out two bass and were able to enjoy a shore lunch before moving on. It appears these rapids are a popular spot for cottagers to come and hang out and float down the rapids so before long it became very populated with many boats full of people.
After finishing up our lunch we packed up, completed the quick portage (managed, due to water levels, to carefully pull the canoe, with much of our gear, up along the shore where the water was not moving too fast) and continued, East, along the North Channel. Soon after the rapids we encountered a bridge which we had read about in a prior trip report that was known to have swifts below it. This report proved to be accurate as we underestimated the power of the swift and were turned around twice by the current and would have to start again. There is a portage to paddler’s right up and over the bridge, if you were to be uncomfortable trying to paddle through this swift. Once past the two river features, rapid and swift, what followed was a large open bay that was, again, heavily populated by cottages.
We continued on with the hopes of more secluded paddling close on the horizon passing the Wigwam Islands, to the North of the narrowing channel. Just after passing what was shown on the map as ‘Rainbow Camp and Trailer Park’ we turned a bend where the river narrowed even more and found our site for the night. The location had been used before, although it was on Crown Land, so it is “unmaintained”. We set up camp made dinner and enjoyed a few of the beers we had lugged in with us for moments like this. Another bonus of the perfect conditions was that we were able to set up the tent without the fly on so we were able to take advantage of the cool night breeze blowing off the river, right beside our tent.
We woke up early, with the sun, again, glowing brightly, a great sign that today would be much of the same as our first. We had a quick oatmeal breakfast, downed a few cups of coffee, packed up and headed off. Since we had already paddled over a quarter of the whole loop on the first day we were in no rush and took our time fishing, reeling in a few bass. Before long we reached the first portage of the day, around ‘Cedar Rapids’. A family had set up camp along this portage and again a few boats with cottagers were enjoying the rapids, fishing and swimming around. After a short portage, about 60m, we set back off forward towards another set of rapids, much larger, with a notorious story about them. A man had drowned in these rapids not long ago, 2010, and a memorial cross has been erected in memory of him. This set of rapids has two different sets, the first you encounter, travelling East along the North Channel, is easy to navigate around with a quick liftover, however the next set split around a large island (where the cross is located) and are much larger. There is a portage along the paddler’s left shoreline, however, it was not as easy to locate as we had hoped. We looked for the portage for a little while, then decided to swim in a little “pool” that was located on the left side of the island where the rapids were less strong and have lunch.
After an hour or two, we decided it was best to try and locate the portage again. This time we paddled into a small bay between the steep left shore and a rock out cropping where I scrambled up the right rock face where I found the portage. This is the longest portage of the trip, approximately 400m, that has a steep rise out of the water and then a fairly well-maintained route to the other side of the rapids. Once we completed the portage, we packed up our gear, had a quick drink, and paddled on. Soon after we set out, storm clouds began to move in and you could hear the rumblings of thunder coming from the North. Before long the storm clouds had engulfed us in a full on torrential downpour. Without any sign of lightning, at the moment, we decided to push on close to the shore line as we needed to get some kilometres under our belts. Soon though, there were cracks of thunder and lightning strikes just to the North of us. With that there was an immediate, communal agreement that we should bunker down for a bit and wait it out.
Thirty or so minutes later the thunder and lightning had subsided and we were off. At this point we were now travelling with the current, leaving the North Channel behind and heading South into the Main Channel. The next obstacle we would arrive at is the ‘Little Pine Rapids’, in higher water conditions these would have been easy to line, however, after deliberating we decided it would be best to just walk the canoe through it, to save it from scraping and bouncing off the rocky river bed with all three of our weight, plus gear weighing it down. Soaking wet from the storm, hungry and knowing that there was to be another set of rapids not much further ahead we decided to make camp just after the ‘Little Pine Rapids’ for the night on the paddler’s left shore. We set up camp, cooked up some burgers as our cooler’s ice levels were starting to dwindle and then called it a night.
The next morning, we woke up to light rain and grey skies, although we would not let this dampen our spirits. After a short paddle, we reached the ‘Big Pine Rapids’. As the name implies they are the larger than the first set that we had been able to walk the canoe through the day before. With this set, this was not an option. After scoping it out, Noah and Alex concluded that it could definitely be lined. As I didn’t want to risk all the gear getting soaked, and frankly didn’t quite share the same level of belief that it would be as easy to paddle through as they were thinking, I volunteered to portage everything over the 40 or so metre portage and do the onshore filming.
After a not-so-clean, albeit, successful run of the ‘Big Pine Rapids’ (see 1:10 of NS French video) we started to load up the canoe when the skies opened up and we were forced to do a quick tarping of our gear and wait it out, with a few beers, to lighten our load, of course. From the ‘Big Pine Rapids’ we continue Southwest toward the ‘Double Rapids’. We were able to easily line this set and continued toward what was marked on the map as ‘The Ladder’ which was showing as a set of rapids. We had to do a quick liftover of the first part of the rapids and were able to, again, line the second set with some bouncing off the river’s rocky bed below (luckily the ol’ plastic Coleman can withstand everything).
Now heading West, we could see the river narrow drastically and signs of a large set of rapids ahead. These were the ‘Little Parisien Rapids’, again, with the adrenaline rush from the successful ‘Big Pine Rapids’ ride still coursing through them, Noah and Alex, wanted to give these a go. With these looking larger than the ‘Big Pine Rapids’, I took my responsibility of portaging the gear over the approximate 100m portage (see 1:16 of NS French video). After another successful completion of the rapids, this time with much more water in the canoe than the first, we bailed out, packed up and paddled on.
Shortly after the ‘Little Parisien Rapids’, there is a split in the river where you have a few options, if you go to the paddler’s left of ‘Big Bluff Island’ there is a perfect spot to do some cliff jumping and some great views just before the ‘Devil Chute’. We took advantage of the cliff jumping for a bit, got some pictures of the view with the lowering sun gave the map a quick look over a decided to stay on an island that was just over a 1km paddle further. ‘Devil Chute’ was easily navigated, proved to be more of fast moving water than a rapid feature. We arrived at our island site and set up camp, and took advantage of the remaining sunlight to enjoy ourselves and cook up dinner.
Day 4 – Canada(‘s) Day
We awoke to strong winds blowing our tarp over our “kitchen” area around. Soon after fixing the tarp a moderate rain began to fall. With the weather being poor, the day started off slowly with an oatmeal breakfast and coffee while we hoped for the rain to quell. With some luck there was a short break in the rain and wind which we took advantage of to pack up and start paddling. From our island site, we followed the paddler’s left shore into the ‘Crooked Rapids’ which we were able to line. We continued paddling West but soon the wind returned as a headwind.
A note on paddling this section, once you pass by the section on the map marked as ‘Five Mile Rapids’ (more of fast moving water than rapids) stick to the North shore (paddler’s right) to avoid paddling into one of the many, dead end bays.
Having done some research on the French River prior to the trip, I had read about ‘Cross Island’ and its history as a memorial to Jesuit priests who had drowned on the river. With this along our path, we decided this would be a great place to stop for a break as the paddling was tough with the constant fight with the headwind. We stopped here, checked out the cross and had a quick snack before continuing. Paddling West along the river here, we continued to fight a headwind, however the sun came out so it made it for a more enjoyable paddle. Passing between ‘Haystack Islands’ was probably the most eventful part of this paddle, two islands standing tall above the waterline. If we had thought that the headwind had been tough earlier when we entered the wider bays of the French River just after the ‘Haystack Islands’ we wished, we could have gone back to the previous level of wind. Soon the waves were forming whitecaps and breaking against our bow. Taking on water steadily, we decided to try and push on a little further as we didn’t want to have to paddle too far the following morning to Loon’s Landing to head home. About a kilometre later, our water bottles and other smaller items were floating in the bottom of the canoe. We had to head to shore and either wait it out or make camp for the night.
We found a sheltered bay that had a rock outcropping, just after what is marked on the map as ‘Balmer Bay’, that over looked the Main Channel. After pulling into shore, bailing out the canoe and consulting the map, we discerned that it would only be a few kilometres further to the launch location. With that, we decided to make camp and enjoy our final night on the French River. Due to the amount of water we had taken on with the heavy headwinds and resulting waves, much of our gear was wet. We took advantage of the large open rock face over looking the Main Channel laying out our wet gear and enjoying the view while cooking up our dinner and recounting the trip thus far.
Day 5 - Final Day
We woke up early, as usual, packed up our gear into the canoe then enjoyed a coffee or two on the rock face once more before paddling off. With no rush from any of us to get to the car and end the trip, we took our time paddling back, getting our lines wet and reeling in a few more bass, we continued West towards ‘Dry Pine Bay’. Once at ‘Dry Pine Bay’ we paddled towards the paddler’s left (West) shore to Loon’s Landing, concluding the trip.