Lake of the Woods is a complex body of water, but it’s that complexity that sets it apart from any other powerboating destination in Ontario, Canada. With over 14,000 islands and a combined shoreline of 65,000 miles whose combined length bests Lake Superior, there’s nothing quite like it in Ontario, and even in Canada.
This past August I had the great fortune to spend two days on the Lake of the Woods with a group of local and expatriate boaters from around the province. I’d previously been out on the lake a few years ago on a very short fishing trip, and saw enough of this region to make me realize that for those who love life on the water, there’s no place like it.
Our vessel of choice for this trip was a 22’ Sea-Ray from Woodlake Marine, the go-to new and used boats dealer and repair shop on Lake of the Woods. Our navigators were Cam Taylor of BOATsmart!, whose familiarity with hundreds of powerboating destinations across Canada is rarely rivaled, and Scott Green of Green Adventures, a true outdoorsman and the most intimately knowledgeable about boating on this magical place known as Lake of the Woods.
During the trip the entire crew stayed at the iconic Best Western Lakeside Inn. This building, along with the WhiteCap Pavillion, are likely the most iconic buildings on Kenora’s waterfront. The Best Western has great docks to receive visitors arriving by boat. Our breakfast at their ninth-floor restaurant offered an incredible view of the lake, ramping up our excitement for a day of exploring the lake.
After fueling in town at the Devil's Gap gas station, we began our tour of the northernmost section of the lake, closest to the city of Kenora. This area is dominated by cottages, cruise boats, like the MS Kenora and Grace Anne II, floatplane tours and services. There's even a park that is water and pedestrian access only. It's clear that this is a city designed around the water, so it’s no surprise that boating culture dominates here.
While visitors to the lake are often eager to explore its dozens of waterways, the local boating community tends to prefer to travel to a few well-known beaches where they can anchor or beach their boats for the day or weekend and spend time with friends and families, making shore lunches, swimming and carrying on.
As we traveled south from Kenora, it became evident quickly that we were not dealing with a typical lake system. Cam Taylor remarked that the lake "just kept going and going" - and we hadn't see 1/100th of it yet. We stopped in for lunch at White Birch Lodge in the town of Sioux Narrows. This town situated on Lake of the Woods is equally charming, with a distinct focus on the fishing culture that thrives here. We even took the time to visit the beautifully designed Northern Ontario Sportfishing Centre, where we learned about the history of angling and took in the Sioux Narrows bridge, which was at one time the longest span wooden bridge in the world.
We dove into exploring this more populated section of the lake, taking in the Royal Lake of the Woods Yacht Club, the only inland royally designated yacht club in the world. Nearby were the equally royal homes and cottages of Kenora (and Winnipeg’s) elite; sports stars, investment bankers and giants of industry have all chosen this area to vacation.
Although Lake of the Woods is a huge system of islands, peninsulas and water, with most of the populated areas being close to Kenora, it rewards powerboaters who seek out its more quiet corners with seemingly endless opportunities for discovering new cruising grounds, and we ventured out to find exactly those places on our second day.
This is where houses and cottages thin out, and the landscape became more and more rugged. Although we didn’t travel into Big Traverse bay at the southernmost section of the lake, take our word for it: it’s big water. Although the shoreline isn’t quite as rocky and picturesque as the northern sections, it's an interesting section to explore and underscores the need for current charts when navigating anywhere but the areas closest to Kenora.
It was on this day that our guide, Scott Green, took us to see an Aboriginal pictograph. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of them scattered throughout this region, and many are charted and easily discoverable. It's difficult to convey the feeling of looking upon artwork that has been on the side of these overhangs for over 400 years, but and immediate sense of the importance of the lake throughout history, and not just European history, descends very quickly upon gazing on these images.
Because Lake of the Woods crosses international boundaries, we also visited the border crossing station. Traversing these waters is simple, with a phone and video camera at the unmanned crossing station. There is plenty of room at the docks here, so it's wise to bring your passport with you when exploring these waters.
On our way back to town, we had the incredible fortune to have a late lunch at a local favourite and true hidden gem, Crow Rock. There's something about spending a gorgeously long day outdoors on the water that makes food such an added pleasure; but the food, decor and the perfect bay, enclosed by bare rockface where Crow Rock sits, made a delicious meal of local fish all that much sweeter.
On this, our last night, we explored the city of Kenora and found a picture perfect town with great shops, restaurants and an enticing waterfront. While we chose the Lake of the Woods Brewing Company for our dinner (and a few rounds of their scrumptious small batch beers), there are plenty of great options for eats in town, and many places to stop for a drink or an after-dinner coffee.
My powerboating experiences have mainly been restricted to Northeastern Ontario and the Muskoka lakes; while some parts of those experiences are comparable, Lake of the Woods is much, much more vast and has many more distinct navigable areas. I would add that there is a distinctly different feel to Lake of the Woods – while the lake is much larger than most lakes I've explored, and there are thousands more islands here an a very distinct feeling of... potential.
That this is a place where you can still discover your own favourite cove, beach, islands or bay to moor in, and that this sense of discovery is ingrained in the fabric of the lake, from the time when the pictographs we saw were first drawn, to the time of the voyageurs, exploring blindly and encountering new people for the first time, to the modern day.
The Lake has many different faces, each with a completely different characteristics. From the busy waterways of Kenora, to the picture-perfect coves and beaches, the heavily populated cottage areas, the massive cliffs and rock faces of the Aulneau Peninsula, and the wide open water of Traverse Bay, Lake of the Woods is like 20 lakes in one. No wonder some people spend their lives exploring it, without ever really truly being able to say they “know” the lake. After two days on the lake, I can only speak to the limited but bountiful beauty I beheld. I plan to return as often as possible.
Channels here are clearly marked, and most of the boaters are seasoned and courteous.
For long term docking and boat storage, Northern Harbour is the most well-equipped facility in the city limits.
However, you can access Lake of the Woods for Sioux Narrows as well.
The Lake of the Woods Discovery Centre is a great place to start in Kenora, with plenty of parking for vehicles with large trailers.
Finally, for the most current weather report, visit The Weather Network.