(a 32 minute read)

Join an 8-day Viking Great Lakes expedition from Milwaukee to Thunder Bay. Explore Mackinac Island, hike the Canadian wilds, and sail the fabled “Gitche Gumee.”


Viking Great Lakes Pinterest - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

I was a guest of Viking Expeditions, but all thoughts and opinions are my own. This post may contain affiliate links. Please refer to our our Disclosure/Disclaimer page for more information.


Note: This post is a long-form, photo-intensive travelogue of my daily experiences while sailing the Viking Great Lakes Explorer itinerary. This account is for armchair travelers, as well as future guests seeking detailed information before booking an expedition of their own.

Please use the Table of Contents to navigate to sections of interest. The arrow to the right of your screen will instantly take you back to the top of the post.



Viking Great Lakes Explorer Itinerary


Viking Great Lakes Explorer itinerary map - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue
Image Credit: Viking

Having dominated river cruising and reinvented ocean cruising, Viking entered the expeditions market in early 2022. Viking’s first polar class ship, the Viking Octantis, sailed itineraries in Antarctica and then began making her way north to the Great Lakes for the summer.

While still in her inaugural season, I was privileged to sail the Octantis on the 8-day Viking Great Lakes Explorer itinerary from Milwaukee to Thunder Bay. As you read, please keep in mind that guests sailing on the same itinerary have varied experiences for a multitude of reasons. This account is uniquely my own.

To acquaint readers fully with Viking’s newest venture, I have also published Explore the World with Viking Expeditions: An Insider’s Guide. This detailed, visually-intensive guide provides an overview of the brand, introduces the expeditions market, and reveals behind-the-scenes descriptions of the polar class ships.

To fully experience the Viking Great Lakes Explorer itinerary, some readers may choose to read the aforementioned insider’s guide first. You can easily navigate there by clicking the link above.

The five Great Lakes comprise the largest freshwater system on the planet, and more than 3,500 plant and animal species live in the Great Lakes basin. Lake Michigan is the only Great Lake located entirely within the United States. All of the other Great Lakes share a shoreline with Canada. The region’s singular weather patterns, unique geological formations, relevant indigenous cultures, and rich history make the Great Lakes an ideal summer destination for Viking Expedition itineraries.

This was my first time visiting Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior. I first visited Lake Erie on a visit to Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania, and again while climbing the Dunkirk Historical Lighthouse on a road trip to seven of the most haunted places in New York. I have yet to visit Lake Ontario.

One of Backroad Planet’s most popular posts, The Great Lakes Tour: A Circle Road Trip Itinerary, is an informative resource and guest contribution by Kristi Schultz. You might want to check it out!


Arrival | Milwaukee, Wisconsin


I flew into Milwaukee one day prior to departure on the Viking Great Lakes Explorer itinerary. As a member of the media, we were scheduled to preview the Viking Octantis later that evening and enjoy dinner aboard.

Howard in Milwaukee - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

After a long day of air travel drama, I was exhausted. There was not much time to experience Milwaukee, but with a few afternoon hours on my hands, I set out explore the Historic Third Ward. This revitalized warehouse district is now home to trendy boutiques and specialty shops, galleries and performing arts venues, countless service outlets, and more than 60 diverse dining establishments.

Milwaukee Public Market - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

Prominent landmarks within the district include the Milwaukee Public Market, the Milwaukee RiverWalk, and the Henry Maier Festival Park. The 75-acre park on the shore of Lake Michigan is home to Summerfest, the world’s largest music festival, featuring headliners from various genres on select weekends each June and July.

On my walk through the Third Ward, I discovered a city brimming with cheese, beer, frozen custard, and openly celebrating LOVE and PRIDE.

A return visit to Milwaukee is in order for me. Although I don’t ride motorcycles, nor am I a beer-drinker, for history’s sake I would love to tour the Harley-Davidson Museum and the Plank Road Brewery.

Kimpton Journeyman Hotel room - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

At the end of the evening, Milwaukee’s Kimpton Journeyman Hotel was a soft place to fall for a vagabond like me. Classic textures, plus contemporary creature comforts, made it the perfect fusion for urban lodging in style.

Click here for more Milwaukee lodging options on TripAdvisor!


Day 1 | Milwaukee, Wisconsin


On the day of departure, I joined a couple of friends for a coffee run through the Third Ward. Although summer had arrived, the morning air was crisp and refreshing, a welcome respite from Florida’s hot and humid climate.

At 9:30 AM our group hopped a transfer coach from the hotel to port. We dropped our luggage for stateroom delivery, breezed through check-in, and boarded the Viking Octantis.

Torstein Hagen media briefing on the Viking Octantis - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

First up on the schedule was a media briefing with Viking Chairman Torstein Hagen. The multi-media session was held in The Aula, a state-of-the-art panoramic auditorium inspired by the University of Oslo’s grand ceremonial hall. Chairman Hagen presented an overview of the Viking brand, an introduction to the expeditions market, and detailed descriptions of the polar class Viking Octantis and her sister ship the Polaris.

You can read my report from the media briefing, take a visual tour of the Viking Octantis, and learn more about life onboard the ship by navigating to Backroad Planet’s Viking Expeditions insider’s guide.

After the briefing, I joined a group tour of the ship. Then periodically throughout the day I continued to explore the ship on my own. Because I am a frequent cruiser, I typically dedicate a lot of time the first day on board to learning the layout and deck plans of the new ship, and erasing the memory of the previous ship from my mind.

Viking Octantis Nordic Stateroom scaled e1657466945862 - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

After lunch, I checked into my Nordic Balcony stateroom. Because I don’t like living out of a suitcase, I always unpack, storing my clothes and belongings in the cabin closet and drawers to fully enjoy my floating hotel.

Viking Octantis daily briefing - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

As it turned out, I would attend three more sessions in The Aula on the first day. At 4:45 PM, I reported for the daily briefing with the expedition leader who gave an orientation for our visit to Mackinac Island the following day. I remained seated for the mandatory kayak briefing at 5:30. During this time, the Viking Octantis set sail across Lake Michigan en route to Lake Huron and Mackinac Island.

Later in the evening, I returned to The Aula for a lecture by Great Lakes specialist Loreen Niewenhuis who shared her story of walking 1,000 miles around the shore of Lake Michigan.


Day 2 | Mackinac Island, Michigan


Life onboard can be as carefree or as busy as you want it to be, and if you want to stay abreast of scheduled activities, it is imperative that you read the Viking Daily, delivered each evening to your stateroom.

Viking Octantis kayak test - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

My morning schedule on the second day was tight due to sessions I was required to attend in order to participate in certain activities. At 8:30 AM I reported to The Hangar on Deck A to demonstrate my proficiency at transitioning between a Zodiac and a kayak.

Viking Octantis submarine briefing - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

I headed next to The Aula for the mandatory submarine briefing at 9:00 AM.

According to the Viking Daily we would be sailing from Lake Michigan into Lake Huron beneath the Mackinac Bridge at 10:30 AM. Connecting Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas, the Mackinac Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere. With statistics like that, it was kind of a big deal, and I wanted to be sure not to miss it.

Mackinac Bridge through windows of the Viking Octantis - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

We were well into the submarine briefing, when someone in the audience suddenly shouted, “There’s the bridge!” I glanced through the panoramic windows and snapped the picture above. The image timestamp records it at 9:14 AM.

Mackinac Bridge from the Viking Octantis - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

I raced outside to try to grab a few more photos of the bridge, but the Octantis was moving at a good clip, and I watched as the bridge faded into the distance.

Not counting scenic sailings or days at sea, port destinations and shore excursions are the focus of any cruise itinerary. And as with Viking Rivers and Viking Oceans, on Viking Expeditions there were offerings of both included and optional (paid) excursions. I had pre-booked my excursions on the My Viking Journey website prior to sailing, with a few revisions made at guest services after boarding.

The Great Lakes Explorer itinerary on the Viking Octantis was an expedition sailing, meaning most of the excursions would be outdoor adventures with an academic focus. The port of Mackinac (pronounced Mackinaw) Island was the sole exception. Aside from the optional “Straits of Mackinac by Kayak” offering, most of its excursions would focus on scenic and historical sites similar to those offered on river and ocean cruise itineraries.

Because I had never traveled there before, I booked the “Mackinac Island & Grand Hotel” shore excursion.

Mackinac Island - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

Mackinac Island has a rich and storied history as a Victorian summer colony, a Revolutionary War fortress, a center for the fur trade, and as an Odawa indigenous settlement.

Mackinac Island taxi - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

Today, the island is a National Historic Landmark and a popular tourist destination, known for its ban on motorized vehicles since 1898. Residents and tourists get around the 4.35-square mile island on foot, bicycle, horseback, or by horse-drawn carriage. The only motorized vehicles on the island are one police car, two firetrucks, and an ambulance.

Viking Octantis at Mackinac Island - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

There is no bridge connecting the island to the mainland, so most visitors travel by ferry service. The small port is not designed for cruise ships, so the Octantis “anchored” at a distance by dynamic positioning, and guests tendered ashore.

Although the ship had arrived offshore nearly an hour early, guests on my tour had to wait in line about 30 minutes to board a horse-drawn carriage to begin our excursion. This is typical of large group tours, but I mention it here for guests who may have trouble standing for extended periods.

The Grand Hotel


Local tour guides issued instructions that guests would by shuttled to the Grand Hotel first and then we would need to return to the original port location to begin the island carriage tour.

We rode through the streets of the downtown area and then headed north along Cadotte Avenue toward the historic resort.

I love history and the movies, and as the carriage approached the hotel, I recognized it immediately as the key location from the motion picture Somewhere in Time (1980). I had watched the movie at a local theater when it came out more than 40 years ago.


Upon arrival at the main entrance, staff members gave instructions how to find various locations within the hotel and informed us that lunch would begin at noon. I took advantage of the free time to scout around the Victorian structure.

Mackinac Island Grand Hotel porch - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

My favorite part was the hotel porch. Extending 660 feet across the front of the hotel, it is the longest covered porch in the world and, from my recollection, also the location of the most memorable scene from the romantic movie starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.

View from the Mackinac Island Grand Hotel porch - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

Aside from being a great place to spend time in a rocking chair, the porch offers panoramic views of the Tea Garden, Esther Williams Pool, and the Mackinac Straits beyond. The Esther Williams motion picture This Time for Keeps (1947) was also shot on location at the Grand Hotel.

A small passageway between shops on the ground floor of the hotel has displays of photos and memorabilia from both motion pictures.

The Grand Luncheon Experience


Mackinac Grand Hotel Dining Room - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The Grand Luncheon Experience, priced at $75, was included in the cost of the excursion. If you have time to relax and enjoy it, I would say the event is totally worth it. Entering the main dining room is like taking a step back in time, and lunching beneath the high ceilings of the grand space amid Victorian decor is like nothing I have experienced.

The lunch buffet is designed with themed stations along the central dining room walkway. There are appetizer courses of cheese, fruit, salads, and fresh chilled seafood, including oysters, mussels, shrimp, and smoked fish. Other sections offer hot entrees, side dishes, and carving stations. Decadent desserts are plenteous, as well.

Although I enjoyed a spectacular lunch, I was not totally relaxed because my mind was elsewhere planning how best to fit in everything I wanted to see and do on the hotel property and en route to port.

Rather than wait to catch a shuttle carriage, I decided to get a head start and walk back to the designated location for the island carriage tour.

The Little Stone Church


Mackinac Little Stone Church - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

My return route took me past the Little Stone Church, so I decided to check it out. The Union Congregational Church was established in 1900 with eleven charter members, and the cornerstone was laid in 1904.

Mackinac Little Stone Church stained glass windows - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The doors were open, so I went inside for a peek. Lovely stained glass windows installed in 1914 recount the story of the Protestant movement on Mackinac Island.

My walk continued down side streets past many historic homes, hotels, gardens, and along the waterfront. There were no motorized vehicles, but there was plenty of traffic between the horse-drawn carriages and bicycles zooming past.

Carriage Tour


Viking excursion group members were free to hop on a carriage tour as they became available. The driver and tour guide was knowledgeable and personable as she told anecdotes and answered questions about points of interest along the way.

Surrey Hills Carriage Museum Mackinac - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The first stop was the Surrey Hills Carriage Museum. I do not remember being told the name of the location at the time. Although I did enjoy viewing the vintage carriages, including a sleigh and a hearse, I got the feeling that this stop was more of an imposed tourist trap.

Before we disembarked someone came out to take pictures, and then they tried to sell them to us inside. There were gift shops and snacks shops in the building, as well. To continue the carriage tour, guests had to exit the building and walk to the far side and wait in line to catch another carriage for the second part of the tour.

Mackinac Island State Park


Mackinac Island carriage tour - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The carriage tour continued with an equally gregarious guide along heavily wooded trails through Mackinac Island State Park, which occupies 80% of the island.

Mackinac Island State Park sign - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The state park was initially established in 1875 as Mackinac National Park, second only to Yellowstone National Park, designated in 1872. In 1895, the property was transferred to the state, becoming Michigan’s first state park.

Fort Mackinac Cemetery - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

Park roadways were lined with blooming lily of the valley, and I spotted a few yellow lady’s slipper ground orchids. I wanted to hop off the carriage for pictures, but that didn’t happen. We passed the US Post Cemetery for Fort Mackinac and Skull Cave, but again, no stopping for photo ops.

Arch Rock


Mackinac Island Arch Rock - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The carriage tour did make a stop at Arch Rock, and we were allowed to disembark. Arch Rock is a rare and lovely limestone formation that frames a view of the Lake Huron shoreline. Its existence was an element in the decision to form both the national and state parks.

Fort Mackinac


Fort Mackinac - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

Fort Mackinac was completed in 1782, constructed by the British during the American Revolutionary War to control the strategic Straits of Mackinac. Thirteen years after the end of the war, the British finally relinquished the fort and it became a US Army outpost during the War of 1812.

Fort Mackinac soldiers barracks - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

Today, the fort is one of the few surviving and best-preserved Revolutionary War forts with 14 original buildings on site.

Stopping briefly, carriage tour guests were given the options of remaining seated and continuing to port, or hopping off to tour the fort and return to port on foot. I chose to explore the fort, of course.

Fort Mackinac costumed interpreters - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

Costumed interpreters and live demonstrations truly brought the historic fort to life.

Somewhere in Time gazebo - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

I would love to have toured every historic building in the fort, but time did not allow me to see everything, especially since I exited the fort to find the gazebo constructed for the motion picture Somewhere in Time.

Fort Mackinac scout barracks - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

I also wanted to see the barracks for the Mackinac Island Scout Service Camp. In 1929, Eagle Scout and future President Gerald R. Ford was selected to be one of eight members of the inaugural Governor’s Honor Guard at the fort, five years before construction of the barracks by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Marquette Park


Mackinac Marquette Park - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

After another loop through the fort, I exited by way of a long ramp that extends from the fort bluff to Marquette Park below.

Marquette Park statue - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The park is dedicated to Father Jacques Marquette, a French Jesuit missionary who founded Michigan’s first European settlement at Sault Sainte Marie and was the first European to explore and map the northern Mississippi River Valley with Canadian born explorer Louis Joliet.

A replica bark chapel on the park property depicts the ministry and proselytism of Jesuit priests who lived among the indigenous people.

Howard with lilacs - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The park was covered with massive plantings of fragrant lilacs like other developed parts of the island. According to our carriage driver, Mackinac Island boasts 68 varieties of lilacs in 16 hues.

Fudge


Mackinac Island fudge - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

Mackinac Island fudge is a tradition that dates to 1887. With no less than 14 fudge shops in the downtown area, visitors can view demonstrations and sample their way through 10,000 collective pounds of fudge produced daily during the peak travel season.

The last tender to ship was scheduled for 5:00 PM, so I headed down Main Street and back to the dock on foot.

Mackinac Island dock - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

As with most shore excursions, I had only experienced a taste of everything Mackinac Island has to offer, but I had enjoyed every minute, and I hope to return to explore the island further when the opportunity arises.


Day 3 | Parry Sound, Ontario


The Viking Octantis sailed through the night across Lake Huron and into Georgian Bay, often referred to as the sixth Great Lake. Again, the ship “anchored” by dynamic positioning in Parry Sound, the world’s largest and deepest freshwater harbor and the first of three Georgian Bay destinations on the Viking Great Lakes Explorer itinerary.

Parry Sound trestle - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The town of Parry Sound was established in 1857 at the mouth of the Seguin River. A 105-foot high trestle across the valley was constructed by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1907. I was captivated by the scenic juxtaposition of the lush foliage, natural whitewater, and massive manmade structure.

I had booked morning and afternoon shore excursions for Parry Sound, and they would be totally unlike the previous day’s scenic and historical tours. These excursions would be more in line with the Viking Expeditions focus on environmental and cultural enrichment and immersive outdoor activities.

Killbear Provincial Park


Killbear Provincial Park rocky cove - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

After tendering to shore, I boarded a coach for a half-hour ride to Killbear Provincial Park with other guests booked on two separate excursions.

Killbear Twin Points Trail - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

My group set off on a short hike along the Twin Points Trail with the park’s chief naturalist Kenton Otterbein.

We learned about bear markings on trees, blue flag irises, pink lady slipper orchids, and gneiss rock formations.

Massasauga rattlesnake - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The primary topic of the excursion, however, was the capture, tagging, release, and other conservation efforts for the Massasauga rattlesnake.

Wiigwaas Jiimaan birch bark canoe - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

After a return hike along the trail, I eavesdropped on a session about Wiigwaas Jiimaan, a 2019 birch bark canoe build by Anishinaabe youth. Although I did not witness the entire presentation, it was an introduction to the ongoing preservation of indigenous language, craftsmanship, and culture that would be evident throughout the day.

Before leaving the park, we stopped for a visit at the Discovery Centre. Guests toured the exhibits on the multi-level structure and were given the opportunity to hold an eastern foxsnake.

Upon our return to Parry Sound, I realized there was not enough time to return to ship for lunch, so I grabbed a bite at one of several waterfront cafés.

UNESCO Georgian Bay Biosphere


UNESCO Georgian Bay Biosphere sign - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

In the afternoon, I joined an excursion to learn about the UNESCO Georgian Bay Biosphere and its 30,000 islands in the world’s largest freshwater archipelago.

Seguin River and trestle Parry Sound - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

We walked along the Seguin River and observed both exotic invasive species and native plantings for pollinators. At the end of the river walk, we boarded a shuttle to the biosphere educational center.

First, we learned about beekeeping at the community apiary and saw two new hives.

snapping turtle named Jaws - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

After that, we went indoors to learn about turtle conservation. There we met Jaws, a resident snapping turtle with a cute personality.

Female turtles of several species like to lay their eggs in the gravel along roadways, but as you might imagine, there are many fatalities. Highway utility workers have been trained to identify clutches of turtle eggs and mark them for rescue.

incubated turtle eggs - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The eggs are then incubated at the education center. When the baby turtles hatch, volunteers assist with releasing them into bodies of water near their original habitats.

Now I need to make a confession.

Many of my readers know that prior to becoming a travel writer I was a middle school teacher for 35 years in Hillsborough County, Florida. During most of those years I would accompany my sixth-graders on a weeklong field trip to Nature’s Classroom, the school district’s outdoor education center.

Although I enjoyed learning about many aspects of the Georgian Bay Biosphere on my Parry Sound excursions, I didn’t really think they were extra special. The experience had been more like another day at Nature’s Classroom for me.

I would learn a valuable lesson about perception around the lunch table the following day. I was seated at a table of mixed media and guests discussing our journey so far, when a member of the media asked two couples about their excursions. One of the ladies exclaimed that the UNESCO Georgian Bay Biosphere excursion had been a 12 out of 10 in her book. As an honest and opinionated travel writer, I smiled and breathed a sigh of relief.


Day 4 | Killarney, Ontario


Georgian Bay near Killarney Ontario - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

Killarney, Ontario, was the second Georgian Bay port on the Viking Great Lakes Explorer itinerary. Although the original community of Shebahonaning, meaning “safe canoe passage,” was established in 1820, the municipality of Killarney was not incorporated until 1999. Its boundaries now encompass nearly all of Ontario’s Killarney Provincial Park.

Killarney Mountain Lodge


For most of the shore excursions, Viking had partnered with Killarney Mountain Lodge, a local waterfront resort. The historic property was developed in the 1940s as a corporate retreat accessible only by boat or seaplane. During their stay, clients, partners, and staff would spend  their time canoeing, fishing, and hunting.

Killarney Mountain Lodge - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The lodge opened to the public in the 1960s, and a 68-kilometer highway was built to connect the resort with greater Ontario and the world. Today the property functions as a destination for getaways, meetings, and weddings.

Killarney Mountain Lodge Canada House - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

In 2019, construction was completed for the property’s Canada House Conference Centre, the largest log-built conference hall in the world.

Killarney Lighthouse Trail


Killarney hiking group - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

For my morning excursion, I had booked the 5K out-and-back Lighthouse Trail from Killarney Mountain Lodge to the Killarney Lighthouse. Guests tendered from ship to shore, checked in with our excursion guides, took a potty break, and sprayed-up with insect repellent.

Killarney Big Dipper - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

Near the trailhead, we passed the installation of the Big Dipper, certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest canoe paddle in the world. The paddle was created by artist and avid canoeist Mike Ranta—who has twice paddled across the continent from coast to coast—in honor of Killarney’s paddling tradition and 200th anniversary.

Killarney Lighthouse Trail - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The Lighthouse Trail wound its way through a pine and mixed hardwood forest populated with Canadian woodland wildflowers.

I was captivated by the trailside pink lady’s slipper orchids and a ground dogwood variety I had never seen before.

Killarney Lighthouse Trail hikers - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

We clambered up and over boulders to heights with stunning views of the bay and the Viking Octantis in the distance. 

Howard hiking in Killarney Ontario - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The path continued past freshwater ponds and along the shore to the lighthouse situated high on a rocky perch overlooking the water.

The historic Killarney East Lighthouse, established in 1866, was rebuilt in 1909.

While exploring the shore, I heard a roar and witnessed a seaplane take flight.

Airport Road Killarney Ontario - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

At the end of the hike, guests had the option of hopping a return shuttle bus, returning along the Lighthouse Trail, or taking the gravel Airport Road. I chose the latter and had a wonderful time chatting up fellow expeditioners en route to the lodge.

Viking guests had been invited to a complimentary fish fry lunch hosted by Killarney Mountain Lodge at the Canada House log conference center. What could be better at the end of a morning hike than fried whitefish caught fresh from the bay, fried up with all the fixings in a lovely setting? I can tell you, it hit the spot!

Killarney Mountain Lodge deck - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

A perfect hike on a lovely morning with a fun group of Viking Octantis guests had come to an end, and I would not remain ashore for an afternoon activity. Earlier, I had received a notification that I had been selected to join a submarine dive.

Yellow Submarines


Viking Octantis submarine - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue
Photo Credit: Viking

As a research vessel, the Viking Octantis is outfitted with two yellow submarines dubbed John and Paul. George and Ringo will make their home on the soon-to-be launched Viking Polaris expedition ship.

The submersibles accommodate six guests plus a pilot, and feature 270° spherical windows and revolving seats.

In order to take a dive on one of the subs, guests are required to attend an orientation, followed by a weigh-in, to assist the team with assigning seats for proper balance. The dive is not recommended for guests who experience claustrophobia or equilibrium issues. I have dealt with occasional claustrophobia, but I decided to go for it.

Viking Octantis Zodiac - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

After suiting up with lifejackets and special booties, our group of six boarded a Zodiac for transfer to Paul’s untethered location in the bay.

Viking Octantis Zodiac arriving at submarine - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The surface of the water was rough, and navigating from the Zodiac to the submarine was tricky.

Howard inside Viking Octantis submarine - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

We settled into our assigned seats, and I confess there was one moment where I may have started to manifest my discomfort when it got warm.

My media colleague and submarine mate Kathy Rodeghier perfectly captured the moment I started to sweat on video. To view more of Kathy’s travel content, you can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

As soon as the pilot activated the cool air, I was fine, and we descended smoothly 14-17 meters to the floor of the bay. We did not see any fish or shipwrecks, but I could only imagine taking a submarine dive in the waters of the Caribbean or Antarctica. And yes, I was humming a Beatles tune that I could not get out of my head.

As we descended, the color red disappeared from the spectrum, and everything took on a green hue.

The dive lasted about 35 minutes, and then we repeated the previous steps in reverse and made our return to ship.

At the end of the day I watched a variety of special operations vessels through the window of my stateroom Nordic balcony, as they waited their turns to assemble back on board


Day 5 | Frazer Bay, Ontario


Viking Octantis in Frazer Bay Ontario - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

Frazer Bay was our third and final Georgian Bay destination on the Viking Great Lakes Explorer itinerary. Up to this point, all of our ports had been to civilized locales with maritime infrastructure. On this day, we would experience shore landings and excursions in the Canadian wilderness, one type of destination Viking’s polar class ships have been designed and outfitted to handle.

Weather Balloon Launch


Before heading out into the wilds of Ontario, I attended a morning onboard event.

Viking Octantis weather balloon - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

In partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US National Weather Service, the Viking Octantis and her sister ship the Viking Polaris are the world’s first civilian ships to be equipped as official weather ballon launch stations.

Dr. Damon Stanwell Smith - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

Prior to the launch, marine scientist Dr. Damon Stanwell-Smith gave a briefing to the gathering of guests on Deck 7.

After a unison countdown, the helium-filled balloon made of biodegradable latex was released to soar 18 miles into the stratosphere.

Following the release, guests gathered at Expedition Central on Deck 2 to observe wind, temperature, and pressure data arriving in real time.

Viking Octantis guests watching a ballon launch - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

I was grateful to have witnessed scientific research in action aboard the Viking Octantis.

AJ Casson Peak Trail


The AJ Casson Peak hike to the top of Frazer Bay Hill was a totally different creature from the previous day’s hike along the Lighthouse Trail.

In response to preservation efforts in the 1980s, the Canadian government named the peak for the famed landscape artist and “Group of Seven” member.

Viking Octantis Zodiac transports - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

From the location of the Viking Octantis in Georgian Bay, hiking group members tendered by Zodiac around the tip of the peninsula to the trailhead at Mary Ann Cove.

Viking Octantis guest Zodiac transports - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

We watched as pines along the shore released pollen in puffs, small explosions if you will. Pollen blanketed the surface of the water, and we all would be covered in yellow powder by the time we returned to ship after the hike.

AJ Casson Peak hikers - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

Guides from Killarney Mountain Lodge met us at Mary Ann Cove to lead us along the strenuous-rated 1.4-mile up-and-back trail to the top of the hill.

AJ Casson Peak ascent - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

Following orange blazes, the steep ascent was no match for us. I got the feeling, however, that one of the guides and a few hikers were in a race to the top. I prefer hiking at a slower pace to take in the environment. When at home, I walk 5 miles every day for exercise. Still, I wondered whether I would be in good enough shape for the climb. As it turned out, I did okay climbing the rocks and navigating each step for solid ground.

Howard at AJ Casson Peak - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The panoramic view at the peak was stellar, and we could spot the Viking Octantis in the distance.

AJ Casson Peak trail - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

As you might imagine, the descent along the steep trail was more tricky than the climb, but taking care with each step, I did fine, only slipping three or four times and escaping with a scraped shin.

Okeechobee Lodge Ontario - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

En route to and from the hike, our tender passed Okeechobee Lodge, a privately-owned property where some Viking guests were on excursion for part of the day. I learned the original owners of the property were from Florida, hence the name.


Day 6 | Soo Locks Transit


There would be no excursions on Day 6 of the Viking Great Lakes Explorer itinerary. Instead, it would be a day of scenic sailing on the Viking Octantis.

Soo Locks - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The route carried us from Lake Huron through the St. Mary’s Canal to Lake Superior, and the highlight of the day was navigating the historic Soo Locks situated between Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, and Ontario.

Cloverland Electric Cooperative Hydroelectric Plant - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

We sailed past the historic Cloverland Electric Cooperative Hydroelectric Plant, completed in 1902. Still actively producing renewable power, the plant’s vintage exterior belies the modern technological improvements inside.

The Octantis passed through Poe Lock, first constructed in 1896 and enlarged in 1968. Once inside the lock, the gates closed and valves opened to raise the ship 21 feet from the level of Lake Huron to the level of Lake Superior. After a bit, the locks slowly opened to allow the ship to pass through.

Lake Superior’s Ojibwe name is “gichi-gami,” meaning “great sea.” The name was popularized and Anglicized as “Gitche Gumee” in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem “The Song of Hiawatha,” and Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” in 1976.

Someone mentioned that temperatures would be 10° cooler on Lake Superior. When I went out on deck the next morning, there was no denying the early-summer Canadian chill. 


Day 7 | Silver Islet, Ontario


Silver Islet Ontario - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

On the final full day of the Great Lakes Explorer itinerary, the Viking Octantis “anchored” near Silver Islet, a rocky island and community located near the tip of Ontario’s Sibley Peninsula. Ontario’s Sleeping Giant Provincial Park occupies most of the peninsula.

Spa Pedicure


Although I never took advantage of the amazing Nordic spa aboard the Octantis, I decided to indulge in a bit of pampering and booked a pedicure.

Viking Octantis kayak excursion - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The view from my chair of the Lake Superior shoreline was all Zen, peace, and serenity, even when the Zodiac from the morning kayaking excursion passed through my framed field of vision.

Nordic spa pedicure aboard the Viking Octantis - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The treatment was unlike anything I have ever experienced. My beauty therapist Khanyi was not only a consummate professional, but also a great conversationalist and educator about self-care.

I plan to do better in the future, treating myself to massage and other spa therapies that promote physical and mental health.

Special Operations Boat


Of all the expedition and research vessels that reside in the hangar of the Viking Octantis, the military grade, ice-strengthened aluminum Special Operations Boat (SOB) was my favorite.

Viking Octantis special operations boat SOB - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

The vessel is designed for exploration with twin 450 horsepower water jet propulsion engines, individually suspended seats, and the ability to convert open seating into an enclosed cabin.

Viking Octantis SOB slipway - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

We boarded the SOB inside the hangar before the boat was deployed down the slipway into the waters of Lake Superior.

Silver Islet silver mine - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

We headed first out to view the location of an abandoned silver mine on a tiny island. In 1868 and again in 1878, rich veins of silver were discovered on the island. Mine shafts were excavated extending 1,200 feet below the surface of Lake Superior. The mine produced the modern-day equivalent of $78 million before the shafts were flooded in 1884.

Heading out into open water, the SOB pilot took us on an exciting ride demonstrating the boat’s speed, turning, and stopping capabilities.

Howard on Viking Octantis SOB - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

After a scenic loop around the Viking Octantis, we returned to ship, moved up the slipway, and back into the hangar. The experience was 50% thrill ride, 50% James Bond movie, and 100% FUN!


Day 8 | Thunder Bay, Ontario


Viking Octantis Thunder Bay Ontario Canada scaled e1657487863478 - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue
Photo Credit: Kabir Bageria

In the late afternoon, the Viking Octantis sailed to its final port destination in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where we would spend the final night.

Adventurous guests disembarked to explore Thunder Bay, but I opted to enjoy a final World Café dinner of sushi and king crab legs at leisure with some of my media friends. Soon it would be time to head to my stateroom and pack my carry-on in preparation for the early morning transfer to the airport.

Viking goodbyes are always bittersweet, but I remain parked on go, ready to embark on my next Viking expedition.

For more information, be sure to navigate to Backroad Planet’s digital resource, Explore the World with Viking Expeditions: An Insider’s Guide.

Click here for Thunder Bay lodging options on TripAdvisor!


More Viking Content on Backroad Planet


Learn more from my first-hand experiences sailing with Viking Rivers and Oceans at the links below.

Viking Rivers


Viking Oceans



More Great Lakes Content on Backroad Planet


Great Lakes - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

To learn more about visiting the region, be sure to check out The Great Lakes Tour: A Circle Road Trip Itinerary by Backroad Planet guest contributor Kristi Schultz.


I Would Love to Hear From You


I enjoy dialogue with Backroad Planet readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you sailed with Viking Expeditions? If so, I would love to hear about your experience. I invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and I always respond!


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Viking Great Lakes featured - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue

IMG 3105 Version 2 - The Viking Great Lakes Explorer: An Expedition Travelogue
Howard Blount is founder and editor of the travel website Backroad Planet. He has traveled internationally since boyhood and lived abroad in Mexico, Chile, and Paraguay. Now his passion is navigating the roads-less-traveled of this amazing planet in search of anything rare and remote. On the stuffy side, “Mr. Blount” has been a writer, consultant, and published author with houses including Simon & Schuster and McGraw-Hill.

Retired from a 35-year career as a middle school teacher, Howard enjoys spending his time on anything that includes mountains, waterfalls, dachshunds, gospel choirs, books, classic movies, autumn, sandhill cranes, Florida springs, rain, gloomy days, log cabins, abandoned sites, unearthed history, genealogy, documentaries, To Kill a Mockingbird, castles, cathedrals, Civil Rights history, cold sheets, National Park Passports, quotes, Reba Rambo, Dionne Warwick, most things Apple, all things British, Jesus, and lists.

And on a random note, Howard is a fourth cousin once removed to Truman Capote.

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