Byng Inlet to the Limestone Islands and Back
June 17 to 26, 2011
Charts: Canadian Hydrographic Service Chart 2203 – Carling Rock to Byng Inlet
Topographic Maps: 041H15 Key Harbour, 041H10 Naiscoot River, 041H08 Parry Sound
Maps: The Adventure Map: Franklin, Minks, & McCoys
Intersecting Trip Reports: Inlet to Inlet: Bayfield to Byng
1. Little Britt to the Bourchier Islands.
2. Bourchier Islands to Pointe au Baril.
3. Pointe au Baril to Big McCoy Island.
4. Big McCoy Island to the Limestone Islands.
5. Big McCoy Island to Chicken Liver Channel.
6. Chicken Liver Channel to Prisque Bay, Norgate Inlet.
7. Norgate Inlet to Little Britt.
It’s been said that you can’t wish for good weather in Georgian Bay, all that you can hope for is calm weather. And after spending several days windbound on small islands in recent years, I’ll take calm any day. And so, for most of this trip, it was gray. And rainy. Calm, mind you, but most definitely wet.
Parking prices at Georgian Bay Cottages (their web site is currently offline while they’re up for sale), the de rigeur launching point for Byng Inlet area paddling trips, have gone up 100%, they’re now charging $10/day plus a per-kayak launching fee. Suddenly parking was going to be the most expensive part of a ten day trip, gone are the days of ‘cheap’ $5 park-and-paddles. The price was non-negotiable, so a quick jaunt down the road to Wright’s Marina secured parking for $8/day, with no launching fee, friendlier staff, and much better facilities.
Paddling out of Byng Inlet is always a pleasure, the river slowly unwinding towards the McNab Rocks and the open waters of the Bay. The sun was shining, the long range forecast reasonable, and the ranges and light of Gereaux Island were coming into view, those beautiful wooden beacons standing proudly against a clear blue sky. It should be said, though, that like a lot of these heritage structures, the Gereaux Island lighthouse is in obvious need of repair.
Above, left to right: the Byng Inlet rear range, the Gereaux Island lighthouse with missing siding on the north face, the fabled Bourchier Chevy, and fledgling cormorants huddle in their nest offshore from the Norgate Inlet.
The trip’s first destination was the Bourchier Islands, a lovely cluster of islands that help to enclose the Norgate Inlet. It’s a short enough paddle from the put-in at Little Britt, but after a long day of portaging (I live on an island, and have to get off of it first before I can go anywhere), packing, and driving, a short paddle is what’s called for.
A note here, about late-June kayaking: it’s fantastic. The extra couple hours of daylight around the summer solstice make long-distance touring so much simpler, I never seem to find myself running out of daylight looking for a camping spot. Contrast that with late-August touring, where the end of day often seems rushed. But take the good with the bad, it’s also pollination season for the pine trees, and the sky is absolutely full of fine pine pollen. It covers everything in a fine layer of pollen dust, making it near impossible to keep camera gear, especially digital camera sensors, truly clean. Those with allergies need not apply.
The entire Norgate Inlet area is lovely, quiet, with nary a soul to be found. However the increasing number of cottages in the area, indeed dotting the entire shoreline between Byng Inlet and Pointe au Baril, seems to portend an ominous future: natural camping land is becoming harder to find. But at this time of year nobody was around: the Bourchier Chevy still rusts quietly into the rocks, cormorants and gulls share uneasy truces as they nest together on offshore islands, the Duquesne lodge has been rebuilt, and boat traffic is at a minimum. A stark contrast to a tour last year through the Minks, where every single rock had a motorboat or kayak group parked on it in late August. But I digress.
Pointe au Baril, a Georgian Bay Icon
No tour along the east central coastline is complete without a visit to the lighthouse at Pointe au Baril, with its iconic barrel still sitting on a post on the rocks. Open on certain days to the public, the view from the top is fabulous, and the lighthouse keeper Emmaline Madigan keeps the place in pristine condition with gardens, flowers and, if you’re lucky, butter tarts. So I was very sad to paddle into the Pointe only to see the CLOSED sign on the lighthouse. The docks are out of the water, the gardens remain unplanted, the curtains are closed. A lone piece of clean laundry flutters on a line out back. UPDATE: As it turns out, the lighthouse simply wasn’t yet open for the season, apparently Emmaline’s only there during July and August.
Above, left to right: the lighthouse at Pointe au Baril sits closed to visitors, a clean tea towel waiting for Emmaline’s return, the lighthouse caught in sunset light, and solstice stars streak overhead in a multi-hour exposure.
The Pointe au Baril cottagers do an interesting thing at sunset: they all pile into their boats, and motor out past the lighthouse to watch the sun set over the open waters of the Bay. The sheer amount of traffic that happens just before and just after sunset is incredible, a continuous procession of boats motoring past like an impromptu parade. If you’re paddling, take care through the tighter channels: small boats drive fast, and large boats drive slow, often producing large reflecting wake.
The McCoys, Paddler’s Paradise
Heading south from Pointe au Baril, like so many parts of Georgian Bay, presents the paddler with a myriad of route options, from inside the protected Shawanaga Inlet to full-up offshore playtime. The skies were still blue and the winds still calm, so offshore it was. Offshore, smooth granite islands flow up out of the water, merganzers and Canada geese sun themselves on rocks, and there’s nothing to hear but the gentle lapping of waves and wind in distant pine trees. A gentle tailwind aided me down the coast, the silhouette of Big McCoy Island slowly rising above the horizon. There are an infinite number of shoals in the area, serious padding fun in the gentle swells of a beautiful day.
Approaching from the north, there are a number of small islands to explore in the McCoy Islands group, and you never know what you’ll find. As a photographer I can’t help but see Georgian Bay as a multi-layered experience, from the small (like the delicate lace pattern of newly-hatched dragonfly wings), to the medium (turtles, snakes, lighthouses), to the massive (360° landscape panoramas). Every island is a potential discovery, make sure you get out occasionally and explore these varied landscapes.
Above, from left to right: the rising full moon competes with the night sky over Big McCoy Island, an eastern fox snake basks in the long summer sunlight, oily-calm waters portend changing weather, and a delightful boulder moraine.
Big McCoy Island could be called the Ultimate Camping Island, with a myriad of excellent camping sites with lovely views in any direction you could hope for. I’ve watched people beetle in late at night, obviously heading for their favourite campsite, one couple in a tandem had brought their small fluffy dog with them in the front cockpit. This time I was alone, the entirety of the north end of the Minks and the McCoys completely empty. An evening hike around the island revealed a wild hare, lots of deer sign, an eastern fox snake, and like old friends some of my favourite trees in Georgian Bay. The McCoys, high, smooth, and flat, are a true pleasure. My back never feels as good as it does after sleeping a few nights on Big McCoy’s granite.
Offshore From Offshore, The Limestone Islands
Just visible from the Minks and the McCoys are the Limestone Islands, a provincial nature reserve roughly six kilometres of open water west of the nearest point of land. A day trip to the Limestones (camping is prohibited) should be judged very carefully, know your weather before you go. North and South Limestone Islands are an unusual feature of the 30,000 Islands, comprised almost entirely of limestone yet set in a completely granite wilderness, like a little bit of the Bruce Peninsula in the middle of the Canadian Shield. A tour around the outside of North Limestone Island is somewhat surreal, a landscape completely alien to the eastern shore of Georgian Bay. Gone are the smooth lines of glacier carved granite, replaced by angular limestone, like flat blocks in a giant’s building set. The eastern shoreline is a large gravel moraine, the western half of the island is flat, dominated by a ring-billed gull colony and, surprisingly, a few deciduous trees. How they survive the unbroken winter storms is anybody’s guess.
North Limestone Island clockwise from top: 180° panorama approaching from the south, gravel moraine beach, flat limestone surface, submerged limestone blocks, ring-billed gull chick, and the ring-billed gull colony.
40 Days and 40 Nights to the Chicken Liver Channel
And then, on the fifth day, it rained. And rained. And rained. And kept raining. Sometimes it would let up, but then it would just rain some more. I wouldn’t see sun again for four days. It doesn’t matter how good your gear is, everything eventually gets wet. It works its way in, insidiously, surfaces slowly dampening every time you enter or exit your tent, every bag you open up however briefly slowly absorbing moisture. When you’re rain- or wind-bound, a large island is the place to be: at least you can put on the raingear and go walkabout. The rain kaiboshed a planned run down the Minks to photograph the light at Red Rock, so I just stayed put for a couple of days. I had a good book, some hot tea, and just relaxed. There’s a delightful moss garden on Chippewa Island, some of the moss is as large as a couch, deeper than anywhere else in the Bay. Landscaping is being done on an island directly south of Big McCoy Island, possibly for a future cottage. Enjoy the unspoiled view while you can. Hunting for the wild hare was fruitless, during inclement weather all of the mammals and reptiles were hiding: not a snake, turtle, deer, or mink to be seen. I wasn’t alone in holing up for a while.
Eventually the rain let up enough to pack up camp. It was a cool, wet, gray paddle through the Shawanaga Islands, a perfect day for exploring the inland waterways on the return leg of the tour. The wreck of the Metamora still lurks beneath the waters of Pointe au Baril, her white-painted boiler all that remains above the waterline. The monument still stands on Champlain Island, and the Ojibway Club still rises proudly above the landscape. The entire area is steeped in history, more developed than the French River area but with more modest structures than Sans Souci. Pointe au Baril is a true Ontario gem.
Paddling out past the lighthouse once again, I aimed north, threading the countless islands of Bayfield Inlet and heading out the Alexander Passage. Up to this point I had been alone, not another paddle to be seen in the water. The Chicken Liver Channel area of the Naiscoot River Delta, however, was another story. At least six groups were either camped there or moved through the area, canoe after canoe gliding past at one point, seeming like an aquatic traffic jam. It was busy, and with good reason: it’s completely wild compared to some of the heavily cottaged surrounding landscape, there’s easy river access with good campsites, and wildlife abounds. Beavers, muskrats, raccoons, ruffed grouse, and sandhill cranes populate the area. A dense fog moved through, always a good navigational challenge. Put the compass away, paddle blindly, and see if you can keep your bearings. It’s harder than it looks. Beavers swam by silently in the dense gray, and the Naiscoot River arch, still standing after all these years, cut a recognizable outline in the impenetrable gloom. Bedraggled raccoons, soaked through and through from the rain, foraged on the shoreline. The Chicken Liver area is dense with life.
Sunshine Over The Norgate Inlet, and The Encounter
The second-to-last day dawned, for once, without the patter of rain on the tent, and the sun actually came out. With everything laid out carefully and turned over every twenty minutes, a couple of hours saw everything dry once more. Everything packs up nicer when it’s dry, and it all weighs substantially less. Leaving the Chicken Liver area via the Naiscoot River, scaring up a ruffed grouse and her brood, I navigated the Head Islands to spend one last night in Prisque Bay in the Norgate Inlet.
There must be some law that defines why the final day of any given tour is often so spectacular. Whatever that law is, it was in fine form for this trip. The final sunset was spectacular, and the solitude of the Norgate Inlet was welcome after the Chicken Liver Channel. But, food and fuel almost exhausted, there’s no staying longer, our existence in a relative desert environment like Georgian Bay merely a projection of how much civilization we can bring with us — and in a kayak, everything is limited. So, the sun shining high in the sky, I slowly wended my way home.
There’s another law that states that, for every week spent in the wildnerness, one has to have an Encounter. Defining an Encounter is a personal thing, but you’ll know one when you see it. As a photographer, mine are often weather, landscape, or wildlife related. Kayaking with this eastern fox snake was a previous Encounter, as was being woken up by mama bear (with her two cubs) sticking her face in my tent early one morning. This trip, with overcast skies and plain rain weather, had lacked any Encounter, and I was sad for it. Could the law have proven to be false? Then, rounding a small island, something moved. It didn’t conform to anything I was used to: too light for a bear, not round enough for a raccoon, too big to be a squirrel, too furry to be a bird. Drifting closer, my new friend came into focus: a groundhog, a burrowing animal, somehow living offshore in the solid rock of the Byng Inlet. Wonders will never cease. Unperturbed, it kept feeding on the low grasses on the island, posing for closeup portraits, oblivious to the kayaking interloper and strange camera sounds. Few wild mammals will let you get that close. A wonderful way to wrap up what had seemed to be a visually ho-hum tour. Then something squawked.
The groundhog turned around, to watch a sandhill crane mother land next to her two offspring. Red heads flaming in the sunlight, their gutteral squawks spooked the groundhog and it hid under a rock. Abandoning the boat — no time to beach nicely — I followed the cranes around a group of trees. Like the groundhog, they seemed unperturbed by my presence. They kept their distance, but didn’t promptly fly away like a heron or an egret. I spent another glorious twenty minutes watching these cranes forage around the island, unlikely looking birds in a landscape where so many things have evolved to simply blend in.
Every tour tells its own story, and every part of Georgian Bay houses mysteries just waiting to be discovered if you’re patient enough. The groundhog and sandhill cranes blew away any memory of gray days and rain, in the space of a few minutes transforming the entire trip into a series of widely spaced beautiful moments. Paddling past Clark Island a Coast Guard zodiac came into view, waving to me as I pulled out the camera. Heading for Gereaux Island, it looked like a fresh crew just beginning their Georgian Bay adventure.
I wonder what stories they’ll have to tell?
All photographs © Copyright Sean Tamblyn, all rights reserved.