“So you’re back,” says Canadian Yacht Charters co-proprietor Ken Blodgett as if it hasn’t been a year since we’d last seen him.
“I’m back.” I sit down on a Muskoka chair beside Blodgett just outside their office, snugged down on the shores of Gore Bay on Manitoulin Island’s north shore.
I stare at the waters – dark green and mysterious in the late afternoon. I look up at East Bluff, their heights emerald in the sun, etched by pine trees, expanse broken by poplar leaves that seem to glitter
like silver coins, the occasional white gleam of the trunks of birch trees, the mottled faces of limestone bluffs that are one of the last north-climbing reaches of the Niagara Escarpment.
“Might lose the weather,” says Blodgett, desultorily.
That can happen. But right now it doesn’t concern me unduly. I’ve come back to the Channel and ever since crossing the bridge from the mainland southwest of Sudbury into Little Current, the tension has washed off me like dust in a warm shower.
“But anyway, you’re back,” says Blodgett. “Want a burger?”
His wife, Pam, comes out and gives me a big hug. “Welcome back,” she says. “Want some homemade fudge?” Ken and Pam are part of the reason we’re back. Not the only reason, not the most important reason. But part of the reason.
We started coming up here eleven years ago. They were friendly and hospitable then. Now they feel like family. Pam is a Haweater. Back when settlement first began on the biggest freshwater island in the world it was subsistence living. Lots of rock, lots of forest. Lots of fish, but the farming was tough. Earliest settlers had to survive eating the flesh of bitter Hawberries.
Lesser folk would have given up, but like islanders everywhere they’ve made do. Now they call themselves Haweaters with an almost Newfoundlandesque sense of humour. And come summer they have a Haweaters’ Festival in Little Current. Rest of the time they work hard to eke out a living here. Ken works hard but right now he’s every bit as lazy as I am. Pam goes back inside to catch up on some more paperwork.
First met Ken at the Toronto International Boat Show where he was doing an introduction to the Channel.
Struck me at the time that he should take his show on the road – sort of a one man- Broadway comedy act. Struck me at the time that he would be a fun guy to spend time with.
Struck me at the time that we really had to do the Channel.
And now we’re back.
“Where are you going to go?” says Blodgett. He stands up, lifts the lid of the barbecue, tosses some patties on the grill, and sits back down.
Blodgett grins, tanned leathery face showing the weather, the sun, the cold, the
winds, in it. “Where the winds take you.”
We’re back in the Channel. That’s enough.
First time here I had a float plan that would have made Derek Hatfield proud. There are something like three hundred and fifty islands in the Channel. I was going to stop at every one of them. Completely conquer the place.
The Channel had other plans.
Made us wait a day-and-a-half. Rain and heavy cloud. Gore Bay is a charming town in a postcard-picture setting. But there is not a lot to do here in the rain. Second biggest town on the island but this is a relative term. There are something like two traffic lights on Manitoulin Island. Neither are in Gore Bay.
So I was itching to get out there – the islands swathed in mist were Northern Ontario Bali-Hai’s, beckoning and seductive. And I was going to see everyone.
That first day was a warning. “You have to meet the Channel on her terms,” said Blodgett in our first chart briefing. “You go with her rhythm and not yours.”
We pulled out of the dock, making our way north, when a line squall roared through. Got the main up and the boat pitched and yawed. Another squall came through. We turned around and limped back to harbour.
Sometime after twilight I strolled out to where the bay opened up a bit – now the skies were lavender and fading fast to indigo. Not a light to be seen on the Channel, just a few here in town. I cursed silently and then I heard the chuckle of a loon.
Seemed like the Channel was laughing at me.
But I forgave her.
Next morning was perfect and the boat skimmed the waters. We were making for South Benjamin Island.
Ken and Pam are part of the reason we’re back in the Channel. South Benjamin is a bigger part.
We pulled in there that first night and dropped the hook in the lee of a great towering boulder of granite. The water was so clear you could see pebbles at fifteen feet. A cliff, pink granite, rose up from the waters toward the end of a bay decorated with sea grass that glowed neon lime in the afternoon sun.
In a tiny rock channel – rocks formed by wind and water so delicately they reminded you of cushions on a bed – a couple of sailboats were snugged down, sterns affixed to tree trunks on shore.
I decided that if there was ever an apocalypse I would steal a boat from Blodgett and head straight for here.
A couple of trailerables with centerboards had pulled up onto a rock ledge. At twilight they lit campfires.
South Benjamin is part of why I come back to the channel.
We’re not the only ones who comeback.
Before dark that first night in Benjamin we dinghied around the bay and I pulled up beside a yacht from
Detroit. A twenty-something girl reclined in the cockpit, a middle-aged man was reading a book.
“First time on the Channel?” I said.
He grinned. Desultorily. “See her?”He pointed at the girl. “She was a baby our first time. Back every year.”
Back in the Channel, back in Gore Bay, we’re waiting. For both weather and for my wife’s friends, Barb and Dave Anschuetz. It will be their first time on the Channel.
Guys on the next dock over have come back to the Channel too. We go over and share drinks and lies about our favourite anchorages. Blodgett comes aboard. The rum goes down as all these channel regulars (these guys are from Ottawa, been coming up for twenty years.) “Every year,” says Blodgett. He points to another boat down the dock. “Twenty years for those guys too.”
A storm breaks over us and the lightning flashes across the sky. The thunder rattles the mast and thuds against the hull.
The Channel is reminding us. Doesn’t matter how many times you come back, you meet the Channel on her terms.
But everybody keeps coming back.
I have a lot of reasons, I think to myself next morning, sitting in a Muskoka chair usually reserved for Blodgett, waiting for Barb and Dave.
Item: Crossing south between Clapper - ton and Amedroz Islands. The waters are the colour of the sky and Manitoulin looms in the distance, gentle undulating ridges dominating the south horizon, somewhere between blue and indigo. Close-reached: small limestone bluffs of Clapperton capped by dense forest that comes right to the edge of these tiny cliffs off our starboard beam, pine-encrusted low-lying Amedroz off the port beam.
Item: Watching the play of sun on the water from a dock at Kagawong, watching kids jumping off the eight-foot pier, laughing and screaming, gasping with the cold as the day dies, while we set out pork tenderloin on the Force Ten, after hiking up a glittering stream to a waterfall that shimmers like a bride’s veil.
Item: North on a beam reach while son Adam yells, “harden the sail, Dad,” because, with the white peaks of LaCloche Mountains dead ahead, looking like they are snow-spattered though it’s actually quartzite, waters here pewtergilded and wind-riffled, two other sailboats are ahead and Adam’s bought into the maxim that any sailboats headed the same way are, by definition, racing.
Item: When the kids were young, discovering a deserted beach on Darch Island, a family swim, a picnic lunch at anchor, skipping stones in crystal water and watching them bounce like flying fish.
Item: Sailing a fancy Hunter with all the bells and whistles. Sailing a much older Aloha called “Rowdy’s Revenge”, a 38’ cat called “Nauticat”, cruising in a trawler and a power cat both. Canadian Yacht Charters has a diverse fleet with the right boat for your needs whether you want luxury, sail or comfort. And if you don’t feel up to the channel, they’ll provide a skipper.
Item: Late one day at south Benjamin after we’ve picked up Barb and Dave and cast off for this particular return to the channel.
One boat here. Ours. The sun falls and paints the pink granite headland even pinker. We dinghy ashore, clamour up great boulders.
Back on the boat we watch the stars come out – a scintillating tapestry that does something to your soul as you look around, as you hear the call of a couple of loons, haunting and forlorn but beautiful as a Mozart symphony.
“I can’t believe how beautiful this place is“ says Barb. “Like a Group of Seven painting.”
“Two or three other spots I wanted you to see,” I say. Haven’t had a great weather window on this trip so they aren’t going to happen.
Barb takes a sip of wine, looks around the bay, up at the sky. She deeply inhales the evening air, crisp and redolent of pine.
“Next time,” she says.
“So you’d come back?”
“I’d come back in a minute.”
Back to the Channel.
Pam and Ken Blodgett maintain a complete fleet of boats for skippered or bareboat charters out of their Canadian Yacht Charters Gore Bay base.