North Channel, Lake Huron 1999
by Sarah Ohmann

Check out photos of the North Channel.

Another club member (Dave Brewster) and I recently completed a near-circumnavigation of the north channel of Lake Huron. Geologically, the north channel is interesting because the northern shore is Canadian shield rock (similar to eastern Lake Superior with a little Georgian Bay thrown in), while the southern section is part of the huge limestone formation called the Michigan basin or Niagara escarpment. It's a famous cruising ground, ranked among the top five destinations in North America according to one boater. I have been curious for several years about how it would measure up for kayaking. Since we had an early ice-out this year, it seemed like this would be the time to sneak in before the boating traffic arrived (the marinas open on May 15th, the main boating season starts on Victoria Day).

We stayed at a deserted campground in Bruce Mines after driving 12 hours from the cities. Over breakfast, mere hours before departing, we decided rather than do a there-and-back trip, to try for a full, 200-mile loop around the north channel. We started from Thessalon, and packed up the boats and started off paddling east. We had calm, sunny weather for the first half of the trip, and the shoreline had plenty of empty sand beaches in between the rockier granite points for easy camping

We passed the Mississagi River, a huge grassy delta bordered by small rock and sand islands and camped near the town of Blind River. The next day, feeling we'd had enough of civilization, we paddled away from the mainland out to the Sanford Island group, doing short one or two mile crossings from island to island. This proved to be one of our better guesses, since this cluster of islands was extremely pretty and well worth the visit. There were only a few cabins in the islands, and plenty of excellent, well-established campsites with small gravel or sand beaches. These islands may be set aside as a provincial park, and they certainly deserve protection and are ideal for kayakers.

It was too early in the day to stop, so we explored a little more and continued past the points and islands near the mouth of the Serpent River. This area had lots of steep, exposed granite with little vegetation, reminding me of parts of Pukaskwa Park on eastern Lake Superior. We continued into the Whalesback Channel, a sheltered waterway that was the highlight of the trip for me in terms of scenery. Of course we had perfectly calm and warm conditions all afternoon and evening, and I felt like I'd died and gone to kayaking heaven. We found a nifty little sand beach on John Island to camp on.

The next day we paddled the rest of the Whalesback Channel, exiting through the tiny passage of Little Detroit and into a less protected area of more widely scattered island groups. The calm continued all that day, as we passed through more pleasant, rocky island clusters. A real standout was Fox Island, which looked like it had been transplanted from Georgian Bay. We continued on to the islands that line the mainland next to La Cloche Mountains Provincial Park. The mountains are part of the same quarzite range found in Killarney, with rock that is gray, white or even milky green in appearance, unique in the Great Lakes region and visually very striking. The islands were rocky but still provided good sand and gravel beaches for camping with views of the mountains.

With the perfect weather continuing, we turned south and left the last of the granite islands for the start of limestone country. We stopped in at Little Current, a big boating center and a town with four marinas, for bread, duct tape, a nautical chart and a shower (life's little essentials) before setting off along the north shore of Manitoulin Island.

Our second week of westward paddling included more frequent rain, and moderate SW to strong W head winds, which unfortunately slowing us down quite a bit. Although there is limited fetch in the north channel, west winds can bring good sized waves or swell, and the Detour, False Detour, or Mississagi Straits which join the North Channel to the southern parts of Lake Huron can funnel high winds and larger waves. We spent five days on Manitoulin Island, and, sorry to say, it was a bit of a disappointment after the previous section. The scenery consisted of wooded bluffs, boulder, cobble, or sand beaches, mildly pleasant but nothing really wonderful. The north side of the island has deep bays and large points which required long detours down into the bays or exposed crossings from point to point. Most of the larger bays had road access and therefore lots of vacation home development - camping was much trickier here. Mostly we stayed on offshore islands, since even the parts of the main island which showed as roadless on our topo maps often had both roads and houses, especially where there were sand beaches. The most pleasant section ran from the west side of Barrie Island to the west end of Manitoulin which had fewer cottages and nice stretches of shoreline.

Better than Manitoulin was Cockburn Island, which is still largely undeveloped except for the village of Tolsmaville, a small town with older buildings and water access only. After Cockburn we crossed to Drummond Island, leaving Ontario and entering Michigan briefly. The north side of Drummond was relatively undeveloped, but the sand beaches had seen a lot of ATV traffic and were somewhat trashed. The northwest corner of the island did have some 3-6' high limestone cliffs which were pretty and made a nice change from the rest of the island.

We left Drummond Island at the Chippewa Point and crossed back into a group of islands that are mostly Ontario crown land and offer decent but rocky camping sites, then paddled up along St. Joseph's Island (lots of vacation homes from Hamilton Bay on north).

Our last day of paddling was along the east side of St. Joe's island, we paddled right next to shore, getting every bit of shelter we could from the 30-knot WSW winds. We paddled into Hilton Beach against the oncoming stormy weather which brought rain, snow, sleet, hail and more wind overnight. Fortunately we met Charlie, the owner of the Hilton Beach campground, a truly generous soul who not only put us up in one of his cabins but volunteered to drive us the last 20 miles of our loop to Thessalon in the rain and sleet. Though we didn't paddle a complete loop we stayed warm and dry, which, after two weeks out in the weather, was pure bliss and a happy ending after all.

The total mileage for the trip was about 210, over about 12 days. My favorite part of the trip ran from Algoma through the Bay of Islands on the north shore of the channel, a section I would definitely recommend as a kayak trip for its excellent scenery and camping opportunities. The north side of Manitoulin I was less enthusiastic about, due to unexciting scenery, extensive development and lack of easy camping. For a shorter (day) trip, the scenery around Campement d'Ours and St. Joe's island is excellent and similar to the longer section from Algoma Mills through the Whalesback Channel.

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© 1999 Sarah Ohmann