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by Mark German - Ottawa, Ontario - Canada

North Channel Summer Solstice Trip - 2016

The wind continued to build and I could swear the three foot waves were growing. It was hard not to feel quite alone and just a wee bit vulnerable as the icy cold waters of the North Channel surged below Phoobar's 11 foot hull. Looking down the fetch I realized I couldn't see any land, just Lake Huron stretching off to the horizon. Hmmm, I thought, that's quite the fetch, maybe those waves are going to get really big really soon!

Wetsuit and PFD on - Ready to circumnavigate Eagle Island!

I hoisted my butt onto the windward gunwale and considered the old wisdom that if you're thinking about reefing it's probably too late. I'd just passed the only beach where I could have put ashore and done it, but it was a windward shore and getting off would have been risky. I could try reefing without going ashore, but that too would consume time and I'd likely get blown ashore before I was done. Eagle Island's south shoreline was a mess of boat crunching rocks with raised cobble beaches 40 feet high.... Not what you'd call boat-friendly! One part of my mind went uuugghhhhh, not good, gotta be careful! The other part was thrilled! I love this! This is a friggin blast!

Continued contemplation led me to press on close-hauled sans reef, get around an imminent headland and onto a close reach along Eagle's west shore. Progress to windward was slow, but it was steady. I just had to keep it up - short tacks to minimize swimming distance to Eagle, but long enough to make progress. If I was really careful I'd keep the boat upright. I recalled a T-shirt picked up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado a few years back with the words: "Determination: the feeling you have right before you do something incredibly stupid!" showing a raft full of peeps going over the lip of a waterfall. Haha, yeah, I thought, that could be me!

It's interesting to look back and reflect on the internal dialog when you push your limits and the performance envelope's edge draws near. The argument about going for it, for taking the risk, versus the argument for backing off and being safe. This wasn't new territory ... I've had this conversation with myself over the years. It's one of the reasons I'm out here. It was a chance to learn more about Phoobar and myself. The whole sailing thing, however, was something new. After a lifetime of land-based fun backpacking, rock climbing and mountain biking I was starting a water-centric phase of my life in which I'd decided dinghy cruising would figure prominently. I upgraded and re-worked Phoobar, my Shellback dinghy, to prep her for multi-day/week cruises: adding flotation, tuning the rig, replacing knots with splices, installing tie-downs, getting a serious bailing bucket, creating a survival grab-bag, making a foot rest for rowing and rigging retention lines for the oars. I joined the Can-Am Dinghy Cruising Association , a YAHOO! Group, and met a few keen members for an early season sail on Colpoy's Bay.

When Brian's e-mail invitation for a mid-June North Channel trip arrived, it was hard not to get enthusiastic. I'd heard so much about Georgian Bay and here was this invitation saying that anyone was welcome, that we shouldn't worry about lacking experience, that this was a trip where you could get some. I didn't have to think twice about signing up.

Fast forward to Saturday morning, June 18th. I'm at the Spanish Municipal Marina unloading my car and trying to determine exactly how and where I'm going to store all that gear. Shellbacks aren't big, but having been designed as a 3-person yacht tender their capacity is surprisingly good. I was adamant that everything in the boat had to be tied down, had to be strapped in place to survive a knockdown without leaving a debris field. It took about 4 hours to get it sorted, just as the others began to arrive.

Hunky Dory and Clare at the ramp.

First was Brian (the trip's organizer) and his wife Clare and their dog Mel and their huge, 100% genuine, Canada Grade A, made in Lunenburg dory named Hunky Dory, a. k. a The Mother Ship. Roy and Dianne appeared a little later with their gorgeous hand-made wooden houseboat, named Dianne's Rose, later to be nicknamed "The Bread Box". Then came David and Kate with their CL16; it quickly proved to be the fastest
(unpowered) boat of the group. Shortly after we met Rick, Larissa and Shuaib, the three of them sharing a 20' stealth canoe. I say stealth because you start off leading it, then it disappears and you wonder, what happened to the darn thing? Then you look ahead and there it is, way out in front!!

So there we were, 10 people, 5 diverse watercraft, heading out for 7 days of cruising fun. The weatherman was forecasting good times with decent doses of wind and sun. Temps were forecast to drop Monday as a cold front moved through, then a long period of increasingly warmer days. And the icing on the cake: long, long mid-summer days, where twilight lasts forever at the height of the summer solstice! Leaving the marina we split up, heading for Shanly Island, our tentative camping spot that evening. The dory and canoe went east of Green Island to shelter from the wind. The two sailboats tacked up the west side, the Shellback quickly being overtaken by the CL16. As for the houseboat, it left us all in the dust as it scooted out of sight. I sprawled across the bottom, my feet over the gunwale, checked the sail's set and watched bald eagles flapping along the shoreline. It was sunny, it was hot, the scenery was rocky and wild, it was perfect. What better way to spend a summer day in Canada, eh?

As it turned out, this was our directional theme for the trip... Boats wandering off in various directions, sometimes alone or in small groups according to their whim, exploring the numerous islands, bays and coves, yet generally heading towards a common spot at day's end. Roy and Dianne in the houseboat monitored our progress and kept us all informed about each others whereabouts and destination, exploring far and wide while looking for the best campsites. Nothing like a 9 hp outboard to make that possible! This was my first trip where everyone was self-sufficient and knowledgeable about what they were doing. It was a wonderful gathering of mature people with relevant experience, properly equipped with the desire to enjoy themselves while hanging out with like-minded people. We all did our own thing, yet thoroughly enjoyed the time spent together. Very Nice!

Rick and his stealth canoe on Aird Island.

Shanly Island was occupied so Aird Island's east end became our new destination, next to Cameron Bight, close by the Little Detroit channel. In no time we had the boats pulled up, our 4 tents pitched and Dianne's Rose nestled into some shoreline bushes. Glacially grooved granite made for an undulating shoreline, while the oak forest provided a nice backdrop. A massive ring bolt set into the granite reminded us that a small town and sawmill once operated near here, tho little sign of it remained. And of course, it took no time at all before the horseflies, deerflies and skeeters showed up to make our Canadian summer camping trip complete! After dinner I joined Roy and Dianne in their houseboat to escape the bugs and enjoy some 8 year old rum, a celebration of our first evening together. What a cozy place to hang out and enjoy Roy's handiwork!

The mill on Aird Island, back in the day.

Sunday dawned clear and still with plenty of time for a morning dip. It was all very peaceful and enjoyable. We had our individual routines of coffee, food, washing, chatting, and packing, yet were ready to depart within minutes of each other.

A short row got us through Little Detroit channel, while the CL16 managed to sail in next to no wind. On entering the McBean Channel it failed completely and they soon fell far behind. I wondered whether they had oars or an outboard and how they would ever manage to catch up.

Rowing across still waters we admired the rugged rocky scenery and wildlife, mostly cormorants and gulls with an occasional merganser or loon popping up. We split up, the canoe and Phoobar heading south of Boyd and Crooks islands (on Eagle Island's western approach) and the others keeping north. The heat and exertion were getting to me so I put ashore, took a few icy-cold dips and stretched my legs. Suitably refreshed I rowed to Eagle where I rejoined the dory and CL16 (having fired up their outboard) for lunch, while Rick, Larissa and Shuaib took the canoe along Eagle's south shore.

Hunky Dory, underway the hard way with Clare, Mel and Brian.

A nice onshore breeze had developed and all three sailboats (dory, CL16 and shellback) ran down the McBean Channel to the far end of Eagle, then south for the gap between North and South Benjamin. Sailing through it was fun, dodging various rocks in a twisty channel and eventually putting ashore at a small beach on N. Benjamin's southern tip. The beach here was coated with yellow pine pollen to a depth of 1 inch, accumulated by wind and waves. It had the consistency of sludge and a not altogether pleasant musty/yeasty smell. I think it was starting to rot. All the white pines in the area must have been releasing their pollen simultaneously because it covered the surface of the water. On my drive up the Ottawa valley there was so much pollen blowing around it looked like clouds of smoke!

Pollen on the North Benjamin beach.

Our eventual campsite was gorgeous; a deep cove on the north end of S. Benjamin. Protected on 3 sides it had a broadly sweeping granite waterfront, splendid views to the north and a good breeze to keep the bugs down. As evening progressed David and Kate played host and treated us to their plentiful supply of red wine. A protracted sunset and lengthy dusk showcased the full moon, slowly ascending through the trees above my tent. It was a lovely sight as I slowly dozed off, content to be outdoors once again.

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