Discovery with a Paddle: Canoeing the Restoule and French Rivers

When Samuel Champlain paddled down the Restoule River with a party of Ottawa nation aboriginals in the early seventeenth century, he believed he was beating a trail of discovery to a great, westward river that would lead to the mer de l’ouest, the ocean on the far side of what was, to Europeans, a new found land.

Photograph (c) Richard A Johnson
All photographs (c) Richard A Johnson

In the Canada of Champlain’s peers, the frontier emerged from obscurity beneath each footstep and paddle stroke of he and his men. What became known as the French River was the first of many underestimations of Champlain, who was by all evidence one of the more gifted of the early European explorers of North America.

Champlain stood at the confluence of the Restoule and French Rivers and believed the latter flowed over the western horizon to the salted sea. (No doubt his indigenous guides, who may never have come across anything but fresh water during their inland lives, struggled in translation with this alien concept of saltwater.)

Champlain was wrong. But in his wrongness, he made if not a discovery then at least a revelation.

It may have dawned on him that he was experiencing the seduction of terra incognita. It’s what we draw on maps before we ever experience the place to be mapped. It’s what we claim as our own before we know if it can even be gained, let alone held and owned. It’s what traps us into confusing our passion for discovery with a conquering of nature.[1]

So powerful is the force behind exploration that it can place a child’s imagination inside the cunning mind of a man.

As Jean Baudrillard wrote of cartography in the postmodern age, “The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it…. It is the map that precedes the territory.”[2]

The map, like Champlain’s belief in a river to the sea in the middle of Ontario, is our imagination, our longing to explore. It is in some ways essential to our path. But it–and not the wilderness–is what must be gained and held.

What drives us to discover that which we do not know cannot be placed on a map. No matter what it promised on his map–no matter that he ended up with Georgian Bay instead of the Pacific Ocean, which turned out to be of no small import to Europeans–Champlain’s only real discovery was that in going beyond his known frontier, he released the child inside him to explore a true wilderness.

What Francis Younghusband humbly wrote about the Himalaya applies well to the wilderness discovery narrative in general: “To those who have struggled with them the mountains reveal beauties they will not disclose to those who make no effort. And it is because they have so much to give and give it so lavishly to those who will wrestle with them that men love mountains and go back to them again and again.”[3]And so seduced, eager and aware, our group went a-paddling where Champlain had dreamt of reaching the far side of the world.

Our Route
The Champlain Loop along the Restoule and French Rivers we did in five days (many do it in four).[4]
Day 1
: Approximately 46° 4′ 2” North latitude by 79° 46′ 24” West longitude is the starting point. From the south shore of Stormy Lake in Restoule Provincial Park paddling westward into the Restoule River, via the Scott’s Dam portage (270m), and into a beautiful campground with good fishing on the south shore of Lennon Lake, which is no more than a widening of the river. 11km plus 1 portage.
Day 2: The remainder of the Restoule River westward with a portage (270m) around MacArthur’s Rapids (CII; too low in August to run) and another portage (700m) around the series of falls down to the French. Out into Restoule Bay and the French River, through a small maze of islands and bays to a peninsula campsite (by far the least attractive of the trip) just opposite the bridge over Chaudiere Rapids. 14km plus 2 portages.
Day 3: Chaudiere portage (600m) leads into the southern bay of the Upper French River. Paddle hard (in headwinds and a downpour of rain, for us) around the islands east of the First Nation town of Dokis all the way up to Satchel’s Bay, then to a glorious and surprisingly secluded campsite at the eastern tip of Sumner Island. 12km plus 1 portage.
Day 4: Back into the French River toward the vast expanse of Lake Nipissing, around into Frank’s Bay to find the mouth of Shoal Creek. A 3.5-hour zigzagging course through the creek’s marshes (and over nearly a dozen beaver dams) is exciting but ultimately exhausting, and involves three short portages (90m, 45m and 50m) around rocks. Over the final beaver dam is found the clear waters of Shoal Lake, with a large campsite near plentiful fishing holes on the far eastern shore. 15km plus 3 portages.

Day 5
: The day of four lakes, from Shoal Lake to a portage (800m) that leads to Bass Lake, across which is another portage (900m) that ends at the western shore of Watt (sometimes called Clear) Lake. Traversing Watt Lake to its end the waters open up southward into Stormy Lake, heading back to the starting point at Restoule Provincial Park. 11km plus 2 portages.
Photographs copyright Richard A. Johnson. Taken with the great Holga 120N plastic camera, with Ilford HP5.Click here to view the full photo gallery.
Oh, and there are other great photographs by fellow expedition members Dean and Mike.
[1] Inspired by chapters 2 and 7 of Where is Here?: Canada’s Maps and the Stories They Tell by Alan Morantz, a book I kept closed until I could take it on this trip, and which is highly recommended as a companion read to this particular expedition.
[2] Quoted in Morantz’s book, p.147
[3] From Mount Everest: Reconnaissance (1921); quoted in Sierra Nevada by Ansel Adams, 1938.
[4] Our guidebook was A Paddler’s Guide to Killarney and the French River by Kevin Callan, which unfortunately was of little use beyond whetting our appetites for the trip. Though it contains a few snippets of advice regarding portages and campsites, those snippets are maddeningly incomplete by guidebook standards, and most of the narrative is narrowly anecdotal of a trip the author took many years ago. An internet search for trip advice and the purchase of topographic maps were more essential to planning.