Five Days in the Turnbull Islands
Small Craft Advisor|November - December 2020
I rowed out of the marina at Blind River, Ontario, and raised the sail just offComb Point. It had been a ten-hour drive from Wisconsin, followed by the usual scramble to launch and load the boat.
TOM PAMPERIN

By the time I shoved off from the dock, the sun was already low on the horizon. A halfhearted evening breeze seemed likely to fade even further before too long, inspiring little confidence for a quick passage to the Turnbull Islands ten miles east. And the truth is, I was done in. I just wanted to cleat the mainsheet, hand off the steering duties to my line-and-bungee autopilot, and slump into a stupor while the boat sailed itself to a tiny pine-sheltered beach I had in mind, hidden away on an unnamed island at the heart of the Turnbulls.

When I’d realized I might be able to manage a short sailing trip in mid-summer, with five days clear on my calendar, I had thought immediately of the North Channel’s Turnbull Islands—dozens of undeveloped islands just off the Canadian mainland, only half a day’s sail from the nearest ramp at Blind River. But now I waffled. I wavered. I dithered. There wasn’t much of a breeze, but what there was would put me on a broad reach for the Turnbulls—almost a run. There was enough wind to keep me moving downwind steadily, if not quickly, in these conditions.

But I’d be lucky to reach the Turnbulls before full dark, even if the wind held. And just two miles west of Comb Point, I knew, was a broad sandy beach tucked in behind Patrick Point, at the eastern edge of the Mississagi River delta. I had camped there before and knew what I’d find: solitude, a sheltered harbor, and easy tenting on flat sand at the foot of a pine-topped granite cliff. But that was two miles to windward, in light airs growing lighter.

I ran through the calculations several times: two miles upwind or ten miles downwind; sunset fading into twilight; a temporary refuge to the west, my real destination east; half an hour of rowing to reach Patrick Point if the wind died, or several hours of rowing in the dark. Finally, I turned the boat west, away from the Turnbulls—for tonight, at least.

The decision made, I sheeted in on a long starboard tack that I hoped might take me halfway to Patrick Point before I had to come about. Six or seven miles astern, the low silhouette of Sanford Island was barely visible at the western edge of the Turnbulls. Though I’ve learned to accept the limitations of small-boat sailing over the years, and the need to adjust plans to account for conditions, I had to shake my head and smile as I watched my destination drop farther and farther astern.

In the morning, the sun on the east-facing beach woke me early. There wasn’t a hint of wind—a typical North Channel morning calm. Still, the sun was bright and the sky was blue and empty of clouds. I wasn’t going to waste my time hanging out at camp, trying to whistle up a breeze. And I wasn’t going to row ten or twelve miles to the Turnbulls, either. Not yet, anyway.

I got the chart out and moved to the shade of the tall pines at the edge of the beach to look things over. Just half a mile farther west was the mouth of the Mississagi River. Its branching bird’s-foot delta offered an intriguing network of channels and islands that seemed right for a morning’s exploration under oars. I packed up my gear, leftthe heavy bags inside the tent to hold it down in case a breeze came up while I was gone, and pulled out a couple of granola bars and an apple for lunch. I didn’t bother stepping the mast—I wasn’t going to need it. I just shoved the boat offthe beach, climbed aboard, and started rowing west up the rocky shore toward the river mouth—and away from the Turnbulls yet again. If patience is a virtue—and I don’t doubt that it is—then small boat sailing is a particularly saintly endeavor.

In half an hour I was working my way up the delta’s easternmost channel. The chart noted “numerous submerged obstacles” at the entrance—huge timber pilings from Blind River’s days as a logging town. Through much of the twentieth century, the Mississagi River delta had been home to the largest white pine sawmill east of the Rockies. In its first year of operation, the Blind River mill cut almost 90 million board feet of pine, enough lumber to build a line of stripplanked boats like mine that would reach from California to Japan, tied together bow to stern across the Pacific. And yet just 50 years after the mill’s closing, the shores of the North Channel are once again thick with pines—an encouraging sign, I thought.

Rowing steadily up the broad entrance to the eastern channel, I zigzagged my way between the weathered pilings. Some stuck out above the water’s surface—barely—like jagged teeth. Others waited just beneath, almost impossible to see in the dark water of the river. I passed a couple of outboard-powered fishing boats and continued up the eastern side of Fox Island. A half mile farther on, I slipped behind another island and into a parallel channel to the west, leaving the fishing boats behind for good.

I spent the rest of the morning weaving through the delta’s web of channels until I found a quiet backwater. I tied to shore at the foot of a gnarled pine, ate breakfast, and read for a while in the shade. By the time I started out again, heading downstream between Fox Island and Webster Island, the wind had come up, dead on the nose. I left the mast down and kept rowing. But I knew a headwind here, deep in the delta, would mean a southwest wind out on the open water—perfect for the crossing to the Turnbulls.

Buoyed by hopes for the chance to let the boat sail itself for a few hours while I lounged about indolently in the shade of the mainsail singing Jimmy Buffett songs, I followed the river back out to open water. By the time I got there, the wind had died away to nothing.

Still at the oars, I headed back to camp. Miles are miles, however you earn them. The sun was high overhead, with plenty of daylight left. Maybe the wind would come up again. Or maybe not. It didn’t seem to matter much. I’d get to the Turnbulls eventually.

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