North French River

CanadaOntarioJames Bay south
Submitter & Author Information
Route submitted by: 
Bob Olajos
Trip Date : 
May 18-28, 2018
Additional Route Information
Distance: 
313 km
Duration: 
11 days
Loop Trip: 
No
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
13
Total Portage Distance: 
3970 m
Longest Portage: 
1500 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Advanced
Lake Travel: 
Novice
Portaging: 
Difficult
Remoteness: 
Advanced
Background Trip Info
Water Levels: 
Medium
Route Description
Technical Guide: 

Disclaimer

The North French is a remote, serious whitewater river with many very difficult rapids. In the 47 km middle section, it drops 475 feet, an average of over 10 feet per kilometre. In some sections, it is twice as steep. There are no portages around most of the rapids and no signs on the few portages that do exist. There are no formal campsites. Other than the fishing camps along the headwaters lakes, there are no places for floatplanes to fly to the rescue. There are no roads past the put-in. This route should be attempted by expert whitewater canoe trippers only. If you want to paddle the North French, you must be comfortable deciding for yourself when to run a rapid, when to line or wade, and when to portage. You must be prepared not only for difficult whitewater, but also a difficult environment. Expect any kind of weather, including torrential rains, punishing headwinds, as well as snow and freezing temperatures, even in mid-summer. My notes are guidelines only. They reflect what we did, not necessarily what you should do. You are responsible for your own safety.

For the purposes of this trip report and the accompanying maps, I numbered every rapids and falls on the North French, from R1 to R77. Swifts were not numbered, nor were the small rapids on the lower river. I also gave each a classification based on the International Scale of River Difficulty. Class 1 is the easiest, Class 2 is intermediate, and Class 3 is generally the most difficult rapid run by canoe trippers. Class 4 was our limit for lining or wading canoes, Class 5 should be considered un-runnable rapids, and Class 6 are waterfalls. Keep in mind that classification may change with water level and a host of other factors. Just because I labeled something a C2 does not mean it will be a C2 when you get there. It might be a C1, or a C3, or something else. If I wrote R61—C1, that means Rapid #61 is a Class 1 rapid. Most rapids are not named, but in a small number of cases, we named a rapids or falls based on a local feature.

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

The reason that area is so nice and pristine is because someone looked after it, many, many years before my time, before my mom’s time. People used that whole area, walked everywhere. They knew all of it, eh? And they took care of it. Somebody took care of that before us so that we could have it. And we should carry that on and we should take care of it. Not just the water, but the area around it.

Linda Turner, Moose Cree First Nation

Introduction

The Mehkopwamehstik Sipiy, or Red Willow River, is the longest un-dammed river in the land of the Moose Cree of northern Ontario. It begins about 70 km northeast of Cochrane, and flows for 280 km to the Moose River, only 35 km from James Bay. Nowadays, it is known as the North French River. Locals often call it the French River, not to be confused with that other French River, from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay.

Over the years, the North French has been overlooked as a canoeing destination, likely due to easier access rivers nearby. For instance, there are lots of trip reports on the Wakwayowkastic River, a tributary of the North French. And the Missinaibi River is on almost everyone’s bucket list.

Over the years, I’ve heard whispers on the wind about the North French — whitewater rivalling the Kesagami and a watershed big enough to maintain adequate flow, even in mid-summer — but the North French does not show herself easily.

In the 1980’s, two Camp Wanapitei attempts to reach the river were rebuffed by an impenetrable wall of alders choking the tiny upland creeks. In the late 1990’s, logging briefly pushed north to the headwaters of the North French. In 2000, one group used a long, rough logging road to get to a headwaters lake — not the one I use — and followed the river to Moosonee. However, their account of battle with relentless tag alders dissuaded others from attempting the river. Soon, the logging road washed out, leaving the area isolated again.

In 2015, another group, a biodiversity survey crew led by the Moose Cree First Nation, flew into a lake part way down the river, avoiding the alders altogether. Other than that, if people have paddled the North French, they’ve not written about it on the internet.

However, the North French is now relatively easy to access, thanks to a newly reopened series of portages to the headwaters at Wildland Lake. In 2016, my friend Jeff and I found and reopened the old portages from the Floodwood River to Skate Lake. And in 2017, he and I travelled the upper North French with three others enroute to the Wawagigamau (aka Yesterday) River. Along the way, we reopened the portage to Wildland Lake. With two trips now under my belt to the North French proper, the tag alders have been cut back significantly. If you go, please bring hand pruners and do your part to keep them under control.

Day 1 — North Bay to Floodwood River (put in) to Ishaw Lake — 6 km

On a sunny day in mid-May, two strangers pulled into my driveway. Never before had I met David and Laurelea. But here we were, exchanging pleasantries while quietly sizing one another up before embarking on what we expected to be a difficult and exciting canoe trip. We went through a quick gear shake out while tying David’s beloved Evergreen Starburst to my roof racks. It looked huge next to my solo Nova Craft Supernova. You may know David Lee as The Passionate Paddler, famous in the social media world of canoeing videos, photos, and gear reviews. Laurelea is an old friend of David’s, a veteran of paddling and mountaineering expeditions, and a long-time dogsledding and canoe tripping guide.

In this age of daily satellite imagery, there were still unknowns. Would the headwaters lakes be ice free? Would the spring freshet still be underway? Would the rapids be runnable? Would there be portages around the falls? Spring weather in the James Bay Lowlands is notoriously bad. Would we have too much rain or too much snow? Too much nice weather didn’t seem like an option. Would we beat the blackflies? All this remained to be seen as we rolled out of town and headed north.

A few hours later, we pulled up to a farmhouse just south of Cochrane to meet our shuttle driver, Brian Porter. Brian (or his friend Billy Kapersky) will drive you and your vehicle to your put in, drop you off, then keep your vehicle safe until you return on the Polar Bear Express train. Because they both do maintenance on Highway 652, they can give you real-time accounts of bush conditions. Like when I called Billy three weeks before our start date and he informed me that there was still four and a half feet of ice at our put in. Highway 652 — aka the Detour Road — is a lonely strip of asphalt northeast of Cochrane. It services the Detour Gold Mine, as well as countless fishermen on this day before the season opener.

Our put in was on the Floodwood River. To get there, drive to km 88 on the highway — there are mileage markers — and turn left at the MTO maintenance yard. A narrow dirt road veers right and proceeds about 3 km to dead end at the river. We were relieved to find the river ice-free. There were even some friendly anglers, ready for walleye, who had beat us to the water.

After unloading, Brian snapped our photo, then left. It was 5:00 pm. We headed downriver, with high-water lapping the roots of shoreline cedars. Miskozi, my one year old Canadian Eskimo Dog, wasn’t sure about this canoeing thing. She was on some day trips as a puppy last fall, but this was her first real canoe trip. While she paced nervously on my spray deck, I lectured her on secondary stability. Inevitably she fell in, thankfully not taking me with her. She swam to shore, shook off, and had to be dragged back into the boat.

After about 6 km, we came to our first portage, 780 m to Ishaw Lake. The portage starts on the right, just upstream of where Ishaw Creek joins the Floodwood. The portage was marked with a chunk of flagging tape, and — most auspiciously — a big fluffy owl feather. Owls have been adopted by first responders with PTSD as a kind of spirit animal. I am a firefighter and former paramedic. I have PTSD, a workplace injury acquired through years of seeing horrible things. An owl feather marking our first portage was surely a good sign.

With lots of daylight still to go, we portaged to Ishaw Lake, three full carries each. We set up our tents at the end of the portage, hammering tent pegs into the frost, which lay just below an inch of dry moss. Stir fry veggie wraps were inhaled as darkness encroached. It felt good to be back in the boreal forest.

Day 2 — Ishaw Lake to Wildland Lake — 6 km

I woke around 6:30 to a beautiful blue sky. Having been through here last year, enroute to the Yesterday River, I knew many portages lay ahead this day. After breakfast, we packed up and paddled across Ishaw to the 280 m portage to the first of the Peanut Ponds, Lucy. After Lucy is a short 50 m portage to Guraldi Pond, then a longer 570 m carry to Linus Pond, and then a 160 m carry to Skate Lake. We lunched on Skate, readying ourselves for the long carry to Wildland Lake. The Yesterday River crew cut this portage last year, piecing together bits of the original trail, through old growth boreal spruce, with new sections through a 20-year old clearcut. Thanks to the hard work of Jeff, PJ, Gord, Matt, and myself, this portage lives again. The trail is well flagged, fairly direct, and despite what David thinks, only 1500 m long. But it’s a long 1500, I’ll grant him that, and tough. Wear pants, the raspberry canes are nasty.

We knew we’d be camping at the end of the portage, so decided to take our gear over first and set up. After dinner, we went back for the canoes. We camped at the same spot as last year, on top of a knoll about 100 feet back from the shoreline, on the left side of the portage. There’s a fire pit there and some split firewood, waiting for you.

Day 3 — Wildland Lake to French Lake — 14 km

Up bright and early and across the to Wildland Creek. It's all downstream from here. The creek is about 10 feet wide and four deep at the start, good enough to paddle. It's very twisty, a great place to practice the eddy turns you’ll be needing further downriver. Soon we hit a beaver dam, and just downstream of that, alders. In case you've never tried to navigate an alder-choked creek, allow me to enlighten you. The wide flood plain of this upland creek is filled with alders, from one treeline to the other. They grow right up to the banks of the creek, and then across it until they entwine with their cousins from the other side. With stems rarely more than an inch in diameter, they’re easy to push aside or cut. But they're endless. Pushing through alders is like trying to push through drunks at a downtown nightclub. You wedge your way through, but they close in behind you like you were never there.

With drysuits on and hand pruners ready, we jumped into the water and started dragging downstream. With three of us cutting, there is now a bit of a tunnel through the alder mayhem. It was warm and sunny, perfect weather for wearing drysuits while being up to our armpits in ice-cold water. We made slow, steady progress until midday, when we stopped at a small pond for lunch.

After the pond, the creek is clear for a ways, but soon the alders are back. The spray deck on my canoe kept the twigs out. Miskozi alternated between riding the canoe down the clear stretches and running alongside in the congested parts. She would wait at a clear spot to be picked up, then ride the canoe for just long enough to jump out the other side and continue on her way.

At some point, the creek picked up a tributary and doubled in volume. From here on, the alders are outmatched by the width of the river. However, the black spruce trees happily step into the void with river-wide sweepers. Late in the day, with strong current, bone-cold water, and dangerous sweepers, we proceeded with extreme caution. It was a three-person job to drag the canoes over obstacles. Then we rounded a bend and, just like that, were at French Lake.

There is a fly-in fishing cabin on French Lake, so you may see small motorboats and fishermen. Like rattlesnakes, they’re more afraid of you than you are of them. We camped on French Lake, dried out our clothes, ate well, wrote in our journals, and had a very comfy sleep.

Day 4 — French Lake to Niskak Pond — 30 km

Downstream of French Lake, the river is now big enough that there are no river-wide sweepers. Between French Lake and Moose Lake lie the first numbered rapids of the river (R1 through R5,  all of them C1), which we ran without incident.

Just before the river enters Moose Lake, there is a possible campsite on a sandbar on the right. There is a fly-in cabin on Moose Lake as well. We ate lunch somewhere downstream of Moose Lake, then paddled under the crackling hydro lines feeding the Detour Gold Mine with power from the Abitibi River. David was lucky to escape with his life after he intentionally splashed Laurelea. Apparently she didn’t appreciate the ice-cold shower, even on this hot and sunny afternoon. We stopped for a rest at the last fly-in camp of the route, on North French Lake. While the cabin is new and beautiful (and locked), the grounds were a mess. If you have trouble remembering which lake is French and which is North French, remember that North French is the furthest north (or downstream).

We pushed downriver in the late afternoon sun. There are no good campsites along this stretch. After looking for awhile, we bushed a site on the left, just downstream of Niskak (Goose) Pond. Hot and exhausted, I went for a quick swim in the river to freshen up. David made tuna mac for dinner. We all took turns playing guitar. A few mosquitoes hummed along.

Day 5 — Niskak Pond to Maasamaykos Falls — 47 km

For the morning meal, I invented something new. It’s called “dinner for breakfast.” This simply entails frying up last night’s leftovers with eggs and shredded cheese. So we ate tuna mac eggs and cheese.

This was a long day on a beautiful river. The channel is 40 to 60 feet wide and the current often swift. We saw river otters, sandhill cranes, lots of waterfowl, and a pair of osprey, getting their nest ready for little ones.

After lunch, we arrived at an old forest fire, perhaps from the 1980’s. For about 6 km, the forest next to the river is noticeably younger, with a few charred chicots standing as a reminder of what happened. Immediately past the burned area is Mikisiw Rapids (R7), a one kilometre long C2. Mikisiw means “bald eagle” in Cree. As we rounded the last corner of the rapid, an eagle swooped out in front of us, only a few canoe lengths away. David caught the whole thing on his helmet-mounted GoPro. Laurelea declared it a Very Canadian Moment and said that it could only be improved if the eagle had screeched, or maybe brought us a beer.

We camped at a perfect site — wide, smooth rock — to the left of the first ledge of Maasamaykos Falls (R8—C4). Because our trip was in early spring, we expected places like this to be flooded. Indeed, dead grass in the shoreline alders and alluvial deposits on the rock told us that the water had recently been much higher, and that there had been no significant rainfall since the level dropped.

Maasamaykos means “brook trout” in Cree. Indeed, I caught some small trout in an eddy below the first ledge, and kept one for breakfast. David sent up his drone to scout around the corner. Maasamaykos is actually a series of four drop-and-swift C3-4 ledges stretching around a dog-leg in the river.

Sometime around dusk, we noticed two beavers swimming upstream along the opposite shore. They swam up the current to a ledge, climbed over a rock to the eddy above the ledge, then repeated the process at the next two ledges. Miskozi was most intrigued, and spent much of the evening, and the next morning, on beaver patrol.

Day 6 — Maasamaykos Falls to (almost) R25 — 43 km

The night was cold. We woke up to ice in our water filter line. After breakfast (miigwech trout), we portaged 60 m to the bottom of the first ledge, loaded up, then ground our way down the C3 outwash. Depending on water levels, this drop could be a line, lift-over, or portage. The next three ledges are around the dog-leg. We scouted each, opting to line or wade the main drops and run the outwash.

Though it was sunny, it was only 7°C with a north headwind. At one point, we stopped to do jumping jacks, trying to shake off the chill. So far, our weather had been quite good, with highs in the mid-teens. Often in the mid-afternoon it would cloud over and threaten to rain, but inevitably only spit on us before clearing up again. For mid-May in the Arctic watershed, that was unseasonably warm and dry weather.

The North French picks up pace from here, though it still hasn’t begun its  big drop off the Canadian Shield. The rest of the day consisted of a number of C1-2 rapids and that pesky headwind. We camped on the right bank, a few hundred meters upstream of Rapid 25. The steep mud and grassy shore offers few landing sites, and fewer tent sites. When Laurelea saw a flat rock at a bend in the river, she knew she had found our spot for the night.

Day 7 — R25 to just downstream of R48 — 26 km

Another cold morning, everyone put on their puffy jackets. I fried up some dinner for breakfast, I think this morning it was Korean curry eggs and cheese.

We ran about 10 rapids in the morning, mostly C1-2, with a C3 (R26) and a C4 (R34) thrown in to let us know what the North French had in store for us. We portaged Mistasinii Falls (R35—C6), 190 m on the left. Mistasinii means “big rock” in Cree. The portage climbs over boulders and through some trees to a steeply sloped landing at the bottom. There is no trail, but the boulders and open jackpine forest is easy enough to pass through. We didn’t look on river right, so there may be a trail on that side.

Back among the pines, we found a moss-covered three-walled firepit, the only evidence of a “campsite” we would find on the river. We lunched on a massive boulder perched perilously close to the raging rapids below. The weather was hot, 27°C. We welcomed the opportunity to peel off our drysuit tops and air out. Despite the heat, there are still patches of snow in the woods and ice along the riverbanks.

Mistasinii is where the North French starts to drop off the Shield in earnest. In the ten kilometres below the falls, the river drops over 100 feet, through 13 more rapids (R36 through R48). Rapid 41 is a C5. We portaged 80 m on the left, over more massive boulders.

Miskozi had an adventure in one rapid in particular. It started out C2-ish, but got steeper as it rounded a bend. She was perched on the spray deck, but got dumped off when I struck a big wave. Thankfully, she was wearing her lifejacket. I couldn't do much for her in the middle of the rapid other than watch her swim to shore, shake off, then run downstream after me. After that incident, I resolved to have her run the banks in anything C3 and above.

We camped at a nondescript site on the right, just below Rapid 48. The northwest headwind was harassing us again, and we knew that Piitaachuwin Rapids was coming up. It had been another hot day. David and I both had a dip in the river. Spaghetti for dinner, with s’mores and Pringles for dessert. A few lazy mosquitoes hounded us in the evening.

Day 8 — R48 to Ispau Falls — 21 km

Laurelea’s fried granola for breakfast was pretty darn good. Our day on the water started with a few Class 2-3 rapids before Piitaachuwin Rapids (R52). Piitaachuwin means “long rapids” in Cree, but if you want to call it Long Rapids, or Pita Chewin’, that’s fine too. Here the river drops over 50 feet in about two kilometres. It’s a steady stream of Class 2, 3, and 4 whitewater. We ran the easier bits without scouting, and lined or waded the more difficult parts. 

After Piitaachuwin, the river calms down for a bit, with only a few rapids before Wipapiskau Falls (R57—C6). Wipapiskau means “hollow rock.” Water levels were low enough to give us an easy 50 m portage on the right, across sloping shoreline rock. Sitting at the edge of the falls, we ate North French sandwiches for lunch. Pretty much everyday we ate North French Sandwiches — summer sausage, red cabbage, onions and cheese, with mustard and mayonnaise on some sort of bread, either wraps or English muffins. We couldn’t see or hear any hollow rocks, but maybe at lower water levels the river will reveal something.

Below Wipapiskau there are some flats and isolated rapids before Ispau Falls (R60—C6). Ispau means “High Falls.” It’s the same root word as in  Temagami’s Ishpatina Ridge and even Toronto’s Spadina Road. Ispau drops over 25 feet through two main channels and innumerable smaller ones. The topo map (42 I/6 Lyla Lake) contains an error. It shows a falls at the 425’ contour, but then names Ispau Falls a few hundred metres downstream at a series of hashmarks (R61—C1). To be clear, the falls comes first. There is a 140 m portage on the right, through the woods. We found the trail easily enough, and, with our hand pruners and saw, made it even easier for the next group. The portage ends on a pebble beach in a churling eddy.

By this time, it was late in the afternoon. We couldn’t get a good look at the falls from the end of the portage, so decided to load up and look for a campsite on the island in the middle of the falls. Upon landing, we immediately realized this would be the most memorable campsite of the trip. It felt like Brazil’s Iguazu, or Middle Earth’s Rivendell, with waterfalls surrounding us everywhere we looked. We set up our tents, ate dinner, then each of us went off to soak in the grandeur in our own way. Laurelea wrote in her journal. David flew his drone. I went fishing and caught a pickerel for breakfast. Each of us explored the falls by climbing the bare rock up to the top, then rock hopping across low-water channels to see as much as possible. It was obvious that the water was recently much higher. I can only imagine what a sight Ispau Falls must be at break up, with icebergs crashing over the rocks and through the forest, right where our tents were pitched.

Day 9 — Ispau Falls to James Bay Lowlands — 33 km

Ispau Falls would be a wonderful spot for a rest day, but we chose to continue downriver. Immediately below the falls is a long Class 1 rapid (again, R61). About 2 km downstream (R64) is a Class 5 rapid. David and Laurelea, channelling their inner mountain goat, lined down the left,  clinging inexplicably to the side of some cliffs. Meanwhile, I found an 80 m portage on the right. Use caution approaching the portage, as the landing is right at the lip of the drop. Wading the Class 1 rapids upstream is your safest bet.

More big whitewater — R65 is a C6 falls where we chose to portage-slash-lift-over a bare rock midstream island. Rapid 69 gave us some troubles. It’s a C3 with lots of options, five fingers of whitewater weaving between four midstream islands. I ran a steep drop on the right and waited below for the others. Laurelea and David, seeking adventure, opted for a middle channel. They came down their line as planned, but somewhere in the churling froth was a hidden rock. The canoe hit it solidly, giving both a look of confusion and concern. For the moment, it seemed like a narrow escape. David sponged a bit of water out of the boat and we continued downstream.

We ate lunch at the bottom of Seventh Baseline Rapids (R71), a one kilometre long C2 ending at, of all places, the Seventh Baseline. This is a survey line cut by the Ontario Geological Survey in 1931, due east-west from Niven’s Meridian to the Quebec border. While no longer visible from shore, the line is still visible in satellite imagery. The survey report is an interesting read, with details about the rivers and lands between the Moose and Harricanaw Rivers. Of the North French, it reads:

….we used the French, Yesterday and Nettogami Rivers to place supplies along our line. All these rivers are swift and get very shallow during the summer.

Unnoticed by us, David’s beloved Starburst started to fill with water over lunch. By the time we'd finished our North French sandwiches and were ready to push off again, the canoe had a few inches of water in the bottom. Moving a few packs confirmed the diagnosis. There was a series of cracks running about 20 inches down the keel. Treatment, in the form of a hefty duct tape patch, was administered immediately. Being close to the end of the whitewater, David thought that as long as they avoided more big crunches, then the canoe could make it to Moosonee.

Five big rapids, five short kilometres — dropping 20 feet per click — lay between us and the James Bay Lowlands. It was like the finale at a fireworks show. First came Apiskway Rapids (R73), a long C4 with a big rock midstream at the end. Apiskway means “osprey,” and indeed, there was an osprey nest in a chicot on the left side. Mama bird helped us scout. We ran a sneak route on the left. Both canoes had difficulties, but no one dumped. My skills at running large rapids backward were tested. 

After Apiskway comes Stringer Creek Rapids (R74—C3). We eddy-hopped down this long rapid, the lead boat signalling suggestions to the next. In the middle of the rapids, Stringer Creek throws itself into the melee. It felt like whitewater was coming at us from all directions.

Next comes Bull Rapids (R75), a big ledgy C4, which we lined. After that is Caribou Rapids (R76). Honestly, I forget the details of this one. I marked it a C3, so I’m guessing we ran it. Bull Rapids and Caribou Rapids were named after nearby Yapewatik Island. Yapew means “bull” and atik means “caribou.”

Finally we came to First Falls (R77—C4), a strange name for the last rapids on the river. We only learned the name later, from a Cree man we met the next day. It’s called First Falls because it is the first falls that you come to boating upstream from Moose Factory, marking the end of the “motorboat” section of river. We lined First Falls on the left. Laurelea and David portaged their barrels to decrease the weight in their injured boat. High fives and snacks all around, we had successfully completed the big rapids of the North French!

Past Yapewatik Island, the river takes a few bends, then heads due northeast and off the map. I tossed out a line and trolled, caught a pan-sized pickerel for breakfast. We started looking for a campsite. Realizing that one spot is as good as the next in this area, we pulled over at a nondescript spot on the left and made the most of it. Laurelea remarked that no matter where you camp, once the tents are up and dinner is cooking, it feels just like home.

Day 10 — Lowlands campsite to Moose Factory — 80 km

We awoke to steady light rain, some of the first real rain of our trip. Coffee, pickerel, bacon, and fried granola for breakfast. We started paddling around 9, through an occasional downpour. The North French picked up steam a bit. Where yesterday’s northeast straightaway was deep and slow, now the river is wide and shallow with frequent swifts. Where the Wakwayowkastic River joins, we followed a golden eagle for a ways. Lunch was a North French sandwich at the upstream end of a large island, next to a shoreline iceberg melting slowly in the rain.

After lunch, the rain let up and the skies started to clear. Laurelea was wet and chilled in her raincoat, but David and I were snug and warm because we were still wearing drysuits.

As we passed the mouth of the Kiasko River, we saw a freighter canoe pulled up on shore next to a large, tarp-covered wigwam. Kiask means “gull” in Cree. There were at least two people there, an adult and a child. We waved, but were so far away, I don't think they saw us.

Downstream of the Kiasko, Laurelea spotted another freighter canoe headed downstream. It was travelling along the east shore, while we stuck to the west. Midstream islands often kept it hidden from view. Then we rounded a corner and found the freighter anchored in front of us, two people fishing. We pulled up and introduced ourselves. They turned out to be a Cree couple from Moose Factory, Florence and Sonny Morrison, enjoying a weekend on the river. The people we had seen earlier were their son and grandson.

Sonny said that they saw us a ways upstream and decided to wait for us, see what we were up to. He said it’s pretty rare to see canoeists on the river. We struck up quite the conversation, talking about the things bush travellers talk about — fishing, water levels, you know the drill. They showed us a sturgeon they caught earlier, already cut up into steaks. Sonny said it was probably 30 pounds. They also had a pile of pickerel, already filleted and in Ziploc bags. They even had a goose, shot yesterday and smoked over the fire in the tent that morning.

After a bit, we said our farewells. They were on their way home, still over 50 km away, and planned to fish some more along the way. For our part, we wanted to get close to town so that we could catch tomorrow’s train. 

Further downstream, I pulled over to let Miskozi go for a run, and to switch my fishing lure. I heard a motor and looked up to see Florence and Sonny again. They waved as they passed by. When they got to the next bend in the river, they turned back and motored up to me.

“Your friends are quite a ways ahead,” said Sonny. “Want a tow?”

I’m no purist, so I didn't pass that up. I grabbed onto the side of their cedar canvas freighter and pulled myself forward so I could chat with Florence in the bow. Originally from Eastmain on the Quebec side of James Bay, she speaks three Cree dialects: Eastern, Western, and Moose Cree. I’m learning the Ojibwe language, which is closely related to Cree, so I peppered her with questions about different phrases. As a child, Florence was sent to the residential school in Moose Factory. She now works as Finance Director at the Mushkegowuk Council, an alliance of eight local First Nations. She and Sonny have four children and eight grandchildren (the ninth on the way).

Soon we caught up with David and Laurelea, who looked slightly aghast at my mode of travel. But the conversation picked up again and we floated downstream aways. Sonny said, “We’re all going the same direction, so grab hold.” The conversation was so good that we couldn’t say no, and so we found ourselves in a North French flotilla, me hanging onto one side and David and Laurelea on the other of the Morrison’s canoe.

For the rest of the North French, Sonny regaled us with stories of life on the river. He pointed out campsites, holes in the forest that we never would have seen otherwise. Florence sat quietly in the bow, but it became apparent that nothing escaped her view. She would smile and point to the far shore. The rest of us would strain our eyes, then see what she had spotted. Once, a pair of ducks; another time, a beaver.

It was from Sonny that we learned the name “First Falls.” They had never travelled past there, so were very interested to hear about our adventures. We pulled out our cameras and showed them photos of the rapids and falls.

Every now and then we came to a rapid. Rapids on the lower river are basically big water swifts — some haystacks and a rock here or there for good measure. Sonny would raise the motor and drift downstream, while we let go of their canoe and made our own way through the waves. At the bottom, we’d barnacle onto the big canoe again and continue the conversation.

Soon we arrived at the Moose River, where I always think I get the faintest sniff of saltwater. Giant shelves of ice lined the riverbanks, half as high as the trees and miles long, remnants of the breakup almost three weeks earlier.

Sonny and Florence invited us to stay with them for the night rather than camp at Tidewater Park. They didn’t have to ask us twice. To make an already long story shorter, I’ll simply say that the only thing as wonderful and memorable as the rapids and falls of the North French River are the people who live downstream. The Morrisons invited us into their home and their lives for a short time, fed us wild game,  and gave us hot showers and a bed for the night. Florence’s only request was that we pass on kindness whenever we can.

Day 11 — Moose Factory to Cochrane

After breakfast, Sonny (who is retired) toured us around town in his pickup. Florence came home from work for lunch and fed us smoked goose, which had been roasting all morning. In mid-afternoon, we caught a water taxi over to Moosonee.

Laurelea’s friend, Kevin, met us at the town docks. Originally from Belgium, Kevin is a paramedic in town, as well as a sled dog racer. David worked out a deal with Kevin. In exchange for taking our gear and my canoe to the train station, Kevin could have David’s beloved Starburst. While it was a great whitewater canoe, its tripping days were over. The aged hull was no longer trustworthy in big rapids. Conveniently, Kevin needed a canoe to explore the local creeks with his four kids (the fifth on the way — must be something in the water up there). With a $20 patch job, the Starburst would see new life as a family tripper on the James Bay frontier. 

Soon enough — our gear in a boxcar, Miskozi in the kennel car — we slumped into our seats at the back end of Car 2. Ever notice that canoeists get seated at the back, far away from everyone else? The clickety-clack started at 5:00 on the dot. We ate and napped and tranced to the black spruce flying by. Before long we arrived in Cochrane and loaded up the truck and trailer, which Brian-the-shuttle-guy dropped off earlier in the day. Caught the pizzeria guy just before he closed for the night and ordered an extra large special to go. Then off to our room at the Chimo Motel to gorge on pizza and dream the night away. For breakfast the next day we hit the best greasy spoon in town, Kaylob’s Kafé, before driving south.

Conclusion

The North French is amazing. How often do you get to follow a river from source to sea? But you have to work hard to enjoy the beauty and challenge. Two days of portaging from the Floodwood River to the North French headwaters. One solid day of creek dragging through the alders of Wildland Creek. Three days on the upper river, with deep, fast current interspersed with occasional rapids and swifts. Then three days of back to back to back intense whitewater and falls. Ispau Falls alone is worth the price of admission. Finally, two days on the lower river, cruising to tidewater.

Our springtime trip was twelve days in total, including travel days. We encountered medium water levels. The freshet was definitely over. Sonny told us that motorboat travel on the lower river would soon become difficult (but not impossible) due to low water. After the trip, I spoke with Ted Cheskey of Nature Canada. Ted flew into Sand Lake (near our fourth campsite) and paddled downriver on that biosurvey trip organized by the Moose Cree. Ted told me that a day of heavy rain raised the water level by four inches overnight. I believe that the river will be enjoyable at all water levels. Where we encountered five options down a rapid, a low-water trip should find at least one. The North French watershed is bigger than the Kesagami and Kattawagami combined. That’s a lot of muskeg to sustain a base flow through the summer.

Some youth camps (including my alma mater, Wanapitei) frequent nearby rivers in July and August. These include the Harricanaw, Kattawagami, Kesagami, Partridge, Nettogami, Wakwayowkastic, and Missinaibi. The North French should be added to their repertoire. Larger groups take longer on portages and in whitewater. Throw in a rest day or two, some whitewater instruction and hot-dogging, maybe some headwinds, and this 313 km route should fit their 20-day timeframe nicely.

The North French River is one of the most pristine, untouched watersheds in Ontario. It is an area of great cultural and environmental significance to the Cree. For these reasons, the Moose Cree First Nation has designated it an Indigenous Protected Area. They are calling on the provincial and federal governments to recognize this designation and formally protect the watershed as a step toward reconciliation. I’ll give Chief Patricia Faries the last word. In October 2016, she said this to the Federal Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development in Ottawa:

[The North French River Watershed] is considered of great cultural and environmental significance to our First Nation. We are deeply committed to its preservation and strongly opposed to any resource development in the area…. It is an area that remains free from the negative impacts of resource development and is one of our last pristine freshwater sources. To this day that we can still draw water from the river and drink directly from it…. From discussions with our esteemed elders and other knowledge holders, it is clear that the preservation of the watershed is paramount. It is a source of clean water, provides a healthy habitat for threatened boreal caribou and fisheries, and is a part of the carbon storehouse within the area. But most of all, it’s a place for our people to exercise our heritage activities that is fundamental to our continued well being of our First Nation.

While Moose Cree now considers this area to be removed from potential development, we are conscious that the issue of formal long term protection should be addressed cooperatively. We request the federal government’s support and cooperation in ensuring the removal of this area from potential development and its protection be fully formalized and communicated with proponents, the public, and all governments. We have asked Ontario as an initial step to withdraw these lands from any mineral prospecting, staking, sale, or lease. They have yet to act on this and as such are still encouraging mining here which we find deeply troublesome….

We understand that both Canada and Ontario have signed onto ambitious targets under the Convention of Biological Diversity to protect 17% of lands and inland waters by 2020. We strongly encourage the committee and all governments to work with Indigenous Peoples to reflect and respect their protected areas in these plans. We also look for your support to encourage Ontario to stop resource development in this watershed and to respect our indigenous-led protected area here. Right now there is a gap that the provincial government has yet to respect our Indigenous Protected Area and to stop development from occurring here. This is critical to working towards reconciliation with our people.

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42 H/8 Twopeak Lake, 42 H/9 North Burntbush Lake, 42 H/10 Montreuil Lake, 42 H/15 Tomorrow Lake, 42 H/14 Takwata Lake, 42 I/3 Audrey Lake, 42 I/6 Lyla Lake, 42 I/11 Onakawana, 42 I/10 Kiasko River, 42 I/15 Meengun Creek, 42 P/2 Bushy Island, 42 P/7 Moosonee
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