Boating to the Trailhead in Thunder Bay

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Counted among Canada’s Best Adventure Towns, Thunder Bay is a basecamp for adventure. This northwestern Ontario city is backdropped by rolling mountains, blessed with granite crags and blanketed with boreal forest; hikers, campers, climbers and cyclists thrive in this vast outdoor playground.

Thunder Bay’s identity and history is influenced by its seat on Lake Superior—a lake so big it stretches beyond the horizon and, not infrequently, behaves more like the sea. Imposing as it can be, a visit to Thunder Bay without journeying offshore would be a missed opportunity for a superior adventure.

“When you come to Thunder Bay, you’re going to be overwhelmed by the fact there’s so much water in front of you,” says Captain Gregory Heroux, founder and operator of Sail Superior, a multi-award-winning operator and recognized Ontario Signature Experience. “You’re going to say, I haven’t experienced Thunder Bay unless I’ve been on the water.”

Captain Gregory Heroux

He would know. Summoned to seafaring by a passion for travel and adventure, Heroux returned to his hometown in 1999 and founded Sail Superior alongside his father in 2001.

Two decades and countless sea miles later (including a year-long circumnavigation of the north Atlantic), the fleet has grown to four vessels: a 15-metre catamaran, a 12-passenger Zodiac, a 12-metre monohull sailboat and an electric sailboat.

“I think it’s important to give everybody the opportunity, whether it is by sailing, by Zodiac or ‘I just want to walk around the harbour,’ [to] see the immensity and the blue of Lake Superior,” Heroux says.

Captain Gregory Heroux

Stewarded by a friendly staff of four, scheduled departures and custom charters connect adventurers to otherwise inaccessible places or simply bring a new perspective to familiar icons.

For shorter excursions, you might ply the city’s harbour or tour the smattering of islands and peninsulas that skirt this windswept shore. For an extended, multi-night adventure, a seven-day itinerary travels 500 kilometres east along Superior’s isolated inner passage. Here are Heroux’s recommended Sail Superior experiences for wild-at-heart visitors who want a big lake adventure.

Challenging: Hike Sleeping Giant

You can’t describe Thunder Bay without Nanabijou or Sleeping Giant. An iconic feature of the landscape visible from the city centre, most folks make the 70-minute drive to the namesake provincial park to hike it. An incredible experience rewards those who arrive instead by water.

On a full-day Zodiac or sailing charter, you’ll cruise beyond the protective Welcome Islands to reach Sibley Peninsula. Drop anchor in Sawyer’s Bay, then locate the Head Trail trailhead to make the challenging 2.8-kilometre, round-trip ascent of Sleeping Giant. Once summited, admire what’s possibly the most awe-inspiring view in Ontario.

Back on the beach, dip into Superior’s restorative waters, sun your face and enjoy a picnic lunch before making the 40-minute return journey.

Captain Gregory Heroux

Moderate: Spar Island Trip

Another equally worthy half-day marine adventure with Sail Superior visits Spar Island.

Travelling south of Thunder Bay, cruise beyond a handful of green islands (the Welcomes, Pie, Thompson), pass the distinctive cliffs of Mink and a duo of islands aptly named the Sister Islands before arriving at Spar Island. Along the way, your captain will share morsels of local lore, stops at points of interest and you’ll spot resident and migratory waterfowl.

Arriving at Spar Island, seek refuge in a hidden bay and disembark on a pebbled shore. Setting out along the Top of the World Trail leads you through a forest of tall trees, spongey mosses and relics that nod to the island’s mining history. On a warm day, the woods are chorused by songbirds and fragranced with earthy aromas. After 15 or so minutes, you’ll reach a rocky outcrop to drink in marvelous Superior views before heading back. A brisk swim is optional.

The journey is a pleasing one-and-a-half to two-hours of cruising with three or so hours spent on Spar Island.

Captain Gregory Heroux

Multi-Night Wilderness Adventure: Lake Superior Inner Passage Expedition

For an extended adventure that will bring you far beyond the reaches of a cell signal, the lakeshore stretching east of Thunder Bay is a rugged, lonely and intriguing stretch of wilderness.

Across seven days, Sail Superior’s Inner Passage Expedition travels 300 nautical miles (500 kilometres) between Thunder Bay and Terrace Bay. On average, it’s about three hours of cruising each day, finding plenty of reasons to take pause. Highlights include sighting Sleeping Giant and remnants of magma-plugged volcanos, journeying up a river, hiking to a 30-metre hidden waterfall, dipping into bathing pools and Finnish wood saunas, forest walks, lighthouses and enjoying the warm hospitality of innkeepers in small, historical coastal communities.

Accommodations are a modest but comfortable mix of charming inns and cabins. There are currently two departures scheduled for 2024.

Captain Gregory Heroux

Sail Superior operates seasonally, from May 15 through October 15.

This article was sponsored by Ontario Nature

Ontario Nature is a charity that has been protecting wild species and wild spaces through conservation, education and public engagement since 1931.