Paddling on Georgian Bay
Docks are the quintessential Canadian place to hang out in summer. Local teenagers sunbathe and gossip. Older folks sit and drink in the vista. Local fishermen will have hung a pail over the edge in order to catch some bait, aware that nocturnal raccoons are clever enough to lift them out of the water paw-over-paw. And there is always a canoe tied up, with a couple of life jackets and paddles in the bottom, itching to be paddled out onto the water.
And what a lot of water there is in Ontario. Just a few hours’ drive north of Toronto you come to Georgian Bay, a massive body of water almost big enough to be a Great Lake by itself. A long north-south strip of land called the Bruce Peninsula divides the Bay from the main body of Lake Huron, second largest of the Great Lakes. Beaches both sandy and pebbly nestle among the rocks of the complex shorelines. Scattered along Georgian Bay’s eastern edge are a mind-boggling number of islands and islets – 30,000 no less – creating a watery maze ideal for recreational boating.
The kayak is to Georgian Bay as the gondola is to Venice: you can’t imagine one without the other. It is the perfect craft for exploring the world’s largest freshwater archipelago. The rhythmic dip of the paddle becomes hypnotic, as the Ontario sunshine warms your back and you approach silent granite islands polished by glaciers into the characteristic whaleback shape. The soil was scoured off millennia ago, though photogenic eastern white pines maintain an heroic toehold, with their characteristic lean to the east from having been buffeted by the prevailing winds. The dips and hollows gouged out by the glaciers have filled with water to form ponds or bogs. In this eco-wonderland, the pink of the granite is as nothing compared to the crimsons of the sunsets. And once the sun has completely set, the canopy of stars appears.
It is not a tongue twister but a truth that pristine paddling places are protected by provincial parks. Of the ten provincial and two national parks that touch Georgian Bay, the largest is French River lying along the northern edge of Georgian Bay. Rustic cabins and tent sites can be reserved through park authorities. In general, the more accessible the campsite, the more crowded, particularly on high season weekends. While some parks like Awenda near the town of Midland boast hot showers and flush loos at their campsites, in the deep back country amenities are limited.
Private canoe and kayak rentals are available at a multitude of marinas, costing from $35 for a day. The most memorable trips involve insider knowledge and camp-outs, as offered by a host of outfitters and operators. Seasoned outdoors enthusiasts teach handling and paddling skills with patience and good humour. Anyone can master an easy cruising stroke with the double-bladed paddle.
Pint-sized vessels are readily available in case you have children who want to join the adventure, giving them a chance to trail their fingers through the crystal clear waters – visibility routinely reaches more than 20 metres – or clamber over ancient rocks, learn to do underwater handstands or daringly jump off cliffs into the deep water below.
Various outfitters offer guided trips, for example the Black Feather Wilderness Adventure Company operates three-, five- and seven day kayak and camping trips in Georgian Bay starting at $695 (£350), while the Ontario Sea Kayak Centre combines kayaking with yoga in a package costing £375. Novices start out in placid inlets and as they gain confidence travel out into the bay. Flat-water paddling can turn into something different if a wind suddenly whips up on exposed stretches of open water, so having an experienced guide is reassuring. Back-country canoeing or kayak touring is one of the best ways to see and experience the real Canada in all its pristine ruggedness.
Air Canada operates four daily flights from London Heathrow to Toronto. Air Canada rouge operate seasonally from Gatwick, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Once you land, you can proceed by hired car from the airport or take an Ontario Northland coach from downtown Toronto to the gateway town of Parry Sound; three journeys a day last 3.5 hours and cost $55. Arrangements can be made for local kayak outfitters such as Ontario Sea Kayak Centre to collect clients.
WRITTEN BY SUSAN GRIFFITH FOR THE INDEPENDENT
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