I Sailed the Great Lakes Aboard the New Viking Octantis: Here's What It Was Like
Growing up in Toronto on the shores of Lake Ontario, I was well acquainted with the Great Lakes. I've taken many road trips along its shores and the shores of the St. Lawrence River to Montreal, Kingston, and the 1000 Islands. I recently began to expand my horizons however, exploring all five of the Great Lakes—Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior, aboard several small cruise ships. In my opinion, the Great Lakes—which make up the largest body of fresh water on earth—is on par with some of the world’s most significant and beautiful destinations.
In the summer of 2022 I returned from a Viking Cruise aboard a new expedition ship, Viking Octantis, on an 8-day Great Lakes Explorer itinerary from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Thunder Bay, Ontario. I was so fortunate to have the majestic north brought right to my cabin door, kindling my love affair with these great lakes.
Here are some of the highlights of my adventure across the awe-inspiring lakes, picturesque provincial parks, and welcoming communities in northern Ontario on this game-changing expedition ship.
About the Viking Octantis Ship
The 378-passenger Viking Octantis is similar to ocean and river ships, however in addition to the exceptional onboard service and understated elegance, Viking Octantis also has every expedition toy imaginable, including tenders, Zodiacs, kayaks, Special Operations Boats (SOB), and six-passenger submarines, all available free-of-charge for off-ship adventures. The expedition equipment is housed in a large onboard garage, The Hangar, where a Science Lab is also located for passengers to participate in citizen science activities. Dr. Damon Stanwell-Smith, Viking’s Head of Science and Sustainability, and his knowledgeable expedition team of experts helped make this cruise about learning, adventure, and research in the Great Lakes in addition to relaxation and pampering. Learn more about the ship here.
The Viking Octantis Route Through the Great Lakes
First Stop: Mackinac Island, Michigan, USA
Following an all-night cruise north on Lake Michigan, we arrived at our first port of call, Mackinac Island located in the Straits of Mackinac, where Lakes Michigan and Huron connect. As soon as the tenders dropped us at the pier I felt like I was on a movie set for an old western or Victorian-era film. We could tour the island and visit the historic Grand Hotel by horse-drawn carriage or bicycle only, as the island is car-free. Main Street was lined with fudge, T-shirt and other souvenir shops catering to the crowds of tourists arriving by ferry and other cruise ships.
The highlight of the Great Lakes Explorer itinerary for me, however, was arriving in Northern Ontario. Some thirty thousand islands stretch along 200 kilometres of lakefront, forming one of the world’s largest freshwater archipelagos. Parry Sound was our first stop.
Into Ontario: The Georgian Bay Biosphere at the World's Deepest Freshwater Port
Arriving in Parry Sound—the world’s deepest freshwater port—we watched small seaplanes landing gracefully near the dock, and heard trains roaring across the elevated railway bridge on our way to the Georgian Bay Biosphere, designated by UNESCO in 2004.
For several hours we learned about the conservation and protection work at the Biosphere. Suited up in protective clothing at the apiary, where bees and their hives are kept, we learned about honey bees, then about the protection of snakes, and explored a turtle lab. We could see baby turtles inside their shells by shining a bright light under the eggs. We even saw eggs with small turtle legs and heads poking out in the process of hatching. Although I did not have time to visit nearby Algonquin Park on this trip, fond memories of our family time in the park when our children were younger flooded back.
Hiking in Killarney Provincial Park
When Viking Octantis anchored early in the morning just off the Killarney East Lighthouse, 70 other passengers and I went up to the top deck for the launch of a weather balloon. It is the only civilian ship sanctioned by the United States Weather Service to launch such balloons. Once launched, the data from the balloon could be viewed in real-time on computers in Expedition Central.
Ship tenders passed many picturesque waterfront cottages with Canadian flags before reaching the dock. True to its original name, Shebahonaning, or “canoe passage” during the early 1800s fur trading days, there are many trails and canoe routes throughout Killarney Provincial Park. Campers with tents pitched at campsites waived and welcomed us on our hike with panoramic views, grand pine trees, and the refreshing forest fragrance along the way.
Our day was capped off with lunch and a relaxing afternoon at Killarney Mountain Lodge; the largest log building in Canada, perched on pink granite rock along the Killarney Channel with views of Georgian Bay. I could have stayed there for days to enjoy the quiet of the great Canadian outdoors, watching red canoes and kayaks move gracefully on the water and listening to the loons and seagulls.
Lodge Life and a Sub Dive Frazer Bay
Upon arrival in Frazer Bay with its rugged glacier-sculpted pink granite rock faces and cliffs, we anxiously awaited instructions, hoping that the submarine dive we booked for the morning would not be cancelled. We had been weighed and assigned specific seats in the 6-person submarine previously and were ready to go when the expedition team gave us the green light. The lake was very choppy as we boarded a Zodiac for a short ride to the submarine that was bobbing up and down in the swells. One by one we transferred with the assistance of the captain, to the submarine deck to step down a small ladder into the submarine.
The captain closed the hatch, and the submarine began to descend until we were on the lake bed. Zebra mussel shells, plankton, and small fish surrounded us. There were no mermaids or shipwrecks but the experience of diving in a submarine was rewarding enough.
We took a Zodiac to the historic Okeechobee Lodge with gorgeous views of Manitoulin Island across the channel. The traditional fishing and hunting lodge was decorated with taxidermied moose heads, black bears, seals, and all varieties of birds. I noticed Viking Octantis crew members from all over the world taking photos with these animals they’d never seen before. Some guests had hikes booked to A.J. Casson Peak, named for the Canadian Group of Seven landscape artist, A.J. Casson.
Passage Through the Soo Locks
Passengers crowded onto the bow as we approached the gravity-powered Soo Locks on the St. Mary’s River connecting Lake Superior to Lake Huron. The Soo Locks, dating back to the 1800s, has been called the “Linchpin of the Great Lakes” by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Being aboard Viking Octantis as she navigated through the Soo Locks was a highlight of this trip. If you’ve never been on a ship cruising through a sophisticated lock system as the water levels fill and empty, you’ll want to consider a Great Lakes cruise.
The Viking Octantis waited for over an hour at the Soo Locks while the enormous Canadian lake freighter CSL Tadoussac, maneuvered through the locks. It is one of many ships of the Great Lakes, called “Lakers” that carry bulk cargoes such as iron ore, coal, limestone, grain, or salt, traditionally sailing in the upper Great Lakes—Superior, Erie, Michigan, and Huron.
Sleeping Giant Provincial Park and Silver Islet, Ontario, Canada
Shortly after we anchored off Silver Islet, Ontario, on the tip of Sibley Peninsula near Thunder Bay, the kayaks, Zodiacs, and submarines were lowered into the choppy waters.
The morning exploration was on one of Viking Octantis’s military-grade Special Operations Boats (SOB). Lifejackets and seatbelts secured while still inside the Hangar, our SOB was lowered down a ramp inside The Hangar onto the pristine waters and we were off on an exhilarating adventure with views of the granite formations including Sleeping Giant. It was fascinating to see Silver Islet, a small rocky island with windswept trees, where at one time the world’s largest underwater silver mine thrived. We saw the massive structures of the mining platforms and the entrance to the very deep mining shaft in the clear water below our SOB.
An afternoon hike on the Sea Lion Trail in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park had us carefully stepping over smooth wet stones before reaching a panoramic view of the Octantis anchored in Georgian Bay and the sea lion rock glistening in the sun, before returning to the small mining town perched on the sheets of granite. Check out 11 things to do in Silver Islet here.
Arrival in Thunder Bay, Ontario
We docked in Thunder Bay and were welcomed by the local MacGillivray Pipe Band. Canada has a long history of Scottish immigration and traditions and the sound of bagpipes was music to my ears. There were no planned excursions in Thunder Bay, however there are many popular attractions such as Fort William Historical Park, art galleries, museums, restaurants as well as hiking trails worthy of a future visit. There are plenty of accommodation options in the city for those wanting to extend their stay.
The Great Lakes Tour: For Travellers with an Adventurous Spirit
Visiting Northern Ontario with Viking Cruises was a comfortable and enriching way to learn about the Great Lakes, understand the environmental challenges, and engage in science and research on and off the ship. It just makes sense to have a passenger ship also serve as a research vessel supporting conservation and environmental protection in the Great Lakes. The design of the Hangar housing all of the expedition equipment enabled us to explore close to the shoreline and in the shallow channels and waterways. For travellers with an adventurous spirit, Viking Octantis is ideal for visiting one of the most beautiful regions in Canada, and arguably in the world. Perhaps you too will be inspired to explore the Great Lakes with Viking Cruises soon.