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St. Mary’s River and Lake Huron

When I left off with the last report, for the eastern portion of Lake Superior, I was camped on a sandy beach near the Sault Ste. Marie Ontario airport. A thunder and lightning storm put on a lightshow overhead, accentuated by the fireworks from Sault Ste. Marie Michigan just across the lake. Fortunately the weather was much better in the morning when I got up to break camp and head for the Lochs at Sault Ste. Marie.

Entering into the Locks just ahead of me was a large tour boat full of tourists checking out the local waterways and the Canadian and American Locks in particular. The American side has the much larger lochs, those are the one used by the freighters and large ocean going ships. The Canadian lochs however are much smaller and are now dedicated mainly to servicing the recreational boats, one of which of course today was yours truly! I followed the tour boat in and watched the big steel gates swing closed behind me. Soon, as the water was released through the other end, the water level dropped something like 28 feet in a matter of minutes. I looked up as the concrete walls got higher and higher above me as the canoe was lowered down to the level of the St. Mary’s river on the other side of the heavy steel doors just ahead. Moments later, as the gates were swung wide, I was paddling off again, leaving Lake Superior behind me and paddling onto the St. Mary’s River which will take me through to the North Channel of Lake Huron and then Georgian Bay over the next several days.

There was some fairly fast current at first but nothing of any concern, certainly no sign of the rapids that once existed here before the construction of the lochs and the dam. Over the next several hours I saw far more boats on the water than I had seen during the entire trip thus far. Everything from ocean going freighters to sailboats of all sizes and descriptions, a handful of canoes, countless (far too many) powerboats and the dreaded and annoying “Seadoos” or “jetskis”, likely the most annoying type of watercraft ever invented in my opinion. Do the abundance of homes and cottages all along the river, my “camp” tonight ended up being in the backyard of Bonnie and Joe Roski, a couple whose door I knocked on about an hour after dark, asking them, after explaining my circumstances, if they would mind me setting up my tent on their backyard. They quickly welcomed me and even had me come up for a late supper after setting up my camp for the night. Tasty tomato sandwiches, fresh fruits and pastries and a glass of red wine later, I walked back to my tent and slept well through the night under a star filled sky. Today’s paddle was roughly 50 to 55 kilometres.

Eager to go again the next day, I finished off the rest of the St. Mary’s River and made my way onto the more open waters of Lake Huron’s North Channel. Here too there were cottages and homes everywhere you looked. Most of the nicer islands had at least one home on it, usually more. Some of these islands were barely big enough for more than one or two campsites to begin with, it is a shame that so much of this beautiful area is now so over-developed. It is still a beautiful and scenic place to paddle, I’m certainly not knocking it. I can just imagine how beautiful it must have been just a couple of decades ago though, before most of these homes and cottages were built. I had to fight strong headwinds all day today and therefore only paddled about 30 kilometres or so before pulling out on a rocky little island, pitching my tent on the smooth granite rock along the one flat level section on the tiny island.

Tuesday, the 14th of September I wanted to be sure to be off the water nice and early, around 5PM or so. Tonight was the gold medal championship game between Canada and Finland in the World Cup of Hockey, a game I wanted to listen to live on CBC radio in the evening. I paddled about 35 kilometres today before setting up camp on one of many small rocky islands. There are still lots of houses and cottages along this section but at least they are now beginning to thin out somewhat and the campsites are becoming more readily available. It was a beautiful sunny day and turned into a great evening, the stars gradually filling the sky as darkness took over later in the evening. A slight breeze was just enough to keep the mosquitoes away as I sat outside my tent with my tiny radio right beside me, the even tinier antenna propped at just the right angle to bring in the signal from the radio station. It was a very exciting game and was decided by one goal with Canada coming out on top to win the gold with a hard fought 3-2 victory over the Finnish team. I remember thinking that I hope my brother Earl in Moncton NB was watching the game. Today was his birthday and I’M sure he’d have enjoyed the game.

The next day was cut somewhat short by high winds and a small craft advisory, bringing me off the water earlier than I’d wanted. The day after that was all but a write-off with even stronger winds and some crazy water on the lake. By just before supper time however it had calmed down enough for a short night paddle, netting me another 20 kilometres or so before setting up camp on yet another small island, just before dark. I wasted no time tonight setting up camp and heading into the tent, it was cold! Certainly feels like summer is a thing of the past right now!

On Friday, despite a mid afternoon break of nearly 3 hours, relaxing on a island of pure granite rock, I paddled another 45 kilometres in mainly calm conditions before pitching the tent on yet another island an hour and a half before dark. The days are getting noticeably shorter these days, another sure sign that the seasons are changing. Hard to believe that I’ve been paddling now since the middle of spring, all through the summer and that the fall is now upon me, still with a long ways yet to paddle. This has been one incredible paddling season for me, something I’ll never forget. It has given me memories enough already to last a lifetime it seems.

A series of crossings, island to island awaited me the next day. Dead calm conditions and barely a gust of wind on the water made for somewhat monotonous paddling. Pushing on under bright, clear skies though, the crossings were knocked off one by one, the kilometres adding up as I paddled. Before long I reached Manitoulin Island and the town of Little Current where I went in for a few supplies. Back on the water afterwards, I paddled through a narrows, under a swing bridge and made my way for Strawberry Island and the lighthouse on the tip where I made camp for the night. A short time later I watched a beautiful sunset from beside the lighthouse, the sun setting over the western horizon at the same time that a huge cruise ship was passing by, just off the point. I had passed this luxury cruise ship earlier as it was anchored just outside of Little Current. I stayed up late tonight, observing the star filled sky and contemplating the trip so far and the portion still awaiting me. Today’s outing netted another 54 kilometres of easy lake paddling.

On Saturday, I spent a little extra time relaxing in camp this morning before packing up and heading off. I was only going to be paddling for about 30 kilometres today so there was no great rush to get going. The plan was to paddle into the town of Killarney and stoop for the night there, do laundry, get online and check emails and maybe have a hot meal that I did not cook MYSELF!

The paddle in to Killarney went by quickly enough and I set up camp at the Marina/ campsite at the waters edge. Doing laundry and having a hot shower was a definite treat. Supper tonight was a juicy burger and a plate heaped with french fries, washed down with a couple of cold beer at the pub just down the street. The following day I was able to get some internet time and finally retrieve my emails and let a few people know how the trip is progressing. One thing I’ll mention about Killarney….everything is expensive here it seems! A trip to the grocery store certainly opened my eyes to this fact, prices here on some items must have been double what they were in nearby Little Current. Killarney is nice and I’d stop there again for sure but I’d do all my purchasing of supplies in Little Current next time.

Once I was finally finished running errands and doing emails and phone calls it was 3:30 PM by the time I was finally back on the water. This made for a short paddle again today and I was setting up camp less than 3 hours later on a particularly nice island where I’d camped four years ago while on a sea kayaking trip here with my Dad. It felt great to be back here again, it is a place I’m sure I will camp at again anytime I am ever paddling in this area.

The following day, Tuesday, I was back on the water somewhat earlier, heading off for my last day on Lake Huron/ Georgian Bay. Along the way on today’s paddle was a large group of islands called “The Chickens”, literally hundreds upon hundreds of small islands with channels leading in amongst them. It can be like paddling through a maze in here. It is a place worth checking out if you are ever in the area. Campsites here are far too numerous to mention. Not far from The Chickens was Pointe Grondine and the roughest water of the day. Waves of about 4 to 5 feet, many breaking over shallows and shoals. Just past here you come to the many mouths of the French River, an area that is also like paddling through a maze of tiny islands. By half past 3 in the afternoon I was leaving Lake Huron behind as I began making my way up the Voyageur Channel, one of the mouths of the French River.

This is where I will leave off for this report. The next report will focus solely on the French River which, although relatively short and being an UPRIVER paddle for me, was to become one of my favourite river paddles of the entire trip all year!

Cheers…Joe O’Blenis