Paddling into a painting

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The French River offers stunning scenery and rugged campsites

My paddling trip on the French River would have been simpler if I'd just stuck to the guidebook. But, no, some people think they're too ruggedly independent to follow a guidebook. Some people are suckers for any foolish adventure.
Being on the cusp of my 40th birthday I was, of course, a prime candidate for suckering myself into a foolish adventure. Luckily, I'd invited Mike Jones, a wildlife biologist. Mike possesses impeccable wilderness skills and - more importantly - a GPS.
It was Sunday evening when my husband Mark and I - after a six-hour drive from Ottawa - met up with Mike and his wife, Stephanie, at our rendezvous point: a cabin at Loon's Landing campground on the shore of the French, which runs from south of Sudbury into Georgian Bay.
Day 1
• Hartley Bay Marina to Campsite 622 on the French River Eastern Outlet
As pushed off from the Hartley Bay dock, leaving cottages and motorboats behind, we found ourselves paddling into a Tom Thompson painting: The water lapped against granite shorelines, pale pink and grey rocks sculpted by waves into fluid forms and topped by wind-bent pines.
A 13-kilometre paddle took us to campsite No. 622. Mark had discovered something to soothe the sting: the beer we'd packed in among our sleeping bags.
Day 2
• Campsite 622 (French River Eastern Outlet) to Campsite 919 on Georgian Bay
Over breakfast, we pulled out the map and discussed our plans for the day. If we turned east instead of west at Georgian Bay, the coastline would lead us to a small river called the Pickerel.
The Pickerel wound its way up the map with only two campsites along its 10-kilometre length, before it widened out and joined the French River, leading back to Hartley Bay. That narrow, mazy line of blue challenged me: had I become a risk-averse, 40-year-old matron, or was I still a youthful soul, willing to take a gamble?
We turned east at Georgian Bay and made our way that night to Campsite 919, perched on the tip of Vixen Island, poised for the plunge into the Pickerel.
Day 3
• Campsite 919 (Georgian Bay) to Campsite 931 on the Pickerel River
We made an early start, knowing the first leg of our paddle would take us around an exposed point that jutted into Georgian Bay.
Mark popped a beer into a nylon bag and tied it to the side of his kayak, allowing it to drag in the cool water.
As we left the shelter of the islands, the water of Georgian Bay stretched as far as the horizon, and the soundscape changed from the chirrups of songbirds to the screech of gulls and terns. The wind was brisk, but not dangerous, as we rounded the point, passed through Dead Island Channel, and turned northeast to seek the passage that would lead us to the Pickerel River.
After bumbling around in an obstacle course of small, rocky islands, Mike finally rescued us by pulling out his GPS.
The mouth of the Pickerel welcomed us with a display of white and yellow water lilies, but as we continued paddling, it began to look less and less like a river and more and more like a creek. Finally, it dead-ended in a small pond.
There was no sign indicating a portage.
Mike, surveying the terrain, proposed a short hop over a patch of exposed rock, that led to another body of water.
That was until we hit a second dead-end at the muddy bank of a granite hill. This, as it turned out, was the real portage.
Hauling the gear and boats over the hill in 30-degree heat left us thirsty, and we looked forward to cracking open Mark's ingeniously-chilled beer at the next campsite, barely two kilometres upriver.
But campsite 910 provided the greatest disappointment yet. The latrine facilities were non-existent.
And so, it was back into the boats for another four kilometres of paddling, making a total of 20 kilometres that day, until we arrived at campsite 931.
There, Mark cracked open the cold beer and passed it around.
Day 4
• Campsite 931 (Pickerel Bay) to Ox Bay, Hartley Bay and Hartley Marina
A pleasant, but uneventful 10-kilometre paddle back to Hartley Bay rounded out our trip on the French River.
Ottawa Citizen

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If You Go
Where: Hartley Bay Marina is near the mouth of the French River, close to the village of Alban, Ont.
Book: Up the Creek: A Paddler's Guide to Ontario by Kevin Callan
Map: French River, published by Ontario Parks (available at World of Maps)
Advice: For information on water levels and river conditions, contact French River Provincial Park at 1-705-857-1630. The French branches into many channels, offering canoe and kayak routes for paddlers of all skill levels. Western Outlet feature rapids that require experience and careful attention to water conditions. The Pickerel River should not be canoed at low water levels.
Cost: Backwoods camping permits cost $9.50 per day for adults and $4.50 per day for children. Children six and younger are free. Permits can be purchased at the Hartley Bay Marina (see below).
Reservations: Campsites cannot be reserved. They are taken on a first-come, first-served basis.
Hartley Bay Marina: The marina provides parking for $8 a day. Canoe rentals are $10 a day. Contact the marina at 1-705-857-2038 or www.hartleybaymarina.com
Loon's Landing campground: Cabins are $115 to $200, depending on the size. Campsites for tents cost $25 per day. Call 1-705-857-2175 or see www.loonslanding.ca

Organizations: Ontario Parks

Geographic location: French River Eastern, Georgian Bay, Hartley Bay Ottawa Pickerel River Sudbury Vixen Island Pickerel Bay Alban Ontario Provincial Park

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