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Extreme Sport | From Desk Till Dawn

Canoeing in Canada

On the spectacular French River in wild backcountry, James Henderson paddles 68 miles of steel-blue chutes and boiling rapids along the route of the legendary Voyageurs.

April 15 2010
James Henderson

The Voyageurs – long-distance canoeists and traders – echo loud through three centuries of Canadian lore. They were wild men of the backwoods, who paddled the waterways around Montreal, up to the Great Lakes and beyond. They were hard men – they’d paddle for 14 hours or more a day and simply sleep under their canoes – and true adventurers.

Some of the Voyageurs’ routes are still remote today, but one spectacular section, the French River, can be reached quite easily from Toronto, making it possible to follow these frontiersmen and retrace part of their journey.

Friday 123o I leave the office and race to Heathrow. On board I begin to mull on what’s ahead – Canada for the weekend is really pushing the limits, and the trip will be arduous. We’ll be working hard just to make the plane back home. But this is an exceptional adventure, hard graft way out in wild and beautiful backcountry.

Friday 1630 After a quick transfer across town, we climb out of Toronto Bay in a sea plane. Development gradually evaporates, leaving unremitting forest. Soon before arrival, the pilot points out the French River, our route. Rapids glint. From the air, it seems dauntingly long.

Friday 1800 From The Wolseley in Piccadilly the previous night to Wolseley Bay – calm, steel-grey water surrounded by pines. We pull up to The Lodge at Pine Cove, where stylish cabins line a rocky waterfront. Around an open fire with a glass of wine we hear about the Voyageurs. Their trips would take six weeks each way, transporting manufactured goods, dignitaries and the post into the interior and returning with furs. They were mostly French Canadians, but there were also Native North Americans (often in the bow, reading the river), some Africans and some Scotsmen. With the five-hour time change from the UK, it has been a long day. I sleep well.

Saturday 0600 I’m up in the morning calm. On the dock there is kit – brightly coloured barrels and sealable bags that Peter, my guide, loads into the canoe. I clamber in, he sets the trim and off we set, into mist that trails on the water, passing cottages framed by rock and pines. In 30 minutes we reach the main channel of the river.

“This section’s a bit of fun,” says Peter, slowing at the first rapid, Little Pine. We get out and he outlines the route down it. We take the bouncy ride, turning sharply at the bottom. Big Pine, next up, is a tight S-bend… steady… backpaddle … heave right … pull left…Go! And beneath Double Rapid the water is boiling, pitted with 3ft plugholes that suck the bow suddenly. They can capsize a small canoe. “Keep paddling!” Peter calls.

The Blue Chute is superb. Ripples on the pond above concertina into tiny folds at its granite mouth, like ruched grey silk. We slide down a perfect 15yd “V” before everything explodes in white turbulence. The canoe bucks on a stopper and slaps back down, rearing for 100 yards until we reach clear water.

Saturday 0800 After two more small rapids we cruise to a halt for breakfast. It turns out that the Voyageurs were a flamboyant bunch. They dressed in long coats with bright sashes and they sang to keep up their rhythm of 55 strokes per minute. Legend has it they could make the 68 miles of the French River in a day. Granted, in the bigger canoes they paddled as a team of 12, but they also shipped 180lb of goods apiece. We have a day and a half…

Now for the long haul. The action of paddling a Canadian canoe is not difficult and soon enough we have the snatch and draw. With each stroke the boat surges, bow hissing on the ripples, and glides, its wash subsiding into a sibilant chatter. It is hard going, though, and we switch sides regularly to spare the muscles.

Below the rapids here, the land is undeveloped, a scene of relentless granite. Rounded lumps loom from the water, some ragged, others smooth as a kitchen worktop. Pines anchor where they can. On the banks the rock rises into slabs and cliffs, then disappears, allowing meadows to spread green on the banks. Around a corner a beaver swims languidly in the glass-calm water. The second it sees us – plaf! – with a slap of its tail on the water, it dives. Beavers were key to the trade in the 1700s; their fur was all the rage in Europe.

It’s hard to picture how busy the French River once was. As many as 300 voyageur canoes could pass through in a day, causing queues at the portages (places where boats have to be carried around a section of unnavigable river, eg, falls). “The French” was a link in their traditional route of nearly 1,000 miles. They started in Lachine on the St Lawrence River, climbed the Ottawa River north-west and crossed to Lake Nipissing. After Georgian Bay on Lake Huron they followed the remorseless northern shoreline of Lake Superior.

It strikes me as odd for them to come this far north, with the obvious waterways of the Great Lakes to the south. But credit the strange geography for that. This region, the Canadian Shield, was so brutalised by a network of glaciers that, relatively, it is very flat. The French has only about 65ft of displacement over its 68 miles, and the current is light enough for it to be paddled both ways. Side bays are so regular that it often feels like a lake. I experience an undefiable geographical confusion at one point – the river divides into two as we head downstream…

Saturday 1400 But then, with the intense physical activity and the sun, I worry that the Canadian phrase “tripping” (for backwoods travel) might take on another meaning if I push myself into delirium. We make sure to drink and grab regular fistfuls of trail mix, nuts and seeds. But on, on… After three hours, cottages begin to appear on the shoreline and eventually we reach the settlement of French River. Next we pass 100ft beneath the railway (the coming of which finally did for the Voyageurs in the mid-1800s) and Route 69, where north-bound trucks boom and growl.

The river narrows to 150 yards, hemmed by huge granite walls. Recollet Falls is our first proper portage. The fall, at 6ft, is enough to swamp any canoe (and to drown the French monks who gave it its name). We heft the bags and barrels 30 yards around the drop. Walking and stretching is good, but I am glad not to be carrying 180lb. The trees have changed here. It is September and an occasional sugar maple flares in the evergreen. Then the whole bank comes alight in gold, vermilion, even scarlet.

Saturday 1900 Switching sides can only help so much with sore shoulders. After 30 miles it is time to pull into shore. We take a quick swim and then get the fire going. The barrels explode with kit – stoves, tents, chairs, even a collapsible saw. Peter wraps the largest slab of salmon I have ever seen in foil. Potatoes and corn are boiled and buttered. We eat on the waterfront, waving to evening fishermen. Eventually the conversation turns to the stars in the now clear sky. I have the raging, super-heated sleep of the overexercised.

Sunday 0700 Peter prepares coffee and, somehow, Eggs Benedict on toast. But the pressure is still on. We have got to make our rendezvous with the seaplane at 3pm and there are still 18 miles to cover. It takes a moment to warm up creaking shoulders, and a brisk wind makes the going tougher. We make the Western Outlets (into Georgian Bay). Their other name is the 30,000 Islands – on the map they look like an explosion. Granite channels lead off south and west.

Sunday 1200 At last we reach the Voyageurs’ Channel, a special route out to the bay that has been rediscovered only recently. It was the most reliably waterborne channel, with the least chance of a portage. Despite all appearances, that is. Around us the rock rises in broken chunks and billowing lumps. We negotiate tight turns and tiny channels, then a 40yd sluice made of angled slabs. The Voyageurs would have “lined” their canoes down with ropes in high water; nowadays it’s worthy of a fairground ride.

Finally we emerge into open water – Georgian Bay. The Voyageurs would have turned right and carried on for, oh, another 600 miles… Exhausted, we grab lunch on a rock in the sun. Eventually the seaplane wheels into sight and thuds onto the water. I say goodbye to Peter.

Sunday 2040 I board the return flight. Once again, I have the sleep of the spent.

Monday 0835 I touch down at Heathrow in time for a mid-morning arrival in the office.

Only the blisters on my hands and my split lips give away that I have been so far and covered so much ground in the past 70 hours. But in the background a rekindled sense of adventure scratches satisfyingly at the brainstem.