by Stephen Johnson
Snakes, airplanes, fossils and shipwrecks: sounds like the tagline to a summer movie. It also perfectly summarizes our family trip to Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula.
When I told our son, David, the Bruce region is well known for different species of snakes and fossils, he was instantly ready to go. So we loaded up our car and hit the highway. It is a long but beautiful drive to the region, located northwest of Toronto. A geologically unique finger of land with water on both sides, the peninsula is bordered by Lake Huron on one side and Georgian Bay on the other. I loved seeing the towns of Thornbury and Meaford along Georgian Bay. At the Thornbury Bakery Café, a local landmark, we sampled some freshly baked treats and agreed the cookies were awesome.
At last we arrived at our destination for the day, Owen Sound. After a good sleep, we decided to explore Harrison Park. This vast urban green space has trails, gardens, streams, playgrounds and forestland. We rented a paddleboat to explore the park’s Sydenham River and, from the water, we had a bird’s eye view of a family of ducks. After an ice cream to cool off, we checked out the bird sanctuary where David fed swans and ducks.
Since the famous Bruce Trail also runs through Harrison Park, we hiked to Weaver’s Creek Falls, one of Owen Sound’s four waterfalls. Kicking back by a beautiful waterfall was the perfect way to wrap up our visit to this naturally stunning destination.
Next, we went for a trek with Bob Knapp, a local naturalist, at a lush nature reserve called Fossil Glen. It’s home to a multitude of fossils that are millions of years old. Along the way, Bob pointed out various plants and fossils. David was particularly interested in learning about edible plants; by the end of the day, I didn’t think he would need supper.
Our time in Owen Sound ended with a sightseeing tour by Owen Sound Flight Services. Since I have an aversion to heights, I stayed on terra firma but David and my wife, Sandy, were excited to go up in the air. From on high, my two less squeamish companions had the chance to see spectacular area scenery, including all the waterfalls.
The next morning we headed to the Bruce, home of Wiarton Willie. Sandra, who is from Mexico, and David needed a history lesson about Canada’s famous weather predicting groundhog. Naturally, photos were taken when we pulled into town, and hopes were fervent that he would predict a shorter winter next year.
After getting up close and personal with the world’s only albino, four-legged weather forecaster, we headed to Summerhouse Park where we had rented a cabin. Summerhouse, a family resort by the shores of Miller Lake, is a popular choice because of its proximity to Bruce attractions and its great kids’ activities.
For the following day, we had arranged to do a nature adventure with Explorer’s Tread tours. We met our guides, Muffy and Justin, at Cabot Head lighthouse, a sight founded in 1896 to guide ships on Georgian Bay. After the lighthouse tour, David was clamoring to get down to his preferred activity: snake spotting. Sure enough, he soon spied a northern water snake. David is very curious but also respects nature; he was careful in taking photos. Shortly thereafter, we spotted a bald eagle in the distance.
Following lunch by the shoreline, David was excited to see more snakes. I joined him for a walk and soon he was whispering, “Come quick, I see a Massassauga rattlesnake.” We heard the rattle and gave this resident his space. During our hike we also saw a milk snake and several garter snakes. David was ecstatic with all his sightings, Sandy less so.
We finished our visit to Cabot Head with a kayak trip to see a shipwreck. Justin ably guided us and filled us in on its history. For our family, Cabot Head is a special, unforgettable place.
There was still more exploring to do the next morning. Departing from Tobermory, we hopped aboard a Bruce Anchor Cruises vessel and enjoyed the view from a glass-bottom boat. We saw two shipwrecks that were so close to the surface David thought he could touch them. The waters off Tobermory are very clear and offer some of the best shipwreck sighting opportunities in Canada.
Next, we were off to Flowerpot Island. This spot is famous for its unique flowerpot rock formations, rare plants and caves. There’s a lot to see here, but David had his eyes peeled for attractions of the slithery sort. Luckily for him, a garter snake materialized and, when we reached the flowerpot formations, I heard, “Dad, come quick.” There it was: another huge northern water snake. At least one of us was thrilled.
On the way back to Ottawa, I wanted to check the beaches along Georgian Bay as I had heard they were great for finding fossils. We stopped at one near Collingwood and hit a geological jackpot. Scooping up rocks along the shoreline, we found numerous shell fossils; soon there was an audience of kids examining the collection.
Our final stop was at the Scenic Caves near Blue Mountain Resort. From the longest suspension footbridge in Southern Ontario, we enjoyed an incredible view of Georgian Bay. Since it was a hot day, we then headed to the “refrigerator cave,” where it was five or six degrees. What a way to cool off!
Back home, David spent weeks looking at the photos of snakes and fossils he’d discovered. And in hindsight, I cansay one of our best summer vacations ever was in the Bruce Peninsula, right here in Ontario.