Soul Sailing

There are sailors who have spent over twenty summers cruising Lake Huron’s North Channel. They’ll tell you it is always fascinating, still surprising, and still, unceasingly, continues to feed their souls. My first week-long cruise was in 1978, and I now spend up to 10 weeks each summer in the North Channel working as a charter skipper for the Canadian Yacht Charter fleet, introducing boaters to this magnificent cruising ground.

How good is it? World cruisers speak of it in the same breath as the Greek islands and Australia’s Whitsundays. It’s all line-of-sight sailing in protected fresh water, with not dozens, but tens of dozens of anchorages within a few hours of wherever you happen to be. You can dip your cup over the side and drink the water straight while staring down 20 feet or more to the bottom. Best of all, you’re at the top of the food chain here and needn’t worry about hungry marine life while swimming and snorkeling.

The North Channel is roughly 160 miles long and anywhere from 2 to 20 miles across, lying between the north (Canadian) shore of Lake Huron and Manitoulin Island, from Sault Ste. Marie to Killarney. The water is deep, but steep granite ledges can rise to within a few feet of the surface from depths of over 100 feet over a distance not much longer than your boat.

During a two-week cruise you could drop your hook in the most popular North Channel anchorages, but there are so many of them that if you did so, you’d have little time to explore or relax. Better to choose an east or west cruise, using Gore Bay as your homeport.

North and west of Gore Bay is where you’ll find less frequented, remote and beautiful anchorages—John Island, Beardrop Harbour, Fox Island—and areas like the Whalesback Channel, and the challenging Little Detroit Passage—75 yards of white-knuckle piloting, within a boathook’s length of the ancient granite shore, yet with plenty of water below the keel.

If this doesn’t sound appealing, then the eastern tour, encompassing the Benjamins, Baie Fine, Killarney, Little Current, and Heywood Island, might be more to your taste. This is less wild, but no less beautiful, with regular access to civilization. Of course, civilization in the North Channel is any place that has more than two cabins and a road. Most first-timers prefer the eastern tour, and I don’t blame them—although those choosing the western route are just as deserving.

So let’s go east. Leaving from Gore Bay, a good first stop is the Benjamins, behind a rock formation known as the Sow and Pigs. These glacier-scoured rocks look like pigs laying in the water. Though it looks intimidating on the chart, the entrance is actually easy. The Benjamins offer a variety of anchorages, from the large and often very busy one between North and South Benjamin, where 40 or more boats can fit with room to spare, to fjord-like cracks in the ancient rock coast where you spiderweb in all by your lonesome. From the long smooth granite hill known as the “Ski Slope” you can take photos of your boat at anchor that you’ll treasure forever.

Holding is excellent with superb protection from the prevailing winds, but don’t hang around if the wind clocks east (a rare occurrence, fortunately). From here you can scoot about a mile over to the Crocker Island anchorage, which is also part of the Benjamins.

And by late August, when the water is warm enough to swim comfortably, the wild ducks will board your swim platform to mooch crackers. I’ve had a half dozen in the cockpit at a time, one in my lap eating from my hand.

Leaving this porcine paradise, I generally head east on a fun downwind sail to one of two wonderful anchorages: Bell Cove or, just around the corner on the Wabuno Channel, Mosquito Cove. Your choice depends on wind direction; Mosquito Cove isn’t as well protected, but the sunsets are better. Bell Cove is a favorite with local boaters. Don’t be surprised at an invitation to hoist a few at a bonfire when dropping the hook. The locals are quite friendly here.

If by now you need some shore time, Little Current is just a few miles away, with the largest town in the entire area (population 2,500 on a good day). A long dock runs parallel to downtown and there’s a cruisers’ radio net every morning. The atmosphere is laid back and, were there palms rather than pines, one might easily mistake this for the tropics.

Cross east under the swing bridge (watch out for the reversing 2-knot current) and past the picturesque Strawberry Island lighthouse and you come to Heywood Island, another popular anchorage. Its excellent protection makes it popular for those with children; they can safely be let out in the dinghy to roam. There are aggressive small-mouth bass at the far end of the anchorage that bite at anything you offer, and the occasional rainbow trout, escaped from a nearby trout farm, make for a tasty breakfast. Most mornings you’ll awaken to the haunting call of a loon.

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