French River: Canoeing the River of the Stick-Waivers
By Toni Harting.
Canoelit Home Page
Boston Mills Press, Toronto. 1996
144 pp $34.95.
Review by MICHAEL PEAKE --
Central Ontario's French River is the symbolic dividing line between northern and southern Ontario. To wilderness canoeists, however, it's more than a line on a map, it's a line stretching back into our history. A line that Toni Harting brings to life again in his beautiful book on the river.
The interesting subtitle refers to the name the native Ojibway gave to the French Missionaries who began to appear in the early 1600s. They of course were but the vanguard of a wave of Europeans who swept across the continent eventually claiming it for their own. Everyone who went west by the traditional route, paddled the waters of the French River.
Toni Harting is primarily known as a photographer. Many of us know him as the editor of Nastawgan, the publication of the Wilderness Canoe Association. But Toni's writing talents are also on display here as well as his obvious photographic ones. It's very clear that Toni and his wife Ria, spent a great deal of time on the French in a wide variety of water levels. The book is liberally sprinkled with photos including quite a few colour ones in the centre section. The front covers a great shot of someone doing a solo eddyturn in a North Canoe in the famous rapid - Blue Chute. While the colour photos are of great quality the printing process does not fully render Toni's beautiful black and whites for their maximum impact. These are not the creamy and contrasty black and white which so capture the eye but many are on the grey side. It's a small point and one perhaps only a photographer might notice.
As to the book, it's an excellent history of the fabled river. Any body of water with this much history has a lot of stories to tell. For example, the building of the dams at Chaudiere Falls early in the century changed the river's natural balance and water levels. They also destroyed much of the historic portage that avoided these falls near the start of the river.
Writer Harting includes many comments from fur traders journals in his thorough examination of the French. One of the more interesting chapters is Historic Canoe Routes where he presents us with original maps of the river starting from Champlain's beautiful effort in 1632. Harting also tells us about the great number of artifacts from axes, muskets and other trade goods that were pulled out of the river below significant rapids beginning in 1961. The French River must have been a really exciting place for some of the people paddling - and dumping - through here. There is also a discussion on the question of the various channels leading out of the French and into Georgian Bay. Harting tips his hat to Eric Morse who did the first serious writing about the proper names for the variety of channels.
A nice touch at the end is a listing of several lengths of canoe trips you can take in the area. And armed with this book, those trips just got a lot more interesting.
Toni Harting's French River was a labour of love for the author who worked on it more many years. It was worth the work. He has produced a definitive popular study on this great river, a must for all those to have to hope to paddle the beautiful French.