Photo by John Fearnall


 by John Fearnall, photography by John Fearnall and Fritz W. Schuller, MPA. 

 Marking the MS Chi-Cheemaun’s 50th year of service on the Great Lakes, we celebrate a voyage that transformed a ferry into a community icon, embodying half a century of community, culture, and connection. 

Like many who live around Georgian Bay, much of my history is intertwined with the Chi-Cheemaun, aka the Cheech. She arrived in 1974; I moved here in 1977. During my summers in the early ‘90s, I delivered milk to her for Beatrice Dairy, making the long drive up Highway 6 to the Ontario Northland depot four days a week. I’ve enjoyed cruising on her many times while traveling to and from my in-laws in Sault Ste. Marie. I regularly photograph her, sometimes chasing her along the coast between Big Bay and Owen Sound. Now, I get to celebrate her with words and photos in this piece. 

An interesting discovery while sharing photographs of Grey, Bruce, and Simcoe counties is that it provides insight into what people love most about the area. Our sunsets and beaches are always very popular. As are the scenic hiking trails and beautiful vistas. Our natural beauty seems to be appreciated by everyone. But when it comes to the man-made beauty, it’s not always as clear. Some love our lighthouses while others prefer our golf courses. Many appreciate the historic architecture while a few like the modern buildings that have replaced it. In Owen Sound, where I take most of my photos, there’s debate about the beauty of the grain elevators, our most prominent icon. But every autumn, when she returns to her winter resting place in the harbour, there is no debate about the Chi-Cheemaun. People line the east and west shore to welcome her home. When she spent the winter of 2021-22 in dry dock in Thunder Bay, there was a hole in the middle of the community. People missed her and shared reports of how she was doing. For a long time, she’s held a special place. 

Fifty years ago, this fall, the Chi-Cheemaun, meaning “Big Canoe” in Ojibway, carried her first passengers from Tobermory, at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula, to South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island. Although for many of us, she’s the only vessel we’ve known, she wasn’t the first. More than 50 years before her arrival, there was a vibrant ferry business based out of Owen Sound. In 1926, the Owen Sound Transportation Company (OSTC), one of four companies operating ferry services, was making weekly excursions to Killarney, Manitoulin Island, Sault Ste. Marie and Mackinac Island. It was in the 1930s when a small, wooden vessel, Kagawong, first ferried vehicles across Georgian Bay. 

 Photo by John Fearnall

In 1932, the OSTC started its first dedicated run between Tobermory and South Baymouth. A plaque located near the Tobermory dock provides some history: A trail of black smoke disappearing through the islands has long been a familiar sight to the village of Tobermory. The first vessel fitted specially for the Tobermory to Manitoulin run was the MS Normac. The Normac was 125’ long and held 15 automobiles per trip. They were side loaded. Some cars had to have air let out of their tires to fit them all in. For 30 years the MS Normac provided seasonal ferry service. During that time OSTC merged with the Dominion Transportation Company, added a new ship, the SS Norisle with a capacity of 50 automobiles and 250 passengers, and in 1963 added the diesel-powered MS Norgoma to handle increased traffic. 

In January 1974, the MS Chi-Cheemaun, a state-of-the-art ferry capable of transporting 600 passengers and nearly 150 vehicles, was launched with much celebration at the Collingwood Shipyards, becoming a fixture for travellers heading north. The ferry’s one-hour and 45-minute journey, offered six times daily (three round-trips) during the summer season, serves not only as a connection to the world’s largest freshwater island but also as a convenient shortcut between northern and southern Ontario, significantly reducing the need for a lengthy drive around Georgian Bay. The ferry links two geographically separated sections of Highway 6 across a 43-kilometre stretch. This voyage is particularly memorable as it crosses the main channel between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, departing from Tobermory with a spectacular view of the Niagara Escarpment, navigating through the islands of Fathom Five National Marine Park, and passing the iconic Imperial Tower of the Cove Island Lighthouse. Over the past 50 years, thousands have enjoyed this unique cruise. 

The ferry links two geographically separated sections of Highway 6 across a 43-kilometre stretch. This voyage is particularly memorabel as it crosses the main channel between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. 

The hull of the MS Chi-Cheemaun under construction at the Collingwood Shipyards, circa 1973. Photo by Fritz W. Schuller, MPA.

While most of my journeys on the Chi-Cheemaun have been unremarkable, two experiences stand out. The first occurred during a particularly turbulent crossing with our young daughter, who had just begun to walk. As she gleefully ran around and played on the benches, my wife and I, stricken with seasickness, struggled to keep up with her energetic antics. Ultimately, seeking solace in the fresh lake air, we found respite outdoors. A few years later, during our annual voyage to Sault Ste. Marie, we encountered a smoother crossing. However, upon our arrival, we discovered that the city was engulfed in darkness—none of the streetlights were functioning. Turning on the radio, we were surprised to learn that we had missed the onset of the Northeast Blackout of 2003 while we were at sea. Although my most recent trip was also uneventful, it was by far the most beautiful. Last spring, I was invited to photograph the Spring Repositioning Cruise. When we left Owen Sound we were surrounded by some incredibly dense fog. But by the time we reached Cobble beach, it had dissipated, allowing those on board to be treated to a beautiful sail up the east shore of the Bruce Peninsula. 

This year’s Spring Repositioning Cruise takes place on Thursday, May 2, 2024. Departing from the Owen Sound harbour, this annual tradition signifies the start of the sailing season for the Chi-Cheemaun and sells out fast. This popular four-and-a-half-hour voyage is a passenger-only trip. Bus transportation is arranged at Tobermory to bring everyone back to Owen Sound. If you can’t make the spring cruise, but you’re a visitor or a resident of Tobermory or South Baymouth and you’d like to travel without your car, remember that the Chi-Cheemaun is open for walk-on passengers to cruise on any one of the daily trips to and from the island. Leave your stress and vehicle behind. 

 Photo by John Fearnall

Additional spring events include the Scenic City Order of Good Cheer’s 24th Sunset cruise. After a brief pause, this popular event is back and happens aboard the Chi-Cheemaun on Saturday, April 27, 2024. With live entertainment, dinner, a silent auction, and much more, this exciting four-hour scenic cruise to the outer islands of Owen Sound Bay regularly sells out. All proceeds go to community projects. Another popular spring happening is the Light Up the Night with the Chi-Cheemaun Festival Cruise. This event is hosted in partnership with the Chi-Cheemaun Festival, which takes place on the weekend of June 14, 15, and 16, 2024. Catch the festival fireworks from the best seats in the house aboard the Chi-Cheemaun on Saturday, June 15th, 2024. 

Other special things are happening to mark the 50th Anniversary, including the Sail Through Time Exhibit onboard the Chi-Cheemaun, featuring artifacts, posters, photographs, and much more of the Chi-Cheemaun and its predecessors. The exhibit is free to all passengers during their sailing. Included in the exhibit are authentic artifacts and reproductions, generously on loan from the Community Waterfront Heritage Centre in Owen Sound, the Collingwood Museum, and Grey Roots Museum & Archives. In addition, to commemorate this celebratory milestone, exciting activities have been planned onboard the Chi-Cheemaun this sailing season, including guest speakers and live entertainment. 

And watch for the commemorative 50th anniversary book that will include photos and stories collected by Richard Thomas and the OSTC, which will be out later this year. 

Happy Anniversary, Cheech! May we all take your advice and continue to “travel in good spirits.” E 

The MS Chi-Cheemaun sets sail from Owen Sound, embarking on its journey to Tobermory during its annual Spring Repositioning Cruise. Photo by John Fearnall.