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
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
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
|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
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
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!
|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 www.cic.gc.ca 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 www.customs.gov/travel/travel.htm
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
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
• 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: www.ThunderBay.ca 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
• There is a public launch ramp at the municipal marina. For more info ,
call Prince Arthur Landing Marina at 807-345-2741.