A close-to-home summer cruise that satisfied a far-from-home travel itch
Sailors love to talk about their “bucket lists” and dream of the day they’ll visit the azure waters of Croatia, the caves of Tahiti, the fjords of Patagonia. But for my wife, Jennifer, and me, when the rum is all gone, the reality is that we will rarely, if ever, sail far from our home waters. And why should we? Lake Huron may not seem as exotic as the South Pacific, but it possesses enough beauty, history and solitude to keep us entertained for a lifetime—maybe more.
We cruise our Caliber 38, Catamount, out of southern Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. Spread across the Lake are three unique island groups—the Grants in the North Channel, the Ducks in the main lake, and the Bustards in Georgian Bay. In 2011 we decided to spend the summer sailing to all three of them, hoping for a perfect trifecta.
On our way
We arrived in northern Georgian Bay in June, a time when boats are scarce and anchorages empty. Iconic harbors like Covered Portage, with its towering white cliffs, and the Benjamins, with their polished red granite, were ours and ours alone—until mid-July, when the marinas of Detroit and Chicago were all emptied out and their former residents had come up to join us. As Yogi Berra once said, “Nobody goes there anymore, because it’s too crowded.” With this in mind we took our cue and sailed off for the islands, hoping to find solitude again.
First stop on our “Bucket List for Realists” were the Grants, three small islands that are just five miles off the north shore of the western end of the North Channel, but almost universally overlooked. Sailors coming from the direction of Mackinac Island are inevitably in a hurry to get to the “real” cruising area farther east; sailors heading in the other direction are in a hurry to get home. The anchorages there are also wide open with little protection, the holding is marginal, and there are no services. No one stops at the Grants. In other words, they’re perfect.
We waited for a favorable east wind, then hauled up the chute and ran 40 miles west into the lee of East Grant. Although none of the island’s three bays are particularly secure, a high had settled in, so we anchored on the west side to watch the sunset. We also dinghied ashore and clambered along the rocky beach, where we surprised eagles and loons. Blueberries were abundant. Fifty feet above the lake, at the top of the island, we found a cobble beach, a remnant of an ancient body of water known as Lake Algonquin, which occupied the area long before our present-day Lake Huron emerged from under the crushing weight of glaciers.
Nearby Fishery Island is an amateur geologist’s delight. Walking its perimeter we found granite of the Canadian Shield, some of the oldest exposed rock on Earth. We also stumbled upon limestone (a remnant of the days when the entire area was a shallow inland ocean) and found extensive piles of slate, which had been created from the mud of that ancient sea’s shoreline. Nowhere in all our cruising have we found such concentrated evidence of all the great geologic events that shaped this area.
When the wind switched back west, as it always eventually does on the Great Lakes, we moved two miles over to West Grant and settled into the protection of nearby Anchor Island with its signature solitary elm tree. A hike on shore revealed numerous fossils of brachiopods, nautiloids and coral—more remnants of that same ancient inland sea. Through the dense cedar groves we could hear waves crashing on the other side of the island, and that night an occasional swell worked its way around the point, causing Catamount to roll a bit at the end of her rode as a kind reminder that our anchorage was wide open to the north and east. The sunsets rivaled those of Key West, and the gulls and terns soaring overhead inspected us as if they had never seen humans before.
When it came time to set sail again, we headed across the North Channel and anchored off the town of Meldrum Bay (population 76) on Manitoulin Island to wait for the next spell of settled weather. This delay allowed us to enjoy the Meldrum Bay Inn, one of only two buildings in town, which serves up locally caught whitefish dinners and desserts to die for.
As the next high approached, we beat out through Mississagi Strait into the main body of Lake Huron, dodging a freighter as it pulled away from the limestone quarry on the west end of the island. Our next destination: the Duck Islands.
Our Second Stop
The Ducks may be the least visited island group in the entire Great Lakes, though they sit just 10 miles off the south shore of Manitoulin Island. Lake Huron sailors avoid the Ducks like North Atlantic sailors avoid Sable Island. Shoals stick out everywhere, the sole anchorage is wide open to the north and south, and can also be uncomfortable with the wind out of the east or west if it blows hard enough. The local charts are all large scale and show only very shallow depths.
We arrived at the Ducks in a dying northwesterly, and contrary to the charts, we found a 50-foot trench that led us into a 12-foot anchorage between Great Duck Island and nearby Outer Duck. The bottom was mud over stone, so we installed a kellet on our anchor chain to improve its holding power. But we’d hit the weather right: no wind, no swells, no problem.
There is little left of the original lightkeeper’s dock or the 19th century fishery that once defined these islands, but an old Coast Guard boathouse still stands on shore, with the names of the occasional visiting boats carved on the walls inside. In the harbor rests the sunken remains of a steamer, a schooner and a tug that all went down in the 1800s, and can still be seen through the crystal-clear water—their planking, ribs and boilers all looking ghostly in the depths. One sank so close to shore it is now an artificial reef, having been filled in with a century of sand and stone.
A little exploring through acres of poison ivy (that will keep most sailors away!) revealed a trail out to the lighthouse on the west side of the island. We ambled through dense cedar woods for two delightful miles, then emerged from the shadows into the glare of a whitewashed 90-foot tower with a commanding view of the lake. Automated since 1972, the tower is now maintained by helicopter, although the nearby house and walkways still serve as a reminder of the keepers and families who lived on this remote island for over 100 years.
At the north end of Great Duck are sand dunes that would do Cape Cod proud and can be easily accessed either by trail or dinghy. That night we looked for signs of the Perseid meteor shower, with not a single earthly light intruding on the darkness. We debated whether to turn on our anchor light, as we hadn’t seen a sail in days, even though it was the height of the summer. If you need a definition of solitude, just google “The Ducks.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the forecast once more called for rising south winds, so we decided to move on, retracing our route back into the protection of the North Channel, where we encountered our first boats in days. After a stop in Little Current to re-provision—read: pig out on locally made ice cream—we headed east into Georgian Bay. Along the way we poled out the jib and ran wing-and-wing under the white quartzite cliffs of the Killarney Range, riding a lovely westerly for hours on our way to the Bustards.
Three for three
The Bustard Islands are in the northeast corner of Georgian Bay, a long way from anywhere. Named by 19th century British explorers after the numerous “bustards,” or buzzards, that frequent the area, the Bustard Islands are a detached portion of the convoluted geology of the mainland, all parallel channels and rocky granite ribs. Canadian sailors from southern Georgian Bay frequent the Bustards, but American sailors rarely venture this far east.
Our first stop, the Gun Barrel anchorage on the western side has good protection and great sunsets. But the bottom is scoured (we have dragged there in the past), and there was a boat already there (the horror!); so we headed around the corner to Northeast Harbor, which is smaller and open to the east, but less likely to attract other boats. We were in luck. It was empty.
The next day we explored by dinghy, motoring slowly, paddling often and even portaging on occasion as we picked our way through the maze of islets and channels. Glaciers have scoured the 4-billion-year-old granite into rounded pillows of pink, brown and gray. The color looks like an ice cream creation with sprinkles of white quartzite and swirls of black basalt. Some of the channels open up to the waters of Georgian Bay, some end in delightful swimming holes ringed with sun-warmed rocks.
Another day we dinghied five miles out to the three lighthouses on the southwest tip of the islands. Landing was tricky, and we had to time our leaps ashore with the heavy swells. Two smaller towers flank the largest one and serve as range markers for those approaching off the open waters of Georgian Bay and nearby French River, where a sizable lumbering village once flourished. The village had regular steamer service and the ranges kept the boats off the shoals that abound in the area.
This tiny outpost once was manned by lightkeepers and their families, but unlike the Ducks, it must have been a hardship post. Keepers had to haul soil out from the mainland to make gardens and lawns, only to have the winter storms sweep everything away. Nothing grows on the islands now except moss, shrubs and tiny blue flowers. On the sunny day we visited, we could only imagine how welcoming the lighthouses must have seemed to skippers on stormy days long ago.
As the rising wind pushed waves higher onto the island, we calculated how best to get back into the dinghy, and then how to get back to our boat. Back on board Catamount, we opened a bottle of cold Ontario chardonnay and toasted our good fortune. The Grants, the Ducks and the Bustards were all we had hoped for: solitude, geology and great sailing. The perfect trifecta, indeed. Why go anywhere else?
Longtime SAIL contributor Fred Bagley and
his wife, Jennifer, are still exploring the
Great Lakes on board their Caliber 38, Catamount