We have been planning a trip to Tobermory since…well, probably for at least 20 years. In the 90s, when both of my husband’s parents were still alive and relatively fit to travel, we talked about the four of us visiting. Dave had been once, around 1980, remembered the glass-bottomed boat tour to view some of the shipwrecks that dot the area. His parents had been avid rockhounds when he was a child, and the limestone and dolostone rocks of the Niagara Escarpment with their abundant fossils were a natural draw.
But we had never made it, until this past weekend.
Like many of our friends, we have been recently much more interested in our own country’s abundant attractions, and in spending our vacation dollars in Canada. This year we decided against a long vacation, instead looking to do a few weekend trips. Tobermory was at the top of the list.
We live not far from the cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment and the Bruce Trail, which we walk regularly during the warmer seasons (and even sometimes in the winter). The Escarpment itself is over 400 million years old and reaches all the way from New York, up through Ontario, across Manitoulin Island, into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and down into Wisconsin. When the sediment for these rocks was formed, the area was a shallow tropical sea, not unlike the Great Barrier Reef. As the sea dried, the sediments became concentrated, and limestone absorbed magnesium, turning into dolomitic limestone, or dolostone, which is harder than limestone. Once the rocks were exposed many millions of years later, erosion began, eating away the limestone and leaving the dolostone, creating cliffs and waterfalls and caves. Along the Bruce Peninsula, these rocks form spectacular cliffs along the edge of Georgian Bay. The entire Escarpment in Ontario is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.
The weather forecast leading up to the weekend was gloomy, but other than a little bit of spit on Saturday, the showers kept well south of us during the hours we were out exploring, both Saturday and Sunday. Our motel was a small, but fairly new and very nice Mom and Pop place (no chains in Tobermory) called the Escarpment Inn, which put us in walking distance of just about everything, from the boat launch to the small downtown area to the National Park visitors’ centre. This was a good thing, as I realized late on Friday night after arriving that I had not brought a brush or comb, so after combing my hair with a fork that night, I was able to walk over to the supermarket and acquire means to un-muss my hair.
Tobermory does a decent job of not being overwhelmed by tacky touristy shops. There are probably about a dozen shops clustered around Little Tub Harbour, including two very nice gallery-type places (one selling Brenda Roy’s jewellery–I recognized the style immediately). My one complaint is that there is a sameness to the restaurants–fish and chips and pub food, for the most part. One of the two glass bottom boat companies runs out of this harbour, which is immediately adjacent to the ferry station. We got to see the huge Chi-Cheemaun ferry boat arrive at one point; it’s absolutely massive.
The quote from Shakespeare above is the inspiration for the name of Fathom Five National Marine Park, which was the focus of our first day’s excursion. As I mentioned earlier, the Niagara escarpment goes all the way from New York State to Wisconsin. At the tip of the Bruce Peninsula it disappears…underwater! If you look at this map, you can clearly see the tightly bunched contour lines indicating a steep dropoff along the eastern side of the Bruce Peninsula and how they continue out along past Middle Island and Flowerpot Island.
So the escarpment continues along underneath Georgian Bay and Lake Huron, islands jutting up here and there until cliffs once again rise up on the southwest side of Manitoulin. And that dropoff means that this area of Georgian Bay is deep – as deep as 540 feet, much more than five fathoms (which is 30 feet)! Once, when the sea levels were lower, these rocks were exposed. Scientists have even uncovered evidence that there was a waterfall bigger than Niagara Falls that is now completely submerged.
There are quite a few shipwrecks in the area. Two are at the very end of Big Tub Harbour, which means that they can be easily seen in the shallow water. This was the first order of business when we boarded the Evolution on Saturday morning. The glass bottomed boats pass right over the more intact of the two shipwrecks, the Sweepstakes, which is in about 20 feet of water. This was a schooner built in Burlington, ON in 1867 which initially was wrecked near Big Cove Island in August 1885 and then was towed into Big Tub Harbour, where it sank in September of the same year. The other ship, the City of Grand Rapids, is in water that ranges from three to nine fee deep; parts even occasionally project above the water. This was a steamship that caught fire while docked; it was towed out into the harbour and sank in 1907. I had noticed before boarding how clear the water was. This was especially apparent when the tour boat passed over the Sweepstakes. Even the motion of the boat did not stir up silt in the water.
Once we had viewed the wrecks, the tour boat left Big Tub Harbour and picked up speed to reach Flowerpot Island, before slowing to pass all the way around, allowing beautiful views of the lightstation and the two “flowerpots.” Flowerpots are formed at the side of cliffs where softer limestone has eroded away, leaving pipes or sea stacks of the harder dolostone.
We were dropped off at Beachy Cove so that we could hike out to see the flowerpots up close. The forest along the shore is redolent of cedar and dotted with caves also formed from the same erosion process that forms the flowerpots. Where rocks were exposed, it was easy to see the shapes of their ancient origins as coral reefs. After viewing the flowerpots, we then hiked out to the lightstation and the lighthouse museum before returning to the dock for our trip back.
One thing that stood out for me during this part of the trip was how well Parks Canada was managing a very sensitive, easily-overwhelmed ecosystem. Visitors are very much limited in number and ability to access the park–and they seem to mostly respect what they have been given access to. I saw very little evidence of graffiti or other destructive practices (although I did notice one person smoking–and receiving dirty looks from multiple others–she didn’t dare leave a butt behind!)
This was also very much apparent in our visit to Bruce Peninsula National Park. We had decided Saturday evening might be a nice time to hike out to see the Grotto, a sea cave along the rocky eastern cliffs. Apparently, the Grotto is so popular that on weekends, you need to reserve a parking spot to see it, and Saturday evening they were sold out. However, it was a simple process to request a spot for Sunday morning, which we did. The hike out through the forest of cedars flanking lakes was relatively peaceful, on a wide, well-maintained path, and we even saw some of the park’s famous orchids. Upon reaching the shores, the wide path disappeared and was replaced by rocks that required serious clambering skills. And there were a lot of people there clambering. Or, in some cases, hogging the photo spots. A melange of different languages was in the air, and ages ranged from the barely mobile to the…well, barely mobile.
But the stretch of coastline was spectacular, featuring towering cliffs and tumbled rocks everywhere, and the same crystalline, sparkling water we had seen earlier. This is actually part of the Bruce Trail, and you could see the trademark white flashes marked on trees and rocks. The Grotto itself was as amazing as promised, although we didn’t descend into it (a crowd of very loud teen girls was lingering there, and Dave had the wrong shoes, anyway). Just a little north up the trail, however, the crowds thinned out and one could climb to the top of one of the taller cliff faces and see a beautiful view largely free of giggling teenagers or pushy middle-aged ladies in bucket caps. There is a good stretch of the Bruce Trail that passes over this difficult rocky shoreline–so very different than the gentle trails close to my house. I was glad it was not raining.
After we returned on Saturday, we paid a visit to the Fathom Five National Park Visitors’ Centre, and ascended the viewing tower that rises 65 feet from the ground, past the tops of the trees. Here you could truly see the outlines of the escarpment, as it ran up to Tobermory and then disappeared under water, the islands its only evidence. You can also see the first white flash along the Bruce Trail, and view a very interesting museum including part of a recovered shipwreck and other artifacts from the area. After seeing the two national parts on this particular trip, along with those we saw last year in Nova Scotia, I have a heightened respect for Parks Canada. We had been impressed by the US National Park system (and still are), but Canada can easily stand on its own for the strength of its national park system.
Coda: On the way home, we were musing about the history of the Bruce Trail. The group that built the trail was formed in 1960, construction started in 1962, and the trail officially opened in 1967. In five years, 850 km of main trail and about 400 km of side trails were constructed–all by volunteers working in local communities. About half of the trail is on public land. The Bruce Trail Conservancy has been slowly working at acquiring those portions that are still in private hands. The creation of the Bruce Trail – and its effect on conserving the Niagara Escarpment–led directly to the UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve designation in 1990. Never doubt what can be accomplished by dedicated volunteers when inspired by a worthy goal.