Georgian Bay’s coasts, communities, people and their history are begging to be explored. For the early part of my life I was able to soak up the southeastern part of the Bay that way. But by mid-life I was getting frustrated at not knowing, first-hand, the rest of what I privately considered my home territory, even though I no longer lived there. It was a large gap in my experience of the Bay.
So, what to do about it? Take the plunge, I decided. Just get out there and see it, if the opportunity arose. Which it did, right around the time I was due for some sort of mid-life crisis.
In July 1991 my brother-in-law Dave and I had both turned 55 and were looking for an appropriate way to mark this modest milestone. A trip around the Bay — or most of it — seemed like a great idea, so that’s what we planned. Dave had done the route with his young son Tom in an earlier year and was familiar with the drill.
We packed our gear and a tiny dinghy aboard his elderly Chris Craft Lancer Whitecap, a sturdy fiberglass 23-footer, open with convertible top, sleeper seats and a small cuddy cabin. We would be gone four or five days, following the Inside Passage north from Manitou, west across the north shore to Killarney, south to Lion’s Head on the Bruce Penninsula, then east across the open bay to the Western Islands and on back to Manitou.
We climbed aboard Whitecap. Dave turned on the ignition and starter, expecting to fire up the engine. It wouldn’t catch. Groan…!
When it eventually coughed to life, the motor was running roughly so we put into Sans Souci where Bernard Martin diagnosed the problem as one carburetor barrel flooding. A few careful taps of a hammer solved that problem, we hoped. We decided to continue. The motor growled much more contentedly.
Departing in mid-morning under a sunny sky and pleasant southwest breeze, we passed the Grahams’ place half an hour later. Finding no one home, we pushed on until, when opposite Iron Rock, we felt that, with our anxiety over the engine, we had earned a beer.
We left the main channel then and worked our way past the west end of Jones Light island. Continuing north, we picked up the main channel coming out of Parry Sound. On the western horizon could be seen the lonely shape of Red Rock lighthouse, and Mink Islands beyond.
While running up the inside of Franklin Island the blue sky became grayer and the wind picked up. Just past noon we reached the wreckage of the small Playfair steamer Metamora which had burned there in 1907. The white painted boiler and machinery was now a channel marker where vessels either proceeded into Pointe au Baril station, or turned west to the Ojibway and Pointe au Baril proper, which is where we were heading.
Whitecap‘s fuel was topped up at the Ojibway. The gas boy turned out to be a friend of Tom’s whose family’s cottage was nearby. Dave went to get some items at the dockside store, while I scanned loungers for any familiar faces from 35 years before. None. What was I expecting — that we’d all still look the same?
Departing the Ojibway and heading out into open water past the Pointe proper, the western sky was getting darker and the southwest breeze had risen to a brisk wind.
An hour later found us anchored inland along Alexander Passage for lunch. We put up the convertible top then as the rain began in earnest. Soon after, as many as ten very wet kayakers coming in from the open lake stopped to ask us where they were. They were using only topographic maps rather than marine charts, and couldn’t follow the nautical markers to even guess their location — not a good idea if the traveler is unfamiliar with local waters and landmarks.
The rain became heavier, waves were higher, both pushed by the stronger wind. Buoy-spotting and pilotage required our full attention now. Under these conditions the dangers of Hangdog Reef became very obvious: Outbound markers and inbound ones immediately to the north, all bobbing up and down in choppy waves, can be hard to spot and easily confused, tempting an unwary skipper to cross over when one definitely should not (unless maybe in a kayak). Proceed westward slowly, carefully checking markers on the chart as they appear. Don’t turn east until the last marker in the open lake has been reached.
The rain beat down all the way north from Alexander Passage, often making visibility difficult. The boat’s canvas top had some gaps, but Dave had a wide-brimmed Tilley hat and I a straw fedora which helped keep our vision clear, if not the rest of us dry.
Off Byng Inlet it was especially uncomfortable. As we came in from the open in a lumpy sea heading for Gereaux Light, an outbound sloop, under power only, was pitching straight into it. After we passed very close to each other at the outer marker, she cautiously turned about and followed us, but soon disappeared in a blinding squall astern. Whitecap proved to be an excellent sea-boat that day.
Off Henvey Inlet, nearing the Bay’s northeast corner, still in pelting rain we passed through a large flock of double-crested cormorants, the most I had ever seen of these large black seabirds.
By five o’clock we were filling the gas tank again at Key Harbour Lodge. To get there we passed the remains of the freighter dock where vessels loaded iron ore brought by rail, from 1907 up to 1916. Later, up until 1938 Canadian National Railway used the facility to unload coal for its routes to the north. It was dismantled around 1960.
The rain was easing now and the wind was more southerly. We left Key Harbour and headed west to our overnight mooring on the northeast side of Outer Fox Islands. From here on, the shore is mostly wilderness with only a few fishing lodges and rare cottages. This is the delta of the historic French River. After logging ceased on this shore, development was frozen, and much of the land became French River Provincial Park. As well as the main boat route just offshore, the hydrographers have marked a delightful inner channel that threads its scenic way among the many uninhabited islands of the delta. Outer Fox was one of these groups.
Dave and Tom had camped there on their earlier trip, and Dave was aiming for the same anchorage. Where the inner route went north and the outer west into the open, we sought a narrow local channel that passed right by Outer Fox.
At this stage the rain became another deluge, drastically reducing visibility. We proceded slowly along the narrow local route with Dave trying to spot familiar landmarks. We failed to see the gap leading to our anchorage. Ahead through the murk loomed a square black-and-white channel marker, indicating we were about to re-join the inner route. Dave was having problems with reverse gear, but was able to turn around in the narrow waterway regardless, and we crept our way back.
“Still pelting rain. Brisk south to southeast wind. We found our gap and wound through the reefs to the small anchorage, mooring in the place Dave and Tom had used before,” state my notes from the trip.
The rain had stopped and the south wind was dropping. But with gale warnings for the following day, we decided to move to the opposite shore. Already soaked from a day of rain, Dave dived to free the stuck stern anchor. We finally moored for the night at seven p.m., having traveled an estimated 85 miles since leaving at nine that morning.
Since leaving Pointe au Baril, this was all new territory for me and it was exciting to see at last, despite the bad weather, many of the places I had heard and read about over all the years. I was especially eager to view the wild and historic French River delta, with its numerous uninhabited islands and intricate channels. We were now in the region traversed frequently for centuries by indigenous trading parties, and more recently since the 1600s by European voyageurs and missionaries. This was storied territory.
After the trials of yesterday, Dave was looking forward to a decent night’s sleep. Instead, he was soon awakened by an unbearable racket on the other side of the boat. When he identified the source — myself snoring — no amount of poking or prodding would turn it off. I believe he slept under a pillow for the rest of the trip, although we might have agreed that the snorer would sleep with his head towards the stern to widen the gap between us. Memory fails me on this point Dave, so step in and comment below if you recall how, or if, we solved the problem.
After waking to a bright, sunny morning with a brisk west wind, we learned the gale warning had been cancelled. Still, we decided to stay where we were and use the day to dry out, explore the island on foot, and read. By five o’clock the wind had become very strong so we moved to a more protected mooring further along the shore.
Dave went back to row the dinghy around and waved goodbye to a young couple who had arrived by canoe to our first landing site, and now probably welcomed their newfound privacy. The blueberries on the island were superb, not plentiful but big and tasty. I noted hemlocks growing on the islands. Otherwise the flora and fauna were similar to further south.
Before calling it a day, we washed all our dirty dishes.
Around 8 a.m. departing Outer Fox for the Bustard Islands offshore, we were met by a stiff 20-knot wind from the west. We left the main inner channel and picked our way through shoal areas to the southwest looking for a red spar at the northeast corner of the Bustards on the outer channell. From there we turned west towards the lighthouses. In those open waters head seas were between one and two meters, so we decided to not fight it and returned to the Bustards for the day to await better conditions.
The main harbour was well occupied by cruisers and yachts, including some from the U.S. We found a mooring half-way down the south arm away from the other boats and a very pleasant location. From there we could walk ashore or row the dinghy to explore the rest of the group.
I rowed down Wicks Channel, almost to where the view opens to the southwest. This was peaceful, uninhabited space, I thought. Then, hidden at the end of one cove was a travel trailer abandoned on the shore. Some eager squatter must have brought it over the ice in winter, then just left it to the elements and vandals. Despoiler!
The American visitors held a regatta in the main harbour, with various age groups paticipating in rowing inflatables around a marked course. Much shouting and, later, a firearm discharged. Good old Yanks.
Dave rowed eastward through shallow bays and northward to a larger bay also poular with cruisers, passing several cottages along the way. The breeze picked up as the afternoon passed, and he had an energetic row back to our mooring.
We walked up to the height of land on Burnt Island, and spread below us was a large shallow bay at the end of a channel winding in from the southwest. The wind was definitely brisk up there. Blueberries were much more plentiful here than on Outer Fox and just as delicious.
At dusk a nearly full moon rose over the pines and other evergreens. The yachts were all quiet. A whitethroated sparrow sang a vesper, then a loon called from an adjacent inlet. What more could one want?
Rain had sprinkled overnight. We awoke to a cool and cloudy morning, with a northwest wind of about 10 knots. The forecast was for it to diminish and the sky to clear in the afternoon. We decided to head to Killarney where we would decide to continue our circumnavigation or return the way we had come.
We were underway from the Bustards before eight, along with numerous other craft apparently eager to move onwards. At the three aligned lighthouses marking the route into French River, the sky to the south and east was ominously dark, but we were heading away from that into the long open stretch to Beaverstone Bay and Collins Inlet.
On entering the open, most waves were less than a meter. Boats going both directions fanned out on their courses, comfortably clear of each other. As it turned out, one — Whitecap — fanned out farther than necessary.
The French River main entrance, marked by a red and white spar, was the turning point for the course to pass south of Grondine Rock and begin the entrance to Beaverstone. We chose our compass bearing to Grondine, roughly estimating deviation caused by on-board effects, and settled back for the long run.
It was my first experience being totally dependent on a compass course without any aid of landmarks. The wind was trending north and we noticed that other boats were closer to shore than ourselves. We put our trust in our chosen course, but began watching for Grondine to the north. We never did see it from offshore but, after about half an hour, Dave decided it was too early for open water cruising and wisely (actually providentially) turned towards land.
In a few minutes we spotted some markers and identified our location off the entrance to Beaverstone Bay. To the east and away inland from our previous course was the big beacon at Grondine Rock silhouetted against a grey backdrop. Hmm. Think I mis-estimated that deviation a bit.
The eastern passage into Beaverstone to Collins Inlet is bounded on the mainland by part of Wikwemikong First Nation and to the west by the large Philip Edward Island. Beaverstone itself has a number of island cottages and seems to be a preferred anchorage for sailing yachts,
The channel narrows and turns west into Mill Lake. On the mainland are the remains of the Collins Inlet logging operation, now partly occupied by a fishing lodge. Across from that on the island side of the lake are several small islands with cottages. Here, the shore of Philip Edward appears to be mostly cliffs or high ground with few landing places.
Ten o’clock found us half way down the west arm of Collins Inlet. It was dull with frequent showers. These conditions gave the impressive cliffs an appearance similar to views of the BC coast. We passed a nice wooden ketch from Sarnia and a palatial Detroit motoryacht Lady Val.
We were off Red Rock Point, or Killarney lighthouse, half an hour later and slowly entered the crowded harbour. Despite Killarney’s popularity, the old fishing village still had its charm. We were able to fuel-up again, do a bit of shopping, and Dave was able to telephone home. We had decided to continue our circumnavigation.
Just about at noon we departed east from Killarney. As if confirming that we had made the right decision, the weather gradually cleared. After passing Red Rock light again, we turned south and set a course of 190-195 for Club Island.
It was now a beautiful summer’s day with excellent long-range visibility. As we were opposite the north end of Squaw Island, Cape Smith on Manitoulin Island appeared ahead to the west, with Rabbit Island showing beyond. A few sailing yachts with the wind astern were heading on the same course as ours.
At 1.40 p.m. we were opposite the north end of Rabbit Island to the west. Away to the east and, as if living up to its name, Lonely Island which is quite high was easily visible lying by itself in the open Bay. Club Island, much lower in profile, was directly ahead.
Fifteen minutes later we swung through the narrow entrance to Club Island harbour, joining two U.S. and one Canadian sloops. We anchored near another powerboat just offshore from a ruined storehouse.
The shoreline inside of the harbour entrance had been dredged and a pile of diggings lay on the protective spit. The roof of another building was visible among the low trees on the south shore. I rowed the dinghy in that direction looking for a wreck said to be there — easy to find as someone had marked it with an anchored juice bottle. It apparently is an unidentified metal-sheathed hull 57 feet long.
We had a leisurely lunch under a sunny blue sky, then around 3.30 p.m. departed Club for the first of our two major open water stretches.
It was perfect weather for being on the open Bay. Sunny and clear, a bit of breeze for refreshment and smallish waves. We set a course direct from Club to Cabot Head on the northeast tip of the Bruce Peninsula, a run of about 40 kms/25 mi. In less than 15 minutes we could see the beacon on Halfmoon Island ahead, and much of the northern shoreline of the Bruce.
Half an hour later we were opposite Halfmoon Island, a low gravelly patch of land with dense but scrubby vegetation. The light beacon was on a tower rising above the trees. We passed along the east shore.
Dave estimated we should reach Wingfield Basin in an hour. The view in that time was spectacular as we watched the heights of the Bruce rise on the horizon ahead. In a bit less than an hour, the anchor was down and the engine off in Wingfield Basin, after a marvelous run across from Club Island.
There were 23 other boats moored in the harbour below the Cabot Head lighthouse when we arrived. There was a stone cottage beside the entrance of Wingfield Basin, and the wreck of the barge Gargantua, abandoned there in 1952, is just off the dock, although it was mostly obscured by moored yachts. There was very little activity among the boats at that hour. Around bedtime, a beautiful full moon rose over the trees to the east.
By dawn the number of boats in the harbour had increased to 30 or 33, including a couple of very late arrivals, one of which was an OPP (police) cruiser. A man in an adjacent sloop took his small dog ashore in a dinghy to do its business. He carried it in a special lifejacket with handles so it could be picked up like a suitcase.
At least two boats had left the basin already. We breakfasted and washed dishes, I making the mistake of emptying the dishwater overboard and hearing deserved admonishment from the closest boat. One keelboat had moored too close to the east shore and had to be hauled free by the OPP, which then departed along with many others.
The wind was about 10 knots from the northwest. We added all our spare fuel to the tank, planning to refill at Lion’s Head. Weather radio reception was very poor, probably caused by effects of the Niagara Escarpment running along the peninsula. We upped anchor and left Wingfield a little after 10 a.m.
Half an hour later we passed Cape Chin as we ran south along the east shore of the Bruce. The OPP came out of Dyer Bay as we passed and proceded on a parallel course,
At 11.15 we were at Lion’s Head and gassing up again (169 litres). The forecast was for northwest wind possibly reaching 20 knots, which would mean an almost following sea as we crossed to the east shore of the Bay.
After some lunch and a final dishwashing, at 12.20 p.m. we left Lion’s Head, stopping well offshore to discreetly empty the dishwater. Until we were well out from the Bruce the seas were steep (about a metre) and uncomfortable. In the open there was more distance between the waves and Whitecap handled them perfectly without having to be throttled back.
About an hour out, we passed Surprise Shoal. It lived up to its name for us. From a distance we thought the marker was another of several sailing yachts coming south towards Owen Sound. Suddenly we recognized it as a green buoy, and it had to be Suirprise, although we thought it had passed unseen to the north earlier.
Over the next couple of hours the wind and waves increased, but the boat continued to handle it well. As it had risen in view the day before, the escarpment on the Bruce now gradually receded. Cape Croker could be seen easily well to the south. On that clear day we could still view vestiges of land away to the south after it had disappeared in the west, probably the high land behind Meaford and Thornbury. We began to watch the southeast for signs of the Western Islands, expecting to be heading somewhere to the north of them.
For awhile in mid-afternoon on the open Bay, there wasn’t a bit of land to be seen. Then the Westerns lighthouse was sighted to the southeast, farther off our course than anticipated. We altered our bearing from 90 to 120 degrees to intercept the northern islands.
At 3.45 the eastern mainland became visible to the northeast as we approached the Westerns through very steep seas. Ten minutes later, like running rapids we plunge through the gap in the northern group and head for shelter behind the main wooded island.
We motored slowly around in circles in the lee for several minutes to give Dave a pause after the long run across the open Bay. Despite the wind and waves, there were people walking on the next island south, apparently having come out from the east shore in a sailing catamaran.
Over the last leg of our voyage between the Westerns and Manitou, about six or seven miles, the waves became even steeper as the depths became shallower, making for the roughest water of the entire trip.
At 4.45 p.m. we arrived back at Pinkham Point, with Barb coming out to greet us in the outboard. It was good to be home. but the exhilaration of that last hour for me will be hard to beat.
The trip rounded out my experience on the waters of Georgian Bay, reinforcing my respect and affection for what some call the Sixth Great Lake.