Waterways Ontario
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Georgian Bays 30,000 Islands
Where Giants Walked

Giants once walked the earth.  According to one legend the last giant, Kitchi-Kiwana, was carrying a mountain when he tripped and fell.  The mountain shattered and the pieces became the Thirty Thousand Islands.  Another oft-told tale attributes the islands to the giant’s anger.  They are the huge stones he threw at the canoe that was carrying off the love of his life. 


Besides the creation of the archipelago itself, there are other indications of Kitchi-Kiwana’s presence here.  You can see on Beausoleil Island, for instance, the indentations made by his shoulders where he slept.  When he died the people covered his body with rocks to form the island called Giant’s Tomb.  Still today, the giant comes to visit.  When northern lights flicker across the sky, it is the great god Manitou lighting fires to guide Kitchi-Kiwana as he walks through the night. 


Geologists will tell you the Thirty Thousand Islands form the largest freshwater archipelago in the world.  It’s more than a hundred miles long.  The islands are part of what was once a mountain range, much older than the Rockies.  The heights collapsed and broke apart as glaciers marched and retreated across the land and some of the islands you see were peaks of towering mountains.  In the millennia since the last ice age, these pink, black and white crystal islands have been frozen and baked, scoured by wind, polished by water, moulded into some of the most rugged and breathtaking shorelines.  It’s not all granite, basalt and quartz.  For 200 million years of the region’s history, a great tropical sea washed these shores, leaving fossils of mollusks, corals and crustaceans on the sea floor.  Erosion of the limestone has formed caves and the odd shapes that give Flowerpot Island its name. 


The scene is ever changing... partly because the Thirty Thousand Islands actually number closer to 60,000.  The count varies from year to year because as the water level falls and rises again, islands appear and disappear under the waves (one very good reason, by the way, to stay in the channels, keep your eyes open and make sure your charts are up to date!).  You’ll see white pines windswept into shapes to inspire bonsai masters, their massive roots wrapped around granite rocks.  You’ll see sand beaches, rocky shores, and hardwood forests.  The main reason for the diversity, however, is that the islands lie on the cusp between southern deciduous woodlands and northern boreal forests.  In this transition hardwood trees such as sugar maple, beech and elm overlap with the much hardier red oak, juniper and white pine that can grow on thin rocky soils and there is a greater variety of plants and animals. 


This is truly a wilderness experience.  Cruise the Thirty Thousand Islands and you’ll find yourself in places that look like they might have centuries ago.  On misty mornings, it’s easy to imagine birch bark canoes, laden with furs, picking their way through the maze of islands.  As it turns out, the many of the channels through these islands roughly follow the paths discovered by the first inhabitants.  Even today, canoes and kayaks among the islands are common sights.  This is a favourite area for paddle-powered treks. 


Approach the Thirty Thousand Islands from the big open waters of Georgian Bay and you’ll find it difficult to differentiate one island from another.  The largest islands near Penetanguishene are easier to distinguish.  Hope, Beckwith and Christian islands are easy to approach because they’re surrounded by deep water.  They have open anchorages and long sandy beaches and are favoured by large boats that want to stay in open water. 


If you do want to explore the many channels woven through the island chain, you’re much safer to stay between the channel markers.  The small craft route runs from Killarney to Port Severn, a distance of about 175 miles but you can stay in the outside channels (See The Outside Channel, April 2007) and join the small craft route at a couple of different places – Barnard Bank or O’Donnell Point.  When you venture off the marked route, go dead slow and keep a sharp look out.  Otherwise you might just find how hard granite is compared to your propeller.  However if you stick to the channels where you know there’s enough water, you will wear out your camera taking pictures.  Sunsets, in particular, are stunning because the view to the west is open water.


Georgian Bay Islands National Park takes up 59 of the 30,000.  By national park standards it is very small, a narrow ribbon just 50 kilometres long, but it is the only one that you can get to by boat alone.  Over the centuries it has had many visitors.  Archaeological excavations on Beausoleil Island have unearthed artefacts, dwelling sites and roasting pits that date back at least 5000 years.  Thirteen different cultures have lived here.  Among them, Ojibwa, Kitchee, Huron and Iroquois have all fished, traded, raided or traveled through the islands and many of the islands are still owned by Beausoleil First Nations. 


The national park has sheltered anchorages and eight different locations for docking, just 90 slips in all, so it’s wise to call ahead and reserve.  One of the most scenic anchorages is on the northeast side of Beausoleil Island.  This thumb-shaped Ojibwa Bay is large enough for large boats.  The shoreline is forested with rocky outcrops that appear untouched by civilization.  You might see a great blue heron fishing for its dinner.  In the evening or early morning, a raccoon or fisher might venture to the water as well. 


Some of the docks have campsites nearby and you should reserve these, too, to make sure you have a place.  The sites vary in size, some have views of the bay, others are more forested, and two are accessible to people with physical disabilities.  The majority are primitive – campsites only and no services – but there are sites with washrooms and showers.  There is a $10 non-refundable reservation fee over and above the camping fee.  If you just want a shore lunch every campsite has a picnic table and Beausoleil Island has a picnic area with tables, a rain shelter, and playground.  Park rangers encourage people to picnic only in designated areas and help preserve this Canadian heritage.


You can go ashore and stretch your legs on a dozen walking trails that range from less than a quarter mile to nearly five miles long.  Some will take you uphill to stunning views of the water; others inland, through forests of beech and maple, but no matter how far inland or uphill you go, you’re never far from the sparkling water.  The water around these islands is extraordinary – clear enough to see down 15 feet and more. 


In some areas you can pick wild raspberries and blueberries in season.  While you’re on shore, look down and you might encounter any of thirty-five different reptiles and amphibians here – more than anywhere else in the country - including some that are very rare.  This is one of the few remaining habitats for Canada’s only true lizard – the five-lined skink.  The spotted turtle, hognose snake and the tiny ring-neck snake are here, too, the last resplendent in cobalt blue.  So is the massassauga rattler (See Sidebar). 


For all the rugged wilderness you’ll find, civilization is not far away.  Many towns and small cities cling to the rocks on shore.  Their names alone can pique your curiousity – Honey Harbour, Waubaushene, Pointe au Baril Station…  You’ll find marinas and services, restaurants, food and supplies within an easy walk of town docks.  You’ll also find great entertainment.  In midsummer the Festival of the Sound brings jazz and classical music to many different venues throughout Parry Sound.  In Penetanguishene, live summer stock comes to the stage at King’s Wharf Theatre and Discovery Harbour brings to life the early 19th century, when Britain and the U.S. were at war, complete with a pair of sailing ships.  At Port Severn, you can leave big waters and take your adventure on a different route, down the Trent Severn System to Lake Ontario. 


You don’t always have to go ashore to dine.  Henry’s Fish House on Fryingpan Island draws boaters from all over to savour fresh caught perch, pickerel and other delights.  Though on an island in Sans Souci, Henry’s is often packed.  It’s in the top of many “must do” lists, so one of the things you “must do” is call ahead and reserve your place at the dock and the table.  Another choice, by the way, is to dock in Parry Sound and take a floatplane to the island.  There’s a service right at the dock that can take you right to Henry’s dock.  Henry’s also has a mainland location, at the Doral Marine Resort in Midland. 


Cruising the Thirty Thousand Islands is an awesome experience in the true sense of the word.  Cozy anchorages, open water… fine dining or shore lunches… granite beauty and sand beaches… and when you’re safely anchored in a little cove, sitting on the aft deck after sunset, watching the northern lights ebb and flow across the sky, remember Kitchi-Kiwana and listen for his footsteps. 



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