By James Ellsworth
Waterborne explorers have been marveling at Georgian Bay for more than 400 years. The French coureurs de bois (fur traders) called it la mer douce - sweet water - when they entered it from the French River. The British more prosaically named it after their monarch, George IV, and built navigational aids for the shipping channels in the nineteenth century.
More recently, boosters have lobbied to name it the sixth Great Lake. There is no doubt it is an awesome and unique environment to experience.
Georgian Bay is roughly 120 miles long and 50 miles wide and its variety is immense, perfect for power cruising. Shaped like a giant mitten veering off Lake Huron in a northwest to southeast direction, Georgian Bay extends from its eastern thumb, which touches Midland, to its four enclosed fingers curving gently along Nottawasaga Bay.
Scenery along the northern edge of the bay is stunning. The white quartz rock of the La Cloche mountains serve as backdrop to twisted pines and the pink granite of the Canadian Shield. The western side is steep, soaring up and down from the waterline. Sapphire waters along a limestone-spined peninsula offer some significant inlets and small town marinas, such as Cabot Head or Wiarton.
The south has some shoals but the shore is more bucolic, with rolling farmland and apple orchards. Meaford and Thornbury are nestled into the Blue Mountains in the background. The eastern side of Georgian Bay is an intricate maze, highlighted by the Thirty Thousand Islands. The area's granite reefs provide perfect anchorages, and pretty marina towns like Midland and Penetang serve up excellent stopovers.
See the Light
Last summer, Ray Davis, a local captain with 20 years of Georgian Bay sailing experience and a descendant of lighthouse keepers, offered his refurbished tug, Dawnlight, for charter tours that circumnavigated most of the bay. Cruising past 16 lighthouses, the five-day trip covers a 260-mile circuit from Tobermory and Cove Island south to Colpoys Bay, east across to Hope Island, and north to the French River, before sailing back west to Little Tub Harbour via Club Island.
The Dawnlight can accommodate 11 passengers in comfortable bunks (although only the aft berth provides privacy and six or seven people would be a more ideal party). Davis serves meals in a spacious salon from a well-equipped galley, and his vessel has a well-stocked library with tombs on lighthouses, and antique and current photos of itinerary stops. Plus, Davis, who is also a divemaster, knows wonderful moorings for swimming, fishing, or scuba diving, and he is knowledgeable about Georgian Bay shipwrecks.
The area is rich in the history of the fur trade, the early Jesuit missions of Huronia, the lighthouses and shipwrecks, and the abandoned fishing and lumbering camps.
One night we anchored in 20-feet of water off Hope Island, home to a derelict lighthouse and adjacent to Christian Island, where Hurons escaped the invading Iroquois in 1649.
In the morning we awoke to brilliant sunshine and explored among meadow columbine, fragrant lilacs and crabapple petals. Before leaving we meandered over the beached hulls of shipwrecks named Lottie Wolfe and Marquette, which sunk separately after foundering on the rocks offshore. The irony of such tragedies and the renewal of nature on an island named Hope did not escape us.
At Pointe Au Baril we moored in a deep pool just offshore to spend the evening. In the morning we visited the island's well-kept, red and white clapboard lighthouse, which was built in 1889. Sure enough, out on the point, framed by wind-bent pines, we saw the whiskey barrel from the fur traders' canoe, set up on a post -- the marker for which the place is named.
Though it was possible to traverse this magnificent body of water in five days, one could easily spend a month or the entire summer exploring the region. No matter what the duration of the cruise, a trip through Georgian Bay cruise will leave you wanting more of the sweet water.
Subscribe to Power Cruising to read about Discovery Harbour at Penetanguishene on Georgian Bay, featured in the spring 2004 issue.