We reach the North Channel, visit Sault-Saint-Marie, Ontario, and go for a 225-mile train ride. We return to the USA and visit Mackinac Island, Michigan.

Day 97 – Wed, 08/30 – From Killarney, ON to Little Current, ON – 22 miles, Travel Time: 2hrs 25min

Wednesday was a much nicer day. It was still a bit windy, but we had clear blue skies. Several boats decided to head out, including Bandit. Indigo decided to stay an extra day in Killarney as they were skipping Little Current and had a longer day planned out in the North Channel.

At 11:00, we headed to the fuel dock to get a pump-out of our poo tanks and then cruised down the channel past town and into the North Channel. It was a pretty easy passage. There was a bit of chop, but nothing uncomfortable.

We took the “inside (shallow) route”, and Bandit took the “outside (deep) route”. We both arrived at Little Current about the same time and after a short wait for the swing bridge, we arrived and docked. Contrary to its name, Little Current does not have a Little Current, it has a BIG current. Even with the current and wind, we docked without incident.

Curious, I wondered why there was such a strong current in the middle of a lake. I did some research, and it seems I am not alone! Warren Forrester did his Master’s Thesis on this phenomenon at the University of Toronto on that very question. You can read it here. It’s a combination of factors, including the moon phase causing tides in the Great Lakes, differences in air pressure on the surface of the water from weather fronts passing over the lakes, and the water flow from Lake Superior. The current can switch direction several times daily, ranging from nothing to 6 knots! Fascinating!

And speaking of the moon’s phases, we had a “Blue Moon” in the evening. We had walked into town and did a bit of shopping at the grocery store, then had dinner at a local Inn. When we returned to the boat, we were standing on the dock chatting with another boater, and I looked toward the bridge. “What’s that big light near the bridge?” I asked, and we quickly realized it was the moon, huge and full, rising over the bridge. The pictures don’t do it justice, but it was amazing!

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Day 98 – Thu, 08/31 – From Little Current, ON to Blind River, ON – 56 miles, Travel Time: 4hrs 45mi

In the North Channel, you either are marina people and run from far-flung marina to far-flung marina or are anchoring people and have 100’s of options to anchor out in beautiful bays. If Brenda had to deal with me for 24 hours stuck on the boat at an anchorage, with no escape, I think that I’d be linking to a story, “Captain of a yacht goes missing in North channel,” the wife says, “He went for a swim, and didn’t come back. Bummer!”

We decided to take the northern route and visit places we didn’t on our first loop, so we stopped at Blind River. Blind River is an old logging town. The mill closed in the late 1980s, and there is not much else there. Still, the people are great!

We docked at the marina, and because “Town” was a mile away, we took the bikes off the boat and rode around the old lumber mill and then into town for dinner.

That evening, we were entertained by another excellent “Blue Moon” moon rise.

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Day 99 – Fri, 09/01 – From Blind River, ON to Hilton Beach, ON – 47 miles, Travel Time: 4hrs 30min

On Friday, we had planned to go to a town called Thessalon, about 28 miles away. The weather was perfect, nice and calm. We were watching the weather for Saturday, and as the day progressed, we saw that the wind would be swinging from the South and picking up in speed, making the next leg across some open water potentially rough.

As we approached Thessalon, we decided to keep going and continue to a little town called Bruce Mines, another 10 miles along. While checking how the weather would look in the morning, we noticed yet another marina, “Hilton Beach,” which was just another 10 miles farther on and would give us excellent protection from the next day’s winds. So, we called them, and they had plenty of room. Sorry, Thessalon and Bruce Mines, we had to cancel our visits. Maybe next time.

When we pulled into Hilton Beach Marina, we stopped to get some fuel and pump out our black water tanks. Then we tied up on the dock and walked into town for some lunch.

Hilton Beach is a town of “ones”. There is one Marina, one Campground, one Motel (closed), one General Store, one Restaurant, and one Ice Cream Stand. After lunch, we walked up to the General Store for a quick look around, then Brenda went to the boaters’ lounge at the marina and did some laundry while I walked around and explored a bit.

In the evening, we went back to “The Restaurant” for dinner, then walked to “The Ice Cream Shop” which was located in “The Campground” (right next to the marina), and enjoyed an ice cream while watching the sunset.

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Day 100 – Sat, 09/02 – From Hilton Beach, ON to Sault-Ste-Marie,ON – 33 miles, Travel Time: 3hrs 33min

Our decision to go an extra 20 miles on Friday paid off on Saturday morning. The winds out on the bay we crossed yesterday were blowing at 20 knots, and the waves were in the 2-3 foot range! Where we were in protected waters, it was just fine. We were out of the “North Channel” and into the Saint Mary’s river, which is very protected.

The first part of the trip was through some narrow channels with sheer rock walls. There were lots of cottages built on top of tall rock islands and lots of lighthouses along the way.

We joined the Saint Mary’s River, which is the main passage from Lake Huron to Sault-Saint-Marie and the entrance to Lake Superior. The river has two channels: an upbound channel, which follows the river, and a downbound channel, which is a man-made canal. The ships that use this waterway (and there are 10 to 15 a day each way, can be over 1,000 feet long and over 150 feet wide. It’s nice to have some space to get around them!

Sault-Saint-Marie is split into two by the river, and there is an American side in Michigan and a Canadian side in Ontario. We had decided to stay on the Canadian side. In Sault-Saint-Marie (called the SOO by the locals), there is a large set of rapids, and both the US and Canada have built locks here since the early 1800s. On the Canadian side, one lock was the original shipping lock and is now used only for tour and recreational boats. The original lock here was for the large “expedition canoes” used by the fur traders in the early 1800’s and is still visible. On the US side, four large locks are capable of handling the mega lake freighters, which average 1,000+ feet in length and up to 150 feet wide. HUGE ships! They are currently renovating two of the locks to allow even larger ships to pass. Most of the shipping traffic here is iron ore from Minnesota for the steel mills in Michigan, Ohio, and Canada.

After we docked the boat, we took a walk around the park. The Marina, Pavillion, and Park are named after Roberta Bondar who was the first female Canadian in space. She was on one of the Space Shuttle Discovery missions.

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When we got back from our walk-about, I got out the drone to fly over to the American Side locks and take some photos of a big freighter going through the lock. They certainly are impressive! As we watched through the afternoon and evening, as one ship started into the lock, another would pull up to the waiting area behind it.

In the evening, we walked to a BBQ restaurant next to the marina for dinner, then sat on the boat watching the ships go through. At about 9:00 we started hearing fireworks and got a nice Labor Day display from the American side.

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Day 101 – Sun, 09/03 – In Sault-Ste-Marie,ON

When we decided to go to Sault-Ste-Marie, we really didn’t have any plans for activities. We toyed with the idea of going through the locks so that we could say that we had been in Lake Superior, but that was about it.

When we got there and did some investigating, we found a tour boat right next to the marina that goes through both the Canadian Lock, around the Algoma Steel Mill, and back through the US Locks. Also, as we were coming in, we saw the Canadian Bushplane Museum, which also looked quite interesting. And, while Googling attractions, we saw a train ride up into the Canadian backcountry called the Agawa Canyon Railroad, which is a 225-mile trip out to Agawa Canyon with two beautiful waterfalls. The train ride was an all-day affair, leaving at 8:00 a.m. and returning after 5:30 p.m. We booked that for Monday, Labor Day, and took the Tour Boat and went to the Bushplane Museum on Sunday.

We took the morning tour of the locks. It was very interesting to hear the history of the area, the infighting between the US and Canada (French & British controlled), and the role the locks played in the War of 1812.

The Canadian lock is smaller, and quite historical with lots of building from the 1800’s and early 1900’s. After passing through the lock and entering Lake Superior, the boat went around the Algoma Steel Mill. This is the largest steel mill in Canada. Currently they use coal fired furnaces to smelt the steel, however they are in the middle of a major upgrade project to switch to electric arc furnaces which will make the process significantly cleaner, and will use the power from the two large hydro generating stations on either side of the locks.

On our way to the American side, we got a great view of the International Road Bridge, and the International Railroad Bridge. The railroad bridge is closed to rail traffic during the day so that it doesn’t interrupt shipping traffic, and the lift bridges are kept open. At night, once the last ship has past, they lower the bridges, and there is a constant stream of rail traffic that crosses all night. We could hear the train horns and rumble of the engines from the marina.

As we were passing through the downbound lock, we saw the “Stewart J. Cort” bulk carrier coming out of the upbound lock. Built in 1972, it was the first 1,000-foot ship on the Great Lakes. We went through the lock and saw all of the tourists lined up on the American side, watching the ships go through. Right behind the “Stewart J. Cort”, was the CSL St-Laurent, a newer 780-foot bulk carrier with an awesome mural on the super-structure.

After exiting the lock, we looped around back to the Canadian side, past the marina, and back to the park.

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After our lock tour, we walked to the Bushplane Museum. The museum is housed in a hangar that was the Ontario base of the Canadian Fire Bomber Service. They have since outgrown it, and now it houses a collection of historic aircraft used to access the Canadian backcountry.

The tour starts with an excellent movie about the Fire Bomber Service and how they fight the wildfires in the extensive Ontario Wilderness. This was very poignant, given all of the fires in Canada this year.

Then you walk through the hangar among the aircraft. Many planes have stairs, so you can look inside or even crawl into them! They have samples of pretty much everything! Amphibious planes, float planes, ski planes, fire bombers, historic bi-planes, and a fully restored Fokker Tri-Motor. Seeing all the planes almost makes me want to take up flying again and get a float-plane rating! (Almost!)

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After visiting the museum, we went next door to the Northern Superior Brewing Company for some lunch, then walked through the downtown past some of the historic sites.

Day 102 – Mon, 09/04 – Labor Day, In Sault-Ste-Marie, ON

Monday morning, we got up early, walked to Tim Hortons for some breakfast, and then the mile to the train depot for our Algoma Train Ride. The train consisted of 8 restored passenger and dining cars, and was pulled by two diesel-electric locomotives.

The rail line was built in the early 1900s to carry supplies north along the coast of Lake Superior and to bring lumber back to Sault-Ste-Marie. In the 1960’s it converted to mostly a tourist train. The ride is very scenic, climbing up along the high ridges surrounding the lake, crossing rivers on tressels, and stopping in Agawa Canyon. Agawa Canyon was canyon cut by the river and features two waterfalls. In the 1930s, it was a popular route, and artists would rent boxcars from the railroad and “camp” in them on sidings along the route to paint.

Like many railways, it fell into financial trouble and was in decline until 2020, when Covid forced a full shutdown. An industrial group worked with the government of Ontario, and in 2021, the line was reopened for tours and has been steadily growing since! They hope to start limited freight service on the line in the near future.

Leaving the station in Sault-Ste-Marie, you pass the Algoma Steel mill and climb up onto the ridge along the lake, giving some spectacular views. The fog was still lying in the valleys with the tops of the hills sticking above. There are a few road crossings, and then you enter an area dotted with lakes and cottages. A few miles before reaching the canyon, you cross a large curved tressel over the Agawa River and a large hydro dam. The ride to the canyon is 114 miles and takes about 4 hours.

All of the cars have TV monitors that give an “engineer’s eye view” from the front of the train. This was great as we could see what was coming and prepare to take pictures. There was also a very well-produced commentary on the history and features of the area.

After reaching the canyon, which is only accessible by rail or foot, you disembark the train and have 90 minutes to walk around the trails. There are two large waterfalls, “Bridal Veil Falls” and “Black Beaver Falls”. You can also climb some 210 steps to a viewing platform high on the canyon walls. We had a beautiful day, with temperatures in the low 80s and clear blue skies. While not peak foliage season, the trees had started to show some color, and there were many beautiful views.

We walked to the two waterfalls and explored the park at the canyon base. At 1:30, the train whistle blew, and it was time to re-board. On the trip back, we visited the dining car for lunch and then watched the scenery go past. The trip back took 5 hours as the train had to go slowly because the heat had caused the rails to expand. I guess that part of Canada isn’t used to temps in the 80s!

We pulled into the station at 6:30. We had to search for a restaurant open on a Labor Day Monday. Most were closed. On the way back, we found one that was part of a hotel and had a nice dinner. When we returned to the boat, we got things ready for a departure in the morning and our return to the USA!

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Day 103 – Tue, 09/05 – From Sault-Ste-Marie, ON to Detour Village, MI, USA – 45 miles, Travel Time: 3hrs 55min

We left Sault-Ste-Marie at 9:00 and headed south for our return to the USA. Technically, we crossed into the US about 5 minutes after we left the marina, but since the border splits the St Mary’s River, we didn’t call it quite yet. As we passed the ferry terminal, the car ferry that goes between the US and Canada (only about 1/4 mile trip), pulled out in front of us while blowing it’s horn. Technically, they are supposed to blow the horn, THEN backup, and Technically we had the right of way since we were in the main channel. However, they are local, and bigger than us, so we gave way and let them cross.

A couple of miles downriver, the channel splits into the upbound and downbound channels. We stayed to the right into the downbound channel. This channel was cut in the 1960s to avoid collisions by the big ships in a narrow part of the St Marys River. It was quite a feat of engineering and the piles of rock that they removed still line the cut.

Once we were through the cut and back into the open water, we passed a lighthouse that is approximately on the US/Canadian border. They fly both flags on the front lawn, although interestingly, they are backward based on the border. As we passed the lighthouse, we checked back into the US with the CBP Roam App on our phone. It only took a minute and we were welcomed back into the US!

We arrived at De Tour Village around 1:00 and checked into the marina.

De Tour Village is a popular stop for Loopers as it and Drummond Island are on the main channel coming into the USA from Canada. In the days before the internet, there were US Customs offices here to check-in. The Chippewa Indian name for this area was ‘Giwideonaning’, meaning “Point which we go around in a canoe”. Following the Indian name, the French called it “DeTour,” which means “The Turn” since ships and canoes made a turn to go west to Mackinac or southeast to Detroit.

There were already two Loopers in port, Picket’s Pub and Bandit, and Dirtless joined us a little later in the day. This was the largest group of Loopers we had since back in Killarney. In the evening, the 8 of us, (4 couples) went to a local burger bar called the De Tour Village Inn. It’s one of the two restaurants in town and the only one that is still open. We sat at a large table and ordered drinks and dinner. There were quite a few “local characters” already there, and they were all very friendly, asking questions about our trip and boats. One “character”, “Gary”, said “Hey, I play guitar! Do you mind if I get it and play for you all?” We thought it was a good idea, (some of the locals rolled their eyes, especially our waitress who we later learned was his ex-wife) Oh, and when you look at the pictures, the girl with the multi-color hair is a “local” called “Skittles” (we didn’t ask!)

Gary got his guitar, and we all did a sing-along of the first verse (or maybe half a verse with a lot of “da-da-da-dums”) Still, it was a great time. We all bought Gary a beer (so that was 4 or 6? We lost count). His playing and singing seemed to get better the more beer he (and we) had! Ha Ha!

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