Georgian Bay

Moon River Falls

In my career as a landlocked oceanographer at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters I came to know the Lower Great Lakes (Lake Erie and Lake Ontario) as subjects of scientific study and as familiar places close to home.    The Canada Centre for Inland Waters, was intended to produce research that would put Canada on an equal footing with the United States when it came to negotiating international agreements protecting these transboundary waterways. Helping to strengthen Canada’s claim to a fair share of the Great Lakes as a ‘resource’ did not necessarily lead to a deep appreciation of the mystery and beauty of these enormous lakes. It did however lead to an appreciation not only of the of the impact of an industrial society on its surroundings but also of the difficulties of obtaining effective and timely corrective action. I felt a need to break free of this heavy reality once in a while and spend time in a place less threatened.

Having grown up in coastal British Columbia, I enjoyed small boats. Penny’s childhood summers spent on the St. Lawrence River (Lac St. Louis) and on the lakes north of Montreal taught her about sailing and canoeing. In the first few years of our Ontario residency, we acquired both a canoe and a small sailboat. The sailboat, an O’Day Day Sailer, still in active service with our son in Ottawa. This versatile little boat (https://smallboatsmonthly.com/article/oday-day-sailer/) is very suitable for exploring the channels and back bays of Georgian Bay along the north edge of Lake Huron – where the big lake extends into the southern edge of the Canadian Shield. That is exactly what we did in 1970, our third summer in Ontario and we were charmed.

Almost a century had passed since the logging boom on the north shore of Lake Huron.  The convoluted foreshore made road access difficult, the backshore was sparsely settled and although there were summer cottages scattered among the islands there were many sheltered places where we could nose in with a Day Sailer, drop a stern anchor, tie the bow line to a tree and step ashore. Here in a small boat, constantly adjusting to the wind and the weather, among some of the oldest, worn-down rocks on the planet I could put aside my professional role as a Jeremiah for a week or so and be refreshed as a participant in the nature around me and share these experiences with my family.

In 1971, my colleague and friend, Noel Burns, learned about properties for sale near the mouth of the Moon River where it flows into Georgian Bay, a place known as Woods Bay. Not very promising for cottage development, the lots were inexpensive, so we bought what would have been an inconvenient cottage lot but which proved to be a fine campsite. This we intended to use as a base camp for enjoying what was then an unspoiled corner of Georgian Bay. We built simple tent platforms, a privy, and a storage box, stuff that would decay to nothing in a few years. Noel, too, bought a sailboat, a small cruising sloop with a fixed keel, much bigger than the Day Sailer and drawing over three feet of water. He and his family soon found that cruising was more to their liking than short excursions from a fixed base camp. Noel’s interests were amicably bought out by some other good friends, Jim and Frances Bull. This partnership endured until 1992, when, our children grown and development encroaching, we sold the property, very little changed from the way we found it.

In Wood Bay our son and daughter, Thomas and Lyse,  and  Jim and Fran’s son, Alexander learned to swim, manage small boats, fish for bass and pike, cook food on an open fire, and amuse themselves with what they found around them. Evenings, after restoring order to the camp kitchen, we read stories aloud and when it grew dark, we lay on the sun-warmed rocks, counted meteorites and planned the next day’s activities. Some days we elected to laze around the campsite, swim, paddle a canoe, fish for pike or bass. On other “organized days” we loaded up the sailboat and explored the area around us, finding destinations that we returned to many times. A favourite voyage was to thread our way through the inshore channels to Wreck Island in the open waters of Georgian Bay where the Canadian Shield dipped below the surface of the lake to be overlaid by the limestone of the Bruce Peninsula far beyond the watery horizon.

The Woods Bay memories are precious to all of us. During those halcyon years I returned to my professional occupation each September with a refreshed vision of what we scientists were attempting to protect.

Wreck Island

Up from the cobbled beach,
where languid water laps at ancient stones,
across hot rocks, parched lichens, sharp sticks,
I rest in a glade of pine and oak,
moss-floored and ferned.
The wind’s whisper in boughs,
resin-scented and cool,
calms the babble of the waves,
a small, patient and continuing prayer to sun and rain.
At my feet each leaf and stalk
meditates this dreamy hour of noon.

Small white bones in the moss,
traces of an earlier intruder,
show how this glade might yet fit me,
take me into the quiet seasons
of the lonely island.

(July 1980; revised October 2005)

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Scattered in this labyrinth of bays and islands was a small population of year-round inhabitants. In the summer they provided services to cottagers – even a “beer boat” that made the rounds of the cottages on a Friday afternoon, dropping off a weekend supply on the docks and gathering up the empties. I made a couple of late fall painting trips to Woods Bay, once with a friend, Eric Harrison, and a second time with Brioche, our dog, for company. In October you could feel the area withdrawing to its former wildness, the silence broken by sporadic hammering and sawing as the year-rounders prepared for winter.

October Afternoon

The gold October sun,
reverberating in the yellow of late leaves,
has become more personal, less blinding.
The compass of our vision narrows.;
The land contours firmly on its bones.
Down among the roots, the earth pulls inward.
Now I feel the shapes of rocks and islands,
listen to the water’s whisper,
draw breath and know the cool air
flows among the trees to meet me.

(October 1978; revised January 2021)

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Leaving the Bay

At ten o’clock I boiled tea at the church landing,
sun still fresh in the pine boughs at my back,
shadows on the clapboard wall flutter and rest
in time with wind’s October whisper.
Motorboats are gone, the loons are leaving.
Across the bay a handsaw wows,
trimming boards to hold back winter’s seep.
A wooden skiff comes down the channel,
angles to the landing where we chat,
the barefoot owner heading to the wharf for shingles,
but I ‘ll be on the road tomorrow.
I’ll slide under the red-leafed veil
that marks this world apart.
It readies itself for sleep
as first snow sifts into black water.

(October, 1981; revised October 2005

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8 thoughts on “Georgian Bay

    1. Thanks, Ed.The other “sacred space” I could have written about was Blue Spruce Lodge on Oxtongue Lake near the western edge of Algonquin Park. We rented a cabin there for the school spring breaks for many years and skied many of the trails in an around the Park – again with our Woods Bay friends, Jim, Fran and Alexander. The Woods Bay and Blue Spruce years went by in a flash and I am recalling now how precious they were.

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      1. Dad,
        Thank you for writing about Woods Bay / Georgian bay and for sharing some of your paintings. I loved that area so much and still have dreams about it sometimes. I have a memory map of our land and shoreline at Woods bay that I like to revisit in my mind. Plus some fun drawn maps that Thomas and Alexander drew for me for a project, and the Woods bay t-shirt drawing you did. There were at least two summers where Cindy & Christopher and Jane spent time there with us – visiting from the big city of Vancouver. I remember one year the water levels were low and you had the 4 of us cousins challenged to light and maintain individual small fires and to make you a cup of tea. Each of us boiled water and made tea.
        Thomas, Alexander and I did a lot of fishing, and created trail running routes with little hurdles to jump over, had shelters in the woods – plus the various camp chores and the day trips with the rest of the group. I liked the set-up of the camp and that it was a tent camp, not a cabin or cottage. Although the big dog and kids tent was as large as a small cabin. I loved hearing the stories people shared at meal times, and at night when we either had the campfire going or watched stars.

        Blue Spruce – Algonquin park March break trips were excellent. I loved spending time in that area and going back there year after year. The skiing was amazing. Love that hilly terrain. And it was nice to spend time in cozy cabin number 7 at Blue Spruce after skiing. I still buy ribena to put in water sometimes and think of those amazing skiing treks every time I taste that.
        I learned so much from the time we spent in both areas. xoxo

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  1. Thanks again for this deli very Farrell! Such a lovely way to spend your time and you lives with your kids growing up. We grew up spending three months of every year on our Grandparents’ farm which was on the seafront so we had idyllic summers with great memories. We make memories for our kids but have no control what exactly they will remember. You’re both a good artist and a good wordsmith – lucky you, cheers, Pauline

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  2. Thank you, Pauline.We have been “digitizing” colour slides from the Woods Bay years as another Covid-induced project – especially the ones marking the progress of our children.

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  3. I so enjoyed reading these and the paintings. It must’ve been difficult to love and appreciate the natural beauty while working in that role. Your paintings are just so beautiful!

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  4. Thank you for posting the paintings, ramblings and poems. They bring back great memories. The Woods Bay purchase was a good move! I have often lay down on those shady Canadian Shield moss patches in the heat of the day. One of the best places in the world to take a nap! TMB

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