Rediscovering my boating backyard

Arriving home on our SUPs before sunset.

By Steven Bull – Host, Water Ways TV

Undoubtedly the best part of my job is that I get to explore different waterways and communities all over North America and, as you may have seen in Season 2 of Water Ways, even the South of France and its historic Canal du Midi.

While these adventures and explorations of new places are often bucket-list-worthy, what I have found particularly illuminating is exploring the waters close to home.

Growing up I would spend most weekends at the family cottage near Huntsville, Ontario in the Muskoka Region.  To get there we had to drive through Orillia, which is about two-thirds of the way.  Not far enough to merit a stop and not close enough for day trips.

And so, Orillia became to me, just another sign on the highway.

Of course, it has always been so much more than that.  It’s the birthplace of Gordon Lightfoot and Group of Seven member Franklin Carmichael and was home to famous humorist Stephen Leacock.  For thousands of years before that, it was – and remains – home to the Anishnaabeg, specifically the Chippewas of Rama First Nation.

But on a sunny Labour Day weekend, it transformed into the base of a pirate invasion!

Dusting off my journalism credentials to embed myself with a pirate crew.


The annual Pirate Party at the Port of Orillia is what drew me in and “forced” me to get amongst the boaters instead of zipping by. 

To call it fun or popular would be a massive understatement. Not only do boaters decorate their vessels – and themselves! – with all things pirate, but there’s a big encampment where reenactors let you immerse yourself in the fun with reenactors firing muskets and flintlock pistols from vintage sailing vessels.

The Port of Orillia, which is right in the heart of downtown, is unique to most marinas in the province in that it’s one of the few that is 100% transient only. 

Much of the credit for this event goes to Harbourmaster Allan Lafontaine for turning an otherwise slower weekend into one that has is sold out well in advance and with a waiting list nearly 50 vessels long.

“We already had Christmas in June, Mardi Gras, and the Mariposa Folk Festival draws in large crowds, but on Labour Day weekends we were historically low on occupancy,” he told me on the docks as Jolly Roger (skull-and-crossbones) flags flew from boats all around us. “Now look at it. We’re absolutely packed with a long waiting list.”

While I credit him, he credits Johnny Depp.

“The Pirates of the Caribbean movies made pirates cool for everyone. Boating is a family-friendly activity and to have an event that people of all ages can immerse themselves in is amazing!”

Wandering the docks to check out the decorations I ran into the CEO of the Boating Ontario Association, Rick Layzell.

“What a great boon for the downtown businesses to have a 200-plus slip marina that’s jam-packed on Labour Day,” he said as his ripped pirate pants blew in the wind. “Orillia is on the Trent-Severn Waterway and just four locks away from Georgian Bay. So, whether you day trip or you are doing the Loop, this is a great stop for fun or supplies. And let’s face it, what do boaters do when they get off the boat in a walkable town? They walk up and down Main Street and beat up their credit card!”

The highlight of the action – aside from the on-water assault – is the attack on Couchiching Beach Park. The reenactors sailed the vessels to the beach, dropped anchor and unloaded their weapons to face off against the British forces.

Families lined the field as musket fire and full-sized canons filled the air with the acidic twinge of gunpowder smoke as blasts and bangs filled the air in a cacophony of explosions.

But not all boaters want to be immersed in anything close to a cacophony.  Luckily, Orillia and Lake Country – as the region is formally known in tourism circles – have peaceful alternatives.

Ojibway Bay Marina


Of course, it should be noted that the Port isn’t always filled with canon fire and pirate-party vibes but given its downtown location, it has more of a fun-filled vibe. 

If you want to get away from it all, you’ve got Ojibway Bay Marina on the other side of Lake Couchiching which is part of Rama First Nation.  It’s surrounded by trees and away from the city centre but still with lots of amenities – including Casino Rama which is either a short bike ride or taxi or a medium walk (of about 2-kilometres).

In between these two ports is a massive island that has long been popular with boaters and has colloquially been known as Big Chief Island, though the official name is Chief Island as community researcher Ben Cousineau explained.

“Chief Island is part of our reserve. It always has been,” he said as we stood in the warm breeze of a September day. “We’ve called it a sacred place for hundreds of years and the reason why is because we have ancestors buried out there. So, there’s about 14 graves that are marked and there’s many more unidentified graves out there.”

The large crescent-shaped bay has long been a popular day anchorage but there is a permit required that you can get from Ojibway Bay Marina’s website.  And it’s worth pointing out, the permits are only for the bay. No one is supposed to go on land.

“We just want to make sure that the island is looked after for a long time and we don’t want anything getting too out of hand over there,” Cousineau said. “By all means, enjoy that area. But the island is sacred to us. And the same reason we wouldn’t go to non-indigenous cemeteries and have parties there. We ask you to do the same thing for ours.”

Pirate Steve put in a pillory by the British.


The signs as you enter Windsor at the southern reach of Ontario – and Canada for that matter – reads “The Automotive Capital of Canada” but I think it should be changed to “Canada’s South Shore.”

The pedantic amongst us may insist on pluralizing that to shores as there are actually three: Lake St. Clair to the north, the Detroit River to the west and Lake Erie to the south. 

I, of course, am not including Pelee Island or Middle Island. The former being Canada’s southernmost community and the latter being the southernmost point in the entire country.

I lived here for the better part of a decade, first as a student at the University of Windsor and later where I began my Canadian broadcasting career with the local CBC bureau. But despite my love of boating and the water surrounding it all, I had only ever been on these waters once before.

The French word détroit means strait, as in a narrow strip of water connecting two larger ones.  Capitalize the D and drop the accent aigu and you’ve got the hometown of Motown, the Ford Motor Company and Eminem.

The Detroit River has long been an important waterway for the Indigenous populations through the early European explorers, but things really came to a head during the War of 1812.

Control of the river meant control over the movement between the upper and lower Great Lakes which was crucial for trade and military supply lines.

Filming at the ruins of Hiram Walker’s summer Mansion.

Today cross border hostilities have ceased, unless the Red Wings and Maple Leafs or Tigers and Blue Jays face each other in the playoffs, but the importance of the river has not changed even if the uses thereon have.

It remains vital to trade as shipping is the most efficient form of transportation both by emissions and cost per ton. In fact: there are ships so massive that ply these waters they don’t fit into the 766-foot-long Welland Canal locks. The largest on the Great Lakes is the truly enormous MV Paul R. Tregurtha measuring in at 1,013.5 feet (308.96 meters) with a beam of 105 feet (32 meters) and a capacity of 68,000 tons of coal or iron ore.

If you’ve never boated past one of these behemoths, I can assure you it’s a sight to behold.  If you think they are large from land, they seem many times larger from the water.  Of course, you should give these monsters as wide of a berth as possible. You should give freighters a wide berth because their large size and mass result in significantly longer stopping distances and wider turning radii, making it difficult for them to maneuver quickly to avoid smaller vessels or obstacles.

You can get out on the water with Windsor Premiere Cruises to enjoy the sights of the skylines and slide by these ships without having to worry about anything if you want another cocktail. 

If you want to get behind the wheel you can rent a PWC, fishing boat or a pontoon you can head to Lakeshore which is, spoiler alert, the shore of Lake St. Clair. That’s where you’ll find RAW Watersports which also offers guided tours so you can sit back and relax.

If you do head out on Lake St. Clair, I have two recommendations for you: pizza and Peche Island.

Peche Island with Windsor to the left

Windsor pizza is a thing. Seriously! There’s even a documentary film on it. And there’s a pizza place right at Riverside Marina – beside Windsor Yacht Club – with transient docks. 

Just a few hundred metres away is the 86-acre island that a whisky distilling magnate purchased in 1883 to build a home. In 1974 it became a provincial park and in 1999 the City of Windsor took it over. It’s only accessible by boat and there’s a floating dock and mooring wall for larger vessels. Much of the island is marshy. It’s a great spot to kayak too, just be aware that there is a current flowing from Lake St. Clair to – and through – the Detroit River.

Before I sign off, I need to apologize to the Stand-Up Paddleboard. Not the community, but the board and sport itself. I tried it once years ago and did not have a good experience.  But Chris at Urban Surf, just five kilometres west of RAW Watersports, busted out the biggest SUP I’ve ever seen, and the stability made me relax, which allowed me to stand up and genuinely enjoy the experience.  And a sunset paddle is certainly an experience worth having!

While I love the exotic locations that I am sometimes lucky enough to explore, there’s something magical about discovering – or is it re-discovering? – somewhere you thought you knew.

Try it yourself. You won’t be disappointed!

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