Photo above: Providence Bay Beach
The large 2,766 square kilometer Manitoulin Island is the farthest northern part of the Southern Georgian Bay. It has the distinction of being the largest freshwater lake island in the world, and is also considered to have one of the best beaches in Ontario.
Our memories of Manitoulin Island are those of a Hawaiian-style beach, a gentle warm breeze and softly lapping waves, forever planted in our minds when we think of our first visit there in 1975. We were spending a day away from our friends’ cottage at South Baymouth on a deserted beach that had a broken-down gate with a sign “Private Property” on it. There were no signs of a cottage or owners there. Later we found out that it was designated to become a luxury resort, which never materialized.
The tall dunes at the back of the beach were inhabited by burrows of dozens of Bank Swallows and two Kingfishers. Our six kids – three girls and three boys 8 to 14 years old – were enjoying the hot sand and the warm water. When I say “Hawaiian” we could only imagine that this is what it looked and felt like in Hawaii. At that time, with a young family to raise, we could not afford our numerous later visits to the Hawaiian Islands.
We found out that “our beach” was called Babakodawangog (where the beach curves around the water) by the indigenous people, and was an eastward private extension to the Island’s most prominent beach, Providence Bay. Henry Bayfield, Assistant to Captain William Fitzwilliam, hired by the British Government around 1820 to survey Lake Huron, gave it the name “Providence Bay” because of the large stands of untouched timber there, realizing their commercial value as masts for the British Navy ships.
Providence Bay continues to be popular with tourists and residents, but there have been quite some changes made there since 1975.
In July, 1977 we made an outing to the Indian Reserve at Wikwemikong, where the “Wikwemikong Indian Days” were being held in 1961. The name has since then been changed to “Wikwemikong Annual Cultural Festival”. It is a Pow Wow to which First Nations representatives come from many tribes in Canada and the United States. In August 2021, during the Civic Holiday weekend, was its 60th Anniversary.
I was most impressed by meeting Kahn-Tineta Horn, the beautiful, then 45-year-old former New-York fashion model, born to the Mohawk Bear Clan of Kahnawake, Quebec, who became an indigenous civil rights activist in the Red Power Movement and the American Indian Movement.
Manitoulin is the anglicized version of Manidoowaaling in the Anishinaabemowin language of the Ojibwe, a loose federation of the indigenous Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi tribes. The associations within these tribal structures are complex and irrelevant to the readers. Legends say that the Great Spirit Gitche Manitou lived in an underwater cave on the “Island of the Great Spirit”.
Manitoulin Island is not a one-day trip. You must reserve the ferry ahead, as well as your accommodation in Tobermory or South Baymouth. It is 384 km from Collingwood to Espanola (the northernmost town of the island) via Hwy 400 and the Trans-Canada 69, then 113km to South Baymouth on Hwy.6. Or you can take the drive of 170km from Collingwood to Tobermory on Highway 6, then sail on the Chi-Cheemaun Ferry for 2 hours to South Baymouth. It is a trip well worth the $ 38 to $ 48 per vehicle, plus the one-way fare of $ 17.70 per person (Seniors $ 15.30).
Don’t forget to take a kayak, canoe or paddleboad and, of course, the kids along for this great adventure. Fares for them are free up to 4 years old, and $ 8.80 for ages 5 t0 11, with adult fees for ages 12 and above. Return trips are, of course, available for all ages, as well as walk-on fares.