Eighteen Mile Island Loop
Total Distance: 73 km
Duration: 5 days
Number of Portages: 10
Total Portage Distance: 1100m (the longest portage is 400m)
Level of Difficulty: Novice (though some knowledge of running rapids would be beneficial)
Map provided courtesy of Toporama which contains information licensed under the Open Government Licence – Canada.
It had been a couple of years since my old high school friends, Jason and Scott, had joined me on a canoe trip. The Covid-19 virus had prevented us from doing so, but in August 2021, Jason made his way from his home on Vancouver Island back to Ontario for some paddling. Scott and I joined him at his family cottage near Gravenhurst for a fun night of catching up before heading north the following morning to tackle the French River's Eighteen Mile Island Loop.
We were pumped for it, because during a summer with quite a bit of temperamental weather, we actually had a great forecast for the week.
Day 1 - Dry Pine Bay to Wigwam Islands
Shortly after 11 am the following day, we were pulling into Loon's Landing, a marina on the west shore of Dry Pine Bay. I had called ahead earlier in the week to arrange parking for our vehicle and to obtain use of their boat launch. By noon, we had the boats loaded, had paid the owners for their services, and were paddling across the bay -- Scott and Jason in my Scott Wilderness and me, alone, in my Swift Prospector. We were excited to start our trip.
The bay was a little gusty, but not enough to hamper our crossing to Meshaw Falls.
The people at Loon's Landing had told us that the owner of Meshaw Falls Cottages was no longer allowing canoe trippers access to the short portage past the Falls. Indeed, when we paddled up to the resort, we saw a massive 'No Trespassing' sign where the take-out to the portage was.
I can only assume that any portage at this location would be one of historical significance given the fact that we are talking about the French River and therefore, under the Public Lands Act, allows canoeists access to it. I mean, seriously, if there was ever a canoe route holding historical weight, it is the French River Route; however, the owners of Meshaw Falls Cottages were denying these rights at that time. As in other similar cases in Ontario, these issues often find their way to the courts to be solved.
Well, I was told by the people at Loon's Landing that it was a no-go, and the sign was large and clear, so we decided that the only battle we wanted on that lovely August day was the one of getting upriver and getting to a nice campsite. So, we reluctantly paddled south to the Stony Rapids portage. Not only did this add an extra hour to our trip, but we were denied a view of the interesting swirl hole found at Meshaw Falls.
The portage past Stony Rapids was on river-right and it ascended a couple of hundred meters over a pretty run of whitewater.
We got into our canoes off of a steep bank, paddled for a couple of minutes, and then disembarked again on river left. There, we made quick work of the 70m portage through a campsite, but stopped to have some lunch wraps before getting back in the canoes and moving on.
I resisted the urge to stand up in my canoe and moon the good folks over at Meshaw Falls Cottages as we paddled past their fine establishment for the second occasion, this time from above the falls.
As we paddled out into Eighteen Mile Bay, I gawked at the number of cottages there. This only spurred me on to paddle harder in an effort to find wilder locales.
As we rounded a bend and headed north toward Cow Bay, we saw an old cross on the point that most likely holds some historical significance. We couldn't make out what was written under it but didn't want to get out to investigate as it was private land. We were curious, so if anyone reading this trip report is aware of the story behind this cross, kindly share if you feel up to it. Drop me a line in the comment section at the end of this trip report.
A short time later, we found ourselves in the northern end of the bay and we could see Gibraltar Rock to our east.
By 3:30 in the afternoon, we found ourselves in the North Channel heading east and the cottages that dotted the shoreline got fewer and farther between. By 4 pm, we were approaching Ouellette Rapids.
Reaching the rapids, we half-lined, half-portaged up the left bank. Just as we were about to reload our canoes, a jet ski came flying up behind us and jumped the rapids! It sped away upriver. That certainly wasn't something I was used to seeing on a canoe trip, but this is what can occur when tripping through cottage country.
Just upriver from Ouellette Rapids, the river narrowed as it passed under a bridge. There, we had to paddle hard to fight the current. At one point, my boat was pretty much at a standstill as I was giving it all I had. Perseverance won the day though; I eventually made it through. Scott and Jason had an easier time as they were fighting it in tandem.
We found ourselves in another cottagey area again as the river widened into a massive bay dominated by massive cliffs on the southern shore.
I was aware of a couple of campsites adjacent to the cliffs, so we made a beeline for them. It was getting late, and we were getting tired and hungry. We were looking forward to setting up camp and relaxing over dinner.
We approached the campsite to the left of the cliffs. There was a motorboat pulled ashore and a young couple was relaxing and having a picnic. We didn't see any camping gear or equipment, so we asked them if they were planning to camp on the site. They said that they were just about to leave and we could have it. Yippy-skippy!
Good news for us because it was a great site, despite the view of cottages across the bay and the number of motorboats flying about in the late afternoon. Here is a shot of the site taken the following morning from the water.
After setting up camp and collecting some firewood, we enjoyed a steak dinner at the fire and ate it atop the cliffs facing the western skies. The views from there were amazing as the sun went down.
The moment was so spectacular, it inspired Jason to do an amazing little jig in celebration.
We spent the rest of the evening relaxing by the fire and enjoying the clear skies as the moon rose over the cliffs.
Day2 - Wigwam Islands to North Channel near Wolseley Bay
When I awoke, the river was like glass. The boys were still snoozing in their tents, so I immediately hopped in the canoe in the hope of catching a walleye for breakfast.
I fished for about a half-hour at the drop in front of the site and around the point below the cliffs. It was a humbling and amazing experience paddling below that massive face of granite in the calm and quiet of the morning. I did manage to get something substantial on the line for a bit, but lost it a few seconds later; it wasn't hooked well. Despite returning to the site empty-handed, it was a great moment of solitude in the early morning calm and a fantastic way to start the day.
When I returned to camp, the fellows were getting up. We took our time breaking camp and enjoyed some bacon and eggs with coffee. We eventually got on the water and were heading west by late morning.
Within an hour, we were gliding past the Caulkins Islands and were watching all of the activity at the cottages. Even though it was a Monday, most of the properties there had people present doing cottagey things.
Another hour upriver and we were approaching the first set of whitewater at Cedar Rapids. Though the portage was only 60-meters long, we were able to line the boats up the northern bank, saving a bit of energy. It was in peak afternoon heat on a scorcher of a day, so we went swimming. We then took a break for a bit, had a snack, and fished for a while in and around the rapids. We got a couple of hits, but again had no luck bringing anything in.
Here is a shot of some of the rapids from the top of the portage.
A fifteen-minute paddle upriver took us to the second and largest section of Cedar Rapids. The river narrowed considerably there and was dotted with several small islands.
We arrived at a spot where the river was split by a centre island. There were boney rapids in the north channel and a ledge drop-off in the south one. We had a 10-meter lift-over on that centre island and put in from a rock ledge. There was only room for one boat at a time, but with the three of us, we made quick work of it.
Back in the boats, we paddled for a few more minutes only before we needed to portage again. Between the two portages, there were a couple of large crosses erected on a west-facing point on one of the islands. We assumed it was in memory of a father and son that often frequented those waters.
We had a bit of trouble finding the portage. There was no familiar yellow portage sign; this area wasn't in the provincial park, so no such luxuries were to be found. We originally got out on the north bank at a sloping rock that we thought might have been the start of the walk but found only rocky bush that had no apparent trail. As I ventured into the bush for a bit, I saw that the way was impeded by a ravine, so that was a no-go.
The only other option was up a steep embankment immediately to the left of the rapid. I got out, while Jason and Scott held my boat in the moving water, and walked up the incline, and thankfully discovered the trail.
The take-out was very narrow and had room for only one canoe at a time, so I hauled my canoe and gear up first to get it out of the way. This took a bit of time and a couple of trips. Then, I returned to give the boys a hand with their loads since they then had room to unload, as well.
This left us fairly gassed in the 30-degree heat, but once we were at the top of the ridge, the remainder of the portage was straightforward. Flagging tape and rock cairns guided the way, however, they were somewhat unnecessary as the trail itself was well-worn and easy to follow. Toward the end, we had to guess a bit where to put in. We found a faint path on our right, down a slope to a rock ledge just above the rapids.
We were drenched in sweat and it felt amazing jumping off that ledge into the river to wash it off. Jumping into that cool water after the portage was exhilarating!
We filtered more water to drink and mixed it with drink crystals to replenish some electrolytes. After that, we felt somewhat refreshed and ready to continue.
Continuing east above the rapids, the river was rugged and pretty. We paddled for another hour and we passed several campsites on the northern bank. A few were occupied, but most were vacant. We moved past them though as we wanted to get as close to Wolseley Bay as possible while the paddling conditions were good.
Eventually, we found a point on the northern shore that looked promising after spying a fire ring atop the granite knoll; but after getting out and inspecting it, we found that it was quite bare and there weren't any suitable trees from which I could hang my hammock.
We were about a 45-minute paddle west of Rainy Island at the mouth of Wolseley Bay when we cruised past a small island. At the east end of the island, we saw a fire pit and a crude shelving structure tacked to trees, letting us know that we had found a campsite.
It was a pretty spot, though the site was a bit used and abused. We decided to take it anyway because it was the last site before the channels met up again at Wolseley Bay and we were getting tired and hungry. There were two firepits on the site and the one closest to the shelf was disgusting. The ashes were deep and it was filled with bits of garbage, so we used the smaller one closer to the water. We cleaned up the site somewhat and made camp, finding a couple of nice tent pads on the rock bluff above the site.
Once again, after dinner, we were treated to a cloudless evening as the sun went down. We moved down to the water's edge to get a better look.
Again, the moment inspired Jason to dance in celebration.
Once again, we watched the half-moon rise from the south before the darkness descended.
Day 3 - North Channel (near Wolseley Bay) to Little Parisien Rapids (Main Channel)
We woke up to a sunny morning, but it didn't last long. By the time we had packed up and got on the water, it was beginning to cloud over and look like rain.
While cleaning up after breakfast, on a trip down to the river to get water, we had a run-in with a large snake coiled up among the rocks. I thought it resembled a Massasauga Rattler, having seen one the year before in the delta on Georgian Bay, but this one didn't seem to have a rattle on its tail. Perhaps it was an Eastern Hog-nosed Snake, which has similar colouring. Whatever it was, we gave it a wide berth.
We departed our island home by mid-morning. By the time we reached the eastern end of Eighteen Mile Island and were heading south toward the main channel, the sky had become completely overcast.
Our plan for the day was to get through most of the section known as Five Mile Rapids. That was the part of the trip that I was most looking forward to; it was devoid of motorboats and known for its scenic beauty. However, first, we thought we'd saddle up to Crane's Lochhaven Wilderness Lodge, a fishing resort across the bay from Little Pine Rapids -- the start of the main channel. We weren't sure if the resort was open to the public, but we'd thought we would try to see if they had any treats for sale.
We tied our canoes to the docks and went up to the resort. We met the owner there and she said that it was private and open to clients by booking only, but she was very kind and sold us some treats that we enjoyed on the deck overlooking the bay. Sweet! How often does one get to have ice cream on a canoe trip?
Soon after, we had made our way back across the bay to the west and were scouting Little Pine Rapids. It was little more than a ledge that dropped a foot or two and looked like a straightforward run, but we were reluctant to try it in kevlar canoes. The river was low and it looked rocky. Prudently, we opted for the 25-meter portage along the rock on river-right. Since we were now in the provincial park, the portage was marked with that familiar yellow sign.
Below the rapids, we cast a couple of lines out but didn't have much luck.
Fifteen minutes later, we were getting out of our canoes again to the right of Big Pine Rapids. This set of rapids looked extremely bony, so we didn't think about running them. Though the portage was listed as 25m, it seemed closer to 100m from end to end. The topography was rugged and the area was something to behold.
Below the rapids, we paddled out and tried our luck at fishing again. This time we had better luck. We tapped into a school of bass and spent about 45 minutes having fun reeling them in.
Paddling a few minutes downriver brought us to a vacant campsite. There, we cleaned our catch and enjoyed a fish-fry shore lunch.
We had taken our time with the fishing and eating our catch, but it was getting late in the afternoon and we needed to get downriver and through more of the Five Mile Rapids. The sky was still dark, but miraculously the rain was holding off.
Ten minutes past Big Pine Rapids, we came to Double Rapids which was a small drop on either side of a granite island in the middle of the river. It was an easy little run and a good warm-up of what was to come.
Almost immediately following that, the river split into two channels around a land formation called Double Rapids Island. The right channel is known as The Ladder and the left is a whitewater section called Blue Chute. Originally, we thought we would just lift over The Ladder, but upon closer inspection, we saw the water levels were quite low and it looked to be more of a long scramble over a series of rocks with some iffy footing. So, we paddled a little further down to Blue Chute, which looked like it might be runnable, but again in kevlar canoes at lower water conditions we were afraid of hanging up on rocks. There looked to be a couple of tricky boulders in the run that might have caused trouble.
We ended up paddling into a narrow crevice of an inlet and did a short, but precarious portage up a steep rock face and put in our boats near the marked campsite below the rapids. From there, we slid into the bottom of the rapids and rode our way downstream.
Our next hurdle, just a five-minute paddle past Blue Chute was Big Parisien Rapids. The trip reports that I had read stated that the first and most frothy set of whitewater should be portaged on the ridge looking over the canyon on river-right, while the bottom section could be run. So, when we came to it, that is what we did.
We carried our gear over first and left it at the put-in below the rapids which is also the location of the campsite. A couple was camping there. Jason chatted with the man for a bit and he said that the rapids could easily be run. So, I walked up to the ridge and got a better look. Indeed, it looked like a very straightforward run except for a right turn at the end to avoid hitting a large boulder on the left bank.
I'd had enough of portaging past all of the fun, so after conferring with the boys, we decided we'd give it a shot. We carried our PFDs and paddles back to our canoes and ran the 40-meter long rapid. It was a lot of fun and one of the highlights of the day.
Just downriver from Big Parisien Rapids, we came to a very pretty part of the trip with thick coniferous forest sitting atop steep rocky river banks. In addition, we were beginning to see breaks in the clouds; it all made for a stunningly beautiful landscape.
The river split into a few channels a little further downstream just above Little Parisien Rapids and Devil Chute, where there were a couple of islands dominating the center of the river. The larger one to the south is called Big Bluff Island. We ended up staying at a campsite (now numbered 412, it used to be 410, I believe) on the smaller island just to the north of Big Bluff.
It was incredible to have this wonderfully scenic part of the river to ourselves. As we were setting up camp, the sun came out to play and we could hear the gurgle of rapids just to the west of the island. It was a fantastic place to be.
Jason and I paddled to the north bank of the river on a firewood expedition and we returned with a load to last us the night and the morning. Then, we all went for a swim to wash off the sweat of the day. After that, it was dinner and then basking in our surroundings for the evening.
Day 4 - Little Parisien Rapids to Owl's Head Rock
I slept like a log that night. I must have because I didn't notice how much the temperature had dropped. I was snug as a bug in my hammock cocoon.
When I poked my head out of my cocoon, I couldn't see far; fog had enveloped the area.
It didn't last long though. By 9 am, the sun was high enough to begin burning the mist off. It lent quite an eerie feeling to the river landscape. It's these "in-between moments" that are so beautiful on a canoe trip!
We knew we didn't have any portages that day, so we took our time in the morning breaking camp and didn't get back on the water until mid-morning. I snapped a quick shot of our island home as we departed.
An island forced the river into two channels, each with a set of rapids -- Little Parisien Rapids on the north channel and Devil Chute on the southern one. Since it was on the same side as our campsite put-in, we tried paddling to Little Parisien first but ground to a halt because the rapids all but disappeared in the low water. It was pretty to see, though.
So, we backtracked to the east of our island campsite and ran Devil Chute, which was little more than a swift in the low-water conditions.
By 11 am we were paddling past Deadhog Point.
The last bit of discernible moving water in the 5 Mile Rapids section of the French River was Crooked Rapids. Again, with the low water levels, we barely even knew that we were at them as we paddled through. We had to move aside for a motorboat after doing so. Sigh...we were back in motorboat country.
The French River can get windy as it becomes a tunnel between the large open expanses of Georgian Bay and Lake Nipissing, but on that particular morning, we had a wonderful calm and a mirror-like water surface. These conditions, mixed with the rocky topography of the northern riverbank, made for some spectacular scenery.
We spent the next hour and a half working our way east.
About 30 minutes past Crooked Rapids, a rescue helicopter flew in behind us and circled above us several times. This went on for about 15 minutes. He got low in the sky and fairly close to us on a couple of these passes. It was curious. I wasn't sure if they were engaged in some sort of training exercise or if they were actually on a search and rescue task. It seemed like they were concentrating on us, and for the life of me, I couldn't understand why. At one point, I checked my Zoleo device to see if the emergency button had been triggered by mistake somehow, but it couldn't have been as there was a protective lever over it. It kept circling to the south of us and back again, so perhaps they got a call from a canoe party on the Pickerel River and were confusing us for them? We just kept paddling and eventually, it flew away.
We arrived at Cross Island just before 1 pm. We paddled to the west end of the island where a large white cross has been erected by the local Knights of Columbus to commemorate Jesuit missionaries who were allegedly martyred there by a raiding Mohawk party in the 17th century. There are records of other Jesuits who were martyred around the same time when the 5 Nations Iroquois and Mohawk people moved into Huronia in 1649 to eliminate the Wendat and vis a vis the Jesuits who had contact with them, but there doesn't seem to be any details on this specific Cross Island incident -- at least none that my rudimentary internet research could find, anyway.
We had a lunch wrap at the site and sat for a while. We had had incredibly hot temperatures on the first two days of the trip and that fourth day was, perhaps, the hottest of them all. There was a nice rock ledge next to the spot where we beached our canoes and we enjoyed jumping off the ledge into the deep drop off below to cool off. I felt refreshed and replenished as I turned to get a last look at Cross Island before continuing east.
45 minutes later we reached the Haystack Islands. The southernmost island is an impressive mound of rock jutting out from the middle of the river.
A half-hour after that, we were approaching Owl's Head Rock Island, where an industrious property owner managed to perch an impressive collection of cabins on the rocks at this unlikely location.
We could see the power lines downriver past the island and according to Kevin Callan's report, the sites near there weren't great. Worse still, he mentioned that the hum from the power lines could be heard there; for our last night of the trip, we wanted to stay upriver of that.
I was aware of a campsite located on the north shore just past Owl's Head. We went there and discovered a nice spacious site in a grove of pines high on the rocky bank. It even had a small beach below the rocks. Though it was still only mid-afternoon, we decided to make camp there and relax for the rest of the day on our last night of the trip.
One odd thing about the site was the weird bushcraft construction projects that previous campers left behind.
We set up camp and swam on the beach to wash the paddling sweat off. It was still only mid-afternoon, so we relaxed in our respective tents with a nap and a little reading for a while.
It was our last night of the trip and we talked a lot about life, our families, music (Scott is a musician), and anything else that old friends talk about as we consumed our dehydrated meals next to a roaring campfire. Again, we enjoyed the beautiful colours as the sun went down.
Day 5 - Owl's Head Rock to Loon's Landing
We were up, canoes loaded, and on the water before 9 am. We only had less than two hours to get back to our vehicle, so we were in no rush. As we paddled away from the site, I turned around to take my customary shot of it.
We paddled under the power lines once again and past Dalton's Point. We hit the jackpot on this trip in terms of paddling conditions; luckily, we had very little wind to contend with.
We passed Lost Child Bend on the Cantin Island Reserve to our south, named after a legend about an indigenous child that went missing in the water there. He appeared to be pulled under and as his parents and others dived for him, they could not find him. The legend says that the boy's cries were heard for six days, including from under the ground that the group was camped on. He was never found despite the many days of searching for him.
As we moved through the channel north of Fourmile Island, the river narrowed and some pretty islands were dotting the river there.
We decided to stop on one of these islands and have a mid-morning swim and a snack. Unfortunately, the tranquility of the moment was interrupted by a man and his son flying through the area, rather close to our beached boats, on a jet ski. Sigh.
A short paddle downriver from this, we were moving through the narrow opening that leads into Dry Pine Bay known as Canoe Pass. Again, we had to move aside for the motorboat there. On a river trip in cottage country, it is certainly difficult to avoid them at times.
The paddle across Dry Pine Bay was easy. The wind was staying down and we beached our canoe at Loon's Landing just before 11:30 am.
After loading up the car, we had another swim at the beach and were heading out on the road soon after. We stopped in at the French River visitor's center and learned a little more about the anthropological and natural history of the area, albeit from a Eurocentric viewpoint. Brule was certainly not the first to "discover" Lake Huron.
After that, it was burgers and ice cream at the Trading Post, where we discussed what a great trip it had been over our treats.