Across the Frozen Sweetwater Sea

Zane Davies treks into aqua firma. Scott Parent photo.

“Holy fuck!” Zane declared as we advanced to the edge of the open-water river that had hatched down the centre of the Georgian Bay icepack. We woke up after our first day push across the mixed terrain off the Cape of Neyaashiinigmiing with a thin belt of water – that hadn’t existed the night before – within sight of our tarp. The GPS said we had 28.5 kilometres between us and Double Top Island lighthouse. It read 27 km when we went to sleep the night before. We had drifted away from our goal. It was obvious the thin vein beside us didn’t measure the amount of distance we lost. There had to be more open water out there ahead of us.

By Scott Parent


We made quick work crossing the vein, and marched on through fields of smooth ice circled with hummock ridges, searching for passable breaks that would lead us into the next ‘room‘ of travel-ice. We could see the black of the river revealing itself over our right shoulders. At a distance, we could determine one daunting characteristic.

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It was big.

We selected passable avenues through the hummock buttresses that led us closer to the river’s edge. The contrast of black on white was astounding. That’s when Zane piped up in awe-induced expletives. “We could paddle all the way to Parry Sound up this river,” he remarked. Looking at the satellite image of that day now reveals we could have almost reached the French River.

GB by SUP2
Scott Parent photo.

Seemingly poised in the best position to cross where we stood, we discussed our options. We needed a flat ice edge for the transition, and we needed to avoid bummock ice emerging out from underneath while we launched onto the water.

In winter, the open waters of Georgian Bay can form into closed ice terrains. Over the course of the winter the floes conglomerate into shifting landscapes. The centre of the inland sea doesn’t reach full concentration and we can expect it to move. Even when we say the lake is frozen over, the winds will stir it all into motion. The potential for open water is always present.

The centre of the inland sea doesn’t reach full concentration and we can expect it to move. Even when we say the lake is frozen over, the winds will stir it all into motion.

That being said, our SUPs enabled us to handle open water. Should we hit water, we figured it would be just like winter paddling along the Peninsula. We were both comfortable and prepared for that. We had rehearsed for that. In fact we had to paddle out nearly 1km off the Cape to access the floes setting out.

Not only could we paddle them, they served as the ultimate haulage sleds, with built-in rocker. They offered the ultimate modality for mixed terrain winter travel out there, so long as they could handle the abuse. They also served as foam insulators to sleep out on the ice.

GB by SUP3
Scott Parent photo.

Having blown out a board in dress rehearsals, we modified two Blu Wave Wave Rider 10’6’s with added fiberglass along the rails and bottom centre, and epoxied crazy carpets to the bottom. The added layer of polypropylene would help shield the foam core. Then we skinned the rails with Gorilla tape, and hauled a repair kit. Zane stepped out on a thin band of ice approaching the open water, and broke through up to his thighs. Protected by his drysuit, the cold water didn’t penetrate. He backed off and rerouted to a thicker section along the edge, and transitioned smoothly onto the open channel.

With the winds at around 11 knots we elected to kneel on our Wave Riders, which were loaded beyond their design, leaving us at the mercy of La Mer Douce. We passed through drifts of ice, over a small chop and into the exposed heart of the Bay.

After crossing almost 2km of open-water river, we transitioned onto the east side of the divide. We checked our progress with the GPS and saw that we had gained the middle of our line to the Western Islands’ Double Top lighthouse. With ideal weather for ice travel, we plodded on course across the remaining aqua firma. Altogether the open water we encountered comprised only 3.66 percent of our 82-km paddle trek. Without question, this was a surreal and unforgettable sequence of strokes for us both – planted between thousands of steps across a frozen sweetwater sea.

GeoBay SUP
Scott Parent photo.