Aug 31 – Sept 6
Thursday August 30th I hooked Fetch behind the camper and headed north toward Sault St Marie. I was going to join a small group of boaters in the North Channel in Canada, about 200 miles east of the boat school. Driving into Canada I had high hopes to experience another country, but I was somewhat disappointed. Canada looks just the same as Michigan in this neck of the woods. Back in the Northwest a visit to Victoria or Vancouver always gives a definite sensation of going to a different country. It feels more European there. Anyway, following hwy 17 east, it took me about 5 hours to reach Little Current, which is a little town on Manitoulin Island. This is a huge island, which separates the North Channel from Lake Huron. I believe it’s the biggest fresh water island in the world.
The North Channel consists of thousands of islands big and small, a lot of them very rocky. Huge boulders of granite rise out of the clear fresh water and vegetation is struggling to grab a hold with their roots. Trees are fairly low and occasionally one has blown over showing a very shallow root system.
I soon met up with my fellow boaters, Anne Westlund, Eric Hughes and Dan Phy. Anne currently sails a Sun Cat (17’), Dan sails a Montgomery 15 and Eric drove a Ranger 22, which is a small tug with an inboard diesel. Anne happens to live in the same town I live in, Cedarville, which is a total coincidence because Dan and Anne started setting up this trip one year ago, when my trip was still just a thought. Anne and Eric have known each other for many years. I had met Dan last December in Port Townsend, where he built the first Scamp from a kit in the Maritime Center where I was his instructor. We have since sailed twice together in California earlier this year.
The day I arrived, it sported a blustery westerly wind with rain of and on. The next day however it had cleared up and we decided to give it a go, in spite of the strong wind. I was immediately double reefed and flew a small jib, as we beated out of the channel in front of Little Current. I had my GPS standing by to check for shallows. Sun was shining, small white caps all over; it was a good start of our trip. Once we entered Waubuno Channel we hung a right and eased the sheets and the GPS showed between 5 and 6 knots. To slow down Anne had scandalized her main sail (lowered the gaff). Her Suncat has a cat rig with one big main of 150 sft. and no jib. Past Halfway Island we turned right again and headed for Sturgeon Cove. The entrance is a bit tricky and one has to do a zigzag to avoid some rocks that were barely awash. Anne had us well prepared for this, so we all got in just fine.
Sturgeon Cove is protected from most any wind and soon we were swinging to our anchors. In order to go ashore or visit each other, everyone but me had a tender. Sometimes I would peddle Fetch over, or Anne would give me a ride in her dinghy, which didn’t leave much freeboard in the stern. After hanging out on Eric’s tug for a bit, each brewed something for themselves for dinner. Four boats, four people, four galleys. That night some of us heard bloody screaming ashore of some animal that was getting killed or something.
Saturday we left the cove with a little bit of wind, but soon that died all together and we all motored toward Croker Island, about 14 miles to the west. Croker Island looks like one big lump of granite with some trees on it. There is a real nice cove on the west side, where we found a shallow little hide-away, away from other boats. I went ashore with Anne’s dink and had a great overview of the anchorage.
There were several groups of powerboats rafted up together and as the sun slowly set and the bugs slowly rose, the music from those rafts got louder and louder. Big campfires and loud voices combined with firing a gun and later fire works up until about 11pm was our entourage while trying to get some sleep in our little boats. Finally it all calmed down.
Sunday we made our way across a small bay to the Benjamin Islands, which is less than two miles away. Anne had told me about magnetic disturbances in this area and sure enough my compass reading was about 60 degrees off from the GPS. She mentioned that people suspect that a meteor has hit this area somewhere in the past. Interestingly enough, when you look at a chart, there is a distinct circular pattern to this group of islands.
Again Anne brought us to a beautiful little anchorage. She knows the area very well, after having spent a lot of time in the North Channel. For the past 12 years, she has spent about three months per year sailing around these islands, always in small boats. She prefers small boats, because they are cheaper, easier to handle by her self and shallow.
Dan and I did some exploring in a dinghy and a kayak. Huge boulders were worn smooth by glaciers, still showing deep gouges. Many rocks showed cracks running through them, presumably caused by alternating freezing and thawing. One boulder in particular seemed to have been cut by a huge bread slicer. Other rocks showed just the beginnings of cracks and vegetation took the soonest opportunity to wiggle some roots in there. Some low areas on these rocky islands had collected enough organic material for small trees to grab foothold and looked like roof gardens on a granite building. Puddles filled by rain water, some as big as ponds, had plants, fish and frogs in them. It was warm and sunny now, but the winters are pretty severe around here with temperatures well below zero Fahrenheit (-20C) and several feet of snow.
Monday we motored through some real narrow passages between rocks at the Benjamin Islands. I was exploring close along the rocky shore and watched a mink slip in the water to come up with a fish just a minute later. He sat there right in front of me chowing it to bits.
We motored just a few miles north to Fox Island and anchored at the end of a narrow inlet. I beached Fetch for the time being to be able to go ashore. There were beautiful marshes around and I took a long walk along the waters edge. A bigger yacht anchored nearby and the owners, Rob and Linda invited all of us aboard for supper. Linda made delicious lasagna with salad, which made for a pleasant evening. They were at the end of their sailing season and were about to put the boat away for the winter.
Next morning I witnessed a nice sunrise and after everybody’s breakfast rituals we gathered on the tug for a little pow-wow.
During the night I had woken up and looked around in the moonlight. It was completely still and I noticed the reflection of a rock in the water, which created a face when I tilted my head to the side. During the morning, as we motored to our next destination, I noticed faces everywhere. I was tilting my head both left and right, till my neck started protesting. After a while they just popped out at me, as I motored by and I took many pictures. I felt like these rocks were staring at me as if they held the spirits of bygone people. The pictures I’m showing here are not ‘photoshopped’, just turned on their sides and sometimes cropped.
We motored to the small marina in the town Spanish for supplies. Bags of ice would keep our coolers cold for another three days or so. A flushing toilet seemed like a luxury after having been without for a few days. We got a ride up to the town, had lunch and went to the grocery store. Back at the boats we noticed a Banded Watersnake sneaking along the rocks.
While Anne and Eric motored, Dan and I sailed to our camp spot for the night in a glorious evening sun with a mild breeze. At the beach Eric had made a fire, our one and only fire on this trip. Next morning we gathered on the beach again for pancakes. Anne had brought pancake mix and maple syrup and I made coffee in my French press.
It was time to start heading back toward Little Current. The forecast was for more wind and possibly thunder. Apparently Lake Superior was cooking up a hefty brew. After motoring for about an hour, the wind kicked in and we had an exciting sail between some islands. The wind in the narrow channel was quite fluky and gusty and a double reef was in order. The bay we were heading for wasn’t going to be protected with the given wind direction, so we changed course to Croker Island, where we had been before. This little cove offers protection from any wind. That night a huge thunderstorm passed us to the north with lightning about every minute or more. At times lots or rain and gusty wind made us feel very cozy in our little cabins.
The last day we goofed around in the morning for a bid and started heading home. Again, first not much wind, but later it came in loud and clear. During that afternoon it kept building to about 20 to 25 knots, under picturesque skies. First I did an occasional 6 knots, then peeks of 7 knots and finally I was surfing off waves at 8 knots at times. Going downwind under full main, no jib and the centerboard mostly up, Fetch maintained very controllable. I kept thinking of taking a reef, but didn’t have to. Anne, with her Sun Cat was doing exactly the same speed as Fetch. She had her full main up as well. When it’s wavy, the speed varies a lot, depending whether you fall off the back of a wave or surf off the front. Once out of the waves in the channel, Fetch kept up a consistent 6 knots semi-planing for the last quarter mile or so. The wind was from dead aft while running, which made me a little nervous, because of danger of an accidental jibe. I therefore reached more while jibing between each course. It was a very exciting end to our trip in the North Channel.
The next day we all enjoyed showers and breakfast in town and I hit the road, back to Cedarville. In a week I’ll start teaching at the boat building school. I’m sharing a cottage on the waterfront with Bud, who also works for the school. It’s about a 3-minute bike ride from work. I’ll keep you posted on the boats we’re building.