By: Steven Bull (Host, Water Ways)
This has long been a time coming for me.
I’ve been boating most of my life, but the majority of that was smaller boats at a cottage. So my snubbing of The North Channel was excusable. But we’re now into our ninth season with a 2001 Sea Ray 380 Sundancer – a great boat for the North Channel – that we keep on Lake Ontario. In the grand scheme of things, we're easily accessible to the North Channel – and yet, no North Channel!
There’s always an excuse. Flood years limiting travel on Lake Ontario and then a pandemic. But then, there’s always an excuse for people who want to get a boat but never pull the trigger. The bottom line is it just wasn’t a priority for us for whatever reason.
So when I finally got the chance to get there, I jumped on it. Though it was in a very different way than most of my boating buds have done. I’m not checking out anchorages and going on long runs, rarely leaving shore. Instead, we’re checking it out in a day boat.
A Lighthouse 264 CC with twin Yamaha F300s, to be precise. And yes, I can hear the cottagers reading this rolling their eyes and saying, “THAT’S what you call a day boat?!”
For big water? Yes. And there’s no cabin on here to sleep in. So there!
Lighthouse Boats are an upscale, more luxurious line built by the fine folks who build Stanley Boats. So you know the bones of this are solid. But we have a full windscreen and partial wrap-around, so the captain and first mate are protected. If you have a two-person camera and audio crew, they don’t fare so well if the weather turns. And (spoiler alert) it turned.
The North Channel is the strip of water that stretches from the north side of Manitoulin Island westward to the St. Joseph Channel and the St. Mary’s River which meanders its way to Sault Ste. Marie. That’s where we began.
Boating is better with friends or family, so my buddy Jim flew up to “the Soo” to join me for this adventure which we had originally planned to be a relaxing, weeklong trip. Instead, the weather gods didn’t play along and we had to call an audible and cut our trip a little short.
That’s just a part of boating. Or any outdoor activity, really. Anyone who’s tried to plan an outdoor wedding or birthday party knows that you can only account for so much and then there’s the hope-for-the-best-and-pivot-if-need-be moments.
I arrived in Sault Ste Marie two days before Jim and explored the city a bit. The Bushplane Heritage Museum is a genuine treat and one I hope to be able to bring my young son to one day. It has an impressive collection of planes and, when I went out for a solo cruise of the St. Mary’s River to check out the skyline, I had to get out of the way as a floatplane came and landed just in front of it. I normally have my head on a swivel when boating, but keeping an eye on the sky was a little different!
I also wandered the boardwalk around our hotel. Conveniently, the Delta Hotel is a stone’s throw from the Roberta Bondar Marina where I kept the Lighthouse until Jim arrived, so I had easy access to land and water for the weekend.
Named for Canada’s first female astronaut and the first neurologist in space, Bondar’s name is all over this region. Fitting as it’s her hometown. The marina is transient only with 38 slips. There’s fuel and pump out, as well as nice shower and restroom facilities.
Monday morning Jim arrived and somehow brought with him the end of the heatwave that had been beating down on my poor ginger hide. My weather app read 12 Celsius (feels like 11 C) on July 25. I know we’re a little further north but this was ridiculous!
But far from the worst I’ve boated in, and as soon as we cast off, the good times warmed us up (as did our hoodies!).
Sault Ste Marie reminded me of my years living in Windsor for a few reasons -- the main one being it’s a border town. In much of the city you are closer to the United States than you are the other end of town. In fact, if you were to pick up the Station Mall and its parking lot and plop it across the St. Mary’s River, it would reach into the American side.
What that really means for boaters is you’ve got a very important dotted line to keep track of as you make your way along the river. Keep an eye on your charts and don’t pull into an American marina or anchor on the US side by accident. That could lead to a long conversation with border officials. Crossing the border by boat is great and I do it regularly, but we can deal with that in another BoatBlurb article!
Keeping an eagle eye on the chart – luckily the Lighthouse has twin displays – Jim and I headed east around the northern end of Sugar Island.
The beauty of boating in meandering rivers is you’re almost always going to have good conditions because its so protected. Houses and cottages (sorry, my Northern Ontario pals call them 'camps') dot the river on both sides, and maybe it’s the history nerd in me that knows how bitter the relationship was in 1812, but I always like to see Canadian and American flags flying peacefully across from each other.
Things open up a bit as you head south around the eastern side of the island into the section known as Lake George. Here too you’ll find some areas where you really need to thread the needle between the buoys. But the channel is clearly marked and, unless you’re whipping through at 40 mph, it’s simple.
As you near St. Joseph Island and head east, you come across the first of a few very cool lighthouses. The Shoal Island Lighthouse stands guard just southwest of Pine Island and the little archipelago of rocky islands. One you past West Sister Rock Lighthouse, which has a very classic lighthouse look – at least to me – you’re about three nautical miles away from Hilton Beach.
I’ve had the great fortune of exploring waterways and boat-loving destinations from the Northwest Territories to Arizona, from California to Quebec City, and I can say with confidence that I’ve yet to go anywhere with as insane of a boat slip-to-population ratio as this small town.
According to the census numbers I saw, the population of Hilton Beach, Ontario is 198 yet there are 160 slips in the marina. To be fair, they aren’t all locals, and a high percentage of the slips are for transient boaters, but still. If the marina is full, the population of boaters – regardless of their origin – outnumber the town.
Hilton Beach Marina has rental bikes if you want to explore further, but it’s a short walk past the white obelisk war memorial up a small hill and you’ve got a few restaurant options. A friend from Sault Ste Marie’s response to hearing I was in Hilton Beach was a text that simply read: “Tilt'n Hilton!”
I could see the appeal in staying here for a little while and using bikes to explore the island, sandy beach, and the park-like environment of the marina. Very relaxed but not at all boring.
But we’ve got more to see so after lunch we did the short shot across the channel to Bruce Mines, going around a large Canadian Coast Guard vessel anchored in the middle.
The name of the town comes from two things. The first is James Bruce, Governor General of Canada from 1847-1854, and later the Viceroy and Governor-General of India. The second part is even more on the nose. Copper mining began in the area in the 1840s as well.
Bruce Mines Marina is a fraction of the size of Hilton Beach but they have long docks, lots of water and fuel, and pump out. And as far as proximity to town, it’s full marks here as well. In fact, the hotel we stayed at – The Bavarian Inn – was only about 30 paces from the marina showers and washrooms.
Under new ownership, the Bavarian Inn is undergoing a room-by-room renovation. And despite their kitchen about to close they made us a couple of phenomenal pizzas which Jim and the crew I think enjoyed almost as much as I did. Maybe.
Much like Hilton Beach you have a few restaurant options and all a short walk. Bobber’s is next door and just across the street and down a block is the Copper Bean Café which as killer breakfasts and coffees.
Fueled up, we had a long and straight – mostly – run to Blind River. Despite the wide-open waters in this stretch of the North Channel, we had picture-perfect conditions. Some sections didn’t even have ripples!
About 14 nautical miles run from Bruce Mines is Thessalon where you can walk into town for lunch or stay in the small but well-protected marina. From there is a 34 nautical mile run to Blind River, the largest community on this stretch of the North Channel other than Sault Ste Marie, which is a well-known and well-loved stop for cruisers and Loopers.
This was our home base for a couple nights and we caught a lift to Pier 17. A motel with large rooms located on the river and boatable from Lake Duborne if you’re doing in-land explorations. There’s also a sports bar and restaurant with views of the water from their large patio where you can make plans for your next leg.
If you’re staying at the marina be sure to check out the Timber Village Museum and art gallery. It’s in the same building as the marina office. It doesn’t get more boater-friendly than that!
If you have the time, you can continue another 25-30 nautical miles further east to the town of Spanish. It has a large municipal marina and is a popular due to its proximity to the Benjamin Islands and Whalesback and McBean Channels. It also is a good-sized community with everything from groceries to boat mechanics.
The beauty of doing this by day boat is that it forces you to get into the towns and not just hang out on the docks, as fun as that can be. It also gives you more flexibility. Not only did every marina have a nice ramp, but you can generally cover a lot more water in a smaller boat than a bigger cruiser, so doing Sault Ste Marie to Spanish and back on a long weekend is do-able. Or you can spend a week hoping back and forth. It depends on your time, your vessel, and your fuel budget.
On the one hand, I’ve finally experienced the beauty of this boating Mecca firsthand! Then again, my 380 Sundancer hasn’t, and that’s a shame. Come to think of it, my desire to cruise the North Channel hasn’t waned one iota since my adventure and is only stronger than ever.