The Outer Islands of the Georgian Bay Coast

When I started this post, we were sailing along the Northeastern coast of Georgian Bay, about half-way between French River and Killarney Provincial Parks. While Will maintained our wind angle, we were watching a huge thunderstorm play out on shore – quick flashes of zig-zag lightning followed by loud rumbles of thunder. From counting the time between lightning and thunder, we figured the storm was about 20km away – far enough off that we could see the very tops of the storm clouds, as well as the dark, almost vertically-edged, patches of rain pouring down beneath them.

The fact that we could see this storm from such a distance goes with what, for me, is a key characteristic of the Georgian Bay landscape: flatness. Having grown up on the West Coast, I’m used to having at least one portion of my horizon filled with the peaks of towering mountains – whether they’re on the land beside me, or reaching up out of a large, and usually very deep, body of water. Instead, here in the Georgian Bay, the land is mostly flat and the water is very shallow. This is Canadian Shield territory: red rocky shores carved into intricate, flowing patterns by the movement of glaciers many centuries ago. You can see these patterns in the satellite view of the area, but also in the swirls and curves of the rocks that make up the many islands. Under the water, the twisting shapes continue, often only a few feet below the surface.

Click this image to go to Google Maps, and you can zoom in to see the rocky bottom, just a few meters below the surface

Since leaving Parry Sound, we have been anchoring in some of the outer island groups that run along the Georgian Bay coast. If you can ignore the lack of mountains in the background, these outer islands are a little like the islands on the outer BC coast. The bare, rocky shores and weather-beaten pine trees remind you of the extreme weather that is common here, and of the relative remoteness of the area (well, not as remote here maybe). We spent one night in Killbear Park, anchored next to the beautiful red-tinted beaches of the Provincial Park. In the morning we took a walk through some of the campgrounds, and then hiked along the Lookout Point trail.

From there, we motored out through the marked channels to the outside of Franklin Island. With little wind and narrow channels to navigate, it wasn’t worth trying to hoist the sails. As we worked our way into the shallow anchorage, I stood on deck and helped Mike avoid the rocky outcrops hiding just below the surface. Windsor Bay is a roomy anchorage – the cruising guides suggest there could be as many as 10 or so boats in here; but once again, we had the whole place to ourselves! We arrived with enough time to dinghy around the different alcoves, and climb out to explore one of the kayaking campsites located here.

We spent just one night in Windsor Bay. Although we feel like we are moving quickly through Georgian Bay (you could sail here for years and not explore all of it!), we are also aware that there is lots more to see in the North Channel, and the fact that we do need to be leaving Lake Huron by the end of the month to keep on our summer schedule. After several nights on the hook, it was time for a pumpout (probably the one resource that limits how much time we can spend at anchor), so we decided to make a quick stop in Pointe au Baril on our way North.

Located at the end of a narrow inlet (it’s not fjord unless there are mountains!), Pointe au Baril gets its name from an early form of marker that indicate the entrance to the inlet – quite literally a barrel set up on the point, with a light on top of it. There is a lighthouse here now, but they still maintain a version of the old marker as a reminder. The passage into Pointe au Baril is, like all the channels here, shallow and narrow. When we got to the town dock for the pumpout, we realized that they have a maximum size of 30-foot boats with a 3 foot draft. The dock was long enough for us, so we tied up at the end and pulled ourselves forward toward the pumpout hose. Turned out it wasn’t long enough to reach, so – after first checking the depth with our boathook, we lined the boat around to the other side of the dock just close enough to reach the hose. A quick stop at the shop for provisions, and we were on our way again, stopping only a few miles away in Kitsilano Bay.

The next morning was grey and foggy, so we motored out past the Pointe au Baril Baril, and on into the lake. There are hundreds of tiny islands along this part of the coast, but most of the water surrounding them is unsounded and very shallow. We gave the whole area a miss, and sailed up the outside to the Bustard Islands. This island group is also very shallow, but there are two main anchorage areas towards the North end. After several hours of slow sailing, we motored in and dropped the hook in the Northeast anchorage. About 20km east of here, back on the mainland, is a large wind farm with 87 giant turbines. We could see the turbines poking out from the land as we sailed north. We could also see the turbines from our anchorage – the setting sun made them glow white and then pale pink against the grey sky behind them.

The shallow waters and windy passages in the Bustards make for great kayaking. We packed up a lunch and headed out for a day of exploring. We often have limited cell service in these outer islands, but the GPS on our phones works well enough to keep us going in the right direction (provided I read the map correctly, of course!). We kayaked about 5 miles in total, with a lunch stop in the middle.

From the Bustards, we crossed back to the mainland and anchored in a place called Beaverstone Bay. Only a day’s sail from Killarney Park, you can already see the change in the landscape here. The flatness of Georgian Bay is giving way to (small!) mountains – we could see the La Cloche range in the distance, with their white quartzite peaks standing out against the blue skies. We had a few more thunderstorms pass near us in this anchorage, but none of them directly overhead. The most dramatic one was in the evening, not long before sunset. As the dark grey mass moved across the sky – flashing with lightning the whole time – it gradually gave way to orange, and then firey red, which stretched across the whole western sky. Such a dramatic end to a great couple of days!