Five Days on the Bay

Georgian Bay - Pointe au Baril Lighthouse

Story and Photos by Jennifer Harker

O’Donnell Point is lumpy on the best of days but as Northern Explorer makes the turn north we confront a nauseating beam sea that pounds the peaches in the galley below and consumes our fuel despite our captain’s best adjustments and a crawling pace.
As we pitch and roll like a cork tossed in a toddler’s tub I’m reminded of Robert Burns’ poem where the best laid plans often go awry. A typical three-day blow on Georgian Bay is kicking up, preparing to push our carefully laid plans off course.
No matter, we’ve shucked the shackles of stressed reality for the freedom of five days on the bay. Our plans to head north of Pointe au Baril are foiled by the ferocious winds. We keep a constant eye to the sky, something we rarely do on shore anymore. Years of boating on the bay and our onboard weather book confirm those ominously stacking cumulo-nimbus clouds herald approaching thunderstorms and an unstable atmosphere. 
Georgian Bay is breathtakingly beautiful for boating, but always demands your respect.
We head for port knowing the merciless wind is wreaking havoc as even the sailors are heading in, storm jibs aloft or main sails reefed in.
At the Big Sound Marina thunderstorms rage through and sheets of driving rain pummel our newly installed canvas-work. It performs exceedingly well, keeping us completely dry for the first time in years. Money well spent on our first day out.
No matter, we’ve picked a perfect day to be in port in Parry Sound. Tomorrow is Tuesday and I will trek up the hill to the farmers’ market less than 2000 steps from the boat according to my constant companion, my trusty pedometer. I revel in the knowledge I’ll make my daily goal of 10,000 steps with no extra effort today, a normally Herculean task aboard a 27 foot Sea Ray!
Georgian Bay - twisted pinesI cruise the stands buying Mennonite bread, butter tarts and a cherry pie for desert – such luxury. Despite stocking the galley from home, I can’t resist adding some more fresh vegetables and fruit. This week the scorched earth temperatures and lung sucking humidity of the previous week are but a distant memory and the day’s cooler temperatures (thank you 30 knot winds) mean I will be able to keep fresh produce on board without it wilting and collapsing into a squishy mess.
We also restock our reading supply at Bearly Used Books, a must destination for readers. This well organized book shop boasts thousands of titles and staff who easily locate your favourite author or title on the orderly shelves. The shrieking in the rigging of the surrounding sailboats means we’ll spend another night here but the classic car cruise night that takes over the wharf-side parking lot on Tuesdays is a welcome diversion.
Day dawns clear and bright with buffeting winds but we head out anyway adopting a relaxed pace, marvelling anew at the landscape unfurling its colourful canvas before us. Georgian Bay never fails to transform us, pulling us back to nature, reminding us of our roots long before technology absorbed our every waking minute. I remember those elementary school geography lessons on prevailing patterns of winds – Georgian Bay’s iconic windswept pines provide a visual demonstration of the relentless power of perpetual westerlies buffeting the bay. The tilted trees give the illusion of constant motion to the surrounding landscape, even when motionless.
We pass Regatta Bay on Franklin Island, conjuring up the echoes of past generations of young ladies attending the YWCA camp in the early 1900s. Naturally, with the wild wind, the Bay is full of rafted boats and we push on. On calm days there are other hideaways sprinkled around the entire island but with recent fluctuating water levels it’s important to check your depths every time you visit. 
Georgian Bay - secluded anchoragesAt Turning Island we opt for the shorter route, veering off the main channel. Although marked, it is with private markings maintained by the Pointe Islanders Cottage Association and they are not what you see on the main channel. The two-inch pipes painted red and green are difficult to spot – think about a straw in a swimming pool as perspective. Add in wave and wake action and you need to be sure of your route. It does however cut about eight miles off the trip. Cruising books recommend a few anchorages in the area but with continued unsettled weather we consider our options.
Choosing the main route instead will take you past pieces of history. The cross on Champlain Monument Island commemorates the explorer’s route while the Ojibway Club is a former hotel first built in 1906 that now serves as a seasonal social and community centre for surrounding cottagers. Its gabled roof, tower and curved stone steps have welcomed generations of summer visitors beginning at a time when it must have seemed to be at the ends of the earth. Now its busy docks bustle with tennis players, cottagers coming for weekly buffet dinners, shoppers and those looking to restock their pantries and refuel their boats. The club hosts a weekly kids camp complete with sailing, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, arts and crafts and Ojibway is also home to a summer art show. Walking trails criss-cross the 42 acre island and while its hotel days are long gone there are four cottages to rent. Although mostly targeted to members, some amenities are available to everyone and we stopped to enjoy an ice cream on the docks on our return trip. 
We explore a few potential anchorages but with winds still snapping the burgee to attention we head into Pointe au Baril Station. It’s been years since we’ve come down this long arm and we’re welcomed by spacious new docks and a reconfigured harbour completed four years ago. The busy grocery/hardware store is still there for supplies as are the liquor store, small cafe, bakery and gas station a short trek away lining nearby Highway 69. 
Georgian Bay - Barrel lighthouseSeveral area marinas offer parts, service and fuel – along with area information. If you time your summer visit right you can enjoy Arts on the Bay Dinner Theatre entertainment at the community centre here. Visit www.artsonthebay.org for 2016 season details. 
Although there is no power on the public docks, I find an outlet in the mini-lighthouse office that is open during the day. Our coffeemaker is the largest power drain onboard and the handy outlet saves me breaking out the propane burner to use the French press.
Watching the cottage traffic come and go is a good diversion and we are entertained by a group wrestling a full size fridge into a small aluminium boat. By sundown the harbour is quiet and after a delicious dinner – no question, food really does taste better cooked outdoors – and a stroll, we break out the cribbage board and teach our 15-year-old to play. Later we are rewarded by a stunning starry night, luminescent pinpricks dividing the dark canvas into mesmerizing patterns of brilliance. Now too big to all lie on the boat deck together we take to the dock instead, identifying constellations, tracking satellites across the depths and spotting shooting stars arcing across the inkiness with tails aglow. 
Last night’s stars foretold the delightful day ahead as a piercingly blue sky provides a beautiful backdrop. We cruise past the Pointe au Baril lighthouse, the boater’s beacon that replaced the lantern in the wooden barrel that originally guided mariner’s to safety and gave the area its name. The water access only lighthouse is open 9am to 5pm – Thursday through Monday from mid June to Labour Day for tours which are offered for a donation – and don’t miss the butter tarts.
Massive waves are still stirring the witch’s cauldron that is Hangdog Reef, a real dog’s breakfast of marks. I don my polarized sunglasses when I want to appreciate the full extent of the shoals. Yikes! There are not enough menacing metaphors to describe this area, so suffice it to say, be sure you know where you are when you cut inside here. 
Georgian Bay - Classic Car nightSoon we slip between the barren rocks worn smooth by wind and water to revel in a relaxing respite from the sloppy seas still brewing from the three day blow. As if a magician’s wand has released us, the sudden calm after incessant bobbing is a relief and we spy a boat tucked away in the rocks, the occupants island hopping as they walk and wade through the shallow waters to see how far they can get. Few cottages dot the shoreline as these islands seem to be reserved for hardier souls and those who like their solitude. There is little else moving on the water this August day and we gleefully gunkhole for the perfect anchorage and go for a swim.
We share the tiny bay with a family of mergansers who cruise quickly past, the adult’s brown crests flicking as they turn back and forth, keeping an eye on their ducklings straggling behind. While travelling the small craft route throughout Georgian Bay, bird watchers should keep their eyes on the osprey platforms or watch for evidence of woodpeckers at work. We often spot eagles, hawks, herons, and of course no day is complete without the lonesome loon call eerily echoing across the water.
We head back out, the sky blazing like a toddler on a tear with a blue crayon. Looking offshore one is easily reminded why this is considered an inland sea with nothing to interrupt the unending horizon. The waves are still strong and regrettably we must head back inside to calmer waters for the night.
We vow to return next season to more fully explore this area and unravel the route northwards.
In a funny twist of fate, a few weeks later we learn friends have taken the plunge and purchased a cottage close to Bayfield Inlet so this is one exploration likely to become a reality.
Georgian Bay - Champlain's CrossPhoto Captions 
Photo 1 – Stop in for a tour of the historic Pointe au Baril Lighthouse. Tours are available for a donation – and if you time it right there are butter tarts!
Photo 2 – Twisted trees bent to the powerful prevailing winds are like an elementary geography lesson.
Photo 3 – Careful navigation can reveal small secluded anchorages with room for one boat and perfect for shoal hopping.
Photo 4 – The lighthouse replaced the original barrel that helped guide mariners through the turbulent waters and gave the area its moniker.
Photo 5 – Wild winds drove us to port in Parry Sound where diversions such as the farmers’ market, used book store and Tuesday night classic car night kept our mind off the weather.
Georgian Bay - Ojibway ClubPhoto 6 & 7 – Pieces of the past: while cruising keep your eye out for images like Champlain’s cross, marking the early explorer’s route and the historic Ojibway Club originally built as a hotel in 1906 but now serving as the social and community centre for area cottagers. 

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