There is a stigma about Ontario from people out of province. People who have never experienced Ontario think of our province as the home of Toronto and the sub sequential city life and fast pace lifestyle that is affiliated. Fortunately for us, this is simply not the case.
My girlfriend was born and raised in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and has been spoiled by the beautiful rugged coastline and rolling landscape of the Highlands. For the May long weekend she was coming to Ontario and I wanted to take her on a trip that encapsulated Ontario’s natural beauty. I knew I was going to be taking her camping but I hadn’t figured out a plan.
Having a history of physically demanding and somewhat grueling trips, I really wanted to avoid that this weekend. I wanted a route that was < 4 hour drive from Toronto, had river systems, had easy portages, was relatively remote AND could be accomplished in two nights. This was a tall order to fill!
After reviewing park maps and consulting with a friend, it seemed like the French River Provincial Park would be our destination
- Total Distance: 26 km
- Portages: 0
- Route Difficulty: Easy
- Number of Days: 2-3
- Access Point: Hartley Bay Marina
- Resources: Friends of Killarney French River Topographic Map
- Key Features: Many islands and narrows. Makes for scenic river travel with the possibility of wind channels.
Hartley Bay Marina is a 3.5 hour drive North of Toronto, where you take Highway 11 to Hartley Bay Road (right after French River Trading Post). From here you drive along a winding dirt road for 17 km before reaching a sharp right turn over train tracks which mark the entrance to the Marina
Access Point and Park Permits:
Hartley Bay Marina is a great put-in for accessing the French River. They provide park permits, maps of the park, essential camp items, as well as paid parking services for parties looking to spend time on the French.
Unlike other provincial parks, the French does not require you to specify which lake or site you will be staying on. This allows for a little more flexibility if weather turns sour or you have an impromptu change of plans.
Before arriving at the Park, I purchased the topo map from the Friends of Killarney website. This map has become a great resource for me. The map encompasses the entire park and surrounding crown land as well as marks off all the campsites and portages. It also includes interesting tid-bits of information including the geology of the area, historic landmarks and past voyageur routes. Did I mention it’s water proof?
Wanapitei Bay to Pickerel River:
We left Hartley Bay Marina and paddled West towards Wanapitei Bay before heading south down into Ox Bay. This area has a lot of boat traffic and cottagers. Expect this section to be relatively busy during summer weekends and be aware of rouge waves from ignorant boaters.
From here we crossed Ox Bay past Green Island to reach Pickerel Bay on the Southeast. This is the section where the French River and Pickerel River meet. Consult your map when paddling across to make sure you follow the right channel. Once in Pickerel Bay the channel narrows and the cottages become less frequent as you travel East through tightly woven islands.
Pickerel River to South Channel:
Not having a defined plan, I knew I wanted to duck off the main river to find a secluded bay we could call our own for the night. After reviewing the map, site #910 looked to be a good spot. We paddled 3 km East on Pickerel River before finding the very narrow entrance into the South channel. This section of the Pickerel River is full of tiny islands and bays so again, it is important to consult your map and GPS.
It is also important to note that on the GPS I was using, there was no connecting water from the main river to the small south channel leading to site #910. Though after reaching the mouth, there was an easy entrance behind a long jut-out.
Once we turned south down the channel, the tightly packaged islands and narrows provided relief from the wind, boaters and cottages as we paddled another 3 kms to our site in a back bay.
The site sits on a thin peninsula surrounded by two narrow channels. The site has a great rocky point which helps keep the bugs at bay as well as a flat outcrop that is great for the fire pit and hanging out. The one downfall is that the only flat tent pad is on rock, so make sure you bring a sleeping pad.
Change of Plans:
The goal for the next day was to continue south towards Georgian Bay, exploring the endless islands and routes. Just South of #910 there is a short 90 meter portage which spits you back onto the South channel. This section looks to have even tighter passages and was begging to be explored.
Unfortunately, due to a forecasted cold front and rainstorm, we decided to spend our second day paddling back up to Wanapitei Bay to camp closer to the put-in. This would make our third day (the day of the shit storm) much shorter and not as wet and cold. We ended up camping on Site #600. The site is right across from cottages and had some garbage, pots and cutlery left behind from past campers… the unfortunate truth about camping at easily accessible spots.
Overall this was a great trip for anyone looking for a relaxing paddle with no portages and spectacular views. For being right off the main channel, this small tributary off the Pickerel River aloud for a peaceful getaway disconnected from the cottages and boaters.
Depending on wind direction certain sections can become wind tunnels and either cause for tough headwinds, or easy tailwinds. This route also has many alternative options due to the complexity of passageways scraped into existence by the glaciers. Having a trusty map and GPS, one could spend a long time exploring the nooks and crannies of this beautiful Provincial Park.