My first time seeing a picture of the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, Canada I knew immediately I had to go! Beautiful blue limestone cliffs that look perfect for climbing topped by old-growth cedar forests tower above crystal-clear turquoise water of Georgian Bay in Lake Huron. The cliffs are remnants of an ancient tropical reef and the northwestern terminus of the Niagara Escarpment – the same band of limestone that causes the waters of the Great Lakes to plunge 167 ft. over Niagara Falls 230 miles to the south.
My husband Kevin and I were originally attracted to the Bruce Peninsula by coastal climbing areas like Lions Head and the beach-side bouldering of Half-Way Log Dump in the National Park. But after getting a taste of expedition paddling on Pau Hana’s new Endurance touring board we knew it was the perfect location to push our multi-sport motivations in this paddler and climber’s paradise!
Looking to paddle, camp, and climb we needed to haul a lot of gear which included a bouldering pad, climbing gear, along with camping equipment, cold weather gear, and food for three days in the backcountry. Our friend Tim Keller, a talented photographer and experienced paddler expressed interest in wanting to come and document the trip and join in on the adventure. Tim’s high spirits were a welcomed addition so we were happy to become a tripod!
Leading up to the trip the 10-day forecast showed perfect weather; high 50’s during the day and 40’s at night. As it drew closer to the departure date the forecast showed the temperatures dropping and winds picking up more and more each day, which meant we may even get lucky scoring some surf on Lake Huron in Sauble Beach on our way up to the Bruce Peninsula.
The day before departure temps were forecasted to be in the low 40’s during the day and low 30’s at night with heavy winds. We knew our Kokatat dry suits would keep us warm paddling in those conditions, but there was a moment of hesitation when we learned no fires are allowed in the Bruce Peninsula Backcountry. However, we choose to brave the elements!
I love the night before an expedition. I feel so exited for all the unknowns of what’s to come. At the very last minute, just after pulling out of the driveway we pulled back in and decided to bring our short boards hoping to score some waves in Sauble Beach! Picking up Tim en-route we instantly felt his stoke to be going up to the Bruce Peninsula - none of us had ever been. He had everything packed neatly into two dry bags. As we passed the boarder into Canada we stopped and grabbed some spirits to warm the belly in the cold nights.
The four-and-a-half-hour drive from Buffalo to Sauble Beach wasn’t bad! We decided to stay at a beach cottage in Sauble for our first night in Canada, then get an early start paddling the Bruce the next day. We were so happy to see waves when we arrived at the cottage. Kevin and I threw on our wetsuits, hoods, booties and gloves, grabbed our boards and jumped into the freezing cold wind and waves. While trying to duck dive the water gave me a nice little brain freeze. Every time I popped through the back side of the wave I saw the waves firing and firing. I turned around to line up for a chest high wave, dropped in, and immediately it started to curl on me. It was a fun ride and I wanted another.
Kevin, on a paddleboard, fought the wind hard to get out, turned quick to lineup and caught a good ride. Going back out I was getting hit wave after wave until finally I made it out to where I saw a nice one coming right for me. I turned last minute and felt the crest of the wave as I pulled in tight and made the drop riding the face for a long fun ride into shore. I was probably only out 45 minutes but knew it was time to go in. My face felt pretty raw from the cold wind and the brain freeze was getting worse. It was so nice to go into our cozy heated cottage, but I knew this would be the last time I would get warmth like that for a while.
The next morning we woke up early and drove about an hour north to charming Tobermory, Ontario. Pulling into the National Park you could smell the amazing cedar aroma in the air. We stopped by the office to pick up our backcountry permits before heading to our launch spot at Dunks Bay. Dunks Bay is a narrow cove near the tip of the Bruce Peninsula with a secluded sandy crescent beach and it was a sheet of glass with a side-off shore breeze when we pulled up. We started rigging all the boards with our gear and each held about 60+lbs. It looked windy and rough outside of the bay. I was excited and nervous about what we may be getting ourselves into. We had seen the map of all the cliffs lining the shore and it seemed there were not many beaches to pull into if things got rough.
Once we jumped on the boards we started paddling out of the bay - not being able to see what’s around the bend ahead. As we paddled out the winds became stronger and the chop started to pick up. Rounding the corner we encountered some waist high waves and rollers. When we passed the next bay and approached the next set of cliffs they created messy chaos all around us with the waves bouncing back against them. Luckily I felt very steady on my board and if a big wave was coming I was ready for it. Around every corner all I saw were beautiful giant limestone cliffs and ancient cedar trees.
The color of the water was amazing with incredible visibility up to 50 feet, and so many hues of blue. It reminded me of the Caribbean but the cold temps made it seem like we could be in an arctic wonderland. The winds started to grow stronger, luckily in our favor from the perfect direction, pushing us 13 miles east to our campsite. Three quarters of the way through the paddle we caught sight of the beach where we would be camping at, and it still seemed so far away. The wind shifted and we were now taking on a side wind. “Another hour or so” my husband Kevin yelled, but I was beginning to feel some exhaustion set in. Because of all the chop you couldn’t stop paddling for a second and you needed to constantly steer with your paddle or the wind would push us sideways and toward the cliffs.
I was so excited to get to our landing, eat some food, and hydrate. It took more than an hour, but when we finally touched the shore I was just praying that we were at the right spot for our camp site. When I saw a sign on the beach I ran up and it read: Caution Bear Territory, Backcountry Camping This Way. I was glad we didn’t have to do anymore paddling for the day but a bit nervous of running into a bear on or way to set up camp. I recently had watched a movie called the Backcountry because it showed a girl on a waterfall and a bear on the cover! The description read that the movie was about a couple traveling in the Canadian Wilderness. I thought, how cool, maybe I’m supposed to watch this movie because I’m travelling to the Canadian Wilderness! 30 minutes in I realized this may not be the movie I was hoping for, I was terrified, and immediately turned it off.
While we started to unload our dry bags and set up camp we talked about how we would make sure not to leave any food or scented items near our tent and raise everything up on the bear hangs. I wasn’t cold while we were paddling but the temps were starting to drop and my body wasn’t working hard anymore. I started getting shivers up my spine and new it was going to be a cold night, especially without a fire. We started to cook some food to warm up. I love cooking in the backcountry because everything tastes so good. We made gourmet mac and cheese with veggies and broke out a bag of wine we brought which warmed our bellies. After dinner we headed down to the water to watch the sunset. It was beautiful and the sky lit up. Happy the day was over, I was ready to get into my cozy sleeping bag. As I slid into my bag I had a quick thought about bears before falling peacefully asleep.
I woke up to the waves crashing on shore. It was a cold morning. Kevin started up the pocket rocket and we had some coffee in no time. We found an awesome spring coming straight out of the rock to fill up our water jugs and it tasted so good. We started to pack up our camp and put everything back into the dry bags. Our goal for the day was to find some fun coastal bouldering climbs. The winds had mellowed and were at our back again as we started to drift along the cliffs and look for good climbing lines. The turquoise waters were so vivid and you could see every rock beneath you.
Kevin and Tim jumped into the water and did some snorkeling. I was too warm above water and didn’t want to get my hair wet knowing it would take an extremely long time to dry in the cold and I didn’t want to freeze at night. Spotting some good looking bouldering problems, we unloaded the bouldering pad off my board and threw on some climbing shoes. Kevin hit some fun highball climbs, I had fun working on a crack climb, and Tim climbed a cool roof. We had a really good day back on the rock and made pizza wraps for lunch!
We reloaded our boards and started the paddle toward camp in such awe of the amazing caves and high cliffs!
Pulling into camp we met a young man named Brian who was backpacking from Toronto to Calgary. He was travelling alone so we invited him to come chill at our site after we unpacked. He went for a short hike and found some Morel Mushrooms. On his return he asked if we had any butter to spare. Sure enough we did! He told us he was going to cook them up, try a little one, wait 30 minutes to make sure they were morels then we could try if we’d like. I had never had wild mushrooms and was so excited to try them. After setting up camp we went on a quick hike and had stunning views on top of the cliffs looking down at the water into the sunset.
When I got back to camp our new friend Brian said the Morels were wonderful and was sure they were the right mushrooms. We tried them and they were incredible! They literally tasted like steak cooked over a wood fire. It was such a nice snack. We all headed back to our camp, cooked up dinner and enjoyed sipping on wine while sharing stories. It was cold but I was so excited for the next day’s adventure! We were going to find the Grotto!
I woke up the next morning and headed right to the water. It was butter flat with no wind. The water was crystal clear and there was now over 60 feet of visibility in some places! I was so excited to get back on the water. We wished Brian well on his travels and told him if he made it back into town today we would be there later looking for a warm meal. It was our last day on the water and we would be sleeping in a warm bed tonight back home. Paddling along the cliffs we ran into some beautiful deep water solo climbing but its illegal so we moved on…
Everyone kept telling us we had to go to the Grotto but I still had no idea what a Grotto was until I saw it with my own eyes. Before us was a remote cave in the limestone with a deep pool and an underwater tunnel that lets in a brilliant turquoise light. Kevin and Tim jumped in and swam down toward the tunnel, which was about 20 feet down and 10 feet wide. I jumped in but the cold water felt like an ice bath and I decided not to go under just yet as I knew we still had a long paddle back to the van.
During the last leg we did some free diving and snorkeling and I finally got my head underwater. It was so clear and the colors of the rock underwater were amazing.
As we neared our destination we thanked Tim for joining us and keeping his spirits high even while paddling in the cold temps and high winds. He was a great adventure travel buddy! Once back in Dunks Bay we loaded up the van and headed to Tobermory and found the best local fish and chips bar called Craigie’s. As the waitress brought out our food, in behind her walked Brian. He saw our van outside the restaurant with all the paddleboards and came in for one last beer with us. As we parted ways again we sent him off with a nice care package of bars, trail mix, and oatmeal before exchanging contact info.
Looking back on our trip, it was an amazing experience and a place Id like to visit again soon. I loved seeing the park by water and was really happy we went when we did. I felt so remote and with the cool weather, we barley saw another soul. The summer months I’ve heard can get pretty busy, and it’s easy to see why. The pristine beauty of the park attracts so many people from far and wide. Like I said before, the moment I saw a picture of the place I knew I had to visit! It’s a paddler and climber’s paradise.
Beautiful blue limestone cliffs topped by old-growth cedar forests tower above the crystal-clear turquoise water of Georgian Bay in Lake Huron. It’s a paddler and climber’s paradise.