Land of Contrasts
Written by: Emily M. Grey
Ontario’s Georgian Bay is a year-round paradise for nature, art and science enthusiasts.
The Niagara Escarpment Biosphere Reserve in Ontario stretches more than 450 miles from Lake Ontario near Niagara Falls to the tip of the Bruce Peninsula, between Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. This escarpment corridor crosses boreal needle-leafed forests in the north and temperate broad-leafed woods in the south. Wetlands, cliff faces, slopes, and aquatic environments further enrich this rare landscape. Like the Atlantic barrier islands, outer isles help shield inner ones from storms.
Portions of this UNESCO-designated Niagara Escarpment and Canadian Shield expose 540 million-year-old metamorphic rocks along Ontario’s Georgian Bay. About 120,000 people live here, including 1,000 First Nations.
“This region is relatively unknown which makes it fun,” said local birder Ethan Meleg. “It is a land of contrasts.”
South to Southeast
My 12-day October solo journey of the 540-mile-long Georgian Bay Coastal Driving Route began two-and-a-half hours northwest of Toronto in Grey County’s charming little town of Meaford. In Halloween spirit, scarecrows hugged lampposts, straddled fences, and waved from honey crisp apple orchards. Ted’s Range Road Diner prepared delectable elk steak and bison burgers while a local band jammed.
At Blue Mountain Resort, a gondola afforded encompassing vistas of a clustered village and ski trails. Scenic Caves Eco Adventures’ zip line was as exhilarating as ducking in and out of small caves. A steamy outdoor bath and sauna at Scandinave Spa Blue Mountain eased my aching muscles. Secluded up a windy woods drive, Falls Inn served savory rabbit stew and local wine. Soothing waterfalls outside my window lulled me to dream.
Strolling about Collingwood among well-crafted wooden boats, it was easy to understand why this lakeside town is a living history of the shipbuilding industry. To the west, the municipality of Owen Sound served as the terminus of the Underground Railroad.
From the Blueberry Trail boardwalk, I glimpsed Wasaga, where families walked dogs and fed gulls. The world’s longest freshwater beach is punctuated with upswept parabolic, or scoop-shaped, blowout dunes. Giant murals of ferries, snow-driven horses and lighthouses decorate nearby Midland, a waterfront town with an Easy Street.
Kayaking beneath bridges, by pond lilies and through narrow cattail trails at Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre rewards paddlers with close-ups of adult trumpeter swans and signets. Inside the center, a gorgeous golden-eyed European eagle owl and Harris hawk eyeballed a captive audience.
Northeast to North
Shuttle services whisk visitors to Georgian Bay Islands National Park to mountain bike, cross-country ski and hike. By dawn’s dim light, two companions and I set off by skiff from Honey Harbour in Church Bay to go birding on Beausoleil Island, a favorite camping spot.
“People have been coming here thousands of years to experience the scenery,” said Andrew Promaine, wildlife biologist. “The park is here to ensure it is maintained into perpetuity.”
From a jutting ledge, we watched dozens of tiny golden- and ruby-crowned kinglets dart between tree canopies on a feeding frenzy. Common mergansers, Wood Ducks, and loons hugged the shoreline.
“Lots of spring and fall birds migrate to the park,” Ethan explained. “During breeding season, neoptropical species are drawn to these natural areas for insects.”
Stonyinuksuks (man-made stone landmarks), elongated rocks and glimmering leaves framed provincial Highway 400. From a lookout tower at Parry Sound, fall gardens and bays glistened below.
Enchanting provincial Route 637 looped through forested wilderness inhabited by wolves, moose, black bears and wildcats. This was my element, pristine without a hint of city madness. An hour later, idyllic Killarney Mountain Lodge emerged. Stretching into Georgian Bay from a rock outcropping, the glassed enclosed Pilot House was mine. After dining on local whitefish, vegetables and bumbleberry pie, I slept soundly.
In Killarney Provincial Park, naturalist Kris Puhvel and I paddled George Lake. Smooth, pinkish multibillion-year-old orthoquarzite lay beside multimillion-year-old granite. Reflections of red and gold were almost as breathtaking as genuine peaked foliage.
A trail of red spruce, club moss, and moose maple led to Kris’ favorite spot. Atop the rocky knoll, we admired the crystalline lake, encircled with blazing glory.
“Ten years ago I left eastern Canada for this and have never looked back,” he said.
Collectively, Wasaga Beach, Midland, Georgian Bay Islands National Park and Killarney are known as 30,000 Islands, a UNESCO-designated area. Approximately 1,243 miles long, this expanse is said to be the world’s largest freshwater archipelago. The famous Group of Seven Artists captured this spectacular arc in a variety of paintings.
Geologists conjecture that the city of Sudbury and surrounding area is a major meteorite impact site. Surrounding nickel and copper deposits form rich acidic soils yield plump, delicious blueberries. Ontario’s largest urban snowmobile trail system is also found here. Jaw-dropping schoolchildren watched as a porcupines nibbled corncobs and beavers chewed carrots at Sudbury’s Science North, which showcases Georgian Bay’s indigenous flora and fauna.
Northwest to Southeast
Three hours southwest of Sudbury is Manitoulin Island, dubbed the planet’s largest freshwater island and home to the woodland Ojibwa tribe. Dramatic limestone and dolomite bluffs glow from the rocky Cup and Saucer Trail. After soaking in a bear-claw tub, I relished a home-cooked pot roast at Rockville Inn, an antidote for relaxation.
The next morning, vehicles and pedestrians boarded Chi-Cheemaun ferry to cross the main channel between Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. Two hours later, we arrived at South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island. Accentuating the sprawling Bruce Peninsula are the lagoon-bathed Grotto inside Bruce Peninsula National Park, Flowerpot Island, Big Tub Lighthouse, pitcher plant bogs and singing sands.
Cabot Head Lighthouse and the bordering vicinity is a globally significant migratory birding hot spot. Here, the Bruce Peninsula Bird Observatory operates a research station and protects and studies avifauna.
An hour south, lovely countryside drives surround the Wiarton area. Skinner’s Bluff provides a panoramic wash of Bruce County with more cave scrambling.
My final evening in the Georgian Bay region, I savored a pre-Thanksgiving feast of vegetable quiche, roast turkey and pumpkin pie. Waterview Resort On the Bay’s warm hospitality, festive decor and endless feasts earned the moniker Caribbean of the North.
Emily M. Grey is a freelance writer based in Onancock, Va. www.emilygreyphotography.com