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Published: April 20th 2019
Lake Huron, Southampton
Hello again from London. I have just arrived back from a family visit to Ontario, Canada. I thought I’d write a travel blog entry on a wonderful three-day trip I took from my family’s country farmstead not far from Toronto, up north and west towards the stunning shores of Lake Huron. It was a lovely little trip, and seemed also to be a positive test-case for potential future short, ten-day trips to North America over future Easter holidays. This is very exciting, as although I have been to both the USA and Canada, I’ve only seen very small parts of each, and there are so many other areas in these two huge countries that I would like to explore. Perhaps an annual mini-trip there every year for the foreseeable future may enable me to see all the parts of this amazing continent that I’d like to, without doing a major five-week summer trip there.
So after a couple of days with my family, I boarded an airport transit bus which links Toronto’s international airport with the various towns and villages dotting the south-east coast of Lake Huron, in a region known as the Grey-Bruce county area (made
up of both Grey County and Bruce County, of Ontario State, Canada). The bus took me from the small provincial Ontario town of Orangeville up along the famous Niagara escarpment, more on that below, and west towards the summertime coastal lake resort town of Port Elgin. I had planned to stay three nights there, making it a base for my explorations of various places in the area.
As I had noted with my first driver upon arrival, when the same airport transit bus took me from Toronto Airport to Orangeville, this bus driver, Stan, was very friendly. He made calm conversation with the passengers on the bus, as we were each being dropped off along the route. The second-to-last drop-off was made at the provincial centre of Owen Sound, more also on that below, so it was just me and Stan for the final leg of the journey, the 28 miles from there to Port Elgin. As well as being a bus driver, Stan was also a lay preacher for the Salvation Army, so we talked about the group’s founder, a certain William Booth, who was inspired to form the charitable outreach group in response to the sheer poverty
MacGregor Point Provincial Park
he had witnessed in the east end of London back in 1865. Just a couple of years earlier I had walked Booth’s own stomping grounds and viewed his statue, writing about it in my blog entry here called “The East End of London”. He very kindly stopped the bus at the town before Port Elgin, Southampton, so that I could glimpse and take my first photos of the beautiful Lake Huron, just at the tail end of winter and thus still covered in ice. From here, it was a short five minutes on to Port Elgin, where again he very kindly dropped me off directly at my BnB there, rather than the scheduled stop in the centre of town. What a lovely man!
I realised from then on that this area was one of those, probably quite numerous, areas of North America where everyone knows everyone, and there is a strong sense of trust and community between the people living there. I arrived to find the BnB front door locked, with no-one around, but after a few minutes noted that there were a set of keys in the open mailbox next to the front door, which I used to
gain entry. I fortunately found out later that the owner had purposefully left them there for me as he wasn’t around at the time of my arrival. There was also a bike in the hallway, which I also found out later that the owner had left for me due to an email enquiry I had made earlier as to whether there was a bicycle rental shop in town. Here, instead, he had left his own bike for me to borrow! Shortly after, the fantastically warm and friendly owner Jerry, arrived and signed me in, welcoming me to this beautiful old Victorian staging post, which had since been converted into a modern, cosy and very comfortable BnB, the Windspire Inn. I learnt that it being the off-season, I had the 14-room place to myself for my first two nights there, and found the roaring fire in the entrance hall, the cosy lounge full of sofas and books, and the beautiful half-acre grounds, just the perfect place for some rest and relaxation, in between my explorations of the local area. It was only on the second day that I found out the owner himself didn’t live on the property but a few
Coming in to land
blocks away, so for the first two nights I was very much alone there. Jerry also told me about the many guests who had reported experiencing ghostly sightings there, all of them positive, and I could certainly sense the deep and historical past which graced the place as the owner explained how it was once a lodging for sailors and captains who were docked at Port Elgin on their travels around the Great Lakes region. It was indeed a wonderful lodging choice for my three days there, the claw-foot bathtub in the room itself, not the bathroom, was also a particular highlight for me.
Shortly after checking in, Jerry gave me a lift to the centre of town – three or four blocks of the main high street in town, Goderich Street – where I stocked up on my provisions for the next few days at the town’s main grocery store, the wonderful and friendly “Ralph’s”, confirming that indeed a “microwave/ready meal” in North America really is in fact called a “TV dinner”! After depositing my purchases back at the Inn, I headed to the stunning shore of Lake Huron for my first day of exploration.
is one of the five bodies of water which make up the Great Lakes of North America, along with Lakes Superior, Michigan, Erie and Ontario. I have only really properly seen Lake Michigan so far in an earlier visit to Chicago, so perhaps I may make a future travel goal to be able to see all five lakes. At 23,000 square miles, Lake Huron is the second largest of the Great Lakes after Lake Superior, and in fact the third largest freshwater lake in the world, after Lake Superior and Lake Victoria in East Africa. Along with Superior, Ontario and Erie, Lake Huron also forms part of the border between the States and Canada, and just across the lake on the opposite shore lies the US state of Michigan. However, the lake is so large, that the opposite shore is not visible from the Ontario shoreline, making for apparently some amazing sunsets for Canadian tourists who apparently visit in their throngs during the summer months. In fact, Stan the bus driver told me that the normal resident population of Southampton of 3000 people, is swollen by tourists in the summer season to around 100,000! Such is the popularity of the
shores of Lake Huron to Canadian tourists. But alas, and very happily, I visited during the tourist off-season, and there was hardly a soul around during my shoreline wander.
It was a real treat and surprise to see that even though it was mid-April, much of the lake was still covered in ice, which made for some terrific photos on my first day there. The lake is famed for its blue colour and clear waters, so contrasting the blue lake, with the white ice sheet, with the deeply blue sky was just beautiful. I wandered along the beach, most of which was under repair presumably in preparation for the upcoming tourist season, and then took the coastal path north out of town and towards Southampton, along the North Shore Road, hoping to find somewhere to have lunch. I quickly realised that Ralph’s back in town was pretty much the only place open during this season, and satisfied myself with a stick of Pepperami from the UK which I always travel with on such occasions when it becomes difficult to find local food. The North Shore Road took me just over a mile north out of town, where I took
a road inland again so that I could make it back to town via the Biener Trail which made its way through a lovely forested area known as Biener’s Bush, and onto my TV dinner and resting place for the night back at the Windspire Inn. The forest walk was particularly notable, as it was there that I realised that for the first time in my life I was hiking through a region where there is potential to encounter a bear. Black bears are common throughout the whole of Canada, and although not as dangerous and unpredictable as the Grizzly bear found in the Rockies regions, it is certainly not an animal which I would wish to come across whilst walking alone. To prepare myself for such an eventuality, I did ask numerous local people what to do if I encountered a bear, and I received as many different responses as there were people I had asked them from. Stan the bus driver told me that I should walk with a hiking stick and a bell on the top, so that every time I made a step, the bell would ring, which would alert any black bears to my presence
before I saw it, and allow the frequently skittish animal to run away before I came within danger zone, or worse still, between mother and cub. Stan also mentioned that if it gets too close, I should lie down and play dead, with the stick pointing upwards – that way if the bear does jump on top of me, it would receive the worst end of the stick before it got to me. Jerry the BnB owner told me to act large and be very loud, to scare the bear away, although I wasn’t convinced that would work against a potential seven-footer. Bernice, another of my bus drivers, told me that I should carry some wasp spray with me and spray it into the bear’s eyes should it approach – I was really hoping that a bear wouldn’t get that close to me anyway! Finally, perhaps the most trustable advice came from a park ranger at the MacGregor Point Provincial Park, more on that below, that I should back away slowly, facing the bear, and when at a comfortable distance, turn and walk, or pedal, away. With all the advice in the world, I still wasn’t quite ready to come
across a bear, and fortunately this first day passed without incident. I’m not sure I enjoyed the walk as much as I would have done had bear-thoughts not been crossing my mind constantly, but as the days and hikes went by, I slowly started to get used to the idea of walking in bear country, and it bothered me less and less as I enjoyed my walks there more and more.
Day Two saw me return to Ralph’s to catch the airport pick up bus on its return to the airport, but only to travel the 28 miles again up and eastwards back towards the provincial centre of Owen Sound. This time my bus driver was the lovely, if awfully talkative, Bernice, whom I encountered twice more on my travels – Stan, by the way, I met again on my final Grey-Bruce Airbus trip from Orangeville back to Toronto Airport on my last day in Canada. We retraced the road journey I had taken the day before, back to Southampton, and back through what Stan had pointed out to me the day before as the Saugeen First Nation reserve, an Indian reserve of some 20 square miles, home to
around 800 native American Indians of the Ojibwe tribe, spread across much of the region around the north of the Great Lakes, from Ontario and Quebec in Canada, to Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota in the northern USA. This was my first experience of seeing and travelling through an Indian reserve, and although the area is not really open to tourism as other Indian reserves are, it was interesting to observe the difference in the houses and the people as we sped through. I managed to take a few photos of rather dilapidated houses, some wigwam-reminiscent structures, and quite a bit of junk in backyards, noticing the different features of the people, the signs advertising “smokes”, and the numerous large dogs around. I would find it very interesting at some point in my future travels to actually visit such a place.
Not this time however, and my bus drove me onwards and dropped me off at the Owen Sound Transit Terminal not long after. I arrived around midday, and had until 8.35pm to explore this fascinating town.
Owen Sound began life in 1840 as the settlement of Sydenham, named after the local river running through town also called the
Sydenham – I used to live in the London area of Sydenham around 17 years ago in South London, which remains not far from where I now live in Croydon. The settlement’s name was changed to Owen Sound in 1851, and became a town serving the popular shipping, sailing and trading routes through the Great Lakes for the next hundred years or so. It developed a reputation for rowdiness and seediness, at one time earning itself the nickname of “Little Liverpool”, as it became a popular port-of-call for sailors visiting the town’s drinking establishments and brothels. As a result, alcohol was banned in the early 20th
century, and it remained a “dry city” until 1972, having shaken off its earlier reputation for vice and villainy. Today it is a beautiful, and very friendly, little town, nestled in a valley cut out by the Sydenham River through the stunning Niagara Escarpment, which surrounds the town on three sides, with Georgian Bay of Lake Huron forming its final fourth boundary to the north.
Once off the bus and having had lunch at a nearby KFC, hoping that it would be as tasty as the fried chicken at KFCs in the United
States but ending up being rather disappointed, I headed to the Owen Sound Artists’ Co-Op, enjoying a lovely flat white coffee whilst strolling round the various art for sale by local artists – Owen Sound is incidentally famed for being an artists’ town nowadays. I bought a few cute little arty souvenirs, easily packable in my backpack, and then headed to the town’s two major attractions: firstly, the Tom Thomson Art Gallery, housing amongst other exhibitions numerous works of art by beloved local artist Tom Thomson, and then onto the nearby Billy Bishop Museum, housed in the childhood home of World War One flying ace William Avery Bishop, credited with 72 war victories and becoming the top Canadian and British Empire ace of the war. The art gallery was lovely and I admired very much the classic landscape oil paintings of local boy Tom Thomson, and the Billy Bishop Museum was equally interesting in being able to wander inside a house furnished as it must have been at the turn of the 20th
century. Walking between the two, I came across a fantastically friendly “Crossing Guard”, known in the UK as a “lollipop lady/man” who assists children crossing roads during
Me and Jerry
school times. This was the super-talkative, super-friendly Randy, who in fact offered me a lift to my next port-of-call, the Inglis Falls, around 3 miles south of town, in his brand new, orange Subaru which he was extremely proud of – what a lovely man! I am actually really glad, and probably quite fortunate, that he did offer me this lift, as I had initially planned to walk there and walk back. Given that it was only three miles away, I figured I could get there in an hour, walk around for a bit, and return in another hour. What I hadn’t noted was that the walk there was actually through some pretty virgin forest, up and down, around and under, crossing streams and mud, and in many places still covered in frozen snow and ice, making walking really quite treacherous.
After Randy dropped me off at the car park and entrance to the falls and said goodbye, I admired the nearby thundering Inglis Falls, 18 metres high, and apparently the largest and most impressive of the three waterfalls surrounding Owen Sound, which make the area really popular with tourists in the summer. Inglis Falls was also supposed to
be the most popular of the three, but as Randy drove off, I noted that there was not a soul or a car about, and I had the place completely to myself. After enjoying the falls for a bit, I picked up the Bruce Trail which was to take me the three miles back to town again, and started off on my journey.
It really turned out to be quite an exhilarating and adventurous walk. As mentioned, much of the trail was sheer ice, as the winter’s snowfall had begun to melt in the spring and frozen over again several times as the temperature hovers above and below zero. This made for quite treacherous trail conditions. Where it wasn’t frozen, it was muddy as the snow had melted forming some quite boggy and marshy land. Where it wasn’t frozen or muddy, it was steep. My intended trail path was diverted twice as I walked back to town, deciding at one point to follow a higher-up path which was further away from the spray of the river and less icy, and at the second point a sign which stated that the trail ahead was closed. Not to worry, there was
an alternative trail which I ended up taking. Eventually though the path itself disappeared, and I resorted to following the very conveniently placed white rectangles painted on trees along the route which mark the Bruce Trail, making my way from one to the next, pretty much until the end of the trail. The path took me along, down, and then along again, the famous Niagara Escarpment, as mentioned earlier. This is a 450-mile long ridge of limestone stretching from New York state in the east, through Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois in the west. It is most famously what causes the Niagara River, from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, to plunge over the stunning Niagara Falls. The Escarpment is today a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and is home to the oldest forest ecosystem and trees in eastern North America. Although I found the hike challenging, it really was quite stunning, and quite beyond any other hikes I have made before. On walking routes back in England, it is common to come across another person every ten minutes or so, but here on my two-hour, three-mile hike, I did not encounter a single soul. Although I was feeling more comfortable walking through
“bear country”, I still felt rather uneasy walking past some large boulders and caves, imagining a local bear family waking up from its winter hibernation in a major bad mood and not being happy to see a lone hiker stumbling through its territory. I normally walk a mile in around 20 minutes, so here a mile in 40 minutes is testament to the trickiness of the terrain. When I was just about ready for civilisation again, the path emptied me out into an outer suburb of Owen Sound, whereby I followed the roads back to town and a delicious pizza dinner and Canada Dry ginger beer waiting for me in the centre – lovely!
There was a bit of a worry that evening though. To travel on the Grey-Bruce Airbus, which I was making my public transport option in an area (country/continent!) where public transport doesn’t really exist, you need to make reservations in advance, by phone or online, for the bus to pick you up at various points along its route. I had booked my journey from Owen Sound back to Port Elgin for 8.35pm that evening. I arrived at the desolate, dark and closed downtown Owen Sound
Transit Terminal in good time at 8pm, trying to look inconspicuous from the numerous wandering vagrant-type people around the area, who’d probably have had a field day with me if they’d noticed my English accent (as many Canadians did, which I really loved actually!). By 9.05pm the bus still hadn’t arrived, and just as I was about to call the office on my expensive international mobile phone, the bus arrived. It dropped someone off and I hopped on board, but Bernice (who’d taken me there earlier in the day) had no record of my booking with her. She called the office, who also had no record. Although they of course took me anyway, and I was darned if I was going to pay for the journey again having shown Bernice my ticket, if she hadn’t dropped off her passenger there at that time, which was very likely given there are about eight passengers or so on the 26-stop route, the bus simply wouldn’t have picked me up! My next option would have been a bus at 1.30am, and I can’t imagine how much a taxi would have cost. Bernice called it “divine intervention” that I was picked up, I believe
so also. I was most grateful to arrive back in my cosy BnB at 10pm again that evening, with a roaring fire once more to welcome me.
And Friday, my final day, perhaps my most enjoyable day during my time at Lake Huron. This was the day in which I put the kindness of Jerry the BnB owner’s lending of his bicycle to me to good use. I had planned a return journey to the nearby MacGregor Point Provincial Park, to the south-west of Port Elgin and again on the beautiful shores of Lake Huron, along cycle routes and paths, covering some 12 miles in total. This was quite an achievement for me, perhaps one of the longest cycle journeys I’ve taken, but very well worth it. Fortunately the saddle of the bike was really quite large, soft and comfortable, and although my thighs were really quite tired at the end of the day, I suffered no saddle-soreness at all. It did start to tip with rain as soon as I set off though, and during the worst half-hour of it I did manage to hole myself up in a local Tim Horton’s eatery with a sausage and egg
muffin. In the end, I braved the rain to cycle along a disused rail track out of town, the Saugeen Rail Trail, to join with the Bruce County Rail Trail, then a cross-over of a road junction and onto the Gore Drain Trail past the little-used Port Elgin Airport with its runway made of grass, along the bumpy and icy Rotary Way, and finally to the MacGregor Point Provincial Park entrance at the Park Office.
The MacGregor Point Provincial Park is a beautifully-sited small park just under 5 square miles, composed of lake coast, coastal wetlands, forests and dunes, and made for a highly enjoyable day of cycling around. This seemed the most typical place where a North American family would spend a week or weekend camping “at the lake”, as they say, and I’m sure would be very busy with happy families enjoying the great outdoors in the summertime. During my visit I came across only two camper vans who were spending the weekend there. It was very reminiscent of all those American films and TV programmes where you see people camping it out, being raided by raccoons, having the odd bear encounter and so on – John
Candy’s “The Great Outdoors” really sprang to mind whilst there. My cycle journey took me to some lovely boardwalks along wetland and coastal routes, and towards a remarkable trail around “Beaver Lake”, a small wetland area actually created by beavers and their dam and thus turned into a haven for all sorts of birds and waders. My journey there was marked by rain and wetness, though upon arrival the sun broke through the clouds, and whilst I cycled there with a thermal top, fleece and raincoat, I returned back to Port Elgin with just a t-shirt, such was the contrast in weather! The cycle ride there was also quite tough – although the tracks were mostly straight and flat, they were rather waterlogged in places and not conducive to high speeds. Returning to town I decided to use the concrete and tarmac of more of the main roads – whilst it took me an hour to cycle there, it only took me forty minutes to return. I returned with aching thighs, but with a huge sense of having achieved something, and really experienced, albeit a small fragment, the “great outdoors” of North America – wonderful!
The next day I
bade farewell to good old Jerry, who I enjoyed talking and spending time with in the BnB. I learned during my time there that he is in fact selling the property at the end of this month, and that aside from a final couple later on in the month, I was the final guest there. Although I wasn’t really their last guest, he said he would consider me as his last guest, which was very touching. I wish Jerry all the very best as he moves on from spending the last 11 years managing the delightful little BnB, the Windspire Inn, and onto the next stages of his life.
On Saturday around noon, Bernice drove the minibus which once more picked me up, and this time returned me back to Orangeville, after which on Monday evening I flew Air Transat (not sure I’ll do them again) back across the Atlantic and to arrive back home again in Croydon on Tuesday morning. Bernice had actually written me a lovely note in a card which she had made herself, using one of her photos of Lake Huron, to wish me all the best in my journey in life, describing it as
walking along stepping stones.
What a lovely gesture, which to my mind really came to symbolise the wonderful warmth and friendliness of the fantastic Canadians which I had met on my short foray into the wilds of North America. Although a short journey, I do see it as a beginning of what may become a short annual Easter trip over the coming years to various places I’m excited to visit across the vast, yet still pretty unknown to me, North American continent.
Thank you Lake Huron, and Canada, for this short but inspirational trip. I hope to be able to write about many similar, slightly longer, adventures in North America over the coming years. In the meantime, I plan to pick up my travelling and travel blog writing once more this coming summer, as I plan a trip to Peru, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands – very excited about this one!
In the meantime, wishing everyone all the best for now!
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