Sailing in a Freshwater Paradise


By Tom Morkin

Covered Portage Cove, North Channel

Ontario, Canada

There are undoubtedly a great many would-be ocean cruising folks who never put any salt water under their keels because of Georgian Bay’s North Channel. In the three summers we’ve spent in the eastern portion of the North Channel I often heard people say that it is the best fresh water cruising grounds in the world and I’ve never heard it refuted. When it comes to the months June through September, this area of the Great Lakes simply has no fresh water equal.

It is situated between Manitoulin Island, the largest island on a fresh water lake in the world to the south, and to the north, the incredibly beautiful quartzite ridges of the La Cloche range. Between these scenic wonders are found numerous islands, islets, bays, and even the longest fijord-like inlet in the world.

It’s a place of geologic splendour- here, the Canadian Shield meets the Great Lakes where, on some islands, you can walk on 2.5 billion year old white quartzite rock butting up against wildly sculpted pink/orange granite a billion years its junior.

The last ice ages have done a masterful job of sculpting the granite rocks into exquisite, sensuously smooth and polished formations that sometimes look like they’ve been produced in a mould.

Within the same island you can uncover fossils in the limestone shores from a mere five hundred million years ago.

It’s a place where you can wake up in the morning and decide if you want to play in the red rocks or the white rocks.

A red rock day might consist of sailing to Thomas Bay, Dufois Bay, the islands around Phillip Edward Island or perhaps Collins Inlet. All of these destinations are located near the eastern part of the North Channel around our present stompin’ grounds of Killarney where Liz and I are working for the summer once again.

Lying lizard-like on these billion year old rocks absorbing their afternoon heat after an invigorating dip in the surrounding pools, could be considered sublimely decadent or wholesomely therapeutic.

For the more energetic, there are bass, pike, perch, trout and muskellunge to pursue in the surrounding shallow waters, and amazing metamorphic and igneous rock formations to scramble around in.

Throughout the North Channel one is never far from the iconic white pines that have thrived for millennia in this seemingly impossible terrain of nine parts rock and one part soil, nothing short of miraculous.

One can anchor in these parts and find that elusive tranquility often sought in life but seldom achieved. There is something about your world being reduced to clean, clear water, smooth pink rocky shores, backed by an unaltered pine forest, to put you in that much desired zone.

After surrounding yourself with the pink/salmon/orange coloured granite rocks, and you wish to enter the land of the white rocks, the quartzite rich La Cloche Range, that is easily done by just heading three miles west of the booming town of Killarney, population, 300. This oldest town in northern Ontario, owes its earlier existence to the beaver fur trade which began in the 1600s. It started as a fur trading post. When fur trading came to an end, commercial fishing and logging took its place. Now, eco-tourism and boating are the main economic drivers.

One leaves Killarney channel westbound and enters Killarney Bay. The once mighty and majestic La Cloche Range fills the horizon. Long ago the Range rose higher than the Rockies but 2.5 billion years, at least three ice ages, and the erosive effects of water, plants and animals have reduced their height to less than 1,000 feet above the Great Lakes. These mini mountains are the oldest mountains in North America.

As one heads northwest, to the famed Covered Portage Cove, reported to be one of the most beautiful anchorages in North America, you follow in the wake of the voyageurs and ‘coureurs de bois’ from the fur trading period of the 1600s to the early 1800s. Throughout those 100 plus years, intrepid Europeans, primarily French and English, with the invaluable help of the Ojibwe people, travelled the water way from Quebec to present day Thunder Bay and back within one season.

Their 30 to 36 foot canoes loaded with provisions, supplies and metal goods such as pots and pans, knives and rifles would paddle up the St. Lawrence River to the Ottawa to Lake Nipissing and then down the French River to north eastern Georgian Bay. These fur traders would be the first Europeans to enjoy the relatively protected waters of the North Channel.

In the area of Covered Portage Cove they would have had the option to avoid the exposed waters of Georgian Bay by canoeing through the protected waters of Killarney Channel and Killarney Bay and then portaging their canoes half a mile to Fraser Bay.

Today, Liz and I are lying at anchor in the famed Covered Portage Cove anchorage. The nearly circular bay is surrounded by stunningly white vertical quartzite cliffs that rise 300 feet above us.


Clinging impossibly to these 2.5 billion year old cliffs are those tenacious white pine trees that so moved the ‘Group of Seven’ Canadian artists to travel to the La Cloche Range of the Canadian Shield in the 1920s to capture their beauty on canvas.


While recuperating from her shoulder injury, Liz got inspired by the unique surroundings too. She began drawing and painting on pieces of birch bark she found strewn about on the hiking trails.


Covered Portage cove is one of those places where cruisers can really hunker down for a while. Not only is the anchorage drop dead beautiful, it is bullet proof from all winds. There are two hiking trails, one of them the old portage route, and the second, up to the ridge overlooking the cove and aptly named Blueberry Hill.

Perch, bass and pike reside in some numbers in the immediate neighbourhood. If your needs exceed blueberries and fish, the small general store, liquor store, two full service marinas, four bars and two Laundromats of the village of Killarney is only 10 minutes away by fast dinghy.

Seven miles southwest of the snow white quartzite anchorages of north Killarney Bay lies the virtually landlocked limestone anchorage of Snug Cove. Although just next door to the 2.5 billion year old quartzite anchorage, Covered Portage Cove, the rocks surrounding Snug Cove are only a scant 500 million years old. Snug Harbour is where you could be anchored if, heaven forbid, hurricane force winds ever hit the Great Lakes. Anchored in 20-25 feet of anchor grabbing mud, one is completely isolated from any possible meteorological violence.

For exercise, the 30 minute hike across Badgely Peninsula to the fossil beach on Fraser Bay is the thing to do. Trilobites and other crustaceans have left their fossilized legacy in the rocks and stones on the solitary beach.


John Muir & Teddy Roosevelt founded the National Parks in the USA. In 1898 Muir wrote "that going to the mountains is going home, that wilderness is necessity”. In the 12th century Omar Khayyam expressed it more romantically in his classic Rubaiyat: “Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough, a flask of wine, a book of verse - and thou beside me singing in the wilderness - and wilderness were paradise enough”.

If you are thinking about getting away from it all- the noise, the pollution, the litter, the vehicles, the news, the sales jobs, the advertising, the come-ons, the busy-ness, don’t think about sailing the Caribbean or the Mediterranean, or the east or west coast of the U.S. If you really want a “getaway”, think the North Channel.