Georgian Bay - Hartley Bay to Snug Harbour

CanadaOntarioGeorgian Bay coast
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Additional Route Information
110 km
7 days
Loop Trip: 
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
Total Portage Distance: 
200 m
Longest Portage: 
200 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Lake Travel: 
Background Trip Info
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Route Description
Access to Put-In Information: 

Virtually no portages, flatwater paddling, plentiful campsites on flat, level rock.

Technical Guide: 

Start at Hartley Bay House Marina, west side of Hwy 69 by French River
West through Hartley Bay
South through Wanapitei Bay
South through the Eastern Outlet
South through Bass Lake
P 200 m over boardwalk to Georgian Bay
West and then south through Georgian Bay
Finish at Snug Harbour, by Parry Sound

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

A Week on Georgian Bay
By: Richard Todd

This article originally appeared in Vol. 21 No. 1 (Spring 1994) of "Nastawgan - Quarterly Journal of the Wilderness Canoe Association"

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Board of Directors of the Wilderness Canoe Association

“Those aren`t canoeing waters!” a letter from the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests warned my 20 years ago, when I enquired after some detail or other regarding Georgian Bay. I didn``t bother to write back and tell them that I had already paddled the entire Bay from Port Severn to Killarney and beyond, twice in each direction, in an open canoe. I especially didn`t tell them that I`d done most of it solo. Back then, Georgian Bay was the almost exclusive preserve of power boats. Kayaking hadn`t yet caught on, and even sailing vessels were a rare sight, at least along the northeast shore. As for open canoes, I saw one other than my own on the open Bay in months of paddling.

In recent years circumstances have allowed me to rekindle my love affair with Georgian Bay, the most ardent flame of my ebbing youth. Much of the rekindling has been done solo, as befits so intimate and enterprise, but in August of 1993 I had the good fortune to travel with two WCA members, Doreen Vella and Lisa Martin.

I had advertised in Nastawgan that the trip would be conservative. Doreen and Lisa are strong paddlers, though, and more inclined toward a bit of adventure than otherwise. In fact. Lisa had already done a lot of paddling on the Bay with here family. We ended up venturing several times into conditions more exciting that the advertisement suggested.

We put in at Hartley Bay on the lower French River system, a convenient place to leave a shuttle vehicle. Our ultimate objective was Snug Harbour, north of Parry Sound, where we`d already left another vehicle. Doreen and Lisa paddled Doreen`s tandem canoe, while I was master of my skinny Mad River Independence. Since it was past midday by the time we were on the water, we set ourselves the modest goal fo a campsite just above Dalles Rapids. There, we spent most of the evening getting acquainted and working out some details of the trip.

The next morning we backtracked a couple of kilometres to allow us to descend the Eastern Outlet of the French. A few abandoned cabins, the remnants of an old establishment called Rainbow Camp, mark the entrance to Bass Creek, the exit to the Georgian Bay. Since the creek is never navigable, a hand operated tramway was built in the early part of the century. Both the camp and the tramway have been abandoned more than once, but the latter at least has been rebuilt andis maintained now by the MNR. We spent a few minutes poking around in the old cabins, one of which appears to be used as a stopover by a girls` camp. The portage along the tramway, the only one of the trip, was so easy as to be vaguely sinful.

The first hour or so on the Bay was restful. We paddled through the narrow channels that separate the hundreds of exquisite islands in the vicinity, enjoying emerald waters and dramatic shorelines. But we soon decided to venture more on the outside. It was the one decision of the trip that led us into just a bit more excitement than any of us cared for. As we gradually emerged from the shelter of the Outer Fox Islands, the waves became bigger and bigger. For the most part hey were enjoyable, but just before we reached the next bit of shelter, we experienced two or three waves that were too big to see over. No harm was done, but we all agreed that we would have done better to take the sheltered route behind Major Island. After catching our breath, we poked around looking for another sheltered passage. Instead we found a long, blind inlet. We hadn`t wanted to stop for the day just yet, but the place was so lovely, and the campsites so flat, expansive and inviting, that nothing would do but for us to set up there for the night.

One of the things that attracted us to the particular site we chose was a skeletal lean-to structure with a stone foundation. We couldn`t think of any practical use we might make of it, but it was the subject of much conversation and a number of photos. That night I slept under the stars and marvelled greatly at them, as I am wont to do when bugs and weather permit. Everyone has their own opinions on the matter, but for me there is no other place on earth so close to the heavens as Georgian Bay.

The excellent weather we`d been having gave way the next day to heavy clouds and an occasional light drizzle. We`d planned on camping on Champlain Island, but failed to find a site that “spoke to our condition” there. We ended up instead at a small and wonderfully sheltered by just inside Kantos Point, about two kilometres east of the island. When we got up the next day, there was quite a wind blowing major seas into Sandy Bay, the next stretch of our route. Accordingly we declared a day of rest, which we each spent in our own way, reading, exploring, swimming and loafing.

Then around supper time, the clouds went away and the waves began to diminish. We watched the weather as we ate and decided to see if we couldn`t at least get past Sandy Bay before nightfall. Once we were on the water, conditions continued to improve, and we ended up paddling about nine kilometres to McNab Rocks near the mouth of Byng Inlet. Lisa found us another magical campsite, this one on a smooth rock island, frugally adorned with a handful of cedar shrubs and a few grasses. The sun was just setting when we arrived, the sky was incredibly clear, and the Gireaux Island Light blinked comfortingly at us from the south. Best of all, once the moon set the stars were more glorious than ever.

We left early the next morning to avoid a rough crossing to Gireaux Island should the wind come up. All of the light stations of the Great Lakes are automated now and the old-time Lightkeepers are gone, but some of the living facilities are used to house rescue personnel during the summer. Tying up at their dock, we asked the members of the Gireaux rescue team if we might prepare our breakfast there, and enjoyed conversing with them while we were preparing it. Then we set off on what was to be the longest day of our trip.

Below Gireaux Island the small craft channel follows an outside route which is suitable for canoes only in gentle weather. Innumerable rocks and shoals make a less exposed route unfeasible for high-speed craft and their propellers. But for a canoeist with a good map, there are hundreds of sheltered passages that can make up a route almost the way to Pointe au Baril. Since the waves were moderate, we opted for a mixture of exposed and sheltered paddling. The calm waters behind Foster Island were especially scenic and soothing. Another detour by way of Alexander Passage and Hangdog Channel was a little less enjoyable because of higher cottage density and a bit of motor boat traffic. Even at that, it was a pretty stretch of country.

We had begun to talk about reaching the marina at Pointe au Baril before it closed. Visions of soft drinks and ice cream had been forming in our heads, and I wanted to make a phone call. We cleared Hangdog Point shortly after 4:30, and could have made it to the marina within an hour, but we were all getting tired and didn`t know what time the store closed. So we set about looking for a campsite, which turned out to be a major undertaking in that area. Finally we found one, about a kilometre from Pointe au Baril, and we set up and settle din. The next morning we struck camp and paddled to the marina in just a few minutes.

If Snug Harbour was our ultimate objective, the emotional climax of the trip was a visit to the McCoy Islands. From the marina we paddled almost due south, wending our way through cottaged islands and barren rocks for an hour or so. Then we went outside to enjoy some open water paddling. The waves were very moderate and the paddling relaxing. After lunch we set our course directly for the McCoys, now just five kilometres away and looming large on the horizon.

I`ve always though of the McCoys and the adjacent Mink Islands as the heart and soul of Georgian Bay, and being there reminded me why. There`s a beauty to those isolated islands that is only hinted at on the rest of the Bay, and scarcely dreamt of anywhere else. On top of that, the numerous campsites there are commodious and supremely scenic. Big McCoy Island in particular is blessed with dozens of flat, well-shaded places to set up and be comfortable.

Shortly after our arrival on Big McCoy, I took an exploratory stroll. Among my discoveries was a clearing in which someone had constructed a kitchen and dining area from big slabs of rock. It was easy enough to find on the beach the fractured sheet of rock from which the slabs had been taken, but I could only wonder how the table top, which must have weighed the better part of a ton, had been transported and put in place. When I returned to our campsite, I offered to make supper tha night and asked Doreen and Lisa not to visit that part of the island before we ate. I fixed up as fancy a meal as I could manage, even providing candlelight. True, the sun was still high in the sky and my candle lantern isn`t exactly fine crystal, but the atmosphere was nice and elegant all the same.

The special feeling of that supper was particularly appropriate to the occasion. Not only had we achieved our trip`s goal, but it turned out to be our last evening together. When we got up the next day, the weather was deteriorating visibly, and the weather radio warned that a major storm system was approaching. We reluctantly decided to forgo exploring the McCoys and head for Franklin Island, where we would camp for our last night. Yet there was something decidedly anticlimactic about the paddle to Franklin; once there, we would only be an hour`s paddle from the shuttle car we`d left at Snug harbour. At one point we had to land to sit out the first cell of the storm as it blew over us, and it was then that we decided to cut the trip a day and a half short and head directly for Snug.

Sometimes the finishing touch on the best of trips can be a decision to head home at the optimum time. I`ve been wondering ever since whether the time really was right, or whether I sold my companions short. The storm eventually developed into something to reckon with, and I was glad to be in my car rather than in a tent for the hours that it lasted. But the next day the weather was fine and I kept wondering.

Even if the trip did come to an untimely end, it was wonderful while it lasted. Seven days on the vastness of Georgian Bay surrounded by the splendour of its countless thousands of islands is a priceless joy. I`ll be doing a similar trip this August, making minor changes to the route and emphasizing the things we all like best. I can only hope that I`ll be as fortunate in my companions this year as I was last.

Special Comments: 

A lot of big water paddling. Caution should be exercised out on Georgian Bay, since it commonly develops swells capable of swamping and open canoe.


Post date: Sat, 01/01/2000 - 07:00


- own an island just north of Snug Harbour at Dillon; background in archaeology & early Native canoe routes; familiar with Franklin Island, Mink Islands,Limestone Islands, Shawanaga Inlet