The Happy Camper: Canoe Tripping the Upper French River


Ontario’s Upper French River gets some motorboat traffic from its historic cottages and fishing lodges. It’s been a mecca for anglers and camp owners for quite a few decades (the first tourist camps opened here in the early 1900s). But I rarely see canoeists or kayakers taking advantage of the area’s incredible scenery of rock, pine and water. If you’re looking for a portage-free trip, this is one beautiful massive expanse of water that shouldn’t be ignored.

I canoe trip here more than the lower stretches of the French River. I’m the odd one out. Most paddlers do the opposite. They’re drawn to the French River delta and the ocean-like vistas of Georgian Bay. It’s definitely picturesque—but busy. I’m more drawn to the familiarity of the Upper French. My dad took me here fishing as a kid. He’d rent us a cabin at one the fishing camps and we’d spend the week trolling around in a beat-up aluminum motorboat. I later came here on my own, by canoe, using the designated Ontario Provincial Park campsites rather than the fishing camps.

Riverview Marina in Dokis seems to be the preferred place to begin and end trips. The marina is just past the village of Dokis. Turn east off Highway 69 onto Highway 64. Not far past the hamlet of Monetville go right on to Dokis Reserve Road. It’s about a 30-minute drive along a gravel road all the way to the village of Dokis. Continue on Dokis Reserve Road, and then a right onto Charlie’s Bay Rd. Dokis Marina is also a good possibility.

The north shore is where I prefer to start off exploring, going left from the Riverview Marina docks, then east. Then I head out towards the expanse of Lake Nippissing and return by following along the southern shoreline.

A labyrinth of islands, bays and inlets are scattered throughout. A few of my favourite areas along the north shore are the entrance to Five Mile Bay and the beginning of the Little French River, the secluded Bob’s Bay and the remote Twilight Bay. 

The route continues east and along the north shore. More islands and inlets have to be navigated all the way until the last large island—Burnt Island—marking the entrance to Lake Nippissing. You’ll see along the top side of Burnt Island a narrow passage called Canoe Pass. There’s a warning for boaters to slow down. Be watchful here. It can be a busy place with boat traffic. This 600-metre-long channel also marks the beginning of the French River. Some would argue that Chaudiere Falls, downriver and near Dokis, marks the beginning; but this is the first sign of current where the river flushes out of Lake Nippissing.

If wind and weather permits, you then paddle clockwise around Burnt Island (Sandy Island is to your left), and then choose one of the campsites on one of the clusters of small islands at the eastern tip of Burnt Island. Here, you’ll have a nice view of Lake Nippissing.

Two pictograph sites are noted to be in the area, one at Kennedy Island and another at Gibraltar Point. I’ve looked for the Indigenous rock paintings at Gibraltar Point with no success.  Selwyn Dewdney, author of the book Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes had seen something here during his 1960 visit. But he also recorded they had been badly weathered. Last time I was there—which was a couple of weeks ago—there was a lot of modern-day graffiti but no ancient Indigenous paintings. However, the Kennedy Island pictograph is still there, hosting the single largest collection of rock paintings on the entire French River system.

The trip now heads downriver, along the southern shoreline. Summer’s Island, located at the mouth of Satchel’s Bay, has a number of good campsites on its southeastern side. It makes for a relatively short day on the water but there’s no campsites found along the south shore until you reach to the west end of the Upper French, near the village of Dokis. Satchel’s Bay is isolated with little boat traffic.

Make sure to get up early your last day out or plan on an extra night on one of the island campsites a couple kilometres away from Dokis and the Riverview Marina access. Staying one more night isn’t a bad idea. So many paddlers have come here in the past on a wilderness trip and returned to build either a cottage, summer home or fishing lodge. The Nippissing First Nations people never left. What was once thought by European explorers as the route to the Orient is now recognized as one of the top destination the province of Ontario has to offer.

Check out my latest canoe tripping video on my KCHappyCamper YouTube channel of a trip I did a week ago on the Upper French River:


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