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Camped near a small rapid on the French River, we observed the days getting shorter and the nights getting colder. Photo: Dave Freeman

Almost two months into our 2,000-mile expedition from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., to protect the million-acre Boundary Waters from the threat of sulfide ore mining, we left our sailboat Yemaya, in Georgian Bay of Lake Huron. We recommenced paddling Sig, our Wenonah MN 3 canoe-slash-symbolic petition, on the French River. The days are noticeably getting shorter and there is a distinctive chill in the air after the sun goes down. We did, however luck out with several glorious sunny days on the French River and Lake Nipissing. We felt right at home paddling through this rugged Canadian Shield landscape.

The French River drops over 60 feet as it meanders through its 65-mile course from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay. This river was the first to earn the designation of a Canadian Heritage River. It has a rich history, having been traveled by First Nations, French explorers, missionaries and voyageurs. The French River Provincial Park contains 230 backcountry campsites. You’ll need to purchase a permit to camp in the park. You can gain access to the river in a variety of spots through private resorts, lodges and marinas. If you go during the height of the summer, expect to see a variety of motor boaters and vacationers.

Dave and I have traveled up the French River twice, but never down it. One of these days, I’d like to follow its downstream course and paddle the rapids we have so painstakingly traveled up. Going with the flow is certainly something that most people opt to do on a brief river trip. When working across country, however, one will need to travel upstream at some point. Given the pool-drop nature of the French, it’s really not a bad one to travel up if you need to travel the Voyageur Highway from west to east, which is probably why it was integral to this traditional travel and trade route.

The French River is one that we’ve traveled up with relative ease. Thankfully, there isn’t much current in the flatwater stretches between rapids. Other memorable upriver journeys include three weeks on the Mackenzie River (not too bad so long as you’re up for a lot of lining) and two weeks on the Fond du Lac (gorgeous camping along the way and one that we’d like to paddle down one day). Here are some tips and tricks we’ve learned from our stints of upriver travel:

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Too swift to paddle, too shallow to pole, too awkward to line, Dave opted to just wade through the water in this mellow rapids in the Fond du Lac, dragging the loaded canoe behind him. Photo: Amy Freedman

• Eddies are your friend. You’d be surprised at how easily you can move upriver so long as you stick close to shore and choose your path in the eddies alongside rapids.

• Wading and lining can be a very effective way to travel up easy and moderate rapids that are too fast to paddle up.

• Read the water. Always scout your course when you come to rapids to determine what you can paddle, what you can line or wade through and what you should portage around.

• Follow the example of the voyageurs—learn how to pole up rapids.

• Study water levels. Typically it’s much easier to make your way upriver in low water rather than high water. The rapids will be less intense and you’ll have some exposed shoreline to walk on for lining.

• Upstream travel is definitely slower than downstream, so plan accordingly. It’s much more enjoyable to work your way upstream if you’re not hurrying to make a deadline.

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Misty mornings were common as we enjoyed the changing of the season on the French River. Photo: Dave Freeman

National Geographic Adventurers of the Year, Dave and Amy Freeman, are in the midst of Paddle to DC, a 100-day, 2,000-mile journey by water from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., in order to protect the Boundary Waters from sulfide ore mining. Check out PaddletoDC.org to learn more about the project and to sign the petition. Read more about Dave Freeman’s 400-mile canoe descent of the Brazilian Amazon’s storied Rio Roosevelt, and more about the Freeman’s 11,700-mile North American Odyssey.

The Freemans will be sending in a series of dispatches from their Paddle to D.C. journey, highlighting skills, destinations and lessons learned as they paddle, portage, and sail SIG across the country.
Click to read Part I: Lessons from the Grand Portage.
and to read Part II: Superior Paddling Destinations