A SUP soloist attempts a daring open water mission across Georgian Bay
Words and photos by Scott Parent
Departing Lion’s Head harbor on a 14-foot stand-up paddle board, I am attempting to reckon the remote Westerns from the blind side, using only a compass and sight references. I’m heading for Double Top – the southernmost of the Western Islands group – 77 kilometres to the east. There is a lighthouse there that has warned navigators of their isolated location since 1895.
I have prepared extensively for this trip. I talked to a group of sea kayakers who paddled from Lion’s Head harbour to Parry Sound, but I could not find any accounts of soloists paddling SUPs that distance.
Setting out, the weather is stable and the winds strong. With an eye on the morning skies, I paddle out along the dolostone faces in Lion’s Head bay. Rounding Gun Point with a clear view of my heading and the open water conditions, I set out east toward a landless horizon.
Breaking the magnetic shore is daunting, but I advance quickly and am soon past the lee, where the water is in good form. The long rollers are well defined, barreling toward the southeast. The wind would carry me south of Cape Croker, so I speculate my heading with the wind direction and cut northeast.
The rollers, like soft travelers, pass me from left to the right, and I fall and rise along their crests. The riding is smooth and secure. I can see into the water and I blend my immediate thoughts with my many memories of this moody mass of water. I speculate my height and drop my heading toward my desired line. I get the opportunity of a lifetime to slot onto a large cruising swell, which frees me up to look around and take it all in. I experience exhilarating locomotion. I coast like this for hours. By afternoon, the Peninsula is gone, and Christian Island becomes the only sight reference.
Eventually, I hit the bottom of the drop limit and must cut into the northeast position. I feel the necessity of spotting the Double Top lighthouse and I apply my full attention to observation. I try to “raise the turtle” by seeing the islands rise out of the horizon. I spot what could be larger waves forming ahead. I hold them in sight until they dissolve in case they turn out to be not waves, but Westerns themselves.
The day passes like a sun dance. The water’s surface begins to shape-shift, as stronger north winds begin to move in and the sun refracts off the distant rim of the 30 Thousand Islands. I can feel the force of the swell, but I must negotiate constant interfering shapes, one of which displaces a roller from behind. I take on water and then capsize into a barreling trough.
Emerging from the warm water, I reach for the tether. My board and I are leashed as one. My riggings hold fast, and all is secure. I don’t delay for long, and I’m soon back on course feeling invigorated.
I resume scanning. Finally, a breadth of a hair above due east, I see something. It’s a white shiny object some 10 to 15 kilometres ahead. I am elated, and paddle hard for the remainder of the sunlight.
After the sun sets, I don my wetsuit and secure my paddle with a line. A short rest takes me further south than I desire, which increases the angle I have to paddle into the wind. I fix my sight on the lighthouse beacon, counting as it disappears behind the dark water. The beacon only illuminates every 10 seconds, and there are many extended periods between sightings. Navigating toward the beacon allows me to use its light as well as the stars for visual guides. On a paddleboard, I don’t have to worry about hitting rocks. And I have nautical lights built onto my deck so I can be identified as a vessel.
The only difficulty of night paddling is that I’m unable to discern if I am advancing at all toward the beacon. I can see the light clearly, albeit intermittently, for hours, but I can’t always tell if I’m actually getting any closer.
It isn’t as terrifying as one might expect. Even though it is big water, it is a perfect summer night. After a long crossing, the lighthouse finally takes shape. The waves are volatile, yet negotiable. As I approach shore, the spill is inevitable as the big water tosses me upon the island. It has been 20 hours since I set out from Lion’s Head, and now I stand upon the southern tip of the granite cluster of the Western Islands, on the other side of this inland sea.
I marvel at the night. Under a wealth of stars, I explore the charming haunt of the lighthouse. The warm summer winds and high waves roar about me. Soon I lie down to sleep.
In the morning I start on four more days of stand-up paddleboard navigation. First, I traverse along the Westerns group and across to Frying Pan Island to complete the crossing of Georgian Bay. Then I paddle through the southeastern islands toward Nottawasaga Bay.
My route weaves close to 200 kilometers of open water, island channels and long coastal runs. I experience a range of weather intimately, and meet interesting people. I end the sojourn at Wasaga Beach, when strong headwinds are forecasted to linger.
I don’t advocate soloing. I am hard-wired for going alone, but I understood the majority of these waterways well enough prior to setting out. I travel prepared and I enjoy the long distances. By combining paddling and surfing disciplines, any given nautical point has become accessible.