Boating on Lake Huron
By Marty Richardson
At the northern end of Lake Huron is a remote, wild passage known as the North Channel. To the north lies the Ontario mainland; to the south is Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the world. My husband Jerry and I have sailed — and motored — the North Channel for more than 30 years, first on our Catalina 30, then our Beneteau 375, and now on our 52-foot Halvorsen trawler, Monarch. We plan to spend at least two weeks per trip in the North Channel, and always wish we had more time. With hundreds of uninhabited islands, countless anchorages, hidden beaches, and remote coastline, the North Channel is, simply put, one of the best freshwater cruising grounds in the world.
Whether you prefer docks, anchorages, or a mix of both, you’ll find gunkholes and marinas conveniently scattered along the channel. We recommend making short hops from place to place to leave lots of time during daylight hours for exploring. Make sure to have a seaworthy dinghy, trusty outboard, and spare gas can, so you can thoroughly experience the North Channel's nooks and crannies.
Manitoulin Island protects the area from the full fury of Lake Huron's storms. But you can still experience heavy seas along the North Channel's 100-mile long east-west fetch, so keep an ear to the Canadian weather on your VHF radio. The channel's bottom is unforgiving solid rock; it's imperative to know your location on both electronic and paper charts, and keep a sharp lookout. Depths can change from a few hundred feet to just inches in a few boat lengths, so the risk of running aground is real here. Complicating navigation, some of our favorite remote anchorages have no channel markers, and should be entered with the sun at your back and a lookout on the bow; of course, never travel after dark. Instead, use your nighttime hours to lie on the deck and gaze at the Milky Way. With no ambient light, it's so bright and close you can almost touch it.
A convenient spot to stage a North Channel trip is the port of Tobermory, Ontario. This is one of our favorite Lake Huron harbors, located where the lake meets Georgian Bay. Renowned as the freshwater scuba capital of the world for its clear water and dozens of shipwrecks, Tobermory is about a day's cruise from the North Channel. We often provision here, then head north along the eastern shore of Manitoulin Island. Many boaters will start or complete their North Channel cruise in the town of Killarney at the channel's eastern end. For docking, fuel, and dining, our favorites here include the newly renovated Sportsman’s Inn restaurant and hotel, and the historic Killarney Mountain Lodge, which serves popcorn in front of the lounge's huge fireplace-in-the-round. For casual fare, don’t miss the dockside fish-and-chip wagon where fresh whitefish is served from the window of a red school bus.
Just west of Killarney is a beautiful anchorage called Covered Portage, almost completely enclosed, and partly bounded by 100-foot rock cliffs. Though the entrance may look daunting, we and lots of other boaters have enjoyed this protected natural harbor. Depths can change quickly, and rocks lurk below the surface, so avoid navigating it at night, and most people use a detailed cruising guide (the Great Lakes Cruising Club, for example, has detailed notes for members). A bit further up the channel, the fiord-like passage Baie Fine leads to an oval-shaped gunkhole known as The Pool. Many years ago, we saw a huge yacht moored here, owned by the founder of Evinrude Outboards and his movie-star wife; the ship served as the power source for their small log cabin on shore.
Continuing westward, you'll pass picturesque Strawberry Island Lighthouse, a 40-foot white clapboard pyramid trimmed in red, jutting from the keeper's house, and then the Little Current swing bridge. This one-lane road bridge is Manitoulin Island's only connection to the mainland, and opens for boat traffic every 15 minutes on the hour. Just past the swing bridge is the town of Little Current, population 1,500. Dockage and marine services can be had at Spider Bay, Boyle, Wally's (at the recently redone town docks), or Harbor View Marinas.
We always stop in Little Current to visit interesting shops like Stedman's, enjoy many of the local restaurants, and pick up fresh produce at the farmer's market every Saturday in season. In August, we visited Little Current during the Haweaters’ Festival, where the locals celebrate the hawberry fruit of the hawthorn tree. While the berries are inedible, when boiled they make a tangy jelly. Don't miss hawberry ice cream from Farquhar’s Dairy, and alfresco live country music played dockside all weekend long. Little Current features the only VHF Cruiser's Net in the Great Lakes; tune in at 0900 hours on channel 71 during July and August to catch up on which boats are in the area and hear news, local announcements, and weather.
West of Little Current, follow the north shore of mainland Ontario, or the south shore along Manitoulin Island. The island side features good marinas in the towns of Kagawong, Gore Bay, and Meldrum Bay, where you can provision or dine out at local restaurants. However, there are few secure anchorages on this shore, as it's exposed to the north wind.
On the north side of the channel await anchorages too numerous to mention. The Benjamin Islands feature several fine anchorages. An interesting pink granite formation aptly named Sow and Pigs prominently marks the approach to South Benjamin Island harbor, one of the channel's most popular anchorages. Here, we've seen "party barges" tied to shore, complete with barbeque grills, blenders, and brave (or fortified) souls diving into the cold waters.
Adjacent Croker Island is a favorite spot, with good holding in clay or mud, and as much as 40 feet of water. We've anchored here many times, taking a long line to tie to a sturdy pine on land. The shore soars upward, with massive, glacier-ground rock formations providing shelter in virtually all winds. In any of these spots, hiking up the stunning cliff formations, swimming, picking blueberries, or taking our dinghy through adjacent anchorages provided us with continuous entertainment.
Proceeding west on the North Channel, you'll find a blind dogleg passage called Little Detroit. This government-blasted cut is incredibly narrow, but 35 feet deep. At about 50 feet wide, it's the narrowest point of navigable water in the North Channel; you can almost reach out and touch the rock walls as you pass, but keep a keen eye on both fore and aft range markers.
After safely transiting Little Detroit, you'll enter Whalesback Channel, where granite hills, deep blue water, panoramic views, and protected anchorages greet mariners. This seven mile-long, east-to-west stretch provides a nice opportunity to sail, and many gunkholes. Favorite anchorages here include Bear Drop Harbor, with 10 to 15 feet of water and a mud bottom and, directly opposite, John Harbor, with luscious blueberries growing on its granite ridges. We always plan an extra day here, to take the dinghy out the shallow back channel of Bear Drop to explore nearby Moiles Harbor, one of the area's prettiest anchorages.
Heading west, you'll exit Whalesback Channel and follow the clearly marked ranges and marks toward Thessalon, Ontario. Thessalon sports a beautiful municipal marina, with gas, diesel, pumpout, loaner bikes, and a spotless new harbor clubhouse. The dockmaster proudly showed us her beautiful floral plantings, proof of her green thumb. Thessalon marks the western terminus of the North Channel. At this point, cruisers can continue west along the north shore to the St. Marys River, which leads to the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie (Michigan and Ontario), the gateway to Lake Superior. Or, cross southwest to the snug harbor at Detour, Michigan, the entrance to the main body of Lake Huron. Either way, there will always be more to explore in Lake Huron's North Channel.
Marty Richardson and her husband Jerry have logged nearly 12,000 miles on their 52-foot trawler Monarch since buying it in 2007. Their travels have ranged from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and they make their home in the Detroit area.
Canadian Yacht Charters, located on the north side of Manitoulin Island, offers sail and powerboats. www.cycnorth.com
— Published: April/May 2013
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