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.

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