The Great Circle Cruise is a journey down the Heartland Rivers of the Midwest, around the Gulf of Mexico, up the Atlantic seaboard and across the Great Lakes. Ask anyone who has completed this 5,000-mile epic voyage about the best part and each will respond, "Georgian Bay and North Channel."
Geographically speaking, the pristine cruising waters of Georgian Bay and North Channel are both parts of Lake Huron. Georgian Bay is the east side of Lake Huron behind Ontario's Bruce Peninsula, and North Channel is north of Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the world. Both areas are sheltered from the rough seas and strong winds of the open lake, but do not be lulled into thinking the waters are always calm. My wife, Jean, and I have been trapped in port for several days by small-craft wind advisories in June and September. July and August may have better weather, but those are precisely the months the Canadians come out to play, and ports and anchorages may be more crowded.
There are two routes for transiting this area. I call them the "express route" and the "scenic route." Many captains are intimidated at the prospect of piloting a vessel along a winding channel between rock-strewn islands, so they opt for the wide-open waters of the express route. Sailors also prefer the express route because of the opportunity to actually proceed under sail. I prefer the scenic route because it is…well…more scenic. The Canadian coast guard has done a splendid job of marking the Georgian Bay small-craft route, but do not be put off by the terminology "small-craft route." Small craft defines any vessel less than 65 feet, and boats more than 40 feet regularly travel this route.
Midland, Ontario, near the exit from Trent-Severn Waterway, is the starting point for both the express and the scenic routes to Georgian Bay and the North Channel. But first take a walk downtown to view more than 30 historic murals, most painted by Ontario native Fred Lenz. The largest mural, on a huge grain elevator, can be seen from Midland Harbour. Lenz passed away in 2001 prior to completing this self-proclaimed "pinnacle of his artistic life," but his two sons pitched in to help finish the project.
The Express Route Enter Georgian Bay on the Midland big-ship channel passing west of Beausoleil Island and continue curving left keeping Christian Island on your starboard side. The alpine forest-covered Blue Mountains appear on the horizon 25 miles across the mouth of Nottawasaga Bay. Meaford, the apple capital of Ontario, is the first port of call. The Sykes Street business district is just a short walk from the marina.
When you leave Meaford stay outside the Tank Range marked by cautionary buoys or you will become an unwitting target of the Canadian Army. Follow the west shore of Georgian Bay in the lee of a spectacular shoreline where bluffs rise up 300 feet and crystal-clear water depths plunge to 400 feet. Wingfield Basin is a popular anchorage where range markers topped by a red light guide you in.
The entire Bruce Peninsula from Wasaga Beach north is a popular vacation destination for families from the Toronto area. Tobermory, at the top of the peninsula, is also at the top of places to visit. A scuba-diving base, the deep and sparkling water at the mouth of Georgian Bay is home to Fathom Five—Canada's first National Marine Park with over 20 shipwrecks and 19 islands within its boundaries. Glass-bottom boat tours leave Tobermory several times each day to take visitors over the shipwrecks and to Flower Pot Island, which features two 60-foot-high flower pots, a lighthouse, and walking trails. A modern car ferry connects the Bruce Peninsula to Manitoulin Island. Local legend says the original ferryboat captains used to navigate by the smell of balsam fir and cedar trees. A bus line coordinates with the ferry schedule to take passengers to Little Current or on to Espanola via the Trans-Canada Highway that spans the country from east to west.
You could sail west from Tobermory into the main body of Lake Huron but I do not know why you would want to, unless you happen to live in Detroit or Cleveland. Plot a course north to continue the Georgian Bay route, passing close by Club Island and the east coast of Manitoulin Island on your port side. Then let the Killarney East Light situated at Red Rock Point guide you in. I have not tried this but literature says mariners can activate the foghorn on the lighthouse by clicking their radio mike five times on Channel 19. Killarney is a small boating community located on a channel between George Island and Ontario's mainland. On the same water route taken by the original fur traders in their birch bark canoes, commercial fishing vessels now share the harbor with exotic motoryachts. Next stop, Little Current, is a crossroads as the north-south land route intersects the east-west water route at a swing bridge—the only bridge to Manitoulin Island. Once a railroad bridge, now a single-lane highway bridge, it opens on the hour if boats needing more than 18 feet clearance are waiting.
Cruising west from Little Current the next port on the express route is Gore Bay. Gore Bay is the capital city of Manitoulin Island, but do not expect this capital city to have a wild nightlife to get drunk and land in jail; but you may end up in jail anyway since the local jail is now a museum. A pleasant boardwalk spans the entire waterfront and there is a longer hike along West Bluff to Janet Head Lighthouse in operation since 1879. In summer, the ice hockey rink becomes a farmers' market. If this is your first visit to North Channel you will want to return again and again. Next time, instead of bringing your own boat, fly into Gore Bay Airport and rent a trawler or sailboat from Canadian Yacht Charters.
The final stop on the express route is the tiny tranquil hamlet of Meldrum Bay at the west end of Manitoulin Island. For east-bounders it is the port of entry to call Canadian customs.
The Scenic Route Enter Georgian Bay on the Midland big-ship channel passing west of Beausoleil Island. As your express colleagues zoom off to the left, the scenic route continues ahead through a maze of low-lying rocks. Look through binoculars and the foreshortened view will appear impassable. A few years ago the Georgian Bay Association pioneered a route through this maze and then convinced the coast guard to mark the route with buoys.
You've heard the marketing mantra for success: "location, location, location." How about a restaurant on a remote rocky island accessible only by boat or float plane? That's Henry's Fish Restaurant on Frying Pan Island. When we visited it felt like every boater in Ontario was rushing there. Paul Elliot, the owner, does not take reservations and we were concerned the dock would be full. No worries. He is an excellent boat/air traffic controller juggling the slips among those stopping for dinner and those staying overnight. No one is turned away.
The best place for replenishing supplies before heading into the northern wilderness is Parry Sound, a large community with a taxi service. There is a pleasant walking trail following an old railroad track along the shore of Georgian Bay to a beach park. Tugboats of all sizes convene for Tugfest on Canada's Labour Day weekend to take part in tugboat races. Some tugs are open for inspection, including the coast guard boat that maintains hundreds of buoys marking the channels of Georgian Bay. We thanked the coast guard for keeping us off the rocks and asked them what happened to the buoys in winter when the lake freezes solid. According to one coast guard member, most are left in place as the water freezes around them. If there is a possibility of ice drift to pull the buoy off station, they are stored for the winter and reset in the spring.
Pointe au Baril Lighthouse provides the next photo opportunity. The original version was simply a barrel with an illuminated lantern on top. Now it's a pretty red and white building with washing hanging out to dry between the lighthouse and a nearby tree. The next segment of the marked channel includes a sharp 135-degree turn and is mostly exposed to Georgian Bay weather anyway, so go outside for 20 miles at Pointe au Baril and return at Byng Inlet where range markers and buoys mark the way in.
Now in this remote region where granite islands are sparsely covered with windswept pines, the route gets narrower and rockier. Although the coast guard has done an excellent job of identifying the rocks, the captain must concentrate to stay between the reds and greens and delegate photo-ops to the first mate. Some twists and turns are so tight our next boat will have a hinge in the middle!
Drop the anchor at the Bustards, a beautiful archipelago of pink granite. Bad River, another anchorage surrounded by rounded pink granite isles and bluffs, is just 6 miles along the route. The approach is not bad once you identify the correct set of range markers. It takes confidence to head toward range markers on the rocky shore before you actually see them.
The way ahead lies across the top of Georgian Bay where south winds have a 100-mile fetch. Check the weather situation before leaving the protected anchorage. After 15 miles you can and should tuck into the shelter of Beaverstone Bay leading to Collins Inlet. At the entrance to Collins Inlet is the shallowest water of the entire route—possibly 5 feet in low water years. But again, the channel is well marked and the bottom is soft mud. It is not really an inlet since it is open at both ends; it is a narrow 15-mile cut between high rock cliffs and a pleasure to pass through.
Killarney is the place where you'll find the best tasting fish and chips served from a school bus. This quiet little fishing village was isolated from the rest of Canada until a highway was built in 1962. In July and early August, cruising boats take over this wilderness outpost. Killarney marks the end of the Georgian Bay route and the beginning of the North Channel. At last the captain can relax a little and enjoy the scenery as the passages among the North Channel islands are wider and less complex. Here are so many idyllic anchorages and so short a season.
Just around the corner from Killarney is a very popular anchorage, Covered Portage Cove, where, if you use your imagination, you may see the head of an Indian formed in the high rock bluff.
Not to be missed but requiring a side trip of 15 miles each way, Baie Fine is an anchorage where white quartz mountains border both sides of a long, narrow fjord. At the end of the fjord, a 2-mile-long narrow channel leads to what appears to be a mountain lake. This is "the Pool." Many boaters return to this picturesque spot season after season. Since the bottom here is grassy and it is difficult to get an anchor to hold, some boaters tie to shore. The Pool is within the boundary of Killarney Provincial Park and there are a couple of hiking trails to explore. One starts at the very end of the Pool, but the most popular trail starts at the entrance near an abandoned Jeep. This trail treks through the woods to azure Topaz Lake.
Have your camera ready as you resume cruising the North Channel. The pretty Strawberry Island Lighthouse of 1881 presents a classic photo-op on the way to Little Current Swing Bridge.
Little Current, the largest community on Manitoulin Island, is a convenient center for exploring North Channel. Even big cruise ships berth here. A wharf extends the entire length of the town with the main shopping street adjacent. For a treat, walk along the waterfront toward the bridge until you come to Farquhar's Ice Cream Parlor and try their three-cow special. Visit Turners to stock up on the latest nautical charts and local art and craftwork, and be sure to browse the mini-museum on the second floor. Until recently the only chart available for navigation west of Little Current was based on soundings taken in the 19th century. Depths in fathoms were recorded in a fine italic script that resembled a map for hidden treasure. A framed copy of the chart, known as the "pirate chart," hangs in Turners' museum.
On leaving Little Current my scenic route takes a right turn via the Wabuno Channel. This route takes you close to the La Cloche Mountain Range, where outcroppings of white quartz peek through the pine forest. Give a wide berth to Bourinot Island—the submerged Bourinot Reef extends north of the island.
The most popular anchorage in North Channel is a natural harbor formed between North and South Benjamin Islands. Dinghy ashore and climb a high bluff to admire the scene and photograph boats tucked into coves of pink granite boulders. After sunset—especially on a moonless night—witness an amazing show as trillions of stars dot every inch of the night sky void of city lights.
The scenic route heads north to join McBean Channel that ends at Little Detroit Passage. This very narrow passage has been widened and is now reported to be 75 feet wide, 16 feet deep; wide and deep enough for most cruising boats, but there is a blind bend partway through and most boats issue a securite on Channel 16.
In 1999 a new municipal marina opened on the Spanish River to the north of Little Detroit Passage. A couple of years later the river silted up becoming impassable, however, the river has been dredged and boaters can again enjoy the convenience of a new marina with showers, sauna, laundry, and pumpout. The business center of Spanish, Ontario, is 1 mile north of the river on the Trans-Canada Highway.
The last waterway in our passage of North Channel can be considered either a fairway or a destination of its own. The Whalesback Channel is a north channel within the North Channel, extending about 20 miles in a fairly straight, broad course passing island after island to port and starboard—each island with its own personality. Throw in a couple of peaceful anchorages such as Beardrop Harbour or Long Point Cove and the mini-north channel is complete. Many boaters from Michigan and Wisconsin will spend their entire summer vacation re-exploring these alluring cruising waters.
The town of Blind River—the end of the journey—is never a disappointment for me, but an achievement, a place to celebrate. The Riverside Tavern reminds me of the time Jean and I lived in Ontario in the late 1960s. They had some strange drinking rules back then. For example, you were not allowed to hold a beer glass unless seated; pubs had one room with nice décor reserved for ladies and escorts; and an unaccompanied man had to drink in the back room until his date arrived to escort him, but he could not carry his drink with him! The tradition of "Ladies-Escorts" continues at Riverside Tavern.
If you desire to see more of Canada, hop on a westbound Greyhound and in two hours be in Sault Ste. Marie to visit Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre. Or stay on the bus for three days and visit Vancouver, British Columbia!
Before closing the logbook on the best freshwater cruising venue in North America, you should make one final entry. Blind River is possibly the farthest north that you and your boat will ever venture. At latitude 46 degrees north, it is closer to the North Pole than the equator.
About The Author Alan Lloyd and his wife, Jean, emigrated from Great Britain in 1966. After retiring from General Electric in 1999, Alan divided his time between his hobbies of photography and cruising the Great Circle. Aboard their boat, 2 If By C, Alan and Jean took two years to complete the route the first time around and had so much fun they decided to do it again. Their second trip took four years and they are still cruising. The couple leaves their boat wherever the season ends, ready to resume the following season. Additional information on the Great Circle can be found on Alan's website, www.NavigationNotes.com.