This past week I had the opportunity to experience paddling on a river I love and have paddled before. I paddled the French river, ever changing and ever full of history.
The last time I paddled the French River, I was finishing up a season guiding in the area. I had a group of five fabulous girls, it was our annual girl power trip. I won't spend too much time on this trip other than to say that it set the tone for the awe and power I felt of the river recently.
Fast forward two years later and I have the opportunity to paddle the same section of the river again! (For those who don't know, the French River is absolutely stunning and should definitely be visited) I was the only female guide for the trip, so again, I had a wonderful group of young women to paddle with. It was turning out to be a lot like the last trip that I had done. (I had no idea how different it could be) There was not a lot I could have changed to make it more like the last trip I had done here. I had paddled those rapids before (they didn't really seem like much more than swifts), I had seen those campsites from the river, I could picture each bend; but that was two years ago.
It has been talked of in many guiding circles that the reason camps can't keep guides around is because they travel the same river year after year, people don't want to do the same trip over and over again. I'm here to tell you that it is always a different trip. Different water in the river, different people on trip, a different part of ones life. I thought I would have a repeat trip (which was great, my last trip was amazing), and while this trip was equally as amazing, it couldn't have been more different.
Immediately I knew things would be different as I was told that the group was good for the camping thing, they would cook their own meals and wanted to do as much of the site 'work' as possible. This meant my co leader and I got to pack whatever we wanted! (Good thing we liked the same things) Steak on the first night of trip, this was luxury. As guides, we weren't exactly sure of our responsibilities but it was something like: teach paddling, ensure safety in whitewater and make sure the days go smoothly on the water. I have never been guiding on a trip where I wasn't also the 'camp counselor'.
We paddle to our first set of rapids, things are looking familiar; the hunting lodge and the bay off to the right, but just so much water. There was water pouring over what I know were rocks through to a narrow part of the river. This wasn't the tiny trickle of water that was here before, this wasn't the same set of rapids. We scouted about 50m of gentle class 1 waves and decided to run it. I've come to the conclusion I must have been walking on the bottom of the river the last time I was here because then, there was only a narrow stream of water fighting to work its way between a few big rocks, not even enough water to paddle through, but now, it seemed the river was raging!
I continued to wonder through the trip how things could be so drastically different. I mean I had seen low water and highwater levels on a river before, but nothing quite like this. It looked as though the water was normal this most recent trip, but the last time you had to wonder how people got to their camps so high up the rock faces.
I was looking at the map, as I love to do, and noticed that the French, like many other rivers is controlled by a series of dams. I did some digging and found that the Chaudiere dams on the French River had actually been rebuilt during the years 2012 – 2016. This meant that three of the four main sources of water flow from lake Nippising had been closed for four years! When I went back to check water flow data it turns out that this year when I paddled there was something like 186 cubic meters per second in the river, while two years ago when I went through, there were only about 56 cubic meters of water per second in the river at a certain point.
The French river was a route to Lake Huron and from there to the rest of Canada via different waterways. Prior to the finding of Hudson Bay and the use of that route for the fur trade, the French River was used along with the Ottawa and Mattawa rivers as a way from Montreal to Northern Lake Huron. I always find it extra fascinating to be in a place so rich with history. I could imagine being in a 12 passenger canoe not really knowing what was around the next bend. Did they just run all the rapids? Were there even rapids? How different would the river have looked for the Jesuits, the Coeur de Bois, the Annishinabek? In two years with the change from a rebuilt dam, this was a different river for me.