Ontario road trip

Lake Huron Bound

The price of gas should discourage one from a road trip, yet the sights, tastes and aromas, a mere 8 hours away can be worth every penny.   The journey, not the destination is the goal of a road trip.  Let the trip unfold and there will be something discovered around each bend. Like butter tarts the size of hockey pucks! Every June in Midland, there is a buttertart festival, although we missed it, the pride in baking and ribbon winners are everywhere.

Wakefield on the left. Bancroft on the right

A road trip needs to be part planned, and part fly by the seat of your pants.  One must be willing to compromise, sing, and sometimes go a bit hungry.  Improvisation is good, however don’t ever compromise on a good cup of coffee in the morning. 

Always be prepared to stop on a dime for a good-looking Thrift store, farmer’s market, or similar photo opportunity.  Our journey begins down the Eardley side road. 

Then across the Portage du Fort bridge , first stop Bancroft for snacks .

Low and behold a mineral and gem digging site!  A hour later, came away with a sweet haul of assorted colorful, shiny, rocks to add to the garden.  A hot tip from the gal behind the cash and we found another pile dumped along an abandoned rail line – full of smokey quartz.  So fun.

Orillia is our first overnight.  Off for a cycle !

Unaware of the next bend in the road

The trail was well groomed, and we simply turned behind our hotel and found it with no google consultation.  It became very clear 5 minutes in, that we were cycling on a path in the middle of a large property between Lake Simcoe and a huge red brick building.  The property I intuitively recognized as the old Huronia Regional Centre.  Chain linked impenetrable fences ran to the right and to the left of the bike path.   It was approaching dusk, and we rode, and I felt a tremendous heaviness in my chest and a creepy awareness of the suffering that took place all around us.  The path cut through the lower part of the 150 acres, including frontage on Lake Simcoe.  We stopped to look through the chains and locked fencing.  To our right, a large lawn sloped up to the red brick wards stacked 3 stories high and I imagined the near 3000 children with developmental disabilities who resided there.   To the left, trees and waterfront. It seemed to go on for at least 2 kilometers, it was immense.

The institution opened in the late 1800’s and was called the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, then several upgraded names: The Hospital for Imbeciles, the Huronia Hospital / School and finally the Huronia Regional centre. 

Huronia Regional Centre

As a young graduate, I worked at the Rideau Regional Centre in Smith Falls and was aware of the other “hospital / schools” in Ontario.  The last of these Ontario warehouses of individuals with developmental disabilities closed (thankfully) in March of 2009.  Part of my work before the closures was, to assist with the transition of remaining residents into group homes and reunite with family.   It was a long journey home for many disabled Ontarians, finally taking their rightful place in communities as full citizens.

As we rode, we saw an outbuilding through the linked fence down closer to the water.  “ALL LIVES MATTER”, was scrawled across the yellow aluminum siding.

There is little awareness about our county’s treatment of individuals with developmental disabilities.  The terminology has changed; however, the traditional classifications were Idiot, Imbecile, Moron and terms like feeble minded, crippled, and defective were often used to describe children.  Children who were dropped off and seldom visited.  Children who had an average life expectancy of 19, when viruses pneumonias and assorted contagions would snake their way through the closely packed cribs.   There are unmarked graves at all these old institutions.  There are many untold stories.   Survivors of these institutions resonate with feelings of powerlessness, and are largely a voiceless group.   An older population now, who has difficulty affording or communicating with legal assistance.  Many of the folks I worked with never learned to tie their shoes or count to ten.  Their history is captured in few places, few books, and rest with relatives and some scholars.  The lawsuits and settlements are meagre. A journal article is attached to this blog, for a thorough history .

We witnessed a cayote loping across the vast lawn and we got back on our bikes.

We drove on. I felt a sombre simmering rage as I pedalled.

Turtles, swamps and sunsets.   Day 1 of road trip.  Check.

Days 2-5

Perched on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, our home for 4 sleeps. Crystal clear waters, the longest freshwater beaches in the world.  Rocks , boulders and huge shale – like  gigantic grey pizza boxes stacked on top of one another.  .  Swimming is out of the question on the Bruce Peninsula until late August, however, a dip for ten seconds tingles to the core.  The water quality and visibility is brilliant and stunning.  It beats Greece, the Canary Islands, and any of the Caribbean.  It is aqua and emerald, shimmering and so very cold.  The Bruce is full of divers, snorkelers, glass bottom boats and kayakers, and summer has not even begun.  

Lake Huron is cut in half with the Bruce Peninsula jutting out to almost touch Manitoulin Island.  Georgian Bay on one side and our view of the distant shore if we could see it would be the state of Michigan.  The great lakes are like freshwater oceans.  Titanic and cosmic!

Lake Huron

The longest freshwater beach in the world at the base of the Bruce is Sauble Beach stretches 7 miles.  It is an impressive, sandy beach with tiny pebbles here and there like tossed smarties on the sand.  Delightful.   The homes are cottages and there is a very laid-back feeling, except when competing for a parking spot.

There is a scent of fresh cedar everywhere we walk.  The great lakes are bigger ,the trees are taller, the deer flies more vicious  and even the poison ivy is thicker !  The water in the harbour has 40 foot visibility. The peninsula is not perfect, there are rattle snakes here – YUCK

While nature is larger ,  the way of life on the Bruce still seems decidedly small town.   Tobermory sits at the north tip of the peninsula. It is tiny and it seems collectively shocked every summer by the tourists, who appear like clockwork for 2 months once a year. There are 5 parking spots outside of the Foodland, which is the only grocery store within a 2 hour drive.  Tobermory is unprepared for us.

 It is like the town forgets there is such a thing as black flies, and yet, here they are again.   Locals are a minority.  Most of the Bruce is provincial park land and there are impressive guide centres, gates, walkways, information stations, maps, guards, and hefty parking fees! The wilderness, while being overrun by us, is safeguarded and the park staff ensures it remains pristine.   People are respectful, there is no litter.  The locals don’t drive, they cycle or walk.  The tourists fight for parking but are so happy once they find a spot.    A walk in the park with every nationality imaginable, all polite, and helpful.  We are all awestruck by the natural beauty around us.

We discover kayaks under the house!  Chasing the sunset is exhilarating, yet there is a real fear of capsizing and submitting, not to drowning, but to hyperthermia.  One would freeze before making it back to shore.  Always thinking the lake bottom is closer than it is.  The water is so transparent, the rocks appear to be just at the fingertips, yet plunging the paddle down, they are 6 feet or more away. 

Such a contrast of big and small, hot and cold.  A 22-degree day can feel blazing with all the rock radiating the sun back upon us, then the temperature plummets at night.  The seagulls stop their shrill noise and the stars come out and seem larger than life itself.  

This is a magic place. Rich in history and beauty. It is wilderness and a few spots very populated, impossible to get to the fish and chip hut in town that carries Lake Huron whitefish.

A chat with a stranger provided a very hot tip . Seven km down an old gated road lies a newly government purchased acreage. Nothing has been done with it, and at the end a deserted cove full of round white pebbles. It made us weak at the knees , it was so gorgeous, pristine, and we had it all to ourselves.

Road trips in Ontario rock. Next year Lake Superior !

Jennifer Currie