Thunder Bay
by Cyndi Perkins

Several years ago some newfound Canadian friends guided us from Isle Royale National Park into the safe and hospitable haven of Thompson Island. In turn, on several occasions we were delighted to share some of our favorite upper Michigan destinations, including Copper Harbor and Houghton-Hancock. It wasn't until August 2005, though, that we finally heeded a further call from Superior's north shore and ventured into their homeport of Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Chip Ahoy at anchor in Loon Harbour. Cruisers gather at a clearing ashore for fellowship around the campfire, weather permitting.

The red-and-white Maple Leaf courtesy flag hoisted, we loosed Chip Ahoy's lines from the Thompson Island dock on a sunny Sunday afternoon, following the 31-foot Irwin Sunntack out onto sparkling Superior. Since this was our first foray into the bay, we decided to "take our own sweet time" as Sunntack Capt. Bruce McLean put it, which involved rounding Pie Island to head directly up the bay. Locals, many of whom moor their boats at Thunder Bay Yacht Club up Mission River, usually take a shortcut between Flatland and Pie Island, expertly skirting the buoyed Alexander Reef. As novices we figured the long way would be wisest.

We were in for an interesting - and somewhat bumpy - ride.

Thunder Bay is aptly named. Assisted by mighty Thunder Cape and the Sleeping Giant of the Sibley Peninsula as well as the rocky bluffs and craggy headlands of Pie Island, the waves built rapidly in a 20-25 knot SW wind with some higher gusts. Zipping along under double-reefed main and headsail we had the rail in the water several times, also managing to dump the coffee pot from the stovetop and the pan lids out of the oven. (Note to self: do not become complacent after a few days tied to a dock and neglect to properly stow everything!). As our charts had indicated we found few obstacles to contend with on the fairly straightforward approach. As we cleared the Welcome Islands and Schwitzer shoal five miles out from the harbor, the city of Thunder Bay's skyline became more distinct and the waves diminished. Captain Scott set a GPS waypoint for the middle of three entrances through the breakwall into Thunder Bay's Lakehead Harbour - it is the entrance closest to the municipal Prince Arthur Landing Marina. A large blue-and-white billboard directed us to the fuel dock on the far west end of the marina. The amiable dockmaster called customs for clearing in and an officer arrived before we had finished pumping out, filling water tanks and fueling up (buying diesel in litres was a new experience).

Port Arthur Landing Municipal Marina is friendly and professional. That’s the harbormaster’s office and bathhouse complex as viewed from Chip Ahoy’s slip.

As victims of a very recent and distinctly unpleasant encounter with a federal officer on Isle Royale, we awaited the customs "ordeal" with great trepidation. Quite frankly we suffered paranoid visions of our boat being torn apart or heavy duties being levied on the small amount of booze aboard. The actual clearing in was anti-climactic. The super-courteous officer examined our Remote Border Crossing Pass, filled in the necessary paperwork quickly, and chuckled when we told him we had seven beers and a half of a fifth of cheap rum aboard - part of the reason we came into port was to restock the liquor cabinet!

It should be noted that declaring firearms, tobacco and alcohol aboard is no joking matter. If you are apprehended with undeclared goods, penalties can be severe.

It took a bit of maneuvering to back Chip Ahoy into her assigned slip, but Captain Scott maintained a cool head and a slow-and-easy approach. Several years at the helm of our 11-ton modified full-keel DownEast have well acquainted us with what the boat will and won't do. Reverse is definitely not her favorite gear and backing in dead straight is not within her realm. When docking or anchoring anywhere, we like to remind ourselves that there's no shame in making a circle and coming back around for another try. No need for that on this occasion. Once Scott coaxed Chips into position, I dropped the bumpers and tossed lines to the patiently waiting harbormaster and dock attendant.

Bruce picked us up in his vehicle and drove us to the family home about 20 miles out of town on the bay. The McLean's cherish a spectacular view of the water from their back deck and of the Sleeping Giant from their upper-floor master bedroom - no need for curtains! Along the way we spotted a black fox on the side of the road. Bruce says he's a regular fixture along that stretch of highway. Roaming moose in yards and along streets are not uncommon either.

We had a magnificent meal of tender-pink grilled steak, cheesy creamed potatoes (warmed to bubbling on the grill), shrimp in garlic-butter sauce, cucumber-tomato salad and wholegrain French bread, enhanced by a soft red wine and topped off with blueberry pie ala mode. "Yummy" doesn't even begin to describe it! The conversation with Bruce and Eila and their terrific offspring Liisa and Alex was equally delicious. The kids had grown by leaps and bounds since we last saw them and we enjoyed hearing about Alex's musical progress and Liisa's interest in art. Before we knew it midnight was approaching and it was time to get back to the boat. Bruce said he'd be by after work the following day to take us to the beer store. We would later find out that it is actually called "The Beer Store."

On Monday, Captain Brian of Nomad - another Thompson Island regular - showed up at 10:30 a.m. and postponed puttering projects on his 32-foot Carver to show us around town. The first stop was a tobacco shop where we could buy stamps. It's an interesting system. Our stomachs were growling, so we invited Brian to breakfast. There was a long waiting line at the wildly popular Hoito on Bay Street, a real Finnish diner and historic attraction in its own right. The line was shorter at the alternative across the street, the excellent Scandinavian restaurant, where we indulged in bacon, eggs and pancakes. Our waitress didn't write down the order, she committed it to memory, which greatly impressed yours truly. Bellies filled, Brian dropped us at the Renco Grocery Store downtown. The French food labels confounded Scott, but I found it highly entertaining to use my rudimentary foreign language skills. The butcher counter was quite appetizing, so we stocked up on pork and beef roasts, stir fry meat, ground beef, pork chops, chicken - enough combined with our canned stores to last a couple of weeks farther up on the remote north shore, where grocery stores may be 50 or more nautical miles away. Other Thunder Bay shopping options include a grocery store and shopping center complete with Wal-Mart about a mile SW of the marina.

Downtown Thunder Bay offers an interesting selection of shops, boutiques and eateries, including an excellent gourmet food store.

When we returned with our loot, the marina attendant said Jim and Carole Aitken of Loon Magic had been down at the marina at noon to check and see if we needed anything. How sweet of them and how typical of Thunder Bay boaters!
Provisions stowed, we had a walkabout downtown, discovering the rather ironically named Charity Casino, along with numerous restaurants, specialty shops and three music stores. Scott bought more guitar strings, as he'd broken four while entertaining at Thompson Island campfires.

Thunder Bay is an exceptionally historic city. During our ramble we wandered into a few seedy areas where the characters on the street raised my hackles and I shifted my backpack to the front-defensive position. But that's just me. I seem to have some sort of ghetto radar and too often stumble into neighborhoods where only fools or seasoned locals dare tread. A quick backtrack to the right side of the tracks usually puts things to rights. In fact you need not worry for your safety on the streets of Thunder Bay as long as you don't venture far off the beaten path.

Security is excellent at the marina and in the adjoining beautifully landscaped and designed waterfront park. Stretch your legs on the boardwalk/nature trail system, catch live entertainment in season and enjoy the ice cream shop and other treats found in the old red brick railway station that has been restored for reuse. We missed out on the most recent waterfront concert, but took advantage of the recycling bins for glass and aluminum cans that was still in place. Sure do wish more marinas had recycling. Michigan's bottle deposit law has us trained. It just feels wrong to throw these items away.
The marina complex has a spacious lounge, office area with weather info available and sparkling, well-appointed "washrooms." Unfortunately the showers were freezing cold, so even though the water pressure was perfect I had no urge to linger under the icy spray.

Captain Scott finds clear cell phone reception as well as a cool music spot in downtown Thunder Bay

Bruce arrived as promised to take us to The Beer Store. It's a hoot for the uninitiated. You make your selection from the display cans and bottles set up in the small showroom, then give the order to the cashier, who goes into a warehouse-sized cooler and shouts out the desired beers, which are then delivered via a conveyor belt. And talk about sticker shock: A case of my favorite Miller Lite was more than $40. Corona and some other premium beers were cheaper. Holy wah, as we say in the Upper Peninsula! We ended up stocking up on a variety of brews, including Lucky Lager, Molson Canadian and Captain Scott's favorite Labatt Blue, only it came in some sort of newfangled foam-insulated can. Also, the Labatt made in Canada has a higher alcoholic content. Since we would be far away from stores for at least 10 days - longer if Mother Nature decided to toy with us - replenishing the wine "cellar" (actually a corner of our linen and towel cabinet) was also deemed necessary. For this Bruce took us to a government liquor store. In addition to wine and spirits, you may also purchase beer there, but at higher prices than The Beer Store. We found a couple of reds, a couple of whites and an interesting merlot for Bruce to take home to Eila. We invited him for a happy hour beer sampling, but regrettably he had to be on his way.

Luckily, more company was headed down the dock, including Carl and Judi Wood of the 38-foot DownEast Libertad. After getting acquainted via e-mail on the DownEast website, we met them for the first time in person at Thompson Island when Libertad and Chip Ahoy were both rafted there in August - quite possibly the first time two DownEasts were there at the same time. From a slip across the way, where she was instructing a group of young ladies on the rudiments of sailing, Sue Carlson of the 33-foot C&C Concorde recognized us from an enjoyable meeting a couple of years ago. She called husband Tim, whom we have also visited with at our Houghton City dock, and he promptly arrived with a big smile and more beer.
It is always a privilege and a pleasure to be in this company of sailors. Like their fellow Thunder Bay cruisers, there is no wind too blustery and any day on the water is considered a rousing good time. "You must have had a great run into the bay yesterday," said Sue. "Good timing, because it seems in the summer the wind always dies down at 7 p.m. - you can set your clock by it." I told her I felt like a wimp, because I didn't enjoy heeling over 30 degrees and there is still so much left for me to learn about sailing, even after 10 years. "Oh, you know more than you think you know," said Tim. "Remember that, when push comes to shove. You know more than you think you know."

Judi and Sue also imparted a sense of empowerment as they shared plans for the upcoming "Women at the Helm" race, an annual autumn benefit raising funds for the battle against breast cancer. Under the race rules, males may crew on the sailboats, even give advice, but each boat must have a female in charge. Sue has also been devoting two nights a week to racing instruction for teen-age girls on another one of our favorite Thompson Island boats, TNT. "We haven't been going out as much on our boat, so now she's racing more than I am!" Tim says.

We had barely scratched the surface of things to do and see in Thunder Bay. It would have been fun to stay another night or two or three. The fickle weather of August - and the start of our second Great Circle Loop around eastern America at the end of the month - prodded us to keep a move on.

The following morning we motored out of the harbour into a now-placid Thunder Bay rippled with light westerlies. With Chip Ahoy's bow pointed toward the magnificent Sleeping Giant, we could see hikers making their way along the high trail of panoramic views. I was reminded of the old Yes song "Roundabout":

"In and around the lake, mountains come out of the sky and they stand there."

Nearby destinations such as Tee Harbor and Silver Islet were under consideration and will definitely find a slot on future itineraries, but with a predicted wind shift to the east and storms expected during the following two days, we instead decided to use the good traveling weather to make for a much-praised anchorage in Loon Harbour.

As we exited Thunder Bay the scenery unfolded with more postcard views of the "red roof inn" light stations, inviting bays, and wide albeit rock-studded channels. After passing the outpost of Porphyry Island, we altered course off the big lake into the channel behind Shaganash Island. I discovered how dependent I have unconsciously become on green cans, red nuns, bell buoys and assorted other man-made markers that form a boating highway of sorts. No aids to navigation here other than the occasional light and the shapes of islands and shoals depicted on the charts. Dead reckoning skills are put to the test and we were grateful for excellent visibility. Lake Superior fog is infamously common and it would definitely not be possible to travel this sector of the lake without eyeball navigation. Possible magnetic anomalies around these parts also add to the challenge. Our autopilot went bonkers at one point and was hastily disconnected. Some of our charts required mental conversions, reminding me once again that life is indeed a story problem - fathoms are 6.56 feet, meters are 3.28 feet. With a real sense of accomplishment and a careful eye on the charts we successfully made our way into the well-protected anchorage betwixt Lasher, Spain and Borden Islands. Amply provisioned for a long spell of wilderness cruising, we settled into splendid solitude in a silence broken only by the laughter of the loons that give this harbour its name.

Freelance writer Cyndi Perkins is a full-time cruiser traveling with husband Scott aboard their 32-foot DownEast sailboat Chip Ahoy. The couple completed America's Great Circle Loop - a nine-month 6,000-mile journey - on June 4, 2004. In August 2005, Chip Ahoy once again headed out of Lake Superior, down Lake Michigan and into the heartland rivers, arriving in Mobile Bay in November. Chip Ahoy is currently returning to home waters in summer 2006. Cyndi will be sharing top northern and Midwest boating destinations with readers in her regular "Cruiser's Notebook" feature. Suggestions, comments and questions (short text messages with no attachments) may be directed to her at

Update to Thunder Bay Cruising:
Boat policing in Canada has significantly increased over this past summer. We have received reports of numerous customs, Coast Guard and provincial police boardings at Thompson Island, for example. The U.S. boaters questioned there had their remote border crossing paperwork in order and no citations or other problems were reported. Given the ever-increasing presence of homeland security on both sides of the US-Canada border, it is logical to assume there will continue to be a larger police presence in Lake Superior cruising waters next sailing season as well. Be prepared!
Cyndi Perkins

Canadian Cruising Tips

• A Remote Area Border Crossing Permit, or CANPASS, allows boaters to enter Canada's wilderness waters without reporting to customs. At the time of this writing, it was still advised that you check in with customs if you are entering a designated port of entry, such as Thunder Bay. The crossing permit cost $30 and it is best to apply for it well in advance of the time you expect to be crossing. We obtained our application info on-line at the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website at To phone for info you may call the Canadian Border Services Agency at 1-807-964-2093.
• Clearing customs will of course be a little unique to each cruising vessel, depending on personnel available, in some cases requiring travel from the customs operations at the airport. The harbormaster will expedite the process for you.
• Once you've gone to Canada, what to do when you return to the U.S.? Believe it or not, you must pay a fee to legally clear back into your own country. The annual decal cost was $25 at the time of this writing and it is best to apply in advance by e-mailing and following instructions for the "User Fee Decal Program."

To apply by mail, you may call 1-317-298-1200 to have an application sent to you, and mail the completed form with payment to:
U.S. Customs Service
Decal Program
PO Box 382030
Pittsburgh, PA 15251-8030

Clearing in points for Lake Superior cruisers include Rock Harbor at Isle Royale National Park, Grand Portage, MN. and Sault Ste. Marie, MI. If you have your decal and are not clearing in at a designated port of entry, you may phone customs.
• A word about guidebooks: The most frequently asked question we hear from Canadian boaters advising visiting boaters is "Do you have Bonnie Dahl?," again emphasizing the importance of carrying "The Superior Way" aboard your vessel. There is simply no substitute for Bonnie Dahl's meticulously researched primer on harbors, anchorages and other essentials.
• With the apt slogan, "Superior By Nature," the Thunder Bay area features historical sites as captivating as the breathtaking scenery. For info on sites, as well as lodging, dining, etc. call 1-800-667-8386 or visit the Thunder Bay website: For on-site info, the marina or the visitor's center located on the waterfront should be able to direct you to whatever you are looking for, including the mass-transit system.
• There is a public launch ramp at the municipal marina. For more info , call Prince Arthur Landing Marina at 807-345-2741.