I have always been fascinated by edges. Intersections. Boundaries. The transition point between what is and what that same thing is not.
Couple that with a passion for wild spaces untravelled by man and the the sheer elegance of the kayak as a means of locomotion, and I have discovered the perfect method for exploring one of the most beautiful geographic spaces on the planet. I'm referring to the 30,000 Islands of Georgian Bay, a vast body of sweet, fresh water some refer to as the sixth Great Lake.
Anywhere else, Georgian Bay would be considered a lake, not a bay. With 15,000 square kilometres, were it not surrounded by its much larger brothers and sisters, it would be considered a great lake. Still, while not as vast as its siamese sibling Lake Huron, it contains the majority of the lake's geographical riches, specifically its islands - 30,000 of them, to be more or less exact. These islands are the source of much of its power over the imagination. Imagine paddling along the windswept shores of hundreds upon hundreds of islets that resemble nothing so much as a Group of Seven painting - some, like the massive Manitoulin, large enough to encompass dozens of communities and a network of highways, but most ranging in size from barren rocks poking out of the choppy waves to moderate ecosystems big enough to host a small marina or a cluster of cottages.
Still, even those icons of cottage country - marinas, cottages, lighthouses - are few and far between in the majority of the 30,000 Islands of Georgian Bay, due to a happy accident of Canadian history and land claims. Almost all the land north of Parry Sound is comprised of First Nations reserve properties, which act as a major buffer between the main northbound traffic artery, Highway 69, and the coast. The comparative shortage of road access through the reserves means that the thousands of islands off the shore of the reserves have not been in much demand as cottage properties, and hence remain Crown land.
As Crown land, they are thus open for visitation and short-term camping by anyone enterprising enough to gain access to them - free of charge, and absent any of the onerous regulations imposed by federal parks - short of those the responsible zero-impact camper imposes on his or her self. This is, of course, where the sea kayak comes in.
The thousands of islands spread across this shattered coastline do more than provide a bewildering assortment of camping choices; they also provide the perfect sea kayaking habitat, breaking the often overpowering winds that stream in from the unbroken expanse of Georgian Bay across hundreds of miles of open water. On days when the winds are below Force 7, though, the paddler can boldly strike out beyond the fringes of the outer islands to cross the tempting stretches of blue, hopping from one gale-swept islet to another.
Beyond the inherent speed and efficiency of the sea kayak, it is also superior to the canoe in terms of managing the swells of a large body of open water such as Georgian Bay. Safe from swamping beneath a snug spray skirt, and armed with a few elementary strokes such as the bracing stroke, the sea kayaker is well-equipped to cope with sea-states up to and including those which would keep a 24-foot sailboat in its harbour. Having paddled these waters for more than 20 years, I have become convinced that a sea kayak is the most seaworthy craft in which to explore them, beyond a coast guard cutter. Even being broadsided by an errant wave sufficient to cause capsize is not catastrophic, assuming the ability to execute - if not an Eskimo roll - any one of several basic self-rescue techniques.
For those who value wildlife sightings, the sea kayak's silence as it cuts through the water is a blessing. Unawares to them, I have glided up to numerous northern species that call Georgian Bay home, including moose, loons and beaver. Dozens of other species have shared the water's edge with me as I whispered past, including mink, osprey, heron, the endangered Massassauga rattler, black bear, deer and even elk. Beneath the surface, despite the continuing menace of zebra mussels, sport fish abound. Northern pike, bass, walleye, muskie make Georgian Bay a fisherman's paradise, and on my more adventurous trips, I have retrieved and eaten crayfish and freshwater clams from the lake's silty bottom.
For history buffs, the bay is not short of human stories, either. A major trading route for millennia between the Algonquian and Hurons, it was first explored by Europeans when expeditions led by Samuel de Champlain mapped it in 1615 and 1616, and called it "La Mer douce", or The Calm Sea. A Royal Navy lieutenant renamed it "Georgian Bay" after King George IV in 1822.
In 1615, the Récollets, a French branch of the Catholic Franciscan order, began a mission to the Hurons of Georgian Bay. In 1634, Jesuit priests led by Father Jean de Brebeuf arrived to take over their ministrations, and by 1639 Georgian Bay had become a hub of Catholic missionary activity in the New World. Their missionary 'capital', Sainte-Marie-Among-the-Hurons, survives today as a major tourist attraction with an award-winning interactive museum and village recreation showcasing First Nations lifestyles and the early European presence in Canada.
There are many excellent paddling routes winding in and out of the islands of Georgian Bay, suitable for all skill levels and durations from a weekend to a two week stretch. The following are three of my favourites, all of which I can personally recommend.
Franklin Island Loop (2 to 3 days) (Beginner)
Just north of Parry Sound, Snug Harbour offers an excellent marina from which to launch a kayak trip. Parking is available for a small fee, and nearby Whitesquall Outfitters offers kayaks for rent starting at $25/day. A short paddle west of Snug Harbour brings you to Franklin Island, which at the time of writing was still designated as Crown land, despite boasting some semi-improved campsites complete with thunder-boxes, courtesy of Whitesquall's staff. Comparatively large (it's big enough to boast several small lakes) Franklin's size shelters the approach from the bay's breezes, and it's not until you round the southern point that you'll encounter some of the winds that Georgian Bay is known for. This is a great destination for novices since the entire eastern side of the island is protected from the wind, and on calmer days, even beginners can swoop around the south tip and explore the many indentations on the western side of the island. If the wind picks up suddenly, these many small bays offer dozens of convenient hidey holes into which to dash for shelter. You will also find the occasional sailboat anchored in these coves, seeking the same respite. The same numerous bays offer dozens of prospective campsites. The entire island could be circumnavigated in a day by an ambitious paddler, but it's more relaxing to make a leisurely two- or three-day circuit and take time to poke about in the maze of peninsulas and islands.
The Minks and McCoys (2 to 3 days) (Intermediate to Advanced)
This is also a fairly easy trip, lying just to the west of Franklin Island, but due to the stretch of open water that must be crossed to get to the Mink Island group (about a mile), it's given a more advanced degree of difficulty. Also, since the chances of being caught by a change in the weather when crossing from one cluster of islets to the next is more likely, a greater degree of paddling confidence is recommended. The chain of islands runs for about 10km, with the Minks in the south being mostly private, and thus unavailable for camping. The McCoys, the northern part of the chain, offers numerous outstanding, if wind-swept, sites where you can camp among scub trees and atop Canadian shield granite scoured into fantastic rounded troughs by the retreat of the Wisconsin glaciation 10,000 years ago. This is truly an experience in boundaries and transitions - a point at which the habitable coastline transforms into a hostile zone where life remarkably scratches out an existence in the most demanding of conditions. As with the Franklin Island loop, the distance from north to south in the Minks-McCoys chain can be covered in a day, but in order to truly experience what it has to offer, two or three days, minimum, is required.
Bayfield Inlet - French River Loop (One Week) (Advanced)
This may be the best trip in the 30,000 Islands. Launching out of Bayfield Inlet, you can either head straight for the open water, or opt to cut north and enter the Naiscoot River system. This latter option gives you exposure to an entirely different ecology, that of reed marshes, beaver dams and a haven for migratory game birds, as well as sheltering you from the worst of the offshore winds. After emerging from the Naiscoot through Charles Inlet onto the bay proper, you are faced with tens of miles of essentially deserted islands, since this far north island cottages are thin on the ground. Advanced kayaking skills are necessary as you round some of the exposed points, since a combination of persistent high winds and numerous jagged rocks in places such as the east side of Olwyn Island or during the crossing of Norgate Inlet somewhat treacherous. Still, the unbelievable number of fantastic camping sites, coupled with the exhilaration of managing such a complete escape from populated regions makes this a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and sheer Nirvana for experienced paddlers. At the north end of the route, and at the halfway point before swinging back on the return to trip to Bayfield Inlet, lies French River Provincial Park, which ensures freedom from cottage development as effectively as the First Nations reserves do. Those with more than a week to spare will want to spend some time here, and possibly even push on the the west to catch sight of the sparkling white quartzite La Cloche Mountains of Killarney, although the Killarney to French River leg can easily stand on its own as a full-week trip.
There, are, of course, dozens of others. From the sheer rock face of the Niagara Escarpment over on the western boundary of Georgian Bay to Manitoulin Island and McGregor Bay in the north and the more manicured experience to be found in the waters of Massassauga Provincial Park on the south-east of Georgian Bay, the whole area is kayak heaven. But the best way to find a route that best suits you is to see for yourself. I am betting you will make the transition, whether it's from car camping to backcountry, or from canoeing to sea-kayaking.
Transitions, edges, intersections and boundaries await.