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French River

French River - Photo

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Located in south-central Ontario, 60 km south of Sudbury, the 110 km corridor of the French River drains the region of the Canadian Shield between Lake Nipissing in the east and Georgian Bay in the west. The river flows through a landscape that remains largely as it was when the first Europeans explored it over three hundred years ago. The river's valley contains nationally significant archaeological and historical resources, natural features representative of the central Ontario section of the Canadian Shield, and exceptional recreational opportunities for small craft boating, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and backcountry camping.


In recognition of its natural, historic and recreational value, the French River was identified as a candidate provincial park in 1985 by the Ontario government and received official park status in 1989. The Canadian Heritage Rivers Board officially designated the French as a Canadian Heritage River in 1986. The French River represents an important addition to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System by:

contributing one of the best examples of a glaciated Canadian Shield river environment;
demonstrating the significance of waterways as Indian travel routes before European contact;
adding to the System a very important section of the Voyageur Route, the major water transportation corridor in Canada’s development between 1615 and 1821; and by
providing an outstanding recreation area combining tourist development and extensive natural areas.


French River - Photo

The French River flows from the southwest end of Lake Nipissing, 195 m above sea level, to the northeast shores of Georgian Bay, 177 m above sea level, through both heavily forested areas and bare, open stretches of Canadian Shield. The provincial park varies from 6 to 28 km in width and encompasses 51,000 ha. In addition to the French River itself, the area contains more than 200 km of other navigable water courses and channels which vary from narrow, enclosed steep-walled gorges, falls and rapids, to broad expanses of open water.

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Natural Heritage

The French is an ancient Canadian Shield river which still plays an important role in the drainage of the Georgian Bay watershed. Its notable natural features include:


geological features, such as Recollet Falls, which illustrate the building of the Canadian Shield 900 to 1600 million years ago;
an extensive bedrock delta on Georgian Bay which displays spectacular evidence of glacial erosion;
more than 450 plant species, eight of which are rare, representing both the Boreal and the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence forest regions;
extensive wetlands at the river’s mouth on Georgian Bay which provide habitat for the most abundant population of Virginia Chain Fern in Canada;
habitat for the largest population of the eastern Massasauga rattlesnake and for a significant population of yellow pickerel; and
many areas of exceptional natural beauty, characterized by narrow bedrock-lined channels, islands, rapids, and falls.

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Human Heritage

Historically significant as a major transportation route, a use which dates back to prehistoric times, the French River has provided the setting for several episodes in Canada’s development as a country:


Unique rock paintings, Native place names and archaeological sites along the corridor indicate that the French once served as a major water transportation route used by Shield Archaic and Algonkian native peoples. In the earliest days of the fur trade and prior to European exploration (early1600's), Huron Indians, who were experienced traders, regularly travelled the French River on their way to deliver large cargoes of fur to European merchants in the Gulf of St. Lawrence River.


The French River was so named by Ojibwa Indians because it brought to their land French missionairies and explorers. Etienne Brulé, in 1610, and Samuel de Champlain in 1615, produced the first maps and descriptions of the area and its people for New France. Between 1629 and 1649 the missionary Récollet and Jesuit Fathers came to live among the Huron Indians, followed by explorers Jean Nicollet, Pierre Radisson, des Groseillers and La Verendrye.


Explorers were quickly followed by European traders who transported furs from western and central Canada to the eastern markets. The French River's continuing development as a fur trade route during the 18th and early 19th centuries was encouraged by use of the route by the explorers Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser and David Thompson.


With the demise of the fur trade, timber became the French’s main economic generator and its exploitation brought with it the first European settlers. The village of Coponaning grew as a thriving sawmilling community at the river’s mouth on Georgian Bay.


The Grand Trunk Railway opened up the area for sports and recreation development early in the 20th century. Today the French River corridor is used almost exclusively for recreation.

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The French River provides a wide variety of recreation including:


large tracts of unspoiled natural scenery, accessible from major population centres;
innumerable bays, lakes and river channels offering exceptional small-craft boating, canoeing, kayaking, and touring;
a variety of tourist accommodation in cottages, lodges, fishing camps, and campgrounds;
sport fishing for yellow pickerel, northern pike, small-mouth bass, and muskellunge;
one of Ontario’s most important herds of white tailed deer which may be seen along the southern shores of the upper French River; and
exceptional opportunities for cruising and yachting at either end of the river corridor on Lake Nipissing and on Georgian Bay.

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Visitor Information

French River - Photo

Access: Highway 69, running north and south between Sudbury and Parry Sound, provides the major road access to the area. A cruise of Lake Nipissing on the City of North Bay's 'Chief Commanda II'also provides public access to the upper French River from the Keystone Camp public dock in North Bay (Information:


Accommodation and Services: Visitor services and facilities are provided at provincial parks in the vicinity of the river, at various tourist establishments along the river, at service areas along Highway 69, and at resorts and hotels in Parry Sound, Huntsville, Sudbury, North Bay and smaller communities in the area immediately adjacent to the river. General information on visitor services, accommodation, canoeing, camping, outfitters and guides can be obtained fromOntario Parks - French River Provincial Park, Tel.: (705) 287-2900; Municipality of French River, Tel.: (705) 898-2294 (addresses below).


Canoeing: The French River offers many kilometres of navigable water on a number of canoe routes, descriptions of which are available from Friends of French River Heritage Park; Ontario Parks - French River Provincial Park, Tel: (705) 287-2900 (addresses shown below)

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Further Information

Topographic maps: Four 1:50,000 National Topographic Series Maps for the French River - Nipissing (31L/4), Noelville (41I/1), Delamere (41I2) and Key Harbour (41H15) can be purchased from: Canada Map Office, 615 Booth St., Ottawa, K1A OE9, Tel: (613) 952-7000 or, OMNR Map Office Whitney Block, Toronto M7A 1W3 ( A detailed 1:50,000 topographic map of French River Provincial Park is available at stores along the River and from Friends of French River Heritage Park (address below) for $10. plus $1.25 postage.


Tourist Information - Accommodation, Visitor Services and Camping: Ontario, Travel, Queen's Park, Toronto, On. M7A 2E5; Ontario Parks -; French River Provincial Park, c/o Killarney Provincial Park, Killarney, Ont. P0M 2A0; Municipality of French River, Box 156, 17 Dollard St., Noelville, Ont. P0M 2N0; Rainbow Country Travel, 1543 Paris St., Sudbury, Ont. P3E 3B7; Friends of French River Heritage Park, 732 McIntyre St. West, North Bay, Ontario, P1B 2Z

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Additional Reading

Campbell, Wm. A. The French and Pickerel Rivers: Their History & Their People. Journal Printing, Wm. A. Campbell, RR 1, Britt, ON. POG 1A0. 1989.


Harting, A., "French river: Canoeing the River of Stick-Wavers", Boston Mills Press, 1996


Reid, Ron & J. Grand. "The French: In the Wake of the Voyageurs". Canoeing Ontario's Rivers. 1985.


Ministry of Natural Resources. Canoe Routes of Ontario. McClelland & Stewart. Toronto. 1981.


Rumney, G. R. "The Ottawa-Nipissing Route in Early Western Travel". Can. Geraphic. Jan. '51.


"Ont. Traveler's Encyclopedia". Toronto. M7A 2E5.


Morse, Eric. "Fur Trade Canoe Routes of Canada: Then and Now". U of T Press. Rev. 1979.


Newman, Peter. "Caesars of the Wilderness". 1987.


Finkelstein, Max, Canoeing a Continent: On the Trail of Alexander Mackenzie, Natural Heritage Books, 2002

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