by Miranda Miller
“But what does the boat do, Mom? Is it going to be boring?”
It’s a constant theme these days, thanks to ADHD-inducing video games and constant electronic stimulation. The perpetual fear of a moment’s boredom–of having to just be for five minutes–plagues my 11-year old’s every waking moment. No, this boat is not a Transformer. There are no flashing lights or ringing bells; this experience has not been gamified or digitally optimized whatsoever. There are no buttons to push or icons to swipe… in fact, there are (gasp!) no screens at all.
We’re exploring the Fishing Islands, a collection of 70 small islands that extend from Chief’s Point in Sauble Beach to Stokes Bay, with Bruce Peninsula Boat Tours. The company offers guided tours in the areas of Oliphant and Little Red Bay.
Most of the islands are privately owned and as the only island in the archipelago with a causeway back to the mainland, Lonely Island is the only one allowed year-round residents. We’re about 125km from Michigan as the gull flies, three hours northwest of Toronto’s Bay Street, and close enough to the Bruce Nuclear site to see its ethereal glow on the horizon in the evening. Today though, the sun is shining and it’s a balmy 28 degrees. With lifejackets clipped and safety precautions out of the way, our group of 10 passengers settle in for the ride. There’s ample cushioned seating aboard the Islander II, a 28-foot pontoon boat with 12-person capacity. It’s the largest of the company’s fleet.
A family with two pre-teen boys from Burlington joins my son and I at the bow; two middle-aged couples take their seats at the stern. Our captain, Pete Stewart, guides us away from the dock while voicing an acknowledgment to the Native landowners and keepers of these waters. We’re exploring unceded Ojibway First Nations territory on the Bruce Peninsula; along with the nearby Saugeen First Nation, they form the Chippewas of Saugeen Ojibway Territory.
Pete and his wife Donna are both retired educators. A resident of the area since childhood, he knows these waters and islands like the back of his hand. It’s a good thing; the water is just a few feet deep in spots.
The water level is actually high right now, Captain Pete tells us, and the typical 7-year water cycle has changed in recent years. It’s taken 15 years this time for the lake to recover to this point. He pulls a worn binder with plastic sleeves out to show us historic photos of the Oliphant docks, McKenzie’s marina, and Loney’s general store. At one point, the area flooded to the extent that tons of rock were dumped onshore to save the shore road from washing out completely.
It’s hard to imagine such destruction and danger from our idyllic perch on the pontoon boat, drifting in about 3′ of calm, clear water. A gentle west wind stirs the surface as we slowly make our way towards the gut, the channel marked on maps in the 1800s as one of the two ideal routes to the islands. A motorboat races by, a young family in a hurry to get just a little further up the channel where a spectacular sandbar awaits. Gulls linger overhead as Captain Pete points to the islands on our port side, sharing their history and folklore one by one.
What seemed at a glance a swath of reeds is, on closer inspection, a tall stand of invasive phragmites lining both sides of the gut. It’s just one of the threats to this delicate ecosystem; Captain Pete purple loosestrife as we pass it by and mentions that giant hogweed has been found in the area, as well. Over the faint rustle of phragmites, the teacher shines through as he lectures us on the other invasive species in this area: round gobie, zebra mussels and even Asian carp, the DNA of which has been found in Lake Huron.
The young boys onboard, at first fidgety and uncertain, now sit rapt as we learn about the threatened and endangered plant and animal species that call the Oliphant Fen home: rattlesnakes, spotted turtles and dwarf lake iris among them.
The shallow, warm waters here made this area one of the Great Lakes’ best late-19th and early-20th century commercial fishing grounds. Exiting the gut, we’re now in the Indian Channel and Captain Pete pushes the boat to 30km/hr, into deeper waters. We take another break to learn the lore of Main Station Island, the largest fishing station here in the 1800s, and Cranberry Island, the largest of this group.
He cuts the engine and we drift by men at work, diligently cutting the invasive phragmites off at its base in order to drown the plant. Far off in the distance, we spot the faint outline of the windmills between Port Elgin and Kincardine on the horizon.
Captain Pete guides us towards a private island with a massive stone cottage, complete with a 5-story tower and observation room. “There’s a mute swan who likes to hang out on the shoreline here,” he says, and as if on cue, her slender neck bobs up out of the reeds.
We drift on and just a few moments later, his story of cross country skiing out to see massive ice mounds between these islands in winter is interrupted by the whup-whup-whup of a startled cormorant’s wings.
We sail past Wildman’s Island, so-called for an early 20th century resident who was fond of howling at the moon. Bowes Island, named for the fishing vessel captain who made it his home. Rowan’s Island, Rock Haven, Scotch Bonnet Island, Sunset Island… as we examine the exposed dolostone and dwarf plants on each shoreline, we’re regaled with entertaining stories about how each earned its name and who lived there long before any of us were around.
We’re just over an hour into our trip and we’re about to hit sensory overload at Deadman’s Island, so called for the drowned fisherman who was found washed into a crevice in its rock.
Captain Pete guides us within several yards, careful not to disturb the hundreds of cormorants, gulls, terns and other birds gathered onshore. We’re a little past nesting season and too early yet to take advantage of this being a waypoint on a migratory route, yet there are birds in abundance. This small island is a heron rookery, and we scour the landscape to catch a glimpse.
Just as I thought we might be skunked in the heron department, one stood tall in her nest to give us a perfect profile shot. This wasn’t even one of BPBT’s birding tours, but I think it’s safe to say our entire group were delighted with the shots we were able to get on this portion of the tour.
Not far from Bird Island lay a sizeable shipwreck, which we were able to float right over thanks to the nature of these touring boats. True to form, Captain Pete shared with us her story.
Circling back towards the peninsula, we swung by Wildwood & Evergreen Lodges and the Little Red Bay Marina to check out the facilities from our vantage point offshore. Captain Pete introduced us to the dining and accommodations options one might choose to check out in this neck of the woods.
A kayaker passing by tipped her oar; one of the boys onboard pulled a sweatshirt over his face and had a nap on-deck. We waved to tourists onshore, our kindred spirits in the special enjoyment of this beautiful, little-known place.
Heading back to shore, Burlington-Mom and I lean back in our seats and tip our faces to the sun. We’re less than 20 minutes away from the mania of Highway 6 and just a short drive south, tens of thousands of people mill up and down Sauble Beach. Here in Oliphant, we’re a world away, our kids drunk on sunshine and fresh air, their insatiable need for stimulation, excitement and knowledge fulfilled for another afternoon. We’ll all sleep well tonight.
Bruce Peninsula Boat Tours is a recommended activity option on Bruce Peninsula Explorer Tour #8: Down the Wild Huron Shore. Enrich and extend your stay on the Bruce with the unexpected, lesser known experiences, historic stories, insider travel tips, choose-your-own-adventure options and more inside each of our mobile-accessible Self-Guided Tours.
Bruce Peninsula Boat Tours: Make the Most of Your Trip
- A personal flotation device
- An expertly guided tour, complete with historic stories and natural information
What to bring:
- A light windbreaker
- Sunscreen and insect repellant
- A full, reusable water bottle
- Your camera, with a long lens if you plan on shooting onshore flora and fauna
To learn more, visit Bruce Peninsula Boat Tours online here.