If You Go

April 6, 2005

If time and money constrain you, it’s splendid to have a cruising ground so near, yet foreign and different, and still so varied and downright challenging. The northern arc stretches along the northernmost portion of Lake Superior along the Canadian side from the Sibley Peninsula, near the mouth of Thunder Bay, eastward to the scenic Slate Islands. But it’s certainly remote: You’ll need to depend exclusively upon your own resources. If something breaks or if you run low on fuel or supplies, there are few handy marinas to pull into.

Cruising highlights: Entering the northern arc from the west, your first stopover is the sleepy little hamlet of Silver Islet, which lies in the shadow of Sleeping Giant Mountain, on the Sibley Peninsula. Up on shore is a refurbished general store and, beyond, rusting mining machinery. The docks are scoured and worn from ages of ice, but you can fix yourself a camel–a stout board lowered alongside the hull to put your fenders against–as I did to protect my hull. Watch out for winds from the east, when you can encounter long, high rollers coming right through the breakwaters to thump your boat against the dock.

Shoving off from Silver Islet and heading east, you’ll enter an archipelago of islands rising majestically out of blue waters. A fitting ending to a day’s sail is beautiful Loon Harbor. There’s a good anchorage here.


This is historic wilderness country. The islands, often carpeted high with firs, are about as untouched as when the voyageurs made their way across the northern arc centuries ago. Incredibly enough, the first European, Etienne Brule, paddled his way westward across Superior in 1620. Glance northward to the rugged Ontario shoreline; some bluffs soar a thousand feet high.

Heading eastward again, there are many little islets and harbors to choose from. Here you can easily spend days settling down to enjoy the clear waters and the fresh air. Don’t look for many of these little anchorages on Canadian charts, however; they’re too small. To find them, you need a cruising guide that shows wilderness anchorages and GPS waypoints to get into them.

A favorite harbor is CPR Slip. Here I found a few other wilderness cruisers.


Old Rossport, with its beautiful harbor, is worth a visit and gives you a chance to catch up on civilization. Though the town is tiny, it has several really fine restaurants, including the Rossport Inn, run by my friend, Ned Basher. At Rossport, you can tie up to a good municipal dock and replenish your gas and even take a shower (for a price).

Shoving off from Rossport, you can head out to the Slate Islands. These were formed millions of years ago by meteorites striking the Earth; from afar, they rise up like something out of the movie South Pacific. There are several good harbors inside the Slates where you can spend some pleasant nights.

Clearing into Canada: For U.S. sailors, it’s useful to apply to Canadian customs in advance for a Canpass to go cruising. This permit allows you to enter Canadian waters without first docking at an official port of entry, such as Sault Ste. Marie or Thunder Bay.


Getting there: From the eastern Great Lakes, cruisers can enter Superior through the Sault Ste. Marie locks and set sail westward. Bring long lines to handle the boat as the water level changes. Boats on other areas of Superior can simply sail over if they have a Remote Area Border Crossing Permit or a Canpass.

Smaller boats can be trailered up and launched at several different locations, including Grand Portage, Minnesota. However, not all sailboats can navigate this rock-strewn harbor, particularly from the western side, which has limited draft channels. From the well-equipped Prince Albert Marina in Thunder Bay you can head southward on Thunder Bay, then voyage eastward past the Sibley Peninsula and Sleeping Giant Mountain. Rossport, Ontario, is a sleepy little fishing village nestled beside one of the mainland’s most beautiful harbors. From there you can head out Schreiber Channel to the Slate Islands. You can then work your way westward, ending up at Thunder Bay.

Bring warm gear: On July 4, in Grand Portage harbor, I was wearing heavy longjohns, wool socks, and fleece. I could see my breath inside the boat’s cabin. Be prepared for chilly, foggy weather, with nights getting down into the 40s F. You’ll also need good foul-weather gear. Some sailors wear yellow ski goggles to help their vision in the fog.


The water you’re sailing in is always cold–around 46 F at the surface, and just a few degrees above freezing at the thermocline. But you can also expect picture-postcard days with bright sun and fleecy clouds in bright blue skies.

Weather forecasts: More than one Canadian sailor will advise you that “if you listen to the Canadian weather service, it’ll scare you to death–and you’ll never go anywhere.”

Navigation: A handheld GPS is especially useful since you’ll want to keep it close when you encounter fog or bad weather. Compasses are essential, but some islands are magnetic and can throw you off as much as 20 degrees. I mostly used my GPS, with the compass as a backup. A depth sounder is useful, also, for finding your way through rock-strewn areas before your built-in depth sounder–your keel–is called into play. Radar becomes valuable when you get caught out in cotton-wool fog.

Other hints: To obtain a Canpass, contact Immigration (221 Archibald St. N., Thunder Bay, Ontario P7C 343; 807-964-2095).

To file a sail plan either before or as you depart, call the Thunder Bay Coast Guard by telephone (807-345-4618) or on your boat’s VHF. That office will take down information about you, your boat, and your passengers as well as ask you specific sail-plan questions. You should have determined in advance both your destination and your ETA. You should file a sail plan daily.

Superior books: Bonnie Dahl’s Superior Way ($40; 3rd edition) is the preferred cruising guide and has detailed drawings of various island harbors as well as GPS waypoints. The author, a former schoolteacher, is a devoted Superior cruiser, and her book shows the way into many little harbors not shown in official Canadian charts. She also provides a number of useful harbor drawings and GPS waypoints, not to mention the locations of some of the rocks and routes around most of them. It may be ordered from a marine bookseller, from an Internet bookseller, or directly from the publisher, Lake Superior Port Cities Inc. (888-244-5253).

To read about a day-by-day account of a voyage through the proposed NMCA, read my book, Wake of the Green Storm ($14; Marlor Press), or visit my website (www.marlinbree. com). An autographed copy of the book is available by calling (651) 484-4600.

Useful websites: For information on the proposed Lake Superior National Marine Conservation area and color photography of the northern arc, go to and follow the prompts.

For an on-line guide to the northern-arc marinas, check out Superior Boating ( This website shows dock facilities in major areas, such as the Silver Islet government docks and Rossport, and tells what services are available at the docks and in the nearby towns. It doesn’t show the archipelagoes or anchorages, but it’s a very helpful guide to specific communities, harbors, and marinas along the route.

A color brochure as well as a 28-page marina guide is also available from the North of Superior Travel Association (800-265-3951).

The Canadian Coast Guard’s Office of Boating Safety national website ( contains information pertinent to foreign pleasure-craft operators visiting Canadian waters.

The website for Citizenship and Immigration Canada ( features information on the CANPASS program for American sailors entering into Canada.


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