No One Goes There: Manitoulin Island Circumnav
My wife, Jennifer, and I cruise Lake Huron’s famous North Channel on Catamount, our Caliber 38. We enjoy its many hidden anchorages, which are surrounded by four-billion-year-old granite and quartzite hills studded with wild blueberries. Smack in the heart of this great cruising ground is Manitoulin Island, which forms much of the channel’s south shore and is the biggest freshwater island in the world.
Usually, Manitoulin Island is where we get beer, diesel and ice cream cones before heading out to one of the gorgeous anchorages on the north side of the channel. But there’s a price to pay. In midsummer those hidey-holes can get awfully busy, which got us thinking. Why not explore the Manitoulin side of the channel and get away from the crowds? What the heck, why not sail around the entire island?
Manitoulin is about 80 miles long and 40 miles across at its widest. Circumnavigating the island would take us into Lake Huron proper, where the prevailing southwest winds create an 80-mile lee shore with no secure anchorages. When we asked about charts for the south shore of Manitoulin, we were told they weren’t available. “No one goes there,” a chart dealer on the north shore of the island said, and that was all it took. We were hooked.
We started our trip in Little Current, the biggest town on the island, where a narrow 100-year-old swing bridge supports the only road from the mainland. Little Current is where the 100 mile-long North Channel narrows to a gap just 100 yards wide. Currents of up to 6 knots going either east or west can develop in a matter of hours.
We arrived during the Haweaters Festival—locals are called Haweaters after the hawberry, the fruit of the hawthorn tree. The berries are inedible, but if you boil the bejeesus out of them you get a tangy jelly. The local dairy also makes hawberry ice cream. All day long, Little Current’s tiny downtown was one big block party. That night we sat in our cockpit and watched a lighted boat parade as fireworks danced overhead.
The next day we visited a local radio operator named Roy Eaton. Roy started the VHF-based Little Current Cruiser’s Net five years ago and has hosted it ever since. Every morning in July and August he takes over Channel 71, broadcasts a mix of weather, news, sports and humor, and takes a roll call of listening boats. The first year only a handful of boats called in, but he now often logs in more than 150 boats a day. He does a great job of fostering a sense of community among his far-flung listeners.
We borrowed Roy’s truck for a tour of Manitoulin’s interior, where we found rolling farmland and tiny inland settlements. Manitoulin means “Spirit Island” in Ojibwe and was once believed to be the home of Gitchi Manitou, the greatest of all aboriginal spirits. A third of the island’s residents are Native Americans, and many of their small reserves have extensive cultural interpretative centers.
Equally impressive are Manitoulin’s huge inland lakes, including Lake Mindamoya, which has an island of its own. According to legend, an irate Gitchi Manitou created the island by flinging his mother-in-law into the lake. (You obviously don’t want to get on his bad side.) The island has a small pond on it, making it a pond on an island on a lake on an island on a lake.
Next day we made sail and pounded for hours into a stiff westerly breeze. Then, when the rains came, we retreated to the safety of Rous Island. The day after that we continued west, beating deep into West Bay under the glowering presence of the Cup and Saucer, part of the massive dolomite cliffs that make up the island’s north shore. Dropping anchor, we hitched a ride up to the trailhead and then hiked the trail that meanders along the edge of the precipice. No fences or caution signs marred the 40-mile vista or the vertiginous, crawl-on-your-stomach peep over the edge 200 feet down to the bottom. When we returned to the boat the west wind was up again, and we beat for three hours to Clapperton Harbor for a rocky night at anchor.
A beam reach under reefed main the following day brought us to the tiny village of Kagawong, where we tied up at the only marina in the world where dock boys scoop hawberry ice cream. A hiking trail from the village leads to Bridal Veil Falls. There are few rivers on Manitoulin Island as rainwater percolates straight down through the porous limestone, but the crystal clear Kagawong River plunges 60 feet over the falls to a gladed swimming hole, attracting tourists and locals alike.
On Kagawong’s waterfront stands tiny St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church, a converted warehouse with an altar made from a 1950s-era cruiser that went aground just west of town in narrow, rocky Clapperton Channel. Heeding the altar’s warning, we decided not to take on the 5-foot seas we found when we arrived there and retreated to the safety of that morning’s anchorage. In three days, we’d made good about 10 miles to windward and still had 200 miles to go. This was supposedly the easy side of the island. Had we offended Gitchi Manitou?
The next morning the wind finally backed south enough for us to slither through Clapperton Channel and sail to Gore Bay. When we got there, we rewarded ourselves with sour green apple smoothies from the Loco Beanz Caf and relaxed in the shade of the maple trees lining the main street before heading west again. This time there was just enough south in the wind to allow a spinnaker run west to the entrance of Bayfield Sound, a deep, long, hazard-free bay rarely visited by North Channel sailors. We anchored behind tiny Ned Island, named after a 19th-century hermit. As soon as the anchor was down we heard a raucous cackle coming from the island; it wasn’t Ned’s ghost, but a trio of four-foot tall Sand Hill cranes. We stayed well clear of these magnificent birds as they prowled the shoreline.
After holing up for a night in uninhabited Vidal Bay to escape a 25-knot southwest wind, we beat into Meldrum Bay and gratefully tied up to the town wharf where otters played among the pilings. We then hired a local resident to drive us out to see the Mississagi lighthouse, perched on a bluff on the western tip of Manitoulin overlooking Mississagi Strait. Watching the rollers roaring in off Lake Huron, I found myself thinking about the Griffon, the first sailing vessel on the Great Lakes, which went down in 1679 carrying a load of furs to Montreal. This was a sobering bit of history to consider as we contemplated our upcoming journey.
Bidding farewell to Mississagi Strait, we retreated to the Meldrum Bay Inn, where transplanted San Franciscans Bob and Shirin Grover have transformed a 19th-century hotel into a welcoming bed and breakfast. We had locally caught whitefish for dinner, followed by a stellar orange blossom cake for dessert. A sign over the kitchen door that said, “I kiss better than I cook,” led us to wonder how incredible the kisses must be.
Meldrum Bay was our last sure harbor before setting out onto the open waters of Lake Huron. There was a dense fog that morning, and some locals questioned the wisdom of going around the island. But as the travel writer William Least Heat-Moon says, “For to go out not quite knowing why is the very reason for going out at all.”
The long-range forecast was for a low to stall near James Bay far to our north, so we tip-toed out of the bay and turned south through Mississagi Strait. We were rewarded with a cool northwest wind that cleared the fog and gave us the courage to turn east toward Manitoulin’s south shore.
That first day we ran to the quasi protection of Burnt Island for the night and were greeted by the wailing of coyotes. In Ojibwe legend coyotes are tricksters, often playing cruel jokes on humans—like our week of nonstop headwinds. Ignoring the omen, we decided the next day to head out in a light west wind to the uninhabited Duck Islands, which lie about 20 miles out in the open lake. The Ducks have no good harbors, and the anchorage there may be the least visited in the Great Lakes. We settled off the abandoned lighthouse keeper’s dock, staying clear of submerged wrecks of 19th-century sailing ships. The wrecks make for good snorkeling, but the water is killer cold.
On this moonless summer night, with not a single point of manmade light anywhere, we lay in the cockpit watching for shooting stars from the Perseid meteor shower. Although no boats were likely to join us in the anchorage, we put on Catamount’s masthead light, just to be safe.
Next day we set the spinnaker and ran back to Manitoulin’s low, scrabbly south coast, with its wave-hammered limestone and cobble beaches. We carried the chute 25 miles east to Providence Bay, where a walk on shore was an aural and olfactory treat. Wavelets worked their way into water-worn holes in the limestone ledges, sounding out a series of basso profundo musical notes. Tiny purple flowers growing in the barren limestone gave such a strong smell of mint that your julep would be green with envy.
The next morning the water was so flat that we felt guilty disturbing the scene by making another trip ashore. The dinghy wake carried for hundreds of yards, and the tiny whirlpools made by our oars left whirling shadows on the sandy bottom 10 feet below.
Continuing east, we came to our first decent harbor at South Bay on Manitoulin’s southeast corner. This 12-mile-long bay is heavily developed on its western shore, but the eastern side has been set aside as an eagle nesting preserve. The charts of the bay are so outdated that depths are in fathoms and the archaic term “Indian Village” is used to designate the site of a tiny solitary white church.
Leaving South Bay, we turned the southeast corner of the island and headed back north, ducking into Rattlesnake Harbor, named for its serpentine shape. We awoke in the morning to a rainbow in the west, framing Catamount against Manitoulin in the background. Sure enough, rain followed soon thereafter. Our weather window had closed. As we ran up the island’s east shore, swirling mist obscured the huge detached limestone blocks that litter the shore at the base of high bluffs, adding mystery to this remote corner of Manitoulin.
At the end of Smith Bay we anchored off the tiny village of Wikwemikong. In the 1860s Canada negotiated treaties with several local tribes allowing Anglo settlers onto the island, but this Ojibwe band refused to sign. Their portion of Manitoulin is the only aboriginal land in all of Canada that belongs to its original inhabitants.
The sound of insistent drumbeats up the hill drew us to the PowWow grounds where the annual cultural festival was underway, with hundreds of Native American performers from throughout North America. Dancers aged three to 105 performed intricate traditional dance patterns while circles of drummers thrummed out a steady beat. We tourists dined on moose burgers and venison steak while elaborately costumed performers munched on tacos and hot dogs. Ah, progress.
That night we attended a performance featuring aboriginal themes and native performers, set in the ruins of a 19th-century mission school overlooking the harbor. The school burned down in 1954, but the skeletal remains of this attempt to Anglicize the native peoples serve as a stark reminder of the ongoing efforts of this proud and progressive tribe to preserve its own heritage. Nowhere in North America can cruising sailors so readily visit a different culture as on Manitoulin Island.
Turning the island’s northeast corner, we tacked into Manitowaning Bay and anchored off the town beach, then trekked up to Muskie Widows Tavern for dinner. There we ordered snakebites (don’t ask) and drank Molson beer from long-necked bottles while local fishermen boasted of their muskie catches, many of which were mounted on the tavern walls. After that it was back to Little Current, where we saw our first sailboats since leaving Meldrum Bay a week earlier. Manitoulin Island had exceeded our expectations, and we proved that sailors can go there after all—thanks to some help from the weather, and maybe Gitchi Manitou.
Canadian Yacht Charters, Gore Bay, Ontario
Discovery Yacht Charters, Little Current, Ontario, 800-268-8222
Gore Bay Marina, Gore Bay, Ontario, 705-282-2906
Little Current Yacht Club
Manitoulin Tourism Association, Little Current, Ontario, 705-368-3021
Richardson’s Chartbook + Cruising Guide:
Lake Huron Including Georgian & North
Channel 6th EditionNew Bedford, MA, 800-873-4057