Georgian Bay: Rough Around The Edges



Featuring Many Parks and Access Points, Georgian Bay Dares the Adventurous to Savour Its Beauty and Risks

The clicking sound was a rude wake-up call. Freeze, it said, as we lumbered along the rocky path of the Bruce Trail, buffeted by a stiff breeze off Georgian Bay.

And freeze we did, adrenaline levels rising quickly. We could hear the rattling, but we couldn’t see the source.

With walking sticks, we carefully moved aside branches of a small evergreen. And there it was, a small eastern massasauga rattlesnake, a threatened member of Canada’s endangered species list.

It’s a sound we had never heard before, but its message was clear: We were trespassing in its yard. We decided a discreet retreat was the best reaction, and we hurried away along the path.

Rattlers have to be one of the marquee attractions of Ontario’s Georgian Bay, an enormous body of water that is sometimes called the sixth Great Lake. Within easy driving distance of several big cities, the area boasts the jagged cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment, sandy beaches and specks of granite islands polished by the ice, wind and waves.

The huge wilderness area dares people to savour it through a variety of outdoor pursuits, but a visitor should know there are risks.

22 shipwrecks

For example, Fathom Five National Marine Park, Canada’s first national marine conservation area just off Tobermory on the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula, includes 22 shipwrecks. It’s a great hunting ground for divers, but also a reminder of nature’s destructive power. Storms can blow up quickly and whip the waves to an angry boil, smashing craft against the rocky shores.

While much of the Georgian Bay waterfront has been gobbled up by private interests, there remains plenty of access to the water through three national parks and half a dozen provincial parks. The 30,000 islands (some say the number may be as high as 60,000) in the north side of the bay provide sites for paddling (or boating) and camping. This vast array of islands is Crown land (or publicly owned), and they can be reached from provincial parks or private cottage colonies and camp grounds where you can park your car for a few days.

Coming across the rattler was one of several surprises we encountered on several week-long trips to Georgian Bay, including exploration of the French River delta to the north and the waters near Killarney Park.

Choosing a fine day, we took a hiking trail from the Cyprus Lake campground of Bruce Peninsula National Park, where we had set up camp for a week of exploring on foot and by kayak.

What we expected to be a three-hour jaunt went long past that as we scrambled over rocks and roots, rough going even for hikers travelling with light day packs. However, the views across the bay are special when the water is stirred to whitecaps.

After six hours of walking, we finally trudged into Tobermory for a well-earned supper and libation at a local eatery.

On this trip’s last day, we played tourist and took a boat from Tobermory to Flowerpot Island, where we spent several hours hiking and viewing the sea stacks (vertical formations of rock layers) that give the island its name.

For a different perspective, we spent three days paddling along the shore going east from Tobermory past Dunk’s Bay, Little Cove and Overhanging Point and viewing water birds and caves carved into the escarpment.

The route west from Tobermory leads to a more accessible shoreline, which has been developed by cottagers.

Byng Inlet to French River

A wilder area for kayaking is the 30,000 islands, which attract those with a taste for more adventure and isolation. Camping sites are infinite, but paddlers have to be self-sufficient for the trip through the islands. A good place to start is Britt at Byng Inlet.

Though a well-marked, small-craft channel guides paddlers and boaters safely through the islands of rock and trees, problems can arise. A sudden fog descended on the area, preventing us from reading the numbers on the buoys that coincide with numbers on charts. When the fog lifted a few hours later, we found a campsite that was some distance from where we had expected to be.

Campsites are abundant, but travellers should choose carefully. We picked a sheltered site with good swimming on the outward leg of a trip to the French River.

As we ate supper and the wind died, it became very clear we had made a bad choice. Mosquitoes rapidly descended on us, and they were ferocious. As we slapped bugs and danced to avoid them, we cleared away the dishes and stowed the food before diving into our tents an hour or so before the sun went down. It was the only way to gain relief.

Our lesson learned, we paddled westward the next day, determined to find an island in the breeze and with shade to protect us from the heat – it was 30C during the day.

Our new campsite was a good base for day trips.

To get an idea of the wilder side of Georgian Bay, we paddled out to the Bustard Islands south of the French River. The islands break the force of the wind and waves from the south side.

As we moved toward the outer edge of the islands, the waves increased in height, rising to a meter. That was enough for us, and we landed on an island to take in the view.

With a tail wind, our trip back to the campsite was quick and easy as we surfed on the waves.

Our campsite also provided us with a ring-side seat to view what the heat and lack of rain were doing to the nearby forests.

In the evening we noticed clouds of smoke to the north, and then a small plane appeared circling high above a forest fire. Soon a water bomber appeared and dropped its load in a huge spray.

The bomber headed toward our island, skimmed the surface of the bay and picked up water near us before thundering back to drop another load on the fire.

The fight went on during the evening. We were able to watch the planes the next day as we meandered through the islands on our way back to Britt in Byng Inlet – our take-off point.

Killarney Provincial Park

We have also paddled in the area near Killarney Provincial Park. The park has a launch site on Chikanishing River with a parking lot. It allows access to Georgian Bay and the water around Philip Edward Island is a favourite area of kayakers and people on fishing trips.

The windward side of the island can be wild when the waves are whipped up, while the leeward side affords a calmer experience. There is no shortage of campsites.

French River

On another occasion we set off from the Hartley Bay Marina in French River Provincial Park paddling through the delta to Georgian Bay and back.

Water levels were down a good three metres in the delta, but the kayaks had little problem navigating the river.

It’s clear there are forces at work here affecting the environment. The heat may be one result, and the other may well be the lower water level.

The most immediate impact is on boaters, who must be careful to avoid rocks under water.

Spending a week at the level of the water’s surface suggests there may be more hazards lying in wait as our climate changes.

 Good to Go

Georgian Bay covers more than 15,000 square kilometres with more than 3,200 kilometres of shoreline. It is a paradise for boaters (motorized and paddling), and people who like to fish and hunt.

In Tobermory, there is a commercial fishing industry, much reduced from that of decades ago, but locally caught whitefish can be bought at fish stores and cooked at cottage or campsite.

There is also Craigie’s Restaurant, which serves excellent fish and chips. It is located beside the parking lot for cars waiting to board the Chi-Cheemaun, the ferry to Manitoulin Island.

In Killarney, try Herbert Fisheries for fish and chips. The commercial fishing boats are moored alongside and you can purchase an array of (fresh or frozen) fish, including whitefish, lake trout and pickerel, to take home or camping.

Web sites: The town has a wide range of services – from rental cottages to scuba diving and boat charters. The site even has a schedule for the ferry. The site contains information on tours of the early French mission settlements, cruises and other attractions, especially in the southern end of Georgian Bay. It’s the site of White Squall Paddling Centre just north of Parry Sound. It offers kayak tours, gear and rental.  This site will get you to Fathom Five National Marine Park, with links to other national parks in the Georgian Bay area. This site provides information on Bruce Peninsula National Park.

One comment on “Georgian Bay: Rough Around The Edges
  1. Marky D says:

    Man, this brought back memories! More than half-century ago (!) Georgian Bay was THE summer holiday destination for families with kids who were growing up in Toronto. Stunning sandy beaches, sandbars that went out into the lake so far you could hardly see your cottage and you were still only up to your knees in the (freezing cold, even in mid-summer) water…I remember bats getting into the cottage at night, freaking my mother out, outhouses instead of bathrooms, the “iceman” delivering a block every couple of days for the “fridge,” penny gumballs at the corner store… I visited some years later and it was no longer cottage country, but more like summer mansion country for Toronto’s nouveaux riches … they certainly weren’t using outhouses any more!


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