Travel tip: Do more – and see more – by doing less.
- Land: Flowerpot Island, off the coast of the Saugeen Peninsula (now popularly called “Bruce Peninsula in most travel information) is on the traditional territory of Haudenosaunee, Anishnaabek, and Ojibway/Chippewa people. It is near the Chippewas of Nawash Unceeded First Nation, and north of the Saugeen First Nation. The shores of Manitoulin Island to the north is the Wikwemikong Unceeded Territory.
- Transit: First step, get to Tobermory; you can do this by car or bus from the south, or from the north by the Chi Cheemaun ferry from Manitoulin Island. (You could also hike up the Bruce Trail if you’ve got a lot of time on your hands.) Next step, check in at Fathom Five National Marine Park’s offices just out of town. Then take one of the tour boats from Tobermory – you usually get a quick tour of some shipwrecks this way – or, if you’re an experienced kayaker you can paddle there yourself. Alternatively, if you’re lucky, you can sail there on your own. Reserve well ahead! During the summer, tour boats and hotels fill up fast – especially on long weekends. There were still campsites left when we went, but it was the middle of the week.
- Cost: It can cost you, or it can be cheap. Park fees are low. The ferry fee is not. Tourboat fees add up fast. Fuel costs depend on distance and your car or boat.
- Crowds: Away from the eastern shore you pretty much have the island to yourself. The eastern shore is periodically crowded from about 9 AM to about 5 PM, when the tour boats come and go. The whole island is quiet as can be the rest of the day.
- Accessibility: Parks Canada is clearly working to make the short path from the docks to the eastern shore as smooth as possible, but there are still lots of bumps and stairs. The paths on the rest of the island are variously smooth, rocky, narrow, wide, steep, flat, shady, and exposed to the elements.
- Conservation note: Flowerpot Island is home to some very rare species, including ancient cedars and gorgeous native orchids. Stay on the paths.
- Click here for map.
From a distance it looks like a broad, low hump of land in the water but, as our boat approaches at an outrageous speed, Flowerpot Island reveals itself: Jade forests engulfing crumbling alabaster cliffs, all nestled amidst the glittering turquoise and sapphire waters of Fathom Five National Marine Park.
On the eastern shore we race by the limestone beaches and two white and grey studs of rock that stand sentinel there, the island’s eponymous “flowerpots,” on our way to the dock. It’s on the south, in a bay, and as we enter I see right away that the water appears to be nothing more than a…a silken layer of cling film, reflective and slick, but perfectly transparent. Fish appear to be suspended in the aether beneath it, amid small fields of weeds. A water snake flies effortlessly beneath the surface.
We leave the dock for our campsite. There are six on the island, each a wooden platform with a view south, and we’ve chosen the furthest from the dock, for maximum solitude. After all, we hear this place is quite the tourist attraction – in fact, the whole area is.
“People don’t understand,” a representative for the boat company we paid to bring us here told us while she was printing off our tickets, “how busy it gets in Tobermory in the summer. They think they can just show up and get a room or get on a boat. Sometimes we’re booked up way in advance. Some people have to sleep in their cars…”
Cars are an odd idea out here, surrounded by water, going everywhere on small foot paths. Except for the boats dropping tourists off about every half hour, there is none of the smell and clangour of civilization. Like the water, the air here is shockingly clear of pollution – both the aural and olfactory kinds.
We set up camp in a ring of green overlooking the water, not far from the hiking trail that goes to the west and north shores of the island before looping down the east and back around here.
We take the trail counter-clockwise, the opposite of most. Our last destination, the eastern shore, gets all the attention in travel articles. We expect to be wowed there, but are unsure what we’ll find in the rest.
Green moss and brown roots punctuate the rusty, ruddy soil as we pass through a quiet cedar forest. Though the trees here are uniformly skinny, many are corded, twisted like candy canes, sure fire sign of their maturity. It’s quiet here – we pass two hikers coming in the opposite direction – and is perfumed with white cedar’s unmistakable fragrance.
At the only fork in the way we turn west, to the far shore of the island. The route path undulates gently between wet lowland and hillocks as we descend to the coast. Then, we’re given the first of many abrupt changes in ecosystems as the forest opens up to a long plane of tumbled, broken rock. Suddenly the smell of our path changes from verdant cedar to limestone baking in the sun. The temperature rises aburptly.
We follow this to the edge of the water; vast Lake Huron stretches out across the horizon, the mainland and Cove Island smudges in the distance. Broken rock tumbles into the waves, and where the two meet dogwoods and wildflowers grow. There’s no sign of humans here.
We have a quiet moment and move on, back into the woods.
Veering north, we meet another change as we climb up hill. Mosses cover everything and maples begin to dominate as the cedars drop off. Light filters through broad leaves and off the dewey moss, casting everything with an emerald glow.
Up and up and up we follow twisting paths and long flights of stairs that straddle rock faces. At the height of land we are surrounded by green, passing briefly through a hall of mossy rock, ferns growing where they find footholds in the cracks. An A+ dad, carrying his baby on his back, limbos impossibly beneath a fallen tree, baby laughing all the while. Their family is just the second encounter with people we’ve seen since we started our trek.
Then it’s down again to the lightkeeper’s house and lighthouse. Here we’re treated to panoramic views of Lake Huron to the west and Georgian Bay to the east. Below us, azure waves turn aquamarine before blanching crystal clear, and then crashing on the rocks.
The lightkeeper’s house is part residence, part museum. It feels old, considered against the modern dock and lighthouse. It is also where we begin to see people again, more and more as we get closer to the eastern shore. It begins to feel like a tourist attraction, especially as we approach the flights of stairs that lead up to caves in the high cliffs.
Here we have to squeeze around people, wait our turn to get good views.
And then, in no time at all we reach the eastern shore.
A steady stream of people moves through here, sometimes in waves synched to the arrival of boats at the dock.
Huge limestone slabs tilt into the quiet water on the leeward side of the island; and the brilliant pillars, the flowerpots of Flowerpot Island, stand right at the edge of the water.
It’s a good spot to stop to play, and rest. Groups of tourists, couples, families all station themselves here. The sun has warmed the rock and the adventurous make their way into the water.
After a long hike in the hot sun, the water is shockingly cold.
I manage to get my head under, inwardly proud of myself for going further than most. Meanwhile, seagulls relax in the waves and groups of small fish dart about, reminding me that the water’s not really cold – humans just aren’t built for it.
We stay for a bit, and resolve to come back later, after the boats stop coming and the crowds disappear. On our way, we orbit each flowerpot. It’s hard to believe, but everything I’ve read and heard tells me that the tiny cedars growing out of these are many hundreds, even over a thousand, years old. This was discovered only recently, and the hunt is on to find just how old these whimsical looking trees have grown to.
But, just after the tourists disappear the sky opens and rain pours for hours. Only at sunset, about quarter to nine this time of year, does the sun come out again. Mist pours out of the forest in leeward bays like Beechy Cove.
The flowerpots are on the wrong side of the island to greet the sunset, but they still look stunning against the pastel sky.
We sleep in peace.
At dawn we return to the eastern shore for a last dip before the boats return and we’re scheduled to leave.
On the walk there I notice small things I’d glossed over on our grand tour the day before.
Trees growing right out of rocks are everywhere.
Tiny plants sprout from old branches.
Life abounds here. Ancient and new.
I’m glad we’ve taken our time.
We’ve done more than a quick tour here; for twenty-four hours we’ve really explored. In theory we could have packed much more in during our time in the Bruce Peninsula, but we would have been way more busy and seen far less. Instead, we come to the eastern shore of Flowerpot Island and find it gloriously free of humans. We get to spend a long stretch of time alone in a place that will, in a few hours, be crowded with people.
For a moment, lying on the rocks, I inhabit this space with ancient cedars and utter calm. Drinking in the sun, I sit for a long while on this strip of chalky white and grey that runs between verdant forest and candy-coloured water, underneath the vast cerulean sky.