Reverse Tourism in French River — A Travel Tale

The same day I finished my sola La Cloche Silhouette Trek in Killarney, I randomly met two backpackers and hosted them in my parents’ home in Noëlville for four days.

Our guests, Matte and Anne, travellers from Holland and Germany, enjoyed hiking and sightseeing in the area. I was happy to show them things they never would have seen without a local guide, even though they did have the guidebook Canada by Lonely Planet (Affiliate Disclosure).

In fact, this is what got me started on CouchSurfing, even though my guests weren’t members and the subject never came up. But I had read about it and was considering it. This experience made me go for it. Glad I took the plunge! It’s been a life-saver in more ways than one so far!

So this is about those four days with Matt and Anne, and what I learned from them. Of course, for people who are interested in visiting French River, there are a few ideas you’ll never see in any guidebook, including a couple of hiking suggestions.

Seeing Home Through the Eyes of Visitors

“Mom! I’m home!”

“Hey, welcome back, Julie! How was the trek? Tell me all about it.”

“It was fantastic! Every day had different hurdles to overcome, like crossing beaver dams and rapids, climbing over huge boulders…”

Ring, ring. Ring, ring.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Julie. Ask Mom to prepare two extra plates for dinner. I’m bringing home a couple of hitchhikers.”

“Ok, Dad, see you later.”

Having just arrived from a six-day trek in Killarney Provincial Park, I was exhausted but intrigued. My father has always given rides to people who need them, but he’s never brought them home before. While I recounted my recent adventures to my mother, I continued to wonder what had spurred on my father’s decision.

Landscape scene of Martin Pond, Mashkinonje Park, by Matt Vrijburg.
The Martin Pond Trail in Mashkinonje Provincial Park leads to this eerily peaceful landscape (Photo by Mathijs Vrijburg).

Soon, my dad’s pickup truck pulled into the yard. My mother and I watched from the kitchen’s picture window as a tall, light-haired young man jumped out of the passenger seat, followed by a short, blonde girl. They unloaded heavy backpacks from the box of the truck, not unlike I had done hardly more than an hour earlier. Moments later, the house erupted in noise as introductions were made and hands were shaken. My father launched into his explanation:

“I gave them a ride from Lively to Sudbury and brought them to the grocery store before going to drop them off at the campground on Richard Lake. But while I was waiting in the truck, something clicked.”

At this, Matt, from Holland, interposed. “We’d been waiting for a ride for hours, trying to get to Manitoulin Island, but no one picked us up so we crossed the road to go back to Sudbury.”

Anne, a German medical student, commented. “We’d only been waiting a few minutes when Dan stopped for us. It must have been meant to be!”

View of Meshaw Falls and an old wooden building, by Matt Vrijburg.
You won’t find Meshaw Falls in any guidebook — to get there, just ask a local in Alban for directions (Photo by Mathijs Vrjburg).

“Well, I couldn’t just leave them there! I felt sorry for them, knowing how heavy your pack had been, Julie. When they told me they wanted to do some hiking on Manitoulin, I couldn’t help but mentioning: it’s all private land on Manitoulin. Where would they go hiking? So I brought them home, thought you could guide them.”

“Yeah! I’ll take you to Mashkinonje Provincial Park. It’s only thirty minutes from here and there are a few different full- and half-day hikes. We can do whatever you like.”

And then, as an afterthought, I added, “Hey, would you like to see a bit more of the area while you’re here? I’ve always wanted to play tour guide around French River. It’s so beautiful and there are few tourists lucky enough to see it.”

Matt and Anne agreed, delighted to have the opportunity to see a part of the province so little-known to the outside world, yet so historically and culturally significant to Canadians.

Dinner that night was animated, each of us trying to get to know one another, taking turns telling travel tales and rejoicing in our good fortune at having met each other. To celebrate the occasion, at twilight we built a campfire in the backyard and watched the myriad of stars emerge while roasting marshmallows.

Over breakfast the following morning, I took out my map of Mashkinonje and we quickly decided on our route. We crammed into the car with the family’s two dogs and soon arrived at the head of Martin’s Pond Trail. Matt was impressed by the four different types of moss growing on the rocky terrain, each a different texture and shade of green. As we walked along quietly, the reverberations of a woodpecker tap-tap-tapping for its next meal kept us company. We emerged from the forest and stepped onto a rock outcrop to find ourselves facing Martin’s Pond. In the distance, a crane spread its wings and took flight.

We continued onward and soon reached the Pebble Beach Trail. Although it was only mid-September, the leaves of the trees lining the shores of Lake Nipissing were already changing colour. I caught my breath. I’d seen this same sight millions of times before, but I was now looking at it with new eyes. Large patches of burned orange and golden yellow dotted here and there with vibrant red mesmerised me. A light lakeside wind rustled the leaves; wave upon wave of colour rolled smoothly into coniferous green.

We stopped often to contemplate the serenity of our surroundings. At last, we reached Pebble Beach, which is actually sandy. We paused one last time to admire the splendor of the scenery, then continued our loop and made our way home.

Close-up view of fast-flowing Récollet Falls, French River, by Matt Vrijburg.
A brief hike through northern Ontario’s beautiful boreal forest culminates here, at Récollet Falls (Photo by Mathijs Vrijburg).

The next day we piled into the car again, this time to visit Meshaw Falls, where a perfectly rounded stone had been retrieved from the riverbed, shaped by thousands of years of swirling water.

After having lunch at the French River Trading Post and spending time and money at the gift shop, we stopped in at the French River Waterway Provincial Park Visitors Centre, built only a year before and featuring an interactive museum. I hadn’t yet been inside. My excitement grew as we wandered from one display to the next, listening to recorded stories told alternately by Jesuit missionaries, First Nations chiefs, pioneers of local settlements, loggers, and fur-traders. When we reached a display entitled “Pierre Esprit Radisson,” I couldn’t help it, I had to boast.

“Check this out! This is my ancestor! He and his brother-in-law started the Hudson’s Bay Company. They wanted to do it for France but the king thought it was a terrible idea, so when they informed the English of this business venture, France imprisoned them as traitors. She didn’t hesitate to command their services when it came time for her to start the Northwest Company, though…” We listened to the recording, an anecdote that corroborated my version of the events.

Matt and Anne were impressed. “I wish I knew that much about my family history,” Anne sighed as we strolled along a two-kilometre trail to Récollet Falls, a site made famous by the drowning of Récollet missionaries whose canoe had capsized in the course of duty. Brimming with love for my stomping grounds, I explained that the French River linked Lake Nipissing to the Great Lakes via the Georgian Bay, allowing fur-traders and voyageurs access to the interior of the country in the days prior to the advent of roads and railways.

That night, Matt rifled through the pages of his guide book and stopped when he found the description of Science North.

Reverse tourism offers brand-new perspectives, like this angle I'd never seen before.
Matt, a true adventurer, scrambled carefully to this bay across from Récollet Falls in order to fully appreciate French River downstream from the falls (Photo by Mathijs Vrijburg).

“Have you been here? This looks interesting.”

So on our final day together, an hour-long drive brought us to Sudbury. We parked on Elizabeth Street and walked thirty minutes to Science North following Bell Park’s boardwalk, which overlooks Ramsey Lake. We spent a fun day in the snowflake-shaped building, enjoying numerous displays on the body, robotics, and the natural world. We marvelled at the butterfly gallery and saw a chemistry demonstration. We took a much-needed break in the IMAX theatre, where the feature educated us on the sturgeon restocking efforts in the Great Lakes. I’d forgotten that Science North wasn’t just for kids and tourists and was thankful to Matt and Anne for the chance to re-experience one of Sudbury’s gems.

As I hugged Matt and Anne goodbye at the bus station that evening, I had to wonder who had benefited most from this chance encounter. When the couple asked how they could ever repay me, I simply replied that it was good travel karma and besides, hadn’t I gotten to see my home from a fresh perspective?

Nearly a month later, I met Anne in Toronto, where she was boarding her return flight the next day. Matt had continued on to the Rockies while Anne had spent time on an organic farm in Nova Scotia. Saddened by her impending departure, she welcomed the opportunity to see a friendly face. And I was happy to have made a new friend.

I write this from my new home in South Korea, where I have moved to teach English for a year. My memories of the French River area are infinitely enriched by my recent excursions with Matt and Anne, who allowed one of my dreams to come true. Travellers place value on experiencing new and different things. Now I fully appreciate my impact on those I meet on the road to discovery, the unsuspecting tour guides of the world.

This article originally appeared at BootsnAll.

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