Sailing Lake Huron's Northern Shores

A Great Lakes cruising ground turns out to be the perfect float plan for a couple of grandparents-to-be.

John Island
Nervous grandparents take a hike for better phone ­reception and get this shot of Catamount at John Island.Fred Bagley

Our daughter drives us nuts. She knows how much we treasure our summers afloat and then suddenly she tells us she’s expecting her first child in late July. Really? This is the 21st century and she can’t plan any better than that? We’d left the boat four years earlier to get her married off in early August. Now we’re going to interrupt our summer cruise again?

The answer to the last question is, of course, absolutely. We are all in. We'll just have to figure it out.

We suspect we are not alone in this dilemma. My wife, Jennifer, and I are able to cruise all summer on Catamount, our Caliber 38, because 1. We are retired, and 2. Our two kids live happy and comfortable lives off on their own. We know lots of other grandparent types who deal with births and birthdays during the summer, not to mention figuring out how to get grandkids to local airports and bus stations to join them on their boats. We sailors, after all, love our independence and we love our families. Sometimes you just have to devise ways to reconcile the two.

Jennifer and I live in Vermont but keep our boat in northern Michigan so we can easily access Lake Superior. The Canadian shore of that big, bad lake is remote, dramatic and unpopulated; we can go weeks without seeing another boat. Until we got our daughter’s phone call, we’d counted on our usual summer adventures there. Instead, it looked as though we’d make some significant changes to our float plan.

Before we had gathered enough experience and courage to tackle Lake Superior, we spent several summers cruising nearby Lake Huron’s North Channel and Georgian Bay. It’s really quite a nice area, but we had grown used to the much bigger and wilder Superior. However, for the upcoming summer we’d need access to transportation, cellphone service and the internet, none of which were available off in the wilderness. So we decided that spending the summer revisiting old waypoints and waiting for the phone to ring would have to do.

We were afraid it would be boring, but frankly returning to our old haunts in Lake Huron gave us everything we could hope for: fine sailing, snug anchorages, lovely scenery. And almost every day we swam in warm water, something one rarely finds in the much bigger and deeper Lake Superior. It turned out waiting for a new grandchild reintroduced us to an old friend.

Croker Island
Croker Island in the Benjamins often has six or seven boats on a summer eve but the Catamount crew has the place to themselves.Fred Bagley

We set off from Cheboygan, Michigan, in mid-June, crossed into Canadian waters at Thessalon, Ontario, to check in with customs, and then ran east to the Turnbull Islands, a cluster of rocky islands and islets just a few miles off the Canadian mainland. There were no other boats in what is a very popular spot. A northwest blow was predicted for the next day, so we hunkered in the lee of the biggest island. The 35-knot winds arrived on schedule at daylight, and we yawed wildly on our anchor and 80 feet of chain in 10 feet of water over mud. In the distance, waves from the open lake thrashed the shoreline. In a lull, I rowed our second anchor out to port, reducing our yaw to a manageable swing. It was one of those bright, sunny, howling days where we didn’t dare do anything but wait it out.

Pulling the hook the next morning required driving Catamount hard over the rode several times before the mud-encrusted anchor popped free. OK, we said to each other, that was a little more than we expected from a pretty tame cruising area, right?

A telephone call to our daughter reassured us all was well with her in her eighth month so we headed further east. We ran wing-and-wing through the narrow but deep Whalesback Channel to anchor in Middle Cove, a one-boat anchorage well protected from the west winds and with expansive views to the north and east. It was much prettier than we remembered it. We hiked the nearby high hill for some early season blueberry picking and good phone and internet reception, should we need it.

Bustard Islands
Sunset in the Bustard Islands follows a squally afternoon.Fred Bagley

The North Channel is studded with scenic anchorages like that, all just a few miles apart, where you can dodge any weather that might crop up, and in late June and early July still largely empty. We spent days sailing for four or five hours through the islands and out into the open North Channel, then often going right back to the anchorage we had left that morning. On a really adventurous day, we would sail back and forth for six hours and move to an empty anchorage 3 miles away. Or go out for a spinnaker run and return to an anchorage where we had been two days earlier.

The Bagleys
The Bagleys ride a brisk breeze back to the car en route to seeing their new grandson.Fred Bagley

But as we proceeded east in early July, we were also now farther from our car. The critical question was whether to go east of Little Current, Ontario, where the North Channel narrows to 50 yards between the Canadian mainland and Manitoulin Island. Beyond lie the inviting waters of Georgian Bay, and that sweet siren indeed beckoned us. But with prevailing westerlies, every day to the east might mean three or four days getting back to our car. Then a sailing friend from the States who had a car in Little Current told us he had to make a run back home. Leaving Jennifer on the boat at the Little Current dock, he and I drove seven hours back to Michigan, then I drove our car seven hours back to the boat. One logistical problem resolved.

With me once again aboard Catamount, we sailed through the Little Current swing bridge and out into northern Georgian Bay. We had not been there for several years (see "Uncharted but Enlivened," October 2013) and had forgotten what a treat it is to cruise there. With the high white-quartzite hills of the Killarney Range in the background, we ran 7 miles on light west winds down the narrow passage to The Pool and found only two other boats in this amazing spot. We bushwhacked up high for the views down to our boat and the wilderness beyond, then skinny-dipped in nearby Topaz Lake.

A lovely east wind the next day let us run right back out to the open bay, where we checked in once more by phone — uh-oh, a little problem for mom and the baby. Nothing to be alarmed about, the doctors said, but with two weeks to go, they wanted our daughter to check in every day instead of once a week. She sounded pretty cool about it all, considering it was her first child and she had tried so hard to get this far, but we were nervous. Keep sailing, our daughter said, and call again tomorrow, that is if we could get coverage.

So we sailed in circles for a few more days, not too far from our car in Little Current, but hitting a different anchorage every night, where we could either row out to open water or climb a hill to check in. Our typical conversations: Where do you want to go today? The wind is good for Fraser Bay. Gosh, I don’t remember ever seeing a better sunset from this spot. Oops, now it’s hard out of the south. OK, how about Boyle’s Cove with its high cliffs. Look at that loon family, with the chick on mom’s back. Squalls tomorrow? Let’s go hide in Covered Portage, a ­top-10-in-the-whole-world anchorage. All of these options lay within a 5-mile radius.

After three days, our daughter reported that the doctors said not to worry. All was well and back on schedule.

So now what? We didn’t want to be worrywarts and get to our daughter’s too soon, and frankly the sailing had been just terrific. So with 10 days to go and our daughter and the baby fine, we struck out even farther east across northern Georgian Bay to the Bad River, where on a dinghy trip upstream, we watched a black bear tear into a rock ledge looking for ants for lunch. In Northeast Harbour in the nearby Bustard Islands, we heard a weather forecast for squalls to our south but missed the fact they were headed our way; we got whacked hard at anchor for an hour but were rewarded with a glorious setting sun to the west and a rainbow to the east. Wow. We were so glad our daughter had given us leave to keep sailing.

Beardrop Harbour
Beardrop Harbour is perfectly pretty in pink on this windless evening.Fred Bagley

Finally, though, it was time to head back west toward our car. The north winds were perfect for a long beat in light seas, and we had 30 miles of sun-dappled wavelets at 6 knots SOG. Our daughter’s due date was now the next day; we were in good shape.

Six days later, the baby still hadn’t decided if he or she was going to go anywhere. So, in the meantime, we had still more circles to sail. We settled in Browning Cove for the fishing; in Oak Bay for a night; then Eagle Harbour for a beer with old friends; Oak Bay once more; then Eagle again to duck another blow. These are all great anchorages, but we’d had enough. We decided to start driving whether the baby was ready or not. We got a berth at the marina in Gore Bay, Ontario, then hitchhiked 60 miles back to our car in Little Current. Three short rides, including one with a driver who felt badly for two thumbing oldsters, made it very smooth traveling — this was Canada after all. And then, we were off.

Lake Huron map
Short hops between anchorages is the norm for Lake Huron’s North Channel and Georgian Bay.Map by Shannon Cain Tumino

One day into our drive and eight days after the due date, our daughter delivered by cesarean section a handsome, healthy boy. All was well. We arrived the next day, helped everyone move back home, ogled and cuddled, made meals, and took a thousand pictures. Then, as many grandparents know, we were dismissed.

We took a long drive back to Michigan, a small charter plane back to our boat in Gore Bay, and we were back on Catamount for the rest of the summer.

We now look at North Channel and Georgian Bay differently. After all those summers up on Lake Superior, we had forgotten just how attractive this cruising ground is. Charming towns, lots of anchorages, terrific scenery, warm water, challenging sailing.

How challenging? Well, remember that anchorage in the Turnbull Islands where we safely rode out an all-day blow back in the early summer? On our way back west to Michigan in September, we stopped there again and anchored in the same spot in 10 knots of wind. I rowed off in the dinghy to fish but was quickly summoned back by Jennifer because Catamount was dragging. One day you are safe in a howling anchorage, the next time there you drag in hardly any wind at all. As Forrest Gump noted, "My mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."

It turns out, the North Channel and Georgian Bay were our box of chocolates: full of surprises and delights, the best of all the arrival of our grandson. Waiting for him brought us back to our sailing roots. Now we just have to figure out how to get him up there to join us as crew.

Jennifer and Fred Bagley live in Vermont but have sailed the Great Lakes for many seasons, out of Cheboygan, Michigan.