Misery on Manitoulin? Hardly, when a guided hike through rare habitats goes to the beach

Ready for adventure. Everyone has a mission on their walking tour of Misery Bay Provincial Park photos by Isobel Harry

by Isobel Harry

MISERY BAY—Any day is a good day to visit Misery Bay, Manitoulin’s exquisite gem of a provincial park. Thirty-five miles west of Gore Bay, the 1,100-hectare tract of protected land with over 21 kilometres of marked trails through unique ancient landscapes is a joy for all ages in all seasons. Classified as a nature reserve by Ontario Parks, Misery Bay Provincial Park protects the alvars, wetlands, upland forests and animal and plant species at risk that are found here.

In summer, some folks come to the park, deposit their $2 admission into the Ontario Parks machine, and race past the Interpretive Centre straight down to the sand beach. Who can blame them? The water is shallow and refreshing, the charming gazebo offers shade from the tropical-strength sun and the southwest water views are expansive. Lie on a beach towel and that’s it, done for the day.

Meanwhile, all around, the park does what it has done for 10,000 years: it’s a kind of living museum, one in which the ‘artifacts’ were deposited when the glaciers of Lake Nipissing retreated and left huge boulders and rocks on a moonscape of alvars, sprawling limestone pavements that host rare vegetation in deep fissures and tiny cracks. Globally rare, alvars only can be found off the coast of Sweden, in the eastern European Baltic region, the United Kingdom and Ireland. In North America, almost 75 percent of these alvars are located in Ontario, according to the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC).

Misery Bay’s massive alvar swaths stretch out as far as the eye can see: on the beach, they sweep into the water like a welcome mat rolled out for royalty, they carpet parts of the forest floor and play host to countless rare and endangered species of plants (last count was 470).

The park’s alvar setting looks surreal, and its weighty gravitas through millennia seems to transport the visitor back in time. It’s easy to wander around like this is the movie set for Planet of the Apes; that’s one way to get to know Misery Bay.

And it’s also why it’s good to visit again and again, because each time will be different, every experience will teach us finally to look more closely. “Manitoulin Island,” says the NCC, has “the greatest richness of globally significant species and communities of any ecological district within the Canadian portion of the Great Lakes Basin….some of the best representative examples of ecological communities that are found nowhere else in the world, including globally significant alvar habitat.”

So, what’s the best way to “see” Misery Bay Provincial Park? Stop in at the Interpretive Centre and browse the collections of butterflies, turtle shells, bones, bird nests and fossils; leaf through books and binders on forest ecology, biology, geology and social history from one of the easy chairs; enjoy as the kids listen to audio recordings of frog calls and make fossil rubbings. Pick up an ‘Illustrated Guide to the Flowering Plants of Misery Bay Provincial Park and Manitoulin Island’ or ‘Great Lakes Alvars,’ both handy-sized booklets guaranteed to enhance your hike. (Needless to say that further enhancement can be had by toting water and snacks for the trails.)

For an eye-opening, hands-on experience, consider touring the park with a guide. Contact the park to check availability for the day you’d like to visit, then show up for your personalized Misery Bay encounter with extraordinary natural habitats.

On this hot August Sunday afternoon, the park is buzzing with visitors, kids and adults in happy groups strolling through the shady forest paths, crossing the alvar prairies and the boardwalk across the vernal pool. Gaynor Orford, plant ecologist and chair of the Friends of Misery Bay board of directors, arrives looking awfully keen to guide a curious but woefully uninformed reporter through Misery Bay’s mysterious terrain.

We set out together on the Coastal Alvar Trail as Ms. Orford describes the park’s origins as an ancient flat rock sea bottom first inhabited by Aboriginal people then settled in the 1870s by one man, the highly educated hermit Edwin ‘Ned’ Saunders who moved from Gore Bay because there were “too many people” into a log shanty he built himself in Elizabeth Bay. When the Ainslie family arrived in 1878, Ned couldn’t take the crowds and moved to Misery Bay, where he built a cabin that still stands today. Many of the park’s trails, points out Ms. Orford, are old logging roads cut from the bush by those early settlers (some are being refurbished for eventual universal access). Cal and Eunice Sifferd bought Misery Bay properties from Bernard Ainslie in the late 1950s, later turned over by them to the NCC in the 1970s to begin to form the park. Photos, videos and other historical resource materials can be viewed in the Interpretive Centre.

After greeting visitors relaxing in the beach gazebo, we’re off along the coast, and this is where Gaynor Orford comes into her own as a passionate plant ecologist with an M.A. from Laurentian University (where the Welsh-born student met Haweater husband-to-be Floyd Orford in 1979, but that’s another story).

Now we’re bending down every few feet to marvel at Grass of Parnassus with its lovely white cup-shaped blooms, the ‘shrubby Cinquefoil,’ the strawberry-like potentilla, the violet ‘Camas’ flowers and the darling, miniscule ‘wooded Ladies’ Tresses orchid,’ “one of twenty-five species of orchid at Misery Bay,” explains Ms. Orford. Once you’ve seen and identified these diminutive plants growing in the sand and out of small rock fractures, what was once invisible becomes a riot of colour, brilliant examples of the rare, and very fragile, flora of the park. “Despite the current longstanding drought on the Island,” says the helpful trail guide, “these plants are thriving in their age-old and rather tough environment. They’re also vulnerable to ice scraping the rock and to fluctuations in lake levels. ”

Ms. Orford reflects that, “although the park has no big special attraction like the Old Faithful geyser, for example, people love to come here to absorb Nature.”

And absorb it we do. We see how the beach ridges were pushed back by movements of ice and water, we examine trees such as the unusual ‘Nine Bark,’ we contemplate how jack pine and cedar grow together, we talk about vital research in the park on Blanding’s Turtles, and how moss dissolves limestone to create fossil-like pits, then we pause to scrutinize lichens growing on boulders. “Some of the lichens,” says Gaynor Orford, “are 500 years old,” as we look at how unicellular organisms called diatoms–a type of algae–colonize the rocks, followed by lichens and then the mosses that hold moisture; this organic and gradual process provides a habitat for the growth of ferns. And voila! Ms. Orford points to maidenhair ferns growing under and right in the rock where soil has gathered, nourished by water dripping off the rock. Is everything a minor miracle here–or is it the fresh air?

Misery Bay Provincial Park is open all year; during July and August, the Interpretive Centre is

open 10 to 5 weekdays, 10 to 4 on weekends. Open only on weekends after Labour Day, until Thanksgiving. Day use only, no camping.

To arrange a guide, email your request to: info@miserybay.ca. There is no charge for guided hikes, but the park gratefully accepts donations. The $2 Park entrance fee applies to all hikers (children and elders $1).

www.miserybay.ca. Also on Facebook.