Published in Just for Canadian Doctors, May/June 2016
SAILING TO GOD’S ISLAND
We’re skimming the waters of Frazer Bay in Ontario’s Georgian Bay in a forty-nine-foot sailboat named “Summer Breeze”.
The quartzite LaCloche Mountains, their rugged slopes white as a February snowfall in the afternoon sun, reach skyward off our starboard quarter. Far astern we can see Killarney Provincial Park and Baie Fine. Royal blue decorates the bay, mirroring the sky but for whitecaps scattered like lace collars across its wind-riffled surface.
Those landmarks inspired numerous paintings of the Group of Seven. No surprise there: the views embracing us show like landscapes painted by masters.
“Summer Breeze” groans in twenty knots of wind, leaning precipitously, a position that would be frightening but for the fact that this is how she sails, but for the fact that all aboard know what we are doing.
We’ve chartered this boat from Canadian Yacht Charters out of Manitoulin Island’s Gore Bay. If you know how to sail, they’ll rent you the boat. If you don’t, you can book a skipper.
We’re navigating the North Channel, guarded to the south by Manitoulin Island, by the Canadian Shield to the north, an east-west passage marked by roughly three hundred islands, most unmarred by human occupation.
It’s one of only two Canadian destinations cited in a book called “Fifty Places to Sail Before You Die,” one of the world’s best freshwater cruising grounds.
My wife and I first sailed here in 1999. It’s the first voyage for our friends, Kim and Ed North. Serious sailors, they’re here to help us work the boat – and to sail paradise itself.
And now I yell over the howling winds. “Manitoulin, dead ahead.”
I point past a white lighthouse with fire-engine-red roof toward a blue-gray expanse rising up from Lake Huron like a great leviathan.
“We’re sailing to God’s Island.”
First Manitoulin waypoint is Wikwemikong, one of the few First Nations territories local Ojibwa never ceded to the government. Come here in August and participate in one of Canada’s biggest powwows, take in some First Nations theatre. Hike to picturesque waterfalls, climb to the crest of Niagara escarpment ridges, rent a bicycle, recline on a beach you’ll share with no one, take in some history.
Explore a fascinating – and sacred – island.
Legend has it that Manitou – the Anishnabe God – saved the bluest waters, the brightest stars, the most scintillating quartzite to make his own retreat – placing it, the world’s largest freshwater island, right here.
Off the port bow.
Tonight we’d make landfall at Little Current, one of the island’s few settlements, securing “Summer Breeze” to a dock, dining ashore on local whitefish.
“And tomorrow,” says Ken Blodgett, the fifth member of our ship manifest, who’s taken over the helm, wrestling the boat through waves that shatter into scintillating spray as we chase the sun west, “we’re taking you to the most beautiful anchorage in the world.”
Blodgett owns Canadian Yacht Charters and has become a friend over the years. Given that it’s September so things are slower back in Gore Bay, and given that Blodgett has promised to show us “secret spots you can only imagine,” we enthusiastically add him to the crew list.
Tomorrow he’d share one of those secret spots.
Yesterday he shared another one: the Pool in Baie Fine, where we swung at anchor in what felt like the sanctuary of an emerald cathedral.
Early this morning we dinghied ashore from that anchorage, tying to a rudimentary dock and climbing a logging trail to a hilltop lake nestled in a granite cradle, surrounded by gnarled wind-crippled pine, boasting waters so clear you could see ten metres down, painted – like its name suggested – topaz.
“Just wait until tomorrow,” I tell Ed and Kim. “We’ll take you to a really pretty spot.”
A spot called South Benjamin Island, a spot I consider the most beautiful anchorage in the world, a spot we would achieve on our last full day on the water, after a lunch stop at Croker Island, hot dogs on the barbecue in a delightful granite bowl decorated by pine, by juniper, by fecund blueberry bushes.
Lunch done, we raise anchor and power west, past Sows and Pigs, a collection of surreal rock outcroppings rearing up from the water like breaching whales.
Kim notices a black irregularity in the water’s surface just off the port stern. “What is that?” she asks.
Ken slows the engine, we make a lazy circle.
We squint at this ‘bump’ then someone realizes that it’s moving, a small wake fanning out from it. It is a black bear.
She looks at us; she swims away.
We give her space, but follow her until she reaches a headland off Croker.
She clamours ashore, up onto the rock, turns to face us contemptuously, shakes vigorously, disappears into the forest.
That evening, as the sun falls in the west, as we swing gently off a curvaceous slab of pink granite, blushing in the sunset, I reflect on the spectacle of the she-bear, nature setting out as if to convince us we were sailing paradise itself, on other highlights, on other visits.
I’m sitting on the shore, gazing at “Summer Breeze”, inhaling the scent of pine, listening to the water lapping the rock shore in liquid melody, the echoing call of a loon.
I remember our first day out of Gore Bay, navigating shoals in Clapperton Channel, skies heavy, vista a minimalist line drawing: sky, rock, water in pewter and purple hues.
I remember the dawn light at Killarney; sun spotlighting a fishing boat, painting the forest rose then gold.
I remember a dock at Kagawong on Manitoulin itself, a circa 1920s general store across from a church whose pulpit was built from the prow of a boat shipwrecked just offshore.
Now Ed climbs the slope; he sits beside me.
I point south to the far reaches of the channel, toward the world’s biggest freshwater island that even now disappears in the dusk.
“Manitoulin,” I say, “Home of the Great Spirit.”
And then I pause reflectively. “God’s Island.”
IF YOU GO
To book your sailing adventure – either with skipper or on your own – and to check the fleet of available boats, log on to www.cycnorth.com or call 1-800-565-0022 to book.
For more information on God’s Island and other shore-based options, check out www.manitoulintourism.com