I grew up on Long Island and have spent a good part of my lifetime cruising the Atlantic Coast. I thought I had seen a lot of rough water-heck, I even went down in a ferocious Gulf Stream storm while attempting to sail to Bermuda and had to be rescued by a supertanker.
So when I reached Lake Huron during our family's one-year Great Loop cruise aboard my trusted Thomas Point 43, Sawdust, I was looking forward to my first season of cruising the Great Lakes, where I could relax and enjoy the natural surroundings. After all, lake waters are as smooth as a mirror, right?
I soon learned two things about the Great Lakes. First, they offer some of the most pristine waterways and spectacular scenery I have ever experienced. Second, these waters can create absolute havoc, quickly.
Working our way west from New York and the Canadian inland waterways, we entered Georgian Bay, a 200- by 50-mile body of water that is part of Lake Huron. Leaving the protection of the Trent-Severn Waterway, one immediately switches to a heightened level of awareness because of the forbidding navigational hazards. The route to open water, as you exit Port Severn, is through narrow Potato Island Channel-undoubtedly named for the hundreds of large, potato-shaped rocks at or just below the surface. While Canadian strip charts are accurate, there is no room for error. And if you hit bottom in this part of the world, it's going be hard.
Georgian Bay is known for its 30,000 islands and hundreds of scenic anchorages along the 175-mile route between Port Severn and the village of Killarney. Like most cruisers, we anchored out, exploring uninhabited islands by day and enjoying star-filled skies and a warm fire by night. While much of this route is protected, there are areas that require sticking your nose out into open water. You need to keep an eye on the weather and make sure you've charted a safe course for entering your next anchorage.
Continuing west, we left Georgian Bay to explore the North Channel, which separates the 1,000-square-mile Manitoulin Island from the shores of northern Ontario. Here we anchored off the Benjamin Islands, known for their pink-granite slopes and crystal-clear waters. Realizing we forgot our drinking water during a kayak excursion, we simply scooped some into our hands for a refreshing drink.
After two weeks in the wild, we arrived at Little Current on the northeast corner of Manitoulin Island. Complete with full service marinas, good restaurants (try the tasty whitefish specials), grocery stores, and an old-fashioned department store, this village is an excellent place to replenish supplies and catch up on boat maintenance.
Boating season this far north is short-lived, and by the looks of the permanently bent pine trees, winter weather here is not for the timid. We pressed on against a rapidly approaching series of cold fronts, reentering the U.S. at Drummond Island. It was only late August, and already many boats were stored on the hard.
Our next destination was Mackinac (pronounced Mack-in-aw) Island, located in the eastern part of the infamous Straits of Mackinac, separating Lake Huron from Lake Michigan. Learning there are over 80 major shipwrecks reported in this four-mile-wide passage, we kept a watchful eye on the weather and paid even closer attention to our charts.
Mackinac Island draws thousands of tourists every summer to its charming, historic waterfront, beautiful beaches, and biking trails. Best of all, no cars are allowed, so you can safely enjoy a quiet walk, bike ride, or one of the many horse-drawn carriages. Go back in time to a more elegant era by visiting the Grand Hotel, which boasts the world's longest veranda and the best (and perhaps most expensive) breakfast in Michigan. For a transient slip, you'll need to make a reservation at the Mackinac Island State Harbor.