Camping the French River Delta


I’ve been out in the bush again!  This trip was to the French River Delta, and boy was it a great trip.  It highlighted some of benefits of having proper training, and in a good way.  Let’s get into some details.

A Bit of Background
I’ve been trying to get together a crew for a longer camping trip than weekends would allow for a while, and when my sister in Sudbury Ontario said she’d want to go out I immediately spang into action.  When the dust had settled between finding other people, deciding on a water system to paddle, and figuring out time frames, we gathered that the French River Delta would be a good system with minimal portaging and beautiful scenery.  We planned of doing a 6-day, 5-night trip, which would allow for easy paddling days and some extra time to hunker down if weather proved to be too bad to paddle for an entire day, just in case.

Morning, Day 3. Wolves howled in the distance.

The Route
The route was fairly open to interpretation once we were out on the water, but the gist of it went as follows:
We put in at Hartley Bay Marina, where the helpful and friendly staff would get you on your way and park your car.  I’ve got nothing bad to say, and even the rather steep parking and dock fees were within reason when you realize it was a Mom & Pop kinda place.
From there we headed out to Wanapitei Bay and camped on the western shore for the first night.  Weather was quite rough and we had to head through a headwind coming straight off of Georgian Bay, generating 2 foot swells which rocked my little 14.5′ canoe (the Ewok) pretty hard.  This did, however, have the effect of callousing us to other winds and swells which made the rest of the trip seem very easy.
Heading out early the next day to avoid any other wind, we kept to the west, heading down the Western Channel towards the 5 Finger Rapids and Georgian Bay, it was an easy day and the weather was great.  Not too much to say, but it allowed us to stretch our shoulders and steel ourselves for the more complicated navigation, portaging, and lift-overs that day 3 would be sure to promise.
Even with all our preparation, and being woken up at day-break by wolves, we had a hardy headwind to contend with as we entered the archipelago of the 5 Finger Rapids.  The water was extremely low when we went, and we only had to portage around the Liley Chutes, but that’s when the day got shitty.  Easily the most challenging part of the trip, once we went through the small trickle that was the Devil’s Door (seriously, it was just a swift), we entered a shallow and narrow creek which was a short-cut towards our ultimate destination, Obstacle Island.  I’ve read that even when the water isn’t 4-6 feet below the regular level that this creek is plagued by beaver dams to lift over, but some of the rocks we had to move our gear through were legitimate portages.  It was very draining emotionally and physically to go around every bend and see that there was yet another rock in the way, but once we were through it was rather rewarding.  As we made it east for the first time on our journey (bit by bit), the roar of the Bay increased until we were finally right in the middle of it.  We had gotten out of the pan and into the fire, and were contemplating simply camping on one of the rocky and exposed points near the edge of the Bay.  After a life-restoring lunch however, and looking at our route, we decided to go for it.  With the wind coming out of the south, the swells were mighty, but the Ewok and our other canoe were mightier!  Riding FOUR! FOOT! SWELLS! and bobbing like a cork, we hugged the western shore as much as we could, then hooked east behind the cover of multiple islands and wind-breaks.  There were a few tight squeezes (which were super duper cool) as we got through some old fault lines and flopped onto shore at Obstacle Island.  It was a very rewarding day, as we look back on it now, and I couldn’t be prouder of the people I was with.
During the night, the wind shifted.  We woke up to find that for the 4th day in a row, we had a headwind to contend with.  No matter though, because we had a short day of paddling, and much of it was sheltered.  We paddled north, through a gorge, and came upon the only “real” portage of our trip.  According to top-secret military intelligence, this boardwalked “portage” used to be a log-flume between Bass Lake and Georgian Bay, but now it’s a easy walk.  After all the lift-overs and short portages between rapids and over rocks, this was a breeze and we could really enjoy it (at least slightly).  A picturesque paddle up to the 4-way junction known as the Elbow passed quickly and we settled on an un-marked campsite to the west.  From there we went and visited the Dalles Rapids which connect the French River Main Channel to Georgian Bay, and the portage through there looked tough.  It was about 500m long, had some tricky rocks, and this doesn’t show up as a tough one on the map.  The rapids themselves were very low, and while not getting any bites I saw plenty of fish lying in wait at the bottom of the river.
On Day 5 we awoke to a welcome sight, wind coming out of the south again!  Being that we were heading north, it meant that for the first time in the entire trip, the wind was finally at our backs.  After a delightful pancake breakfast we headed east through the Whale’s Mouth before turning north.  With the wind at our backs it was only a short hop, skip, and a jump before we were back in Wanapitei Bay.  As we ate our lunch on campsite 601 (which was very nice), we looked overhead.  The wind was picking up, the sky was greying, and the temperature dropping.  All signs pointed to rain, and we were only and hour paddle from our cars.  While it would have been nice to stay out in the bush for a few more days, we’d have only been twiddling our thumbs waiting for the days to end, and in rain that’s never a nice thing.  As it turns out, heavy rain DID fall that night and the next morning, so I think we made the right decision.

Yarg, it’s teh camping lyfe fer me!

What Went Well
Almost everything went according to plan.  Having a good grasp on the geography of the region, knowing the good sites, and great food made the entire trip more enjoyable.  It allowed us to keep moving forwards, and not once did we have to backtrack.  The aforementioned low water levels also helped us.  It meant minimal portaging and danger from rapids, even at the expense of short lift-overs.  The weather was magnificant despite the head-winds, and the whole team got along together well.  The highlight of the trip for me was traversing the open waters of Gerogian Bay without incident, proving once and for all that I have the best canoe in the whole world.

Things to Keep in Mind
One thing that got driven home for me is that you should distribute weight evenly between canoes in your party.  Being that the Ewok was the best canoe, despite being smaller, we filled it up with the heaviest people and most of the weight, which meant that the other canoe zipped way ahead in favorable conditions, but in the headwinds they struggled.  It was because our canoe sank lower into the water that we were able to track better in winds, but bottomed out easier.
Even though we didn’t need it, I was glad we had extra time to explore and a buffer zone in case of weather-related delays.  It gave us less stress and an easier time on the water.  While I’ll never get my 20$ back from the ministry for permits, at least the money is going to a good place (at least according to t
he letter I recieved from the MNR when enquiring about higher fees).
I was amazed how well my Whisperlite stove from MSR did on gas.  It managed to cook most of the meals for 4 people (including boiled potatoes) on 1 litre of gas.  It’s always a toss up regarding how much fuel to carry, but trips like this make it easier to gauge in the future.

If you can stand the bugs, the sunsets were just as good as the sunrises.

As always, if you have any questions or anything, just let me know in the comments and I’ll get back to you!

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