North Channel Retrospective
Shyly at first, then blossoming into ethereal shades of pinks and limes and lavenders, the very skies themselves began to dance.
As I watched this spectacular light show, the aurora borealis, I
understood why the Algonquins call it the Spirit Dance. It was a sign
from the Great Spirit himself, a celebration marking our return to Lake
Huron's North Channel.
In the preface to her Well-Favored Passage: A Guide to Lake Huron's North Channel
(1982; Peach Mountain Press), Marjorie Kahn Brazer describes the North
Channel as a "flight of the soul to a distant haunt--of peace, of
timelessness, of mystery, of aching beauty." On this trip, my wife,
Sharon, and I were joined by our two sons, Shaun, 15, and Adam, 10, and
Sharon's parents, Bert and Lucy Matthews. And on this North Channel
sojourn, more than on our first trip here, I felt those very qualities
deep in my soul. This was no mere bareboat charter; it was a
That first visit to the North Channel, in 2002, began on July 1, Canada
Day, an appropriate date insofar as the channel is the perfect metaphor
for Canada. This is the North Country: massive granite boulders,
tree-covered islands, and pure blue water. This is home to Manitoulin
Island, the largest freshwater island in the world and, more
significantly, the home of the Great Spirit, Gitchi Manitou. Sharon and
I and the two boys sat in the cockpit of Rowdy's Revenge, an Aloha 32
we'd chartered through Canadian Yacht Charters (CYC) in Gore Bay,
Ontario, and watched incandescent fireworks, not northern
lights--bursts of red, green, and yellow accompanied by cannonades that
rumbled through the bilge.
The next morning, I was anxious to be off, but Ken Blodgett, CYC's
proprietor, counseled patience. He spread the chart on a picnic table
and suggested anchorages and other points of interest. "Always make
sure you know where you are," he said, indicating a spot that first
shows 30 feet of water, then three feet.
Blodgett nodded in the direction of a scuba-geared man on the dock,
mask in one hand, fins in the other. "People have been known to, uh,
touch here," he said, pointing to the chart. "My son goes under every
boat to make sure everything is sound after every charter."
We soon learned the channel demands patience. Clouds rolled in before
we left the dock. Rain fell in liquid sheets. An hour passed, then two.
Sometime around 2 p.m., we got a break. The sun broke through, and I
cast off for our first port of call. It wasn't to be.
A line squall smashed into us right after we passed the headlands
outside Gore Bay. I tried to run west past it, but another curtain of
rain followed the first. We turned north, but yet another squall line
rolled in, followed by thick fog. The rain came in horizontal ribbons,
and we limped back into harbor, sodden and discouraged. I erased the
rhumb line on my chart and revised my float plan. I'd gone head to head
with the channel and decisively lost my first battle, and throughout
that first cruise, I was plagued by the thought that I was going about
it all wrong.
Return to the Channel
My float plan for the second trip, two years later, was less rigid. In
fact, from the minute I stepped off the dock onto the deck of On Purpose,
a Hunter 410--also provided by CYC--I felt like I'd come home. On my
first trip, I'd scampered around the dock asking others about their
favorite anchorages and hearing their lies. This time, I told my own.
On this trip, the elements would dictate our course. This time, I'd
write my plan in pencil. This time, we'd ride the winds on a beam reach
for paradise. With roughly 300 islands to choose from, almost all of
them uninhabited, my biggest dilemma would be picking my pleasure.
A sailor setting out from Gore Bay and heading west ends up beating
into the prevailing westerlies while crossing the exhilarating expanse
of blue water that marks the widest part of the channel. Crack off the
wind a bit and you come to Whalesback Channel, a delightful, 17-mile
stretch that includes Beardrop Harbour and John Island. Dotted with a
variety of islands--some bare rock, some covered in trees--this passage
offers plenty of deep water, though you need to monitor your chart and
keep an eye out for shoals. Marjorie Kahn Brazer called Whalesback "one
of the most beautiful passages in the world."
But for me, paradise meant the Benjamin Islands, farther east, where we
headed via a beam reach in 15 knots of wind, a quick two-hour passage
from civilization to pink-granite outcroppings. This time, I knew the
entry into the bay at the south end of South Benjamin. This time, we
didn't have to be quite so careful dodging the smattering of rocks
called the Sows and Pigs. In this bay, on our first visit, we'd spent
our first night out, and it was here that the seeds of a fresh North
Channel philosophy began to germinate. Now I lazed in the cockpit, read
a book, sipped wine, and inhaled the scent of pine and the smell of
wood smoke from a campfire on the shore.
The next morning, I swam in crystal-clear water and sipped another
coffee. When the crew woke up, we dinghied over to a 200-foot-high
granite outcropping and climbed it to scan the channel, which was
visible for miles from this perspective. Our boys swam from a wide
ledge far below the ridge, then skipped stones across the water. A
single boat headed east, its white sail standing out against the indigo
hump of Manitoulin Island. Except for two other boats swinging at
anchor in the same bay, we couldn't see another sign of humanity. We'd
found paradise on a beam reach.
We left our anchorage late. Our course on our first trip had been more
ambitious: We'd departed by 0800 and made for Little Current, about 30
miles to the east, the track on my GPS straight as an arrow. But this
day, we had plenty of wind and buried the rail a couple of times.
Still, we covered a mere six miles over the ground, the track on my GPS
best characterized as "meandering." This day, we traveled to a new
universe, discovered a new time zone, and learned that the journey is
key, not the destination.
The heights of Manitoulin Island marked the southern boundary of this
passage, first green in the early morning light, then blue as the sun
marched west, followed by indigo in the twilight. The island has long
offered shelter from storms that roar up Lake Huron, and it retains a
magic that time can't erase. Though denuded of much of its pristine
forest, the island is still a remarkable and friendly destination in
its own right, a delightful combination of First Nations land, farms
dotting rolling hills, lonely roads, and great stands of new-growth
Manitoulin itself is the last bastion of the Niagara Escarpment, a
limestone ridge that marches across Ontario from Niagara Falls. In the
middle of the channel, low-lying wooded islands give way to the majesty
of pink-granite outcroppings, while farther north, you get true
Canadian Shield geology, with alabaster quartzite heights, such as the
La Cloche Mountains, thrown in for diversity.
Although aborigines had been here for 9,000 years, no major settlements
were established, so European explorers used the waterway primarily as
a fur-trading route to territories farther west. The first European
reportedly landed here around 1610, followed shortly thereafter by
Jesuit missionaries. Channel cruisers can still see remnants of the
Jesuit school at Wikwemikong, on Manitoulin's eastern side, and an
ancient roofless structure squatting on a low-lying island just west of
Land of the Haweaters
European farmers arrived in the early 19th century. Unfortunately, the
thin soil and the granite outcroppings that create such a beautiful
cruising ground make the entire region bad for farming. The dearth of
arable land gave rise to the appellation "Haweaters" for islanders
past, who supplemented their meager diets with the plentiful, if
somewhat bitter, hawberries. Today, the term lives on, and the annual
August bash held in Little Current is known as the Haweaters' Festival.
By the late 1800s, lumber had become king. Islands still bear the scars
of that depredation. The vast forests you glide past have regrown since
lumbering died out. No primary-growth forest remains. Much of the land
has been ceded to First Nations tribes, and this accounts for the lack
of cottages and other development on the islands in these pristine
For all its beauty and its wealth of secret anchorages, the channel is
also a great place to cruise because you can provision within 30 miles
of anywhere you've anchored. Gore Bay, where CYC is based, is on the
western side of a deeply recessed bay. It's ideally suited for
provisioning, and CYC itself maintains a well-stocked chandlery. If you
go ashore here, check out the museum housed in the old jail or rent a
bike and head out West Bluff Road to one of the oldest lighthouses on
Between Gore Bay and Little Current, the pretty little town of Kagawong
boasts prime Victorian architecture. Stretch your legs by hiking the
Cup and Saucer Trail, sampling its panoramic views of the channel, then
take a dip at the foot of Bridal Veil Falls. Little Current features a
variety of shops, many of which sell First Nations artwork. Spend a day
strolling tree-lined streets, watching boats negotiate the swing bridge
that connects the island to the mainland, or simply playing darts while
sipping a cool one on the patio at the Anchor Grill.
Wikwemikong and Manitowaning, farther east on Manitoulin, offer
fascinating glimpses of First Nations culture. Tie up at the town docks
in Manitowaning and tour the 200-foot steamship Norisle, a fine example
of the ships that once sailed the Great Lakes. Check out the Assiginack
Museum, another attraction housed in a former jail. Sample some summer
theater at the Burn's Wharf Warehouse.
If you want even more culture, First Nations style, visit
De-Bah-Ja-Mah-Jig, a fascinating dramatic production that relates the
area's aboriginal heritage. Dock overnight at Wikwemikong Bay Marina, a
gorgeous log structure with 60 slips operated by local First Nations
bands. If you venture to the channel's northwesterly reaches, pull into
the new marina facilities at Blind River, the largest town on the
channel, and provision there.
For all the charm of the villages, though, it's the wilderness setting
and deserted, unspoiled anchorages that keep people coming back to the
Roughly 70 miles east of the Straits of Mackinac in northernmost
Michigan, the North Channel demands a significant investment of time
for cruisers determined to cruise there from Chicago, Detroit, or other
points to the south. If achieving Nirvana was easy, everybody would do
it, and there'd be little to brag about once you gained it. From the
east, you must traverse the length of Lake Huron. You can either hug
Huron's Canadian coast, which can mean constant cross seas and nasty
waters north of Tobermory, at the tip of Ontario's Bruce Peninsula, or
you can stay in the Michigan lee.
Those who head north up the Canadian shore should cross into Georgian
Bay and make for such attractive anchorages as Baie Fine, a
17-mile-long fjord, or pull into Killarney and watch the world go by
before heading west for the main waters of the channel.
After a long, arduous passage, you may want to book a shorebound berth
at the Killarney Mountain Lodge and Outfitters, a rustic family inn
with a sailor-friendly atmosphere. Lodge director Jennifer East keeps
her 24-foot Shark sloop at the dock here. Should you decide to spend a
night ashore, you can dock your boat right in front of the resort, or
stay aboard and avail yourself of the comfortable berths and hot
From the west, you must head up Lake Michigan. If this is your route,
consider visiting Mackinac Island. Or spend a day or two exploring
another hidden gem of the north, Les Cheneaux Islands, on Michigan's
Upper Peninsula. Then head north and approach the passage through False
Detour Channel. The rhumb-line distance from Port Huron to the channel
is roughly 200 miles; from Chicago, it's closer to 300 miles.
Rather than sail a hundred or more miles to get to the channel, you
might consider driving or flying there and chartering a boat instead
(see "North Channel Chartering," below).
At the end of our second cruise, we pulled into Oak Bay for our last
night on the water. A great boulder of granite sheltered the north
shore. Sea grasses at the west end of the anchorage bent before
insistent winds. For the past few days, we'd sailed according to the
whims of the channel, reaching anchorages dictated by prevailing winds
and our own moods. A forest lurked on the south shore, and we hiked
through it, sensing, as the wind whispered in the aspens, the presence
of the ghosts of voyageurs and aboriginal hunters and fishermen. No
longer mysterious and brooding, the woods became a sanctuary.
The setting sun bathed Mount McBean's quartzite peaks in blazing
scarlet. Long after twilight, we sat in the cockpit sipping wine under
black skies. I reflected on my first trip, realizing that I'd been
determined to uncover all the channel's secrets and had formulated
overly ambitious float plans. This time, we'd dropped the hook and
spent lazy afternoons swimming off deserted beaches. This time, we
poured second or even third cups of coffee before weighing anchor. The
stars came out above us, forming a scintillating tapestry across ebony
velvet. This was the way to cruise the North Channel.
Mark Stevens lives in Bolton, Ontario, with his wife, photographer
Sharon Matthews-Stevens. They sail their Contessa 26 on Lake Ontario.
The Little Current Cruisers Net
You wake up with some chest pain. Could be the jalapeños from last
night, but your spouse is nervous and thinks you should call someone.
Or you simply want to reach your brother, who's cruising nearby, but
you can't raise him. You're in a great anchorage, but it's a cellphone
black hole. If you're cruising in the Lake Huron's North Channel,
you're in luck.
Flip on VHF Channel 74, and you'll hear, "It's 9 a.m. Welcome, boaters,
to the Little Current Cruisers Net." You've just tuned into a local
North American VHF radio network for cruisers, and for the next 15 to
20 minutes, along with hundreds of other like-minded sailors, you're in
touch with the rest of the world.
The announcer identifies himself as Roy, commodore of the Little
Current Yacht Club. Roy is Roy Eaton, and he'll be the first to insist
that this program isn't about him--and of course, in the larger sense,
it isn't. But without Roy, there'd be no program. Roy is a lifelong
North Channel sailor, certified Canadian Yacht Association instructor,
retired principal in the local schools, and ham-radio operator. He's an
affable, burly, avuncular sort, with a professional on-air delivery no
doubt perfected over all those years of making announcements over
Three years ago, while cruising in the Bahamas, he developed a Canadian
news program. He pulled in news off his onboard SSB radio, wrote his
scripts, and sent a few minutes' worth of news of Canada out over the
Caribbean airways. It was a big hit. When he returned home, he wondered
why a similar service couldn't be offered in his local cruising area.
The geography was perfect for it.
Little Current, Ontario, is where the North Channel narrows to 100
yards. Sailors can't get from one end to the other without going
through it. It's a great place to reprovision and get locally made ice
cream, and within a few miles of town in both directions are, as Roy
says, "dozens of five-star anchorages." He realized that few Great
Lakes sailors have a single-sideband radio on their boats; instead,
they rely almost exclusively on VHF channels. But with all the high
hills, VHF coverage is spotty in the region's tiny coves.
Enter Bruce O'Hare, another local sailor and owner of the Anchor Inn
Bar and Grill, located on Little Current's harbor. He bought a VHF unit
and mounted an antenna on the roof of his bar, 90 feet off the ground.
The Canadian coast guard, which zealously monitors use of marine radio
traffic on VHF, gave its tacit support, and on July 1, 2004, the Little
Current Cruisers Net was born. Unlike its Caribbean counterpart, the
Little Current Net has no commercial support and no commercials.
Roy starts his day at 6 a.m., updates the local weather, gets world and
Canadian news off the Internet, sprinkles in some sports and
entertainment gossip, and always includes news from the Little Current
area. Then it's off to his studio under the stairs of Bruce's bar. At
8:58, he goes on Channel 16 to remind boaters to switch to Channel 74.
Every broadcast opens with, "Is there any emergency, medical, or
priority traffic?" This is your chance to get help with that chest
And every broadcast ends with call-ins. Boats over a 50-mile radius
call in by name and location, often adding tidbits about northern
lights or where a taxi can be found. If Roy gets a garbled message, he
asks for a relay from another boat. This is when you get passed through
to your brother in the next cove over.
How successful has the Little Current Cruisers Net been? During that
first summer, as few as three boats would call in a day. In the summer
of 2005, upwards of 40 called, and for the year, the net recorded 1,022
call-ins from 342 boats. Roy estimates that while only one in 10 boats
actually calls in, several hundred hear the broadcast every day.
This year, the tower on the bar roof is 120 feet high, and a new
25-watt unit with improved wiring has gotten the signal farther and
clearer. This year, Roy plans to incorporate more local weather into
the program by installing a local weather station and looking at three
surrounding Doppler weather Internet sites to help local sailors with
their plans for the day. And Bruce has promised to move him out from
under the stairs and into a room with a view of the waterfront.
So if you're in the North Channel next summer, check your clock, turn
on the VHF to Channel 74, get another cup of coffee, and wait for,
"Good morning, boaters. It's 9 a.m." That'll be Roy calling.
North Channel Chartering
You want to check out the fabulous North Channel? Well, listen up: Two
charter companies serve the area with a variety of boats, both power
and sail. Remember that charter fleets are in constant flux and that
some of the boats listed here may not be in the fleet when you arrive.
As we went to press, Canadian Yacht Charters (Gore Bay, Manitoulin Island,
Ontario, Canada; 800-565-0022, www.cycnorth.com and e-mail
firstname.lastname@example.org) had in its bareboat charter stable boats ranging
from a Pearson 27 to a Jeanneau 49, along with eight Hunters (29, 31,
33, 34, 356, 36, 386 and 426), a Beneteau 331, a Catalina 350, and a
Discovery Yacht Charters
(Little Current, Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada; 800-268-8222,
www.sailingdiscovery.com and e-mail email@example.com) had available
for charter three catamarans, ranging from 36 to 42 feet; three
Catalinas, from 34 to 40 feet; and a Hunter 30, a Beneteau 321, a
Dufour 34, and a GibSea 37.
If you're looking for a boat aboard which to explore the wild North
Channel, there'll be one available to suit the tastes of most any