The BenjaminIsland group
At the northern part of Lake Huron lies the North Channel, a heavenly body of water 70 miles long by 40 miles wide bounded and protected from the GreatLake’s fury by northern Ontario and ManitoulinIsland. Of all the out-of-the-way destinations we’ve been to — from up and down the East Coast to the Pacific Northwest, as well as our adventure down the rivers from Chicago to Mobile, Ala. — the North Channel ranks among the highest of our favorite places to cruise.
The Benjamin Island group — the four main attractions being Croker, Fox, and North and South Benjamin — stand out with their pink granite formations shaped like melted ice cream by millennia of
severe weather, their pines tellingly bent from icy winter winds. But this cold-weather no-man’s land magically morphs into a summer paradise for adventuresome cruisers from nearby Michigan and Ontario’s equally spectacular Georgian Bay.
Indeed, the months of July and early August can get overly crowded, and finding room in the more popular, protected anchorages can be a challenge. We timed our visit at the very end of August, and we were treated to near-empty anchorages: warm sunny days and crisp cool evenings.
To prepare for our remote island cruise we spent three delightful days in Little Current, a charming town less than 20 miles east of the Benjamins. Using conveniently located Boyle Marina as our base, we strolled the waterfront docks, enjoyed home-styled meals at the Anchor Bar & Grill, and traveled back in time shopping at Turners, a tiny department store that’s been in the same family since 1879.
We spent our first night in the “Benjies” anchored in the south corner of CrokerIsland. Navigation in these parts requires extra caution, good visibility and detailed, up-to-date charts. The consequences of making a mistake or taking a shortcut are severe, as evidenced by the number of boats waiting for new props and shafts in Little Current’s busy marinas.
Unforgiving rock ledges extend far out from the islands, and there are few navigation aids to guide you. We relied on our Simrad GPS plotter and radar to make sure we were exactly where we thought we were, and when nearing an island or entering a cove, we reduced our speed to idle and kept a sharp eye off our bow for signs of shallow water. Luckily, the clear water makes it easy to see the dangers below.
With the exception of one private home on South Benjamin, these are uninhabited islands so hiking and beachcombing are popular activities among cruisers. Best of all, the fresh, crystal-clear waters create what has to be the world’s largest, most natural swimming pool. In fact, the waters here are so clean and clear that we found ourselves scooping up handfuls to drink as we kayaked between North and South Benjamin.
Our favorite anchorage was on the north side of South Benjamin, just off a gently sloping rock face that rises 200 feet. We climbed the slope for a spectacular view all the way to mainland Ontario. During the day, these smooth rock surfaces provided spa-like benefits. The sun would warm them creating a body-sized heating pad, and when you got too hot, you simply took a refreshing dip.
One late afternoon, a beautiful square-rigged schooner joined us, tying its bow to land and dropping an aft anchor. Its crew consisted mainly of college students on a once-in-a-lifetime expedition sail. Later that evening we all went ashore to build bonfires and sing sea chanteys. Other boats in the anchorage joined in, and soon the cove was like an amphitheater filled with rum-inspired performances under the stars. Pinch me — this must be cruising heaven.
Circumnavigating SouthBenjaminIsland in our inflatable, we discovered a number of smaller, near- hidden anchorages, some of which were only big enough for one or two boats, and provided rarefied privacy and protection. Getting into some of these tight spots takes skill and courage, and finding the safe entrance is best done by dinghy using a lead line or hand-held depth sounder. Once inside these holes in the walls, you’ll need to tie lines to trees or boulders to prevent swinging into the steep shoreline. If you’re looking for peace and solitude and have time to stay more than a night, the effort is worth it.
But we saw what happens to those who abandon caution and common sense. Sitting in our cockpit one morning, enjoying our coffee, our conversation was abruptly interrupted by a terribly loud, sickening sound of metal against rock. We looked out in horror as we saw a 45- to 50-foot steel ketch, running under full power, hit and then ride up a rock ledge in the narrow channel separating North and South Benjamin islands. A woman on the bow was thrown forward into the pulpit as the boat stopped and then miraculously slid back down the ledge, accompanied by similarly horrible sounds. After running forward to check the condition of his mate, the captain returned to the helm and tried again, this time successfully and at a more cautious idle speed. As one of the workers at Boyle Marina told me days earlier, “Taking a shortcut up here is just not worth it.” When we left our anchorage the next day, I gladly went around South Benjamin before heading west.
We’ve heard stories and seen photos of overly crowded anchorages and wall-to-wall sunbathers on the Benjamins during the peak cruising season, but during our three-day stay in late August, we saw fewer than a dozen boats. But we also knew not to tempt Mother Nature, so we weighed anchor and headed southwest just before the first cold front blew through. Looking at those bent-over trees and knowing that temperatures can drop to 30 below, we knew our time in this cruising paradise was short, but oh, so sweet.
Little Harbour, Abaco, Bahamas
We heard about it. We read about it. And finally, we made it there on our own boat. Little Harbour, the southernmost anchorage on Great AbacoIsland, is 30 miles north of Hole-in-the-Wall. These 30 miles are a hostile landscape exposed to the ocean, making Little Harbour a welcome entrance to the protected Sea of Abaco that extends 70 miles between the main island and Abaco’s out islands.
We left Spanish Wells 55 miles to the south in calm conditions, but we experienced building seas and winds from the northeast as we neared Little Harbour. While the breaking seas on both sides of the entrance showed us the clear path through the outlying reef, this cut is impassable in a blustery nor’easter.
Entering the inner part of Little Harbour should be done at mid to high tide to avoid a sandy bar, which shows 3-1/2 feet at mean low water. If you need to wait for the tide, drop the hook outside. Inside, you’ll find total protection, room to anchor and several moorings.
The big attraction here is Pete’s Pub and Gallery, where we satisfied our hunger and thirst under blue skies before touring the gallery and studio made famous by Pete’s parents, Randolph and Margot Johnston. Randolph’s book, “Artist on His Island,” is a fascinating tale of how he and his wife settled on the island in the early 1950s, living in caves before they eventually created their world-renowned foundry and sculpture studio. Today, Pete and his children continue the Johnston legacy, welcoming cruisers and art lovers to their island pub and gallery.
Tracey Arm, Alaska
There are out-of-the-way destinations, and then there is Tracey Arm, where adventure-seekers hopefully find the right balance between risk and reward. This mighty fjord begins at HolkhamBay, 40 miles south of Juneau, and it twists and turns for 22 miles through ice-strewn waters before it reaches its dramatic climax at two glaciers, North and South Sawyer.
The passage is lined with small- to medium-size icebergs, which become thicker and more numerous as you approach the glaciers. Theoretically, only about 20 to 25 percent of an iceberg is visible above water, so you need to give these a wide berth, slowing to idle speed as you pass them. While I’ve seen photos of cruisers who lucked out with thin fields of ice, blue skies and brilliant views of the glacier, my venture at the end of June was dampened by freezing rain, high winds and ice so thick I had to travel the final mile in my inflatable, gently pushing through the ice flow. But at the end, there it was, awesome North Sawyer Glacier peeking through the low clouds and rain, teasing me with the threat of calving huge blocks of ancient ice and hurling 25-foot waves of ice-cold water at my small dinghy.
The ideal staging area for exploring the fjord is Tracey Arm Cove, two miles beyond the entrance and 20 miles from the glaciers. It offers protection from the north, and if you anchor closer to its western shore in the more shallow area, the shoals provide added protection from the biggest icebergs, which occasionally find their way into the cove. We enjoyed a peaceful night here among several other cruisers who were planning their assault on the glaciers the next day.
Desolation Sound, British Columbia
Old Capt. Vancouver must have found the tricky currents, off-soundings depths and steep, rocky shores to be disconcerting, as he named this beautiful area “Desolation Sound” during his exploration of the Pacific Northwest in the late 18th century. He was obviously a “glass-is-half-empty” kind of guy. Today, this scenic marvel is one of the most popular cruising destinations for boaters across the United States and Canada.
Located 125 miles north of the San Juan Islands, you’ll need to navigate the challenging Strait of Georgia to get here. Picking a clear weather window is key, but once inside Desolation Sound there are many protected and spectacularly beautiful bays, coves and harbors. Allow at least a week in the area to appreciate its full splendor — more if you have the time.
A favorite gunkhole of ours is very protected Melanie Cove inside the Prideaux Haven area, where we anchored in 20 feet of water surrounded by dense woods and high cliffs. The water temperature at the end of June was warm enough for a swim, and our teenage crew (along with my wife) had a ball jumping in from a 30-foot-tall rock.
It was here that we discovered how thick and dense the woods are in these parts, which explains why the Indians settled mostly along the beachfronts. We couldn’t hike far inland before we came to a solid wall of forest; there we found a lone kayaker filling his water jugs from a mountain stream. The clean, warm waters, lush landscapes, abundant wildlife, and distant, snowcapped mountains attract boaters of all types, shapes and sizes — especially the “glass-is-half-full” kind.
Monhegan Island, Maine
Ten miles off Maine’s coastal towns of Port Clyde and Tenant’s Harbor is MonheganIsland, an artist’s summer haven that owes its magic to its remoteness and determination to stay detached from the mainland. Its small, exposed harbor crowded with lobster boats makes anchoring difficult, so it’s best to check with the harbormaster about using a lobsterman’s mooring. An alternative, at least during the day, is to anchor between Deadman’s Cove and Nigh Duck, the small islet northwest of the harbor. Either way, you’ll want to watch the weather. This is no place to spend the night during a blow, as the exposure to the ocean swell can be treacherous.
Since there is no airport, everything and everybody comes and goes by boat. Pickup trucks line the dirt road along the wharf to pick up guests, food and supplies for the summer season. Many visitors come just for the day to walk the breathtaking trails through woodlands leading to spectacular cliffs rising 160 feet above the sea.
The pure, clean sea air embellishes the island’s saturated colors and magnificent views, which are a magnet for artists and photographers. Jamie Wyeth, Rockwell Kent and George Bellows are among those who have lived and worked here. Today, there are at least 20 studios of working artists spread across the island, and the number of visitors returning to the mainland carrying carefully wrapped packages is evidence of the popularity of their work.
BeaverIsland, Lake Michigan
BeaverIsland, the largest island in Lake Michigan, sounded like the perfect antidote to the crowds of tourists and packed marinas we found on Lake Huron’s Mackinac Island during a very busy Labor Day weekend. We had read about BeaverIsland’s easygoing lifestyle, picturesque hiking trails and sandy beaches, and we were ready for a change of pace.
However, we weren’t quite ready for the Straits of Mackinac, the skinny strip of water where Lake Huron mixes it up with Lake Michigan. The 60 miles between the two Great Lakes may have been the roughest water we experienced during our 8,000-mile cruise that year. Although our passage began in calm conditions, we soon learned that things change quickly on the Great Lakes. Winds picked up to 25 to 30 knots, and as we passed through the Straits we faced the strangest of sea conditions: 6- to 8-foot beam seas, occasional following 8-foot rollers, and breaking10-foot head seas. How could this be? It was like being in a gigantic washing machine.
After being beaten up for six hours, we arrived at St. James Harbor, eagerly tying up at the Beaver Island Marina with several other bruised and abused cruisers who were caught out in the same awful mess. Without exception, we all made our way to the Shamrock Bar, the local watering hole, where the tales of the day’s events were embellished in proportion to the number of rum and Cokes thrown down the hatch.
But the next day we found what we had come for: empty, pristine beaches, quiet walks along the downtown waterfront, a visit to the MarineMuseum, and a bike ride to a beautiful inland lake. Although the population of BeaverIsland swells during the summer months, there are only 600 year-round residents, who are determined to preserve its natural beauty and small-town charm.
Indian Key, Ten Thousand Islands, Fla.
Reading that Claiborne Young, author of “Cruising Guide To Western Florida,” compares the beauty of this Everglades National Park anchorage to Michelle Pfeiffer, I had to stop here. A tiny, uninhabited island, it is a popular camping ground for adventurers exploring the Everglades in kayaks and canoes and was once visited by John Audubon in search of indigenous birds.
At low tide a beautiful sand spit appears off its northeast tip, and you can anchor in 8 feet of water southeast of it. But beware of the strong currents. We used the Bahamian-style, two-anchor system to reduce our swinging room. Except for some kayakers taking a break on the beach, we were the only boat in the anchorage during our two-day stay. Only the rush of commercial fishing boats at dawn disturbed our peace and quiet.
Following IndianKeyPass to EvergladesCity, we tied up at the Rod & Gun Club, an anachronism of an old waterfront inn where famous politicians and rock stars reportedly have stayed. We immediately sensed something strange about the place, as if it were from a Stephen King novel or Alfred Hitchcock film. The lobby was dark and mostly unattended and the stairway to the guest rooms was roped off.
The town itself, however, is delightful, as long as you’re not looking for fancy restaurants, hip nightlife or chic shops. Before Hurricane Wilma hit in 2005, tourists and second-home buyers were beginning to discover this town. The area took a devastating blow from the hurricane, however, and it’s slowly returning to its quiet self, where time seems to stand still and the economy remains dependent on its commercial fishing fleet.
George Sass Sr. has logged thousands of cruising miles under both power and sail. He completed a one-year cruise of the Great Circle Route in his Thomas Point 43, Sawdust, and last year cruised Alaska’s Inside Passage aboard a Nordic Tug 52. This year, after a summer cruise from his Annapolis, Md., home to New England, he plans to take Sawdust to the Abacos for the winter.