by Isobel Harry
When you’ve driven or biked as far west as you can go on Manitoulin, you’re in Meldrum Bay; a helpful marker will inform you that “Hwy 540 Ends Here,” in case of any lingering doubt.
Take a quiet, 70km drive west from Gore Bay, through the suburban-style homes of Evansville, past Misery Bay Provincial Park, Elizabeth Bay and Cook’s Dock, out into the open countryside of the old districts of Fernlee and Walkhouse and onward to Silver Water. Side trips anywhere along here reward with forested country roads and glimpses of glimmering bays; on Morden-Noakes Road in Elizabeth Bay, the old fieldstone United Church stills holds a Sunday service. In Silver Water, a detour down Burnt Island Road leads to the Purvis fish station, operating since 1882. Kemp Lake Road, just outside Silver Water, is an interesting peek at an old-style lakeside cottage community.
Just a few kilometres from here is Sheshegwaning First Nation—turn right for a 3km drive into the village. This was an Odawa settlement from about 1839 and became the permanent dwelling place of the resident families after the Treaty of 1862 with the British Crown decreed that the Indigenous population move to small “reserves.” As in other Island communities, the usual cultural activities, the annual powwow and the planned-for market have had to be postponed during the pandemic; the Nimkee Trail to Cape Robert and Nishin Lodge, the new pier and dock, the neat sand beach are quiet. The road to Zhiibaahaasing First Nation to the west is closed to all but local traffic.
But as soon as you enter the village, there’s activity over to the right where the essentials of gas, convenience store and snack bar are located. Gamig Gas and Convenience store are the only such services between Gore Bay and Meldrum Bay. Ditto with Randi’s Snak Shak across the road. Normally, you could also stop in at the popular GG’s Diner in Evansville or Stop 540 in Silver Water on the way west, but right now both are temporarily closed. So, for a “snak” on this route, Randi’s multi-coloured “shak” with patio and picnic tables is your happy choice.
Randi Grant-Hose-Muto (“yes, that’s right,” she laughs) and Marcus White live in Meldrum Bay and had been looking in vain for a place to set up their own small restaurant. Randi kept coming back to Sheshegwaning to see if the snack bar had been occupied and, with the approval of the band council, finally leased the place, setting to work in May. The busy, friendly pair painted it a riot of yellow and red, picked up some tall bar stools at a garage sale, ran a couple of bars across the front and side patio railings to accommodate the stools and added an umbrella and a string of lights to the décor. Red doors with blackboard panels list the menu items, from quesadillas to beef, chicken and veggie burgers and an all-day breakfast selection.
Randi and Marcus met in Collingwood and both have extensive backgrounds in various kitchens and food service from franchise restaurants to Codmother’s in Gore Bay. “We’re doing amazing,” says Randi. “We feel very supported by the Sheshegwaning community. Seasonal campers and cottagers come for something to eat and one guy came from Little Current because, he told us, of our reputation!” The menu and hours are on their Facebook page; call ahead to order at 705-888-0622.
Onward to Meldrum Bay, the ‘end of the line’ since settlers first came to Dawson Township in 1876, the same year surveyors mapped out the grids to be given as land grants or sold cheaply to the mostly Irish and Scots settlers arriving from southern Ontario.
There were no roads through the dense forests, no electricity, no telephones, no dentist or doctor. Communications with and travel to and from the outside world were especially difficult. The all-important mail deliveries came by boat in summer and by horse-drawn sleigh in winter; leaving Little Current at 6 am and stopping in Kagawong, Gore Bay, Barrie Island and Silver Water, the mail sleigh would arrive in Meldrum Bay at midnight.
Many are the stories of grit and resilience, of the terrible hardships on the land and calamitous disasters on the water, whether it was the sinking of another steamship in a raging storm or the drownings of men and oxen breaking through the ice-covered straits between Meldrum Bay and Blind River on the North Shore.
But by the 1880s, three sawmills operated at full-tilt in the bay and hotels and boarding houses held the hundreds of employees of the lumber mills; several commercial fishing operations also proliferated at the water’s edge. By about 1897, there were so many wooden fish boxes stacked on the wharves awaiting shipment to the US and England that the village became known as Fish Box Bay.
As the road rounds a last bend into the village, the cedar-sided marina and Canada Customs building comes into view and the sculptural stone breakwall curving into the dazzling blue stillness of Macrae Cove. On the left below the hill, at the centre of the village, the Meldrum Bay Inn, built during the boom in 1876 and renamed the Grand Manitoulin Hotel in 1899, retains the same country charm of those days. Meticulously maintained by hosts Shirin and Bob Grover, the elegant guest rooms are decorated with period antiques and the spacious verandah is open on two sides for fine dining alfresco. www.meldrumbayinn.com
The exquisite maritime setting that is Meldrum Bay has not been immune to the impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, either. Here, they are felt in the ‘closed’ signs at the wonderful Net Shed Museum and the popular campgrounds at the Mississagi Lighthouse’s dramatic cliffside setting. The much-missed General Store is for sale.
But there are strollers, boaters and boats at the docks and at the launch, refueling or sitting in deck chairs or at picnic tables below the marina building, and Breakwater Park’s several cedar-hedged RV spots are filled (inquire at the marina building for rates). The water side of the park, where it’s joined by the pathway across the top of the imposing limestone breakwall, has been spruced up in recent years.
Behind a split rail fence, the public sand beach is right here, calm water nestled in the curve of the breakwall, tall trees for shade, tables for picnickers. Under the biggest of big blue skies and overlooking the immense ‘inland sea’ that is Lake Huron all the way over to the North Shore, children run around the beach and into the water, shrieking and splashing in gleeful age-old games.
These days, a visit to Meldrum Bay is to savour the beauty and serenity of fleeting summer hours spent on its welcoming shores.