Finding History on the French River

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French River Rapids, field sketch by Paul Kane, 1845.

By Andrew Watson and Jim Clifford

You really can’t go camping in Ontario without encountering the past. Especially not in a provincial park. Certainly not along the French River. The past is everywhere, around every bend in the river, next to every campsite, layered across every scenic landscape. Moreover, it is a really interesting history for two environmental historians. We’ve read and written about the problems with the concept of ‘wilderness‘, as human history influences even the most remote landscapes. The scenery of the Lower French River brings these theories to life, as it was clearly created by both natural forces and past human activities.  Glaciers and thousands of years erosion shaped the beautifully worn rocks, while loggers left us with forests with few trees more than a hundred years old.

Located roughly 300 kilometers north of Toronto, connecting Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay, the French River was designated Canada’s first Heritage River in 1986, three years before it also became a provincial park. The Canadian Heritage Rivers System, which includes 37 rivers in every province and territory except Quebec, was established in order “to conserve rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational heritage, to give them national recognition, and to encourage the public to enjoy and appreciate them.” After a week camping and canoeing here, it’s easy to understand why the French became the country’s first Heritage River.

Andrew and Priya canoeing down the French River.

The French River Provincial Park Map, produced by the Friends of the French River Heritage Park, serves as an excellent guide to the park’s waterways and history. Most people planning a canoe trip on the lower French River will put their boat in at Hartley Bay Marina. The marina is situated adjacent to the river and the tracks of the Canadian National Railway. Prior to the railway being completed as far as the French in 1908, visitors to the river had to come by water. In fact, directly across from the marina is Locke’s Rock, the location of some of the first summer tourists who first visited the river in 1910. While the Map doesn’t make this connection, these tourists used the newly completed railway to reach a previously inaccessible part of Ontario’s wilderness. As we moved downriver, however, the whistle of the train disappeared, and we confronted older histories.

On our way downstream, we chose to follow the Western Channel of the river in order to canoe the Voyageur Channel. From the late seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century, fur traders called ‘voyageurs’ travelled between Montreal and Rupert’s Land northwest of the Great Lakes. The French River served as a critical link between the Ottawa River in the east and Georgian Bay in the west. Traveling down the calm, relatively portage-free Voyageur Channel, it’s not hard to see why they chose this route over the wider, windier Main Channel. Voyageurs traveled the French in large 10 to 12-man canoes called cannot de maitre with 2-3 tons of cargo and as we struggled to lift our light weight gear over some rocks, we understood their preference for the route with no portages.

Arriving at the mouth of the river, Georgian Bay opens up to another chapter in the area’s history. Commercial fisheries were established in Georgian Bay as early as the 1830s before experiencing decline at the end of the century. Passing through the Finger Boards islands took us past the site of a fish-packing plant, Gauthier’s fisheries, which operated until the 1950s when the industry experienced another wave of declining stocks and the arrival of invasive species, such as the lamprey eel.

The mill at the French River. The tramways brought the dressed wood from the mill to the docks where it was loaded on ships for distribution around the world.
Date: August 1887. Parry Sound Library

A gentle wind aided our trip in from Georgian Bay up the Main Channel of the river, but there were signs that this route could be treacherous as well. We passed the rusted remains of several old wrecked steam engines, some of the last remnants of the logging era on the French River. Like much of Georgian Bay, logging began in the early 1870s when the provincial government auctioned off timber licenses. We pulled our canoes up on shore a couple kilometers in from the bay to explore the site of the French River Village (1872-1922), once a sawmill community of 300 people. Although we had a tough time finding any sign of a village, the age and species composition of the trees in the vicinity suggested the site had indeed been entirely cleared roughly a century ago. As we paddled farther upstream we passed dozens of old ‘dead-heads’; logs that had become wedged upright in the bottom of the river during enormous log drives around the turn of the twentieth century. We also passed old timber boom anchors in the rocks above Dalles Rapids, which acted to contain tens of thousands of logs in the spillway before being released to French River Village mills downstream.

The Map provides quite a bit of information about the area’s Aboriginal peoples, but nothing apart from the clearly labelled reserve areas of the Henvey Inlet and Dokis First Nations attaches this history to any place. Details are provided about the Plano and Archaic peoples who inhabited the region 8,000-2,000 years ago, and it provides brief discussions of the experiences of First Nations during colonization, the fur trade and Christianizing missions. In the section explaining the region’s geology an attempt is made to relate the traditional creation story of the French River. But, these histories are all told in relation to European perspectives. No mention is made of Aboriginal hunting and fishing guides hired by tourists, the importance of the river as a meeting place for different bands during the spring fish runs, or the reasons the Henvey Inlet and Dokis First Nations are located at a distance from (rather than on) the river. Visitors understand there were people living along the French River before the arrival of Europeans, but everything is contextualized within a European narrative.

Ultimately, the absence of Aboriginal places within the park boundaries has political implications, but this failure of the Map is its only major weakness as a guide to the French River Heritage Park and its history. Provided one has a few days to spend canoeing through the park, this Map provides an excellent opportunity to explore the both the natural and human history of the French River, and discover it’s not just a wilderness.


View French River in a larger map

Andrew Watson is a PhD Candidate at York University researching the history sustainability and the environment in Muskoka, Ontario. Jim Clifford is a co-editor of ActiveHistory.ca.

5 thoughts on “Finding History on the French River

  1. Douglas Hunter

    Thanks for the lovely and thoughtful reminder of the French. I’ve been into the lower French delta by boat at the main outlet as well as the Bad River and tromped around the French River Village (Copananing) site. If you’re exploring by canoe, the old tramway on the eastern outlet (which divides from the main river just upstream of Dalles) is well worth a look as well. I happened to be driving to Sudbury a couple weeks ago and stopped for the first time at the park’s interpretation centre on hwy 69. It’s worth a visit, especially to wander out onto the snowmobile bridge that’s 90 feet above the river to enjoy the view and imagine all the history that’s passed through that channel.

  2. Mike Commito

    Great post guys! I actually read it this morning at my friend’s camp (cottage) which coincidentally is on the French River.

  3. AWatson

    Thanks Doug, Mike & Carolyn
    The French River is a truly remarkable environment. Not just because it offers such a diversity of Shield landscapes, but because it is so wonderfully layered with so much history.
    Our colleague and friend, David Zylberberg, has pointed out that this post is missing an account of the francophone settler experiences and an acknowledgement that most perspectives on the French are not only ‘white’-centric, but southern Ontario-centric as well.
    It’s difficult to do justice to the rich history, but as I discovered after I got back and re-read her beautiful monograph on The Bay (Georgian Bay)’ Claire Campbell actually does a much better job than this short post and deserves mention here.
    http://www.ubcpress.ca/search/title_book.asp?BookID=4143

  4. Jim

    Has anyone heard of a village called Frenchman village Not French river Village on the French?

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