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French River Adventure I

Posted by Rutabaga Staff on 5/12/2013 to Where We Paddle
The Ontario, Canada trip: French River – Georgian Bay – Key River

The crew: Andrew and Elizabeth in the Lamoille; Dave and Howard (the Chesapeake Bay Retriever) in the Explorer

The third day:

Our canoes hit the French River for the first time on a Tuesday afternoon. This was a highly anticipated moment.

The river would not disappoint us.

A headwind had crept up gradually, blowing a dense chunk of gray across the blue canopy that had hung cloudless over our shuttling process. As we put in and pushed off, the rain was coming down — insistently coming down — but was by no means a downpour. By the time we’d paddled forty yards, the wind speed had doubled and the rain was falling in sheets. It was an impressively abrupt change of pace, from a breeze and a drizzle to the strongest wind I’d ever encountered on the water. The bow of our boat turned sharply toward the left shore, and though I never doubted the skill of my stern paddler, I was uncertain whether this move was by choice or by force.

“What do you want me to do?” I had to shout over my shoulder so that Andrew could hear me over the wind.

“Just keep bracing on the downwind side of the boat. Looks like we’re going to shore.” He assured me not to worry, not to panic, and I smiled in spite of the chilling streams running down my arms. This wasn’t the gusting, blustery wind that flips unsuspecting paddlers into freezing cold lakes and rivers; this was a fierce, constant howl that just chased us clean off the water.

We landed, and after the other canoe maneuvered to shore, we pulled the boats up and donned our rain-gear. Standing under the trees, watching the storm whip through the river valley under the dark sky, I looked at my companions and smiled again. From under the hoods of their rain jackets, their shining eyes were taking in the same spectacle with the same patience and admiration.

That sudden cloudburst couldn’t have dampened our mood. We had neither a declared destination nor any specific mileage to log that evening, and the scene before us was too exciting and gorgeous to be dreary. Someone asked me if I was cold, and I shrugged. Soaked under my rain-gear, of course I was cold, but I felt such a sense of clarity and contentment that I wanted to laugh.

I wanted to laugh partly out of sheer enjoyment in that moment, but partly because of the beautiful experience our tangled mess of a trip was turning out to be. Two days prior, our journey had officially begun, on a less than perfect note, from Madison, Wisconsin.

The first day:

Sunday night, Andrew and I left Rutabaga and hit the road at six o’clock PM, barreling north. We had no food, our gear and belongings were strewn chaotically around Andrew’s Subaru, and we were dead tired — but we were on our way. After three hours of free-association games and whatever else helped us to remain conscious, we pulled in somewhere north of Green Bay, WI, at a restaurant whose name I will never remember. Though exhaustion was draining our motivation, we were amazed with our progress; we were nearly in Upper Michigan. We were road warriors.

After a greasy dinner accompanied by strong coffee, it was my turn to drive. Since twilight, a bizarre underwater feeling had dimmed my thoughts. This strange sensation (coupled with a warm meal congealing in my stomach) made it difficult to stay awake, but it did take the edge off of my “trip anxiety” – that splendid on-the-road cocktail of nervous excitement, high expectations, and minor trepidation that always accompanies an adventure. I later attributed my condition to general fatigue, but at the time it felt like a minor flake-out. Gradually, sometime between ten o’clock and midnight, the fog crept in. I knew that it was there, stretching across the highway; Andrew mentioned it aloud. Thus I was assured that my mental cloud had not drifted in front of my bleary eyes.

Esconaba suddenly surrounded us, and by a bank’s glowing digital clock we knew we were no longer in the Central time zone. Losing that last hour drained us both of any enthusiasm to drive further into that eerie night. We had to stop, soon. As we were about to leave the town behind us, a sign for a private campground emerged from the haze. We threw our tent together on the first suitable site we found and slept like two dead bodies.

The second day:

I woke up and drifted back to sleep at least a dozen times before I managed to croak “good morning” to Andrew. After a night of deep sleep, the morning had been peppered with short waking dreams of blurry road signs, headlights skittering over gas station driveways, dotted yellow lines — I had, or so I thought, gained my first insight from the trip. Next time, I declared to Andrew, the evening before our departure would involve more planning and less nightlife. Of course, I would later rethink this wise avowal.

By the time we crawled out of our sleeping bags, out of our tents, into and out of the showers (showers! ahh!), and back into the car, it was 11:00 AM. We had a clear shot into Sault Ste. Marie, MI, where our next mission was to get in touch with the other two members of our crew. Our friend Dave is one of the greatest paddlers and paddling companions I’ve known. Dave’s faithful pup Howard is one of the greatest paddling dogs ever to ballast a canoe. Andrew and I were as excited to see them as we were nervous about tracking them down.

Our charmed luck continued: we arrived in town within minutes of Dave, whom we eventually met at a cavernous, maze-like downtown antique shop. He and Howard had driven from Traverse, Michigan that day. Before enduring the painful process of grocery-getting, we three humans found a lakeside Mexican restaurant where our friendly waiter supplied us with engaging conversation and two precious empty milk cartons (to serve as water bailers, which all of us had forgotten).

After dining and buying food for the trip, we triumphantly crossed the bridge from Michigan to Canada with as much pomp and circumstance as we could muster, passed through customs, and drove east from Sault Ste. Marie to Sudbury, Ontario. It was another long evening of driving, driving, and driving. Darkness brought on night blindness; poorly marked highways provided ample opportunity to lose our way on obscure backroads; needless to say, Grundee Lake Provincial Park was a welcome sight to our road-weary eyes and sleep-deprived bodies. Mechanically pitching our tents by the glow of our LED headlamps was an appropriately surreal ending to another day on the road.

So, we’re back to day three…

The morning was a flurry.

“I think we should try to pack it all into three packs.”

“And a food pack?”

“No, just three packs.”

“Including the food pack.”

“No — no food pack, just three packs.”

“What about the food?”

“We’ll use one of the three packs for food.”


We had to de-package and re-package the food we’d purchased the night before, pack and unpack all of our gear into and out of the Duluth packs several times, and of course, take advantage of our last opportunity to shower in civilization, all before we could even leave the park. By the time we’d stationed a car at the Key River Marina and found our put-in point at Dokis, the afternoon was far advanced. Still, we somehow found ourselves exactly where we wanted to be. After ignoring so many elementary steps in the preparatory stages of this trip, having made it so far with such charmed luck seemed a sure sign that nothing could go wrong for us.

The storm that sent us scurrying for shore blew through within twenty minutes. Like one gigantic cloud had sought us out and sneezed in our faces, it had come and gone and left us breathless and soggy. We were delighted.

After piling our gear back into our trusty vessels, we set off once again. Andrew helped me to straighten out the kinks in my somewhat rusty forward stroke, the wind dried our damp clothes, and eventually we landed at a beautiful island campsite. Smooth, rounded slabs of rock ringed the island and sloped gently down into the water. Lichen-encrusted pine trees dropped their needles onto shady, moss-covered footpaths. We had paddled hard all evening, but we set up camp and cooked our spaghetti dinner before sundown so we could savor the coming twilight in that amazing place. Everything once again seemed exactly right: two old rotting tables provided flat cooking surfaces; Howard licked the dishes and pans clean (so we had only to de-spittle them after his initial cleansing); Andrew and I found a tent site with a view of our next day’s paddle and had everything in order before nightfall.

When the sky opened up again at sunset, Dave wasn’t as lucky — he hadn’t set up for the night quite yet, and his gear was soaked in the downpour while he scrambled to take down his hammock and put up his tent. We sympathized with his predicament, but we were sleepy and happy in our dry little dome of warmth, staring up through the clear patch in the rainfly until the storm ended.

Day Four:

I was nervous in the morning. Dave was up early, hanging his wet clothes and bedding in the sun to dry. I heard him rustling about for at least an hour before I eased out of my comfy mummy bag. As I stretched and wandered across the camp towards the water, my aching trapezius muscles reminded my preoccupied brain of how much work the long day ahead of us would entail. I chuckled at Dave’s maze of clothes lines and took in the glare off the river from a sun-baked rock. Everything was wet, and the day hadn’t heated up yet, but the morning air was shimmering and yellow.

Howard pranced around like he owned the place, Dave noticed me and grinned his famous grin, and we made coffee to kick-start our systems. I dumped an entire hot cocoa packet in my cup, anticipating the sugar-high that would accompany my caffeine fix. I needed the energy, but my nerves certainly didn’t need jangling — the day’s course included most of the rapids that we would encounter on our little journey. I had gathered as much experience over the summer as anyone could, yet of the three paddlers on this trip, I was still the closest to “novice.” Even Howard had probably logged more lifetime hours on the water than I had, and whitewater was almost entirely alien to me.

After we hit the river for our second day of paddling, anxiety couldn’t prevent the surrounding cliffs and islands from lulling me back into jaw-dropped bliss. Andrew had his nose buried in the map all morning, so there was little conversation in our craft. I was jerked back into reality when he instructed me to help him turn the boat entirely around. Not that I was surprised — the French River is characterized by a mess of dead-end channels, circular detours, general “wrong ways,” and unmapped islands – enough confusing terrain that getting only a little lost means you’ve done some impressive navigating…

How lost is a “little lost?” Will they brave the rapids or hit the portage trail? In Part 2, Elizabeth and crew charge down the French River and face what challenges the waters of Georgian Bay have to offer.

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