For decades, sailors plying the North Channel have returned with tales of its beauty, but unless you were a sailor or could cajole a friend with a boat into taking you on a tour, those isolated pockets of pristine wilderness remained out of reach for the average visitor.
Now, North Channel Cruise Line is offering tours to some of the area’s most renowned hot spots aboard its 75-foot trimaran-style boat, Le Grand Héron.
Based in Little Current on Manitoulin Island, North Channel Cruise Line is helmed by Chris Blodgett, whose family has owned and operated Discovery Yacht Charters for decades. Since taking over the business in 2007, Blodgett said he’s seen a marked demand by tourists for more large-scale attractions like the Cup and Saucer hiking trail, or Bridal Veil Falls in Kagawong.
“I thought it would be great to offer our waterways up for people to explore; they haven’t otherwise had the opportunity,” he said. “They come here and they see Manitoulin Island, which is beautiful, but they never get the opportunity to see what lays beyond it in the North Channel, and that’s what so many of our boaters are coming here for.”
Operating from July to October, North Channel Cruise Line offers regularly scheduled trips to the Benjamin Islands, Baie Fine, and Killarney, among others. Trips vary in length, from a few hours to a full day, and though the boat can accommodate up to 100 people, cruises are usually limited to no more than 50 to ensure everyone gets a comfortable seat on board.
The boat is licensed to serve alcohol, and food is provided. Fruit, vegetable, cheese and sandwich platters are provided on all excursions; for longer-duration trips, a cold buffet table is available, as well as an afternoon barbecue.
“We try to keep a good variety on there for people who have dietary restrictions,” Blodgett said. “If they do and they are unable to eat anything we’re providing, people are more than welcome to bring their own food aboard.”
The Héron is also available for private functions, including weddings, receptions and corporate meetings. On those occasions, people renting the vessel can arrange to have it privately catered. Blodgett has been working closely with the Anchor Inn, a popular Little Current eatery, to provide hot meal service for private events.
He’s also open to collaborating with other tourism outfitters in the future. Last year, he partnered with the Great Spirit Circle Trail (GSCT), a M’Chigeeng-based Aboriginal tour operator, during which North Channel Cruise Line provided the transportation and GSCT arranged for authentic First Nations cultural experiences.
Now in his second season of operation, Blodgett said coming up with the idea was easy. Finding the right vessel was the hard part.
“To find a boat with these dimensions is next to impossible,” he said. “A boat that’s 75 feet and has a 30-foot beam? It’s quite unusual, actually.”
But he eventually found the Héron up for sale online and she was perfect for his purposes. Originally put into service in 2008, the vessel began its life as a tour boat in the Magdalen Islands, a small archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean that’s part of Quebec.
The key, Blodgett said, was finding a boat that would meet Transport Canada’s strict regulatory process, which governs waterborne passenger vessels in Canada.
“This boat was already here, was built to specifications, and inspected all along, so it was very easy to get them to go along with what we were wanting to do here,” Blodgett said.
“They knew the boat well; they oversaw the build.”
With a 20-foot-wide cabin and a five-foot deck on either side, the boat is ideal for large gatherings, and it’s accessible for those with mobility challenges, as washrooms, the bar, and other amenities are all located on one deck.
Blodgett seems to have tapped into something. By the end of last season, the tours were selling out, and this season is heating up. If business continues to be good, Blodgett predicts expanding the Héron’s service to Killarney, the most popular of the excursions so far.
“If we continue to sell our trips as well as we have been, we’ll probably add a day or two a week,” he said. “But our response to our private charters has been pretty fantastic, so I foresee the boat being used 50/50 for private charter and the public tours.”