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An Insider's Guide to Georgian Bay

Georgian Bay
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An Insider's Guide to Georgian Bay

Ontario's sweetwater sea is a gateway to adventure for all levels of sea kayakers.

Tim Dyer rhymes off the hidden channels, remarkable campsites and hazardous shoals of Georgian Bay, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, the way an urbanite might offer downtown driving directions. For nearly three decades, Dyer has guided and outfitted sea kayakers on Georgian Bay—the “Sweetwater Sea,” as 17th-century French explorer Samuel de Champlain memorably put it. For Dyer, each island of polished granite and windswept pine of this freshwater paradise seems to hold extraordinary memories for him and his family, who have poured their collective passion and energy into Parry Sound, ON’s White Squall Paddling Centre.

I’m channeling Dyer’s enthusiasm as I launch my sea kayak into the Chickanishing River, in Northeastern Ontario’s Killarney Provincial Park. Maiden’s hair grasses bend in the tea-coloured current and tight banks of tangled vegetation make the river feel like a one-way corridor to Georgian Bay. Big water announces itself reluctantly—a gauntlet of islands bisected by the eastbound passage of Collins Inlet. “The first people of the area, and afterwards the explorers and voyageurs, both chose the quietness of the inlet whenever the Bay looked threatening,” notes Dyer.

But it’s calm today and I’m captivated by the alternative: an alluring labyrinth of rockbound islands and sparkling shoals set against an open horizon. Dyer’s zeal exerts a siren’s call: “To take the exposed side is to laugh the adventurer’s laugh, face the wind and carry on.” I paddle onward, around the western tip of Philip Edward Island, keeping a close eye on my map as I navigate dozens of smaller islands and shoals.

The Georgian Bay coastline east of Killarney Provincial Park has emerged as one of the finest sea kayak destinations on the Great Lakes in part because of the popularity of White Squall’s all-inclusive guided journeys: their five-day Philip Edward Island trip is a perennial favourite. For more experienced paddlers like myself, nearby Killarney Outfitters provides sea kayaks and gear, making it easy to plan a self-guided trip with high-end rental equipment.

This is also the perfect setting to learn the fundamentals of kayak camping with training from Ontario Sea Kayak Centre (OSKC). The company delivers Paddle Canada Level 2 skills courses—five-day, nationally accredited programs for intermediates. “With so many islands it’s the ideal location to practice kayak navigation and to experience first-hand how weather influences paddling conditions,” says OSKC co-owner James Roberts. “The location also allows for open-water crossings and rescues. It’s a stunning place for a wilderness classroom and an outstanding environment for paddlers to develop safe and efficient touring skills.”

While the Killarney shores are best for intermediate to advanced paddlers, a little further south on Georgian Bay holds plenty of options for beginner kayakers, and those looking for more refined accommodations.

Canvas Tent at Harmony Outdoor Inn

Roberts and his partner, Dympna Hayes, envisioned a cozy bed and breakfast and comfortable canvas tents in the woods at their waterfront Parry Sound property as a perfect complement to their paddling programs. Their Harmony Outdoor Inn embraced “glamping” as a softer wilderness adventure; six traditional canvas “prospector” tents provide serene hideaways with comfortable beds, outdoor showers and high-speed Internet connection.

“People choose our outdoor inn for many reasons,” says Hayes. “Some used to be avid campers but now prefer the comfort of a real bed with fresh linens. Others just want a unique outdoor accommodations experience. For guests who really want luxury, we have three B&B rooms in our main inn and an on-site chef. We offer daily yoga and kayak and SUP rentals, lessons and tours. It’s fun when the glamping experience inspires a new generation to become backcountry campers.”

As Hayes notes, Georgian Bay is the ideal gateway for new paddlers. White Squall, for its part, offers kayaking lessons, wilderness first aid courses, and Paddle Canada Certification courses.

It also organizes theme-based, long-weekend sea kayak trips throughout the summer to introduce beginners to backcountry camping. “We realized long ago that people want to discover more about themselves and Georgian Bay,” explains Dyer. “So over the years we’ve created trips focussing on ecology, astronomy, yoga, waterscape art, photography camp songs, first-timers, lollygagging and more. Somehow just being out there makes you at peace. Your heart rate slows and your eyes widen, ready to take in new thoughts and ideas.”

I’m experiencing just that as I trace the inner channels of Desjardins Bay. I marvel at the sharp contrast between the austere, wave-swept outer coast and songbirds, frogs and verdant foliage of the sheltered passages. When it comes time to pull ashore for the night, I recall Dyer’s advice and steer offshore to the Fox Islands, a cluster of high, pink granite.

Soon, I’m lounging on the warm rock, watching the sun sink over Georgian Bay. Just as Dyer promised, it’s a “campsite one can only dream about.”

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