Key River - Pickerel River

CanadaOntarioGeorgian Bay coast
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Additional Route Information
46 km
3 days
Loop Trip: 
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
Total Portage Distance: 
400 m
Longest Portage: 
350 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Lake Travel: 
Background Trip Info
Water Levels: 
Route Description
Technical Guide: 

Start at Key Marina on Hwy 69 (about one hour south of Sudbury)
West on Key River to mouth of the Key on Georgian Bay
Northwest on Georgian Bay
North on Pickerel River
P 50 m L around small pond
Take first channel to the left after this portage
P 350 m L beside narrow, dried-up channel
(sometimes possible to paddle most of this channel)
North on Pickerel River
Liftover into main east-west branch of Pickerel
East on Pickerel River to finish at Pickerel Marina on Highway 69

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

This summary is based on a three-day trip paddled in early August 1993 by a group of five couples, and also a family trip paddled in July 1992. The first time we did this route (in 1992) we started on the Pickerel River and ended on the Key River. While we did not mind paddling the Key, we did have to contend with a lot of motorized boat traffic. The Key River is a major boating channel - it is marked along its length with channel buoys, and battling the wake from this traffic gets a bit tiresome.

At the suggestion of my wife Debbie, the second time we paddled this route we reversed the direction of travel. This meant that we paddled the Key River first (on Friday) and missed the busy weekend boat traffic. Sunday was spent paddling the much quieter Pickerel River.

Base your trip direction on the days you will be paddling the route - try to avoid being on the Key River on a weekend.

Day One (Friday)
We started out trip at the intersection of the Key River and Highway 69, at Key Marina. Parking was available for a nominal cost, and the owners did not charge us for launching our "fleet" of canoes. While we unloaded our gear at the dock and began to pile it into the canoes, a couple of our group members shuttled one vehicle back to Pickerel Marina (15 km north up the highway) to use when we finished our trip.

The Key River is pleasant but not spectacular. It is a typical Canadian Shield river, with lots of bare granite and twisted trees, with many reedy areas along the shoreline. We did see quite a few herons and other shorebirds along this section. Boat traffic was not heavy, but enough that we would have to deal with bow waves from a powerboat every half hour or so. Most of the south shoreline is the Henvey Reserve (from Hwy 69 until about 3km from the end of the Key), so camping is not permitted. The north shoreline varies between isolated-sections and areas with quite a few cottages.

Shortly after lunch, we arrived at the end of the Key River ... Georgian Bay. There is only a short section of Georgian Bay to negotiate, and it was calm when we arrived, but even a moderate west wind would have meant battling large waves on this section. It is possible to avoid some of the waves by heading north immediately and trying to skirt the shoreline behind Germain Island as you head north into Whistler Bay.

We stopped for the day at the island just east of Puddick Island, a short 3 1/2 km paddle from the end of the Key River. The island is unnamed on maps, but we have always referred to it as "Happy Face" island, because some thoughtless visitor decided to express his artistic talents by painting a large happy face on one of the shoreline rocks. There is a cottage at the northern tip of the island. The campsite is on the east shore about halfway down the island. There is a large open area of flat rock along the waterfront for cooking, relaxing and soaking up some afternoon sunshine. The tent sites are a little further back towards the centre of the island in a grassy clearing.

We were lucky enough on this island to find a Massassauga Rattler. This small, shy snake is quite endangered, but the north shore of Georgian Bay is its home territory. The snake left the open rock where it was warming itself, disappeared into the bush and we didn`t see it again during our stay.

Day Two (Saturday)
We were on the water at 9:30 am and headed northwest toward the mouth of the Pickerel River. The next 10 km or 11 km of the river is part of French River Provincial Park. Formed in 1989, it is a waterway park based on a corridor which includes portions of the French and Pickerel Rivers. This section of the Pickerel River where we spent day two was the best part of the route. It is quiet and secluded, and passes through some wonderful narrow sections with sculpted rock walls on both sides.

At the 20 km point of the trip (about 5 1/2 km north of the mouth of the Pickerel) we encountered the first of two portages on the route. It was a short (less than 100 m) carry around the left side of a small pond. Alternatively, it would be possible to do a short liftover into the pond, wade the canoes through, and then do a short 30 m portage at the end to get back into the river. It wasn`t worth packing the gear too neatly - as soon as we were back in the water, we took a small channel to the left and were faced with the second portage - a narrow channel blocked by rock at both ends. In low water conditions, the entire trail has to be taken - about 350 m on the left side of the river. It is marked with rock cairns along its length, and has a few climbs along the way. If water levels are higher, it is possible to do a short carryover into the narrow channel, and paddle / pole down along the shallow section of river. At the end, the channel is blocked with rock, so another short portage is necessary to get back into the main river.

There are a number of campsites along this section of the Pickerel River, although most of them are quite small. We waited until we left this section and entered the main east-west run of the Pickerel to find a site. There is a very shallow section at this junction which may require a liftover. We had to backtrack west on the river to find a site, and stayed at one of the spots shown on the French River Provincial Park map. It was up rather high off the river, but a nice site nonetheless.

Day Three (Sunday)
Our final day on the river was a straight 15 km paddle east to Highway 69 and the Pickerel Marina, where we had left a shuttle vehicle. As you pass under the train trestle on the river, you are leaving French River Provincial Park.

We were lucky and caught a stiff breeze from the west the entire day on this section of the Pickerel. We hitched the canoes together, hoisted a tarp on some poles, and sailed the last 7 or 8 km of the trip, piloted right into the marina by a would-be sailor in our group.

The final verdict? The Key River is a little too busy for my taste, but the short section of Georgian Bay and especially the Pickerel River more than make up for it. A great novice-rated trip that could be enjoyed by a family. At the time we went, our children were six, eight and nine years old and had no problems with the route.

Richard Munn
April 1997

Maps Required
Topo Maps (1:50,000): 
41 H/15 Key Harbour 41 I/2 Delamere 41 H/16 Noganosh Lake
Other Maps: 
French River Provincial Park map (shows partial route)
Special Comments: 

Key River is a major power boating channel and can be busy. For this reason it is recommended that this part not be paddled on the weekend. The Pickerel (especially the north-south section is what makes this trip worthwhile. It is small, quiet, isolated and cuts through some wonderful narrow sculpted rock channels

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