Wednesday, December 16, 2015


Our route as per the GPS tracks
Twenty years ago, in August, 1995, I had spent one week camping and canoeing on the French River—we had departed from Hartley Bay Marina, portaged over the Dalles Rapids, reached the Bustard Islands and after spending two nights there gone back, this time portaging over the tramway and proceeded back to Hartley Bay. It had been my first canoeing trip in Canada and also the best one I had ever taken in Canada—as well as it got me hooked on canoeing! Since then I have visited the French many times—this is a magical area, very picturesque, containing here and there remnants of not so distant history. Moreover, the famous French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, had canoed on the French River in 1615; on August 1, 2015, it was exactly 400th anniversary of Champlain's reaching Lake Huron (Georgian Bay)! So, I was looking forward to spending a week on this magnificent river (which, by the way, with its myriad of inlets, narrows, bays, islands, rocky isles and polished rocky shores hardly resembles a river at all!).
Our campsite #609 on the French River (Boom Island) was very open and spacious
A friend of mine and I left Toronto on July 26, 2015; it was very hot, +33C and we had air conditioning at full blast. Our first brief stop was at King City's Tim Horton's on highway 400, where they botched up my order—AGAIN—it had happened so many times before! Once we had something to eat and drink, we were back on the highway and it was a very smooth ride. North of Parry Sound we saw a steel memorial of a drummer on the right side of the highway. In early January, 2012, four teenagers had died on an icy stretch of highway 69. One of the teens was Cole Howard, 19, a popular drummer of a local band. His father, James Howard, had an artist create a likeness of Cole behind his beloved drum kit and the sculpture was erected in 2014. In addition, there were crosses at the site to commemorate the other teens killed at that accident.

In order not to rush, we decided to spend the first night camping at Grundy Lake Provincial Park. According to Trip Advisor's most recent reviews, there were plenty of mosquitoes as well as bears at the park, so we brought an extra can of bug repellent. We got campsite #113, the same Catherine and I had stayed on in 2010, before our canoeing trip to the northern portion of the French River. A short path led from the campsite to the lake, it was possible to sit on a big rock and the view was quite impressive! Plenty of campers were canoeing (no motor boats were allowed on the park's lakes) on the lake; although the park was probably 90%+ full, it was relatively quiet. There was a water tap just across the campsite and several meters further away clean bathrooms. We started the fire and had ribs. Amazingly, there were no mosquitoes at night due to the very hot weather. Serenaded by loons, we quickly fell asleep.
Fishing station on the Bustard Island in 1896. In 2009 we found and visited this location (refer to the photo below)
In the morning we quickly packed up and drove to the French River Visitors' Centre, where we spent 20 minutes looking at the displays and learning about the local history. One of the photographs in the Centre showed a late 19th century photograph of a commercial fishing station in the Bustard Islands in 1896. In 2009, 113 years later, I paddled to the Bustard Islands and located the same spot, albeit the houses, ships and people were gone... We also got our permits at the Center—and were informed that three campsites, number 610, 611 and 617 had been closed due to bear activity. Guess what—we actually wanted to stay on campsite #617!
The site of the Fishing Station on the Bustard Island in 2009, 113 years later. Houses, sailing boats and people are gone, but the rocks remain...
Following the visit at the Centre, we headed to the Hungry Bear Restaurant, had coffee & a light snack—the place was teeming with tourists and there were line-ups. In a couple of years the existing road 69 will be made into a freeway and thus the access to this renowned restaurant will become restricted; I hope the restaurant will survive this change, as it has been become a very well-known landmark for over 50 years! Satiated, we drove to Alban to do our last-minute shopping. At the LCBO store we ran into the owner of Grundy Lake Supply Post, from whom Catherine and I had purchased our canoe in 2010. Unfortunately, the company that used to make Scott canoes had declared bankruptcy several years ago. I told him that it was one of the best purchases of my life! From Alban, we drove to highway 69, turned into Hartley Bay Road and some 20 minutes later arrived at Hartley Bay Marina.
Kamp Kaintuck, one of the oldest camps on the French River
The main office was located just meters from the CNR railway and we went there to obtain a parking permit-parking cost $10 per day plus $10 for launching. We chatted with two very nice employees a.k.a. (co)owners who told us about campers calling the marina “that there are bears at our campsites!” They called bears ‘overgrown racoons” and I fully agreed with this nomenclature. I was told that Mr. Palmer (owner), whom I had met during my first visit in 1995, was still actively working at the marina. I quickly told them about Celina Mroz and Jarek Frackowiak, two kayakers from Poland, who had contacted me in 2008, inquiring about paddling on the French River. They had arrived in Canada in 2009 with their tiny folding kayak and paddled from Hartley Bay to Ottawa! I still remember a photograph of both of them on Hartley Bay Marina’s docks. In 2011 they went to Peru to paddle on the Ucayali River and were murdered in cold blood by local Indians while kayaking on the river.
View from our campsite; it was certainly raining in Hartley Bay
Once we got our parking permit, we slowly drove a short distance to the docks. I recognized the employee I had seen in 2008, who showed us where to park the car. I also took a photograph at the same spot we had taken a group photo in 1995. While we were loading our canoe, two women were also preparing to commence their trip, they were planning to paddle the Voyageur Channel (something I have to do one day) and another couple was going to the Bustard Islands (I envied them!). Once we were finished, I simply left the car with the key in the ignition (yes, the marina provided valet parking) and hopped into the canoe.
Our canoe at night
Once on the water, we welcomed a light breeze in this hot and humid weather. After about 25 minutes we left Hartley Bay (I mean ‘the bay’, NOT the marina), we entered Wanapitei Bay and quickly checked out campsite #601 on an island. We did not like it—it was too dark—so we proceeded to campsite #612, on the east shore of the bay. It was better, yet we were not too keen on it either. Since the next campsite (#613) was occupied, we crossed the bay, maneuvering among some islands and rocks, and slowly paddled along the western shore, eventually approaching campsite #609.
View from our campsite. Those ominous clouds made us change our mind and stay put instead of going fishing
It had a big, semicircular open ‘beach’ strewn with sand, rocks, pebbles and some vegetation. However, according to various waterlines on the rocks and on the ground, the whole site—and I mean up to 15 m from the water—must have been flooded during spring and fall (later, the warden confirmed that), thus leaving no space to set up tents during those seasons. There was a meadow deeper in the forest, in a hollow, where tents could be pitched, yet due to its location, it could also become quite damp and swampy if it rained. Since the site was exposed, we expected less mosquitoes. It also had a couple of fire pits and a new thunder box in the woods. Well, the two nearby campsites, #610 and #611 were closed, so we did not feel like paddling anymore and decided to bivouac here. Obviously, we were aware that those campsites, located just a few hundred meters from ours, were closed due to bear activity and that there was not any barrier to keep the bears from moving over to our campsite, but we did not really think much about this. So, we quickly set up two tents on the ‘beach’ and hung the barrel and cooler (both full of food) on a sturdy branch. Too tired to go for a paddle, we started a campfire and had a couple of steaks. We were facing several islands with cottages which were occupied as we soon saw lights flickering in the windows.
Chris with our dinner, i.e., a nice pike
Our campsite was located on Boom Island; according to the description on the official French River Map, “Booming out Grounds—during the logging era, this section of the river (exactly in front of our campsite) was used for gathering logs that were run down the rapids. They were put in boom and towed by alligator boat down the river.” I even found a very old rusty metal part of a machinery, likely coming from an alligator.

From our campsite we could see campsite #612 across the bay (which soon became occupied) and the well-known Kentucky Club Island (2 km away), where Kamp Kaintuck, a privately owned fishing camp, was located. It had been the site of an annual fishing trip for a group of Louisville, KY business and professional men since 1912.
"There is a bear at our campsite!"
Next day was very hot and sunny; since my tent was exposed to the morning sun, I had no choice but wake up—or suffocate. It was really impossible to do anything in the open, so we moved our chairs towards the forest and sat in the shade. I brought a number of books and while trying to pick one of them, I was suddenly startled by Chris’ (too) calm words:

“Jack, there is a bear behind the trees!”

Indeed, we saw a black bear—its black fur contrasted with the forest’s green canopy. It must had been watching us for a while; then it kept moving around behind the trees and finally faded in the forest. Just in case, we hung the cooler and the food barrel—after all, it was not after us, but our food (or so we hoped).

I started reading “Phantoms” by Dean Koontz and about 30 minutes later I saw a moving black shape in the forest—wow, another bear! It was followed by a cuddly, small cub! So, now we had a sow with a cub! The bears kept roaming around the campsite, but all we saw was their black fur and moving branches or bushes; a few minutes later they vanished in the forest without even giving me a chance of taking a photo.
Bear rummaging through our stuff at the campsite
Around 6:00 pm, when it finally got cooler, we jumped into the canoe and went fishing, paddling in the southern direction. I caught a very small pike and let it go. Then we paddled back along the shore, constantly casting. I snagged a bigger fish, but after a brief fight it got away before I even got a chance to take a look at it. As we were slowly approaching our campsite, being pushed by the light wind, I heard some clamor coming from the direction of the campsite—since a big rock blocked the view, we kept paddling vary hard to get an unobstructed view of the campsite—then we heard another clatter—and finally we saw the campsite. As I suspected, there was a black bear standing next to the transparent utility box in which we kept our non-edible stuff. It was probably over 200 lb. and was innocently looking at us, but quickly went about his business of sniffing at the plastic box, its cover already removed, and with his paw tried to poke around inside. We paddled closer and Chris came ashore, armed with a paddle, but the bear immediately took off and disappeared in the forest. The box had a few holes here and there, fire starters were chewed up and a plastic bottle containing red wine had a few cracks. We continued fishing and headed towards the small bay where campsite #608 was located (there were two canoeists camping there)—the bay was weedy and I thought it would be a perfect fishing spot. I was right—in no time I caught a 4 kg pike, about 90 cm long.

We immediately got back to the campsite—fortunately, the bear was not there, but the box cover was again dislocated, an evident sign that he was still hanging around the campsite. As Chris went to clean the fish, I washed the canoe, all that time observing the area and looking for the bear—I was afraid that he could have been attracted by the smell of the fish and come to investigate. Yet eventually it was not the bear that made Chris’ life miserable, but swarms of mosquitoes—they were mercilessly attacking him and soon plenty of horse/deer flies joined them. After he cleaned and filleted the fish, Chris took a quick bath in the lake—again, hordes of mosquitoes droned around him. Suddenly, he became surrounded by dozens of dragon flies which had materialized out of the blue and were apparently catching the mosquitoes—finally, we found allies!
The bear was very persistent, circling around the campsite
Minutes later we were sitting around the fire and had the last portion of the ribs (we left the pike for tomorrow). Before turning in, we religiously placed all the food and cosmetics into the barrel & cooler and hung them up in the tree. Yet nothing disturbed us and both of us slept very soundly.

Wednesday turned out to be yet another hot and sunny day and we spent most of the day sitting in a shaded area, reading books and magazines. Chris found two snakes—a green snake and a small red bellied snake, both totally harmless—as well as a few colorless hummingbirds showed up, one of them took a particular interest in Chris' head, hovering around it for a while.

We saw a bear again, but it was hidden in the forest and quickly retreated. In the late afternoon we wanted to go fishing, but the sky became dark and soon a light drizzle turned into a pouring rain. Well, we certainly needed rain; besides, I was afraid that should the heat wave continued, a fire ban could be imposed, thus preventing us from having campfires. So, we went to our tents and I read for a while, then fell asleep.

In the middle of the night I was awaken by an eerie cacophony of howling and whining, apparently made by a pack of coyotes. They must have been very close to our campsite, as the sounds were very loud. I awoke Chris and both of us were listening to this very loud, peculiar and surreal spectacle, which ended as abruptly as it had started.

On Thursday, July 30, 2015, I was up at 8:00 am, but drifted back to sleep. While in a middle of a dream, I was brought back to reality by Chris' shouting.

“Jack, there is a bear next to your tent!”

As I was hastily getting dressed, he was telling me that the bear just headed to the shore.

OK”, I thought, “the danger is over,” and decided to stay in the tent, but two minutes later I was once again roused by Chris' yelling.

“There is the sow with the cub here!”

Well, I can’t get any sleep here, I thought and got out of the tent. Indeed, I saw it and a cuddly cub on the beach and they were going to the forest towards a small meadow. The bears quickly vanished in the forest and again, I had no chance to take a picture of the cub.

I walked towards the forest, sat in the chair and drank my tea, when I heard Chris again.

“Look, there is a bear on the rocks, on the other site of the campsite!”

Indeed, a medium size bear (probably the same one we had seen before) was slowly walking on the rock formations towards our barrel which we had just lowered to get food for breakfast—exactly where we were sitting. I snapped several photos as the bear was slowly moving towards us. Then I stood up and in a very assertive tone of voice, shouted something. It stopped, gave me a nasty look and turned back into the forest—but a minute later popped up again and was wandering on the rocks nearby for some time, only to fade into the forest.
The bear was quit bold and kept watching us, hoping that once we are gone, he can put things in (his) order!
Finally I had my tea and we talked about all the excitement we had in such a short period of time—and then I saw a bear again, staring at us, its black head clearly contrasting with the forest's green canopy. It was the sow, followed by the small adorable cub—presumably the same ones we had seen two days before and in the morning. They kept looking at us, then slowly walked to the rocks and finally retreated to the forest, with the adorably looking cub awkwardly following her. Wow, I had never seen so many bears in the wild in my life before (except at garbage dumps), let alone on an interior campsite!

We kept reading books and at 4:00 pm we went paddling: first to the campsite on the left (#608), then to a bay with two campsites, #614 & 615, both were vacant. The other campsite, #616, was occupied. We wanted to paddle to campsite #617 (the closed one, which I wanted to stay on—our group had stayed on it in 2009 during our trip to the Bustard Islands), but it was so windy that we remained in the bay for a while. There was a small inlet in the bay and we paddled there; I cast and caught a small pike, just perfect for supper! Pushed by the wind, we slowly drifted back towards our campsite, passed it by and ended up near campsite #608, where Chris caught a small pike, but let it go. While approaching our campsite, I noticed that there was something blue on the ground—but since the barrel and the cooler were still safely handing, I did not think much about it. Once we got ashore, I realized that the blue object was our cooler's lid! To make the story short, the bear must have climbed the tree and although the cooler was hanging about 1 m from the tree’s trunk, it still succeeded in removing the lid and tossed out several bottles full of tap water (which we had frozen and placed inside the cooler—there was still some ice in them). Except for the bottles, there was just one other thing in the cooler—a box with dew worms—the bear pulled it out, but most of the worms remained inside the cooler. Once I lowered the cooler, I saw a number of tooth marks on its walls (in addition to the tooth mark made by another bear on our campsite in Algonquin Park in 2011).

The bear also punctured our water bottles (which were left on the ground), once more ‘inspected’ the plastic box that contained strictly non-edible stuff, such as paper towels, paper coffee cups, plates and damaged many of them—as well as damaged the box itself. In addition, it punctured two of our 4 l jugs full of spring water. It was a miracle that it had not gone into our tents! The barrel, where we kept all of our food, was safely hanging on the tree branch and was undamaged—it could not reach it.
Our campsite #609
We had brought several cans of bug spray with us. One can was in the plastic box—and we found it empty, with three holes, apparently made by the bear’s teeth. Considering that it was a pressurized container, when the bear bit it, the can must have exploded right into its face, spraying it with the rather unpleasant substance containing 30% of DEET. Since it was the last time we saw that bear at our campsite, we came to a conclusion that most likely the encounter with the bug spray was so unpleasant and literally unpalatable that the bear decided to keep away from our campsite for good. Well, maybe next time we would bring some pressurized cans of foul smelling stuff and purposefully leave them for a bear to bite at—that might be the best and harmless bear deterrent!

Chris patched up several of the bottles and jugs with the masking tape and managed to save some of the water. We had a water filter, but we did not want to use it, preferring mineral or tap water that we brought with us.

Chris cleaned the fish, I minced carrot, garlic and onions, stuffed the fish, wrapped it in aluminum foil and grilled it over the fire—it was delicious! We sat around the fire for a while and went to bed past midnight. We also admired the full moon—it was also the blue moon, the second moon of the month.
The bear tried to approach the campsite from the water
Friday was noticeably cooler, but we did not mind this change in the weather at all. We were up at 10 am and there was no bear activity at night, or at least we were aware of any. We wanted to paddle to Hartley Bay Marina, but noticed ominous black clouds and occasional lighting, so we decided to stay put. At one point we spotted, several dozen meters in the forest, the sow with the cub, but they kept away from us and almost immediately disappeared. Not long after it started raining; we sneaked into the tents and fell asleep, waking up before 6:00 pm, when the rain ended. For some time we were fishing off the rock near the campsite (the same rocks favored by the bear). Again, dark clouds were forming over the Hartley Bay area and it was probably raining there. Soon, we saw lighting and heard thunders. Suddenly it became windy and as we were ready to seek shelter, Chris caught a sizable pike, but because of the pouring rain, he did not have the time to clean it and just left it on a rock as we rushed to the tents. Soon it was pouring as well as a storm blew up, accompanied by lighting and thunders.

Saturday, August 1, 2015, marked the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain's arriving at Lake Huron (Georgian Bay) after his journey on the French River (he must have paddled several km from the location of our campsite); we heard on the radio about local commemorations of this historical event. It was also the 71st anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, which lasted for 63 days.
And you call it a pike???

As the weather was good, we paddled to Hartley Bay, passing Kentucky Club Island, but Kamp Kaintuck appeared to be empty at that time. There was plenty of activity at Hartley Bay Marina; we did not have much stuff, so we quickly unpacked, the marina employee brought the car and let us put the canoe on the canoe rack on the dock. We drove to Noëlville, a small town where most inhabitants were of French origin and spoke French (and English), although I was told that sometimes they had a hard time understanding French-speaking people from Quebec and France. We went shopping to the supermarket and then to the LCBO store. There was a small dollar store and I chatted with its owner for a while about vacationing in the Dominican Republic, as she went there every year. Later we stopped at the Hungry Bear restaurant where Chris had a cup of coffee, then drove to Hartley Bay Marina, launched the canoe and were on our way to the campsite. It was windy and of course, we were paddling against the wind! The most difficult stretch was crossing Wanapitei Bay; the waves were quite high, yet it was the head wind that made it very arduous to move forward—even though we were paddling hard, our speed was 3 km/h. Once we reached the campsite, we had delicious cold been and were glad to see no signs of bear rummaging. Chris caught another pike from the shore and we promptly had it for supper. We sat around the fire until 1 am; from time to time we could hear passing trains, which were blaring their whistle very loudly, its sound propagating for miles. I took a lot of photographs of the full moon and the canoe, using a strong flashlight.

Sunday was cloudy, but nice. We spent time reading and relaxing. I finished my book (“Phantoms” by Dean Koontz) and found it quite good, then started reading “The Nurse's Story” by Carol Gino, which was very touching and informative. For the first time in 2 days we had not had a bear sighting—we almost missed NOT seeing one, as we had gotten so accustomed to them—even forgave the buster that had damaged our possessions! Chris caught a sizable Walleye from the shore, cleaned it and as we were preparing to fry it, it started to rain and we put it in the cooler and went to bed without having a campfire. It rained very heavily at night.
Ready to depart!
Finally came Monday, August 3, 2015, our last day on the French River. We were up at 9:30 am and started to pack—first of all, we had to dry the tents and tarps, so we spread everything out in the sun all over the campsite. A motor boat arrived at the campsite with two park wardens. Actually, it was the first time I ever saw wardens at the park—sometimes I wished they had patrolled the park more often, as some of the campsites we had camped on in the past were such a mess, with broken beer bottle glass everywhere and fire pits full of garbage. They quickly inspected the campsite. I told one of them about the bears and even showed photos and videos; he said it was quite a big bear (although I had seen much bigger) and also said that there had been problems with bear activity at other campsite, campers were complaining about the sow with the cub. I also asked them about all the fallen trees near the thunder box—they had been felled 8 years ago during a violent storm. The wardens confirmed that in fall and spring the whole campsite was flooded. We were asked to show the camping permit—although I had always bought one, I was told by quite a few campers that they never bothered to get one as it was very unlikely to encounter a warden in the park. They said that so far, all the campers they had checked had valid permits. Eventually, the warden affixed a new sign to the tree just below the sign with the campsite number: “Campsite Closed.” Yes, it was due to all the bear activity! I wished I could have talked to them longer, but they were in a hurry and quickly left. Before departing, we fried the walleye Chris caught yesterday; whereas pike was very good, the walleye was absolutely delicious!
The wardens attached this sign to our campsite

It took us just under one hour to arrive at Hartley Bay Marina, which was teeming with activity, some people were coming, others leaving, and it was difficult to find a spot to moor the canoe at the dock. However, the marina’s employees were very well organized—one of its trucks had a towing hitch installed in the front so that it could easily tow boat trailers. I paid for the parking and Chris was gradually bringing our equipment. Ten minutes later my car was brought and parked at the loading/unloading area, we quickly loaded it and left for Noëlville.

Unfortunately, the supermarket was closed (it was a long weekend Monday) and we drove to Alban, where we went to a grocery store called “Lemieux,” bought several steaks, then paid a quick visit to the LCBO store and drove back to the Hungry Bear restaurant. There was an accident on the highway, one car was overturned and rested on its roof, another damaged—but I think nobody was seriously injured. Chris had coffee at the restaurant and I spent 30 minutes at the Trading Post, mostly browsing the book section—some of the books on the French River were awesome! Then we drove to Grundy Lake Provincial Park; almost all campsites were occupied and we were given a choice of 3—we spent some time checking them out and picked #152—it had an impressive old pine tree and we noticed there were similar massive pines at other campsites, too. Although there were campers at adjacent sites, we hardly noticed them. We did not see any bears (not that they would have scared us at all after our French River bear encounters), but plenty of very inquisitive birds kept coming to the campsite, trying to look for and steal our food.

Again, mosquitoes were not too bad and at night we were serenaded at night by loons—something truly unforgettable! Unfortunately, we did not have time to canoe on Grundy's four lakes, which do not allow any motorized boats and thus are very quiet.
Campsite #152 at Grundy Lake Provincial Park
Grundy is a big park, with many campgrounds, some catering mostly to recreational vehicles (RVs), others to RVs and tents, so the level of privacy might vary considerably, depending on the campground. It is a good idea to either do some research online before making a reservation or drive in the park for an hour or so to pick the most appropriate campsite.

The park offered plenty of activities—we went to the soapstone carving workshop at the Picnic Shelter. Participants could buy a piece of soapstone for $2-$60 and then turn it into a canoe, bear, heart or many other objects—tools were provided. It was amazing that even kids created impressive, shining carvings—it was an excellent idea to let people experience this activity! After all, similar soapstone carvings can cost hundreds of dollars. I wished I had tried to carve something, but knowing my manual dexterity, I was unwilling to try.

Although I heard on the radio that as a result of the hot and sunny weather ‘professional’ blueberry pickers had a very tough time finding blueberries, on Tuesday morning I decided to take Chris to my 'secret' spot, where last year blueberries were so plentiful that in no time the 4 liter jug became full of them! We took highway #69 and then road #529; as we were driving on the latter, we did not see any homes, just were surrounded by wilderness! From time to time we saw signs saying 'Fire ban-no open fires'—but I guess they had just become obsolete as it was pouring while we were there. Finally we arrived at our destination... and what a disappointment! Most of blueberry bushes were totally baked by the sun, its leaves dry and blacken, as if incinerated by a torch! There were some berries, yet very small and dry, totally unpalatable. After wandering for 15 minutes, we managed to pick just a handful of blueberries.
Campsite #152 at Grundy Lake Provincial Park

According to statistics and research in Ontario, human-bear occurrences (ranging from sightings to contacts) fluctuate with the availability of food in the wild. When bears have trouble finding food in the forest—and the lack of blueberries constitutes a food failure—they come out, looking for food and visit, among other places, campsites. Thus, it could be the explanation why we had seen so many bears on our campsite!

Disillusioned, we headed to Pointe au Barril where we had a slice of pizza and poutine, proceeded to the town's main store, got a piece of pork for tonight's barbecue and headed back to the park, which apparently had not gotten any rain. Our 'neighbors' had left and we could enjoy plenty of privacy. In the evening we put the meat on the grill—and then it started to rain! We sat under the impressive pine, which did provide some protection against the rain. I donned the rain-gear and from time to time checked on the steaks. Once they were cooked, we had them and quite frustrated, sneaked into the tent. It kept raining on and off the whole night.
View from our campsite

On August 5, 2015 we got up in the morning; the tent was still wet and we decided to dry it later at home instead of wasting time at the campsite. We made a quick stop at Pointe au Barril and drove to Parry Sound, where we went to “No Frills,” bought fresh salad, bread, feta cheese and mineral water for our lunch. We also checked out “Hart”, but did not find anything interesting.

We headed to the town's waterfront, where under the train trestle over the Sequin River, on the old Chippewa docks, we had our lunch. I wanted to show Chris the plaque Catherine and I had seen last year, depicting Tom Thomson's painting of the trestle made in 1914, but could not find it. One lady told me it had been vandalized! I also spoke to Keith Saulnier, the owner of Georgian Bay Airways Ltd. that provided air tours of the area (I had taken such a tour in the 1990s and it was awesome!). I thought about hiring a plane, along with 2 other people, in order to take aerial photographs of the Massasauga Park, Franklin Island, the Thirty Thousand Islands and other places I had visited by canoe. We also spoke to a fellow on a big cruising motor yacht—its tank held up to 500 gallons of gas and used about 1.5 gallons per mile. A very impressive—and expensive boat! There was a big speed boat, which could be probably compared to a sports car—its main purpose was to go very fast. We also took a look at other interesting boats moored at the docks. I showed Chris the Center for Performing Arts, but we did not have time to go inside. Drive home was problem free; before Toronto, I took the toll road and thus avoided the rush hour traffic.
Once again, our campsite and the bear

I wish we could have done more canoeing and explored other parts of the French River. Yet we caught plenty of fish and the highlight of the trip was undoubtedly the numerous bear visits, we will certainly remember them for a long time!


Our routes on Franklin Island according to our GPS
We visited Franklin Island for the first time in July, 2014 and we liked it so much that we decided to go there again the following year. The island is Crown Land and no camping permits are required, at least not for Canadian residents

Franklin Island was named after a famous British explorer of the Arctic, Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin (1786-1847), who passed through Georgian Bay during his second expedition to the Arctic in 1825. In 1845 Franklin set upon his last expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The icebound ships were abandoned and the entire crew of 128 perished from starvation, hypothermia, tuberculosis, lead poisoning and scurvy. In 2015 researchers from the University of Alberta and the UK concluded, upon examining the remains from cracked bones found on King William Island, that the tales of cannibalism on John Franklin’s last expedition shared among Intuit were true.
View from our campsite in the evening

The island is egg-shaped, with jagged shoreline, approximately 5.5 km by 3 km and there is a channel (Shebeshekong Channel) between its east shore and the mainland, whose width varies from just over 100 m to 2 km. Thus, getting to the island is not difficult; considering that the prevailing winds usually blow from the west, the east side of the island and the channel are quite protected. It is made up of rocks, its shores are dotted with rocks, rocky islands, inlets and bays and there are several lakes inside the island. However, the most beautiful part of the island is facing west—i.e., the boundless waters of Georgian Bay and the Mink Islands—and it was where we camped last year and were trying to bivouac this year, too!
Our campsite on Franklin Island-we had to fold the tarp due to very strong winds

On Sunday, June 21, 2015, after a 3 hour drive, we reached Snug Harbour. Last year it was possible to park the car for free; this year the parking war reserved for local residents only and we were forced to park at the pay parking belonging to the nearby restaurant, Gilly’s Snug Harbour Restaurant & Marina, which was probably happy to see this extra business! The signs at the ‘residents only’ lot were very misleading and Catherine asked a resident nearby to decipher them. He said that indeed, the parking policy was new for 2015 and lots of vehicles were being ticketed at $70.00. The weather was perfect and after one hour our fully loaded canoe war ready to depart. According to the GPS unit, reaching the campsite should have taken us one hour.

Soon we left Snug Harbour, passed the picturesque Snug Habrour Lighthouse on Snug Harbour Island and were paddling on the open waters of Georgian Bay. Because prevailing winds are from the west to the east—and we were paddling towards the west and were still sheltered by the island—the waves were small and without any problems we were scudding forward.
View from our campsite and the Red Rock Lighthouse. It was very windy and even in our sheltered bays it would be difficult for us to paddle

After paddling about 3 kilometers, we reached the south shore of Franklin Island and continued between several massive rocks ominously called Savage Rocks and the island’s shore, strewn with numerous rock formations and inlets. Because our campsite was located on the west part of the island, which was totally exposed to the elements, the relatively short stretch of our trip along the western shores of the island could potentially turn out to be the most difficult. When we saw on our right the south-west tip of the island, Henrietta point, we made a right turn (north) and paddled close to the western shore of the island, manoeuvring among massive rocky island, smaller rocks sticking out of the water as well as barely submerged sharp rocks. Immediately we realized that the wind, blowing from the west, was strong enough to cause sizable waves; besides, in the area close to the shores, strewn with rocks and shallows, the waves were pushed up and suddenly were becoming quite high, even threatening our canoe. As a result, we were in a rather unenviable predicament—the blowing wind made paddling quite difficult, we had to constantly steer the canoe away from the rocks—and the waves were high enough to overturn the canoe. Both of us paddled as hard as possible and I kept navigating the canoe so that it was facing the waves perpendicularly, but the waves were still tossing the canoe left and right. On the right we saw a tent on a rocky hill, but engrossed in paddling, I hardly paid any attention. The entrance to the calm bay was less than 80 meters away; due to the direction of the waves we could not simply turn towards it—then we would have been paddling parallel to the waves and the canoe could have capsized quite easily. So, we kept paddling in the opposite direction, facing the waves, which, depending on the nearby rocks or shallows, were sometimes so high that Catherine started screaming that water was getting into the canoe! I knelt on the floor to make the canoe stabler and kept paddling. After struggling for a few minutes, we decided to make a 180 degree turn—we managed to time it between two waves—and now being pushed by the waves and the wind, we slid into the bay, which immediately sheltered us from all the perils. Then we entered the second bay and were glad to see that our last year campsite was not occupied. A few strokes later we reached the rocky shore.
Our campsite

There was some wood around the fire pit, apparently left be the previous campers. We were wondering where to set up the tent—last year’s site on the rock was not that bad, yet I did not sleep too well and we selected another one, closer to the fire pit. While I was setting up the tent and mattresses, Catherine brought our belongings, setting them on the rock, under a wide-stretching pine tree. The same evening we set up a gigantic rain tarp and then went on an hour long paddle on our bay. A group of canoeists camped on the other side of the bay, but we did not see them. We also gathered some dry wood from the shores, it was much easier than to collect wood from around our site. The blueberry bushes were plentiful, but it was much too early for blueberries yet.
Finally, we could sit around the campfire and enjoy the evening

Our campsite was sandwiched between two sheltered bays, where we could paddle even during strong winds, as well as there were a number of other bays on the other side (a one meter long carry over was required)—the other bays could be reached through a channel from Georgian Bay and some motorboats and cruisers moored there, yet this year we spotted only a couple of them. Thank goodness the occupants were quietly fishing or drinking (or whatever they normally do on such yachts) and not zipping around on their zodiacs disturbing the peace. Sitting around the fire, we had a fantastic view of the bays and the boundless waters of Georgian Bay. Just across from our campsite, some 5.5 km. away, emerged the massive shape of the Red Rock Lighthouse (equipped with a helipad), which emitted light every 10 seconds. In the north we saw the Mink Islands, stretching for about 10 kilometres—they were very gorgeous and often kayakers camped there, yet some islands were private and had cottages. Like last year, we mulled over paddling there, but were afraid of unanticipated changes in the weather—there was nothing between our island and the Mink Islands and we would have to paddle for 5-6 km on totally open and un-sheltered waters of Georgian Bay—even a relatively light wind could jeopardize our canoe and/or make it impossible for us to return to the campsite.
We loved paddling in the evening on the open waters of Georgian Bay!
The plastic tarp over our ‘kitchen’ enabled us to sit there and wait out rain—and weather forecasts did call for rain. Indeed, on Monday we barely managed to have our grilled ribs over the campfire when it started raining and it poured cats and dogs the whole night. Moreover, the wind was very strong (up to 60 km/h). The rain stopped in the morning, but it was so windy that Georgian Bay was foaming and its surface coated with white caps, we could see plumes of water as the waves slapped forcefully against the rocks. Well, there were even waves on our bay—of course, they were too small to affect our canoe, but the strong wind would certainly make paddling very strenuous, so we did not canoe anywhere that day, spending most of the time under the tarp.
Rocks acquired a pinkish colour at sunset and were just amazing!

I had brought several magazines, mainly “The Economist,” as well as two books: “The Day Trader” by Stephen Frey and “The Passage” by Justin Cronin. I hoped to start reading the former first, but unfortunately, Catherine got her hands on it first, so I proceeded with reading the latter one, “The Passage”. According to the excerpts of glowing and extremely positive reviews reproduced on several pages, I expected to become totally engrossed in this book. Well, the first 200 pages were quite good, but after reading the next 100 pages I put it aside and I did not intend to finish it, the book was not what I had expected. Fortunately, Catherine finished reading “The Day Trader”—of course, it was much less ambitious than “The Passage,” a typical page turner, yet I even managed to enjoy reading it.
We thought we found an Aztec or Egyptian mummy or sarcophagus!

The weather somehow cleared, but it was still cool, especially at night, as well as it rained sometimes. However each evening we went canoeing, often paddling on the open waters of Georgian Bay, observing unforgettable sunsets. Some of the rock formations acquired a pinkish tint at sunset as well as they resembled Mexican/Aztec sculptures; one rock looked like an Egyptian sarcophagus!
Yet another amazing rock formation! Who carved it?

I thought I would be able to see some snakes or other critters (last year Catherine almost stomped on a small rattlesnake or fox snake, as well we had seen a water snake, garter snake and white eagle), yet we only saw a mink, probably the same one we had seen last year.
Amazing sunset on Georgian Bay!

We were planning to return to Toronto on Monday or Tuesday, but when I was listening to the weather forecast on Thursday, the weather was supposed to be perfect on Friday, but then over the weekend very wet and windy—and even the long term forecast did not sound very optimistic. Catherine was somehow reluctant to cut our trip short, but I convinced her to do so (and we were glad, as the weekend turned out to be abnormally rainy, windy and cold). Indeed, Friday was a lovely day, it was sunny and warm and we slowly packed up and left the island exactly at noon. On our way back we had no problems with the wind or waves. We passed a group of kayakers, going the opposite direction. Exactly one hour later we reached the dock. A Meet-up group of women were preparing to depart for the weekend. We felt sorry for them knowing the upcoming forecast. Catherine brought the van and half an hour later we drove to the marina, where Catherine bought ice cream. I noticed that there were a bunch of books on Ontario by Terry Boyle, a well-known author, who ‘specialized’ in unearthing various unusual, rare and unknown stories connected to Ontario’s history; some dealt with ghosts, specters and haunted houses. Pointing to the books, I said to Catherine,

We collected deadwood along the shores, as there was very little firewood at our campsite

            “Look at the books by Terry Boyle—that’s the man we had met several years ago at the Streetsville Historical Society!”

Upon hearing this, the salesperson nodded in agreement and pointed at a man standing next to me.

            “Yes, this is Terry Boyle himself!”

As I found out, the author had a cottage in the area. I spoke to him for several minutes and thanked him for his books—they had not only expanded my knowledge about the province of Ontario, but greatly enriched my trips. He said that perhaps he would come to the Streetsville Historical Society again this year.

In September, 2017, while visiting the “Bearly Used Books” bookstore in Parry Sound, we found out that Terry Boyle had died on July 11, 2016. He was only 63 years old.

While exploring Franklin Island, we found a lot of cozy bays and inlets

Overall, it was a great tip, although a little too short—besides, the weather was too rainy, windy and cold. Nevertheless the stunning surrounding scenery made up for whatever shortcomings we encountered.


Our first trip to the Club Amigo took place exactly 2 years ago and now we were going to visit this hotel for the second time (and Cuba for the ninth time). We left Toronto on January 4, 2015 on a Can Jet flight, getting, for the first time, front row seats (well, my client happened to work at the check-in counter and I have to thank her for this extra perk!). This allowed us to chat with flight attendants-and stretch our legs! Incidentally, we got the same seats on our way back and even met the same flight attendant. The flight took less than 4 hours and we arrived in Cuba on time after 9:00 pm. Once we cleared the customs, I proceeded to the departure area to exchange money (no queue!). There was a guy selling cold beer, 2 cans for 5 CUCs — I figured out that instead I could buy it for just 1 CUC at the bar in the departure building or the kiosk in front of the airport, but unfortunately, both of them had run out of beer (or the beer vendor had bribed them to put it away so that he did not have any competition!). Our bus had a built in cooler which carried cans of Cristal beer — for sale by our tour rep. There were a few takers, but I preferred Bucanero.

We arrived at the hotel before midnight. Several weeks earlier I had contacted the hotel via email, asking for a specific room in the Villa section. Lo and behold, we got room number 8213, the same we had two years ago!


The resort had not changed much since our last visit. It was clean and we saw a few familiar faces. However, we immediately noticed that there were much more tourists than two years ago. Almost every day the lobby was teeming with people (and their numerous pieces of luggage) waiting for the bus to the airport and it was often quite a challenge to walk across the lobby, we had to maneuver among all the waiting tourists and their suitcases and backpacks. The store in the lobby had mineral water, beer, rum, liqueurs and souvenirs, but due to a water leak it was closed at the end of our stay-when I needed it the most!
View from our room
The beach between the Amigo and Brisas was just a two minute walk from our Villa and we stayed on it every day. However, it was quite difficult to find a beach chair as it was crowded. And we were always able to sneak into the Brisas’ restaurant to get beer! Security guards were posted everywhere, some spoke passable English and were quite eager to practice it — after all, it must be a very boring job! Catherine managed to act like she had a villa at the Brisas and toured the entire property one afternoon while I went to the market.
Hotel Amigo Guardalavaca as seen from a nearby village

There were several horse-drawn buggies around the hotel and their drivers/owners incessantly kept offering us sightseeing rides or to private homes serving lobster dinners. One of them was telling us that in addition to his buggy, he also ran a casa particular and was involved in selling souvenirs to tourists.

Usted es un capitalista”, I said.

Smiling, he replied in broken English, “Si senor, people in Cuba capitalists now”.

So, donde estan los communistas?”, I asked him?

He only burst out laughing.

Adjacent to the main hotel building was a market where Cubans sold plenty of craft, carvings, hats, leather belts, toys and other stuff. I bought several leather belts, but it would be possible to find some original Cuban souvenirs.


On Tuesday evening, while in the lobby of the main building, I heard very nice piano music, so I followed its sound and ended up in a bar on the second floor called “Ashley Café.” It was named after a Canadian girl, Ashley Anna Schlag (March 12, 1995-August 28, 2012, According to a commemorative inscription on the cafe's wall, “Ashley was full of life, greeting everyone with her amusing smile and making friends wherever she went. She enjoyed spending time with her family and many close friends at Club Amigo, the place she called her 'home'”. Sadly, she died in a car accident in Canada over 2 years ago. What a terrible tragedy! And as I was writing this review, I suddenly realized she would have been celebrating her 20th birthday today…
Ashley Cafe

There was an old piano at the café and a Cuban lady was playing various well-known music pieces, some from famous musicals or movies. We spent over one hour in the bar, enjoying her performance. Since she was going to play again on Friday, we went to the bar immediately after dinner and sat there, enchanted by the piano music. We had brought from Canada a box of delicious Belgian chocolates “Godiva” and I was happy to present them to the pianist in appreciation for her wonderful performance! There was also a different piano player each night in the aforementioned location and Catherine enjoyed his music too. Catherine did complain about the use of the energy saving lights used throughout the entire building which cast a glaring romantic-less light.


For the first few days we had our breakfast at the a ‘la carte Benny More Restaurant. As always, I had yogurt (unless they ran out of it, which happened most of the time), fruit plate and eggs. Unfortunately, not only did it take very long for the staff to take our orders and bring food, but there were also line-ups to get to the restaurant. 
Enjoying our meals

The only good thing was that while queuing up, we struck up a conversation with a very nice couple from Toronto, with whom we subsequently had a few other meals at the hotel and enjoyed stimulating conversations. On the third day we went over to the 24 hour bar just across from the Benny More Restaurant (which served breakfast in the morning), but we were quite disappointed in the level of service too. One day we waited for over 30 minutes before the server showed up; a Cuban family that had come before us was treated exactly the same way and eventually the husband stood up, said ‘vamos’ and they left. Another day we even went to the breakfast buffet in the restaurant upstairs in the main hotel building (Las Acadas, I guess) — but there were so many people lining-up outside the door that we immediately left and just skipped breakfast.
A'la carte dinner

For dinner we invariably went to the “1720” restaurant (in the bungalow section). Again, we had to line-up for a while to get in, the place was full — from then on we were arriving very early in order to avoid queuing. The food was very good and varied, we had a few glasses of passable red wine and there was a lady preparing mixed salads which I loved! We had one a ’la carte dinner in the dining room adjacent to this restaurant. It was good, yet we still went to the main restaurant to get the salad.
Piano player at the Ashley Cafe
The 24 hour bar served quite good food and drinks. Again, it was often jam-packed with tourists and it often took a while to get a drink. Since I did not like such drinks-I found them too sweet- I only had cold beer; a big bubba mug came very handy! Catherine stuck to the occasional red wine which was decent.


There were many bikes, free to tourists, and we took advantage of this great deal. Several times we rode to the apartment building complex across from the hotel. Just behind the apartments, up a rutted dirt road, we saw a farmhouse and the family invited us in. We talked for a while and took several photos of them. Later we had the photos developed and delivered them to the family. We also rode to another house nearby and spoke to the farmer who showed us around his garden, full of various trees and plants. We also rode past the Brisas, over the bridge, until we reached a dilapidated and half-destroyed monument. We were told it was dedicated to the Cuban Revolution… how ironic!
Cuban family living in a village just across from the hotel
Of course, we also took the tourist bus that first went to the Museo Chorro de Maita and a 15th century Arawakan Indian village. We immediately proceeded up the rural road and soon struck up a conversation with a very nice Cuban woman who invited us to her house. Her kids were in school and seemed to be rather lonely. The view from the place was amazing-we could see the ocean and a few massive ships. She cut sugar cane which we slowly chewed, it was delicious! 
Cutting sugar cane

Next we visited a fellow and his family whom we had met two years ago. Unfortunately, he had not received any of the photos I had sent him. His mother gave us black & sweet coffee. I left some gifts — this time I brought a bunch of brand new shirts, with price tags of $39.99 still attached-it was a great idea as Cubans loved them-I managed to get them for a tiny fraction of the retail price and they were of superior quality. Catherine did not have any gifts, so she gave a generous cash donation to the mother plus the bag she was carrying to the married daughter. She was a little taken back when the daughter asked for cash too, but she figured if she were in their position she would have also asked for money. Then the bus took us to other resorts and back to the hotel-at least we got a feel what the other hotels looked like.
Cuban woman


It was the same room we had in 2013 (#8213) and nothing has changed since then: we had hot water, small fridge kept our drinks cool, TV had a lot of channels and we could watch Canadian and international news: it was during our stay the terrorist attacks took place in France ('Je suis Charlie'), so we actually did watch TV! The room also had a spacious balcony facing the ocean where we spent a lot of time. We did not spot one insect in the room. The maids did an excellent job keeping our rooms clean and tidy.
Hotel propaganda

One night, around midnight, while we were already in bed, there was a lot of screaming and commotion outside our room, we even heard somebody calling for help (in English). It went on for about 5 minutes and we called security. Supposedly somebody had fallen and also had some heart problems… but we thought there was much more to this story than we were told. Catherine talked to the 20 person extended Canadian family the next day, almost expecting an apology, when suddenly another crisis occurred and one of the inebriated uncles was 'stuck' in the bath tub. Luckily they seemed to move out soon afterwards. It seemed that both incidences were alcohol related.
Cacti at the hotel

The last day we paid extra 20 CUCs so that we could stay in our room after the noon check-out time and our room cards (a.k.a. keys) were supposedly updated accordingly. As we were packing, we suddenly encountered a big problem: the magnetic cards failed to open the safe (where we kept our passports, money and jewellery… just kidding, only cameras!), even though we were assured they would be working. We called the reception and were told to bring the cards. Catherine walked all the way to the lobby and managed to talk to a hotel employee, which was not easy, as there were plenty of people lining up. She got the magnetic cards updated… but then not only were we unable to open the safe, but the cards would not even open the door! We called the lobby again and were told that somebody would come to help us. We waited and waited, called twice more and eventually one guy appeared with a special device that opened the safe. Whew, it was a close call, as our bus was leaving for the airport in less than an hour.
Colon beach, where we had spent a lot of time the previous year

Two years ago, while we were about to leave and take our luggage to the hotel, we were told that somebody would come and drive us to the lobby, but despite a phone call or two, nobody showed up and we had to do ourselves. So, this time we did not even bother calling asking for such service and simply dragged our suitcases to the main building.


Although according to TripAdvisor’s forums Banes was not a very interesting town, we still wanted to go there. We took a taxi from the hotel and when we were dropped off near the main square, an English speaking Cuban guy approached us. 
Our Cuban guide
We started talking and eventually he became our guide. He claimed to be an ex- boxer who had visited the USA semi professionally and he seemed to be in good shape for his 60+ years. His English was very good too and it turned out to be a pleasant experience, well worth the 10 CUC he politely requested so he could buy a pair of shoes he had been saving for several months. We also gave him a shirt, which he appreciated very much.
At this church Fidel Castro married his first wife in 1948. He received a gift of $500 from Fulgencio Batista

He took us to the church of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad and even got the custodian to open it for us. It was in this church that on October 11, 1948 Fidel Castro married his first wife, Birta Díaz Balart (and divorced her in 1955). Her father was a prominent Cuban politician and mayor of the town of Banes. We had a photo taken at the altar, exactly where the future leader of Cuba was solemnizing his marriage over 66 years ago. Ironically, Cuban president Fulgencio Batista was born in Banes in 1901 and he gave the newlyweds US$500 gift for their honeymoon. Incidentally, Castro’s first wife is still alive; she is the aunt of anti-Castro Republican Party U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart and his brother, former U.S. Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
Public transport in Banes

Later our guide showed us a house where Castro’s wife used to live, took us to a few parks and we had a great time. He told us that the house where Fulgencio Batista was born still existed (to the contrary of what I had read), but we never got to see it. Since we had some Cuban peso (i.e., Moneda National), we were able to buy a lot of excellent freshly squeezed juices and sugar cane drinks for just 1 peso (or about 4-5 cents) and some pastries for a similar amount.
Private shop

We visited an archaeological museum which had artifacts from 7000 years ago, of the Siboney Indians, and 1000 years ago, of the Taino Indians. We also saw the world-famous pre-Columbian pure gold idol.
Street scene

Granted, it would be difficult to compare Banes’ architecture and atmosphere with that of, say, Holguin, Camaguey or Trinidad, but we enjoyed our trip very much and even wished we could have stayed longer than 3 hours. Besides, I had a chance to see the hospital in Banes, where my mother had been taken in 1993 or so after falling in the hotel and breaking her knee; at that time, Cuba was a very different country, plunged in a deep recession brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At the village across from the hotel Amigo Guardalavaca


The airport’s stores carried plenty of rums, vodkas, cigarettes and other stuff; as always, we made our final purchases there. The small airport suddenly became very busy: first, there was a big Italian jet just taking off, then three planes landed: one from Quebec City, one from Montreal and ours from Toronto — our plane’s take off was slightly delayed as another Air Canada jet from Toronto was landing — altogether there were 4 planes on the tarmac!
At the village across from the Hotel Amigo Guardalavaca


It was a good trip, but there were definitively too many tourists in the hotel which sort of spoiled the trip a little. It is a rather big hotel complex and the main lobby was way too small to handle all the travelers. Besides, there should be more restaurants and more servers — for example, many tables at the Benny More restaurant were not even set and there were only 2 servers who could not cope with so many people at breakfast. I do not think we should have had to line up every day or be forced to skip meals due to the number of tourists. The problems with the magnetic card was quite annoying too. Also the public beach in front of the Brisas had every lounge chair reserved by mid-morning which was unlike the situation 2 years ago. In fact, we just lay on the sand twice. By the way, a friend of mine travelled to the same hotel exactly one week later (on the same flight) and he also complained about the hotel being overcrowded and having to line-up restaurants. Because of that, I do not think we would be coming back to this resort. But we will certainly visit Cuba again — Cayo Largo, here we come!

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