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.
Author:
Updated:
Original:

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! 

Related

02-'17-Trans-Atlantic_Downwind-Schralpin

At The Helm: Man Overboard!

Imagine this simple scenario: the boat’s powered up, sailing close-hauled in a building breeze under full sail. I come on deck as the skipper during the watch change to make sure the new crew is comfortable and the boat is properly set up for both the current conditions and ...read more

Promo-01-LEAD-MGR00321

Contrasting X-Yachts & Moody Cruisers

One of the most fascinating things about sailboats is the different ways that sailors, naval architects and builders will approach a single design problem. The result has been a bewildering array of rigs and hull forms over the years, and in the case of the two boats we’ll be ...read more

04-Yacht-anchored-in-front-of-one-of-Lastovo's-gunboat-tunnels-(3)

Cruising Charter to Croatia

As is the case with so much of the Mediterranean, to sail in Croatia is to take a journey through time. Centuries before the birth of Christ, Greeks traded amphoras of oil, wine and grain across these waters. During the first millennium, the Romans built lavish palaces and ...read more

m123728_13_01_171012_PMA_02901_9999

Alicante Announced as an Ocean Race Europe Stop

The Ocean Race Europe, a new event in offshore sailing, will include Alicante as one of four stopover cities. This European offshoot of the former Volvo Ocean Race will include the biggest change to the racing rules under the new title—fully crewed IMOCA 60s will join the ...read more

01-LEAD-doublehanded2

Preparing for a Doublehanded Race

A few months ago we took a look at the development and attraction of doublehanded racing (Two to Tango, June/July 2020). Hopefully, that served to whet your appetite. If so, the question becomes: “How do I get started? The good news, as we explained in Part 1, is that if you are ...read more

01-LEAD-Day-three---dolphins.-300-dpi

A Key Approach to Passagemaking

How you approach offshore sailing is key to the success of each passage. In addition, some of the most valuable, even crucial attitudes and skills may not be either learned or valued in everyday life on shore and may even fly in the face of talents that are greatly admired and ...read more

OceanVoyagesInstitute-2048

Point of SAIL: Mary Crowley of the Ocean Voyages Institute

In this episode of Point of SAIL, Principal Editor Adam Cort talks with Mary Crowley, founder and executive director of the Ocean Voyages Institute, a not-for-profit based in California that has been both educating sailors and working to preserve the health of the world’s ocean ...read more

01-Ocean-Voyages-Institute_PHOTO-READY_1_pg

Tracking and Catching Plastic Waste

Plastic waste—in the form of everything from plastic soda bottles to abandoned fishing nets—constitutes a major threat to the health of the world’s oceans. Giving the immense size of an ocean, though, actually finding all the plastic floating around out there in a time-efficient ...read more