Canoe on the north channel of French River.

Photos and words by Shawn James

The French River

To call your self a backcountry camper in Ontario, Canada, an overnight trip on the French River is a rite of passage. The French, the country's first designated Canadian Heritage River, played an critical role in the formation of Canada a few centuries ago and today it remains just as important as it shapes the lives of a new generation of outdoorsmen and women.

The French River Provincial Park includes 80 miles of official canoe routes and there are hundreds of miles of connected waterways and public land to explore. It's very scenic, with iconic towering white pines and exposed bedrock, great fishing, abundant wildlife, picturesque waterfalls and amazing campsites.

Most of the river can be easily accessed from Highway 69, which crosses the midway point of the river, creating two distinct tripping experiences with countless loop possibilities. Short portages are few and far between, so most of the French is suitable for kayaks as well as canoes.

Shawn James picking blueberries.

Hartley Bay to Georgian Bay

Starting out from Hartley Bay, just west of Highway 69, a paddler can easily reach Georgian Bay in a day. The French and Pickerel Rivers have several channels and outlets in this area, so it is possible to create more than one interesting 3-day loop for multiple trips in the region.

For a first trip, I recommend traveling south down the Main Outlet to Georgian Bay on your first day, spend a day exploring the islands on the Bay, and then head back up the Pickerel River or the Eastern Outlet and Canoe Channel of the French River to Hartley Bay on the third day. Consult a good navigational map and exercise caution around waterfalls, such as Dalles Rapids in the Main Outlet.

Kayaking on the French River.

Total Distance: 25 -30 km / 16-19 miles

Start/Finish: Hartley Bay Marina (Hartley Bay Road) or Pickerel River Marina (at Highway 69)

Parking Fees: $10/day parking at Hartley Bay Marina

Camping Permit Fees: $10.20 (adult) $5.10 (youth)

Useful links:

Parking, launching, permits and canoe rentals:

Hartley Bay Marina:

Ontario Parks:

18 Mile Island

Starting out from Loon's Landing in Dry Pine Bay, head east on the North Channel of the French River. This is not part of the French River Provincial Park, but most of the river here is bordered by crown land so camping is allowed. Permits are not required for Canadian residents, but non-residents will need a crown land camping permit, which can be purchased from any one of the local outfitters. There are plenty of land parcels that are actually private though, so be sure to check out an Ontario crown land map to make sure you are not trespassing.

Canoe on French River.

Exercise extreme caution around rapids. Most of them are runnable for experienced whitewater paddlers, but water levels and conditions vary tremendously throughout the season and from one year to the next.

For this reason, I recommend circumnavigating 18 Mile Island in a clockwise direction as the current in the Main Channel can occasionally make upriver travel difficult, particularly in 5 Mile Rapids section.

Shawn James at 5 Mile Rapids.

Spend your first night between Ash Bay and Wolseley Bay in the North Channel and your second night near Cross Island or Parisien Island in the Main Channel to allow enough time to reach your vehicle by mid-afternoon on the last day.

Total Distance: 70 km / 44 miles

Start/Finish: Loon's Landing on Dry Pine Bay or French River Adventures on Wolseley Bay

Parking Fees: $10/day parking at Loon's Landing, $8/day parking + $7 launch fee at French River Adventures.

Camping Permit Fees: $10.20 (adult) $5.10 (youth)

Useful links:

Parking, launching, permits and canoe rentals:

Loons Landing:
French River Adventures:

Ontario Parks:

–Shawn James teaches courses on health, wealth, homesteading and outdoor recreation and writes about his paddling adventures at

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