Voyageur Loop

Voyageur Loop
– or –
You’ve Got Mice, That’s Your Problem

August 11 to 19, 2011

Charts:  Canadian Hydrographic Service Chart 2204 – Byng Inlet to Killarney
Topographic Maps:  041H14 Collins Inlet, 041H15 Key Harbour
Maps:  French River Provincial Park Map

1.  Key River to the Bustard Islands.
2.  Bustard Islands to the Voyageur Channel.
3.  Voyageur Channel to the Bad River Channel.
4.  Bad River Channel to the Outer Fox Islands.
5.  Outer Fox Islands to the Churchill Islands via Fox Bay.
6.  Churchill Islands to Key River.

There’s a certain flow that happens while touring in Georgian Bay.  You can make all the plans and schedules that you want, but the Bay has a way of changing them.  Weather, gear, and odd opportunities come up, and you have to learn how to roll with the punches.  What started out as one trip became, by necessity, a very different one.

The Key River is 300Km north of Toronto, it’s a long drive from almost anywhere.  Add an hour to unload the car and pack up the boat, and two hours to paddle from the marina to the Bay proper, and you have a full day before you even start.  So rather than push it and paddle into the first planned stop in the dark, I stayed overnight at Grundy Lake Provincial Park.  It’s conveniently close to the Key River, cheaper than any motel, and a perfectly reasonable way to ensure that you get on the water early the next day.  When you’re prepared to sleep on solid granite on some remote island somewhere, it’s almost shocking to set up camp on grass while people bicycle by, car doors slam, and children have meltdowns in the middle of the road.  Still, if you’re late getting out of town, Grundy Lake makes the perfect first overnighter.

Old highway 69 bridge, Key River, Georgian BayNew highway 69 bridge, Key River, Georgian BayOld pilings under new highway 69 bridge, Key River, Georgian Bay
Above, from left to right, the Highway 69 Key River bridge over the years:  the old bridge in 2009, the new bridge in 2011, and the remains of the original pilings during construction.

Parking at the Key Marine Resort is a very reasonable $6/day, plus a $3 kayak launching fee.  Located right on the highway, they’re as close as you can get to the northeast corner of the Bay before hitting the water.  It’s about 10Km down the river to the Bay, a very relaxing paddle past some spectacular cliffs, wetlands, and extremely large beaver lodges.  You can arrange a water taxi to the mouth of the river, but it’s only 10Km and a nice buffer between city life and Bay life.  The bridge over the river is finally being rebuilt, and should be complete by the end of the 2011 season.

Hunting For Meteors

The timing for this trip was very particular:  the 2011 Perseid meteor shower would peak on August 13.  But a full moon was going to make viewing difficult, so the early hours of August 11 and 12 were a safer bet.  The plan, such as it was, was a leisurely paddle from Key through the Outer Foxes to the Bustards — but I had already lost a day getting out of town late, and the Perseids weren’t going to wait.  So straight to the Bustard Islands it was, a long slog into a westerly headwind that was building confused sometimes-breaking waves all the way from Dokis Point to the Bustards proper.

The Perseids are one of those early-morning phenomenon, with the best viewing usually around the 4:00a.m. mark.  Proper photographic framing, focus, and setup for a shoot of the Bustard Islands light and ranges would require staying at the light overnight, an extremely exposed piece of rock with difficult approaches and slippery launches.  And a case of tendonitis was setting in, your basic tennis elbow, rendering my right arm difficult to use after the straight paddle from Key to the Bustards.  Things were becoming interesting.

Unloading the boat a brave mouse showed up, not the titular mouse of this trip report, but one that would efficiently burrow through two kimchee ramen packs before deciding that Korean spicing wasn’t quite to its liking.

Sunset on Bustard Island light and ranges panorama, Bustard Islands, Georgian BayPerseid meteors 2011, Bustard Islands, Georgian BayStar trails over lighthouse and ranges, Bustard Islands, Georgian BayCamping by the lighthouse, Bustard Islands, Georgian BaySunset on lighthouse and ranges, Bustard Islands, Georgian Bay

A night with the light, clockwise from top:  twilight descends on the Bustard Island light and ranges in a 180° panorama, sunset on the light and ranges, camping on the edge, moonrise light, and a complete lack of any visible meteors.

The skies were clear, the winds stayed calm, but in the end the full moon ruined any chance at meteor photography, despite the perfect setup.  One meteor was physically visible, but in three hours worth of exposure the camera recorded nothing.  Que sera sera.

Relaxing on the Bustards

The Bustard Islands are a beautiful, remote island group, tucked into the northeast corner of the Bay.  A few lonely cottages call these islands home, one with a spectacular view looking straight down The Gun Barrel.  If the weather is reasonable they’re easy to get to, but if the wind comes up they’re equally easy to be windbound on.  Dense fog can make navigation difficult, and even in summer the surrounding water can cause temperatures to fluctuate dramatically.  Plan ahead.

The tendonitis wasn’t going away, so after a night with the light I set up camp on the Bustards proper, and chose to give the arm three days rest.  With tendon problems, there’s nothing else you can do, and three days would still allow for a leisurely return trip through the Voyageur Channel.  Heading to Killarney and rounding Philip Edward Island was now out, but better safe than sorry.  It would be a long paddle home with only one arm.

Room with a View sunset panorama, Bustard Islands, Georgian Bay
Garter snake eating a toad, Key River, Georgian BayGarter snake portrait, Bustard Islands, Georgian BayLeopard Frog Portrait, Bustard Islands, Georgian BayUnderneath a Northern Water Snake, Bustard Islands, Georgian Bay

Landscape domination, above clockwise from top:  sunset over the Bustards, underneath a northern water snake, leopard frog, garter snake portrait, and a garter snake consuming a hapless toad whole.

 Below left to right: a merganzer and her ducklings, cormorant feather details, a rare smooth green snake, and sunset over Whale Rock. Click any image to view larger.
Merganzer and ducklings, Bustard Islands, Georgian BayCormorant feathers, Bustard Islands, Georgian BaySmooth Green Snake, Bustard Islands, Georgian BaySunset silhouettes, Bustard Islands, Georgian Bay

Frogs, toads, and snakes dominated the landscape (including a rare smooth green snake), their numbers completely eclipsing everything else.  Every single rock had a frog on it, their tiny cheeps followed by a jumping splash a constant reminder to watch were you walk.

Double Diamonds in the Voyageur Channel

Three days anywhere is a long time, and oddly the tendonitis wasn’t abating.  Some change in symptoms should have been evident, but everything stubbornly held fast.  So I decided to make a go of it anyway, and did an uncharacteristically slow paddle to the Voyageur Channel, taking it easy and stretching constantly. Threading behind Bottle Island, the landscape rises steadily towards Green Island, towering stone beginning to rise dramatically out of the water to 25 and 30 foot heights.  The views from the top are spectacular.

Deep granite channels, Green Island, Georgian BayThree painted turtles, Bottle Island, Georgian BayStone cairn, Bottle Island, Georgian BayEastern fox snake on lilypad, Green Island, Georgian Bay

Above, left to right: deep channels on Green Island, basking painted turtles, a stone cairn marking the entrance to the Bottle Island channel, and an endangered massasauga rattlesnake lounging on a lilypad.

There are a few campsites in Georgian Bay that aren’t just campsites, they’re campsites.  Spectacular views, sheltered tent pads, easy launches and bear hangs, great diving rocks, sometimes even a table or thunder box all combine to provide a stellar Georgian Bay experience.  You know when you’ve found one, and they’re often jealously guarded secrets.  The Voyageur Channel has one, and it’s well worth the effort to get there to spend a day or two.  The La Cloche mountain range, Manitoulin Island, and Grondine Rock bracket a stunning landscape combed into long linear channels by the retreating glaciers.  Classic Georgian Bay.

Touring Inland to the Bad River Channel

After days of paddling Georgian Bay’s exterior islands, it’s a nice changeup to head inland.  The French River system offers a myriad of opportunities, taking you far away from the constant sound of waves lapping (or crashing) against rock into the quiet interior.  The Voyageur Channel leads into the Cross Channel which exits out into the Bad River Channel.  Turtles (and more frogs, and yet more snakes) thrive in this more sheltered environment, and you’re more likely to encounter wading birds like cranes and herons.  There’s one portage now roughly halfway between Black Bay and the Devil Door Rapids that used to be passable, but no longer.

A lone mouse, also not the titular mouse of this trip report, showed up to inspect my gear but happily decided not to chew its way through anything.  A mouse burrowing through a rolled up tent can easily leave twenty one-inch holes running in a neat line.  That would make your next stormy night interesting.

Northern water snake and damselfly, Bad River Channel, Georgian Bay

Swimming twilight beaver, Bad River Channel, Georgian Bay

Sandhill Crane, Bad River Channel, Georgian Bay

Dragging kayak in low water, Bad River Channel, Georgian Bay


Junction life, top left to right: a damselfly hitching a ride on a northern water snake, a twilight beaver, one of five sandhill cranes, and slogging the kayak through the Cross Channel.
Bottom: Sandhill cranes call to each other in the twilight (302Kb MP3).

Bay water levels are low these days, and by August spring runoff is long over, so the entire area around the Junction is easy paddling.  What used to be fast rapids are now nothing more than a series of two-inch drops, something you can feel in a touring kayak but that are navigable both ways.  The Devil Door Rapids are devilish no more.

There’s a lot of boat traffic around the Bad River Channel, the cottages and lodges at the mouth of the channel attracting large numbers of fishermen.  A floatilla of five Zodiacs motor past in the current, and that awful sound of prop-on-rock floats up the channel. Someone’s damage deposit isn’t coming back.

Journey to the Outer Foxes

The Outer Foxes are one of those very secluded groups of Georgian Bay islands, there never seems to be anybody there.  Smooth sculpted granite dominates the landscape, the flowing shapes in stark contrast to some of the absolutely shattered portions of the western French River system.  Throughout the Fingerboards the Bustards are once again on the horizon, and the silence of the inner river systems gives way to the continuous sound of wind and waves.  The hum of the Georgian Bay Fishing Camp’s generator carries on the wind, and dark clouds overhead bring a promise of rain.  A good day to keep hot coffee on the foredeck.

Georgian Bay Fishing Camp, Outer Fox Islands, Georgian Bay

Sunrise boulder, Outer Fox Islands, Georgian Bay
Sneaky painted turtle, Cross Channel, Georgian Bay
Monarch Butterfly, Churchill Islands, Georgian Bay
Lightning cloud, Vixen Island, Georgian Bay
Above, clockwise from top: clouds loom over the red roofs of the Georgian Bay Fishing Camp, lightning clouds circa 2005 over Vixen Island, a Monarch butterfly, a pair of painted turtles,  and morning light on the Outer Fox Islands.

An offshore storm brewed up overnight, lightning illuminating the clouds like strobe lights in a disco.  I was happy to be in a sheltered campsite, but quietly wished for a westerly view to photograph the show.  Offshore lightning can be a magnificent experience of light and sound, provided it’s distant enough.

One last night in the Churchills

The waters west of Dead Island always seem to provide a lively paddle, swells building with the reasonable fetch to the Bustard Islands.  Under glorious blue skies I paddled the roller coaster to One Tree Island, a lone deciduous tree towering over the landscape against all odds.  One Tree is a great lunch stop, and it’s a short paddle over to the Churchills to my traditional final stop of any tour in the northeastern Bay.

Dokis First Nation Sign, Dead Island, Georgian Bay

Lone deciduous tree, One Tree Island, Georgian Bay

Room With A View Star Trails, Churchill Islands, Georgian Bay

Morning light on yellow flowers, Churchill Islands, Georgian BayAbove, left to right:  lovely sentiments on Dead Island from the Dokis First Nation, the famous tree of One Tree Island, star trails over camp on the Churchill Islands, and morning light on August blooms.

Watching the sun set over One Tree Island, I couldn’t help but reflect on how rich this particular tour was.  I never did make it all the way around Philip Edward Island, but after a full ten day Georgian Bay experience it seemed of little consequence.  The Churchill Islands are quiet, remote, one of my favourite places in the Bay.  I let the waves lapping almost at the base of the tent lull me to sleep.

Back to reality

Powering out of the Churchills, a gentle westerly helped me on the long paddle back up the Key River.  A mink watched me glide by, not willing to drop the fish in its mouth.  A cottage on the river has not only a float plane parked out front, but a helicopter as well.  Someone must have won the lottery.  The marina is empty when I finally tie up, a nicety since there’s only one dock in operation.  The place could use some basic maintenance.

Starting up the car the engine suddenly races, RPMs red lining when it should have been idling.  I pull the keys and the engine dies, the last thing I need is to end up in the river.  Starting her up again the engine stalls, a grand WTF moment.  She’s never given me any trouble like this before.  Third time’s the charm, but the engine is simply not running right.  Highway speeds are fine, but the idle has changed dramatically.

Back in town, I leave the car at the shop while I strip down all the gear and thoroughly clean everything.  The phone rings the next day, it’s my bemused mechanic.

“We fixed your car,” he says.

“You’ve got mice.  That’s your problem.”

A family of mice had set up shop in the engine’s air intake, chewing their way through the air filter and making a mess of the entire system.  Unable to breathe, the engine had been idling erratically.

You just never now what will happen out on Georgian Bay.

Docked kayak at marina, Key River, Georgian Bay

All photographs © Copyright Sean Tamblyn, all rights reserved.

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