Cruising on a Budget

An experiment in thrifty travel turns into an unforgettable family adventure.

"A boat in a harbor is safe, but that's not where boats were meant to be." – Jonathan Cape

Yes, the fuel prices were high. Yes, we were in a bit of an economic downturn. Yes, we could have spent our time complaining and whining – all of which would have changed nothing, of course – while our boat stay tied to the dock. Or we could find a way to go cruising on a budget.

What kind of an example would one over the other set for our children? Victim or victor? Life: lemons or lemonade? It comes down to a choice that we are so fortunate as Canadians to have the freedom to make. Jonathan Cape's quote rang so true to me that summer, when so many of my dockmates had chosen not to leave the marina. Not to spend the money. It seemed so wrong to me. And it got me thinking that there had to be a way to get out on the water, do what we always do for our family summer vacation, and yet not break the bank.

So here's how – despite all the doom and gloom of that summer's high gas prices and this summer's economic uncertainty – our family still found a way to escape away on our boat to give ourselves and our kids an incredible summer. My wish for you is that our story will inspire you to do the same with your family.

We began by planning ahead and putting a few dollars away each month in the off season into a jar labelled "the gas tank." We decided that rather than trying to see everything, we'd concentrate on a smaller area and spend less time cruising (and burning fuel) and more time relaxing and playing in some of our favourite anchorages.

We asked the kids what they wanted, and together made a list of things we'd like to do, but hadn't had time to in previous vacations because we were so focused on getting to see the next spot. Based on their list – and enthusiasm – it was going to be one very exciting vacation!

We got out our charts of Southern Georgian Bay, Ontario and looked for possibilities. Places we hadn't been yet. Anchorages large enough to wakeboard in that had in previous seasons not been an option for us. Beaches, waterfalls and hiking trails we'd yet to explore. I wasn't sure what we'd find, but the wealth that lay right under our noses in our own backyard was incredible. I'll bet it's much the same where you boat.

Up until now our summer cruising was just that, much of our days were spent "going for a boat ride" as my kids called it when they were young, for four or five hours a day as we moved between anchorages, exploring every corner of Georgian Bay. This summer we decided to stay put in anchorages for more than one night.

Day One and Two

The beginning of summer holidays is always exciting. Two weeks to be unplugged from the world. No cell phones ringing. No alarm clocks. No commute. Wahoo! We loaded up the boat with our gear and the same food menu we'd eat at home (in so doing, we reasoned that there was no cost to that part of the trip). OK, so the menu was changed slightly to include all of our boating favourites: ribs-n'-rice; burgers on pita buns; apple dip; finger-food lunches, and the like.

We gassed up and headed to the closest anchorage; the docks on Beausoleil Island. My wife and I had had little time to plan the trip, so we sent the girls on a scavenger hunt down the beach. Over a cold beverage, alone for the first time in what seemed like months, we discussed their list of want-to-do's and roughly planned the trip. After a walk on the beach ourselves and an afternoon swim, we had dinner and cruised slowly over to our evening anchorage in Lost Bay as the sunset. I could feel the stress begin to drain from my body. For the bedtime story, I read the native legend of Kitchi-Kiwani and how the 30,000 Islands of Georgian Bay came to be. I'm not sure who fell asleep first; them or us.

We left very early the next morning and took the outside route north over glass calm water. We had decided to take advantage of the weather and go as far as we'd planned and work our way back home slowly.

Day Three and Four

Killbear Provincial Park has one of the most spectacular freshwater beaches in the world. Our youngest was up bright and early, so we two rowed to shore and left on our walk – "Just Daddy 'n me." Sometime later that morning (time is irrelevant on trips like this), we returned, famished for what was now lunch. We'd picked up some hiking brochures and let the kids pick, spending the afternoon on shore hiking the park.

That night was spectacular: calm and clear. Potentially perfect, so we tucked the kids into bed and set an alarm for 1 am. The night sky was ablaze with the Northern Lights, so we woke the girls up and all went up onto the dew-covered deck to watch. They'd never seen this before, and a couple of hours later we were still counting falling stars and pointing out colours they tried in vain to name. We all slept in till almost noon.

That afternoon an amazing summer storm blew through, drowning everything, and so we elected to go in for "reverse dinner" at Killbear Marina's Ship-To-Shore restaurant. You order and reserve your piece of dessert first, 'cause if you don't, the fresh pies are all gone by the time you finish the incredible main course. The double rainbow over Parry Sound was gorgeous as we headed in. The fuel fill-up and blocks of ice for the cooler came to $200. Dinner for five was just under $150. Total so far: $750.

Stunning double rainbow over Parry Sound


One of the top things on the list was to go blueberry picking. The season was perfect and so we were off to the Pancake Islands for lunch. As soon as the boat was tied to the public dock, the girls were off like a shot, baskets in hand. Between the five of us, we picked over four quarts of blueberries. A shore finger-food lunch then turned into an afternoon of building Inukshuks, learning that gravity works, and that it takes some skill and practice to figure out how to balance and fit rocks together.

We putt-putted over to an anchorage behind Parry Island and spent some time journaling. Initially, the kids hated this when we started it a few years ago, but they have one journal for our summer boat trips, and it was so much fun to listen to them read what they wrote in past summers and then tell the story in far more detail than the little bit they had so reluctantly written on the page.

The next morning, my wife and I took off in the dinghy before the kids were up and came back only to find them preparing us breakfast. Sausages grilled on the BBQ and instant oatmeal with fresh blueberries sprinkled through it. Yummy!

Breakfast aboard cooked by our children!

Day seven and eight

If you've ever travelled with kids, you know that they get to a point when they've had enough of each other and it's time for some alone time. We hit that on day seven. So as we cruised along for just a couple of hours that morning into another of the must-visit anchorages on our list, we separated them onto different parts of the boat. One was on the stern seat, another on the bow sunpad, and another down in the cabin. With the stereo playing Beach Boys tunes, by the time we arrived, everyone's mood had changed entirely.

A black bear cub visited us that evening while we were having dinner, and it was fascinating to watch him slowly make his way down the shoreline and around the point, sniffing at the air constantly, looking at us every so often, but not really minding that we were there sharing his space.

Black bear cub wandering along the Georgian Bay shoreline

We made popcorn in the microwave and curled up to watch two movies that night on my laptop, finally falling asleep listening to the "bullfrog chorus" waft in on the cool night air through the open hatches.

Day 9, 10 and 11

We heard our name hailed on the VHF by a couple who we'd taken north for their first time the previous season. We were thrilled they were up here on their own. The kids wanted to get together and so we pulled anchor, met up in yet another anchorage, and just hung out for three days. Swimming was of course at the top of the list, and I learned more combinations of ways you can jump off the bow that afternoon than I knew were possible.

An afternoon of fun playing on the watertoys

Over those next three days, we explored the islands and found bugs, nests, droppings, and we got questioned about it all. We found a fossil that looked like a foot, and so the story weaved by three creative kids ended up being that Bigfoot had apparently been there before – when he was growing up, of course – and he was so heavy. he left his footprint in the rock.

The highlight of the entire summer though came on our last evening together. We fired up the BBQs for dinner – chicken marinated in Italian dressing and frozen at home – and my wife saw a head pop up from across the bay and make a beeline for our boats. The head belonged to a huge turtle who hung out under our swim platforms, apparently undisturbed by humans. I tried an experiment and dropped a piece of chicken, and he gobbled it up. We spend three hours that evening in silence watching and fork-feeding this old reptile. It was humbling and inspiring to get that close to nature. Something you could never do anywhere but out here.

Snapping Turtle
This snapping turtle was quite friendly, but I still wouldn't want to get too close!

Day 12 and 13

The next day as we started to make our way home to our slip at Wye Heritage Marina, the mood was slightly blue. I had a cure for that. See, there's a mandatory stop at LeBlanc's on the south end of Frying Pan Island for ice cream. No matter how hard I try, I can't seem to stop my boat from just steering itself in that direction. My girls laugh. "Oh, Daddy!" Ice cream $20, gas and ice blocks $100. Total so far: $870.

We met friends in Echo Bay and rafted up together. We spent the late morning teaching the kids kayaking lessons before they ventured off to explore the back bay together, leaving us "adults to talk" is how I recall them explaining it. The evening started early with all the BBQs lit up, and slowly cooking specialties. We all enjoyed a relaxing three-course dinner with 10 adults around the table on our boat, almost putting the swim platform underwater. The kids thought that having dinner alone on "their own boat'" was great fun!

The morning fog was thick as pea soup – we couldn't see across the small anchorage, so we all wrapped ourselves in blankets and grabbed a good book. By the afternoon it had burned off, and we spent the day teaching the girls how to wakeboard and be a spotter in the dinghy. We had visitors come by while we were enjoying dinner, and the girls fed a flock of Canada Geese off the swim platform.

Day 14

The last day of summer holidays is always a sad one. I was never good at endings. But as I cruised back the last few miles towards home, I reflected on the past two weeks. Our final fill at Wye Heritage was another $100. Total $970. With apologies to the Mastercard commercials: gas and ice for 14 days – $970. Time boating with my kids – Priceless.

Looking back, I think we get to brag just a little bit. When someone back home on my street, with that "I'm beaten up by life" sullen look on their face asks me "What did you do this summer?" I now have an incredible answer: "My wife and I took our kids to the zoo, the museum, the planetarium, the movies, out for dinner, wakeboarding, hiking, swimming, and out on our boat for two weeks... and all for under a grand! What'd you do with your family?"

About Brad Roberts

Brad Roberts grew up at the family cottage on Lake Simcoe using both power and sailboats.  A veteran journalist with large national daily newspapers, outdoor interest magazines and syndicated television shows, Brad has entertained and educated readers for over 15 years with his unique family-inclusive perspective and writing style.  Brad is currently the Editor of Power Boating Canada Magazine where he gets to practice his favourite past time: encouraging others to use their boat to access the freedom and beauty of a Life Afloat.  Brad, his wife and their three children have traveled all over North America, but they choose to keep their own boat on Georgian Bay.

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