Speaking French 

You don't have to be a Voyageur to enjoy one of Canada's most historic waterways, but it helps.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - roaring rapids The entry to Big Pine Rapid
  • Photo by Leslie Anthony
  • roaring rapids The entry to Big Pine Rapid

Alex Strachan and I leave the dock around noon. Along the shoreline, lone leaves twist like prayer flags on otherwise naked branches. We pass Alcatraz Island, scene of a drunk's infamous overnight imprisonment, before turning into the channel shadowing Eighteen Mile Island, with its vociferous wolf packs and sightings of Eastern Cougar. We stop above Little Pine Rapid, usually a minor riffle but now raging due to open dams on the upper French River near its egress from Lake Nipissing in Central Ontario. Scouting a mellow line for our inaugural whitewater run together. Back in the canoe, Alex astern, we slide in smoothly and angle left through the main wave-train; when it dissipates, I throw a cross-bow draw to pull us from a corner eddy that would suck us into a rock face, regaining smooth water. So far so good.

The crack of our paddles echoes sharp across October waters as the quintessential Group of Seven landscape slides past: whaleback rocks and straining white pines; pink granite constellated in an earthy patina of lichen, leaves, and needles. Soon the roar of Big Pine Rapid rises to meet us — a five-metre drop with ledges, rollers, curlers, haystacks and hydraulics. There's a portage if we wish, a trail worn shin-deep into the turf not by modern recreationists, but explorers that included Champlain, Brulé, Mackenzie, brigades of Voyageurs, and the First Nations travellers who humped it for thousands of years. Beholding this gentle, duff-carpeted trench I imagine those who crossed it over the 400 years of Canada's recorded history, a bottleneck in the continent's nascent fur industry, its shores choked at times with hundreds of traders and their native allies, encamped and waiting turns to move cargoes up or down, likely out of rum and on thin rations of pea soup and pemmican until they reached a fort. Champlain, for instance, used this route in 1615 to journey to the heart of the Huron nation on Georgian Bay, then travel south with them to war against the Iroquois. Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, later Governor of Louisiana, passed through in 1701 en route from Montreal to founding Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, which became modern Detroit.

Alex and I eschew portaging in favour of a sinuous line we've divined through the maelstrom. Dropping in dead centre, we cleave a massive haystack then move right to line-up on the main chute; without communicating, we instinctively angle the boat so it ferries swiftly in the right direction. I high brace into standing waves and we tip down another substantial drop, paddling hard. The final wave-train sweeps in a banked curve up sloping shoreline rock on the right, requiring a huge draw to pull left back into the centre, where the highline throws a welcome but soaking cross-wave over our heads. Soaked and smiling, we seesaw over the last stacks into the calm bay. Exhilarated by the triumph, we chatter and paddle twenty minutes before clambering onto an island to lunch overlooking magnificent Blue Chute.


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