Bruce Peninsula – Part Three – Tobermory and Nearby Attractions

Tobermory Sign and Flowerpot on Rte 6

When you reach the town of Tobermory at the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula you will be greeted by the sign shown above, flanked by a statue that looks like a pile of rocks. This geological oddity is called a “flowerpot”, and is a small, man-made version of two of the northern Bruce Peninsula’s most famous attractions – the Flowerpots on Flowerpot Island, which is part of Fathom Five National Marine Park. We’ll take a boat cruise to Flowerpot Island later in this article. 

Boats in Tobermory’s Little Tub Harbor

From Thanksgiving Day through mid-May Tobermory is a quiet little town, but between 2008 and 2016 the number of visitors to Bruce Peninsula National Park and Fathom Five National Marine Park almost doubled, from 194,000 to 400,000. The vast majority of these visitors arrive in July, August, and early September. When I visited in early June there were plenty of motels rooms available, and in several of the local restaurants where I ate breakfast and dinner there were only a handful of guests. I had been advised by friends to bring plenty of insect repellent, or even a headnet, but except for a handful of bites most of my one-week stay in the area was blissfully insect-free.

Parking places in Tobermory can be hard to find during the busy summer months, and in 2017 paid parking meters were installed throughout the town. However, parking fees are only levied from 9:00 am through 6:00 pm, and by confining most of my visits in Tobermory to early and late in the day I was able to avoid parking fees. My favorite place to eat in Tobermory was the Princess Hotel, which is owned by a delightful Greek family and serves excellent breakfast, lunch, and dinner specials at very reasonable prices (e.g. CAD $8.95 for a full breakfast).

MS Chi-Cheemaun Ferry to Manitoulin Island

Tobermory is the southern terminus for the MS Chi-Cheemaun Ferry to South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron. The Chi-Cheemaun, which means “big canoe” in Ojibwe, is the largest passenger and vehicle ferry operating in the Great Lakes, with a capacity of 648 passengers and up to 143 vehicles. The Chi-Cheemaun makes the 25-mile trip in about one hour and 45 minutes, four times each day during the peak summer season and twice a day during May and October. 

   

Fathom Five National Marine Park (FFNMP) was established in 1987, and encompasses 44 square miles at the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula. Fathom Five is named for a line in Ariel’s song in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Twenty-two wrecks in the crystal clear waters of the park  make Fathom Five Canada’s premier location for freshwater snorkeling and scuba diving.

Blue Heron 8 and Flowerpot Island

A boat trip to Flowerpot Island is one of the top two attractions in the Bruce Peninsula, and I booked a 9:30 am cruise on the Blue Heron 8 on the last full day of my Bruce Peninsula visit. The cruise cost CAD $44.00 and included a day pass to Fathom Five National Marine Park. I had a partly cloudy sky, ideal for photographing large expanses of blue water during the boat trip. The open upper deck is best for photography, while the lower closed deck includes a glass bottom for viewing the submerged shipwrecks during the trip. Tripods are useless on a boat, and I handheld my Nikon D7200, using a 16-80mm lens with VR (Vibration Reduction) switched on, for all the images from the boat shown below.

Big Tub Lighthouse

Big Tub Lighthouse stands at the entrance to Big Tub Harbor, which is the first place we visited on the boat cruise. There are 15 lighthouses around the coastline of Bruce County. Most are fairly small and not especially distinctive from an architectural viewpoint, when compared with the lighthouses of its neighbor to the west, Michigan, which has about 124 lighthouses, more than any other U.S. state.

Big Tub “Cottages”

Many parts of the Bruce Peninsula are lined with summer homes or “cottages” like the three attractive homes near the end of Big Tub Harbor shown in the photo above. Many of these homes may be rented for very reasonable rates, which is a cost-effective alternative to hotels and motels for large groups of family or friends.  

Wreck in Big Tub Harbor

The Blue Heron cruise boats are equipped with a glass bottom section for better viewing of the wrecks, but the frames which protrude into the glass area make good compositions hard to achieve. Instead, I preferred to use a polarizing filter and shoot the shipwrecks from the upper deck. I believe the wreck shown above is the remains of the Sweepstakes, an 1867 schooner that sank in 1885. 

Flowerpot Island Lightkeeper’s Home

After visiting Big Tub Harbor we headed north toward Cove Island and some of the smaller islands before turning east to visit Flowerpot Island, which is the highlight of the cruise. A crew member on the Blue Heron 8 informed me that the boat would circle the coastline of Flowerpot Island in a clockwise direction, so I moved to a seat on the starboard (right) side of the upper deck. We began with excellent views of the Lighthouse Keeper’s and Assistant Lighthouse Keeper’s houses on the northeast tip of Flowerpot Island. 

Flowerpot Island Range Light

In 1968 the original Flowerpot Island Lighthouse was replaced by a pyramidal steel range light, which was restored in the 1990s  and covered with red and white boards in 2012. The old lighthouse, badly deteriorated, was pushed over the edge of the cliff in 1969. 

Small and Large Flowerpots, Flowerpot Island

The photo above shows the Small Flowerpot, in the center, and the Large Flowerpot, on the right, located on the east shoreline of Flowerpot Island. The Large Flowerpot is 40-50 feet high, and the Small Flowerpot is 25-35 feet. To my eye, both flowerpots appear to have been stabilized with a pattern of rocks inserted in the base of each flowerpot, and the flat tops of both pillars appear to be coated with a thin layer of asphalt or some similar material, presumably to help retard further erosion of these iconic symbols of the northern Bruce Peninsula. The black bird in the foreground on a rock is a Double-crested Cormorant, a common diving bird in the Great Lakes.

After circling the island, the Blue Heron 8 headed for Beachy Cove on the southeast coast of Flowerpot Island to disembark passengers planning to spend time exploring the island on foot. Most people head for the Flowerpots, which are about a 15-minute walk from Beachy Cove. Having obtained several good images of the Flowerpots from the boat, I decided instead to follow another trail in search of the Calypso, a very rare lady’s-slipper orchid that usually flowers in June and is only found in the forests on Flowerpot Island. There were lots of Fringed Polygala plants in bloom, whose flowers are somewhat similar in size and color to the Calypso, and it took about 30 minutes before I spied my first Calypso, Calypso bulbosa, its small striped slipper topped by purplish pink sepals and a fringe of yellow hairs. The entire plant was only a few inches in height and was gently waving in the breeze in dappled sunlight on the forest floor. I had to shade the plant with my body and take multiple exposures with the Nikon D7200 firmly mounted on a tripod to get an acceptable image, shown below. I used my 70-200mm Nikkor set at 200mm and f/11, which produced a 1/25-second exposure at ISO 400. I considered taking a series of stacked focus exposures at f5.6 or f8 to gain more depth of field in the flower and a slightly more diffuse background, but the flower was moving almost constantly in the breeze and I decided it would be hard to register the exposures without generating ghosting in the composite images.               

Calypso, Flowerpot Island

As I headed back to Beachy Cove along the trail, I noticed another type of orchid flowering in the undergrowth nearby. This orchid, which  was almost 12 inches in height with a raceme of pinkish-yellow flowers with dark stripes, turned out to be a Striped Coral-root, Corallorhiza wisteriana, another new species of orchid that I had not seen before. I settled for a close-up of a group of the flowers on the orchid, which was much larger than the Calypso and not moving much in the breeze.   

Striped Coral-root Flowers

When I arrived back at Beachy Cove around noon the sky had cleared, and there were many people heading out on the trail to the Flowerpots. Photographing white rocks at noon under a sunny sky with a crowd of tourists in the scene was not appealing, and I decided to head back to Tobermory when the cruise boat arrived a few minutes later.

The other main scenic attraction in the Tobermory area is Bruce Peninsula National Park (BPNP), a 59 square-mile wilderness of lakes, forests, wetlands, and spectacular dolomite limestone cliffs along the Georgian Bay coast. BPNP is also the northern terminus of the Bruce Trail, which extends south for 550 miles along the Niagara Escarpment to the Niagara River. BPNP and FFNMP share an excellent visitor center in Tobermory. The Visitor Center has great exhibits, knowledgeable and helpful staff, maps and guides, and a 120-foot tower with views of the surrounding forests, so be sure to pay it a visit early in your trip. Parking meters are installed at all the parking areas in BPNP, and a daily parking pass costs CAD $11.70. For about $45 you can buy an annual BPNP pass, so if you plan to visit the area for more than four days it’s worth investing in the annual pass. Who knows – you may like the place enough to want to return later in the year!

Georgian Bay near the Grotto

By far the most popular destination in BPNP is the Grotto, a large cave near Indian Head Cove on Georgian Bay, and a 30-minute hike from the nearest parking area at Cyprus Lake. During 2016 about 138,000 people visited the Grotto, but another 150,000 were turned away because of overcrowding and lack of parking space – the parking lots can only accommodate about 600 vehicles. Google the Grotto and you will find photos showing hundreds of people crowding the rocks and swimming in the icy-cold waters of Georgian Bay during the peak season in July and August.

When I visited the Grotto, I arrived at the parking lot at 6:30 am on a sunny morning, and my 4Runner was the only vehicle to be seen. I met only five other people during my visit on June 6. After an easy stroll along the shoreline of the lake and through the forest to the edge of Georgian Bay, I arrived at the overlook shown above. So where was the Grotto? There were no signs, just cliffs and piles of boulders. I headed right along the top of the cliffs, but the trail quickly became very indistinct, so I headed back to Indian Cove and walked in the opposite direction along the rocks near the shoreline.         

Cave near the Grotto

After a few minutes I came to a cave where I could look down at the waters of Georgian Bay. Was this the famous Grotto? Fortunately I met a young hiker who informed me that the Grotto was a bit further along the cliffs, near a restroom facility.

The Grotto, Bruce Peninsula National Park

As luck would have it, the interior of the Grotto was in deep shade, and the photo above was the best I could achieve with the prevailing early morning light. In order to enter the Grotto you must descend a rock chimney or climb down a 40-foot cliff face, which seemed a bit foolhardy for an aging photographer on his own, carrying a tripod and camera bag, and with nobody around to help in the event of a slip. Since the lighting was not good, I decided to save this adventure for another visit in the future, and headed back to my 4Runner along the trail.  

Misty Morning at Lion’s Head

I wasn’t greatly impressed by the Grotto. Further south, at Cave Point and Lion’s Head, the cliffs tower up to 300 feet above the waters of Georgian Bay, and you will probably have these places to yourself. As a lover of solitude on my photography trips, the Grotto won’t be on my list of places to visit during my next trip to the Bruce Peninsula.

If you are planning to visit The Bruce, I strongly recommend investing in a copy of the latest edition of The Bruce Peninsula Explorer, by Andrew Armitage, a transplanted West Virginian who has lived in Bruce County for half a century and is the retired Chief Librarian at the Owen Sound Public Library. This is a great book that is available online, or from the Reader’s Haven Bookstore in Tobermory. The book is organized into eight day trips, and is packed with fascinating information about the natural history and human history of the Bruce Peninsula. There are no color photographs and the B&W historical images aren’t much bigger than postage stamps, but the author knows the area intimately and if you follow his directions you will discover dozens of places off the beaten track and a myriad of new opportunities for photography.

Hikers should also obtain a copy of The Bruce Trail Reference – Maps and Trail Guide, published by the Bruce Trail Conservancy. In addition to detailed maps and descriptions of the 550-mile Bruce Trail, this great reference guide includes many excellent color photographs and a fold-out field guide to the flora and fauna of the peninsula.            

     

 

   

             

 

       

 

 

   

   

   

 

       

     

 

 

                   

   

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