Sharing a Closely (Carefully?) Guarded Secret

The Lake of the Woods area comprises one of the natural wonders of North America. At over 70 miles long and wide, with more than 105,000 km of shoreline — which is more than Lake Superior, and more than 1,400 islands it is easy to see why. The lake is found in the provinces of Ontario and Manitoba and the state of Minnesota. The northern end is home to deep, clear water and the rugged Canadian Shield, contrasted to shallow water and sandy bottoms at the southern end. Boaters see wildlife that includes Canadian geese, beavers, deer, bears, common loons, moose, pelicans, and bald eagles.

Three distinct natural environments also meet here (northern, southern and prairie) so the forests include a jumble of jack pine, northern spruce, elm, ash, basswood, and maple trees sprouting up next to one another. It is said to be one of the most dramatic, mysterious, and surprising lakes in the world. At the northern end of the lake you will find the cruisers — both sail and power, and “the home of the Northern Yacht Club, which is found within the Northern Harbour Marina, owned and operated by the Hall Family, and the biggest marina between Toronto and British Columbia,” says Jim Flood, owner of Bowline Yachts. Deanna Olszewski, daughter of Gary Hall, was most generous with her time to extol the virtues of this most wonderful place. As I soon discovered, not many of the members wanted to share their secret sailing place with our readers.

Diane Gerhard wrote several articles for Canadian Yachting back in the early 1980s about cruising on Lake of the Woods. She was one of the first members when the club formed in 1978, and former Cruising Director of Northern YC. Diane remembers, “At the time I debated whether we really wanted anyone else to know about our piece of Paradise! Starting in 1980, we had a series of Armchair Cruises in a large hall in Winnipeg and filled it every time with sailors and other boaters from Lake of the Woods. They all arrived with their copies of the charts ready to see photos and get details of the ‘best places’ and also uncharted shoals.”

From The Explorers Guide to Lake of the Woods we learned that the lake is strategically situated on the travel route between the east and the west, sitting atop the resource-rich Canadian Shield. The first record of sailing on Lake of the Woods dates back to 1845 when the Hudson’s Bay Company introduced York sailboats to transport their furs. The first vacation “camps” were built on Keewatin Beach and for the next 30 or so years, canoeing, rowing, and sailing were the only means of transportation. With the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s, the area became more accessible for tourism. People came to enjoy fishing and camping in the area — bringing their friends and families. Businesses began to cater to this tourist trade, many of whom were wealthy Manitobans. The first motorboats were introduced in the late 1890s. With the completion of the Trans Canada Highway in the 1930s, tourism became a major economic fixture.

The stage was set for boaters who appreciate large bodies of water between islands to come together to form a yacht club. Unlike most yacht clubs, the Northern Yacht Club is where people sleep on weekends. Members gather and have dinner at the Northern Harbour Boaters’ Club (home to the Northern Yacht Club) located in the center of the harbour with a large deck overlooking the beautiful view. Afterward, they head down the dock to their boat to rest their heads and ready themselves for a fun weekend of sailing.

Leaving from the club base at Northern Harbour Marina, the races start just before noon on Saturday and usually finish around three in the afternoon. Racers sail 15–20 miles down the lake to a remote anchorage where the fleet settles. Racing sure makes the Saturday afternoon appetizer feel a little more “earned.” The Northern YC has serious racers: young families who sail every weekend with their little ones in tow, couples who have raised their families on their sailboat, and have now retired to a cruiser for the next chapter of their lake life. Diane Gerhard recalls, “There were racing crews with a full complement of ‘deck apes’ and there were people like us, sailing our C&C 27 with a crew of four, two of whom were five- and seven-year-old boys, towing a dinghy and often a little grey duck decoy, named Wick, and two small plastic boats. Our kids liked to tow things when the sailing got a little slow.”

There are events from May to September for the whole family from frivolous fun on the water (Queen Island Treasure Hunt and Cruise Week) to intense, competitive racing (Warrod International race, six local pursuit races, and the infamous LOWISA). After this summer’s six race pursuit series, Ontario and Manitoba tied with three wins each!

As you drive east from Kenora (about 15 minutes on the highway), you come to the Northern Harbour Road turnoff. Check your troubles at “the highway” as you head down the two kilometres of forested, gravel road, which opens up to a breathtaking view of a large bay full of hundreds of boats (250 dock slips to be specific). The early-bird yearly membership fee of $90/boat funds all your activities. You’d think you’d died and gone to St. Lucia, but you’re in Northern Ontario!

At one time, the Northern Harbour Boaters’ Club was a restaurant and the Northern YC had a private room that was next door to its current space. As the harbour has gown, so has the space needed to gather Northern YC members. In the 1980s, the fully-licensed restaurant called the “Wheelhouse” has since been renovated with a nautical theme. There is a wonderful open-door policy in this space, which includes a full kitchen, washrooms, fireplace, and lots of room for dancing. The Northern Yacht Club and Northern Harbour Marina host many events in the summer with live bands, food, and fun. The Marina has public washrooms, showers, a full-service gas dock, boat launch ramp, docks, storage for over 350 boats, a playground, and plenty of sunshine!

The closure of the paper mill in 2005 left the town of Kenora with tourism as its only economic base. The Northern Harbour Marina now has over 80 boats on a dock wait list. There is currently a proposed harbour expansion that would add 400 more dock slips over the next 30 years, as well as an RV and art park. This expansion hopes to bring more tourist dollars into the town of Kenora (where one must go for supplies prior to heading out on a cruise). In the spring of 2012, the town council renamed the city of Kenora the “Premier boat capital of North America,” which should help with the harbour expansion.

“Probably the biggest draw to the area is LOWISA (Lake of the Woods International Sailing Association),” extols Jim Flood. “Some 48 years ago, American sailors came up to sail and ran into some Canadians. Cruising led to racing, one wilderness area to another, progressing up to 100 boats in the flotilla. Now the regatta numbers 50 to 60 boats ranging in size from 22–45 feet and wilderness anchorages every night.”

The very first commodore of LOWISA, Mr. Clyde Ryberg, recalls, “I came with my wife and two of our children and sailed around Lake of the Woods in an ancient E-boat, towing a canoe with our tents and gear. It was a trip never to be forgotten. I am certain that the international friendships developed during the course of the regattas have been a boon to both Canada and the United States.”

“This event will get underway again, for its 48th year on August 3–10, 2013, with easy socializing, lake exploration, shooting stars, old friends, water fights, BBQs, and great sportsmanship,” say the 2013 Debicki family organizers. The event, which starts out with a navigation seminar offered by the Hall family, has been inked on the Debicki family calendar for years. Not only is there great racing in and around the islands, but events like the Betty Crocker Golden Galley Award salute the fact that sailors don’t live on beans and weenies (make room for the Galley Guys)! There are tonnes of kids activities announced over the VHF following racing, a Mount Gay Wilderness Party (with Hawaii Five-O attire), and topped off with the Commodore’s Dinner and Awards Banquet back at Northern YC.

Rob Eby continues as their long standing Race Officer, who can be heard over the VHF explaining all manner of things and meandering through the anchorages with daily results. Of course, this is usually accompanied by an appreciative cocktail of white rum (Rob’s favourite)!

What a way to run a business — the Northern Yacht Club intertwined with the Northern Harbour Marina, definitely make it happen together. YOU may wish to make it happen too! So, next summer, set sail for Lake of the Woods and partake in some of the fun.
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Photo Captions
Photo 1 - Arial shot of Northern Harbour taken September 17, 2012
Photo 2 & 3 - Maps of the Lake of the Woods area in Northern Ontario
Photo 4 - Trimaran in the Morthern Harbour Marina
Photo 5 - Awards Ceremony at NYC on the last day of LOWISA 47
Photo 6 - Start of LOWISA 47
Photo 7 - Principal Race Officer (PRO) of LOWISA, Rob Eby

By: Katherine Stone