Tobermory, Ontario was completely unknown to us before this trip. Thanks to organizers Mike Wendland and Yan Seiner and the support of Roadtrek Motorhomes, we were going to spend five days and four nights discovering it on the “Roadtrek Tobermory Boondocking Expedition.”
Well, actually, that we knew nothing about Tobermory may not be accurate. We knew there was a place on the Canadian side of Lake Huron where we could dive to see ship wrecks. And sometime in our lives we had heard of fantastical landforms made by water and wind on one of The Great Lakes. It’s just that we didn’t know the name of this place or exactly where it was.
It turns out the name of the place is Fathom Five National Marine Park and it is centered around Bruce Peninsula on the Georgian Bay located on the Ontario side of Lake Huron.
Tobermory is a quaint little town of perhaps 200 permanent residents. From May through September that number swells easily 500 times, though thankfully not all at the same moment. Transformed into a tourist haven, we can only imagine the throng of people here to enjoy this town and its surrounding glorious natural wonders. Everything here is devoted to those wonders. The Divers Den, and Crows Nest Pub are our favorites, but with numerous jewelry shops, souvenir temples, ice cream and coffee shops filling the downtown area, Tobermory is a gem in itself. The harbor is central to it all, with ships, boats, tugs, kayaks and glass bottomed tour vessels that sandwich themselves together in the downtown marina.
Sounds like a place you may not want to visit if you don’t like crowds…and we don’t particularly. But via the glory and privilege of visiting off-season, we were free to saunter, shop and meet local folks and find good end-of-season deals while bumping into the other fifty or so Roadtrekers who joined us on this adventure.
It was the ship wrecks just off shore and Flowerpot Island that called to us and thanks to a reservation by the Roadtrek event organizers, we had transport to them both on a glass bottom vessel. To add to the off-season adventure, the boat was helmed by a captain of sufficient age and health as to require that he wear an oxygen hose planted in his nostrils. The first mate though, seemed younger and capable enough to take over the helm in the event of a maritime emergency. But all that could worry you on an adventure seldom happens, and we departed the dock without event.
The bay is of varied depth, from a few feet to over a hundred and the wild topography of its bottom mirrors that of the islands and Tobermory itself.
Twenty minutes of cruising into the bay and around several islands got us to Flowerpot Island which got its name from the unique rock formations on the shore. Erosion and an uncommon combination of limestone called dolemite and seismic and glacial activity created them over the last ten thousand years. Called “Flowerpots,” they looked more to me like wine glasses or flutes, but I guess either the resemblance occurred to no one else, or the tamer flowerpot name translated more elegantly to French and into common usage. They are unique and most beautiful. This island, like the others in the bay are maintained by Parks Canada. More information here.
Sunken ships were nearer in the harbor and relatively easy to find and view from the boat. But we had seen pictures of shipwrecks nearer the shore and those are what we came to see. A trip to The Diver’s Den proved that to be true as for $35 each, we rented mask, snorkel, fins and wet suit. The Den happily gave us the location of the nearest sunken ships to view…a scant kilometer away in a bay across from the Grandview Hotel. There, thirty feet off the public dock lay the wreck of a steam-powered wooden tug boat in about twelve feet of water. Fifteen yards beyond lay another and twenty yards further, another. Seventy five yards in the opposite direction, in twenty five feet of water lay a fourth, much larger wreck, complete in hull, deck and boiler. Getting to this one required we swim across an “abyss” over eighty feet in dept. More about that later.
Why all the wrecks right here? Were the Canadians lousy pilots and just crashed a bunch of boats? Did they forget to pump their bilges? These wrecks were of steam powered wooden tug boats which pushed and pulled barges of lumber or clusters of logs around the bay. The boats were used almost continuously during the logging season. When they overheated, their wood fired boilers set the rest of the vessels ablaze and rather than try to extinguish the boats, loggers cut them loose and set them adrift to burn up and sink out of the shipping lanes. Happily for us, there they remain.
At age sixty-five my wife and I have our bucket lists and we hope to not actually drown in the buckets. Though she is an Aquarius, Rhonda calls herself a “non-swimmer.” That is, she loves the water but any formalized athletic style swimming is not her strong suit. We knew snorkeling would prove to be a challenge. On the other hand, despite my own Piscean heritage, I became a “water child” only in my teen years and still bear a healthy respect (fear) of deep water. I feel comfortable submerged near the surface. We are “snorkel -floaters.”
But we have snorkeled with the manatees in Florida wearing wetsuits and masks. And despite her best efforts to climb upon and stand on me to avoid a large predatory tarpon prowling in the water forty feet beneath us, the love of my life was neither able to conquer her fear, nor able to drown me, though her efforts at both were admirable. (More about that another time.)
In preparation for this adventure we had practiced at our local community pool and felt able to use mask, fins and snorkels well enough not to drown. We decided too, that Rhonda would bring her favorite neon pink swim noodle to stabilize her. What we did not count on was cold water and the use of very buoyant wet suits.
So, after visiting Divers Den, we were armed with the rental information, and returned to our Roadtrek campsite in the Cypress Lake Provincial Park and Campground to spread the word to any and all who might be interested. A new friend, Mike Daly, was interested and joined us the following day for our adventure. We rented the snorkeling equipment for a very generous twenty-four hours, so we had chosen to go twice, one afternoon and the following morning, even though Mike would have to leave before the second dive. We drove our the two miles from camp to town and parked at the little dock. I expected to see a crowd, but we had the whole cove to ourselves.
“Sliding” into a wetsuit in any circumstance provides great entertainment for lucky onlookers. But once again blessed by our Roadtrek, we had privacy while struggling our way into these clingy, stretchy second skins of rubber and latex.
In the water we were reminded why they are called wetsuits. Cold water seeps into the suit slowly and your body heat warms it enough to keep you protected and warm. It’s the seeping in that gets you. Since I had a two piece suit, bib pants and a jacket covering it, icy water crept in along my spine stimulating the most feminine of shrieks even from this burly man.
My wife however, didn’t notice. Her suit dealt her a different challenge—buoyancy. Being of the feminine gender and of a certain age, her natural buoyancy tended to lift her bottom and legs quite nicely. Putting on a wetsuit more than doubled that and incessantly tried to tip her “bottom over tipplecart” as she swam. The Neon Noodle sometimes seemed to help, but was as often as not a hindrance. (She says the same thing about me.)
Finally we got used to having the buoyancy of a balloon in a windstorm and the experience was phenomenal. Mike, being a Canadian, eschewed the wetsuit and swam ahead in the freezing water, pointing out the best viewing places of the giant hulks beneath us. On our second dive day Mike had to leave but we were joined by W. Dan Hulchanski, who also dove without a wetsuit. Somehow both he and Mike fared better than either Rhonda or me!
Conquering fear together, sharing moments of unparalleled beauty, and chattering our teeth in an acapella rendition of “I Got You, Babe” qualified us to check this adventure off our Bucket List. Our friends helped to make this adventure one to remember.
However the list has grown no shorter, we’ve added snorkeling in WARM water to the bucket! And while we can’t say this adventure would never have happened for us, we can say our Roadtrek provided the means and ease to to have it. Thanks, Roadtreking Mike and Yan!