Mission: Georgian Bay’s 30,000 Islands

Joe Potoczak

Finding solace on Lake Huron’s empty north shore

Photos by Regina Nicolardi

“Let’s catch that eddy,” I shouted over the roaring north wind, reluctantly pulling my paddle blade from the water to point Regina toward an opportune resting spot.

The silky smooth eddy lay hidden behind a mass of stone as the water around it rippled with 25-knot gusts. She nodded without breaking her stroke cadence. It was a strong headwind, and any pause would blow our kayaks backward in the choppy whitewater.

Just minutes earlier we had left our sheltered camp tucked into the lee of the southern end of Cunningham’s Island.

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-7300241

From there our excursion today seemed manageable, especially in the islands that sprinkle Black Bay, a smaller body of water within Georgian Bay—and out of reach from more open waters of Lake Huron to the west. But as we rounded the eastern edge of Cunningham’s we instantaneously found ourselves battered by the elements, and switched into high gear to reach a resting point as soon as possible.

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-7290168

Wind is what drives Georgian Bay. It carries the waves, pulls enormous volumes of water through like a tide, and even shapes the landscape. Most often it carries across from a north and west direction. The pine trees bear the proof, their tops permanently bent, branches blown back, frozen with the direction of the wind. Their survival is an astonishing feat, roots clinging to the shallow soil filling the cracks in the gneiss bedrock, which seems shaped by the winds itself: bands of minerals swirling along in colorful strings of grays, oranges, pinks, and whites. The combination of these elements makes this wilderness a place of natural beauty.

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-7270070

Once we reach the eddy, we take some time to plot our course through the unnamed outcroppings that litter the little bay within the larger one. The region we’ve come to explore is known as the 30,000 Islands, and the endless maze of waterways around them.

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-7270046

Looking at a chart of the 30,000 Islands, you’d begin to assume the surveyors gave up on discovering and titling every feature and obstruction, opting instead to randomly poke dots along the mainland, figuring surely there must be something here and there. The islands of this massive freshwater archipelago vary in size, and density of vegetation. Some are home to wildflowers and small forests, occupied by critters who dwell in rocky nooks and scavenge the shores. Others to the west are merely barren mounds of stone, glowing dunes of red and orange hue in the brilliant sunlight. They sit exposed, battered by swells carried 50 miles across the bay, the rocky shoals acting as a barricade for the more delicate environments to the east.

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-7260018

We continue island-hopping our way around Black Bay, eventually reaching the northern end, where towering cliffs and mainland cease the source of our struggle. We ferry across a strong funneled current to Golden Sword Island, navigating around its northern point, then tuck into a small cove on its western edge, cut off from the surrounding conditions. Directly in the rays of the bright summer sun, the rocks radiate with a heat we’d hoped to encounter on the trip.

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-5257

The water temperature in our haven, however, is still frigid. Some lizard time on the rocks entices the idea of an invigorating rush of cold lake water.

But after an afternoon enjoying the splendors of summer, and a close encounter with the seldom-seen eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, we decide to pack up before pushing our luck. And before our companions bask at base camp begin to wonder about our return.

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-4662

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-5212

The headwind we fought most of the day becomes our tailwind heading back to camp. We surf south from roller to roller, peering off the side of our boats into depths of crystal-clear water, looking at the rock shelves deep below as we cruise to the front door of our home away from home.

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-5182

Back at base, we find our travel companions Ron England and Chrissy Valvano. Ron has spent far more time on these waters than the rest of the group combined. He provided the touring kayaks and the knowledge of the bay that he’d collected from his experiences here, including great advice to, “use the GPS,” in the rocky labyrinths.

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-5142

We followed a relaxed itinerary on the trip, opting for base camps and daily excursions like the one through Black Bay, in place of breaking camp and attempting to cover vast distances of the bay’s 1,200 miles of coast day-in and day-out.

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-8010380

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-5119

This gives us plenty of opportunities to explore the intricacies of our surroundings. The twisting topography of land and water provides an endless variety of microhabitats.

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-5088

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-5049

In a day’s paddle we can surf through rock gardens, cut through deep channels, hide in tranquil lagoons, and swim in warm backwaters—yet we’ve only seen the smallest fraction of what the region had to offer. When conditions become harsh, we simply allow them time to pass, enjoying the view from the back of the tent.

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-5023

The group spends the weaning hours of every day enjoying those meals that seem to hit the spot at camp but never quite taste the same at home.

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-5323

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-5006

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-4972

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-4937

We clean up and converse as the sun sets, enjoying each other’s company as a palette of pastel colors brushes the sky over an endless horizon.

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-4795

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-4615

Some evenings, the breeze burning our cheeks settles and camp falls silent—each of us gazing off, pondering life’s great mysteries—absorbing the bay as winds cease and the waters ease into a placid state. Eventually, as the night sky rises behind us we’re informed by microscopic gnats native to northern waters that it is time to retreat.

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-4721

Sprinting toward the tents, our nylon sanctuary, we pray for the return of that pesky wind—that one element that we had sometimes cursed throughout the day, the thing that holds balance over the bay.

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-star trails

Regina Nicolardi_Georgian Bay-4709