By: Steven Bull
From 2014-2019 I was fortunate enough to have a job that sent me around North America to check out the latest and greatest in the marine industry. I also got to explore places everywhere from Arizona to Yellowknife (but I never got to a Z-lettered place, sadly!).
Being a proud Canadian, I have a special affinity for the locations on this side of the border that caught my attention for one reason or another. If you have the chance, I recommend exploring any or all of these.
There are many more gorgeous spots and interesting journeys, of course, but I’m limited to my Top 7 and to places I’ve explored. So while Alberta may have some great lakes and rivers to explore, I’ve never been there. Same with the Atlantic coast. I’ve visited many regions and cities but always by land. One day I hope to rectify this and can update with an updated version for BoatBlurb.
Here are my Seven Heavens (in no particular order) and my Three Wishes where I want to visit next:
1) TRENT-SEVERN WATERWAY (Ontario)
Stretching 386 km from Trenton on Lake Ontario to Port Severn on Georgian Bay, this is a jewel in Canada’s boating crown. It’s a mix of man-made canals, natural rivers, and lakes connected by a series of 44 locks across 42 different lock stations (Healey Falls and Ranney Falls are flight locks, each with two locks at a single lock station stop). Americans completing The Great Loop consider this a highlight of the 9,500+ kilometre long journey that goes through 15 states and 2 provinces. It’s just that special.
But don’t feel intimidated by those numbers or the prospect of going into a lock! The Trent-Severn is home to cottages and marinas who utilize small sections of it. It’s just as good as a day boating destination as it is a transit from A-to-B. As for the locks, I can say this without hyperbole: the staff are the best marine employees I’ve ever encountered. Every lock has helpful and knowledgeable attendants that - in non-COVID years - physically help you by catching lines and talk you through the process. They take as much of the stress out as they can (some of it is on you, of course!). They also are usually encyclopedic in their knowledge of the immediate region and can suggest an ice cream shop for the kids or a restaurant for lunch. If you want to do a multi-day trip but only have a day boat, they have oTENTiks at a few lock stations. I’ve stayed in one and they are quite comfortable. Not a five-star hotel by any means, but a genuine “glamping” experience in a half-tent, half-cabin set up. (*Editor's Note- check out our full-length feature on experiencing the Trent-Severn)
2) DESOLATION SOUND (British Columbia)
I knew the word majestic before I went. I rarely used it, but it was there. After a week cruising the Desolation Sound region I may have overused it, though never inaccurately. The deepwater sound lies approximately 150 km northwest of Vancouver, between Vancouver Island and the mainland, and has multiple anchorages and parks. It was named by Captain George Vancouver in the late 1700s because he found “there was not a single prospect that was pleasing to the eye” and thus, the name for this desolate place seemed rather obvious to ol’ George.
To be fair, he wasn’t looking for a wilderness escape or immense hills that plunge into the water so deep our depth sounder often couldn’t keep up. I, however, was looking for peace and quiet and his desolation was my majestic beauty.
It’s a popular spot for cruisers from Vancouver, Victoria and Seattle, but for a Toronto-based boater like me I went the charter route and between spending a night at the docks in the small town of Lund and anchoring in Squirrel Cove and Prideaux Haven this was one of those heaven-on-earth sort of experiences. From sheltered coves where anchoring isn’t an issue to the Homfray Channel which has depths reaching 731 meters (2400 feet), to call this a unique experience for an Ontario-based boater is an understatement. It’s not the easiest or cheapest experience depending on where home is, but it’s genuinely affordable when compared to a “standard” vacation and worth every penny.
(*Editor's Note- we've also covered chartering a boat in the nearby Gulf Islands, BC)
3) MUSKOKA (Ontario)
Partially because I grew up spending time on the lakes in and around Huntsville, and partially because it’s just a stunning part of the country, I have to include Muskoka. Is it more beautiful than other spots? Of course not. Is it genuinely unique in any geographic aspect? Not really. But because it’s one of those idyllically beautiful mixes of rugged Canadian Shield rock, thick evergreen-lined forests and good-sized lakes AND it’s within a few hours of the largest city in the country, this has long been a hotbed of boating. There are cottages and hotels and restaurants dotted all around most of the lakes here, some rugged and some massive.
Someone once asked if it was boring because it’s “just cottage boats," and I didn’t know where to begin correcting them. There are bowriders, wake-surf boats, fishing boats, pontoons, PWCs and some classic wooden boats that are worth more than my house. Sure, virtually all are some variation of a day-boat, but what’s wrong with that? I love the cruiser life, but I have friends that don’t and they love the cottage life. Both of us are right, in my books. If you’re floating, you’re boating and you’ve made a good life decision! Towing the kids behind the boat on a tube and flooding the air with laughter, fishing with buddies, or going with your spouse to a waterfront restaurant for lunch and returning to the comfort of a hotel or cottage all within a few hours of the GTA? To quote Chris Rock, “Ain’t nothing wrong with that!”
If you want a real treat, tow your boat to one of these lakes -- Gravenhurst is a good spot with a nice ramp, for example -- and tour the lake on a warm fall day once the leaves have begun changing colour. The challenge there? Try not to take 9 million photos!
(*Editor's Note- Muskoka also made out Top 10 list for Boating Destinations in Ontario)
4) GREAT SLAVE LAKE (Northwest Territories)
This is cool. Literally. I explored a tiny fraction of the south and north shores of this massive lake, which is the deepest in North America at over 600 m (2000 ft). And it’s clean, so large that the small settlements that dot the shore -- the largest of which is the capital city of Yellowknife with a population of 20,000 -- don’t really impact the massive basin of freshwater. Halfway from the mouth of the Mackenzie River where I caught a dozen Northern Pike (including an 18-pounder) and the town of Hay River, our fishing guide stopped in the lake to fill his water tank. I joked that I have forgotten that as well and he clarified that no one fills their tank at shore because the water out in the lake is so clean and tastes better than anything out of a tap. We leaned overboard with cups and took a scoop and he was right.
About 200 km north-northeast is Yellowknife Bay with the city sitting along the western edge of the northernmost stretch. Half of the population of the massive territory lives here and it’s the hub of the region in every aspect. Still, it feels notably different than an equivalent sized town -- even a regionally important one -- from somewhere further south in the country. And while it’s frozen over half of the year, there is a small but mighty boating community including the Great Slave Yacht Club with fifty or so boats including a couple larger cruisers though it’s largely fishing boats. There are houseboats, a ton of float planes and a vibrant charter scene which I took full advantage. If you do, dress warmly! Because even in the summer, if the winds are blowing across the huge expanse of drinkably-clean cold water your summer outfits will be woefully unacceptable. This may not have all the bells and whistles of some destinations elsewhere in the country but this is a genuine adventure worth trying.
5) TORONTO (Ontario)
On the furthest reach of the other end of the spectrum, you have the largest city in Canada. I grew up here, in the East End, never living more than 540 metres from Lake Ontario (yes, I measured it). But it never struck me as a “waterfront” city like Chicago or just about anywhere in Florida because, while being set along the water, it didn’t really offer tremendous access to it aside from a few -- but lovely -- beaches. Once my wife and I bought our first boat, a 2001 Sea Ray 380 Sundancer, and decided to keep it at the Toronto Islands my whole viewpoint changed.
There are thousands of seasonal slips at marinas and yacht clubs along the mainland and on the islands. There are small rental boats, charter boats, big tour boats, large ships dropping raw sugar at the Redpath Refinery sweetening the air if the wind blows the right way and too many water taxis to count. My son turns 6 this year and has grown up spending most of the summers on the islands, swimming in the lake while anchored off one of the Blue Flag beaches, and trying his hand at fishing. I still get grief from my Georgian Bay-based boating buds, but I like being able to get from work to my boat in 15 minutes (thanks to the bike-share system and a dinghy dock city-side) versus having a multi-hour traffic battle northwards. I’ve taken to calling them micro-vacations. Zipping out and around the islands to the beach, after work, for a swim and feeling a million miles away. I’m not knocking Georgian Bay-style boating at all, nor saying Toronto is the same by any means, but that’s ok. To each their boating own. I like the marina life, with waterfront dining and docktails and live music, and popping to a different city for a weekend more than I want to find a quiet anchorage. As you can see from my list, I dig the latter, but for my usual boating style? Boating in my backyard has become my happy place.
(*Editor's Note- check out Steven's great article on Life as a Toronto Boat Commuter)
6) SASKATCHEWAN (The whole province!)
A bit of a cop-out, perhaps. A bit insulting to the fine folks of Saskatchewan, too, I suppose. But, and I say this with love: who knew?? If you’re from the prairie province you already know that it’s home to 100,000 lakes (allegedly, I haven’t counted!). There are thousands upon thousands though and I have three worth noting: Tobin Lake, Lake Diefenbaker, and Last Mountain Lake.
Tobin Lake was formed in 1963 when they dammed the Saskatchewan River and now the eastern end is open water, but you also having the wide but winding river section as you get near Nipawin. The fishing here was amazing and, like Lake of the Woods, my exploration base was a rental houseboat. Lake Diefenbaker was also created by a damn in 1960s and is the largest lake in Southern Saskatchewan. It forms a large T-shape and is a unique escape with lots of deep bays, locally known as coulees as I was told, to anchor out on. Last but not least is Last Mountain Lake and, specifically, the town of Regina Beach. This place has that classic summery, beach-town vibe. Here you’ll find the oldest yacht club between Toronto and Vancouver, dating back to 1913.
Saskatchewan, I love ya, but I was surprised to find the boating world alive and well in what I always assumed it was a province full of wickedly friendly Roughriders fans roaming the endless wheat fields. Also: Corner Gas.
7) LAKE OF THE WOODS (Ontario/Manitoba/Minnesota)
This large lake straddles multiple borders and is home to a unique quirk of the US-Canada border. If you look at a map you’ll see there is a small section right that juts north of the 49th-parallel for some odd reason. In there is a small piece of land that is American but inaccessible without going through Canada or using a boat. The largest city, Kenora (population: 15,000) is along the northern shore on the Ontario side and about a two hour drive from Winnipeg making it easily accessible.
This is a best-of-both worlds kind of place, with small sheltered bays and a wide open section, cottages and communities and quiet solitude miles from anyone else. My exploration of this late was back in 2014 on one of my first PowerBoat Television destination shoots and remained a favourite. Talk about starting on a high note! We utilized one of the many houseboat rental companies that operate on the lake and towed a small fishing boat behind us. Bonfires on our “private island” (for the night) and catching pike and bass as the sunset, you get that sense of escape without having to be too far away or having to fly-in by floatplane.
I’ll given Honourable Mentions to: the Thousand Islands for it’s nation-straddling beauty, Tobermory for the crystal clear waters and scuba-diving opportunities, and the Welland Canal for the adventure and uniqueness of the massive lock basins and sharing a working waterway with massive ships.
As for my Three Wishes of where I’d love to explore next? They are:
I’ve never been to “The Rock” but have heard nothing but endless gushing of everything but the weather. Its maritime history is deeply rooted based which makes perfect sense to anyone that has even briefly looked at a globe. From fishing to the Royal St. John's (rowing) Regatta which is the oldest annual sporting event in North American dating back to 1816, activities on and around them water colour every facet of life. I’ll be there one day b’y and I’ll get screeched in to make it official!
2) THE BROUGHTENS
When I came back from my Desolation Sound trip, I joked with the owners of charter company that I would be leaving a 1-star review because while I saw a ton of bald eagles I didn’t see a single whale and was holding them solely responsible. Quickly, though, they said that if I really wanted to see some incredible wildlife I should do another trip to the northern end of Vancouver Island to the Broughten Archipelago. Evidently spotting bears on shore - from the safe confines of your boat - is not a rare occurrence. No word on the attitudes of whales towards the likes of me up that way though.
3) THE ARCTIC OCEAN
Canadians love talking a big game about winter and snow when American friends or tourists reference the weather, but, let’s be honest, how many of us really love a true winter? Who revels in the lack of sunshine and the bitter windchill? I love to ski and worked as a ski guide in the Alps for a season (story to follow over docktails at the marina another day) but the harshness of the winter? I’m not sure. All of that sort of stuff is what has kept people from settling en masse in the far north. And that leaves it virtually untouched by humans, despite millennia of Inuit culture and tradition. There’s just so much land and so few people. The northwest passage has only been regularly navigable for a decade or so. If I think Great Slave Lake is untouched, or Desolation Sound has stunning vistas, I can only imagine I’ll be blown away.
(*Editor's Note- the unbelievable tale of Franklin's Lost Expedition is a fascinating, albeit sobering reminder, of the remoteness of Canada's northern Arctic Ocean)