Outer Fox Islands, French River

French - Pickerel River Trip

"The river is engorged," the friendly voice at the other end of the line began. "Where are you planning on going?"

I explained.

You'll be exposed coming across there to Dead Island Channel."

That gave me pause. We didn't really have time to get wind bound.

"And if you did that you'll have to portage."

"It doesn't look that bad on my map."

"Well it's at least eighty metres. Possibly as much as 120."

"We are travelling by canoe, you realize." After last year, 120 metres just seemed unnatural. But I reckoned we could adjust.

In early September I called the French River Provincial Park Visitor Centre to get some advice on the much-anticipated sixth annual Martin-Chris trip. I'd paddled the French River before twelve years ago, in July but as they say, you never paddle the same river twice.

Poetic as that sounds, the saying has a practical side because water levels, beaver activity and floating stuff (trees, capsized canoes, corpses) can change the flow, turn rock gardens into chutes, liftovers into portages and vice versa. Current intelligence is important.

The first two legs of the planned route were pretty straight forward, but I was looking for advice on how to come back north. Kevin Callan and most of what I'd read on myccr.com suggested that the Pickerel River - my intended - was a bit short on water most of the time.

"What would you suggest?" She offered another route up through Bass Lake. "I just want you to enjoy your trip is all," she said.

I made note of it, said thanks and hung up. She'd called our route 'ambitious'. Would it be too much?

Reader’s digest version:

Day 1:
Cold but with a favourable wind we breeze along to Robinson Bay, leaving our wallets and water bottles safely parked at the marina.
Day 2:
Constant rain, shivering cold we paddle numbly across the delta, losing a cup to the engorged, tea-coloured river
Day 3:
The sun begrudges us some of its warmth as we head up the Pickerel to camp at The Elephants
Day 4:
A straightforward paddle back up Wanapitei Bay takes us to the car and home.

Offering of gratitude and appreciation

What can you say about a partner who ever year lets me abandon all responsibility for four days at the start of the school year? How bout, "you're wonderful?" I am enormously appreciative of Irene's indulgence and support.

Standard warning of impending doom

This is not an advice site. I am not an expert. We encountered rattlesnakes and rapids on this trip. Both of which can really hurt if you happen upon them the wrong way or without preparation. Hire a guide, join a club because this page could lead you to a cold, miserable end.

Wanapitei Bay. Does he look thirsty?

Friday Sept. 12, 6:10pm Western Channel

We started early. Too early. Apparently we were not yet awake by the time we got to Hartley Bay Marina. How else to explain why we left our water bottles in the car.

Whoops.

“Oh well,” I rationalized, foreshadowing a later disaster, “we’ve still got the mugs and the dromedary."

So. How early? 5:30am. That’s normal for us on long drive years. Which this is. When you only have four days you want to waste as little daylight as possible in the car.

We arrived at Hartley Bay at 11:30. The guy at the permit office/store/everything said “Pickerel River” when I asked about which route to take back. He wrinkled his nose at Fox Creek.

He commented on my map. It’s a classic, he said. The current map features the same geography, but all the campsites are numbered.

“So when you see the marker you know exactly where you are.” There are apparently more campsites now than when my map was made (some twelve years ago). He nonetheless argued against dropping the $17 for a new one. I didn't want to seem like a spendthrift. I wish I’d bought a new map, honestly. Locating campsites was a bit of a chore and what harm would it have done Hartley Bay to have another $17 in the register?

He also thought we were being ambitious. “Oh, it’s do-able, but I’m just letting you know you’ll need an amount of enthusiasm for paddling equal to the task."

We paid our $10 per person per night camping fee and headed off.

The marina charges $10 for the privilege of driving down to the dock, taking your 15 minutes to unload and put your canoe in the water. Parking is $10 per day for a car. Trailers and buses are extra. They’ll also rent you canoes, kayaks, stoves and food barrels. The people were really nice and I didn’t mind the fees.

This bit of the French River is pretty straight forward. Martin remarked it didn’t look much like a river. There’s no noticeable current and it’s very wide. It looks more like a really long lake.

A very scenic lake. The first few kilometres out of Hartley Bay and into Wanapitei Bay are fairly cottagey. A lot of the places pre-date the creation of the park, and most of them would seem to be off-grid. And I know the owners are pretty protective of their natural surroundings. For this I am grateful. However to trippers looking to feel like you’re the only human in a 100km radius, you will be disappointed.

So we paddled. The cottages became less frequent. And we paddled. And we paddled. After about 20km, we had reached Robinson Bay, where I’d planned on calling it a day. The site I’d marked was still there. But it wasn’t awesome. It was littered with junk. Abandoned appliances, an engine, broken bottles and more. And it had a cottage just up river and another on an island near the shore opposite. But the next nearest campsite on my map was a couple of kilometres further south, along what promised to be more difficult paddling.

We’d done really well. We had a tail wind pretty much the entire way generally managing between six and seven km/hr. Certainly does a lot for your enthusiasm about paddling of which we will apparently need a great quantity.

The river is very high. “Engorged” the woman at the Visitors Centre had said on the phone. There had been a lot of rain this summer, right up until a couple of days before. The shore is lined with saplings, leaves turning colour, just barely sticking up out of the water that were clearly on land in spring. This part of the river is pretty, but it’s not the stuff of paintings, postcards and such. That will be tomorrow and Sunday.

I really wished I’d splurged on the new map. It nagged at me that there could be a new campsite just 300m further along that would afford us and our cottage neighbours some seclusion, be free of the large chunks of rusting metal, complete with a paddle-up bar.

But we were cold. And tired. So we stopped and set up camp.

Pesto and shelf-stable gnocchi with parmesan for dinner. Two packs of the gnocchi made for a very full meal. Our waistlines might have been better off with a pack and a half. But we’d skipped lunch, so we managed to eat it all. Despite the cold we stayed up until around 10pm, talking around another of Martin’s famous fires. The sky wasn’t giving up any stars and we knew tomorrow was going to be long, with rain and a forecast high of 10C.

Old Voyageur Channel French River - engorged and rainy

Saturday, Sept. 13. Chimney Island (I think) French River. 6pm

We were on the water by 8:30 today, despite getting up around 7. It was a damn hard thing to do to get out of that warm sleeping bag, I tell you. See I’d been nodding in and out of sleep since around 3am and each time out hearing rain on the tent.

“Rain before seven, clear by eleven,” I kept telling myself. “It’ll be fine. Besides, it’s only water.”

Oatmeal, granola, coffee. Then everything into the bags. Mercifully MEC’s Wanderer 2 tent can be taken down while it’s still underneath the fly. Normally I bring a garbage bag to quarantine a relatively dry tent before I stuff it in with the wet fly and groundsheet, but I forgot this time. I had used a dry bag for the tent, so I just stuffed the wet bits loose in the pack and kept the tent in the dry bag. I can report that it worked. The tent was still dry when I pulled it out earlier this afternoon, even though I poured a half a cup of water out of the pack.

It didn’t stop raining for us so we ate and packed under the tarp.

The other bit of bad news was that I forgot to bring a headlamp. So no writing in the tent at night, the late night camp faff-about-put-away done in total darkness. It’s actually a bigger drag than I thought. I generally don’t like flashlights and try hard to avoid using them. But they do come in handy. It’s too cold to write outside - the ink stops flowing after a few lines, so usually I wait until before bed. Now I can’t.

Enough whining about all the things I forgot.

A brief paddle brought us into the French River’s narrow channels and out of cottage country for a bit. We took the Old Voyageur Channel, which, as I recalled, had a few liftovers. Not so much this time. The “engorged” French River turned these into chutes, ledges and drops, also obliterating or submerging the habitual paths around or over the rocks.

A capsize in that water on such a cold day would have really messed up our plans. I imagined us huddling on some miserable rain soaked rock, desperately dousing sopping wood in stove fuel trying to build a fire before succumbing to hypothermia.

We opted to carry around anything that looked like it would require a maneuver or that had enough of a drop that swamping would be a concern. See I also forgot to bring a bailer. In the end, we ran a couple of swifts and one long chute that was fluffy enough to make us ship some water.

We spent most of that morning, near shivering, in full rain gear under unrelenting rain. It would have been a better day to go hiking or the canoe tripping equivalent as constant activity would have kept us warm. But the stop/start of shortish paddles and liftovers had us cooling off constantly.

It was in this context of semi-numbness that we lost one of our cups. I’d kept it out to use as a bailer, running the grey pack’s over-strap through its handle. But as Martin was lowering the pack into the canoe, the strap’s D-clip gave way, slingshotting the cup into the deep, tea-coloured water at the end of a liftover. I probed the water with my paddle but there was no chance of ever finding it.

As we paddled away toward the outer islands of the delta, we were both trying to figure out what to do with no water bottles and one cup. I had To build a fire going through my head. Martin’s idea was far superior. Cut the bottom off one of the wine tetra packs. After consuming its contents of course.

A bit of ingenuity, a bit of make do and the leatherman. Good thing I brought it. I don’t usually. And voilà. Cup. And we are using the top of the tetra pack as a bailer. Good one, Martin.

We have, for some reason, an extra serving bowl. I was going to suggest drinking wine out of it. Ha ha ha. No.

We saw a group of four otters just past Devils Door Rapids. They were poking their heads out of the water and snorting at us.

It was a shame it was so rainy and we were so cold because this stretch of the trip probably has the most fabulous and undisturbed scenery. It is truly gorgeous. But all I could think about was how to keep moving. And I was too cold to hold the camera steady.

I’ll just have to go back.

We rounded the corner of the Old Voyageur Channel and headed east into the Cross Channel. We pushed through a few more swifts, but portaged around Devil’s Door Rapid. It looked like too steep a drop. But Martin wiped out on a rock at the portage, getting a waist-deep soaker, reminding us that portages too are not without risk.

After Devil’s Door, the Cross Channel takes you south and east towards Georgian Bay, just north of the Bustard Islands.

Just after noon we noticed that the rain had stopped. We didn’t dare mention it until 20 minutes later.

We stopped for lunch on Magee Island around 1pm. The stretch between Whitefish Bay and Obstacle Island has the potential to be very tough, I expect, it being quite exposed to Georgian Bay. You really get the idea of how immense the bay is here. I’m told paddling in an open canoe you can be windbound sometimes. But for us, it wasn’t any worse than normal lake paddling, with a mild cross wind pushing us out toward the bay a bit, and waves giving the canoe a slight wiggle. Nothing we couldn’t handle.

I had plotted a course back up Bass Creek and Bass Lake (the suggestion of Welcome Centre Woman) in case the water was too rough. But by 1:50, we’d pushed past the mouth of Bass Creek and the weather was holding steady. Even looking like clearing. In fact as we passed north of Dock Island, we even saw a bit of sun.

Question: what is the small village south of Dock Island? It looks like a half dozen or so white, wood framed houses.

We also saw navigation markers. Lots of them. A public service announcement to earnest wilderness seekers. There are a lot of navigation markers around. We didn’t see that many motorboats today, but it would seem these are boating channels. I see why they’d need the markers and there is a fair bit of settlement around here for whom boat is a principal form of travel. Is there a road into the village of Pickerel River, for example? It doesn’t seem so. If you are willing to avoid this beautiful area just because there are signs of human activity pretty much everywhere, then know that such signs exist.

Campsite markers, not so much. Around here it seems the best way to find a place people have liked camping is to look for a stack of rocks of some sort. There are probably lots of flat places on rocks to place a reasonably self-supporting tent, but we were looking for a place with some shelter. We found it, just after 3pm, near Chimney Island.

Through this part of the delta it really starts to look more like Georgian Bay. The islands flatten out, the rock loses its pink colour, the trees shrink. And to the south, open water, punctuated by blips of islands and their reflections.

The cold and wet feeling though, wasn’t really going away. So around 2pm we started thinking ‘campsite’.

My twelve year old map has a few sites marked on it around where we were looking. And the guy at Hartley Bay said there were more now than there were in 2002, but we didn’t see that many. The markers are small, tasteful dark orange diamonds and can be hard to spot, where they exist at all.

It is an unmanaged park, after all, so one shouldn’t expect the same service and or support as in Algonquin, Killarney or any of the managed back country parks. And the challenge is part of the fun. On the other hand, so is the griping about it.

The site we found seemed to be a well-loved vacation space for two people who it seems were buried there. They’d even set up a clothesline - complete with metal reel. The shrine marker suggested they were contemporary (as opposed to ancient) users of the site, so I’m hoping they and their ancestors didn’t mind us keeping them company for a night.

There are ancient burial grounds around there where camping is prohibited.

We ate around 6:30. Dinner was another Laurie Ann March recipe - Polenta with beans and tomato sauce. The quantities were good. And it tasted great too. Warm, mushy stew. Perfect comfort food. We used more of the parmesan I brought. Still not all of it. French Rabbit still a hit too.

The clouds broke up a little bit in the afternoon, showing a bit of sun, and we had some sun on us while we set up camp, which was truly a blessing. We got the tent fly and the tarp dried out. We even managed to eat most of dinner before the rain ambushed us again.

It made lighting a fire a lot harder, but Martin managed it. And the sky cleared in time to show us a rising super moon and tons of stars.

By this point I’d broken out the long underwear and was truly ‘all-in’ in the clothing department. The temperature was dropping and we went for the tent around 10pm, tired, damp, a bit cold, but happy.

The Elephants, French River

Sunday, September 14, 3pm, The Elephants.

This is the place to camp on this part of the river. Most definitely. More on that later.

We were on the water late - 9:20 after crawling out of bed around 7am - and despite having the no-frills breakfast of oatmeal with granola scattered over it. It’s a good thing I never eat the stuff at home or I’d be sick of it, I expect.

My experiment with the collapsing tripod cloth coffee filter is not going well. It takes too long to pour and as a result, coffee is luke warm by the time it’s ready. I will have to try it at home with a more coarse grind. It’s possible the fine grind that the Bridgehead associate performed is clogging up the works.

It is, however very light and it takes up far less space than those mug mates.

Our route today took us south around some of the outer Outer Fox Islands, through Dead Island Channel and then back up toward Hartley Bay via the Pickerel River.

We were heading around the south edge of the Outer Fox islands and through Dead Island Channel before 10am. The wind hit us from the side and the water was jiggly and wavy, but no hint of danger or difficulty. Your mileage may vary.

After the channel we turned north and headed up the Pickerel River. The Pickerel is a beautiful stretch of water. Kevin Callan’s write-up of this stretch is proof that you never travel the same river twice. There was much less water in the river when he took this trip (at least the one he writes about). The river he describes sounds like a frustrating, long slog, with lots of wet feet, liftovers and slow progress.

Our Pickerel River, engorged as it was, was eminently navigable. Yes, it narrows, and there were four or so liftovers and one portage of less than 70 metres. And it might have been the weather, which was overcast, with some sun but only the tiniest spots of rain, but all in this stretch left us in a much better mood than yesterday.

We stopped for lunch just after noon on a lake just north of the Eastern Outlet. Which was when I got the feeling something was weird with the map. See there were motorboats - fishers - in the channel north of us. And not the sort of tin skiffs someone might stash on the other side of a portage.

“How are they getting in here,” I asked myself between thinking about how good that peanut butter sandwich tasted. “Because my information shows no navigable channel back to the French River.” Okay, my 12 year old paper map was a bit ambiguous on the question, but the Topo map on my GPS was clear: no contiguous water between the French’s main channel and the Pickerel. See?

Map detail: no contiguous water

But around 1pm we paddled up to where the water was supposed to end and there was a wide channel connecting the two, complete with fishing boat. “Is this the way to Toronto,” Martin asked fellow boaters.

The sun was back and the wind came up from the west, right into our faces as we made our way toward Pickerel Bay and The Elephants, our intended stopping point for today.

The spot gets its name from the massive pink granite promontory visible as soon as you round the corner. It’s massive. 20m tall, maybe. And at 1:35 we put ashore, just opposite where we would have emerged had we taken the Fox Creek route. All in, about 19km on the day.

The campsite is beautiful, but the waterway before us has had a regular buzz of motorboats. One every hour or so. Mostly people fishing.

The shorter day (and better weather) gave us time to dry out the tent fly, our clothes and gear. Most importantly was the coveted afternoon cup of coffee, a tradition we began last year when day three ran a little short.

We also had our most notable wildlife sighting: a Massassauga rattlesnake. Sitting right on an informal path clearly used by many to collect firewood. Martin came very close to stepping on it.

At first we weren’t quite sure it was a rattler. I had been told there is a snake that looks like a Massassauga Rattlesnake but is not a biter and not poisonous. It’s the Eastern Fox Snake.

Martin figured he’d give it a bit of a poke, to shoo it away so that he could collect in safety and without hurting the reptile. Which was when we got the audio cue/confirmation that in fact it was a rattler. Neither of us knew what it means to get bitten by a rattlesnake, so we just walked away.

Post facto note: The West Parry Sound Health Centre is the place to go if you’re bitten. The venom disrupts blood flow and prevents clotting so the biggest problem is internal bleeding. Only two people have died from snake bites in Ontario in the last 40 years but both died because they were not treated.

The Massassauga Rattler is a protected species. It is illegal to kill or harass them. With any luck the appropriate authorities will take pity on us and accept this public service announcement in favour of leaving them be as penance and not launch an investigation. I wholeheartedly support efforts to conserve them and all species with the possible exception of deer flies. This fact sheet has some helpful tips.

  • They're not into attacking. Bites happen when the snake defends itself. Against being stepped on, for example.
  • Its striking distance is half its body length.
  • It is not likely able to bite through leather or loose clothing.
  • Just because it bites doesn’t mean it will inject venom. Although three out of four times it will.
  • That business you see in movies about sucking the venom out of the wound is rubbish.
  • What helps is to stay calm and inactive.

We checked in on the snake a little later. It was slowing making its way to some form of hidey hole. Which suited us fine. We were happy to share habitat with it and leave it in peace.

Dinner was dahl with rice and wraps (which I think I may drop for proper naan, next year).

I tried an experiment this year in the wine department - the Platypreserve. Rather than subsist soley on tetra pack wine, I thought I’d decant a quality bottle into one of these. And it worked well. Even Martin, one of Ottawa’s most newly minted sommeliers felt it was acceptable.

I think the trick is to take the instructions to heart and remove all the oxygen from the vessel immediately after decanting. MEC sells them for $8.50. Can’t tell you how long they last. But I can tell you they do improve the quality of your wine drinking experience substantially.

In the gear disappointment department, my new Prana zip pants. One slip, one landing on my knee and I have a two inch tear in them. My 13 year old Sportif zip pants have had far worse and endured without tearing.

Post facto note: MEC took the pants back and gave me a store credit, as is their habit. They really are great. Unfortunately Sportif doesn't seem to make an equivalent pair of sturdy, quick-dry pants with zip-off legs any more.

The evening was great - nice fire to ward off the cold, scotch to warm from the inside out and stars like you can never see in the city. And sleep by 10:20pm.

Fall colours just starting to show

Monday, Sept 15, En route to Ottawa

We were out of bed by 7am, on the water by 9:20am. The pancake breakfast tradition is firmly in place. I feel it nevertheless needs added fruit. Next year.

We did have enough coffee for two cups this morning. Decadence, I tell you.

A stiff crosswind buffeted us through Ox Bay and toward Wanapitei Bay but was at our backs all the way up Wanapitei Bay to Hartley Bay and the Marina, which we hit just after 11am.

We skipped the post-trip swim (too cold), packed up and rolled home, stopping in Sturgeon Falls for a Mr. Submarine. I’m maybe late to the portage on this but the Laurentian Dairy in Deep River (long considered the de-rigeur stopping point for Ottawa canoeists heading west) is now closed, the building up for sale.

Very sad.

We made it back to Ottawa by 5pm. The new foam blocks worked well, keeping the boat reasonably firmly anchored to the roof. Yay. I have another set, now for sale, that would work well on a van or car that has those funny not-quite-roof-rack-rails.

Photos

I replaced my old Sony point-and-click with a Nikon AW1. As they say, the music isn't in the piano, but what do you think?


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