Manitoulin Island: Clear Water, Lighthouses, Ancient Seabeds, Breweries, and a Waterfall

We had a day and a half to explore Manitoulin Island. As the largest freshwater island in the world we didn’t exactly do it the justice it deserved, but we ended up feeling like we saw and did quite a bit during our short visit.

I had made reservations at a campground near the mainland so even though we checked in midday it wasn’t until after 3pm that we reached our destination of the town of South Baymouth located on the southernmost tip of the island. I hadn’t had too much a plan for the afternoon but I thought it would be nice to drive the scenic road down the short axis of the island and then walk around…. and this was pretty much what we did.

The land along Scenic Route 6 was largely under cultivation, which surprised me; we passed field after field of what looked to be hay. Fields not growing crops were populated with cattle. It was pastoral and quite pretty, and I would’ve taken photos en route except that I was driving. After parking in South Baymouth we walked down to the water, marveling at its clarity and beautiful turquoise coloring but as we had reached our destination somewhat late in the day Tom suggested we have a beer and some food before we got too carried away with walking. Not one a to pass up beer I readily agreed and we ended up having a couple excellent bottles from Split Rail Brewing, a brewery located in the center of the island. My Loon Song Oatmeal Stout was excellent but Tom’s Hawberry Ale (made with native hawberries) was so tasty and unique that I was immediately jealous he’d snagged the last one.

Fortified with a pint and some food we started walking, first past the ferry dock, lined with passengers waiting to board, and then towards the marina and lighthouse. The water was somehow even more clear in the marina and we felt we could see down close to 20 feet through the layers of blue and green as we walked the rocks. Walking the rocks around the lighthouse we learned that the wooden tower was one of a set, the other located on the hill a mile a inland. These “range lighthouses” help guide ships into the narrow harbor by providing a set of points that can be lined up by vessels approaching land.

Early the next morning we set off west and south for Misery Bay Provincial Park where we intended to hike the exposed ancient sea floor that rings the water’s edge. Referred to as alvars, these exposed limestone slabs are uncommon, occurring in only northern Europe and a few spots around the Great Lakes; they support a specific type of habitat for ferns, moss, lichen, flowers, and grasses tucked into the crevasses between the pavement slabs or in the thin soil that’s been painstakingly deposited by flooding. Along the water the pavement is largely barren and free from incursions of plant material, but inland we saw numerous curious plants and stunted common varieties growing through the cracks.

Unlike much of the barren rock I’ve hiked across, the alvar at Misery Bay has a distinctive – though hardly uniform – look, scarred by the dragging scratch marks of striation, the rounded pockmarks of plucking, and the rectangular fracturing of harder bedrock through freeze-thaw cycles. As we walked the two and a half miles along the shore I marveled at the variety and unique appearance of the limestone, but also the pastel, muted colors of the shallow bay, enhanced by the offshore fog.

On our return journey through the forest on the Inland Alvar Trail we crossed multiple sections of barren, fractured limestone but more common were areas of thin soil cover that supported patchy vegetation including hearty bushes and thistle. There was a section too covered in a mat of different mosses including some small patches of reindeer moss (which is actually a lichen). Pines grew plentifully on higher ground where enough soil had been built up on top of the slabs.

Though we had (characteristically) hiked more than the 8km intended we were still finished by 1pm, which left plenty of time for further explorations of the island. We agreed to start with a visit to Split Rail Brewing since it was the closest stop on our way back. Here I attempted to order the Hawberry Ale but even they were out which left me as the enjoyable Amber Ale as the closest alternative. We then went on to a quick stop at the popular Bridal Veil Falls. Without any trails or a real place to walk near the waterfall however we decided to continue to our next stop at the taproom for the Manitoulin Brewing Company. Disappointingly (but understandably as it was the height of tourist season) they were out of a number of their brews which led to us sampling only a flight of 4. It was largely hit it or miss with no real standouts except for the Lemon Weiss, a tart, fruity style I really never drink.