Canoeing on the Pickerel River in Ontario, July 28-August 03, 2010
I had started organizing this trip through a Meetup group some time in March, 2010 and was quite surprised at the number of people interested in wanting to take part in it—at one point there was a waiting list. As per the French River Provincial Park regulations, maximum of three tents and six people are allowed on one campsite; considering that we were planning to occupy two campsites, the event had to be limited to 12 people. However, with some ingenious planning, we could have probably accommodated a couple of more people and that was why I allowed four more people. Unfortunately, Mike, a member I had paddled with on the French River on two previous occasions had to cancel the night just before the start of the trip due to a family emergency and automatically his partner was not coming either. Therefore, we expected to have 12 people.
I have canoed in French River Provincial Park several times (http://ontario-nature.blogspot.com/2010/06/french-river-trip-september-4-9-2008.html and http://ontario-nature.blogspot.com/2010_04_01_archive.html ), so I have already written about major features of this area and its history. However, in the past we were canoeing there with a small group of people (2-4), changed campsites almost every day and did not have to worry about finding a vacant campsite. With this event it was a little different: we were supposed to occupy two campsites, ideally adjacent sites. The park's campsites are not reservable, i.e., they're on the first-come-first-serve basis. During our September 2009 canoe trip on the Pickerel River I saw a cluster of four campsites (numbers 900, 901, 902 and 903), just about one hour paddle from highway 69 and it was our objective to stay on some of them—we hoped that at least two of them would be available; otherwise, we would be forced to paddle on to other campsites which usually were not as close together as those four. That was why some of us were going to arrive on Wednesday, July 28 and 'claim' those campsites for the others arriving over the weekend.
July 28, 2010, Wednesday
Since we packed the car the previous day, we were able to leave Toronto for the Pickerel River at 7 am. The weather forecast was very favorable and we hoped it would not rain for the next week or so. The ride on highway 400 was problem-free; we stopped in Parry Sound's No Frills to do some shopping and buy gas and arrived at Grundy Supply Post (just at the intersection of highway 69 and road 522) before 11 am.
Not long ago (during our “Dokis” French River trip) we had rented a very good canoe from them and spent several days canoeing on the French River; as it turned out, the same canoe model was for sale and we had been thinking all this time whether or not we should buy the canoe... or just keep renting, as we had been doing so far. While we were checking out the canoe and contemplating our final decision, Luis and Sarah (two trip members) arrived, with their canoe attached to the roof of the car. To make the story short, ten minutes later we were proud owners of a 17'' Scott Kevlar “Adventurer” canoe, also attached to our roof (“welcome to the club!”).
We drove a few klicks to the marina at highway 69 & Pickerel River (where the historical White Cross is located), parked our car at Smith Marina ($8.00 plus per day-expensive!), loaded the canoes and got on the water. It was very windy and we were paddling right against the wind. From time to time a motorboat sped by. The area was really pretty—plenty of rocks, some cottages, a lot of trees. Once we passed Flowerpot Island (not nearly as stunning as the Tobermory version), we started to look to our left to spot the first campsite: whereas they were indicated on the map, sometimes it was difficult to find them, as the signs were very small. The wind must have picked up and despite our efforts, the canoe hardly moved. Some 15 minutes later we spotted the first campsite, but decided to paddle to campsite no. 903. Even though we had to paddle for just several hundreds meters, the wind made it so difficult that at one point we considered stopping and taking a rest, but somehow we found the strength to continue on—and so apparently so did Luis and Sarah, who were following us closely. I saw campsite 902... and then we managed to slip into a small bay with an island where we finally found a nice shelter and could get some rest. We paddled around the island and it turned out that campsite #903 was on that island. We also explored campsites 902 and 901 and decided to take the island campsite 903 and campsite 902. Although they were separated by water, they were very nice and still close to each other. We pitched a spare tent on the island and then started setting up our tent on campsite 902. I don't remember ever having so many problems with erecting a tent—it was so windy that I had literally to hold the tent to prevent it from being blown away.
We found a small, flat place on the rock which exposed us more to the wind, but provided us a nice view of the river and the other campsite. I gathered several big rocks which I used as pegs. Luis and Sarah also set up their tent on a rock, but father from us. The campsite was very spacious, had a privy, also known as a thunderbox, yet for some reasons it was a little ...well... messy—littered with used toilet paper and yes... that too. Perhaps previous campers did not know about the privy... or were too lazy to go there—well, some things are difficult to explain! We unloaded our stuff from the canoe, we swam to the island campsite and in the bay. Later Luis and I got some nice firewood and soon the four of us were sitting around the campfire, grilling steaks and enjoying red wine!
By the way, Luis, being from El Salvador, also spoke Spanish—and so did Sarah! Well, I wish I could learn Spanish one day... I don't think it's that difficult, although its grammar is a little tricky. I always learn Spanish before I go to Cuba—and then never have the time, or incentive, to keep us learning it. Pity.. it's such a nice and useful language!
July 29, 20010, Thursday
The morning weather was quite nice, the wind finally subsided. Just in case, spread the big white tarp so if it rained, at least we could enjoy having our meals under the tarp. After breakfast all of us paddled west and explored campsite 904; there were some old metal rings driven into the rock, yet another sign of the logging era that ended about 100 years ago.
Unfortunately, it started to rain and Louis & Sarah paddled back to the campsite—and not before long we followed them. We read some newspapers, then because of the rain went to the tent and slept for 2 hours till 7 pm, when the rain stopped. Evening is always the perfect time to paddle, so we took advantage of the relatively good weather and went paddling, as well as I did some fishing, mainly trolling behind the canoe.
We canoed around Camp Island and two other small islands to the west, paddled into a small bay north of Camp Island and as it was getting very dark, we started paddling back to the campsite. Suddenly we heard a motorboat—it did not have any lights on and we did not see it, so we tried to keep as close to Camp Island as possible and flashed our headlights—and later paddled straight towards our campsite, or rather towards the campfire, which could be seen from afar. As we were paddling in darkness, suddenly I felt that my fishing rod, which I was holding with my foot, started to wobble... after a brief struggle, I pulled a very nice Walleye, first such fish in my life! Once we landed, I cleaned the fish, with the help of Catherine, Sarah and Luis. So, in addition to our pork steaks, we had fresh fish for our late supper.
From time to time we faintly heard trucks traveling on highway 69 as well as trains, both east and west of us (i.e., CPR and CP). Sara managed to lose her footing and slip into the river while doing the dishes.... an act which despite being hard to follow, was repeated time again over the course of the weekend by various members... unintentionally mind you. We sat around the campfire for a while and hit the hay (or sleeping bags) after midnight.
July 30, 2010, Friday
Since we expected the others to arrive today, we were up at 9:30 am, had breakfast, wrote a note to the others about the campsites (we had sent a few text messages to Lynn and Victoria yesterday, informing them that we had succeeded in getting two campsites and gave them their numbers) and went paddling towards highway 69. Just in the south narrows near Flowerpot Island we saw a canoe with Lynn and Wayne who kept paddling towards the campsite; some time later, when we were approaching highway 69, we met Bernie and Andrea. Luis and Sarah decided to park the canoe and drive to the town of Alban to do shopping; Catherine and I continued paddling eastward, on the other side of the Pickerel River bridge. There were plenty of cottages along the shore; some had wonderful, spacious beaches... but they were rather ephemeral: we could see the old water line on rocks and trees and it appeared that the water level was about 2 meters below the level in the recent past; thus, vast swaths of shoreline were exposed, some docks were totally unusable and others had new stairs or smaller docks added to accommodate motorboats.
Catherine insisted on snooping around one estate property which was for sale she decided against putting in an offer as the lawn maintenance was extreme. Eventually we reached the Horseshoe Falls. If there was any passage, or a fall, between the Pickerel River and the lake just north of it, it must have been only when the water levels were higher: all we saw was a field of big rocks. I was wondering if long ago dynamite was used to make the passage—during the logging era, some rapids were blown up to allow floating logs. Catherine walked along the impassable passage and actually saw the French river at a higher elevation staring back at her. It was weird and eerie as dried seaweed hung like corpses over everything. She likened the site to and abandoned crisis operation paddling back—this time against the wind, so it took us longer to get to the campsite. Catherine was hungry and kept trying to talk me into getting to the car and driving up the highway to the Hungry Bear all you can eat buffet. But I stayed unyielding although we did stop at Cedar Lodge for two take-away soft drinks. Catherine used her cell to make the duty call home... reception was good too. Bernie and Andrea set up their tents on the island campsite #901. Ian & Sue had already arrived and decided to stay on that island as well; Lynn & Wayne shared our campsite #902.
We were still waiting for Victoria and Yuri, but they never came—we found out later they canceled after we had left Toronto. In the evening all ten of us sat around gathered around the campfire on our campsite; that evening I also caught two catfish from the shoreline.
July 31, 2010, Saturday
For some reasons I was up at 6:30 am, took some photos, cast a few times... and caught another catfish, this time a big one! It was still very early and nobody else was up, so I went back to the tent and eventually woke up at 9:30 am. The first thing I did was clean the three catfish by nailing them to the three and then removed the skin with pliers—Catherine and Wayne were assisting me, while the others were taking photos to record this important event for posterity! I find the catfish to have very few bones and very white, tasty meat, yet some people never eat catfish because it is a bottom feeder (so what?). Soon Catherine fried them and we were enjoying a catfish breakfast, along with the waiting seagulls overhead.
The others from the island campsite came over and all of us paddled towards highway 69. We stopped at the Cedar Village Restaurant, where Catherine bought two cans of very cold beer— they were delicious! There were plenty of boats being launched, as well as I saw a motorboat with wardens apparently checking fishing and boating licenses. By the way, while operating a canoe, we do not need any license (yet!), just have to have personal flotation device (one for each person—does not have to be worn), 15 meters of buoyant line, watertight flashlight, a whistle and a bailer. Such a 'license', called “Pleasure Craft Operator Card” was introduced about 10 years ago and I believe 2010 was the first year they were required to operate any motor boat.
Personally, I think that getting them is a joke: one can actually take an exam online (!) or at various establishments, no course is required. From time to time I do rent a motorboat and go fishing, so in 2001 I passed the exam and got my card—or I should rather say, I bought it: the exam was given during a boat show in Toronto to anyone wanting to take it: you pay only if you pass! It was a multiple choice exam and some questions were very easy and required just common sense; others, which dealt with navigation, markers, etc. were more challenging... but luckily, the right answers were visibly checked next to the questions... 'nuff said! So, after having that cold beer, we paddled on, soon catching up with the other canoes.
We stopped for lunch just before the CPR bridge and afterward Lynn, Wayne, Catherine and I decided to paddle to the Horseshoe Falls and the others paddled back to the campsite. However, at one point we TOO decided to go back as far as the car park, as we wanted to do some grocery shopping and check out the village Sara and Luis had visited.
We attached the canoe to the dock at Smith Marina with a chain link/lock and drove to Alban to a small supermarket called Lemieux (by the way, this is a very French area of Ontario and French is still the first language for many residents), got some meat, visited the LCBO store, on our way back had ice cream in the Hungry Bear Restaurant, drove back to the Smith Marina parking lot and paddled back to our campsite.
Later we went around the 'campsite island', said 'hi' to Bernie who was fishing and watched the sunset. As always, we had a campfire and hoped that the 'island' group would join us, but apparently they had their own fire going that night. The others went to bed early and only Catherine and I stayed around the fire till 1:30 am.
August 01, 2010, Sunday
We got up at 9:30 am—not surprisingly, the others had already been up. Luis and Sara packed up and left quite early as they had to be in Toronto on Sunday. After a while Ian & Sue and Andrea & Bernie paddled over to our campsite. As I mentioned before, this event was organized through a Meetup group (an online social networking portal) called “Get Out”; that particular group was founded by Mona in June, 2007 and it was the group's 300th event! Hence, we (except Luis & Sara) posed for a commemorative group photo. After the ceremony, Sue & Ian also left for Toronto.
At 11:48 the rest of our gang paddled towards Georgian Bay. First of all, we checked some crown land (i.e., land that belongs to us... and legally, every resident of Canada can stay on it without any permit/fee for 21 days per year) in Deep Bay (south of campsite #905), thinking that we might camp there next year, thus avoiding the $11 per person per day interior camping fee, but the shores were too steep, rocky and rugged for any camping.
We took the Little Canoe Channel up north and had lunch on a small rocky island in the mouth of the channel, just west of campsite 908 (it was exactly the same place where we stopped for lunch during our September 2009 Pickerel/French River trip) as well as most of us swam around the island. We kept paddling west to the Pickerel River; from time to time a motor boat passed by. One of the boaters pointed out to a crevice in the rock, almost at the water level, and said there was a white owl there.
We came up to it and indeed, it was a rather big, white bird, but almost certainly it was a Turkey Vulture chick; perhaps it fell off its nest on the cliff, yet apparently the mother still took care of it. We took a bunch of photos and paddled on. We also saw plenty of beaver lodges—a very typical sight—yet one of them must have been built when the water level was much higher; now, when it was low, its bottom was totally exposed, giving us a rare opportunity to examine the normally submerged part of beaver lodges.
Finally we saw the CN bridge and dozens of homes on both sides of it. It used to be the town of Pickerel River, quite vibrant long ago, when trains regularly stopped there. These days trains don't stop there anymore (we saw one pulling tens of cars loaded with containers bearing familiar brand names) and the 'town' has become just a cottage community, accessible only by water and in the winter by snowmobiles.
We even talked to some local residents who spoke about the old days—the train station, trips to the town of Key River by train (nowadays Key River is accessible by water, the rail tracks were lifted long ago and only the name “Key Junction”, several kilometers from the Pickerel River Bridge remains on the maps), tourists and hunters arriving by train, local stores...
On our way back we stopped and collected a few clams (later they were grilled over the fire and two or three brave souls, including of course Catherine, even tried to eat them—supposedly, they were not very tasty). Before we reached the campsite, it had started raining, so we quickly unpacked the canoe and ran under the tarp; 15 minutes later Lynn & Wayne came and joined us! Once it stopped raining, Wayne managed to start the fire and I went fishing, but no luck. Later Bernie and Andrea came over.
The weather got a little better—there was no wind, no rain and the water surface was like a mirror. We stayed around the fire, talking, among other things, about Wayne's and Lynn's journeys all over the world. About midnight Andrea & Bernie paddled back to their campsite on the island.
August 02, 2010, Monday (Civic Day)
Everyone except Catherine and I was leaving today! Soon, Bernie & Andrea paddled over, their canoe packed, as well as Wayne & Lynn were ready to pack theirs... and before noon, they were gone! We were planning to stay till Wednesday, but soon we wished we had left on with the others: the weather took a turn for the worst, it started to pour cats and dogs and we had no choice but to stay in our tent. After a few hours we heard some voices nearby—a large youth group made their campsite on the island campsite #903—and apparently other members of this group were camping on campsites 901 and 900; seemingly, they had a great time despite constant rain! It almost stopped raining in the evening and we were about to go for a short paddle, but when we were getting into the canoe, Catherine slipped on the very slimy rock and fell into the water! As a matter of fact... almost everyone (except me!) slipped at that very place, on the sloping rock near the water.
Because of that calamitous mishap, we decided not to go canoeing that evening. Later we had some intermittent rain and I thought it would be impossible to have a campfire that night, yet I managed to get it started—at least we could bask in its heat!
August 02, 2010, Tuesday
Another rainy day! We realized we ran out of propane and thus had to start a fire if we wanted to have anything warm to drink or eat. The main fire pit was totally exposed to the elements, but there was another fire pit farther from the lake, in the forested area of our campsite, where we had spread the tarp.
Catherine managed to start a small campfire in that other location, under the tarp, so at least we had hot coffee and tea. We were willing to leave at any time, but the ongoing rain would have made taking down the tent and packing a very difficult and unpleasant experience. So we waited under the tarp, enjoying the nice view of the Pickerel River! Around 3:00 pm it was somehow clearing and stopped raining, so we immediately took advantage of this new situation, started packing (and found one FULL canister of propane, stashed among our belongings) and at 6:00 pm were on the water, heading towards Smith Marina which we reached in less than one hour.
On our way back we went to the Grundy Supply Post (where we had bought the canoe) and, with prior arrangement and payment, decided to leave the canoe there instead of carrying it to Toronto—after all, we were planning to be back here in one week for our Philip Edward Island trip, as well as we wanted to buy additional straps to attach the canoe to the roof of the car. Later, we stopped in the Hungry Bear Restaurant, had a tasty meal and salad bar that Catherine had been fantasizing about days earlier. Then it was an easy ride home. Despite the weather and four cancellations, the event was a success; we were also very satisfied with our new canoe's performance—it was light, spacious, fast and very stable. We had planned on having everyone sign it but the permanent marker didn't hold. We may still christen it the “Mona 300” and mark our voyages in indelible paint in the interior....so much for its resale value:)
More photos from this trip: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jack_1962/sets/72157624684129751/