Tobermory to Collingwood

By Mike Milne 

Boats and rocks don’t usually mix well, but cruising along the east coast of the Bruce Peninsula brings a fresh perspective. On the Georgian Bay side of Bruce County, the dolostone cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment deliver deep water right up to the shore, dramatic scenery and well-protected harbours. It’s rock that even boaters can learn to love.

Along the hard shores of western and southern Georgian Bay, boaters will also find quiet anchorages, welcoming towns and the busy, bay-oriented small city of Owen Sound.

The tip of the Bruce Peninsula, where we begin our exploration of Georgian Bay, has so much to see and experience – above and below the water – that it’s home to two national parks.

Tobermory is a jumping off point for cruises around roughly a dozen islands and islets, all part of the Fathom Five National Marine Park. It is a conservation area that seeks to protect and showcase its shipwrecks, lighthouses and freshwater ecosystems. The park attracts divers and visitors from around the world, with glass-bottom boats also providing tours. Visitors can go ashore at Flowerpot Island, where they can hike trails to caves and rock pillars.

For cruisers from further south, heading to or from the legendary cruising grounds of the North Channel or the 30,000 Islands, Tobermory is a practically unavoidable port-of-call. It’s also the terminus for ferries to Manitoulin Island and can get very busy, especially on mid-summer weekends.

The town’s municipal marina is located in busy Little Tub Harbour, but there are much quieter moorings at the Big Tub Harbour Resort and Marina in Big Tub Harbour, just west of town.

Even quieter cruising grounds with similar scenery are not far away. Heading east along the top of the peninsula, boaters get a close-up view of the Niagara Escarpment, including a well-known shorefront cave called The Grotto. Once partially underwater, the main grotto is now high and dry due to low water levels, but there are other shoreline caves nearby for divers and snorkelers to visit on calm days.

There are even more scenic shoreline caves and cliffs along the 10-mile cruise east toward Cabot Head. There, three bluffs tower over a lower shorefront and protect the perfect natural harbour at Wingfield Basin.

There’s room for several boats to anchor and good holding. The wreck of the former steam tug Gargantua in the northeast corner of the basin adds historic appeal. To the south, there’s a walking trail to the nearby Cabot Head lighthouse.

The 15-mile run further south to Isthmus Bay passes more untamed Niagara Escarpment scenery and a few cottages, with deep water right to the shoreline. On a sunny day, water near the shore takes on the turquoise shade usually only found in the Caribbean.

At 123 nautical miles long and 62 miles wide, Georgian Bay is a big, wide-open body of water. It can get rough, especially if the wind is coming from the north or northeast. But along the east side of the peninsula, there’s plenty of protection from prevailing west winds.

South of White Bluff, in Isthmus Bay, a lighthouse marks the entrance to Lion’s Head harbour. The original 1933 lighthouse survived storms and a hurricane, but in 1969 was finished off by a wrecking crew from the Canadian Coast Guard. Since then, locals have replaced it with a working replica.

There’s a municipal marina at Lion’s Head with fuel, pump-out and plenty room for visitors. It’s an ideal place to refuel, relax and enjoy the view. The village’s downtown is nearby, with restaurants, a grocery store and a liquor outlet. A small park, complete with a sandy beach, is next door to the marina.

The high bluff to starboard as you leave the harbour is popular with rock climbers. Its eastern extremity is said to look like the head of a lion, giving the bluff and the town their names.

There are more anchorages in the three bays southeast of Lion’s Head, but visiting cruisers who want to stay overnight have to watch weather carefully. Barrow Bay is fine in a west wind, while Jackson’s Cove on Hope Bay is protected from the north. Part of the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, MacGregor Harbour is sheltered in both north and east winds.

Cape Croker’s lighthouse shows the way around into 15-mile long Colpoy’s Bay, which has several anchorages that are popular with local boaters. They readily change locations depending on where the wind in blowing and which anchorage offers the best protection. Little Port Elgin, on the south shore of Cape Croker, is well-protected from westerly winds. Kidd Bay, on the west side of White Cloud Island, is more exposed but has a government dock. It’s a popular stop for Owen Sound boaters. The island is also home to several summer cottages. Heading into Wiarton, there’s an anchorage southwest of the Colpoy’s Bay government dock.

Located at the southwest end of Colpoy’s Bay, the town of Wiarton has a well-equipped marina that offers transient berths and full-service facilities. Shopping, provisioning and the restaurants of downtown Wiarton are nearby. The town is well-known for Wiarton Willie, the star of a winter groundhog festival, but boaters will find the town just as welcoming in the summer.

Depending on the wind or where they’re coming from, boaters may choose to bypass Colpoy’s Bay altogether and head past Hay and Griffith islands at the mouth of the bay, down the 12-mile-long Owen Sound to the port city of the same name.

Along the Owen Sound coast, the Niagara Escarpment is further inland and the shore itself is still rocky, but lined with homes and cottages.

The recently developed Cobble Beach Golf Resort is about five miles north of the city of Owen Sound. It has docks to welcome boaters for a round of golf or a meal in the Sweetwater Restaurant. The challenging 18-hole course and the restaurant both offer great panoramic views of Georgian Bay.

Cruisers who follow the range leading into Owen Sound harbour these days might not realize the city was once a busy hub for shipping. The harbour walls can’t speak, but local historian Paul White helps tell the story. As he explains, Georgian Bay and the harbour have always been important to the city.

“Starting in 1840, when the first settlers came here, they came by water. This was the roadway into this region of Ontario”

“Starting in 1840, when the first settlers came here, they came by water. This was the roadway into this region of Ontario,” he says. “By the late 1870s and ‘80s, Owen Sound had become a major Great Lakes port and in 1882 the CPR’s eastern fleet was headquartered out of Owen Sound. At times in this harbour, you could walk from one side to the other without using one of the bridges because you would just go from deck to deck to deck because the ships were in here.”

Ships and tugboats were also built in Owen Sound, first at Poulson’s on the west side of the harbour and later at Russell Brothers on the east side.

“Owen Sound has never ceased to think of itself as a water hub,” White says.

Owen Sound is still a commercial port and freighters come and go with loads of grain and cement. But in recent years, the emphasis has shifted to making pleasure boaters welcome.

The docks at the West Side Launch Ramp have been rebuilt recently. Also, a floating dock on the east side of the inner harbour makes it easier for small boats to land and visit the nearby downtown, with a range of restaurants, cafes and unique shops.

The biggest changes are at the Georgian Shores Marina – west of the main shipping channel as you approach the entry to the main harbour, beside the Georgian Yacht Club. The 400-slip marina facility recently emerged from receivership with five new owners.

Partner and business development director Peter Van Dolder says they are “five local business people and all boating enthusiasts. We boat on Georgian Bay and love it here. . . . And we looked at the marina as a group and thought there were some neat opportunities to possibly do something with it.”

So far, changes include a renovated and expanded office, chandlery and service building, a new relocated fuel dock, and spruced-up grounds and docks. The owners plan to continue updating facilities and eventually add condominiums to the mix.

The marina has 20-ton lift-out capacity and is currently developing a full-service facility and boat sales. It’s home to a mix of power cruisers, sailboats, runabouts and dedicated fishing boats. But for 10 days at the end of August, the focus is on fishing. Then, the Georgian Shores Marina becomes the hub for one of Canada’s biggest fishing derbies, the Owen Sound Salmon Spectacular, which has been in operation for a quarter of a century. Anglers vie for top prizes and the derby tent hosts entertainment and fish fries.

Further afield in the city, visitors find much more than fish. On Saturday mornings, the lively Farmer’s Market is the best show in town and a chance to stock up on fresh produce, baked goods and crafts. It’s an ideal source for locally grown food and tasty treats are always available.

The city’s art gallery is just around the corner. It has a large collection of paintings by famous Canadian artist Tom Thomson, who grew up near Owen Sound and spent his early years in the city. The childhood home of another homegrown hero, Canadian First World War flying ace Billy Bishop, is also nearby.

When every town and city needed a marketing motto, Owen Sound called itself “The Scenic City.” It still lives up to that with 40 parks and 21 playgrounds. The oldest and largest park is Harrison Park, with scenic Inglis Falls nearby. At the harbour, a well-landscaped waterfront hiking and cycling trail winds around the shore.

Back on the water, there are a couple of pleasant picnic anchorages near Owen Sound — in the bay at Balmy Beach on the west side of Owen Sound and at Paynter’s Bay on the east side. Local boaters should check the wind direction, then pick their destination.

Cruisers going further east head north past Vail’s Point, then stay about two miles offshore as they round the Land Force Central Area Training Centre northwest of Meaford. The buoyed exclusion zone exists because of live-fire exercises and is best obeyed.

Around the point in Nottawasaga Bay, three waterfront towns also welcome visiting boaters. Meaford’s original harbour is to the west and has fuel, pump-out and repairs while the newer Meaford Marina basin to the east has 195 slips, a Canadian Coast Guard base and plenty of room for visitors. Downtown, there are shops, restaurants and a restored opera house called Meaford Hall.

Seven miles further along the shore is Thornbury, where visiting cruisers will find a small but well-sheltered 75-slip municipal harbour. There’s fuel and pump-out and a mix of power and sailboats. It’s a short walk to Thornbury’s downtown to enjoy a mix of formal and informal dining, as well as cafes and shops.

Boaters heading continuing along the shoreline have to take care, as shoals called the Mary Ward Ledges extend up to four miles offshore and make it very tricky getting to Collingwood from the west. From Thornbury, boaters need to head northeast and stay well offshore past a series of red markers, before turning towards Collingwood, past the abandoned lighthouse on Nottawasaga Island.

Once a commercial port, Collingwood’s main harbour has unused grain elevators that are a good landmark, but the waterfront is lined with condos – some with their own harbours. The Cranberry Marina, operated by South Winds Marine, is the best bet for visiting cruisers. Located on the west side of Collingwood Harbour, it’s got fuel, pump-out and repairs if needed.

Off Collingwood on Nottawasaga Bay the Niagara Escarpment is still visible — and home to several ski clubs — but continues further south.

For boaters, though, there’s much more to explore on Georgian Bay’s rocky eastern shore, past Christian Island and among the cruising grounds of the 30,000 Islands.

This article is featured in the Spring 2013 issue of Boats&Places and in episode 9 of 2013 Season of PowerBoat Television.