Travel

Exploring the Great Lakes with Viking Cruises

Named after the south star, Octantis is Viking’s first expedition ship, which incorporates visits to Indigenous communities, supports environmental protection and more

  • Published Apr 08, 2024
  • Updated Apr 18
  • 2,384 words
  • 10 minutes
An image of Sea Lion Trail in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. (Photo: Marina Jimenez)
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Unlike many of my Toronto friends, my immigrant parents had no cottage in the Muskokas or cabin in the woods. My European father was allergic to rocky lakeshores and creaky docks, and despite my mother’s enthusiasm for cottages, we often ended up going back to the Spanish homeland for holidays as children.

So, it is a revelation to sail along Georgian Bay’s grayish-pink granite shoreline into the heart of Ontario cottage country aboard Viking Octantis. This 665-foot, Polar Class 6 luxury expedition vessel was built by Viking to explore the world’s most remote regions, redefining ocean cruising.

The scenery is like a Tom Thomson painting come to life: sandy beaches, white pines seemingly embodying the wind as they bend and sway atop towering slabs of granite and luminescent sunsets, the sky pink with glory.

Viking Octantis. (Photo: Marina Jimenez)
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Better known for its luxurious river cruises in Europe, Viking Cruises is one of few cruise lines offering itineraries on the Great Lakes, the world’s largest body of freshwater. Launched in 2022, Octantis and her sister ship Polaris ply the Great Lakes and the Arctic in summer and the Antarctic in fall and winter.  

Our eight-day expedition begins in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Michigan. It then sails to the car-free island of Mackinaw, perched between Lakes Michigan and Huron, then on to the rugged beauty of Georgian Bay’s 30,000 islands and unspoiled provincial parks. Finally, we sail through the Sault Locks and into Lake Superior.

Beautifully designed with a minimalist style and focus on Scandi hygge, the ship serves as a research vessel supporting environmental protection in the Great Lakes and incorporates visits to Indigenous communities.

While most passengers on board appear to be Americans, I do meet some Canadians keen for a grand adventure close to home. Bev Vanstone, from Toronto, spotted the ship last summer from her cottage near Killbear Provincial Park.

A classic Georgian Bay photograph. (Photo: Marina Jimenez)
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Scenes like this provided inspiration for famous Canadian painters like Tom Thomson. (Photo: Marina Jimenez)
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“It was a misty day, and suddenly, I saw a vision of a ship going past,” she recalls. “I was so shocked to see it in such an isolated part of Ontario.”

Vanstone, her siblings and their partners (ranging in age from 70 to 83) immediately signed up for the expedition. “We’ve all been to different spots in the Great Lakes, and now we are completing the circle,” she says. The trip offered a great way to explore the nuances of some familiar sites and some completely unique ones by kayak and guided hikes.

A view of Viking Octantis between rocks. (Photo: Marina Jimenez)
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In Parry Sound, the first of three stops in the UNESCO-designated Georgian Bay Biosphere, Mnidoo Gamii guide Emma Berton tells us about the work being done to save threatened species and promote Indigenous education.

She tells us that 50 species are at risk here, including the bald eagle, Blanding’s turtle, Massasauga rattlesnake, and many other mammals, reptiles, plants, fish, and insects. These are all at risk because of climate change, invasive species, and human development’s encroachment on the ecosystem. The Georgian Bay Biosphere has helped rescue turtle eggs from road construction, planted 500 native plants in pollinator patches throughout the Biosphere, and opened an apiary housing thousands of honey bees.

The Ojibway used to run birch bark canoes up and down the Seguin River, called the Ziigwaan in Anishinaabe. Today, there are efforts to revive this tradition. In 2019, the Georgian Bay Anishinaabek Youth group built a traditional canoe from birch bark, cedar, white ash and white spruce, a practice deeply rooted in their culture, connecting people to the water, land and one another.

Later, we sail down the stunning Baie Fjord, the world’s largest freshwater fjord and a place that inspired Canada’s Group of Seven landscape painters. They made repeated trips here to capture “en plein air”: the gorgeous pines, the endless horizons and sweeping views of the La Cloche Mountains, which were once higher than the Rocky Mountains and date back 1.88 billion years, with cliffs of quartz and sandstone.

One of the many cozy spaces aboard Viking Octantis. (Photo: Marina Jimenez)
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At the end of the fjord, I join a hike up the A.J. Casson trail, named for the youngest member of the Group of Seven, who made the raw beauty of this wilderness so famous. Led by Greg Stephanson, a guide who doubles as a bush pilot, I scramble 152 metres up the craggy ridge for a spectacular view, overlooking Baie Fine to the north and Frazer Bay to the south. I capture the scenery with my iPhone while breathing in the fresh forest air.

On a blazing hot July afternoon in 1947, A.J. Casson painted a watercolour of this same spectacular scene, with the mouth of the Baie Fine in the near distance, the La Cloche Islands in the mid-distance, and Manitoulin Island in the skyline. He called it “Baie Fine Entrance,” and he used the power of his artistry to successfully advocate for preventing this pristine treasure from becoming a mine and declaring it a provincial park.

“I don’t think I ever got, anywhere, as much material as I did around La Cloche. You don’t have to hunt. You could get into one spot and work,” the artist told an interviewer in 1985. “If I had my choice now, and at my age, it’s not easy to get to these places, that’s the place I’d want to go again.”

It turns out that an expedition to remote places on a luxury ship is quintessentially Canadian. My parents would be impressed. You don’t have to endure buggy cottages to appreciate the sapphire lakes that are so clear you can see to the bottom, lush forests, and Jack Pine hills of this magnificent wilderness.

Trip highlights

Exploring the Great Lakes from below 

Custom built for winter on the Great Lakes and the Antarctic, the Octantis offers 378 passengers “toys” to enjoy throughout the excursion: 17 Zodiacs that can go in shallow channels and waterways; two 12-passenger Special Operations Boats built to military standard; 20 kayaks; and two yellow submarines, nicknamed John and Paul.

Our pilot stands on top of John the submarine. (Photo: Marina Jimenez)
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My turn on one of the subs comes in Lake Superior. I feel a sense of awe, respect and trepidation as I stare out at the lake’s unpredictable waters. Only a fool would underestimate Superior or Gitche Gumee in Ojibwe. The world’s largest freshwater lake is 406 metres at its deepest, with waves that can get as high as 9 metres (30 feet). No surprise that it is the resting place of more than 350 ships, the most famous memorialized in Gordon Lightfoot’s song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

A crane lifts John, the sub, off the floor of a giant hangar and slides it out a hatch into the water. Then, a Zodiac takes us out to the 11-tonne beast, which can submerge to 300 metres for up to 10 hours.

John bobs around in the waves as I clamber, in special dive shoes, onto the floating platform, down the hatch into one of six passenger seats. We face the centre and once the hatch closes, our seats rotate 180 degrees to watch the water through 270-degree spherical windows made of acrylic. As the pilot takes us deeper and deeper, I have no sense of how far down we are, as there is no air pressure change. I can no longer see the red and yellow beads on my necklace; instead everything looks green, then grey as we approach 46 metres (150 feet). We submerge alongside the vertical wall of a rock island covered in fine sediment patterned like a tiled floor. The refraction of the light makes it look like you could reach out and touch the wall, though it is several metres away.

There are no sea monsters, sharp-toothed muskies or giant sturgeons lurking today. Nor do I catch a glimpse of Mishipeshu, the legendary lynx-like water spirit the Ojibwe believe dwells in the depths of the lake, a symbol of its great power.

There is just seagrass, zebra mussels, and a few minnows. (Viking is in the process of getting permits to survey known wrecks in Superior, including the Gunilda, which sank in 1911 and has been called “the most beautiful shipwreck in the world.”)

But still, the experience is sublime and renews my respect for these beautiful bodies of water, which should never be taken for granted.

The ship itself

Viking Octantis is a destination unto itself, evoking a sense of intimacy and understated elegance with a neutral colour palette and contemporary Scandinavian design. Think: lichen displays, giant felt birds, cozy leather armchairs and fur throws, and bird songs playing in the bathrooms. Octantis has ceiling-to-floor glass windows in the common spaces and 189 double-occupancy staterooms, all with retractable windows which open from the top down to watch the passing scenery.

One of the many spectacular views seen while exploring with Viking. (Photo: Marina Jimenez)
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There are no casinos, formal nights, art auctions or water slides; instead, it is an adults-only ship with classical music, lectures in the auditorium, a well-curated library and inspiring quotes and photographs of explorers throughout the ship.

The food is thoughtfully curated and delicious – but not excessive. I eat dinner most nights at the buffet-style World Café, which has a sushi bar and amazing seafood, including surf and turf. At Manfredi’s (one of four restaurants on the ship), I try the excellent bistecca alla Fiorentina, porcini mushroom soup and gnocchi alla romana. Mansen’s, a casual deli named for Viking Founder and Chairman Torstein Hagen’s mother, serves traditional Norwegian food, including smorbrod (open-faced sandwiches) and heart-shaped waffles with brown goat cheese.

Liz Arnesen, the ship’s godmother, is the first woman to ski solo to the South Pole. Her hiking gear, including boots, is on display at The Hide, a speakeasy-like bar on Deck 1 beneath the water. It is a great place for late-night liquors and aperitifs.

One spot not to miss is the LivNordic Spa and Fitness Center, the most impressive spa I’ve ever seen: a pool-sized jacuzzi, sauna, snow grotto, ice bucket shower, open-air badestamp (wood-sided hot tub), and massage rooms. I floated in the jacuzzi for 20 minutes, then braced the cold plunge, pulling a bucket of cold water over me before making a mad dash for the sauna. I also enjoyed a wonderful hydro facial (this costs extra) where the Swedish masseuse advised me: “Stop talking and slow down.”

Learn about 

Octantis has an impressive working science lab that collects biological, atmospheric, and oceanographic data. Up to 36 experts, including an expedition leader, photographer, naturalists, field research scientists, and various specialists, accompany each journey.

A weather balloon being launched from Viking Octantis. (Photo: Marina Jimenez)
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Octantis and Polaris are the only cruise vessels permitted to release helium-filled weather balloons with a radiosonde that helps with storm prediction. One morning, we have the thrill of watching the ship scientists release the balloon off deck seven. It billows away high into the air until it becomes a tiny speck and bursts. We then reconvene at Expedition Central to watch the data—temperature, atmospheric pressure, and humidity—being transmitted in real-time.

The ship also has a ferry box that measures the water’s temperature, oxygen, and evidence of microplastics, building up a data set about how the water is changing. This data is shared with scientists at the Norwegian Institute for Water Research, which is engaged in water research.

Finally, there is a baited remote underwater video system that can measure fish population, diversity, and size underwater. Passengers are encouraged to upload photos and details of their wildlife sightings onto apps such as iNaturalist, eBird, and Globe Cloud Observer.

“We encourage citizen science projects,” explains Josh Pons, a field researcher. “People coming into the Great Lakes are pleasantly surprised to discover this lab and learn about science. They’re surprised they can contribute and be involved and leave feeling like scientists.”

An aerial shot of Silver Islet, in Lake Superior. (Photo courtesy Viking Cruises)
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Silver Islet, Lake Superior

Our final stop is Silver Islet, a rocky island with windswept trees on the tip of Sibley Peninsula near Thunder Bay. It is home to 500 people in summer and eight in winter. I take a Zodiac out to see the area’s most famous site: the remnants of an underwater silver mine that was once the largest in the world. In the 1870s, it produced the equivalent of $78 million of silver in today’s money. You can see the massive structures of the mining platform and the entrance to the shaft in the water down below. Imagine the challenge of bringing men, materials and infrastructure here to build a 365-metre hole in the ground underneath the lake. No surprise that storms eventually ripped apart the operation not once but three times. The mine closed in 1884 after 13 years.

Nearby, Sleeping Giant Provincial Park offers amazing hikes and spectacular views of the Canadian Shield landscape and the still waters below. Tom Boland, a guide who summers in Silver Islet, takes us on a beautiful walk along The Sea Lion Trail. The park is named for the shape of the volcanic rock formation that resembles a giant lying on its back with its arms folded. We take an easy trail to the Sea Lion – a dyke left behind after sedimentary rocks crystallized. The lion’s head has fallen off, but the name remains. You’ll enjoy the fresh smell of spruce, balsam and poplar birch trees and the beach, scattered with logs that have drifted in from the old mine. “We never take this beautiful place for granted,” says Boland. “The only ship that has ever stopped here is yours.”

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