Trip Reports

Shoulder High: A Georgian Bay Trip

Tahe Revel in Georgian Bay.

It was the third day of our four day trip to Georgian Bay and we still hadn’t reached our goal, the lighthouses on the Bustard Rocks. After two days of being wind bound in our tents, the gale force winds abruptly stopped in the afternoon and Steve Hauptli (Boulder, CO) and I broke camp packing our rain saturated gear into their stuff sacks and then fitting those bags carefully into our kayaks to ensure enough room. We were loaded by three and paddling away from the mainland north of Dead Island, where we had camped, on the way to the Bustard Islands.

Crossing to Dead Island in the fog, Georgian Bay.
Crossing to Dead Island in the fog, Georgian Bay.

The gale force winds that had pinned us down for two days had come from the north, and because we were close to the north shore of the bay, the open water was relatively calm. But the further we got from the mainland and the closer to the islands, the more waves there were. By the time we reached the Bustards, our kayaks were rising and falling in some nice and fun one foot waves. Every once in awhile, I’d look over to Steve and just see his shoulders above a wave.

In kayaking, we have a few simple rules to help judge the height of waves. The first is that if a wave hides your friend’s kayak from view, then you’re paddling in one foot waves. The second is that if you can only see your friend’s head as he drops into the trough of the wave, you’re paddling in two foot waves. If you lose sight of your partners, then the waves are, at least, three feet high. Anything bigger and you might as well stop counting at that point and just paddle. For the short paddle from Dead Island to the Bustards, we had up to a foot and a half foot waves.

Rock features just north of Dead Island, Georgian Bay
Rock features just north of Dead Island, Georgian Bay

Steve had never paddled a kayak in wind waves, so I asked him, “How do you feel in the waves?”

“Okay,” he said.

At the first chance we had to get into some shelter, we ducked between some islands and paddled in the calm. It was late afternoon, and I wanted a view of the lighthouse, so, at least, I could say that we saw our goal, so we paddled around the western side of the island until we got a view and then we started the search for campsites. Most of the islands in the 30,000 Island portion of Georgian Bay, in which rest the Bustards, are smoothly worn rocks. These rocks are granite and have been worn to a rounded shape by the glaciers that had previously covered the area. The islands look like oblong turtle shells rising out of the water. Finding a flat spot to put a tent is a challenge and requires one paddler to get out of his kayak, scout the island for tent sites and when he fails in finding a site, it’s off to the next island. The key word is fail, because there are few flat tent sites.

Steve Hauptli paddles in the Bustard Islands, ON
Steve Hauptli paddles in the Bustard Islands, ON

It was just seven in the evening, when we split up to try and find a site quickly before dark. After ten minutes of searching, I heard a whistle blow. Steve found one of the best campsites that I’ve ever stayed at. Room enough for five tents, a kitchen area, and the perfectly protected launching site. We quickly set up camp and with the shifting wind, our saturated gear dried almost instantly.

“Let’s paddle out to the lighthouses and come back in the dark,” said Steve.

I agreed, grabbed my camera, headlamp, and pushed off in my kayak. From our campsite, we wove through a twisted maze of bald rock islands just sticking shoulder high out of the water. The sun was low in the sky and it was getting dark. The wind had shifted from the south, and was blowing at a good clip across the entire 70 plus mile fetch of Georgian Bay. The instant we came around the last of the small rocks, Steve, who was in front, disappeared up to his shoulders in the waves.

Snow Peak tarp in Georgian Bay.
Snow Peak tarp in Georgian Bay.

We had just over a half of a mile to paddle in the open water to get to the lighthouse. I was catching a wave here and there and getting little surfs off of them and just generally having fun when I looked up to just see Steve’s head above a wave. As he rose to the top of the wave, his kayak was twitching a bit and he was trying to set up for a brace with his paddle, but it looked like he couldn’t decide which side to brace on. Then in an instant, he was off at a racing speed looking determined to get to our goal of the Bustard Rock Lighthouses.

Night picture of a campsite on the Bustard Islands, ON
Night picture of a campsite on the Bustard Islands, ON

I watched him for a bit and looked up at the sky. The sun was setting as a red glow spreading out across the clouds. Then I started paddling as fast as I could. Up and down in the waves until I was within shouting distance.

“How do you feel about paddling two foot waves in the dark?” I shouted.

“I don’t,” said Steve.

“Want to turn around?”


Steve Hauptli dressed for the day prepares breakfast.
Steve Hauptli dressed for the day prepares breakfast.

We turned around and got back to the one foot waves behind the shelter of the rock maze. I looked back at the lighthouses, and the sun was under the horizon but the glow in the sky looked brighter than any neon sign and it filled the sky right behind the main lighthouse, which was now flashing our direction. It would have made the perfect picture.

We ate in the dark and went to bed. My heart sinking with the last of the fading glow, because I knew we wouldn’t have time to get to the lighthouses in the morning.

Bustard Island Lighthouses, ON
Bustard Island Lighthouses, ON

The morning woke me early with sunshine reflecting from the water into my tent. Steve was up shortly and we talked a bit about how hard our day would be to get back to Byng Inlet, our take-out point. Even if we took a 4 mile open water crossing to try and save distance, we would have to paddle 21 miles. We decided to paddle out to the lighthouse anyway. The water was calm. The lighting golden and we spent an hour exploring the houses until we decided to get back on the water.

Kayaks near the Bustard Island lighthouses.
Kayaks near the Bustard Island lighthouses.

During that hour, the wind picked up and by the time we got to the start of our crossing, some five miles away from the lighthouses, the waves were boat high. Steve and I both felt up to it and we launched off with the wind behind us. An hour of easy paddling later, waves from behind pushing us, we landed to take a break.

“Waves feeling better?” I asked.

“Yep,” said Steve.

After our break, we paddled the rest of the way along the unprotected edge of the islands back to our take-out. The waves crashed against the rocks on our left and nudged our boats up and down. Despite being wind bound for almost two days, we had made our goal, and Steve had gotten used to paddling in waves. Not bad for a four day trip.


Bustard Island Details

Our trip was a four days long, which is just enough time to wet your mind and make your heart desire a longer stay. For a more enjoyable trip to the Bustard Islands from Byng Inlet plan on seven days. Seven days leaves much more time to relax and explore, and you’ll want to explore.


Georgian Cottages and Camping located at the mouth of the Magnetewan River, Byng Inlet, Georgian Bay, Ontario is a ideal location for starting your trip. They have a sand beach to launch from and places to camp the night before and after your trip. They do charge a fee to park your car. Spring 2007 Rates: $5/day Parking, $10/day/person Camping, $2/kayak Launch, and $3/shower.


I hate to give away locations of great campsites, but here is the UTM data for our two campsites: 17 515157E, 5083053N and the best one 17 506229E, 5080836N. Both NAD27 UTM.

Useful Hints

  • Tie two foot cords to each stake-out point on your tent and tarp. Use rocks to stake out the tent.
  • Keel Strips are good.
  • Keep a versitile lens on your camera: 18-200VR.
  • Bring Mosquito Coils to burn under your tarp at night.

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