The nearby Philip Edward Island loop has pretty well everything the French River does, plus a couple of bonusesBonuses of paddling Philip Edward Island are the ocean-like vistas of Georgian Bay's north shore, and the backdrop of the white La Cloche mountain range. And though Philip Edward Island is becoming increasingly popular, it still has far fewer paddlers than its famous southern neighbour.
The 50-kilometre trip circumnavigates the triangular Philip Edward Island, and most people do it in a counter-clockwise direction, due to the prevailing winds. The first section-running from the southwestern corner of the island to the southeastern-is exposed to the big water of Georgian Bay, which is why many paddlers do this tour in a kayak. However, there are plenty of inlets and bays to escape the high winds, which makes it canoe-friendly as well.
The paddling along this stretch is classic Georgian Bay-aqua-clear water and humps of pink granite capped by windswept pine-and the La Cloche range is visible to the east. If you have the time, check out some of the small islands offshore. At Beaverstone Bay, the route heads north, past a cluster of small islands and along an irregular shoreline that can humble even the most experienced navigator. Then the route turns west along Collins Inlet, a protected 20-kilometre channel that leads you directly back to the access point. This was a preferred waterway for the First Nations people, who left their mark on a slab of granite with an assortment of ochre pictographs. In 1615, Samuel de Champlain also paddled here, noting in his journal the inhabitants' colourful tattoos, made by having their skin slashed open and infected with charcoal and dye.
When to go
Most people hit the water here from late June to mid-August, which is why you should go either earlier or later-there are far fewer motorboats and yachts using the route. Not to mention that storms are much less prevalent-something to consider on Georgian Bay.
The entire island circuit of 50 kilometres takes four to five days. If you're looking for a two- to three-day trip, just paddle to the island's southwestern shoreline and explore the small islands nearby.
Whether you are kayaking or canoeing, this route covers large sections of exposed Georgian Bay coastline, so you need the paddling skills to handle big water. Being able to navigate-either by map and compass or GPS-is also essential. The north shore of Georgian Bay is a labyrinth of tiny islands, shoals, points and rocky shallows. To make things worse, for the last few years water levels have fluctuated so greatly that islands located on topographic maps seem to disappear and reappear on a regular basis, confusing even the most skilled navigator.
What to take
Most of the campsites are on solid bedrock, so free-standing tents are a must. Protection against the high winds is also a good idea, so bring a quality rain tarp and know how to erect it at various angles, using a variety of anchor systems. Due to a shortage of firewood on the smaller islands, you'll need a cook stove as well. And with the lack of topsoil, you may want to consider packing along a container to store human waste, for environmental reasons. Finally, there's always a chance of being windbound for an extra day or two—especially if you explore some of the more exposed small islands out from the southern shore—so it's a good idea to take a satellite phone or a SPOT communication device.
Guidebooks include Paddling and Hiking the Georgian Bay Coast by Kas Stone and A Paddler's Guide to Killarney and the French River by Kevin Callan. And get the map of Philip Edward Island and Area from Chrismar Mapping.
Both Killarney Outfitters (killarneyoutfitters.com) and Killarney Kanoes (killarneykanoes.com) offer guiding services. They can also provide rental equipment.
From Toronto, head about five hours north to Killarney Provincial Park, via highways 69 and 637. From the park, drive to the end of Chikanishing River Road, situated just a few kilometres past the gatehouse. The access point for paddling Philip Edward Island is the Chikanishing boat launch; you'll need a permit to park there. It's also possible to access the route directly from the docks in the town of Killarney, just west of the park gatehouse. However, this option adds a long, exposed and often treacherous paddle out to the island.
Best campsite: Any of the smaller islands in the Fox chain. Perfect for swimming and for viewing astonishing sunsets and sunrises.
Best fishing spots: Deer Island Bay and Mill Lake are two favourites. Giant pike lurk off every rocky point or weedbed, as do bass and walleye.
Best detour: The Herbert Fish and Chips schoolbus off the town dock in Killarney has the best fresh fish and chips in the world.