by Tom Pamperin
The east side of the Bustard Islands was all shoals and breakers, with a broad band of granite shelves and outcroppings stretching half a mile or more offshore. Typical for Georgian Bay, I knew, where the safest routes run well outside to avoid the rocks, or follow the well-buoyed passages of the charted small-craft route that traverses Georgian Bay’s eastern shoreline.
Here in the Thirty Thousand Islands region, only kayaks and canoes—or a sail-and-oar cruiser with her board and rudder up—can manage to sneak through to the shore in most places. And even boats like my as-yet-unnamed Don Kurylko–designed Alaska beach cruiser have to pick their way carefully. Passing through the northern end of the Bustard Islands on my approach from the west, I had seen a few cottages and sailed past half a dozen larger boats in the main anchorage between Tie Island and Strawberry Island. Out here on the east side of the Bustards I was completely on my own.
Holding a close reach well offshore, I eased the sheet until we were barely moving, fore-reaching along at half a knot. From a mile away it was almost impossible to identify any features of the low-lying islands behind the band of shoals, but I made my best guess at identifying an inlet that might mark the channel I wanted and took a bearing with my hand compass. Things would become clearer as I got closer, but I wanted to have at least some idea where I was headed before starting in.
On the chart, Tanvat Island is a spiderweb of long-fingered inlets and peninsulas reaching out to the north, south, and east; long ridges of pine and granite surrounded by hundreds of smaller islands that made it difficult to recognize the underlying shape. It looked like I should be able to skirt along the northern edge of the shoals and work close to shore in mostly open water. Worth a try, at least. I sheeted in to gather speed and pushed the tiller over to put the boat on a port tack, then steered toward the east side of Tanvat Island, watching the compass closely. I was trying for a course just south of west, but soon I was detouring around slabs of granite lying just beneath the surface and dodging half-submerged rocks almost completely hidden in the waves. After a few minutes, I gave up. “Mostly open water” or not, it would be foolish to try to sneak in any closer under sail. Turning into the wind, I dropped the sail and unclipped the halyard. It would be oars from here.
I pulled up the centerboard and rudder and slid the oars into the locks, then glanced again at the chart as we drifted slowly toward shore. I had managed to judge my entry well, despite my somewhat rough combination of eyeball navigation and compass bearings. At least, I thought I had judged well. But the chart might as well have been an inkblot test, a convoluted scrawling of rocks, islands, and narrow channels that twisted around each other like snakes crawling through a maze. When I put the tip of my finger down about where I thought I was, it covered more than a dozen islands. I wasn’t about to put any money on which one was which.
It didn’t really matter, anyway. I was almost through the reefs and safe along the east side of Tanvat Island—if I could manage to figure out which one it was. The narrow passage opening before me was lined with tall pines and granite slabs, and surrounded by a chaotic jumble of rocks, islands, hidden bays, and gnarled peninsulas. Was this the channel I had hoped to hit? I’d find out soon enough. Either way, I had reached the Bustards. It had taken me four days and a hundred miles, but finally, I was here. I moved to the aft thwart so I could row while facing forward—an advantage in avoiding the countless uncharted rocks and shoals I knew I’d encounter here—and made my way slowly deeper into the maze.
I had launched in the center of the North Channel, at the municipal marina in the small town of Spanish, Ontario, a ten-hour drive from home. Another four or five hours in the car would have gotten me to Georgian Bay two days sooner, but from my previous visits I knew Spanish had what I needed: a good ramp, showers, a laundromat, and, most important of all, hassle-free parking for a car and trailer for weeks at a time. Although I wanted as much time in Georgian Bay as I could get, that alone made Spanish a worthwhile trade-off.
I had covered 60 miles in the first two days, broad-reaching on the starboard tack for hours on end, bypassing towns and marinas and overnighting in out-of-the-way backwaters, places too shallow or too small to see much traffic. At East Rous Island, a few miles west of Little Current, I anchored in knee-deep water outside the crowded main anchorage and slept on the Alaska’s full-width sleeping platform; at Thebo Cove a mile outside Killarney, I tied to shore and set up a freestanding tent on a granite slab.
The third day had brought me 7 miles east of Killarney to the Fox Islands, a favorite destination from earlier trips. Here, finally, was Georgian Bay, wild and rocky and filled with possibilities: high granite domes rising from the water, broad smooth slabs of Canadian shield granite sweeping up to jagged skylines of tall pines, trees that have withstood the prevailing westerlies for so long that they remain forever bent and twisted toward the east as if reaching out in supplication to some unseen power. After a lunch ashore on West Fox, I set out again, ghosting along in winds so light that I could barely feel the breeze.
Well, so be it. I’ve learned to enjoy what the day gives you rather than worrying about what it does not. This would be no 30-mile day. Instead, I worked my way slowly northward toward a cluster of islands only a mile away. With the wind behind me, and rocks all around, I sailed carefully, centerboard up, through cliff-lined channels less than a boat-length wide, sneaking through passages barely deep enough for my boat’s 7″ draft. And there, in a tiny shoal-draft backwater tucked in between Anchor Island and Solomons Island, I tied the boat to shore and unloaded my gear. This would be camp for the night. An afternoon ashore, scrambling among the rocks and climbing to the island’s tall summit, a long swim in the pleasantly cool water, and a quiet night at camp. After two days in the boat, it was exactly what I needed.
But now, 30 miles farther on and ready to make my landfall in the Bustards, I needed to figure out where I was. With no GPS—I try to avoid machines that purport to do our thinking for us—that might not be easy. But I knew it was almost always possible, even in a complicated setting like this. Here. The channel I was following split into two branches, then split again. I looked closely at the chart, turned it to align with the compass. A cluster of rocky islands here, a lone rock there. This was it—I had managed to find the passage I had been looking for. All I had to do now was follow the channel’s right-hand shore—Tanvat Island, I was fairly sure—through every twist and turn, as if working my way through a labyrinth with one hand on the wall. I kept rowing. A few more rocks and islands that matched the chart precisely confirmed it. Amazingly enough, I knew exactly where I was.
Twenty minutes later, rowing along a long narrow bay that ran between two ridges of granite topped with dark pines, I found my campsite: a broad smooth slab of gray stone that swept up from the water to a stand of gnarled pines above. Behind the trees, the ridge dropped down again to a dark pond dotted with white-flowered lily pads. The water here, so deep inside the maze, was perfectly calm with only the slight wake from our passage rippling through the reflection of the rock and sky and trees. I shipped the oars 10 yards out and let the boat glide slowly into shore, then stepped out into knee-deep water and tied the painter to a beaver-chewed stump at the water’s edge.
It had been another long day—30 miles of non-stop sailing on a close reach, and a half-hour of rowing. There was plenty of daylight left, but I felt no need to go farther. Instead, I stood barefoot on the stone and felt the rough texture of the granite, the curling lichen underfoot. Breathing deeply, I listened to the world around me. It was not silence, not completely, but a quiet stillness that seemed to hang heavy in the air. A whisper of shifting branches overhead, the faint ripple of water. And somewhere, a moment later, the call of a loon. I unstrapped my dry bags from the boat and carried them to shore.
I woke the next morning to a world blurred by gray mist and shrouded in silence. The water was still and dark at the foot of the rocks, a liquid mirror unruffled by the faintest hint of motion. Far out at the eastern edge of the islands, fog lay so thick on Georgian Bay that there was no horizon, no up, no down. It was no day for offshore sailing, but it would be perfect for exploring the maze of backwaters, narrow passages, hidden coves, and islands that made up the east side of the Bustards.
Moving as quietly as I could, I got my raincoat and water bottle and set them in the boat, then untied from shore. I stepped aboard with a gentle push, easing myself onto on the rowing thwart as the boat slid away from shore. As I lowered the oars gently into the water, I realized that I hadn’t even bothered with breakfast.
The fog held through the morning, painting the world in a palette of muted grays and blacks all around me as I rowed. A hundred oar strokes, a hundred paintings. The foreground of each scene came into sharp focus as I moved through it, the background forever hazy and indistinct. A vague darkness of pines; an oddly serrated slab of rock revealed itself to be a line of gulls standing and muttering to themselves as I rowed closer. From overhead came the rattling cry of a sandhill crane.
My 18′ Alaska had been designed with exactly this in mind. With its Whitehall lines and narrow double-ended waterline, it was a decent sailer, but a flawless pulling boat. Built of 1/2″ planks, edge-nailed and glued—traditional strip planking—she was heavy enough to hold the momentum of each stroke. The oar blades dropped silently into the water, again and again, and glided through the maze with little effort and even less noise. At times the channel I was following pinched down to a passage so narrow there was no room to row, but the Alaska glided through easily, the hull’s weight preserving forward motion while the long keel kept her straight.
The layout of the maze become clearer in my head as I explored, my perceptions shifting to bring the chart and the world around me in line with each other. I had camped in the center of a long irregular peninsula that stuck out from the east side of Tanvat Island like a pair of weirdly twisted, frog-like legs. North of the peninsula was a large bay filled with so many islands that it was hard to recognize that it was, in fact, a large bay. By lunchtime I had explored it thoroughly under oars, making the discovery that the “peninsula” I had camped on was, in fact, an island—water levels were so high that a small circular inlet just west of camp had become a passage through to the other side. At least, a passage for boats with extreme shoal draft. Even the Alaska managed to scrape her keel as I slipped past.
I returned to camp for lunch, a meal of red beans and rice I had prepped in my Thermos the night before. After eating, I set out again, this time following the southern edge of the peninsula. The day was still hazy and windless, the water flat and dark. I followed the shoreline of the peninsula until I reached its base, where I rowed far back into a fish-hook bay filled with lily pads, the shores strewn with beaver-gnawed branches. I had rowed 2 miles to get here, but the hook of the bay was dug so deeply into the island that a ridge of granite a few yards wide was all that separated me from the north side where I had spent the morning exploring. I had rowed for several hours and was barely a quarter of a mile from my campsite.
The Bustards, I realized, were a world of infinite possibilities.
One of the great joys of traveling by one’s self, I’ve learned, is that much of the need to plan ahead is negated. The solo traveler—the solo sailor—is free to act on a whim, and can keep all options open. By the time I had eaten a quick bowl of oatmeal the next morning, I still had no idea how I would spend the day. I suppose that many people would find that level of uncertainty unsettling, or annoying. Perhaps even foolish. I find it liberating.
I loaded everything into the boat—tent and gear, food and sailing rig—to keep my options open. First I’d row out to the mouth of the bay, where I could get a look at conditions on Georgian Bay proper. If the wind was good to continue south and east along the coast, I’d be ready to sail. If not—
Well, if not, I’d find something else to do. Just to be on the safe side, I surveyed the crew about my plan’s lack of specificity. No one objected. Taking a last look around camp to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, I rowed slowly out the channel toward the open water beyond. After ten strokes, the granite slab where I had set up my tent had vanished into the mist.
As soon as I reached the edge of the bay, I knew that I wouldn’t be heading offshore. Fog had settled so thickly on the open waters of Georgian Bay that I doubted I’d be able to see the faintest hint of the Bustards from a hundred yards offshore. A chart and compass would suffice to get me to the next landfall, I knew—the ominously named Dead Island 3 miles to the east, where First Nations tribes had long ago interred their dead in the treetops, according to some sources I’d read—but it wouldn’t be the height of good judgment.
Besides, I was far from done here. On my only previous trip here, I had only stayed one night. This time I wanted more. But more what? I had already explored most of the eastern side of Tanvat Island, and retracing yesterday’s paths seemed less interesting than trying something new. I pulled out the chart. Tanvat Island, the largest in the Bustards, lay spread out across the page in two monstrous, squid-like lobes separated by a narrow isthmus where a deep bay cut into the shore on the western side. The area around Burnt Island just to the west housed a number of cottages, and the Bustard Island Headquarters for French River Provincial Park. There’d be other boats, other people. Burnt Island was, in other words, better to avoid.
But Tanvat Island itself? Possibilities. Tracing my finger around its convoluted outline, I wondered about a circumnavigation. But Tanvat’s northern end was pinched so tightly together with Strawberry Island that their outlines on the chart were touching. And Tanvat’s southern end was an endless scattering of rocks and shoals. Then too, there was a wide band of blue—the color used to indicate depths too shallow to bother marking—surrounding the entire island. I knew from yesterday’s explorations that not even my Alaska could always float across that blue band, and at 250 lbs for the empty hull, I wasn’t going to portage her. With water levels as high as they were, I thought my chances were good, but there would be no guarantees.
Gripping the oars lightly, I turned the boat north along the east side of Tanvat Island to begin—a counterclockwise circumnavigation. Or an ignominious failure. Either way, it’d be a good day.
By late afternoon I had returned to the east side of Tanvat Island and pulled into the wide bay just south of my previous campsite, circumnavigation complete. I had seen no one. No one, that is, except for a few beavers, a pine marten (the first I’d ever seen in the wild), a northern water snake, a blue heron, a curious mink who swam out to the boat to stare wide-eyed at me for a moment before vanishing underwater, and an eastern massasauga rattlesnake that sidewinded its way across the surface of the water and crawled up onto the rocky dome where I had stopped for lunch.
In the center of the bay I made camp at a cluster of three islands—in my head I had taken to calling them the Three Brothers—and rigged lines to keep the boat in shallow water without banging against the rocks. After a long swim and another Thermos-cooked supper, followed by a second course of instant mashed potatoes, I set up my tent on the island’s eastern summit, a bare granite dome overlooking the bay from ten feet above.
The sun was setting behind me, and the sky filled slowly with pinks and blues and wisps of purple clouds. The reflection in the still waters below was no less vivid. A sandhill crane flew past, wide wings flapping silently. Its rattling call was answered by another from deep within the dark pines of Tanvat Island. And then, silence.
I stood for a long time watching the sky grow slowly darker, until the first stars began to appear overhead. Tomorrow would be a fine sailing day and in the morning I’d be heading south along the shores of the Thirty Thousand Islands, sailing deeper into Georgian Bay. Being fogged in among the Bastards had seemed like an interruption at first, but the delay had forced upon me a mist-muted world where time and distance had become irrelevant, ambiguous, uncertain. For three days I had moved through a veiled, endless now, where each stroke of the oars only held me more firmly in place in the moment. Whatever lay beyond the mist remained out of reach no matter how far I rowed. When I woke the next morning to blue skies and bright sunlight, the Bustards felt like another world entirely, one made finite by its startling clarity.
Tom Pamperin is a freelance writer who lives in northwestern Wisconsin. He spends his summers cruising small boats throughout Wisconsin, the North Channel, and along the Texas coast. He is a frequent contributor to Small Boats Monthly and WoodenBoat.
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