Severn Sound, the southeastern inlet of Georgian Bay, is one of the most beautiful parts of Ontario. The bay’s sheltered southern shore is lined by tiny ports and studding its deep-blue waters are the skeletal outcrops of the Georgian Bay Islands National Park, whose glacier-smoothed rocks and wispy pines were much celebrated by the Group of Seven painters. There are cruises to and around the waters of the national park from all the larger ports bordering Severn Sound, but a hike on the park’s Beausoleil Island is the best way to enjoy its stunning scenery – and there are boats to the island from the delightfully named hamlet of Honey Harbour. Severn Sound also possesses two of the province’s finest historical reconstructions – Discovery Harbour, a British naval base on the edge of Penetanguishene, and Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, a Jesuit mission located near Midland. There’s more lovely Canadian Shield scenery on the road north to Parry Sound, an agreeable little port that also serves as a convenient stopping point on the long road north to Sudbury and Northern Ontario. Public transport hereabouts is sketchy with the exception of Parry Sound, which can be reached by both bus and train.
The most westerly town on Severn Sound is Penetanguishene, which holds Discovery Harbour, an ambitious reconstruction of the important British naval base established here in 1817. The principal purpose of the base was to keep an eye on American movements on the Great Lakes following the War of 1812, and between 1820 and 1834 up to twenty Royal Navy vessels were stationed here. Ships from the base also supplied the British outposts further to the west and, to make navigation safer, the Admiralty decided to chart the Great Lakes. This monumental task fell to Lieutenant Henry Bayfield, who informed his superiors of his determination “to render this work so correct that it shall not be easy to render it more so”. He lived up to his word, and his charts remained in use for decades. The naval station was more short-lived. By 1834, relations with the US were sufficiently cordial for the Navy to withdraw, and the base was turned over to the Army, who maintained a small garrison here until 1856.
Staffed by enthusiastic costumed guides, Discovery Harbour spreads along a hillside above a tranquil inlet, its green slopes scattered with accurate reconstructions of everything from a sailors’ barracks to several period houses, the prettiest of which is the Keating House, named after the base’s longest-serving adjutant, Frank Keating. Only one of the original buildings survives – the dour limestone Officers’ Quarters, dating from the 1840s – but pride of place goes to the working harbour-cum-dockyard, where a brace of fully rigged sailing ships, the HMS Bee and HMS Tecumseth, have been rebuilt to their original nineteenth-century specifications.
The Georgian Bay Islands National Park consists of a scattering of about sixty islands spread out between Honey Harbour and Twelve Mile Bay, about 50km to the north. The park’s two distinct landscapes – the glacier-scraped rock of the Canadian Shield and the hardwood forests and thicker soils of the south – meet at the northern end of the largest and most scenic island, Beausoleil. Cruises of the waters surrounding the park’s islands depart from Penetanguishene, Midland and Parry Sound, but the only way of making landfall is from Honey Harbour, little more than a couple of shops, a liquor store and a few backcountry houses just 13km northwest of Port Severn across the mouth of the river and along Route 5. Several of the park’s islands can be reached by boat from Honey Harbour, but Beausoleil is the obvious objective.
Beausoleil Island has twelve short hiking trails, including two that start at the Cedar Spring landing stage, on the southeastern shore. These include the Treasure Trail (3.8km), which heads north behind the marshes along the edge of the island, and the Christian Trail (1.5km), which cuts through beech and maple stands to the balsam and hemlock groves overlooking the rocky beaches of the western shoreline. At the northern end of Beausoleil, within comfortable walking distance of several other jetties, are the Cambrian (2km) and Fairy (2.5km) trails, two delightful routes through the harsher scenery of the Canadian Shield. Nearby, just to the west, is the Dossyonshing Trail (2.5km), which tracks through a mixed area of wetland, forest and bare granite in the transitional zone between the two main landscapes.
The endangered Massasauga rattlesnake is the only venomous snake in eastern Canada and a small population slithers around the Georgian Bay Islands National Park. Tan-coloured with dark brown blotches, an adult specimen is 50 to 70cm long with a heavy body and triangular head. In the unlikely event you stumble across one, give it a wide berth. The snake prefers marsh and mixed forest, so if you are hiking in this kind of habitat, be sure to pick up one of the advisory leaflets at a visitor kiosk.
A chirpy little place, PARRY SOUND sits beside an inlet of Georgian Bay some 70km north of Port Severn – and well on the way to Sudbury. Parry Sound takes its name from the Arctic explorer Sir William Edward Parry, but it earned the nickname “Parry Hoot” on account of the swarms of water-bound log-drivers, who once chose this as the place to get drunk in. The logs and the loggers are long gone and Parry Sound is short on sights, but its slender harbour is overshadowed by a splendid Edwardian railway trestle bridge and the few blocks that make up the commercial centre – along and around James Street – are dotted with good-looking, old brick and stone buildings. Nowadays, the town is mainly popular for the boat cruises that leave the harbour bound for the Thirty Thousand Islands out in the bay and for its proximity to one of the region’s most impressive parks, Killbear.
Without a shadow of a doubt,
Sainte-Marie among the Hurons
is one of the province’s most arresting historical attractions, comprising the carefully researched and immaculately restored site of a seventeenth-century Jesuit mission to the Huron – or Wendat. The mission site is also just across the highway from the
, built in the 1920s to commemorate those Jesuits from the mission who came to a very sticky end at the hands of the Iroquois.
In 1608, the French explorer and trader Samuel de Champlain returned to Canada believing that the only way to make the fur trade profitable was by developing alliances with aboriginal hunters. The Huron (also known as Wendat). were the obvious choice, as they already acted as go-betweens in the exchange of corn, tobacco and hemp from the Aboriginal bands to the south and west of their territory, for the pelts collected to the north. In 1611, having participated in Huron attacks on the Iroquois, Champlain cemented the alliance by a formal exchange of presents. Yet his decision to champion one tribe against another – and particularly his gifts of firearms to his allies – disrupted the balance of power among the Aboriginal societies of the St Lawrence and Great Lakes area, setting the stage for the destruction of Sainte-Marie almost forty years later.
Meanwhile, the Jesuits, who established their centre of operations at Sainte-Marie in 1639, had converted a substantial minority of the Huron community to Christianity, thereby undermining traditional social patterns and obligations. The Hurons had also been enfeebled by the arrival of three European sicknesses – measles, smallpox and influenza. Then, in 1648, the Dutch on the Hudson River began to sell firearms to the Iroquois, who launched a full-scale invasion of Huronia in March 1649, slaughtering their enemies as they moved in on Sainte-Marie. Fearing for their lives, the Jesuits of Sainte-Marie burnt their settlement and fled. Eight thousand Hurons went with them; most starved to death on Christian Island, in Georgian Bay, but a few made it to Québec. During the campaign two Jesuit priests, fathers Brébeuf and Lalemant, were captured at the outpost of Saint-Louis, near present-day Victoria Harbour, where they were bound to the stake and tortured, as per standard Iroquois practice. The image of Catholic bravery and Indian cruelty lingered in the minds of French-Canadians long after the sufferings of the Hurons had been forgotten.
A visit to Sainte-Marie begins in the visitor centre with an audiovisual show that provides some background information before the screen lifts dramatically to reveal the handsomely restored mission site. There are 31 wooden buildings here, divided into two main sections: the Jesuit area with its watchtowers, chapel, forge, living quarters, well-stocked garden and farm buildings, full of pigs, cows and hens; and the Aboriginal area, including a hospital and a pair of bark-covered long houses – one for Christian converts, the other for “heathens”. Costumed guides act out the parts of Hurons and Europeans with great gusto, answering questions and demonstrating crafts and skills, though they show a certain reluctance to eat what was once the staple food of the region, sagamite, a porridge of cornmeal seasoned with rotten fish. The grave in the simple wooden church of St Joseph between the Christian and Aboriginal areas is the place where the (remaining) flesh of Brébeuf and Lalemant was interred after the Jesuits had removed many of the bones for future use as reliquaries.
A path leads from the mission site back to the visitor centre, where the excellent museum traces the story of the early exploration of Canada with maps and displays on such subjects as fishing and the fur trade, seen in the context of contemporary European history. This leads into a section on the history of the missionaries in New France, with particular reference to Sainte-Marie. Information on the archeology of the site follows: the mission’s whereabouts were always known even though Victorian settlers helped themselves to every chunk of stone – from what was known locally as “the old Catholic fort” – because the Jesuits had deposited the necessary documentation in Rome. Excavations began on the site in the 1940s and work is still in progress.