It's a gigantic ski slalom course - but on water, not snow-laden slopes.
And instead of flexible poles imbedded in the snow to zip around, Captains Steve Anderson and Keith Salt, both from Parry Sound, must arc around
30,000 Georgian Bay islands
composed of Precambrian igneous and high-grade metamorphic rock, aka the Canadian Shield.
Each jagged slab is capable of inflicting severe damage to the Island Queen, Canada's largest sightseeing cruise ship, built in Port Colborne.
A chunk of rock must be a minimum of an acre large to constitute "island" status. "Those few that come up for sale are worth millions!" exclaims Salt while sipping coffee on the bridge.
Clutching the large stainless steel wheel, his partner, Anderson niftily guides the
550-passenger ship through incredibly tight maneuvers, the hull dangerously close to rock.
"Despite the hefty 550 tons, we draw only 1.8 m (six feet) of water," he explains, allowing them to slice freely through
narrow passes like a small motorboat. "Hole in the Wall" is a favourite channel with passengers, just wide enough for the Island Queen slip through and famous for its 24.4 m (80-foot) granite cliffs that one can almost reach out and touch, maximizing opportunities for photos.
Eastern Georgian Bay is a worldwide favourite venue for sailing and cruising. Today, we amble along at a steady 10 knots through water often 106.7 m (350-feet) deep. We encounter every kind of craft from canoes and windsurfers to elaborate sailboats and huge motorboats. And to the delight of a family of German tourists beside me, a fleet of tiny Sea-Doos race by, crashing through waves at unwarranted speed, driven by enthusiastic type A's.
Actually, we journey on a sixth Great Lake, almost as big as Lake Ontario at 200 km by 75 km. (656,168 feet by 807,087 feet) However, water levels lately are at an all-time low, and consequently a problem for cottage owners and myriad boaters alike.
As we cruise, a PA system informs us that there have been six thousand shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, its cold and fresh water preserving each wreck such as the "Atlantic," moored in 75 feet of clear water, a favourite for
Anderson says that in winter the water freezes .6 to .9m (2-3 feet) thick, and my guess is that Parry Sound's famous hockey star, Bobby Orr, likely skated on such ice. With a year-round population of 18,000 and a seasonal population of 60,000 plus, Parry Sound was named after
Sir William Edward Parry
, an English rear-admiral and Arctic explorer. His 1819 voyage through the Parry Channel was the most successful in a long quest for the
Everyone waves as we pass - boaters, their kids, even dogs' tails. We spot the only osprey nest hereabouts with a bird sitting inside. Windswept white pines evoke Tom Thomson's famous painting, the West Wind. There are fine views from each of the three decks with spotless windows that enable the taking of pictures from inside.
the 3-hour afternoon cruise (there's
a two-hour morning option) amidst the largest concentration of freshwater islands in the world, and we soon suffer from Freudian "cottage envy" as both cruises bring one close to the pristine beauty of remote islands and the rustic charm of grand summer cottages.
Captain Anderson steers the ship past granite shoals into narrow channels and shallow waterways, exploring out-of-the-way places within a geographical ecosystem so unique that it has earned World Biosphere Reserve status from the United Nations.
We pass the
Canadian Coast Guard Base, one of the largest on the Great Lakes, its primary duty to maintain safety through ice-breaking, search-and-rescue and the maintenance of thousands of aids to navigation such as light-houses and beacons, home to small day boats, helicopters and icebreakers.
Killbear Provincial Park
, one of Ontario's most popular summer parks, boasting miles of beautiful, sandy beaches, huge granite cliffs and rattlesnakes. Next is Palestine Island, where Irving Berlin, the famous composer of White Christmas and other well-known musical classics, spent many summers vacationing.
We leave and return to dock close to the Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts and Bobby Orr Hall of Fame. Completed in 2003, the former hosts live performances by renowned Canadian and international musicians. The latter celebrates
outstanding NHL career. Behind us, the 518m (1700-feet) long, 1905 CN Railroad trestle, still operable, looms high in the air while float planes idle below.
The three hours pass quickly on a warm and sunny afternoon. The ideal time for a fall foliage cruise varies, but generally, the last two weeks of September and the first two weeks of October are optimum. Rates are as follows: Adults - $38.00 each plus tax; Children 12 and under - $19.00 each plus tax; 5 and under - free.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.
Parry Sound is a town in Northern Ontario, Canada, located on the eastern shore of Georgian Bay. Parry Sound is located 160 km (99 mi) south of Sudbury and 225 km (140 mi) north of Toronto. It is the seat of Parry Sound District, a popular cottage country region for Southern Ontario residents. It also has the world's deepest natural freshwater port.