The Best Great Lakes Anchorages

By Niels R. Jensen

Five seasoned boaters from the Great Lakes Cruising Club share their favorite getaway spots in this scenic cruiser's paradise.

Boaters raft up in Lake Superior's pristine Loon HarborBoaters raft up in Lake Superior's pristine Loon Harbor, a favorite wilderness anchorage of Bonnie and Ron Dahl. (Photo: Larry Carpenter)

When my European friends and family ask me why I sail the Great Lakes — and Lake Superior in particular — I often say that Superior is the size of Austria, and there's nothing like the Great Lakes in the world. They are truly unique.

Long recognized as an arm of the ocean, the Great Lakes cover about 95,000 square miles and have enough combined shoreline to span nearly halfway around the world. They can be rough, challenging, and are never to be taken lightly. However, as those of us who are out there know, they provide an enticing playground for summertime boating adventures, provided you keep a close eye on the weather, have a suitable boat for where you plan to go, and know what you're doing.

My personal favorite of the five lakes is Lake Superior, which my wife, Vicki, and I have explored for the past 25 years on our classic Pearson 367 cutter Freelance. Our boat is based out of the charming harbor town of Bayfield, Wisconsin, which serves as the main gateway to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

The Apostles is a stunningly beautiful boating archipelago, which is slowly reverting to nature. It can be busy at the height at the summer. Here, you'll see large motor and sailing yachts, as well as many small runabouts and kayaks, out among the 22 islands. There are large anchorages, sandy beaches, seven lighthouses, dive sites, great fishing, deep water, and good protection from the open lake.

When Vicki and I began sailing farther away on Lake Superior, we soon realized we needed other boaters' local knowledge to adequately and safely explore the largest freshwater lake in the world. So we talked with our sailing friends and carefully studied Bonnie Dahl's famous book The Superior Way. Later, when we joined the Great Lakes Cruising Club (GLCC), we gained access to the club's extensive collection of cruising guides.

GLCC was founded in 1934 to share detailed information among a group of experienced Chicago boaters who were wilderness cruising in the North Channel of Lake Huron. Its members began "crowdsourcing" long before it became a modern concept, and also submitted detailed information to official U.S. and Canadian government charting agencies. Both activities continue to this day.

GLCC currently counts some of the most capable and knowledgeable Great Lakes boaters among its 2,500 international members. It doesn't matter where on the Great Lakes you wish to go, there's always some member who has personally been there and is willing to share information with you. We asked five of the club's most experienced members, each representing a different Great Lake, to tell us their favorite destinations and why they like that particular place so much. Here are their answers.

Lake Superior

For Lake Superior, the best GLCC member to ask about a favorite destination is Bonnie Dahl, who is widely regarded as the absolute authority for the lake. She, together with her husband, Ron, spent countless summers exploring each and every corner of the lake on their Columbia 10.7 Dahlfin II, painstakingly sounding and documenting remote wilderness anchorages. When asked, Bonnie and Ron thought hard about which of the many wonderful locations they would put before the others. They finally settled on CPR Slip (48° 42.01' N, 088° 00.35' W) on the Canadian North Shore, because it is their favorite place to meet boating friends.

Bonnie and Ron Dahl's Columbia 10.7 the Dahlfin IBonnie and Ron Dahl have explored every corner of the lake aboard their Dahlfin II. (Photo: Niels R. Jensen)

CPR Slip is a not-to-be-missed destination for anyone on the route between Thunder Bay and Rossport. At one time it was a fancy fishing camp for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, but years later it was acquired by Thunder Bay media mogul Fraser Dougall. He was a strong supporter of community interests and projects and allowed local boaters to clean up, improve, and maintain the small natural harbor, which today features three docks, a bunkhouse, sauna, and fire pit.

It's difficult to enter CPR Slip without local knowledge. There are uncharted reefs, shoals, and hidden rocks in its approaches. Fortunately, one of the local boaters usually marks most of the worst hazards with flags on orange floats, but even then, the sailing directions in The Superior Way and GLCC's cruising guides are to be carefully followed.

"It's a tricky one to get into with a keel boat," Bonnie stressed. "Some call it a minefield."

In the last stretch before the natural harbor basin — while in an extremely narrow channel — you have to make a tight turn to port around a sand spit, just 7 to 8 feet from shore. "You're so close, you feel you can almost touch the land with your hand," Bonnie said. "But once you're in, the prize is there."

A sea cave in Wisconsin's Apostle IslandsA sea cave in Wisconsin's Apostle Islands beckons modern-day explorers of Lake Superior. (Photo: iStockphoto/Earl Eliason)

And it is a prize. While this is a fairly small harbor, it can be a busy place, especially on the weekends. Often there are sailboats tied off bow-to-shore to trees, sportfishing boats and large motor cruisers on the wooden docks, and colorful kayaks pulled up on the beach. There can be lively gatherings at the fire pit, social hour in the bunkhouse, and the sauna in heavy use. It is a great place to meet up with friends as well as make new ones.

Saunas are popular attractions for the boaters who are on the Canadian North Shore and a perfect fit for a region known for its deep boreal forests, subarctic plants, and caribou. It's quite a memorable experience to jump into the cold, cold Lake Superior waters after spending time warming up in a wood-fired sauna.

Incidentally, CPR Slip also provides excellent protection from violent weather and is a popular base for those who wish to explore the nearby islands by dinghy, hunt for agates (crystallized quartz rocks) on beaches, or enjoy the area's great fishing. However, because of its popularity and semi-developed facilities, it doesn't provide the seclusion for which the Canadian North Shore is world-famous. It can't be called true wilderness.

If you're curious, Bonnie and Ron's favorite Lake Superior wilderness anchorage is the pristine Loon Harbor (48° 31.56' N, 088° 21.11' W), which is located about 25 nautical miles west of CPR Slip. "Its beauty can't be beat,"

Crossing The Border

If you're planning to drop a hook in Canadian waters or set foot on Canadian soil, you must report to one of the Canadian Border Service Agency's (CBSA) designated marine reporting sites. (For a list of locations, visit CBSA's website and search "telephone reporting site marine.") Once you arrive, check in with CBSA promptly. A NEXUS card and/or an I-68 permit can simplify the border-crossing process.

Before you go, check the CBSA website or call 204-983-3500 or 506-636-5064 to ensure you have the proper identification and paperwork for yourself, each member of your crew, and any pets that may be traveling with you. Requirements may change with little notice.

A recent law change now allows U.S. boaters and anglers on the Great Lakes to cruise Canadian waters of lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, and Superior without having to report to CBSA. Provincial fishing licenses are still required to wet a line in Canadian waters, as are state-issued permits for fishing U.S. waters of the Great Lakes.

Also, don't forget about coming home. Consult the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) website to learn about the documentation and fees required for re-entry into the U.S. CBP's free new ROAM app is a new option for many pleasure boaters to report their U.S. entry via their personal smartphone. It's available from the App Store and Google Play.

Lake Michigan

Leaving Lake Superior, you pass through the huge commercial locks at Sault Ste. Marie and down the St. Mary's River to Lake Huron, where you may choose to turn west toward the historic Straits of Mackinac. There, you can enter Lake Michigan by passing under the nearly 5-mile-long suspension bridge, which connects Upper and Lower Michigan.

For a favorite destination on that particular Great Lake, we asked Marilyn Kinsey, GLCC Port Captain for Escanaba, Michigan. She and her husband, Glen, sail Adena, a Bristol 35, and especially enjoy the northern sector of Lake Michigan.

Marilyn enthusiastically picked her hometown of Escanaba (45° 44' 33.24" N, 087° 02' 14.20" W) as her favorite place. This small port city of about 12,500 people is located on the west side of the Little Bay de Noc at the extreme northern end of the popular Door County-Green Bay area, and is somewhat of a special end-of-the-road boating destination. "It's not a secret to GLCC members," she said, "but to others, it's not that well-known,"

Aerial view of EscanabaA bird's-eye view of Escanaba. (Photo: Hurleymarine.com)

She singled out Escanaba because it has all sorts of exciting on-the-water activities in one friendly place, can accommodate all sizes of vessels, has marine services and supplies, offers good protection, and is subject to predictable conditions for sailing. "It gives you the wind every day, guaranteed," Marilyn promised with a smile.

The local fishing for walleye, bass, salmon, and whitefish is outstanding. There are fishing tournaments and charters available, and you'll often see kids trying their skills and luck off of the docks. "Fishing is a big deal in the Upper Peninsula," she commented.

Bass TournamentFishing is a big deal in the Upper Peninsula, and there are many tournaments and charters. (Photo: VisitEscanaba.com)

Escanaba's municipal marina has 165 slips — 37 are reserved for transients — and can accommodate yachts up to 300 feet. It has a reputation for never turning any transient boater away because of a willingness to always make space.

There are wonderful cruising destinations within 30 miles of Escanaba, and they're seldom crowded. "We have what we call the ‘Golden Triangle,'" Marilyn explained, which involves first going to Fayette, then to Washington or Rock Islands, and finally back to Escanaba. However, it can be a fairly arduous mini-cruise in adverse weather. Wait for favorable conditions instead of fighting the winds and waves.

While the approaches toward Escanaba are easy, boat speed is a consideration when moving from the Straits of Mackinac to the Green Bay area, especially for the slower vessels. "I get a lot of calls about how to cross northern Lake Michigan, and with the prevailing westerlies, it can be a challenge to get here," Marilyn explained.

About The Great Lakes Cruising Club

GLCC is dedicated to having cruisers help cruisers explore the Great Lakes. Formed in 1934 in Chicago, its main mission is to gather and publish details about harbors and anchorages, especially from out-of-the-way destinations.

From the beginning, GLCC employed crowdsourcing to build its cruising guide — known as the Harbor Report & Log Book — and as the technology changed, GLCC transitioned from paper to Internet as its main delivery medium. Today there are more than 1,200 individual cruising guides in its database. These guides include wilderness anchorages, harbors of refuge, small harbor towns, and major metropolitan port cities, as well as details about navigating the Great Lakes' connecting waterways.

Lake Superior's sandstone shorelineThe autumn light brings out the details of Lake Superior's sandstone shoreline. (Photo: iStockphoto/DPenn)

All of the club's 2,500 members are encouraged to post updates, soundings, sketches, and photos to the online guides or provide needed info for the creation of new reports based on personal observations of the locations they visit. In addition, GLCC maintains a network of "Port Captains," who have volunteered to take a special interest in a specific location and provide assistance and information to the club members who happen to visit.

GLCC organizes popular social events on both sides of the international border for its members. The annual Rendezvous attracts members from all five Great Lakes, most traveling by boat. About a quarter of the club's membership is Canadian, and the split between power and sail owners is fairly even. glcclub.com

Lake Huron

Of course, the westerlies are usually helpful when going east from Door County-Green Bay area toward the opposite shore of Lake Michigan, the Straits of Mackinac, and Lake Huron. Like the other Great Lakes, Huron has some truly outstanding boating areas, including the popular North Channel and Georgian Bay on the Canadian side.

For a favorite Lake Huron destination, we asked GLCC Rear Commodore Steve Reinecke for his recommendation. Steve and his wife, Brenda, have a 48-foot Mainship, Bets On, and they especially enjoy boating in the Georgian Bay area. So, it was no surprise when Steve selected Bad River (45° 56' N, 080° 58.5' W) in an incredibly scenic sector of the lake where narrow, rocky inlets lead deep into the Ontario shore.

Boating in the Georgian Bay area of Lake HuronSteve and Brenda Reinecke love boating in the Georgian Bay area of Lake Huron aboard their 48-foot Mainship, Bets On. (Photo: Steve Reinecke)

Bad River is one of many enticing inlets off of the Small Craft Route between Parry Sound and Killarney. According to Steve, you need to diligently stick to the charts and cruising directions if you want to enter here. The water is black because of the iron content, so you really can't see the shallow rocks and reefs. "Don't follow the range beacon too far, and watch for the green buoy to make your turn," he warned.

Once you get all the way in, you're in a unique wilderness anchorage, which is about 20 miles from any civilization. However, you'll likely have company. It's a popular place but can easily hold up to 40 larger sail- and powerboats without feeling crowded. Some people choose to raft up, and some tie to a rock wall where they can step right off their boats and onto the shore.

Bad River is an excellent dinghy-exploring environment. "You can go for miles — and you can get lost in the wilderness," Steve said. He suggests having at least a 10-hp outboard to get around and urged special caution at Devil's Door, a narrow — and sometimes dangerous — rock cut with a swift-running current. However, many kayakers also enjoy paddling around in this beautiful and rugged area.

In addition, Steve stressed that the Bad River area has unbelievably good fishing for walleye, pike, and bass. "I fish quite a bit and love it," he added.

Lake Erie

On their way to the ocean, the waters of Lake Huron flow south into the St. Claire River, Lake St. Claire, and the Detroit River, before reaching Lake Erie. It is the fourth largest of the Great Lakes, has many developed population centers, and is the most shallow. According so some longtime Lake Erie boaters, its shallow depth occasionally causes the lake's waves to build to the size of whales.

We chose GLCC Port Captain Jim Ehrman, who with his wife, Janice, base their 44-foot Carver motorcruiser, La Dolce Vita, at Sandusky, Ohio, to give a suitable Lake Erie recommendation. He picked the city of Erie, Pennsylvania (42° 09.4' N, 080° 04.3' W), as his favorite harbor to visit on that lake.

Jim Ehrman watches the commercial ships in Lake Erie from the helmJim Ehrman watches the commercial ships in Lake Erie from the helm of La Dolce Vita. (Photo: Janice Vitucci-Ehrman)

This major port city is another one of those Great Lakes places that is described as having everything for the visiting boater. The arching peninsula of the popular Presque Isle State Park creates a huge 10-square-mile natural harbor, which not only provides protection for commercial shipping, yacht clubs, anchorages, and marina facilities, but also excellent recreational opportunities for water sports, dinghy exploring, swimming, picnicking, hiking, biking, and bird watching. Many people travel here from afar to fish for perch, walleye, and bass.

Erie has major historical significance. In the War of 1812, it served as the base for Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's Great Lakes fleet, where six of his nine warships were built. Today, it remains the home port for the only one of Perry's surviving men-of-war, USS Niagara. While this impressive 110-foot wooden brig docks at downtown Erie's Maritime Museum, it's a working ship and is often roaming far and wide on the Great Lakes.

The city itself is a major population center with about 100,000 people, and its entire metropolitan area reaches close to 275,000. The state park and bay are especially popular places to visit, but Erie is also a place with great restaurants, major shopping areas, interesting museums, a casino, horse-racing track, amusement park, water park, golf courses, nightlife, and hotels. "There is a terrific amount to do," Jim said. "I've never had an off time."

While it's possible to go past the entrance to Presque Isle Bay without seeing its opening, the approach into Erie is easy when you keep an eye on your chart. The commercial channel is wide, well marked, and has a project depth of 29 feet. Still, Jim cautioned that when coming around the east end of the State Park's 17-mile-long peninsula, there are large shifting sandbars that shrink and expand, so you'll need to give the point a wide berth "You can't get in real close," he warned.

Lake Ontario

When traveling by boat from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, you pass through the busy Welland Canal, which bypasses the swift-running Niagara River and its gigantic world-famous falls. The canal was built to accommodate oceangoing shipping, and while it may appear daunting for the recreational boater, its eight locks offer an efficient way for vessels to deal with the 325-foot vertical difference between the two Great Lakes.

For a favorite destination for Lake Ontario, GLCC Rear Commodore Eric Sunstrum highly recommends Endymion Island (44°18.08' N, 076°05.89' W) at the extreme eastern end of the lake, from where the St. Lawrence River begins its path to the ocean. He and his wife Cynthia sail Northern Whisper, a Catalina 28, out of Gananoque, Ontario.

Endymion Island is part of Canada's Thousand Islands National Park. It's on the boating route from Clayton, New York, to Kingston, Ontario, and was named after a British warship in the War of 1812. Geologically, the park's beautiful islands — which have been called a national treasure — are ancient worn-down mountaintops that connect the Canadian Shield to New York's Adirondack Mountains.

Endymion Island anchorage signals a lovely day of cruising ahead"Red sky at night" over an Endymion Island anchorage signals a lovely day of cruising ahead on Lake Ontario. (Photo: Eric Sundstrum)

Good information about boating in the area is available from the Thousand Islands National Park, Parks Canada's website, and GLCC's cruising guides. "Granite is harder than fiberglass, so keep an eye on the charts," Eric cautioned. " It is the Thousand Islands."

There are options for where to stay depending on the weather. Two small public docks can be found on the south and southeast sides of Endymion Island. In addition, there are nice anchorages on its north and south sides, and a few mooring balls. The National Park charges fees for docking and mooring, but there is no charge for anchoring.

When anchoring, it might be best to avoid using Danforth-type anchors at Endymion because some of the bays are quite weedy, which makes it difficult to get a good set.

"I've never dragged, but some of the larger boats do," Eric said. Once secure, Endymion is a central location for exploring other park islands by dinghy and is a popular place for family picnics, swimming, and bird watching. According to Eric, the waters around the island also have great fishing for perch and bass, and you can sometimes catch fish right off your anchored boat.

It's no surprise that this destination gets very busy in July, and in August it's very popular with boaters from Toronto. Eric recommends going there in the "shoulder season," meaning early or late summer. "September is really fantastic in the Thousand Islands," he explained. 

Originally from Copenhagen, Denmark, journalist Niels R. Jensen is a past commodore of the Great Lakes Cruising Club and a frequent speaker at boat shows.

— Published: August/September 2018


Charter Companies

Want to explore the Great Lakes for yourself but don't want to bring your own vessel? There are many boat charter companies on the Great Lakes to choose from.

Lake Superior

Apostles Islands

Sailboats, Inc. Charters, Bayfield, WI Superior Charters, Bayfield, WI

Duluth-Superior

Moon Shadow Sailing, Duluth, MN

Thunder Bay, Ontario

Sail Superior, Thunder Bay, Ontario

Lake Michigan

Great Lakes Sailing Co., Traverse City, MI
Simple Sail Charters, Sturgeon Bay, WI

Lake Huron

Canadian Yacht Charters, Gore Bay, Ontario

Lake Erie

Harbor North, Huron, OH

Lake Ontario

Kingston Sailing Charters, Kingston, Ontario
Gone Sailing Adventures, Toronto Ontario

 

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