The North Channel … with a day job
By Brian Bartel & Vickie Eiden
Years ago, when I graduated from
college and got my first job, one of the first things that occurred to me
was, “I can’t wait to retire.” Now, halfway to retirement, I still envy
retired cruisers who can explore the Great Lakes with a flexible schedule.
After all, conventional wisdom among sailors states that the best way to
enjoy a sailing vacation is to throw out the schedule and do what the
weather tells you to do.
|Passepartout anchored for a lunch stop at Darch
Photo by Brian Bartel.
There are few sailors who haven’t heard about the celebrated North Channel,
on the northern shore of Lake Huron. The magazines that cater to our sport
repeatedly include articles on the North Channel, and boat shows often have
one or two people giving seminars about cruising there. Unfortunately, the
articles and seminars often describe cruises lasting three weeks, four
weeks, or more. To someone aching for the day when he can sail for four
weeks at a time, these articles and seminars are entertaining, inspiring…and
frustrating. The North Channel is full of beautiful anchorages, quaint
marinas, and quirky towns. It isn’t possible to see it all on a quick
|After a good night’s sleep, we ate breakfast and looked
over the misty, glassy-smooth waters of The Pool. Photo by Jason Beren.
But you don’t have to see it all at once. In one week you can sample the
highlights and have a pleasant vacation. On August 4, 2006, my wife and I
did the unthinkable. With two guests on our Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 45.2, “Passepartout,”
we sailed from Sister Bay, WI and explored the North Channel — using only
six vacation days! In this article you’ll learn how we did it, and you’ll
see that, although we had to make some sacrifices, we had (and gave) a
lovely 10-day vacation.
“Vacation mode” is that relaxed state one reaches after long stretches of
leisure time. The schedule ceases to be important, the daily inefficiencies
that creep into one’s life stop being such a big deal, and my bitten-down
fingernails start to grow back. It takes me three days to get into vacation
mode, and it takes my wife, Kim, closer to four.
Vacation mode hit me very suddenly, at the end of Sunday, day 3. My wife and
I were sitting with our friends, Jason Beren and Erin Luken, on a deck
outside the Meldrum Bay Inn. We had just finished dinner and were laughing
and listening to a duet playing the blues. The innkeeper played the drums,
and a friend of his from the Carolinas played guitar. We had made it to the
North Channel in three days, we were checked in with Canadian customs, and
now, as promised, the pace was going to settle down to something resembling
a vacation. Our only set-in-stone schedule was to have Passepartout
in Little Current by next Sunday.
That night I also discovered my favorite food. It’s spelled poutine, but the
locals pronounce it as if it’s Vladimir’s last name. It’s not a health food.
You start with crisp French fries, smother them in gravy, then melt
mozzarella cheese over the top. I made it my mission that week to sample
poutine wherever it was served. I gained ten pounds.
|Passepartout tied up and checked into customs at
Photo by Jason Beren.
Following the advice of the Beach Boys, we had decided to get there fast and
then take it slow, so the first two days are a bit of a blur. We left Yacht
Works marina at 4 AM Friday and arrived at Beaver Island thirteen hours
later. We had time for a quick walk and a shower before dinner, and after
dinner we went right to sleep. On Saturday we sailed to Mackinac Island, and
it was the same story; a walk, a bar, a restaurant, and sleep. It was a full
day’s sail to Meldrum Bay, so we had to get up early Sunday morning. We were
still in “delivery mode.”
|Erin, Brian, and Kim are entertained by fish inspecting
the dinghy painter. Photo by Jason Beren.
The schedule on Friday and Saturday was a sacrifice. You see, I like Beaver
Island and Mackinac Island; you could easily spend a few days in each place.
But we only had 10 days, so we pushed on.
Monday morning we watched a 40' Carver leave Meldrum Bay only to return an
hour later. It was blowing 30 kt out of the northwest, and the seas were
kicking up. But the weather was clear and we were headed east, so off we
went for some of the best sailing of my life. Seas were four to six feet,
and our beamy cruising boat with a yard sale of toys tied to the deck could
still surf. It was a fabulous five-hour sail to the Gore Bay marina, which
was well protected. We had a nice time kayaking around the anchorage and
talking with other boaters. The staff of Canadian Yacht Charters, based in
Gore Bay, was particularly helpful in suggesting other North Channel
|On an absolutely calm Saturday morning we motored down
Baie Fine on our way to Little Current. Photo by Jason Beren.
Tuesday we anchored in the Benjamin Islands group. I spent the afternoon
learning how to “Eskimo roll” my kayak. It never worked, and I was mainly
rewarded with a lot of swallowed lake water. The Benjamin Islands, however,
did offer us beautiful scenery and a chance to anchor North Channel style,
with one anchor out and another line to shore. With our draft of 6'8" we
typically don’t get that close to shore.
On Wednesday we sailed to Killarney and spent the night parked at the
Sportsman’s Inn. Then it hit me. Although we had all made the transition to
vacation mode, we were still sailing from place-to-place every day, not
taking the time to truly experience each destination. Did we really need to
leave Killarney? I brought it up with the crew and we agreed to stay in
Killarney a second night.
Staying put was the right decision, not in the least because I discovered
the best poutine in the North Channel at Gateway Marine. After Kim and I
went on a short bike ride, I inflated a floating mattress and lay on my back
sipping a dark and stormy all afternoon. That night we dined at the
Killarney Mountain Lodge.
The highlight of our trip almost didn’t happen, and it wouldn’t have
happened if Jason hadn’t brought a hand-held depth gauge. We kept hearing
that Baie Fine (pronounced Bay Finn by the locals) and The Pool were amazing
places. Baie Fine is a fjord-like bay that leads to a narrow channel which
in-turn leads to The Pool, a beautiful and remote anchorage. Although Baie
Fine itself is deep, the channel at its west end is only seven feet in
places and the channel at its east end, which leads to The Pool, is marked
with five-foot depths. Jason surveyed the depths ahead with the dinghy, and
we crept over both shallow spots, seeing a minimum depth of 7 ft. We had
made it to The Pool.
The Pool was extremely calm and there were only two other boats anchored
there. We kayaked, hiked and swam in a crystal clear lake just north of The
Pool. Although the whole North Channel was beautiful, Baie Fine and The Pool
were exquisite. This was a perfect finale for the trip.
Saturday we headed to Little Current, our rendezvous point for the crew
change. Crew change!?! That’s right, the aces up my sleeve that made such a
short trip possible were Jo “Torpedo Jo” Reis and Tim Nolan, two extremely
competent and absolutely trustworthy friends of ours. They brought along a
volunteer crew from the Hoofer Sailing Club in Madison, WI.
After looking at the cost and time of other modes of transportation, we
all agreed that chartering a twin-engine plane was the best way to do the
crew change. We hired Orion Flight Services in Sturgeon Bay, WI. Jo, Tim,
and the Hoofers flew out of Cherryland Airport in Door County, WI and into
the Manitoulin East Municipal Airport. After handshakes, a boat briefing,
and well wishes, we switched places. Erin, Jason, Kim and I flew home.
It was just 10 days, and we missed many beautiful North Channel spots, but
we saw enough to know that we will definitely return. We experienced some
fantastic sailing and broke Passepartout’s speed record (11.4 kt), we
met interesting people, we saw amazing scenery, and I discovered Poutine.
Not a bad vacation at all.
The Return Cruise
When I ( Vickie Eiden) was invited to join the return crew for the North
Channel trip I was thrilled for several reasons; 1) our crew of eight was
comprised of good friends, including several expert sailors, 2) I’d never
been there, and 3) there’s a lot of interesting history in the area…and I’m
a museumaholic. A perfect blend, but a lot to squeeze into seven days; we
enthusiastically jumped on board, knowing there would be compromises but
that we’d have a good time regardless.
|The Handoff: Brian Bartel and Jo Reis discuss Baie Fine
shallow spots. Photo by Tim Nolan.
I should mention that the outbound and return cruises had rather different
vacation styles. Both groups had fantastic weeks in the North Channel and
visited several of the same spots, but with distinct variances. Firstly,
crew size; the Return Crew had twice as many crewmembers, which made for
“friendlier” accommodations but a highly social atmosphere. Secondly, we
anchored out more, allowing us a few more kayaking adventures and several
nights gazing up at the final dazzling streaks of the Perseid meteor shower.
Thirdly, we had four enthusiastic hobbyist chefs on board who enjoyed the
challenge and camaraderie of creating gourmet feasts in a tiny floating
kitchen, which also greatly pleased the remainder of the crew.
|John Dreger, Wes Culberson, Andy Evenson, “Torpedo Jo”
Dale Carder, Vickie Eiden (co-author), Mary Giblin and Tim Nolan, the
Return Crew, arrive at the Manitoulin East Municipal Airport.
The hidden message behind these perks: for those who are wont to be more
budget-conscious, a brilliant vacation can still be had! Our crew was
comprised of a number of individuals who are currently paying for advanced
degrees, starting new business ventures and buying homes. We spent less by
anchoring out, eating in, and splitting our costs between eight people, and
our thriftiness rewarded us with a very rich experience indeed.
The morning of Sunday, August 13, our crew met at the Cherryland Airport for
a chartered flight to Manitoulin Island; the 10-seat airplane gave us an
aerial preview of the waters we would enjoy for the next week. During the
cozy cab ride to the Little Current Marina I’ll admit I felt a twinge of
longing as we sped past the Little Current-Howland Museum, but it was only
Day One and there would surely be more museums.
The chatty crew change gave us the opportunity to hear a first-hand account
of the highlights of the Outbound Crew’s week and get several
recommendations, then we in the quartet of chefs provisioned the boat.
Another perk for the return voyage was that the Outbound Crew had
thoughtfully abandoned a fair amount of rather nice “leftovers”…including a
few cases of Canadian beer. We spent our first night in the marina dining on
chicken curry, washed down with bottles of Molson.
|While Vickie Eiden (co-author) takes the helm, Mary
Giblin trims the spinnaker on the way to Drummond Island. Photo by Tim
Eagerly anticipating a bit of down time, I had brought a book I’d been
meaning to read for ages; the title of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in
Eighty Days” seemed to hold a challenge similar to that of sailing through
the North Channel in one week. At the time I hadn’t realized that it
contained our vessel’s namesake, Passpartout, a character who had earned
this name by his ability to get himself out of tricky situations. I
considered this a good omen for our voyage.
Monday we followed the wind towards Killarney Bay, timing our exodus with
the opening of the historic Little Current Swing Bridge. The shorelines we
passed were simply exquisite in their natural form and my imagination took
flight as I daydreamed of early fur-traders navigating these waters in
canoes, riding low under the weight of raw fur, over 200 years earlier. I
waved wistfully as we motored past Killarney and the red fish and chips bus,
but Tim, our Great Loop veteran, had good reason to be enthusiastic about
proceeding to Covered Portage Cove. A climb up the rocky cliffs revealed
wild blueberries, beautiful outcroppings, and a morbidly fascinating pile of
dried bear scat laden with pink crayfish exoskeleton. Back on board, we
uncorked a Shiraz and created our “Italian night” dinner — spicy pasta sauce
We arose early Tuesday to begin our journey along the stunning freshwater
fjord that creates Baie Fine. Anchored in The Pool, we hiked up to Topaz
Lake for a swim. Peering down into the bright, clear water of this
aptly-named lake the rock walls cradling it seem to drop into the center of
the earth…freaky but cool. Kayaking that evening we discovered a small
waterfall and impressive beaver dam in the stream connecting The Pool to
Artist Lake, then slept well after a hearty dinner of mushroom-zucchini
risotto and a few dice games.
Wednesday morning we cut the weed ball off our anchor and began our return
westward. Making a pit stop in Little Current, we refueled, stocked up at
the local deli, created a marinade for our gargantuan steaks, and bought a
lunch of fish and chips. We then sailed on to Croker Island, a great stop
for kayaking and a geologist’s dream for rock hunting. Discovering that the
bag of “charcoal” was actually mesquite wood chips, we had nothing over
which to grill our massive sirloins, resulting in a spectacular experimental
dinner. That night’s impromptu meal of tomato-vodka-cream sauce over penne
paired with a Merlot, followed by dessert crepes filled with a rum-soaked
raisin and citrus compote was truly a totem of Passpartout’s luck.
|After two weeks of touring the North Channel
Passpartout enjoys sunset at home in Sister Bay, WI. Photo by Vickie
Thursday we proceeded to Drummond Island; back into U.S. waters. As this was
a brief stop only to check in with Customs, just one member of the party was
allowed to walk to the one general store for the sole purpose of procuring
charcoal. As that individual, I considered it a great personal sacrifice to
walk directly — if with hesitation — past the Drummond Island Historical
Museum, but our triumphant return to carnivorism that evening was a great
With one day of vacation left before the long stretch to Sister Bay, we
divided into three shifts for an overnight sail, intending to stop at
Mackinac Island for breakfast before continuing on to Beaver Island. Night
sailing was quiet, breezy and beautiful, and the experience of navigating by
the stars was thrilling, more like flying over the dark, horizon-less water
than sailing. We made such good time that we reached Mackinac Island at
sunrise, too early for a breakfast Captain “Torpedo” Jo decided we shouldn’t
wait for: We would proceed to Beaver Island; it was a waste of time to wait
for businesses to open.
Talk about a sacrifice! The museums…the horses…the fudge! How could we
possibly bypass an island with an ice cream named after it?! I broke down
and complained. Our captain held firm, but as we motored under the Mackinac
Bridge and watched the sun rise, he diplomatically assured me I would
appreciate the extra time on Beaver Island.
We arrived at Beaver Island at 3 PM, two hours before the four museums
closed; keeping with the theme of the trip, I selected one to enjoy
thoroughly. The Old Mormon Print Shop Museum contains a fascinating exhibit
on the dramatic life, reign and death of King James Jesse Strang, ruler of a
Mormon settlement on the island from 1848 through 1856. When it closed I
looked through a few shops and biked to the lighthouse, admiring the
historic homes along the way. That night in the marina we ate thick, spicy
chili on the boat before heading to an Irish pub for a nightcap. I have to
admit our Captain was right…I thoroughly enjoyed Beaver Island, and with
seven museums and living history parks Mackinac Island would have required a
much, much longer visit anyway.
Early Saturday we began our journey to Passpartout’s home port of
Sister Bay. Distant storms had sent us eight-foot waves and small craft
warnings; several sailors enjoyed the opportunity to take the helm and ride
the rougher water, and several shared their bagel sandwiches with the fish.
After the tiring day we were grateful to reach Sister Bay, where we opted to
go out for dinner and dropped off to bed shortly thereafter.
Sunday we treated ourselves to breakfast at the White Gull Inn (the Door
County cherry-stuffed French toast was incredible), cleaned the boat, and
thanked Brian for the use of Passpartout before driving home. It was
a full week of beautiful places, interesting conversations, great food,
diverse amusements and learning opportunities that went beyond sailing.
Sure, I would have liked to make more stops, but those places will still be
there for future trips (mmm, fudge!). Trying to squeeze too much in only
leads to stress; the trick to enjoying the North Channel in a week is to go
in with a relaxed attitude and be open to the experiences that come your
way. Most importantly, make sure you have a mix of good sailors, good cooks,
and good storytellers on board; to be honest our crew would have had a blast
even if we’d never left the boat.
Despite the hassles associated with travel, planning the logistics of the
crew change was surprisingly easy. We just made sure we were docked near the
specified airport, and we stepped into the cab that brought the relief crew.
The costs weren’t outrageous, either, especially if one compares a
powerboat’s fuel price to the logistics costs of doing a one-week sailing
People are getting busier and vacation time is getting hard to come by.
Unfortunately many people respond to this time pressure by buying a
powerboat, a more expensive yet much faster alternative. A one-week North
Channel vacation on a powerboat isn’t a challenge at all; you just shell out
a lot of money for fuel. But a sailor can pay a little less than that for a
return flight and a delivery crew, and (s)he can accomplish the same thing.
This is certainly the way I will visit the North Channel in the future —
until I retire, that is…
|Tips for Doing the North Channel in One Week
• Get there fast. Put in some long days early on.
• Despite the short time available, avoid schedules.
Go where the wind takes you.
• Sail one-way; don’t worry about getting the boat both there and back.
• Have a trusted friend or a delivery service take your boat there or
• Talk to your insurance agent about how your vessel is covered with
someone else operating it.
• Charter a flight there or home. From this remote location it was
cheaper and much less time consuming than flying commercial.
• Having your boat delivered preserves vacation time.
• The trip may be impossible otherwise.
• Having your boat help generate new stories for people adds depth to
your boat ownership experience.
• One week only gives you the abridged version of the North Channel.
• A greater percentage of your vacation time will be spent transitioning
into “vacation mode.”
• A smaller time window means an increased risk of bad weather eating up
a greater percentage of your trip.
Brian Bartel is the owner of Weather Gauge Marine, a professional captain
and yacht delivery service (www.weather-gauge.com). On weekends, he and his
wife Kim can be found sailing Passepartout between the harbors and
anchorages of Door County.
Vickie Eiden is a freelance writer and owner of Expressive Experiences (www.expressiveexperiences.com),
offering creative applied arts workshops for personal and interpersonal
wellness. A Hoofer of seven years, she spends much of her free time on
Madison’s Lake Mendota.
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