Georgian Bay at sunset and through fog on the Chi-Cheemaun ferry

THERE’S NOTHING LIKE TRAVELING ON A SHIP. I’m not talking about canoes or dinghies or skiffs – I mean a ship, with decks and a crew. Stepping on board a ship feels like the beginning of an adventure. Before air travel, ships took us across lakes, seas and oceans; a voyage on a ship often meant serious changes in our lives. Unless you’re into cruising, you might not see the deck of a ship much these days; I’ve traveled on a lot of planes and trains, but my time aboard ships is still only measurable in hours.

The ferry from Tobermory to Manitoulin Island on Lake Huron has been sailing since the ’20s, and the MS Chi-Cheemaun is the latest and biggest ship to make the trip across the mouth of Georgian Bay several times a day from May to October. I spent a couple of days on the ferry recently while working on a job, and it was as fun – and photogenic – as I’d imagined in my wildest dreams.


Chi-Cheemaun docking at Tobermory

The Chi-Cheemaun sails into Tobermory from around the edge of North Otter Island, a dot that grows bigger as it steams toward the ferry terminal. As the ship approaches the dock the colourful mural decorating its bow splits open and rises into the air. After a series of clangs and rumbles from the engines the ramps are in place and a stream of cars pour out of the ship. The turnaround is done with amazing efficiency; the crew tells me that they can empty and refill the car decks in around fifteen minutes in calm weather.


Heading out into Georgian Bay

I’m booked for a sunset dinner cruise on the Chi-Cheemaun, one of the many special events that make it more than a car ferry for both locals and tourists. Along with shipboard concerts and special cruises for stargazing and watching fireworks, the sunset dinner sailings have made the Chi-Cheemaun and its decorated funnel and bow an icon of cottage country in this popular and pretty part of Ontario.


Back over the stern on the Chi-Cheemaun

The upper decks are lined with colourful Muskoka chairs to make sightseeing comfortable. The evening air is still brisk in May and guests are in the restaurant enjoying dinner, but I keep leaving my table and slipping outside to capture the view as the Chi-Cheemaun sails out between the islands of Georgian Bay and into the open water of the lake.


Manitoulin Island at sunset

It takes a little less than two hours to arrive at the ferry terminal in South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island. Dessert has been served and everyone with a one-way ticket – truckers and island locals and tourists heading for campgrounds and rented cottages – make their way down to the car decks. The sun is starting to set in earnest.


Sun setting over Georgian Bay

We head back out into Georgian Bay from Manitoulin with the sun setting behind us over the stern. The sky had been pale blue for much of the trip from Tobermory, but the show’s really begun on the return voyage, at the start of a spectacular sunset that takes well over two hours.


Capturing the sunset on the Chi-Cheemaun

I’m not the only one trying to document the show. Everyone has their phones out, naturally, and I find Ewen, a photographer from Guelph traveling with his wife, bent over the railings with his camera. The sun is down to a line of flame at the horizon and the sky above is a symphony of blue from blush to bruise.


Looking back over the stern

It’s at times like this that I’m grateful I recently switched from a DSLR to a mirrorless Fuji camera. You can, of course, rely on the presets and meter in your camera with some confidence, but it always helps to be able to see very nearly what’s being captured, and on full manual with the Fuji I have confidence I’m getting as much of this sunset as I can.


Final blaze of colour at sunset on Georgian Bay

It just keeps going on and on. Every time I think I’ve caught enough of the sunset I head back inside, only to glance out the window and get drawn back out onto the deck to try to capture some new combination of waves, sky and light. Some photographers swear by mountaintops, but I think the greatest place to capture a sunset is on the water.


Thick fog on the bay

Everything changes the next day. I’m booked on both of the Chi-Cheemaun’s trips back and forth across the bay that day and a thick fog has rolled in overnight. It’s a very different show in front of my camera from the evening before. The islands on either side of us on the way out of Tobermory are only glimpsed through the fog – rough, tree-spiked oblongs draped in steaming mist.

It’s chilly on deck all day, with visibility dropping off just a few dozen metres from the boat. These trips are more about sound than sight – the measured boom of the ship’s horn echoing out over the waves, the thrum of the engines and the hiss of the bow of the Chi-Cheemaun cutting through the water.


Walking the deck by the bridge of the Chi-Cheemaun

On Manitoulin Island you can barely see the cars lined up by the ramp at the stern. On Tobermory the fog is less thick at the ferry terminal, and I get a series of nice shots of the bow raised – an engineering marvel that never ceased to amaze me on all of the trips I take over the weekend.


Nose up in Tobermory

At the end of the day I’m invited up to the bridge after the captain and the crew have left. I’d wanted to get up there during the day’s trips but the captain didn’t want any distractions while steering the ferry through the fog. The ship’s nose is up in the air and everything has been left in place, ready for the first trip back to Manitoulin the next morning.


On the bridge of the MS Chi-Cheemaun in Tobermory

Rick McGinnis was hosted by Owen Sound Transportation Companywho have not approved or reviewed this story.

Photos and story © 2019 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved