Fall is a fine time to visit Island’s storied West End

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WESTERN MANITOULIN—Gore Bay is a natural destination for people from all over Manitoulin. The courthouse and registry office are there. One of the Island’s golf courses is just outside the community and it’s a traditional centre of business.

But HIghway 540 west of Gore Bay, the road that leads, ultimately, to Meldrum Bay?

For Manitoulin folk, locals and imports alike, the terrain and communities along this route are an unknown country.

The leaves are changing. People have a little more time on their hands and Western Manitoulin beckons.

A fairly detailed guide to places and events follows but once you’ve read about it, go “see the movie” too and travel to see for yourself the West End’s hidden gems.

Fall is a perfect time to take a drive into the wild and wondrous west of Manitoulin. Bring your walking or hiking shoes for an unforgettable adventure on a little-travelled side of the Island. This tour follows Highway 540 west from Gore Bay, with some detours, all the way to the highway’s end at Meldrum Bay, a trip that takes an hour if you drive at the speed limit without stopping (and without any side trips). Up to you, of course, but the whole idea of this tour is to meander a little through communities while absorbing the plentiful history of the area, so start early, give yourself several hours and plan a picnic or lunch or dinner out, for sustenance, to complete the day.

While exploring Western Manitoulin, it helps to be a bit of an adventurer, a seeker of hidden treasure; for not all is revealed to those who merely expect landmarks to just pop up! No, stalwart voyagers, these historic sites, tracts of land, people, bays and trails must be savoured as the unique experience they represent: this is Manitoulin, only at a slower pace. There is very little traffic, the drive can be leisurely; there are many beautiful forests, fields, meadows, farms and animals to view, so let anyone in a hurry pass you.

From Gore Bay drive west on Highway 540 toward Evansville, part of the Township of Burpee-Mills, a farming community first settled in 1877 by the Campbells. Just before entering Evansville you will come to Indian Point Bridge, crossing the narrows between Campbell Bay to the right and Lake Wolsey—which is not a lake but an extension of the North Channel’s Campbell Bay—to the left. Before the bridge was built in the late 1880s, settlers from the West End relied on the Anishinaabe people who lived near here for passage across the channel in their canoes. The original settlement of 40 aboriginal people was Ombidjiwang, “at the place where the water rises, or rushes in,” located at the foot of the bluff on the shore of Lake Wolsey. The Odawa and Ojibwe here were the final aboriginal band of non-Christians on Manitoulin, keeping to traditional ways until they dispersed a few decades later.

Lake Wolsey is a popular all-season fishing spot, and there are usually cars and pick-ups parked here and small boats on the lake trolling for yellow perch and bass. On the right is a well-maintained picnic park with washrooms, access to the shore of Campbell Bay and a view the beautiful bluff beyond. Continuing on Highway 540, you will drive through Evansville, with its well-kept suburban homes, and come to Williams Road on your right, leading into the small community of Elizabeth Bay, first settled in 1880 by the Scottish Ainslie family. This side trip then follows the Morden-Noakes Road, parallel to the highway for a few kilometres west, and leads past the original cobblestone schoolhouse (now a private home), built in 1895, and the Elizabeth Bay United Church built of local limestone and fieldstone hauled by teams of horses hitched to a sleigh, begun in 1914 and opened in 1926. The church is still in use today (but only seasonally), the door is unlocked, so visit this lovely historical site and enjoy the original woodwork and the hand-hewn red oak mudsill that runs the length of the building in the basement.

The road turns left after the church to return to the highway; immediately across it is the entrance to Misery Bay Provincial Park, a marvelous enclave of trails with an interpretive centre. The centre, staffed by volunteers, is open Saturday, Sunday and holidays until Thanksgiving, and has many displays describing the flora and fauna, as well as cards and other souvenirs for sale with the catchy motto: Misery loves Company. The trails are open year-round until dusk.

A highlight of a park visit are the broad expanses of flat limestone pavement, the remains of an ancient sea bottom raked by retreating glaciers about 100,000 years ago, called alvars. Soil is absent from these pavements and water erosion causes deep cracks called grikes which sustain rare vegetation unique to the area. According to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, “the Northern Bruce Peninsula and Manitoulin Island support some of the best examples of irreplaceable alvar habitat in the world and are key areas for alvar conservation in North America.” It is a breathtaking sight to gaze over the prehistoric landscape at the shore of Misery Bay; more information on the protected alvars is available in the park centre. Fans of geological history would do well to pick up a copy of Manitoulin Rocks! with its fascinating trips to many local landforms made eons ago by the forces of nature.

Back on the highway once more, continue west through a farm area known formerly as Fernlee, which had a post office from 1901 until 1960. Turn right down Cook’s Dock Road to the bay, where a dock was built in 1880 by John Cook for arriving settlers, then a fishing station was established in the mid 1880s and two sawmills were built, beginning in 1893 and operating until 1915. Cook’s Bay remained a busy port for the shipment of pulpwood and logs until the 1960s. Murray Hore Fishery (based back near Indian Point Bridge) uses the dock today, and you may see his dad’s restored old fishing boat, the “Fishy Cradle,” at anchor in this isolated bay.

Onward to Silver Water! The name is spelled this way, or sometimes also as Silverwater, and although the latter spelling seems more prevalent today, the name on the tiny post office in the village uses the two-word spelling. As you approach the village, originally settled in the early 1880s, the little lake on the left is Nineteen Lake, so-called because it lies on lot 19 of the eighth concession. Just before the gentle hill that leads into Silver Water, the road passes the first school, on the right: Robinson Township School #1 was rebuilt of concrete in 1912 to replace the original 1885 log schoolhouse. It is now a private residence.

To the west of the school is the new St. Andrew’s United Church, opened in 1999 on the 100th anniversary of the original wood frame church, which was torn down because the foundation was too worn to be repaired. As you drive past the homes in the village you will come to the Community Hall, also on the right, built about 1947 of concrete blocks that are now covered in siding; this is the place of many events, fish dinners and pancake breakfasts that help in the fundraising efforts of this community of engaged volunteers. Another church in the village, St. Peter’s Anglican, built in 1899, is located at the intersection of the Burnt Island Road where the highway takes a sharp right turn.

The definitive story of Silver Water has been researched and written by local historian Pat Best, entitled “History of Silver Water in Robinson Township” (self-published in 2012), and is available in Gore Bay at Madore Electronics’ bookstore. She has compiled an extensive record, with photos of all settlement on the lots and concession roads, including original and subsequent settlers, telling many remarkable stories and giving thorough accounts of how the community was built. This is an essential book for those seeking more detailed information on the people, businesses and lands of the area.

A fascinating side trip may be made from this intersection by driving west on Burnt Island Road to Purvis Fisheries. This is a quiet road, with only a few homes and farms, that winds through fields and forests for about nine kilometres, entering the southern portion of the Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother M’Nidoo M’Nissing Protected Area. At the end, you will enter the Purvis operation with its shingle-sided buildings painted a soft maritime gray perched on a small hill overlooking the bay, boats and fish filleting plant. You may see the 80-year-old “Blue Fin” at dock, still in use six days a week, and represented in the company’s logo. This picturesque little coastal village is a working fish station established in 1920 with an ice house and net shed and a cookhouse, bunkhouse and store for employees. The bell outside the door of the cookhouse was rung to call the men to meals and the old store is as it was so many years ago when it was a company store that served the Purvis employees who lived in the small company homes above the dock and close to work. The old store, now museum-like, sports a woodstove at the centre and the shelves stocked with old tin boxes and memorabilia; it is open to the public. There is another store for sales of trout, whitefish and sturgeon.

The history of the Purvis family is long and storied; Pat Best has several pages on them in her book, local marine historian Buck Longhurst has written two volumes about these pioneers of the fishing industry, and still more information is available in the new William Purvis Marine Centre in the Gore Bay Harbour Centre. William Purvis was the founder of the business, born in Arbroath, Scotland (still known for its smoked fish) and arriving in Canada with his two brothers John and George in 1851. By 1879 William was the lightkeeper on Great Duck Island, about 14 miles south of Burnt Island in Lake Huron, moving there with his wife and, ultimately, 10 children. In 1882, William and his sons purchased their first boats and licences and began fishing an extensive territory that stretched from Manitoulin’s southern and northern waters up to Lake Superior. In 1921, operations were moved to their present Burnt Island location by son Alex and his sons, including a building moved from Great Duck Island that became the bunkhouse. They named the spot Burnt Island after its namesake near Arbroath, (not burnt, nor an island, either!) Today, Purvis Fisheries is owned and operated by George and Irene Purvis and their children Drew and Denise. George says the fishing is as good as it was in the 1920s; fishing March through January, they stock stores on Manitoulin and the Bruce Peninsula, and every Saturday a truck is loaded with fish for the Monday morning Hunt’s Point Market in the Bronx, N.Y.

Back out on the Burnt Island Road, you will come to an intersection with Silver Lake Road after about seven kilometres; turn left here for a six-kilometre drive around the east side of the lake to see the charming old log cottages that began to be built here in the early 1900s to mid-1950s. There is a boat launch as you start out and private sandy beaches. The Silver Lake cemetery is on the right, established in 1886.

You may need some refreshments now, as you reach Highway 540 again, in which case it is recommended you turn right at the highway to drive half a kilometre or so back toward Silver Water, to the Stop 540 Diner. Joyce Benoit ran this place from the early 1990s and recently sold it to Wilma and Ben Ford; it is a very popular licenced spot with 28 seats and features daily meal specials and fresh-baked bread and pies. The restaurant is open year-round, from 11-7 daily except Mondays. Next to it is the miniature Silver Water post office, open five days a week.

Now you are ready to start the last leg of this western journey, just a kilometre or two west from the diner to the turn-off to Sheshegwaning First Nation on the right.

The drive in to this First Nation of 140 band members is three kilometres on a wide paved road; the name means “at the place of the rattle” and was established by Itawashkash (son of J.B. Assiginack) from at least 1839. There was an Anishinaabe encampment further west in the mid-1840’s to the 1860’s at Vidal Bay, where axe heads and spear points were later found. Today, this quiet community has a large administrative complex, a health centre, a school for Kindergarten to Grade 4 students, a water treatment plant and an off-reserve quarry. Of interest to visitors is the large network of trails, called Nimkee’s Trails, that is currently being rejuvenated for hikers and mountain bikers with more signage and a trailhead. Various trails lead to Cunningham beach, or to Cape Robert, where there was a lighthouse built in 1885 in the heart of the forest. Groups of 12 may rent Nishin Lodge with advance notice and catering and guides can be arranged. Licenced hunters may acquire permits to hunt from the lodge in season. For trail and lodge information telephone the band office at 705-283-3292, or drop in. The trails will re-open in May, 2014. There is a convenience store located as you first drive in and the Our Creations Store, where Deborah Pitawanakwat designs and makes her renowned fine deerskin clothing and sells cards and other souvenirs. The gas pump in Sheshegwaning provides the only gas available between Gore Bay and Meldrum Bay; the snack bar across the way is set to re-open next year. Sheshegwaning’s traditional powwow is held annually at the end of June.

Zhiibaahaasing First Nation is adjacent to Sheshegwaning, and may be accessed by driving past the Sheshegwaning band office complex for about four more kilometres. The former Cockburn Island Indian Reserve re-established itself as Zhiibaahaasing in 1998; the name means “the passageway.” It is well worth visiting this small remote community for the wonderful sense of nature and tranquility and to see the “world’s largest peace pipe, dreamcatcher and drum” and the octagonal sacred fire building. The community maintains a four-bedroom log cabin on Cockburn Island that can be rented by calling the band office at 705-283-3963, or by checking with the receptionist; boat service is provided, and guides and cultural demonstrations may be arranged. The traditional powwow is held at the end of August every year.

Westward Ho, travel mates, to Meldrum Bay! this is the quietest stretch of the journey, so prepare to sit back and relax yet keep your eyes peeled for deer and other wildlife. Deer are abundant, so slow down and stop if you need to let them cross the road. You may also see turtles on occasion, some of them endangered species, and many Manitouliners will park by the side of the road, flashers on, carefully check both sides for traffic and then quickly shoo the animal’s backside with a scarf or newspaper in the direction the turtle was heading. Sandhill cranes may be seen standing by the roadside, surprisingly tall, and beautiful; according to one source, the oldest unequivocal sandhill crane fossil is 2.5 million years old, over one and a half times older than the earliest remains of most living species of birds. That kind of longevity deserves respect! You may also spot bald eagles, turkey vultures and hawks overhead.

As you drive west out of Robinson and into Dawson Township to Meldrum Bay (about 25 kilometres) you will pass signs for small lakes, Loon, Lily and Falls. Lily Lake was the site of a quarry in 1890-94, mining limestone that was carried by horse-drawn railway carts down to the bay where the stone was then transported by freighters to build the Sault Ste. Marie canal.

Just before you reach our final destination, there will be a sign for the Mississagi Lighthouse (and Lafarge Quarry, Canada’s largest) turn left here on Lighthouse Road for a 10km drive to the lighthouse, built in 1873, casting its light over the perilous Mississagi Straits. It was here, in 1679, that the first ship to sail the upper Great Lakes, “Le Griffon,” is said to have been wrecked, according to local lore, long before the lighthouse existed, when the ship’s compass was disoriented by the magnetic shoals and taken off course. While there is no conclusive verdict on the identity of the wreck, much evidence was gathered and sent to France for analysis; it has been verified that the wreck was a French-built ship (at Niagara, by René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle and his French builders) of the period in question. It remains a great mystery; there is also a group in Lake Michigan looking for the wreck there.

The Mississagi Lighthouse is located on spectacular cliffs and has a restaurant, museum and sites for picnics and camping. It is open every day 8 am to 8 pm until the third Saturday in September. From the top of the lighthouse, it is possible to see Cockburn Island, established in the 1870s as a fishing station, then as a busy port for lumbering. In summer, the Island hosts seasonal residents, boaters and kayakers and a contingent of hunters in the fall. The Nature Conservancy of Canada now owns about half the island; its intent is to let the property revert to old-growth forest while preserving rare plant species and permitting access for hunting and other activities.

Back on Highway 540, drive the last couple of kilometres into the village of Meldrum Bay. You will pass the entrance to Whitesea Resort on your right, known for its salmon fishing charters. Then, after a final curve in the road, you will come upon Macrae Cove in Meldrum Bay, our last stop on this journey. Below is the marina, with finger docks for the many boats that anchor here in summer and the new cedar-shingled Customs building for international boaters is on the right. Curving into the bay is the new breakwall, built of limestone that seems to glow in the water’s reflection, and behind you is a bluff of dense trees. Drive into the tiny hamlet and park near the Inn or the Country Store; you can accomplish all you need on foot.

In 1817, Captain Henry Bayfield’s marine charting party called this place ‘Mildram Bay’ but Meldrum Bay was then named after a market town in Scotland. Settlers began arriving in 1876 from southern Ontario and parts of the U.S., the same year Dawson Township was surveyed into 100-acre lots by J.W. Fitzgerald, when the area was completely forested. Their hard and colourful lives building the community were documented by Archie Wickett, born in 1900, a son of early settler George Wickett, in ‘The History of Meldrum Bay and Dawson Township.’ His account was expanded into a book that is available at the Country Store, with proceeds to the Net Shed Museum.

The descendants of many of the original settlers still live on their first homesteads in the township. While lands were cleared, cabins built and titles claimed, the first post office opened in 1880; the mail arrived by boat, then by horse and sleigh during winter. That same year saw the first sawmill built and a store opened by William Switzer; lumbering turned Meldrum Bay into a boomtown and the mill employed over a hundred men in the sawing of lumber and the making of shingles and lath. Commercial fishing started up in about 1897. At the height of this industry 25 tons of fish were caught and shipped weekly from this and other fishing ports in the North Channel. Joe Millman started his fishing business in the early 1900s and built a net shed on Water Street to sew, repair and dry his nets; this is now the Net Shed Museum, the last such shed remaining in the bay. While the museum is closed for the season, it is worth a stroll a minute down Water Street (just look for the sign that says “Highway 540 Ends” and the one next to it that says “Water Street Begins”) to see this quaint, shingle-sided structure sitting at the rocky water’s edge. On a windless day it’s possible to see the submerged long pier that served as dock for Millman’s steam tugs; right across the street is the Millman home, now owned by another local family.

Back in the village, across from the campground, is the Meldrum Bay Inn, a marvelous find anywhere, but especially here. Now owned by Shirin and Bob Grover, the Inn started life as the Grand Manitoulin Hotel in about 1906; the wide verandahs of the early photographs, and indeed the whole building, retain the same spacious air as the original. The Grovers have renovated extensively and the Inn features eight rooms furnished with antiques, a bright and comfortable parlour with cozy couches, a licenced restaurant and glorious gardens. The Inn is open until September 15, after which it will be open only for groups of eight or larger. Thinking about putting a party of eight together? Call 705-283-3190. If you can do it you’ll find local foods prepared with flair, and special desserts.

Next door, daughter Elena runs the Country Store, first opened around the same time as the original hotel. The store is a hub for visitors and the community, featuring wireless internet and café tables where bridge games are always in session; it stocks many unusual items like pita bread and Greek olive oil, along with everyday staples and a selection of Hawberry Farms jams, chutneys and spreads. There’s a freezer with local fish, meat and ice cream, and an LCBO agency. Upstairs is the Artisans’ Loft for great local gift ideas. Elena is a trained pastry chef who bakes a tantalizing selection of sweets every day; she and her puppy, Lola, make everyone feel like old friends.

Across from the Inn, visit the marina at water’s edge, perhaps catching sight of another old Purvis tug, the “Andave H”, and take a walk out on the breakwall, with its path along the centre. There are public washrooms at the Customs building, and a lounge and deck for viewing the bay. The little street that goes up the hill here leads to the lovely United Church, built in 1920, that is open to visitors; next door is the Community Hall, site of many events and the community’s annual August long weekend beef barbecue, built in 1932 by mason Stewart Clarke in the place where the first school (1888) once stood.

We’ve come to the end of the road; to return to your starting point of Gore Bay, head back on Highway 540. Mind the deer.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this tour to the western tip of the Island! If you couldn’t complete the journey in its entirety, consider returning during the Taste of Manitoulin, on Sunday October 6, when Meldrum Bay, Sheshegwaning, Zhiibaahaasing, Silver Water and Elizabeth Bay will host events featuring local food, music and entertainments. Check page 5A of this paper for A Taste of Manitoulin’s fall calendar.

by Isobel Harry