Backcountry Camping on the French River

Ontario’s provincial park system includes some of the most beautiful sections of wilderness this province has to offer.  Every year, starting on the Victoria day long weekend, The provincial park system opens across Ontario and people flock to the nearest park in search of this beauty and a glimpse of the natural world.  Much can be seen at these parks and many of the parks do great jobs of displaying our natural heritage and history.  Car camping makes up the lion share of attendees at these parks and can be a fun experience for those looking for convenience and ease of access.  But if your like me, and you like a little more seclusion and remoteness, back country camping may be for you.

Backcountry camping and canoeing takes a bit more preparation and skill to execute, but the rewards are equally greater.  Packing must be minimal to what you can canoe and carry and each item brought must be deliberate.  Forget the kitchen sink!  But for all the trouble it is to prepare, this methods of camping allows the participant to see parts of the park that are virtually untouched by man and see nature in a undisturbed setting.

This was our goal when setting out for the backcountry in the French River Provincial Park.  Just like it sounds, the French River Provincial Park encompasses the French River which is approximately 110 kilometers long and flows from Lake Nippissing to Georgian Bay.  The river flows amongst rugged shield terrain around countless islands and in into countless bays.  The river itself is rich with logging and native history and once served as a major transportation route for aboriginal people and logging operations.  We were excited to relive some of these routes and sleep and experience the same wilderness our for fathers had many years ago.

After much deliberation, we chose a route along the lower arm of the French River with a start at Hartley Bay Marina.  The marina seemed very busy and had a distinct  ambiance with lots of character.  Including some interesting fish mounts.  This place was obviously a hub for fisherman in the area, and based on the mounts, dentists too.

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The trip was off to a great start and with anticipation and excitement we pulled away from Hartley Bay Marina.  About 10 minutes later we received our first surprise of the trip as Dave hooked up with a fairly hefty fish.  After a heated battle between angler and fish, Dave yells “its a musky”.  Fish of a thousand casts, people call these beasts, and Dave had one after 10 minutes!  Best guess puts it in between 8 and 10 lbs. Too bad the fish got off at the canoe (unfortunately no pics).

The trip continued through Hartley bay to the mouth of the Wanapitei River.  We encounter some pretty fast flows, many flooded areas, and the water was full of sediment; this did not bode well for the fishing.  After a valiant fishing effort with no success, we continued our paddle through some of the most scenic country our province has to offer.DSC_0031DSC_0018


Amazing rock formations were common throughout the trip.  This river could be the poster child for all Canadian shield rivers.


The Wanapitei was a tough paddle against wind and current.  We originally planned to camp at  a set of rapids, but due to flow rates, we had to change our route.  We headed south through a small confluence of two river arms called the forks and proceeded into Thompson Bay.



After a lengthy (and tiring) paddle against the flow of the Wanapitei we found our campsite (617) and set up for the night.  Our hopes were that we could find clear water the next day which would hopefully mean Walleye and Pike.


A classic French River sunset.


We broke camp early In the morning and headed south down the French River Main Outlet towards the Elbow where four sections of the French converge.  After some searching we found an amazing campsite (624) with a great view and set up our gear.  On the way through the Elbow, I noticed a distinct edge to the murky water and suspected that would be our best chance for walleye.  We were desperate to find gold on the French so following the set up of our site, Dave and I immediately headed for the sediment break.  We wasted no time wetting a line and sure enough, our my guess was correct.  The walleye were stacked up in the break and the bite was on in a big way.




After an intense bout of Walleye fishing we head back to camp for diner and a late night fish along our campsite.

We devoured a bit of the freshly caught walleye and some packed in Spaghetti for dinner while enjoying the scenic view from our site.  Nothing beats freshly caught fish on a long trek into the wilderness.


During our campfire one of the guys decided to throw a set line into the water.  This resulted in a giant hit and a lost fish, however the mystery fish enticed us all to throw lines in.  Sure enough,  we started catching some fairly respectable catfish.  Probably the only fish that can be caught consistently in the currently murky state of the French River.

(below: the author with a decent cat)


Most people travel to the French River to catch walleye and pike and to have a chance at a giant Muskellunge.  For good reason too, the fish here can grow to be giants.  Unfortunately this leaves species like the catfish a bit neglected.  Too bad too because these fish are tenacious and provided, pound for pound, more fight that any walleye we caught.

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The evening wore on and we settled in to watch another great French River sunset nestled up to a roaring campfire.  With a belly full of fresh fish, life was good and all was right with the world.




The next day we headed up the Eastern Outlet of the French River with a decent tail wind and continued to catch both Pike and walleye as we travelled.




(Ian seemed to have a knack for catching snot rockets)


Thanks to one of the engineers travelling with us we rigged up a makeshift sail with one of the tent flys.  What a way to take advantage of a strong tail wind.  I think the dog travelling with us also didn’t mind having three canoes to walk around in either.


After a great day of fishing and sailing we set up camp in Ox bay at site 629. The site was situated on some beautiful rock outcroppings on the south west point where Ox bay meets the Eastern Outlet.  This would be our last campsite for the trip.


With that, our trip was over.  Fish were caught, sights were seen, and overall, good times were had.

There is something special about experiencing the majesty of Ontario’s wilderness through backcountry camping.  Nothing else seems to get you as close the serene beauty that is our park system.  It seems the further away from civilization you are, the more “connected” the nature you feel.

If you haven’t been already, I suggest you try a backcountry trip.  Most parks have a few sites that require canoeing or portaging.  If your not very experienced with wilderness camping, I suggest you contact a guide service or go along with some friends who are experienced back country campers.   Either way, find a way to try this unique natural experience.  These sort of trips are profoundly rewarding and generate memories that will last you a lifetime.  So go on, grab your canoe and camp stove and see what the Backcountry has to offer!

Cheers from the Wild


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