Paddling the Gorgeous North Channel

By Leigh McAdam February 26, 2016

The North Channel offers some of the world’s best freshwater sailing and cruising in crystal clear waters. But it’s also a fabulous place for kayaking—and in some places, canoeing. Located at the northern end of Lake Huron between the mainland and Manitoulin Island, it’s over 120 kilometres long, running from the Georgian Bay in the east to St. Mary’s River in the west. Some of the best put-in spots are in Spanish, Blind River, Maple Point near Kagawong, and Whitefish Falls. Generally people stick with canoeing in areas closer to Killarney Provincial Park and kayak elsewhere—unless they’re very experienced in big water.

2825839765_1794b8b977_zDay trippers will love the kayaking out of Spanish and Whitefish Falls. Spanish in particular has lots of little islands that are perfect for poking about – and should the wind pick up, it’s easy to find shelter. The fishing is also excellent. Whitefish Falls is less sheltered but it’s a gorgeous area to explore from the water.  Near Kagawong, two beaches make great destinations; one is close and perfect to access for families while the other is six kilometres round-trip. Out of Gore Bay, you can paddle the bay and then head out into the bigger water, but you really need the wind to be cooperative. (Check reports before paddling.) I am told by a local kayaker that Dreamer’s Rock, a sacred place where Ojibway elders went to pray, seek inspiration and clear their heart, can be included on a day’s paddle near McGregor Bay.

If you have the time, a multi-day kayaking or canoe trip is definitely the way to go. Overnight trips allow you to witness the sunsets the area is famous for. There are several excellent overnight paddling options.

Starting in Spanish, you can cross the Whaleback Channel and then hopscotch your way east past windswept islands—some of which are no bigger than a dot on the map. The bedrock is pink granite, the scene, gnarly pines. The Benjamin Islands are the most popular place to stop according to Brian, the owner of Manitoulin Wind and Wave. He says they are “at their best—meaning you’re likely to have them to yourself—either early or late in the season once the sailboats have pulled up anchor.” But once there, you may not want to leave. They are that beautiful!

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Most of the islands are crown land so camping is free; and the swimming is excellent by the end of June. If you’re a strong paddler and you don’t mind open crossings complete with swell and waves—and provided you can arrange a shuttle—continue to Whitefish Falls. Pass scenic La Cloche Provincial Park as you make for the shelter of the islands on the route to Whitefish Falls. Allow three to four days to cover the 60 kilometres, allowing an extra day in case the wind blows up. Less popular than kayak trips in the Georgian Bay Basin, more remote and very rugged, the landscape and experience will speak to your soul.

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Another outstanding option starts in Whitefish Falls and continues to the village of Killarney. The trip begins in the protected waters of Iroquois Bay but it’s not long before you’re out into McGregor Bay—and its open waters. With the La Cloche Mountains and their blindingly white quartzite ridges as a backdrop, it’s a gorgeous area to paddle. Don’t miss exploring Baie Fine, a 15 kilometre fjord popular with sailboats. At the end of the fjord, you can hike up to popular Topaz Lake and go for a swim. To get to Killarney, the small but charming fishing village, pray to the weather gods, as there is some exposed paddling.

Pamela McLaughlin, the owner of Canadian Yacht Charters in Gore Bay shared some of her safety tips with me. She has this to say: “Always stay in sight of land as the seas can pick up very quickly, especially in the off season. Keep an eye on the weather forecast especially where thunderstorms and wind warnings are concerned. Thunderstorms are generally very short-lived. Most of all don’t take chances. Beware of just how far you have to paddle to safety.”

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You can rent kayaks in Killarney from Channel Marina. Canoes can be rented from Widgawa Lodge near Whitefish Falls.

If you’re looking for a Georgian Bay type of experience, but one that’s a little off the beaten track, you would do well to explore the North Channel!

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