Thunder Bay is the Gem in Ontario's Boating Crown

Smooth as glass cruising up the Kaministiquia River in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Photo: Steven Bull

Powerboat Television heads to "the Lakehead of the Great Lakes" and discovers why a summer visit here is a must for any boater.

I’m fortunate enough to be sent across North America to shoot different boats and boating destinations. From the Colorado River carved through the Mojave Desert to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in Florida and from Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories to the thousands of lakes in my home province of Ontario. In short: I’ve not seen it all, but I’ve seen a lot! 

And Thunder Bay blew me away. Honestly.

Having never been there, I didn’t know what to expect. Nor did I know how Lake Superior would be, as it, amazingly, had remained elusively off my been-there-boated-that list—though all its Great Lakes cousins had seen plenty of Bull over the years.

Powerboat Television visits Thunder Bay, Ontario

Hosted by a local couple who had spent decades on the water, we set out for the first leg of our exploration into the big water of Thunder Bay itself—leaving behind the well-kept marina which, nicely, sits right downtown.

Leaving the harbour in Thunder Bay

We left the protection of the breakwaters and out southwest past, and around, Pie Island on the 17-mile run to Thompson Island. Pie Island is no mere landmark for other journeys, it is majestic unto itself. With a height of more than 425 metres (1,400 feet), but a relatively small footprint at only 46 square kilometres (18 square miles), the rocky centre juts up abruptly from the tree-lined shore. It’s a must-photograph kind of place!

Pie Island, Thunder Bay, Ontario

Continuing to our furthest point of the cruise, we headed for Thompson Island, which looks remote on a map. But it’s not so secluded or desolate: in reality, there’s a sheltered harbour within the U-shaped island that volunteers maintain, building a dock and walking path and lookout. The water is crystal clear, the boaters—sail, power or PWC—are all equally welcome and friendly. Some stop by to stretch their legs while others spend the night, or use it as a safe harbour should the winds of Superior turn nasty. In any event, it’s a welcome sight and worthwhile trip.

Another Side to the Giant 

Another thing you must do is set aside some time to get up close and personal with the Sleeping Giant.

If you think it’s imposing as seen from the city, run alongside it and crane your neck up the cliffs that jut out of the lake. You’ll appreciate the true meaning of the word awesome, as the massive trees will look like saplings compared to the cliffs.

The Sleeping Giant up close

You have a couple mooring buoys in Sawyers Bay, on the north side of the peninsula, and I’m told Tee-Harbour on the south side is even better. We ran out of time as the winds whipped up the waves—something to take into account on the largest lake in North America (and third largest, by volume, in the world)! 

Blues and More in Thunder Bay

Returning to the marina as the sunset, I heard the tunes pumping across the water. If there’s one thing to take-away here, it is that visiting Thunder Bay during the Blues Festival is a must! To celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday it was big name Canadian rockers that headlined the nights, which were packed from local to international artists both heady blues and more pop sounds. The big names in 2017 included Amanda Marshall, Kim Mitchell, Alan Doyle & the Beautiful Gypsies, Big Sugar, Barney Bentall & the Legendary Hearts, and the Barenaked Ladies.

Barney Bentall, Alan Doyle, and the Barenaked Ladies rocking out at the 2017 Thunder Bay Blues Fest

The concert goes down at Marina Park, which is, as you would expect, right at the waterfront and a stone’s throw from the dock we returned to. 

History on the Water

The following day, with “If I Had A Million Dollars” still stuck in my head, we returned to the dock and headed out once more. 

Working our way between large lake freighters that ply the waters here is a rather unique opportunity. You want to give them plenty of space, but there is often one out on the hook waiting for its turn to load or unload at the busy port. Being in such close proximity is something only boaters can really experience.

Cruising about 2.5 nautical miles (just under five kilometres) you run past the commercial port and reach the mouth of the Kaministiquia River. Here you’ll find McKellar Island and Mission Island, with boatable passages on either side. If you take the channel furthest north you'll run past a massive rail yard before coming upon the historic James Whalen tugboat.

The James Whalen Tugboat

Built in 1906, the 180-footer was built to tow steamers and break ice up to 40-inches (101 centimetres) thick! The black, red, and white beauty is now permanently moored at the Kaministiquia Riverfront Heritage Park.

Upriver one-half nautical mile (one kilometre) is the Jackknife Bascule Bridge, which connects Mission Island to the mainland and, like the tug, is more than a century old. The key difference here is that this thing still operates! We had it lift to get our Silverton sedan bridge underneath. No longer used for vehicles, it is still used as a rail bridge.

The Jackknife Bascule Bridge

Cruising along further you pass a huge pulp and paper mill before everything but a few waterfront homes and cabins take over the no-longer-industrial waterfront. Even they grow sparse the further you go.

And though it was blowing well enough to have whitecaps within the breakwaters of the main Thunder Bay harbour, once we got a few miles upriver with the trees and winding path blocking all the wind the water was flat as glass.

Boating up the Kaministiquia River, Thunder Bay, Ontario

From the Hwy 61 bridge you cruise past the occasional fishing boat, but have a decent chance of having this stretch of the meandering Kam to yourself for the 3.5 nautical mile (6.5 kilometre) run up to Fort William Historical Park

This, too, is another great destination if you’re in town. Unfortunately, there are no public docks, but it’s worth the trip if you have even a remote interest in history.

Fort William Historical Park - Thunder Bay, Ontario

Thanks to a rather fastidious officer who ordered a thorough inventory of the original fort including measurements of every building inside and out, this is one of the single best recreations you’ll find of this era. It’s not guesswork by scholars a century later; it’s built to the plan of the original fort. The only difference is it has been moved from the original location and is now closer to the lake.

That aside, this fort is the reason there even is a Thunder Bay—one that has a great marina, a vibrant restaurant scene, and amazing festivals, at that. While cruising back to the marina, I promised our hosts that my first visit to Thunder Bay will most certainly not be my last. And seeing it by boat is the only way to do it, if you ask me!

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