You’re on Manitoulin:Dip your paddle, float your boat, get mellow on Manitoulin’s mystic waters

EDITOR’S NOTE: This year’s series of stories  is geared to giving tourist visitors insights into activities Manitoulin has to offer and will focus on unique experiences available to everyone.

On a recent late afternoon on the Kagawong River, Jonathan Laidley, who works at his family’s Manitoulin Wind and Wave shop on Highway 540, is taking someone (okay, me) out for a “test-paddle” (my first. ever. in a kayak.). The river has always looked compelling from the road, a meandering stream with a bend that stretches out of sight, like a postcard view of somewhere you remember or would like to be.

Jonathan gives a short instruction on how to hold the paddle, put the right side in the water, like so, then keep your left wrist supple while you dip that side, keeping everything nice and easy. Then, most terrifying, how to get into the kayak, but that’s easy too, and off we paddle, and what do you know, this is pure pleasure, all tucked into a tiny cockpit, feet on things like stirrups.

We glide along, around that mysterious curve that leads into the most childlike vision of summers past. There’s a breeze, and admittedly there’s a little bumping into poor Jonathan’s craft, which he deflects expertly, teaching as we go: now put some upper body into it, keep your hands spread over the paddle, don’t keep it too close to your chest. And soon we are talking about the Big City and how he is so grateful to be here in the summers, and how some people really don’t “get” a place like this. But we get it, alright, and as we return we greet a father and his two young children who are preparing to go out fishing, all of them with that look of keen anticipation, that slight flush of summer sun colouring their happy faces. I am hooked.

Paddling on, or around, Manitoulin Island, offers plenty of possibilities to newbies or veterans: rentals, sales, repairs, instruction in canoeing, kayaking and the fastest-growing sport, stand-up paddleboarding, are available all over the Island. Many resorts have water sports equipment for the use of their guests.

Smaller inland lakes are great to try for first-time Island paddling: Silver Lake near Silver Water, Loon and Lily Lakes off Hwy 540 near Meldrum Bay, Big Lake on Hwy 540 between Mindemoya and Sandfield, or Bass Lake near Sheguiandah. The Kagawong River across from Bridal Veil Falls, and Wolsey Lake from Indian Point Bridge in Evansville are popular with canoe- or kayak-carrying visitors. For those who prefer organized canoe touring, the Great Spirit Circle Trail offers several memorable experiences that blend Manitoulin’s remarkable natural environment with aboriginal history, local legends and plant lore. The Full Moon canoe tour has been recognized by the Canadian Tourism Commission as a signature experience.

André Leblanc, The Expositor’s knowledgeable Sporting Life columnist, is a competitive canoe racer who loves to take his canoe on camping trips with his family to Whitefish Falls, Whitefish River First Nation, Killarney, and in the Willisville Mountain lakes, calling it his “vehicle to the outdoors.” André generously shares what he knows about the sport, and it turns out that a great many Islanders are paddlers, slipping in to Manitoulin’s big or small waters every chance they get!

Rob Mellan, a constable for 27 years in the Manitowaning detachment of the OPP, is an avid paddler who builds ‘big water’ boats, and, with his wife Jo Anne, is passionate about adventure marathon racing. In 2010, Mellan entered his first race, the famous North Bay to Mattawa Canoe Race, in a voyageur canoe. Realizing that it was difficult to rent the voyageurs, he built one, with Mark Gibeault of By Path and Paddle of Manitowaning, and they raced it in the Yukon with seven other Manitouliners. They won first place.

Voyageur canoes were the mode of transportation of French Canadian fur traders in the 18th and early 19th centuries, modelled on First Nations designs. Mellan builds a type of voyageur canoe called a “north canoe,” 28 ft to 30 ft in length; it holds 10 to 12 paddlers, and is ideal for team racing. “I use a traditional form, and modern materials,” he explains, “made with cedar and ash milled in my small sawmill in the Green Bush. The canoe is covered inside and out in fibreglass.” It takes “about a year” to build, and since his first, he has built three more.

Rob Mellan’s passion for racing extends to fundraising for a good cause. “Last year, my OPP colleague and friend, also an avid canoeist, Dave Dennie, was killed in a car accident on the North Shore. The Dennie race was an idea I thought could help with setting up a trust fund for Dave’s two boys.” The first ‘Dennie Path of the Voyageurs Canoe and Kayak Race’ will take place August 22 and 23, along the traditional North Channel voyageur route, from Blind River to Spanish on one day, and to Little Current the next. “The race is open to voyageur and tandem canoes, and sea and double kayaks. We expect about 20 to 25 boats including five voyageurs.” The challenging race will end at Low Island between 6 and 8 pm on Saturday, August 23 with a reception for all participants at the Little Current Curling Club.

Debbie Colville and her son James started kayaking four years ago near their home close to Evansville. They go in to Wolsey Lake from Obejewung Park, or kayak from the bridge, even in late fall. “There’s no fuel, you just need lifejackets, and water, of course, to kayak; if you get tired you just float.” Apart from a “good upper body workout,” Debbie loves “the birds, the flowers, the primal bobbing in fluid.” This is the kind of language that kayakers use. If they have guests who are first-timers, she will “attach a rope to the beginner kayak and just drag them around, parts of the lake are shallow, there’s no danger.” She will also “drag James around while he fishes.” This is family fun at its best.

Mark Gibeault is another former Scout who started canoeing at the family cottage. Twenty-two years ago he came to Manitoulin to take a job teaching at Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve and is currently seconded as principal of the First Nation Student Success Program.

He loves to sea-kayak in the big waters of Georgian Bay, “for multiple days,” or at Providence Bay, South Bay and Maple Point where he and his wife, Heather Pennie, have a cottage and where they “are raising our two kids to be paddlers.” Mark and Heather run By Path or Paddle to sell canoes, kayaks and gear, located in Sunsite Estates near Manitowaning. They offer youth clinics, instruction in sea kayaking, voyageur canoes and paddleboards, certificate and shorter canoe courses and coaching. “It’s a summer hobby,” says Mark, “that feeds my passion for paddle sports.” Mark also expertly repairs and restores boats, especially fibreglass and cedar and canvas. Big canoes are available to rent for special events, festivals and weddings.

What Mark loves most, he explains, is “always learning, and the core fitness.” He is a racer who has competed ten times in the North Bay to Mattawa Canoe Race and is one of the organizers of “the Dennie.” He confesses, sounding slightly amazed at his good fortune, “what I do just doesn’t seem like work.”

Manitoulin Wind and Wave, Kagawong: Tel: 705-282-1999;

By Path or Paddle, Manitowaning: Tel: 705-859-1683; email:;

Kayak and inflatable paddle board rentals: Canadian Yacht Charters, Gore Bay: Tel: 705-282-0185; email:;

Great Spirit Circle Trail, M’Chigeeng: Tel: (705) 377-4404; toll-free: 1-877-710-3211;

For summer events listings, pick up a free copy of This is Manitoulin and Manitoulin’s Magazine 2014, available everywhere. For news and activities updates, read The Manitoulin Expositor and Manitoulin West Recorder weekly newspapers.