By: Scott Way
Figure 1: Thomas Bay - Photo by Rod McLeod - Northern Ontario Travel
With a name like ‘The North Channel’ you might imagine a treacherous ocean passageway with danger at every turn, much like how the fabled Northwest Passage yields gloomy thoughts about historical misadventures. But don’t get caught on the name, The North Channel is one of Canada’s most immaculate waterways. The North Channel is a 160 nautical mile stretch that parallels the northern shore of Lake Huron, creating an east-west boater’s paradise between Manitoulin Island to the south and mainland Ontario to the north. A North Channel adventure is on nearly every boater’s ‘to do’ list, and accomplishing the task isn’t as intimidating as the name might suggest.
The North Channel offers some of Ontario’s most pristine coastline, full of staggering geological formations and rocky ledges made from the granite of the Canadian Shield. Interestingly, the northern shoreline is an extension of the Niagara Escarpment from southern Ontario so also you’ll see sections where southern limestone meets northern granite, creating unique geological formations and amazing vantage points.
Figure 2: South Benjamin Island - Photo by Rod McLeod - Northern Ontario Travel
The southern border of the channel follows the coast of Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island on planet Earth. Lake Huron itself is the 3rd largest freshwater lake in the world (behind Lake Michigan and Lake Superior), so you are unquestionably in some big water despite being landlocked in North America. Lake Huron boasts the largest shore length of the Great Lakes (counting its 30,000 islands) so there’s lots of jagged coastline with an assortment of tributaries, inland waterways, and quiet coves. The coastline also bears many caves within its rugged formations, the name ‘Manitoulin’ itself being an English derivative of the historic Odawa term ‘Manidoowaaling,’ which originally meant "cave of the spirit" and now translates as "Spirit Island".
Figure 3: Northern Ontario Travel
Coupled with Manitoulin's unique landscape, it also contains rare ecological sights. Its trademark hawberries are only found on the island with local citizens commonly referred to as ‘Haweaters.’ There's even an annual Haweater Festival that attracts mainland tourists via the swing bridge at Little Current and seasonal boaters passing through on their North Channel adventures. It's worth checking if the date of your trip coincides with the festival so you can enjoy some hawberry pie. There is a wealth of things to explore, so be sure to see more of its natural beauty while you’re docked. Outdoor adventures like a hike to Bridal Veil Falls, a day at Providence Bay Beach, taking in the 10 Mile Point Lookout, or walking the Great Spirit Circle trail are great excursions. Manitoulin Island is truly one of Canada's unique gems
The east-west route past Manitoulin Island originally came to prominence as a commercial route for French colonial voyageurs heading west towards Lake Superior. The earliest known Europeans to settle on the island were French Jesuits, the first mission being built near Wiikwemkoong in 1648. The Jesuits called the island the ‘Isle de. Ste. Marie,’ which also highlights the French ties to the city of Sault Ste. Marie to the west. Sault Ste. Marie itself sits at the shore of the St. Mary’s river and guards the passageway between the North Channel to the east and Lake Superior to the west (the same river also divides Canada to the north and the United States to the south). If you’re looking to explore beyond the North Channel, be sure to stop in Sault Ste. Marie for provisions and some shore leave before heading into the wide open expanse of Lake Superior.
The North Channel attracts an equal number of boaters from Canada and the U.S so depending on your home base there’s a variety of starting points. If you’re a transient boater from Canada, the best place to start is from the eastern end at Killarney, although Little Current and Gore Bay are good starting points as well. In Killarney you’ll see a good portion of boaters coming from southern Lake Huron or Georgian Bay, but you may also run into travellers doing The Great Loop (aka ‘Loopers’) as they come out of Lake Ontario via the Trent-Severn Waterway. This gives you a chance to get updates on water, weather, and if you’re lucky maybe a good anchorage location. If Killarney is your wise choice, you’ll discover an absolute gem of a town. Although technically on Georgian Bay, it will ignite your spirits before you head west into the channel. Pulling into the harbour at Killarney in the height of summer is wonderful; it’s a quintessential harbour town with a jovial local vibe. Killarney has a history similar to other towns you’ll visit along your route; it originally served as a trading post for the French as far back as 1615 when fabled explorer Samuel de Champlain passed through. By the mid 1700’s it was a major route for French fur traders and eventually developed into a commercial fishing hub. Since fishing took precedence it has developed the personality to match, the best fish ‘n chips in Ontario might be at Herbert Fisheries on the waterfront. They’re served from an old red and white school bus, so look for the landmark if you’re feeling hungry. If your timing is right, the day’s catch pulls into the slip just behind the bus so you can see what’s on the menu. If you’ve got the time, schedule a day or two to explore Killarney before you depart. The granite lookouts at nearby Killarney Provincial Park are absolutely staggering and staying at the Killarney Mountain Lodge is a regal experience. Both are absolutely worth it.
Figure 4: Tripadvisor
Once you’ve met the locals and gathered your provisions, it’s time to depart. Trip planning is absolutely paramount on the North Channel, its big water for Ontario and there are numerous islands and route variations so it’s easy to get confused. Ask the locals or other boaters coming from the west about any updates, you’ll want as much information as you can get about water levels, weather patterns, and anchorage details.
Once you depart Killarney, you’ll head northwest towards the white granite outcroppings of Portage Cove. From there, follow the well marked North Channel buoys southwest to Heywood Island. There’s a popular overnight anchorage at Browning Cove where you can mingle with other travellers during your first stopover. While you’re at Heywood Island can also see the Strawberry Island lighthouse denoting the town of Little Current up ahead, that’ll be your next stop. To pass through Little Current you’ll travel past a swing bridge, which turns to allow passage every hour on the hour during daylight. Little Current is a charming little town, so if you need to re-up anything you forgot in Killarney this is a great opportunity. If you spend time there in July/August switch over your VHF radio to channel 71 at 9am, there are boating updates for travellers and discussions relevant to the area and the route.
Figure 5: Little Current Swing Bridge- Photo by Virgil Knapp / Northern Ontario Travel
The next stop is the north side of Clapperton Island with popular anchorages at either Croker Island or the Benjamin Islands nearby. The Benjamin Islands are a popular hangout in summer; there are countless tiny inlets that provide shelter and privacy for boaters enjoying leisure time. You can also expect to see people venturing out in kayaks or paddleboards in the crystalline waters of each bay. After the Benjamin Islands you’ll head north to Whales Back Channel. You can follow the channel until your next island anchoring opportunity at either Turnbull Island or Sanford Island. If you carry past the islands the next stop is the town of Blind River which has the full gamut of gas, provisions, and things to do. It’s a decent size town for the area, so you’ll have more choices for restaurants and grocery stores than other hubs. After some R&R in Blind River, the next segment to the town of Thessalon is one of the longest of your trip. If you’re feeling travel weary, take some time there to re-up any provisions as the next segment is also a decent jaunt from Thessalon to McKay Island outside the town of Bruce Mines. McKay Island has several choices for mooring around several island bays, or you can carry on to Bruce Mines and their harbour. Bruce Mines has all the essentials as well, if you need lunch stop at Bobber’s Restaurant to get a taste of local atmosphere. Some boaters use Bruce Mines as the last stop before heading back east towards Killarney, so if you’d like a stayover the Bavarian Inn offers accommodations and some first rate schnitzel.
Figure 6: Turnbull Island - Rod McLeod - Northern Ontario Travel
West of Bruce Mines is the entrance to the St. Mary’s river leading to Sault Ste. Marie and into Lake Superior, as well as St. Joseph’s island to the south. Lots of boaters choose to circumnavigate the island before heading back east, so keep that in mind as your turning point. Whether you carry on west to Lake Superior or turn back towards Killarney you’ll cruise under the Gilbertson Bridge separating St. Joseph’s island from the mainland. If you’re headed back home this will serve as your midpoint and should give you confidence that you’ve now learned the route.
After heading around St. Joseph’s island you can now begin your return journey east. Given the variable water levels and the narrow passages you undoubtedly encountered on the way there, most boaters stick to the same route on the return trip. It’s also highly likely you discovered a perfect anchorage that you’re eager to return to. If the weather and your return routing work in sync, hopefully you’ve got some time to return to your new favourite anchorage.
The North Channel is a fascinating mix of big water cruising and small town charm that showcases just how much fun boating in Ontario can be. From catching a tan topside while anchored in a private bay to cruising alone in wide stretches of open water, the North Channel has it all. It promises 160 nautical miles of some of Canada’s best boating, and it should absolutely be on your trip list this summer.
Figure 7: The North Channel - Northern Ontario Travel