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Rattlesnake Harbour

Fitzwilliam Island, Georgian Bay

Rattlesnake Harbour is located at the northeastern end of Fitzwilliam Island, a few miles southeast from Manitoulin Island. It is named and indicated on all the appropriate charts, including an inset on Canadian Chart 2235 which shows the hydrology in accurate detail. The harbor offers complete shelter from winds and waves from all directions except Southwest to West, where it is somewhat open. The approach is clear and deep, and Rattlesnake can be easily entered. The mud bottom provides good holding, and the harbor is nicely positioned, about halfway between Tobermory and Killarney. In short, it is an excellent refuge for the visiting boater. There are, however, two drawbacks to this anchorage: deadheads and rattlesnakes!

Sketch of Rattlesnake Harbour


The suitability of this location as a sheltered anchorage was not lost on the lumbermen that worked in this area. Rattlesnake Harbour was the site of plenty of activity. As is the case in many of the North Channel's harbors, the bottom of Rattlesnake has some old logs. This old wood does occassionally rise from the bottom to float just below the surface, where it creates a significant hazard to the visiting boater, especially the boater moving at high speed. When in Rattlesnake, you are wise to keep your speed down and your guard up. Post a bow lookout, and proceed with caution, unless you would like to test your hull against a forty foot log with its less buoyant end stuck a few feet in the muddy bottom of the harbor.

That old timber on the bottom is also a hazard to your anchor, as we learned on a visit there in 1988. After riding out 20-25 knot winds from the Northeast for a couple of days, we discovered we had hooked our anchor on a huge log, and it took us most of a morning to extract ourselves from that firm grasp.


It is always interesting to learn the source of place names, but usually it requires some study to uncover their history. In the case of Rattlesnake Harbour, you can easily discover the source of the name by simply venturing ashore. The area surrounding the harbor is home to a considerable number of Massasauga Rattlesnakes.

I can't say that I personally have seen any of these critters, but that's because I have never ventured ashore farther than a few feet onto the pebble beach. However, I did receive this note from a fellow sailor, Greg Smith,

We have really enjoyed and benefited from your North Channel web pages. We had a wonderful week there this summer. Sailed from Presque Ile to Rattlesnake harbor on Fitzwilliam Island where there really are scary big rattlesnakes, in profusion.
I wrote back to ask him if he had actually seen any snakes, and he replied:
You bet we saw rattlesnakes and big ones at that. We wanted to explore the old buildings at the northeast tip of the harbor. We spent a few minutes at the first building and on our way to the next saw a 5-footer, about 2-inches in diameter slither across our path. Undaunted we ventured on another 15 feet or so when we saw another slither through the underbrush and another coil up on the narrow path. My sister-in-law was past it and fearful of going through the underbrush and around it. She heard it rattle and stood still for a few minutes, finally mustering the courage to jump over it and we beat a hasty retreat to the dinghy. We read later that nobody has ever died from a Massasauga rattler but we didn't know then nor did we care to find out. Beautiful harbor but best to stay off shore.

[Photo: Beach at Rattlesnake Harbour with ruins] The old buildings that Greg mentions do beckon you to visit, but the one time we tried to muster enough courage to explore them, we gave out as soon as we reached the tall grass that lies between them and the beach. I guess we'd read too much about the rattlesnakes!

Just offshore from the old buildings and in about six to eight feet of water lies the hull of a wooden schooner, a 180-foot long relic of the days of transport by sail. I think she was serving as a barge when she burned and sank there. The dark hulk of her hull made us shiver, and we again lacked the bravery to explore the wreck.


If approaching from the southeast from Georgian Bay, as from Tobermory, the recommended course is to proceed east and north of Wall Island, round its northern shore, and approach Rattlesnake Harbour from the north. This adds five miles of sailing to your journey. There is the temptation to avoid all that extra travel and approach via the Wall Island Channel, however this is not recommended.

If you look at the soundings on Canadian Chart 2235, you will observe that the bottom of Georgian Bay rises from depths of 130 feet to a shoal of only two feet in an alarmingly short span. This is the "wall" that is Wall Island's namesake. Southward from the island, a nearly vertical underwater cliff rises. In the usual fashion of the North Channel, there are no navigational aids marking this shoal. Furthermore, there are strong currents in this area, as would be expected with the sudden change in the bottom contour.

The prudent navigator will take the long way around, avoiding the Wall Island Channel, although I do confess to having made a trip through there without incident, back before I knew better!

While anchored in Rattlesnake Harbour, you are probably thirty miles or more from the nearest electric light. On a clear, moonless night, you can see so many stars that you'll be hard pressed to find any that you can recognize, even the pole star! It is an impressive sight.


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