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West Side story 400by Jennifer M. Smith, drone photos by Alex Nikolajevich

It was the last day of August and we were in Little Current heading south. Our Lasalle winter haul out was still over a month away. The question was: where to now? Friends in Meaford often suggested we sail in for a visit. We never had because we’d always moved north-south on the east side of Georgian Bay. This year we were up for something different. This was the perfect opportunity to cruise the west side of the bay.

We made the 10 a.m. bridge out of Little Current and motor-sailed east southeast in light northerlies. We’d often sailed past Snug Harbour, a nearly land-locked anchorage on the north side of Lansdowne Channel because the chart suggested we’d never make it in there with our six-foot draft. Our PORTS cruising guide said otherwise, so in the spirit of “something different,” we decided to give it a go. Entering at low speed with a bow watch we saw no less than four feet under the keel and entered easily, no drama. We were anchored by mid-day, in time for lunch and some afternoon fun on our SUP boards.

West side Frazer bay shoreline 400We paddled to the west end of the anchorage, donned our hiking boots and walked a well-trodden path past deer blinds and Devil’s Bay Lake through to the north side of the peninsula. There, in the fresh breeze off Frazer Bay, we entertained ourselves hunting for crinoid stems and bivalve fossils along the limestone shore. Back at the boat, we refreshed with a late afternoon swim in the 20 C water before grilling burgers for dinner. Although two local boats dropped in for brief visits through the late afternoon, by sundown we were the only boat in this special place. When the sun disappeared, revealing a fantastically starry night, we lay on the bow under the Milky Way competing for first sightings of passing satellites and shooting stars. The harbour was snug indeed, a terrific first anchorage for our west side story.

Shoreline on Frazer Bay - on a walk from Snug Harbour

We got an early start the next day, slipping through the narrow channel between Centre and Badgeley Islands to head down the southeast coast of Manitoulin. It was a lumpy ride with waves larger than the light wind implied. A thirty-mile motor sail under sunny skies and light northeasterlies delivered us to Fitzwilliam Island just after midday.

As is often our custom, after lunch and a rest, we went out for a paddle and shore exploration in the late afternoon. The water in Rattlesnake Harbour is exceptionally clear with visibility of twenty feet or more. There was much to see from the vantage point of a paddleboard. The bottom was strewn with timber and old pilings. Although we anchored easily, hooking only mud, it was easy to see how you could get your ground tackle in a lot of trouble here. There were also wrecks of all sorts: barges, small craft, and a hundred-foot long wooden vessel. We later learned it was the Telegram, a passenger steamer that grounded on Jackson Shoal in 1908 with no casualties. It was taken off by tug then stranded and burnt in Rattlesnake Harbour later that same year.

West side SUP over Telegram wreck 400The only industry ashore was that of the many bees buzzing about flowering plants in the late afternoon sunshine. But clearly, from the number of old buildings, wrecked vehicles, and junk, this was once a much busier island. We snooped around old buildings, distraught to see the vandalism. It was tough to decide if the wreckage made for an intriguing historical site or if it was all just an eye-sore in this otherwise pretty place.

Fitzwilliam Island, Rattlesnake Harbour - SUP over the wreck of the Telegram | Photo credit: Alex Nikolajevich

Clearing Northeast point in the chill of a thirteen-degree morning we made a straight shot for Cabot Head on the Bruce Peninsula. The northeasterly had developed through the night and so had the seas. With plenty of fetch between our position and the eastern shore, we had a rolly ride in one-meter waves, rough enough to make me queasy when I tried to read up on our next destination. My husband, Nik, was content in the sunshine, out of the wind on the high side, wedged between the weather cloth and cockpit combing. I took a position standing at the helm to focus on the horizon before I became as green as the hull.

We’d never been into Wingfield Basin near Cabot Head before and, although it is well-buoyed and marked with both lights and range markers, we found it a pretty hairy entrance in the sizeable following seas. The good depths in the channel were welcome because in the conditions it would have been tough to turn back once committed.

west side small craft wreck 400Entering Wingfield Basin was like closing the door on a noisy room. Once inside, we were immediately at peace in flat water. Not only was there instant relief from the boisterous ride, it was also endlessly satisfying to be able to glance out the channel all afternoon and congratulate ourselves for sitting out the conditions at anchor in a millpond.

Fitzwilliam Island, Rattlesnake Harbour, small craft wreck

We paddled ashore and walked to the lighthouse at Cabot Head in the late afternoon, then circled the basin on our paddleboards to take a look at a wrecked tug up close.

The following day, twenty-four hours before a strong southerly filled in, we opted for a mid-day windless motor toward Cape Croker, figuring the many anchorages in Melville Sound would give us some exploring to do while we waited out the adverse winds. We opted for MacGregor Harbour the first night and moved across to Hope Bay the following day. The predicted strong southerly winds blew elsewhere, while we enjoyed calm conditions in both anchorages and took in the views particular to Georgian Bay’s west side.

The landscapes of the Bruce Peninsula are strikingly different from the eastern side of Georgian Bay where the smoothed and polished gneissic rocks of the Canadian Shield, the core of an ancient mountain chain, are exposed. On the west side of the bay, the geology consists of stratified sedimentary rock, formed at the bottom of an ancient sea. Differential erosion of the layers has created the Niagara Escarpment, a unique landscape of flat-topped highlands and striking cliffs.

West Side Telegram and Green Ghost 400The wind clocked around to the west. As we left Hope Bay and moved out from under the protection of the peninsula, we filled our sails for the short hop around Cape Croker. It was a brisk beat into Little Port Elgin just outside and north of the larger, longer Colpoy’s Bay. Anchoring close to shore in flat water our wind generator whirled in the strong westerlies. Wanting no part of the weather, we hid below with hot drinks and good books for the remainder of the day.

Fitzwilliam Island, Rattlesnake Harbour - portrait photo of wreck of Telegram in foreground, Green Ghost in background

At the end of our week-long journey, the wind changed yet again. As we weaved between Hay, White Cloud, and Griffith Islands, we readied for the anticipated rough ride beyond Cape Commodore. We were glad we did. Strong northerlies had developed overnight. There was a considerable swell on the lake. How ocean-like was the motion! For our final thirty miles to Meaford, we sailed on a boisterous broad reach making good time.

It was the kind of weather that is unforgiving in close quarters, especially when you’re at the controls of a boat with a single screw, no bow thruster, and plenty of freeboard. But with Nik at the helm and skilled hands on the Meaford docks, we shoe-horned into the last available spot. No incident, no yelling: remarkable! And a satisfying conclusion to our west side story.

Below left: Crinoid Stem in Limestone - fossil hunting on a walk from Snug Harbour

Below right: Cabot Head Light Station - Lighthouse from land

West side fossil hunting 400 West side cabot head light station 400