You want both exciting boating and an untouched wilderness just a short cruise away from each other? Where else can you and your crew share some of the busiest water in Canada with boats and ships of all sizes, and still escape to a nature reserve whenever the feeling grabs you? Welcome to the 80 mile waterway from Lake Huron to Lake Erie that holds many boating seasons worth of things to see and do.
There’s a lot of boat traffic for sure. The stretch sees more commercial vessels passing through each year than the Suez and Panama Canals combined! Another 8000 vessels cross the water carrying goods between Canada and the U.S. As for pleasure craft, there are slips and docks for 12,000 boats along the Detroit River alone. The waterway cuts between two large cities, yet in Lake St Clair, boaters will find quiet bays that appear as untouched and wild as nature can make them.
Heading downstream from Lake Huron, the Blue Water Bridge is the first major landmark. It’s a paired bridge that connects Port Huron, Michigan and Port Lambton/Sarnia, Ontario, opened in 1938 and 1997.
The town of Sarnia has put a real focus on the water and the boaters on it. More than fifty waterfront events keep things hopping all season long – music, dance, theater and more… and most of them are free. Centennial Park is one of several waterfront parks and is home to many festivals including the Celebration of Lights. The city also hosts the Sarnia Highland Games, which include the North American Haggis Hurling Championship.
You’ll find a wide choice of places for waterfront dining and there are regular cruise boats that travel up and down the river. The city also hosts offshore powerboat races. And for the intrepid who like to fish, the annual Sarnia Salmon Derby that is one of the oldest and largest fishing derbies in the province, while the Point Edward Walleye Derby is another favourite each August. Fishing can be exceptional from one end of this stretch of water to the other, as the many derbies and fishing events attest. Along with the salmon, you will find large populations of bass, muskellunge, pickerel and panfish.
Once you pass the large petrochemical complexes south of the city, you move into a quieter, more rural stretch of water, with Ontario to your port side and the United States to your starboard. (Remember you’ll need your passport if you cross into US water or plan to go ashore for lunch.)
The hamlets along the river often have French or Spanish names as the explorers of this region were French but they were employed by Spain. The first village you’ll come to on the Canadian side, Corunna (Spanish for “crown”), was in the running to be Canada’s capital, but it was considered too close to the United States when memories of the War of 1812 were still fresh.
Community museums in Mooretown and Sombra tell very local stories from original settlers and highlight interesting residents. One of them is Christopher Hadfield, who flew Space Shuttle missions in 1995 and 2001, and the local airport in Sarnia is named after him. Sombra is Spanish for “shady place” and the turn-of-the-century homes in this community have been converted into boutiques.
A little further downstream, you’ll pass Port Lambton, and at the south end of the Detroit River, the delta is all Walpole Island Indian Reserve land that eventually opens up into Lake St Clair. The smallest of the great lakes is almost round, with marinas and dockage all along the southern and eastern shores. Watch for National Wildlife Areas posted by the Canadian Wildlife Service along the shore. This lake is the most important staging region for waterfowl south of James Bay. Thousands of migrating ducks, geese and swans stop here in the spring and fall.
Common and rare marsh birds also call this habitat home and there are several walking trails for bird watching. The wildlife service has set some areas aside, where boats, hunters and birders are not permitted.
Several communities along the Canadian side welcome boaters. The lighthouse at the mouth of the Thames River and Lighthouse Cove, is one of the oldest working lighthouses on the Great Lakes. The Thames River is one of the designated Canadian Heritage Rivers and flows through the Carolinian forest and is navigable all the way upstream to Chatham, making for a great side trip.
The town of Lakeshore has a large deep-water marina and a short walk to downtown where you find the services and necessities you need. The nearby park and playground gives kids a chance to get rid of some of their excess energy that has been bottled up on board. Along the south shore, Tecumseh is just east of the entrance to the Detroit River. The annual Corn Festival pays homage to one of the primary crops in the large farming community that surrounds the lake.
The Port of Windsor operates a pair of marinas. The track and casino are major draws but the riverfront is a quiet oasis amid the bright lights. Flowers and greenery, lawns and the sound of birds line the shore. Boats from both sides of the river take part in regattas, power boat races and other waterfront activities, such as the Sandwich Towne Festival, Dragon Boat Races, and the International Freedom Festival Tug Boat Race each summer.
The town of LaSalle is just downstream, and is named after the explorer who gave the lake its name. In 1679, LaSalle was becalmed on the lake when he realized that it was the day of the Feast of Ste Claire. So he christened the lake and the river in her name. LaSalle is a thriving community on the outskirts of Windsor. You can walk to the downtown from the docks, to find excellent shopping, groceries and other necessities, restaurants and entertainment. There are several shore side parks and festivals including the huge Strawberry Festival in May.
Amherstburg, one of the oldest towns in Ontario, is the last settlement before you reach Lake Erie. United Empire Loyalists settled here in 1796 after the British evacuation of Detroit. The town celebrates its history mostly around the War of 1812. Fort Malden is the site of one of the many battle sites in the region. The North American Black Historical Museum and Cultural Centre celebrates its importance to the Underground Railroad that began in the 1820s.
On the stretch of river from Amherstburg to the Belle River on Lake St Clair there are nearly twenty marinas on the Canadian side. They have room for roughly 2,000 boats and plenty of room for transient boaters to come ashore and stretch their legs.
Whether you enjoy strolling along waterfront, or choose to be dazzled by the flashing slot machines, the southernmost point of Canada has much to offer boaters. A vibrant history is celebrated every summer season through annual events and exceptional museums, fishing and cycling, concerts and plays, festivals, and bird watching and butterflies. Or you can choose to just sit by the water, soaking up the sun.
Come explore and participate in the history of this remarkable area. Visit these communities’ websites for dates and directions as you plan your visit.