Story and photos by Jennifer Harker
A glorious end to another beautiful day on the bay
It’s like we’ve waved a magic wand and disappeared into a picture perfect painting, our 28-foot Sea Ray a small maroon and cream dot plunged into the middle of an unravelling canvas of colour.
It’s a landscape where the only real interruptions to nature’s miracles are the navigation marks guiding a winding way through seemingly impenetrable rock scatterings.
Welcome to the northern reaches of the 30,000 islands of Georgian Bay, heading north of Pointe au Baril up to the Bad River.
A glorious end to another beautiful day on the bay
This is a serene and decidedly different world compared to the carnival of congested cottages found in the southern stretches of the bay. And for many cruisers, this is where boating the bay truly begins.
We launch our holidays with a weekend of sun and fun at a friend’s cottage in Five Mile Bay just south of Parry Sound and take the opportunity to try out their stand up paddleboard (SUP). It’s easy to see why SUPs have become popular take-alongs onboard cruisers. Easy to manoeuvre, they provide a good workout while delivering an alternate view of the world than that experienced in a kayak. Back bays and quiet channels ripe for exploring await and my daughter even takes our friends’ dog out on the board.They both have great sea legs and are exhilarated by the ride.
A glorious end to another beautiful day on the bay
In what has become a familiar tune over the past few years, our travel plans are altered as ferocious winds keep us at the dock one extra night. No matter, in our often over-scheduled life it serves as a gentle reminder to stop and smell the roses – or in this case, enjoy a good book and be rewarded with an unbelievably luminescent starscape at night.
We head out on a brilliant sunlit morning, gobbling up the kilometres, the water smooth and calm, creating a glorious day on the bay. Passing Loon Island, we’re rewarded by the sight of a loon who dives below at our approach. It makes you contemplate the stories behind the names gliding by like Franklin Island, Doctor Oil Island, Dead Island, Obstacle Island; all full of history and mystery.
Traffic picks up as work boats and cottage boats loaded with supplies buzz by as we near the entrance to Pointe au Baril Station. If you’re looking for a supply stop on the route north, this is a good one. Although the secondary route in is several miles long,at the end boaters will find a well-stocked combination grocery and hardware store right across from the public docks; several marinas with transient docks, gas, parts and repairs; a restaurant or two; and a short walk away on the highway a liquor store, fast food choices, a post office and convenience store.
We push on as we’ve set our sites for Britt in Byng Inlet as our evening’s destination, saving our exploration of the Bayfield Inlet area for our return trip.
Georgian Bay offers so many ways to get out on the water. As we near the tidy Canadian Coast Guard search and rescue station and picturesque Gereaux Island Lighthouse on the south side of Byng Inlet, I stop counting the flotillas of kayaks bobbing on the bay or pulled up ashore, setting up camp. Clearly this is a paddlers’ paradise. Cruising down the long inlet, several spots sport parked kayak rack trailers, proving it a popular launching area for group and individual travellers.
Boaters have a few choices for overnight transient dockage including Wrights Marina Ltd. and St. Amant’sWaterfront Inn & Marina a little further up the inlet. This time we opt for the convenience of St. Amant’s with its restaurant, grocery store, liquor store and hotel – a bonus if you have extra crew on board who would enjoy a night ashore.
There are so many ways to explore and experience Georgian Bay including kayaks, canoes, and even a tiny sailboat.
Earlier in the summer, while driving back from a hiking expedition to The Crack in Killarney Provincial Park, we stayed overnight at St. Amant’sand discovered vehicles and vessels pay the same for their fuel. In August, the $1.15 a litre we paid for boat gas seemed like a real bargain in an age of ballooning fuel prices.
After a day on the bay our legs need a stretch and the crew heads for Ice Cream On the Rocks, a small kiosk serving up summer, just westward of the marina. Nothing screams summer quite like a chilly made-in-Ontario Kawartha Dairy ice cream cone on a hot August afternoon and serves as a well-earned reward from another ‘tough’ day on the water.
Since we tend to designate our trips as technology-free expeditions (meaning no computers, DVD players or electronic gadgets)we look for other ways to entertain ourselves. Soon we have front row seats to observe with interest a small helicopter expertly navigating a tight turn and plentiful trees to put down gently on a floating dock directly across from the marina.
Walking the winding waterfront road in Britt feels a little like strolling through an east coast fishing village. The road wraps around rocky outcrops, past abandoned boats and docks dotted with colourful wildflowers (super fodder for my ever-present camera), and takes us past cute cottages and well-kept permanent places.
Later, an evening stroll has us peeking in the windows of the Holy Family Church with its grotto and lighthouse. Father Neil comes to the door and is happy to chat about his community.
Fascinating people are found up and down the bay and sharing stories while boating is always an interesting exercise. We learn a little more about this pioneer community that once boasted commercial fishing boats, lumber mills and a CPR coal dock. Now, with affordable property prices (and as an unincorporated township, few building restrictions), combined with a nursing station and a medivac helipad for quick transport to Parry Sound or Sudbury for emergency care, the small community is becoming popular with retirees.
The following morning, with no real destination in mind, we continue our trip northward.
Passing the Canadian Coast Guard ship Cove Isle hard at work,we wave and send a silent thank-you for keeping essential buoys maintained and in correct placement throughout the entire boating season. It’s hard to imagine travelling the waters without these essential aids to navigation.
After passing more packs of kayakers, including a number of long tandems, we make the turn out to big water. All that pierces the unending horizon area few distant sails poking skyward. Sailors make the fast run south unencumbered by near-shore shoals and the endless islands of the small craft route north that necessitates a slow speed but is just what we’re looking for on this trip.
It’s an awe-inspiring journey with endless undulations of rock, reaching like long fingers towards passing boats, inviting you in to explore and discover these secret spaces.
Tucked away in the bay: sailors and power boaters can use their charts to wind their way through the shallow blue areas to enjoy a bay all to themselves.
I’ve been boating southern Georgian Bay for decades and, while I’ve been fortunate enough to explore the Killarney and Baie Fine areas by boat, I had missed the section in-between and it’s my first trip travelling this part of the small craft route. To describe it as otherworldly might seem a stretch, but you do find yourself reaching for suitable words to describe the dramatic backdrop here.Simply stunning.Wildly untamed. Tantalizingly remote.
There’s only a sprinkling of cottages here, refusing to bend to the cottage-i-fication of the more well-travelledand easily accessible parts of the bay. This morning we have only cormorants for company. Time ticks by and we spot just one fishing boat and one work boat in an hour and a half.
Adventurers have a choice of endless empty anchoragesaccessible by picking a path carefully through the slashes of blue on the charts - but beware. Watch the weather, the depth sounder, and be absolutely sure of your location, as the twisted spaghetti of marks in some tight quarters can be deceptive, even to experienced mariners. A word to the wise as well – be sure of your fuel supply as there is nowhere to refuel in this section of the bay.
We navigate through another magnificent maze of channels and come to Obstacle Island, literally a large rock surrounded by confusing (to the untrained eye) navigation buoys. Our captain has travelled this section several times while teaching marine courses, so we glide through unscathed. This would not be the best route choice for larger vessels.
Today,under brilliant sunshine,we cruise into the French River region that’s steeped in history, part of the water highway linking Montreal and Lake Superior. Eerie remnants of bygone days litter the shore along an inlet.I wonder about First Nations people, early explorers, fur traders and voyageurs, and must marvel at their ability to find their way once out on the vast bay.
We cruise into the breath-taking Bad River and I know immediately we will need to save this region for further exploration another season. Red walls line one side and the white hills of the LaCloche Range paint the horizon. There is ample room in the pool for flotillas of boats to anchor together or singles to swing on the hook. Today it is virtually empty. With its west exposed channel a few days of high winds and huge waves have kept the cruisers trapped inside and most headed out early today. It can not be said often enough that Georgian Bay always deserves your respect and in this remote part of the bay, it is essential more than ever to keep an eye on the sky, pay attention to marine forecasts, watch the winds, and prepare to be flexible with your travel plans.
We cruise down the long arm to the right and tie up to the rock wall. A few well placed pins give a secure hold for hours or days.
We help a family from Delaware come alongside, manoeuvring in the deep channel (mostly 12-15 feet, but fluctuating water levels always demand your attention). Once tied up, they step ashore and say, “You are so lucky.” I reply simply, “I know.”
It’s easy to see why boaters talk of the Bad’s beautiful anchorage. Take a dinghy up the river and ride the rapids, fish for that elusive trophy, relax on the rugged rocks, swim or picnic. It is classic Georgian Bay.
On our return south, we make a refuellingstop at Britt and with winds whipping up again, opt to relax overnight.
The next day we head out into a fatiguing mess of waves and winds and are thrilled to finally slip into the calm silence of the protected channels of the Bayfield Inlet area. It is a welcome relief and our friends meet us in the main channel of their cottage runabout to guide us through the narrow channels, picking our way amongst the sharp shoals and scattered islands to their piece of paradise. Glorious.
We relax with a swim and contemplate options for the day’s activities – canoe the secluded inlets, marvelling at how rising water levels are drowning many shoreline trees;a short trip to view the picturesque Painted Rocks;a picture-perfect picnic on one of the hundreds of rockscapes in the vicinity complete with a Sandhill Crane flying overhead; a circumnavigation of the island in a tiny sailboat; or perhaps a tour to the Pointe au Baril lighthouse. So many choices! We tick off several in the next few days.
A sensational sunset illuminates the dock that evening. We sip wine on the cottage deck, drinking in the beauty of the bay before enjoying a restful sleep onboard, lulled into dreamland by the gentle lap of water against the hull. Tomorrow we will head home, closing the chapter on another Georgian Bay adventure and eager to plan next year’s voyage.