By: Tom Bamonte
Photos by Tom Heineman & Tom Bamonte
For two years I have been obsessed with some lonely islands in an area of Georgian Bay little traveled by kayaks. This summer I had a chance to explore some of the area with fellow Chicago paddler Tom Heineman. We island-hopped for over a week, making open water crossings of five miles or more almost every day to visit islands that may never have been visited by kayaks before. We had more interactions with rattlesnakes than people once we got underway, and passed but two houses the whole time once we left the mainland. This is my report.
Georgian Bay is on the east side of Lake Huron. It is roughly 150 miles north to south and 50 miles east to west and roughly the size of Lake Ontario by surface area. The Bay is fronted on the west by a line of islands extending north from the Bruce Peninsulato the north shore of Lake Huron. The main island, which serves like a stopper in the pitcher that is Georgian Bay, is Manitoulin Island, the largest island in a freshwater lake in the world.
The northern and eastern areas of the Bay are part of the Canadian Shield and feature literally thousands of islands sculpted by glaciers and weather. Along the north shore is the La Cloche Mountains, an ancient mountain range composed of white quartzite that makes the range look snow covered even in the summer.
The south shore, which I've not visited, apparently includes sandy beaches and is a prime vacation area. The Bruce Peninsula and the chain of islands that dot the mouth of the Bay are part of the Niagara Escarpment, a massive cliff-like structure that runs in an arc from western New York into Ontario (forming Niagara Falls) up the Bruce Peninsula around to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and down through the Door Peninsula in Wisconsin and, some say, on to about the Wisconsin/Illinois border near Harvard, Illinois.
Georgian Bay has an international reputation for its natural beauty. Both the thirty thousand islands area on the east side of the Bay and portions of the Niagara Escarpment have been designated Biosphere Reserves by UNESCO.
Samuel de Champlain, the first European to explore and map the Bay, dubbed it the "La Mer Douce" or "Sweet Sea." Georgian Bay is indeed a "sweet sea" for kayakers. Its water is extremely clear, the many islands and shoals provide lots of navigational challenges, and the scenery is outstanding. There is a well developed paddling community. White Squall in Parry Soundis the best known outfitter in the region, but there are others. The Great Lakes Sea Kayaking Association appears to be quite active and its website has a great set of trip reports covering the Great Lakes and beyond.
Most of Georgian Bay, from Killarneyin the northwest all the way around the eastern and southern shores of the Bay and up the east side of the Bruce Peninsula to Tobermory at its tip, is actively paddled by sea kayakers. A good resource for information on Georgian Bay kayaking is "Kayaking Georgian Bay," by Jonathon Reynolds and Heather Smith.
What is left out of "Kayaking Georgian Bay" and almost all accounts of Georgian Bay kayaking is the 50 mile stretch from Tobermory to Killarney. This stretch includes the Main Channel between the Bruce Peninsula and Manitoulin Island, the east shore of Manitoulin Island and the North Channel between Manitoulin Island and the Ontario mainland. Most of the area is part of the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve, a rare stretch of land that has never been controlled by the Canadian government and whose people have maintained their sovereignty uninterrupted for many centuries.
In addition to Manitoulin Island, this stretch contains many other substantial islands, some miles offshore. Just north of Tobermory is Cove Island, with the Cove Island lighthouse at its northern tip. Jumping seven mile across the Main Channel one encounters islands like Yeo and Fitzwilliam. Off the eastern shore of Manitoulin are islands such as Squaw, Wall, Rabbit, Club and the appropriately named Lonely Island, all uninhabited. Despite diligent search I found no record of a kayaker visiting any of these latter islands.
In 2007 Pat Lutsch and I had had a classic Georgian Bay trip on the north shore, from Byng Inlet to West Fox Island. (2007 Report). There we learned about the capricious Georgian Bay weather (two gales and plenty of headwinds) and wildlife (my kayak still has bear teeth marks) and had some of the best paddling either of us have been privileged to experience. Last year, Pat and I intended to paddle in the Bruce Peninsulaand Fathom FiveNational Parks near Tobermory and then perhaps paddle to some of these heretofore unvisited islands. Our plans were scuttled when our kayaks were washed off the beach in a storm and dashed against the nearby rocks, making them less than seaworthy. (2008 Report).
I had spent last winter and spring planning another trip to Georgian Bay that would be focused on the islands in the Main Channel and off the east coast of Manitoulin Island. Part of the impetus for this third trip back to Georgian Bay was to demonstrate to myself that despite the ignominy of losing my boat off the beach in a storm I still was capable enough as a paddler to be on the Bay. Equally importantly, the prospect of exploring an area that has been visited by few kayakers and, in some cases, apparently no other kayakers, was most intriguing. I have never preferred greatest hits albums and that preference extends to my choices in kayaking destinations. I'm inclined to favor less traveled areas in the Great Lakes over those that are visited by hundreds of paddlers each year.
Trip Out To Lonely Island
Cove Island & First Rattlesnakes
Tom and I made it to Tobermory on Friday morning, July 31. One of the first things we did was climb to the top of the observation tower at the National Park visitor center. From there we could see 25-30 miles, from the huge cliffs running for 20-plus miles at the north end of the Bruce Peninsula to the flotilla of islands that lay ahead of us to the north and were to occupy us for the next week.
We launched from Dunks Bay, a rare sandy beach a mile southeast of Tobermory. Both of us were paddling Explorers, which proved to be great boats for this kind of trip. This was my fifth significant kayak camping trip so I was able to pack my boat without too much drama. However, as usual I packed too much food and clothing, so the fit was tight. Tom, the veteran of many trips, including a circumnavigation of Lake Michigan, was better organized. He had his list of gear and supplies on an Excel spreadsheet and had divided everything into three bags, one for each hatch. He was packed in no time.
From Dunks Bay we had an uneventful paddle past Flowerpot and the Otter Islands up the east coast of Cove Island to a campsite about a mile south of Cove Island lighthouse. This well-situated campsite put us in a good position for the crossing of the Main Channel the next morning. It was important that we do the crossing promptly, as the forecast for the next day called for freshening winds from the southwest rising to a small craft advisory.
Saturday morning we launched in decent time and had an uneventful, even pleasant crossing of the Main Channel. We kept a close eye out for the MS Chi-Chemaun, a large and visually striking ferry that plies the route between Tobermory and South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island. In addition, we had to be mindful of the freighters that sometimes swing through the Main Channel on their way to ports in Georgian Bay. I must say that there were a few moments, when we were 3 miles or so from the nearest land, that I got a bit of the willies. What if one of us got sick? What if a boat sprung a leak? What if the wind picked up suddenly? With steady breathing and continued good conditions I was able to work through these fears.
We passed west of Lucas Island, the first island across the seven mile wide Main Channel from Cove Island. Lucas Island has a rocky, inhospitable coast with some cliffs and sea caves on the west side. We stopped for a break on the east side of Yeo Island. From here we took advantage of the building southwest wind to do another open water crossing, this time about 5 miles, to McCarthy Point on the south side of Fitzwilliam Island.
We proceeded up the coast and around the northeast tip of Fitzwilliam and then paddled into a now strong southwest wind into Rattlesnake Harbor. The harbor had a single house and some equipment and wharves, all apparently used as part of a mining operation. The operation was deserted on this day, however.
As there was no good place to camp we paddled back to the northeast tip of Fitzwilliam, where there was a tiny (10 yards) beach. Our campsite, the best the area offered, was on bumpy rocks. When I was setting up my improvised tarp (the ground cloth from an old tent) I heard and saw a rattlesnake (the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake) in one of the many nearby rock piles. We both heard but didn't see a second rattlesnake chime in nearby. Needless to say, between the rocky campsite, the biting flies and the rattles of the welcoming committee, this campsite was our least favorite of the trip, although the view was great.
The wind picked up steadily into the evening. About a mile east of us we could see a long line of breakers in open water. These breakers marked where the water depth transitioned from very shallow to over 100 feet deep in the space of about 25 yards. This underwater "wall" extended south from Wall Island, which was to our northeast. Five miles east of us, through the line of breakers, was Club Island, our next destination. Given our dislike for the camping spot and our snaky companions, we hoped the wind would die down so we could move on the next day.
It rained overnight and Sunday morning began grey. Fortunately, the wind had died down some and the "Wall" didn't seem too hazardous. We put in with a rear quartering sea running at about 3 feet and a brisk wind. Again, I got the butterflies once we were out in open water, but they soon receded as I concentrated on reaching the south end of Club Island.
At the south end of Club we found ourselves trying to thread through a surf zone extending a quarter mile or more from the island. We were fighting to get in the lee of the island to get out of the rising wind. While never in serious danger of capsize, I think we both appreciated the hours we had spent practicing in the surf at Montrose Beach and elsewhere.
Club Island is a low lying island with with small cliffs and ledges of rock running around much of its shore. It has a large, protected harbor on its east side. The harbor was heavily used by those involved in the fishing industry that once thrived in Georgian Bay. We saw some ruins of buildings at the mouth of the harbor. In addition, there were several large mounds of rocks. We speculated that these rocks may have come from some sort of mining operation or from dredging to clear the mouth of the harbor.
After lunch we paddled around the north end of the island, battling the strong southwest wind to reach a cove on the west side. To access the cove, which turned out to be a shallow shelf with few landing places, we had to navigate through another surf zone. The main harbor was just over a low ridge from this cove, but we had to retrace our route around the north end of the island to return.
We camped in a rocky "beach" just south of harbor mouth, where we found a few narrow strips of pulverized gravel that promised a bit more sleeping comfort than the rocks.
Club Island Campsite
The weather cleared and we had a beautiful view of Lonely Island, our next destination, five miles to the east. Lonely Island is a much higher island, and it looked like a butte rising out of the water.
Several sailboats were moored in the Club Island harbor. We ran into several of the sailors. They were surprised we had made the crossing to Club Island, claiming that they had encountered six foot waves in open water. These were the last people we encountered until the following Friday afternoon.
That evening the moon, which was waxing, provided plenty of light. However, by now Tom and I had fallen into the rhythm of the trip. We both turned in before dark and usually were up fairly early. This allowed us to have a leisurely breakfast, take our time breaking camp and still be on the water by 8 a.m.
An 8 a.m. push off may, however, be too late for those who wish to cover some miles in Georgian Bay. It seems like the winds pick up on Georgian Bay quite early, often by 10 a.m. The winds then often drop off late in the day (except when they build into a not-infrequent overnight gale). Maybe the most efficient way to paddle would be to hit the water by 6 a.m. and paddle 4-5 hours, find a place to relax and nap through the afternoon, and then paddle for a couple of hours until darkness.
I think Tom quickly become impressed by the power and capriciousness of Georgian Bay weather and the challenging paddling conditions. In preparing for the trip I reviewed an 1895 publication of the U.S. Hydrographic Office entitled "Sailing Directions for North Channel and Georgian Bay." It is an over 300 page single-spaced compilation of shipping hazards in Georgian Bay, with page after page listing reefs, shoals, barely submerged rocks, rock shelves extending for hundreds of yards off of islands, inadequate harbors, half submerged wrecks, exposed coasts with no landings, narrow and twisting channels, and the like. The book even notes that in the summer changes in barometric pressure in Georgian Bay--normally a decent predictor of weather changes--have little or no relation to the actual changes in the weather. Winds shift speed and direction suddenly and decisively. You read this book and shake your head, imagining what it would be like to sail these waters in a fog or an October storm.
When we woke up Monday morning it was cloudy and obvious that rain was on the way. The marine forecast promised another day with a small craft advisory, but conditions looked similar to those the day before, wind from the southwest and three to four foot waves. As we headed east we opted to aim for the south side of Lonely Island. This increased the probability we would hit the island if the wind picked up. If we had aimed for the north side of the island and missed, it would be 30 miles or more to the nearest land to the north or east.
By the time we reaching Lonely Island it was raining. We navigated through another surf zone and then traveled the mile and a half up the east shore of the island. Lonely Island is shaped like a hat, with a short brim of rocky shelves or cobble beaches at the shore and a ring of 100-150 foot cliffs similar to those we saw on the Bruce Peninsula and elsewhere, forming a plateau at the top. The east side of the island was unusual in that instead of a rocky beach the vegetation spread down to the water's edge and beyond.
We landed on the north end of the island, on a massive cobble beach next to a wreck of a slip. Above us we could see the Lonely Island lighthouse jutting through the trees. Around us were sidewalks and foundations of buildings abandoned long ago. We were wet, cold and hungry and took refuge in the remains of little pavilion on the beach. Our tarps gave us a few square feet of dry space to eat lunch and gaze hopefully to the west looking for the clouds and rain to break. I was on the edge of getting too chilled, but with lots of layers and huddled in a tight ball passed a couple hours watching the wind, rain and clouds doing their eternal dance.
The rain let up about supper time so we were able to set up our tents, get into dry camp clothes and finally get warm. We were probably as alone as either of us had been our whole lives, miles away from the nearest human being or habitation. The only artificial light we could see was from the lighthouse above us.
Tuesday morning dawned sunny and blustery. We decided to spend another day on Lonely Island. This turned out to be an excellent decision because the wind picked up steadily all day and the waves pushed in from the main body of Lake Huron assumed that harsh, beaten and dangerous character that spell real danger to paddlers on an open water crossing. Had we attempted the crossing back to Club Island that day this trip report might have had a very different story line.
Our first order of business was following the path up the cliff to the plateau where the lighthouse was situated. This involved some tricky maneuvering up shelves of rock, grasping whatever handholds and vegetation we could. Up top, we explored the classic lines of the lighthouse and the grounds. We even got a buzzing warning from another rattlesnake. To the north we could see 30 miles or more to the La Cloche Mountains. To the west was the long sweep of Manitoulin Island, which appears to have the same massive cliffs on its east front as we saw on the Bruce Peninsula. To the east was nothing but water, although we could see a line of cumulus clouds that hovered over the edge of the shore 50 miles away, well below the horizon line. To the south we could see only a thick forest on the island.
After descending from the lighthouse we spent the rest of the day exploring and playing on this beautiful and remote island, which Tom had described as "paradise" when we had landed. We encountered some touching relics left by the lighthouse keepers who were the last inhabitants on the island and left for good in the mid-1980s. These relics included a well-preserved pet cemetery and a carefully constructed wooden arch bridge. We were impressed by the evident care and respect the last inhabitants had given the island and understood in a very visceral sense how people could become very attached to this special island.
The cobble beach at the north end of the island was unique in my experience of Georgian Bay thus far. The north and east shores of the Bay are solid rock. The Bruce Peninsula, the east side of Manitoulin Island and associated islands all had loose rocks, but they tended to be largely of the same type of rock and hence the same color. The beach on Lonely Island, however, was more like cobble beaches on Lake Superior, full of different rock from different origins with a full range of shapes and colors.
I enjoyed picking through the rocks and pulling together sets of interesting specimens arranged by color and shape. Every trip I bring home a small bundle of rocks for the family collection. The Lonely Island beach was the source of this year's collection.
My collection included a rock with some well-preserved fossils of plants and possibly bones, a variety of colorful rocks and even a grinning (or grimacing) face.
Taking a day off in a kayak camping trip is a must. It allows us adults to rediscover the simple pleasure of playing on a beach, making stone structures, skipping flat rocks, and ambling down the beach letting the rocks and low-lying plants set the agenda for the eyes. Pat Lutsch and I had a similar day on West Fox Island on our trip two years ago, where we explored every nook and cranny of that island. I deeply admire the achievements of the great expedition paddlers like Freya Hoffmeister who are so focused on schedules and miles traveled. Yet, I don't think I would trade the emotional sustenance from a quiet day exploring a deserted island for all their much-deserved accolades.
By Tuesday evening the wind had picked up substantially and was now a near gale. We had to abandon the pavilion and relocate our cooking area to shelter against one of the abandoned foundations. We both added extra anchors to our tent. Tom weighed down his boat with rocks while I tied mine to a log. What was striking to us was that even with the wind and associated waves there was still yards and yards of exposed cobble beach. What storms Lonely Island must get to kick up and maintain such a large terraced cobble beach.
The moon was coming up just as the sun was sinking below the horizon. I've never seen a sunset or moon rise with such a clear horizon. The sky was amazingly clear all the way to the horizon line.
The wind rose to a roar early in the night. We huddled in our tents listening to the pounding surf and wondering if we might be spending more days on Lonely Island. By morning, however, conditions had improved substantially. We launched using a log roller system that worked well for us on several occasions and helped shield our boats from the worst of the rocks. While we may have thought that having made it to Lonely Island the rest of the trip was going to be anti-climatic, in many respects the paddling got even better on the way back.
The Return Trip
Scaling the Wall
For the first half of the trip from Lonely Island back to Club Island the wind from the southwest was relatively light and so we aimed to the north tip of the island. About halfway across we laughed at our good fortune and just about then a strong wind of at least 20 miles per hour kicked up out of nowhere. Our forward progress slowed to a crawl and it took us over an hour of hard work just to cover the remaining two miles. Fortunately, we just made it to the northern tip of the island and stopped for lunch.
We had a tough decision to make. Staying again at Club Island was a safe bet, but would require a very long paddle the next day in order for us to get to the north edge of the Main Channel by Friday morning, when the marine forecast called for a brief window of good weather. Hopping to Wall Island, another 4-5 miles west of Club Island, would mean at least two hours of very hard paddling in the middle of nowhere. We knew little about what to expect once we got to Wall Island. Potential hazards abounded, including Erie Bank, a large area of shallows that promised to have steep and unpredictable breaking waves.
We opted to paddle on and I'm glad we did. The lunch stop helped me make the mental adjustment from disappointment that an easy paddle had unexpectedly turned rough to looking forward to yet another paddling challenge Georgian Bay style. As we pushed our way in the fierce near headwind, trying to read the water so we could avoid being hit by rouge breaking waves, I found myself laughing at the sheer pleasure of playing for high stakes in some of the most interesting water and conditions a paddler could hope for.
We finally made it to Wall Island and found a lovely campsite just east of the harbor. There was a perfect bowl of rock shielded from the wind where I could bathe in the warm sun. That night I did my stretches watching the moon rise over Club Island. The light from the Lonely Island lighthouse peeked over the top of Club Island and was the only artificial light we could see. The wind kept the bugs away and the crisp air was wonderfully restorative. I felt that I could do this daily cycle of camping and paddling for weeks. Given all the extra food I packed this trip, that was probably possible!
We left our campsite on Wall Island the next morning and headed to the north end of the island past some attractive rocks and cliffs. From here we took advantage of a beam wind from the southwest and angled north-northwest for a four mile crossing of the Owen Channel to Manitoulin Island. We picked as our target spot the southernmost exposed cliffs on the shore, not far from Redcliff Bight. From what we could see, these cliffs grew in height as they continued northeast for at least 10 miles. I want to paddle that stretch some day.
After landing and taking a break we headed west. This part of the Manitoulin Island shoreline was rocky but not quite as rough as on some of the islands because it was protected from the long fetch of Lake Huron by Fitzwilliam Island. As we followed the coast we saw some some great looking spots for camping tucked behind tiny points. It was on this stretch of coast we passed a small habitation, likely a fishing/hunting shack, tucked in the woods near a stream. This was the first house we had seen since leaving Rattlesnake Harbor.
Tired of battling a headwind and hoping the wind would make its predicted shift to the northwest we crossed back across the Owen Channel and landed for lunch just west of Beach Point, where there is a big cobble beach. The shoreline cliffs had receded and we were getting close to the west side of Fitzwilliam Island, which features long and shallow rock shelves, lots of shoals, and hence interesting paddling even with relatively modest winds and waves.
When we hit the west side of Fitzwilliam Island Tom humored me by asking me to take the lead and find a path through the chop and shallows. For the next hour or so we skirted rocks and hissing, unpredictable waves breaking over shallow rock shelves. It was classic Georgian Bay kayaking, combining the kind of navigating around hazards akin to whitewater paddling with the open water and sky of sea kayaking. Such paddling requires close attention to details. Slight changes in water color, for example, often signal changes in depth that may kick up an sudden breaking wave. This is not like the (often delightfully) mindless paddling along a curving sand beach. Rather, one needs to be always reading the water ahead to plot a logical and safe course through the maze. For me, this kind of coastal paddling in unsettled conditions is just about the best paddling one can hope for. The risks are significant and carelessness can be costly, but there is a real feeling of accomplishment when one threads through a tricky zone safely and efficiently.
The rocky shore gave way to Indian Harbor on the southwest corner of Fitzwilliam Island. We found a nice campsite on a rocky ledge on the north arm of the harbor and set up camp for the night. Yeo Island to the south covered the Cove Island Lighthouse. This meant that we could see no artificial lights that night save for the lights of a ferry a mile or so offshore.
Tom's air mattress had punctured early in the trip, which made sleeping on rock challenging. Fortunately, he was able to find a slab of plywood that a storm had deposited far up on shore and use it for a sleeping platform under his tent. While my accordion style pad took up a lot of space (I stored it in my cockpit when paddling) I didn't have to worry about punctures.
Securing one's tent on rock can be a challenge. We had good luck with so-called sand anchors, filling them with rocks instead of sand. In addition, sticks threaded through anchor rings and covered by stones can be effective.
The Indian Bay campsite had a nice depressed area that was perfect for a cooking area as it was dry and shielded from the wind. By now, we had our systems down and were relatively efficient when it came to packing and unpacking our boats. That efficiency is important on any multi-day trip as extra trips back and forth to the boat eats up time and energy and increases the likelihood of a campsite injury due to a twisted ankle and the like. Rooting through bags looking for "lost" stuff is frustrating and saps morale.
There is a real feeling of accomplishment when your systems are working well. While cooking one meal you set aside ingredients for the next one in a convenient location. Cooking areas stay set up and ready to go. Gear gets allocated between bags before being lugged to the right location. For example, upon landing at a campsite I put water filtration and cooking stuff in my collapsible bucket, food bags in a nylon bag and tent and clothes bags in my mesh duffel. My goal is to unpack the boat and get set up having made only 3-5 trips back to the boat.
Both Tom and I shared a similar approach to dinners, namely, a fond appreciation of one-pot wonders. I tended to make dishes that were at that intersection of a soup and a stew. A handful of dried vegetables went into every pot, typically with a dollop of ghee. For protein I had smoked fish the first night and then tofu and tempehthat I had dried at home. The dried tempeh traveled very well, but the tofu got slimy with spots by the third day so I had to abandon it to the sea gulls on Lonely Island. Some dried beans coupled with cheese filled in the protein gap. For carbohydrates I favored quick cooking things like penne pasta and cous cous. Throw everything in a pot, add spices and sometimes tomato paste, and, in the early days, fresh things like green onions, and you soon have a warm, sustaining meal with few dishes to wash.
The one pot approach also has the virtue of reducing fuel consumption. I made it through the trip on about 8.5 oz. of fuel, cooking every breakfast and every dinner.
When evening rolled around we had another great sunset, this time over the main body of Lake Huron. About 75 miles of open water separated us from Michigan. It was a bittersweet night because we knew that the next day we would be crossing the Main Channel and be paddling back into "civilization" at Flowerpot Island, which is part of Five Fathom National Park.
The Flowerpot Crossing
We woke on Friday morning to perfect conditions for the crossing of the Main Channel. The northwest wind had died down but there was a nice swell running to the southeast. The forecast was for a decent morning, with possible rain in the evening.
We crossed from Fitzwilliam Island to Yeo Island, where we took a short break. Our intended destination from Yeo was the seven mile Main Channel crossing back to Cove Island. We had a clear view of the lighthouse and knew we could be there in two hours. Once we started paddling we realized that the wind and swells were aimed straight to Flowerpot Island, where we had reserved a campsite for the night. Flowerpot was about 11 miles away. In light of the favorable conditions, in view of the fact that the ferry and the tour boats from Tobermory were probably in marine radio range, and for the challenge itself, we opted to go straight for Flowerpot.
It was a relatively uneventful but quite pleasant crossing. Before us was a panorama of islands--Bear's Rump, Flowerpot, and Cove among them. We were traveling parallel to a line of shoals and low lying islands that over the years had no doubt strained out many off course ships in the Main Channel like a whale's baleen strains sea water (Georgian Bay has many wrecks and a large diving community). Occasionally, we would see one of these islands, typically a low shelf of exposed rock, sometimes with a tree or two.
As we got into the center of the Main Channel the character of the water changed. Swells from Georgian Bay began meeting the swells from the main body of Lake Huron and the water was less regular. This was a reminder of the power beneath us as two huge bodies of water met over a rocky and highly irregular bottom. It was amazing to think that we were passing through this transitional zone sitting in a thin shell of fiberglass only 21 inches wide with only our bodies and a modified stick for propulsion and stability.
The crossing wore on and the features on Flowerpot Island began to take form. We were getting tired, but not exhausted. Tom, a math tutor by trade, was mentally calculating the number of strokes left before we arrived. He thought he was cheering me up when he exclaimed "only 3,500 strokes left," but I must confess I did not receive that news with the same enthusiasm it was offered!
We made Flowerpot Island and paddled past the famous flowerpots. After days by ourselves the encounter with tour boats filled with people was a bit jarring. Our campsite was on a wooden platform overlooking a cove. It was a lovely spot but already I missed the process of finding a camping spot on a rocky ledge on some uninhabited island. There was a big powerboat moored in the little harbor with its motor running. We speculated that the occupants wanted electrical power so they could watch their afternoon soap operas. Ah, cranky, elitist kayakers confronting the real world!
Flowerpot Island has a nice set of trails and sights and could be a good base camp for day trips to local islands and the western parts of the Bruce Peninsula National Park. The next day, our last on the water, we paddled into a headwind (the wind having shifted 180 degrees overnight) seven miles to Cave Point on the mainland. The forecast was for southeast winds to shift to the south and increase to 30 miles and hour.
Cave Point is a looming cliff pocketed with caves that is one of the most prominent features of the Niagara Escarpment on the Bruce Peninsula. The exposed portion of the Escarpment at this point appears to be several hundred feet high. A glance at the marine chart shows that the cliff face continues underwater for at least as far. The water depth drops to 240 feet within 100 yards from shore and 500 feet deep a quarter of a mile offshore.
We went to Cave Point despite the strong wind that was forecast to be gusting to 30 mph, imminent rain and tired muscles because I needed to visit Stormhaven, a cobble beach just to the west of Cave Point.
This is where Pat Lutsch and I had camped last summer and our boats had been washed off the beach in a storm. I needed to return to the spot in my repaired but battered boat and process some of the emotions that welled up as I recalled the day that began with the words "Tom, our boats are missing." The trip back this year felt like an exorcism.
After a lunch break and some time wondering around the campsite that seemed so intimately familiar it was time to push off and paddle the seven or so miles back to our take out at Dunks Bay. Along the way we passed many interesting rock formations, including the Grotto, a popular place that was literally covered with winter-crazed Canadians who no doubt viewed this drizzly, cold day as the apotheosis of their summer.
A steady rain began falling as we pulled into the take-out at Dunks Bay. We packed up our gear wet, knowing that the threat of fermentation would prompt us to get back to Chicago more quickly.
After washing up the best we could back at the Visitor's Center we grazed through an all you can eat fish and chips restaurant in Tobermory and then started the long drive back. Along the way we stopped at a decent motel, the Bluffs Motel, in Goderich, Ontario. The next morning he happened upon a good restaurant, Aunt Gussies, in Grand Bend, Ontario. We'll remember both for the next trip.
These kind of trips make me realize how lucky I am to be out in a little boat in big water under a big sky with nothing more on the agenda than surviving and soaking in all the experiences, both good and bad. A kayak is a perfect vehicle for exploring. Instead of a pack on your back, your boat and the water carry your stuff and you have the luxury of space that you can't have with a backpack. You can access so many shoreline areas that are inaccessible or dangerous for a larger boat or a hiker. Yet, as we demonstrated, with solid planning, good judgment and some luck, a kayak can handle the open water as well. On this trip we had ten open water crossings of four miles or more.
When I finish a trip it is like a spell has broken. I immediately start thinking ahead to the next trip. A Great Duck Archipelago expedition? The north shore of Lake Superior? A circumnavigation of Manitoulin Island? A trip from Tobermory to Killarney to explore another set of Georgian Bay islands? The North Channel Islands? Something in salt water like the Oregon coast? Already maps are being consulted and Google Earth is getting a workout.
Don't wait until you are a geezer to get out there. Perhaps start as I did by taking a trip with an outfitter such as Geneva Kayak Center or Northwest Passage. Then take a short trip with more experienced kayakers/campers, such as this summer's Manitou Islands tripor one of the Mississippi RIver tripsorganized by Jim Des Jardins. There, you can learn from skilled campers how to make the most of kayak camping.
After that it is time to plan your own trip. Do you want to knock off some of the most recognized places for sea kayaking (e.g., the Apostle Islands) or do your tastes lie in exploring areas that are not on everyone's radar screen? Are you a solo explorer or do you prefer a group? Are you someone who wants to be underway by 8 a.m. or earlier or do you prefer long, leisurely mornings in camp and then paddle late? Are you a sightseer who likes to detour and stop to explore interesting things or someone for whom the scenery is a nice backdrop for long days and (hopefully) plenty of miles? Answer these questions and more and then get out there.
Trip Log With Campsite Coordinates
Dunks Bay (N 45 14.5944' W 81 38'.3846') to Cove Island (N 45 19.058' W 81 43.3910’)--7.9 miles
Cove Island to Fitzwilliam Island (north tip w/free rattlesnakes) (N 45 32.2500’ W 81 42.0188')--17.0 miles
Fitzwilliam Island to Club Island (N 45 33.8235’ W 81 35.3603’)--11.0 miles
Club Island to Lonely Island (N 45 34.5768’ W 081 27.9833’)--9.2 miles
Lonely Island to Wall Island (N 45 33.5554’ W 81 41.0944’)--13.0 miles
Wall Island to Fitzwilliam Island (Indian Harbor) (N 45 26.7318’ W 81 48.3856’)--16.3 miles
Fitzwilliam Island to Flowerpot Island ( N 45°17.5576' W 81 37.520')--15.3 miles
Flowerpot Island to Dunks Bay via Cave Point--14.0 miles)