Falling for Bruce's charms

A cold May morning, with a pearly haze hanging over the wide Ontario grasslands as I drove north from Toronto. The single-street townships along the highway looked slow and sleepy; spring was arriving late in Canada, with the ice only now in retreat across the Great Lakes. The announcer on the car radio was chirpy enough, however, "K106.5 - the Mix that Kicks!" he warbled over the opening bars of a groaning cowboy ballad. "We'll put the spring in ya!"

In a coffee shop in Wiarton (pop: 2,300), a couple of pony-tailed boys quietly strummed guitars at a table, talking of world fame as if it was already theirs. The rest of Wiarton seemed content to let the world slide by along Highway 6 without a struggle. Here the horizon-gobbling straight roads of southern Canada shred away, leaving Highway 6 to make its lonely run north to Georgian Bay on the southern shore of Lake Huron through the secret outpost of the Bruce Peninsula.

You'll search most guidebooks in vain to find the Bruce. This ragged- edged tongue of limestone, 50 miles long, a little Eden of undisturbed wildlife hidden among forests of spruce and cedar and pitted with hidden lakes, is well off Canada's popular tourist routes. Precious few outsiders penetrate the heart of the peninsula; and no wonder when the drama of the Rockies and excitement of the great Canadian cities lure them elsewhere.

Beyond Wiarton, the road arrows north towards Tobermory (pop: 900), a pretty harbour village at the outer tip of the peninsula, and the Bruce's one settlement of any size. In the high summer season Highway 6 funnels 4,000 visitors a day through Tobermory to the ferry that connects Southern Ontario with Manitoulin Island out in Lake Huron. But this spring morning I had the peninsula to myself.

At the first crossroads, I turned right, blindly, and was swallowed up in deep back country. Red-painted farmhouses and humpback barns stood among acres of flat grazing land, cleared from the forest 100 years ago by the white men who first settled on the peninsula. Right-angle bends of the road led out east past wide fields, where piles of limestone rock still lay where those pioneer settlers had heaped them to get at the the thin soil.

"Campbell... Mackenzie... " I read the names on the roadside mailboxes; reminders of their owners' Highland ancestry. Suddenly the road dipped, to run across a causeway through marshy ground. "Keeshig... Nadjiwon ..." said the mailboxes. I had entered the Cape Croker Reservation, and was in the territory of Ojibwa Indians, the Chippewa of Nawash. The original inhabitants of the Bruce Peninsula have followed their own separate path here since 1855. A people apart. The stone-built United Church in the centre of the reserve, a building as British as cucumber sandwiches, spoke of one influence on Ojibwa lives; the throb of Indian drums from a van's stereo, and the feathers in hair braids of the man at the steering wheel, of quite another.

From Highway 6, the spinal cord of the Bruce Peninsula, thin ribs of dirt side-roads run down to the shoreline. I wandered slowly north, trailing dust clouds, through quiet waterside villages above the coves; Red Bay and Stokes Bay to the west, Hope Bay and Lion's Head on the east. Towards the evening, near Tobermory, I turned off into the forest down a serpentine track to fetch up below the verandah of St Edmund's Manor, where Laurie Adams of Bruce Peninsula Outfitters waited to greet me with a prairie-wide smile.

If you want the treasure chest of the Bruce Peninsula unlocked for you, expertly and with genuine understanding, Bruce Peninsula Outfitters has all the keys. This small organisation has close connections with a group of specialists who know the forests, lakes and off-shore islands of the two national parks at the tip of the peninsula - the Bruce Peninsula National Park and the Fathom Five National Marine Park - like the backs of their hard-working hands.

Guests who book well ahead are put up at St Edmund's Manor, a handsome house recently built of local stone and wood in the depths of the birch and cedar forests. A couple of hours after arriving, I sat eating rabbit a la something wonderful, cooked by Laurie Adam's French-descended mother- in-law, and heard enough about the Bruce's hidden heart to make me want to put on my boots and get out there right away.

Sunday dawned frosty. A faint steam of mist lay over the forest. With a resinous pine smell in my nostrils, and the wash of Georgian Bay's freshwater waves in the background, I hiked the Bruce Trail all day in company with Laurie - for once separated from the horses with which she conducts wilderness treks across the peninsula - and her colleague Mark Wiercinski. Mark is formerly a warden with the National Park and now a self-styled "freelance starving biologist" with a dry line in humour and an inexhaustible curiosity about the natural world.

We chose one of Laurie's riding trails and went down to the shore, popping bark blisters on balsam trees as we passed to release sticky squirts of clear sap. Mark identified leaves of some of the peninsula's 40 orchid species - Northern greenleaf, Lady's Slipper. "Don't eat bearberries," he cautioned, indicating a clump, "the pucker factor is like major Scrooge- face." By a cold jetting waterfall we came to Georgian Bay. Mark dipped a cup of lake water for me to taste, and my European senses struggled to accommodate the idea of a drinkable lake so wide that its further shore was totally out of sight.

Into a dark crack in the limestone we lowered ourselves by a rope line. The cave air was cool and still. "Watch," said Mark, shining his torch beam up at the roof. Hibernating bats hung there in furry clusters, asleep too deeply to be bothered by our light. Squeezing out of the lower entrance we stood among weather-stunted cedars, 800 years old, and saw a mirage of Lonely Island, 20 miles away in Lake Huron but appearing to lie close offshore. In the afternoon Mark and I wandered the cliff edge of the great limestone escarpment that ends at Niagara Falls, 450 miles south of Tobermory. Chequered black and white loons floated on the lake below, hooting their plaintive call. Red squirrels bounced in the trees, gobbling spruce needles. "A male will chase its rival at this time of year," Mark explained, "and nip off his testicles. An excellent piece of population control."

The following morning was a compensation for the hard winter the peninsula had endured: blue sky fitting like a cap over Ontario, and a mild sun to put a sparkle on Lake Huron. Today, a big crane had come north to swing the Tobermory boats into the water for the new season. Nolan D, a stumpy tug, was already afloat when I arrived at the jetty, with skipper Ray Davis raring to go. A man who has spent all his life navigating the Great Lakes, Ray's enthusiasm for his native Georgian Bay is irresistible. We slid out over pale hulks of sunken sailing ships that gleamed through the water, and headed for Cove Island in the bay. Ray had persuaded Cove's retired lighthouse keeper, Jack Vaughan, to come along for the ride. That was a stroke of luck. We sat on deck drinking beer and enjoying Jack's stories of storms that threw car-sized boulders ashore, desperate fog-bound journeys on the lake, a giant wave that dragged a five-ton box of ship's chain off his boat.

The uninhabited island lay utterly quiet under its smother of trees. We climbed the lighthouse and poked around in the abandoned coastguard buildings where Jack had lived. "Damn bear used to get up on the roof and tear the shingles off," reminisced Jack. "I'd get up to go on duty, and he'd meet me at the back door for some cookies. Yep - he was a spoiled bear."

There were more bear stories as we cruised back late in the afternoon - the bear that tried to board a boat, attracted by the sound of a flute; the bear that chased Ray and a friend down a mountain ("We took an hour and a half going up, and 20 minutes coming down!"); and the bear that was seen sitting back against a tree, eating a fish in one paw like a popsicle.

In the morning, driving south down Highway 6, I stopped at Wilmer Nadjiwon's wood-carving workshop and bought a woven dream-catcher. Maybe it would help me, back in England, to recapture a little of that potent Bruce Peninsula magic.

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: Air Canada (0990 247 226) flies Heathrow to Toronto, return fares from around pounds 220. Europcar Inter-rent (01132 422 233) for hire car to Tobermory.

TOURS: For hiking, riding, birdwatching, wildlife and staying at St Edmund's Manor, contact Mark Wiercinski at Bruce Peninsula Outfitters (001 519 596 2735, fax 001 519 596 2373). For waterbased tours, contact John Worth- ington at Tobermory Adventures (001 519 596 8170, fax 001 519 596 2172).

FURTHER INFORMATION: Ontario Canada Tourism, 0891 715000.

Suggested Topics
News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss