Written by Ned Morgan.
No matter how many times I arrive at the jagged top of the long, rocky peninsula that divides Lake Huron from Georgian Bay, I feel poised for exploration.
Here the Bruce Peninsula National Park and Fathom Five National Marine Park preserve an accessible wonderland of cliffs, sea caves, shipwrecks, 400-year-old cedar groves, and fragile Niagara Escarpment barrens known as alvars.
Bruce Peninsula National Park (BPNP) is well-loved by family campers throughout the summer – the main Cyprus Lake campground is usually tent-to-bumper. But in a sea kayak or paddleboard you can venture up and down the shoreline to the Park’s backcountry tent sites. You can avoid the crowds around The Grotto to explore countless deserted inlets, bays, rock beaches, and 40-metre cliff faces deeply scored by millennia of weathering and glaciation. These cliffs stretch into the distance seemingly without end, standing like half-ruined fortress walls overlooking the depths.
The Niagara Escarpment – recognized as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve – dates back some 450 million years, when the region lay under a shallow tropical sea that covered much of what is now Ontario and Michigan. Rivers flowing into this ancient sea carried sand, silt and clay, compounded over time into layers of sediment. Concurrently, lime-rich sea life accumulated over millions of years compressed into sedimentary rocks and reef structures still visible along the Escarpment.
The top of the Peninsula is both a beginning and an end. For me it is often the beginning of a paddling trip. And it is always the end of Highway 6 – the end too of ordinary days. Standing atop the Park’s Visitor Centre lookout tower and viewing the waters French explorer Samuel de Champlain dubbed Le Mer Douce, the place feels extraordinary – like a different country or even a different planet when compared to the nearby agricultural lands of southern Ontario.
The waters off the Peninsula can reach 92 deep-chilled fathoms, and capsizing in late October would bring on hypothermia in about ten minutes. The stretch from the top of the Peninsula down to Cabot Head was a notorious ship graveyard in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even today, a boater in distress off this shoreline will find little refuge along the precipice-lined shore.
Our kayak outfitter had rented us a variety of boats. Due to dithering over packing my dry-bags, I was the last to the Tobermory pier where the boats were laid out, only one still unclaimed – red, rudderless, and too small for me. And rounding North Point I discovered it was also extremely tippy – “greasy,” someone said – as the first of many waves sent me bobbing wildly.
As we fought our way across the blustery mouth of Dunks Bay I remembered from the map that we would soon enter Little Cove, which I hoped would provide some shelter. My arms and back burned as I paddled but I was sure that if I stopped to rest, the waves would upset my boat.
The Cove did not offer much shelter and only towards mid-afternoon did the wind die down. The morning of day two turned out to be just as challenging as we fought high winds again, but we stuck close to shore and took time to explore a sea cave, and rested in calm bays with colossal limestone boulders like sunken houses visible on the lake bottom.
At the end of day two, one of our number had to bow out at a road-access due to a family commitment, so he took my kayak with him and I took his place in the stern of a heavy 18-foot tandem kayak nicknamed The Destroyer. I felt immediately safer and more stable in this boat. But by 10 am on day three, the winds rose to bedevil us once again.
Luckily, nobody flipped his boat on this trip, but I did lose control of The Destroyer’s foot pedals as a following sea propelled us towards a rocky point on the afternoon of the last day. Instead of stopping to realign my pedals, I decided to just steer with my paddle – but even two seconds of inattention had consequences, and suddenly our bow knifed between two of the massive boulders grouped around the point. Afraid that we would crash and flip, we quickly decided to exit the kayak, for it was shallow enough to stand chest-deep in the frigid water. So we pulled our spray skirts and disembarked between waves, then waded our kayak through the boulder garden around the point into a tiny bay. Looking back, we realized we’d left the rest of our party far behind. We pulled up on a rock shelf and waited until the other boats caught up. We stuck closer together for the home stretch to Cabot Head.
That was my first major sea kayak trip in big water. Now I know that the Peninsula is miserly with shelter; I’ve accepted wind and swells as a probable element of every kayaking experience here, particularly in the fall. But the Park really can please everyone; a day or two on the terra firma of its trails, vistas, and tent sites can be just as rewarding as a cold-knuckle paddling expedition.