Surfing down a wave face at 7 knots on Alegría, our C&C 44, heading for the swing bridge at Little Current, we are returning to home dock after our seven-day odyssey in the fabled North Channel of Lake Huron. Seven days earlier, on Saturday, August 19, 2006, our adventure started at Spider Marina in Little Current, just south of the La Cloche Range.
Our charter skipper, Rick Butler, is a Canadian Yachting Association instructor and an experienced offshore sailor and navigator. He navigated the Alegría throughout our trip, using the long narrow strip charts that show the North Shore anchorages, navigation aids and hazards. Navigation hazards in the North Shore cannot be underestimated or your boat will end up on the rocks.
The crew is Ron and Beth Krema from Chicago, who own a Catalina 36, and George Pulo and Lyn Owen from Humber Sailing Club in Toronto.
Before we boarded the Alegría in Little Current, at about 5 p.m. that Saturday, we provisioned, bought our charts, and then had a delicious fresh fish dinner with wild blueberry pie for dessert at the recommended Anchor Bar & Grill just across from the docks. That night we slept on board listening to the 30-knot westerly wind blowing above our heads.
Day One, Sunday: In the morning, we performed all the necessities of pre-departure: showering at the marina, starting the engine to charge the refrigerator, pumping out, and filling up with water and fuel at the service dock. We departed Little Current, motoring east through an angled channel under the swing bridge, and then north of Strawberry Island by means of a narrow passage marked with spar buoys. Once into the North Channel, up went the sails, and it was downwind at seven knots in a 15-knot wind through the open water from Strawberry Island to Bold Point on Manitoulin Island. We navigated a narrow channel from Bold Point past Bernard Rock, then sailed a good distance through open water past Scarecrow Island. The skipper took bearings and brought us through a channel marked with ranges and spar buoys, with some depths as low as six feet, to a good anchorage in Beaverstone Bay. The bottom was silt and the anchor held on the second try. We had come 30 NM from Little Current.
That night, our skipper prepared his specialty Jambalaya (or as Ron referred to it as Slumgullion) of beef, rice, vegetables and red beans, which disappeared down our throats within five minutes after it touched the table, tasting like food for the gods, a complimented with a bottle of Canadian wine.
Day 2, Monday: We motored out of Beaverstone Bay, keeping to starboard of a deadly maze of low rocks called The Chickens, and reached clear water after about four NM. A southwest wind of 16 knots was plucking at our sails as we hoisted them up and took off downwind for a day of perfect sailing. We were alone in an inland sea surrounded by islands. Only an occasional boat appeared in the distance. We were nearing the French River area about nightfall, so we worked into the Bad River Channel, threading our way through the shoals, following a channel marked by spar buoys and ranges, to a beautiful cove at the foot of Devil’s Door Rapids. We anchored on the first try on a silt and weed bottom. We found ourselves in relatively shallow, warm water (according to George) bounded on the north by 60-foot rock cliffs of pink granite, veined with white quartz, and covered with lichens of all shapes and colours–circular grey, bristly black and sulphur yellow. We motored by dinghy to the nearest rock face and climbed about 60 feet to the top of the ridge, where we saw a spectacular panorama of blue water channels and white rapids separated by pink granite ridges, green pine and spruce, and ripe patches of wild blueberries–the French River. Returning to the Alegría with our blueberries, we swam with great pleasure in the warm clear waters of the cove.
That night we prepared mandolined potatoes with onions and garlic, pork chops marinated in olive oil and herbs, all served with a green salad and an Argentinean wine. As we relaxed in our cushions with a sigh, we listened to the wind still blowing at 10-15 knots, and the rumble and flash of a thunderstorm passing far to the north.
Day Three, Tuesday: After another swim, we did some manoeuvering so that the skipper could establish an updated deviation table for Alegria, and then sailed a course of 140 degrees from the Bad River marker through 16 NM of open water, white capped waves, wind filling our sails and the big boat surging through the teal blue lake waters with a bone in her teeth. We sailed past the Bustard Islands on the north and the Magnetowan Ledges on the south to the fairway buoy and lighthouse at Byng Inlet, where we followed a range and spar buoys along an eight-foot deep channel to dock at Wrights’s marina in the small town of Britt for reprovisioning and water. That night we barbecued and ate deliciously marinated steaks and mouthwatering hamburgers with tossed salad, smashed potatoes and a bottle of Australian wine.
Day Four, Wednesday: The wind was down to five knots, so we decided to do some sightseeing, and if possible, collect more blueberries. We motored through the winding Small Craft Channel, a navigation challenge, where we had to watch the depth on the chart to determine the location of the navigable channel, partially shown by spar buoys and day marks, with the skipper on the bow to guide us through. We passed rock formations, wind-sculpted trees and vistas of breathtaking beauty. Through an opening between two miniature islands, a perfect little island would appear for a few moments as we passed. Each island is unique, but some are complex and absorbing–islands composed of a small pink granite rock face, a few green pines, a sandy shoal at their base, and the blue of the shallows receding into the deeper dark blue water. The landscape here is wild, beautiful, compelling, and empty of reminders of civilization. The bays and coves, the ranges and islands surrounded by pure air and water so clear you can see the rocky bottom seem to evoke the words of Rudyard Kipling who loved to explore such places:
Something hidden, go and find it.
Go and look behind the Ranges.
Something lost behind the Ranges,
Lost and waiting for you. Go!
That evening we anchored on the second try in thick mud near Northeast Island in the Bustard Island chain. After a swim, we ate another great dinner of grilled Italian sausage with grilled peppers, onions and mushrooms, a little wine, and a carrot cake we had bought at Britt. This evening we saw the best sunset of the trip, all pinks and roses and fuchsias cut below by the black skyline of pines and firs, before the silver stars began to stud the deepening dark blue of the sky.
Day Five, Thursday: Motoring out past Isabel Rock, we started another perfect day of sailing, leaving Grondine Rock to starboard and Gull Rock to port. We motor-sailed a bit on a run with the light wind changing from beam to broad. On the way we passed Squaw Island and Lonely Island to port, sailing wing on wing between Papoose and Scarecrow Islands, heading west toward the lighthouse at Red Rock, which marks the entrance to Killarney. Killarney (population 430) is a very useful harbour with complete marine services. We docked for an hour, ate tasty fish &chips at Mr. Perch, prepared in a converted school bus on the water, topped off by ice cream, and then departed. We anchored in a mud bottom next to Indian Head rock face in Covered Portage Cove, a scenic anchorage about three NM west of Killarney, and 32 NM from the Bustard Islands.
Day Six, Friday: There was quite a wind overnight, although the anchor held well, with the skipper checking it every hour. We motored out Lancaster Channel, and after some careful navigation, found more friendly waters and put up the sails. Later, after finding the heading for Heywood Island, we sailed there and started looking for the opening of the cove behind Browning Island. We anchored using the bow anchor (a plough) and also setting out a second anchor toward the opening of the cove for surety. A pair of loons was diving to catch little fish, and then calling their two chicks out of the reeds to come and eat. We explored some of the channels in the dinghy, swam, ate another great dinner of marinated steaks, vegetable skewers with onion, red and green peppers and mushrooms and a tomato and cucumber salad, with double chocolate biscotti for dessert.
Day Seven Saturday: We headed out of the cove in 15 knot winds, raised the jib and sailed downwind at about seven knots, reaching and gybing to make our final sail a little longer. We made the narrow channel past the Strawberry Island lighthouse dropped sail and slowly motored to the Little Current swing bridge awaiting its hourly opening. This is an area full of shoals where you have to follow both a range and the channel spar buoys, and, if necessary, delay the boat by reversing, idling and turning because the swing bridge opens only once an hour for 15 minutes, and the area fills up with boats waiting for the bridge.
The skipper docked at Little Current; our sailing adventure was over. We packed up and had a last lunch together, exchanging e-mail addresses, and talking about future trips. Every day had been a good sailing day, and an experience that can only best be shared and not just described. Thanks to our skipper, Rick Butler, we had a safe and exhilarating voyage, full of exciting sailing, unusual anchorages, fine swimming spots, beautiful scenery and extremely satisfying (and sometimes scary) lessons in navigation.
Sailing the North Channel will not disappoint you–in fact, it will surpass your Farquhar’s wildest dreams. To coin the philosophy of Grassroots Sailing, our skipper’s sailing school “time well-spent is the true measure of a life’s worth”.