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Animal Encounters Under Sail

Cruising the Great Lakes has one drawback: you don’t see many whales or dolphins, or frigatebirds or puffins, for that matter. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still have plenty of equally meaningful brushes with nature.
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The snapping turtle hung onto our swim ladder for almost 20 minutes. Earlier I had buried the anchor by hand to be sure it was well set in the sand, and this throwback to the Pleistocene seemingly followed me back to the boat. I was the visitor. The turtle was in charge.

Cruising the Great Lakes has one drawback: you don’t see many whales or dolphins, or frigatebirds or puffins, for that matter. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still have plenty of equally meaningful brushes with nature—like the time we encountered that menacing snapper in Baie Fine in Lake Huron’s North Channel. My wife, Jennifer, and I have cruised Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior for the past five summers on our Caliber 38 Catamount, and we’ve experienced more than our fair share of memorable (and sometimes intimidating) wildlife encounters.

Once while motoring through the rocky islets in Georgian Bay, our dog’s ears went up and he began staring intently to windward as he sniffed the air. We saw nothing until we rounded a small point of land and surprised a black bear gorging on blueberries just a few yards away. Dog’s ears up. Bear’s ears up. The bear was flummoxed—indecisive for a moment—and then beat a hasty retreat. 

A few days later we watched another bear amble across a rocky islet until it reached a shallow channel, beyond which was another island. Unaware of our presence, the bear paused, and then, rather than wading into the water, it launched into a full-on adolescent this-is-so-cool belly flop, swam across the channel and emerged on the other side, shaking itself free of water as it continued its daily rounds.

We’ve watched otters gambol among old pilings, mink families preen themselves on pink granite shorelines, and a muskrat contentedly chew on a branch on our swim ladder. One day we rounded another point of land in our dinghy and discovered two moose swimming across a bay. They immediately changed course and headed for the nearest land, emerged from the water, shot us a disgusted look, and lumbered off into the woods.

Late one evening on Lake Michigan we watched a snapping turtle pull herself 20 yards up the beach, her tail creating a canal between parallel rows of clawed footprints. When we investigated the next morning, there was a second track back to the water. At the shore end of the tracks was a fresh mound of sand, beneath which, we were certain, were that year’s eggs.

Another time, while taking in the sunset on Lake Superior we once saw a small herd of caribou meander over to the water’s edge to help themselves to some natural salt licks. And ask Jennifer sometime about her nose-to-nose encounter with a gigantic male caribou deep in the forest on a very small Canadian island—not a lot of room for either to run. 

Once on a barren island in the North Channel we heard an unearthly braying cackle that turned out to be a flock of sandhill cranes. These birds are four feet tall and fearless. When they charge at you with their six-foot wingspan, only the bravest or dumbest refuse to retreat. We retreated.

On Lake Superior we watched a bald eagle fly toward land, just clearing the waves, its clenched talons gripping a large fish. Suddenly two gulls appeared and began to harass the bird, repeatedly attacking it until the beleaguered eagle dropped the fish and landed wearily on a nearby rock. The gulls didn’t waste a moment and noisily divvied up the fallen loot.

On another occasion, we anchored near an eagle’s nest where two adolescent birds stood on a branch, screeching incessantly until a parent returned with food. The screeching stopped only when their mouths were full, then promptly resumed until the other parent appeared half an hour later. Teenagers are teenagers everywhere.

Add to this mix the haunting calls of loons in a quiet anchorage, or a northern pike trying to shake free a lure so that all you see is a mouthful of teeth. 

Yes, the Great Lakes may lack whales, albatrosses, sharks and dolphins. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still wildlife a-plenty! 

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