As you drive through the conventional driving route along Highway 6 of Ontario Province, Canada that leads to the famous Swing Bridge, past vistas of spectacular mountains and lush meadows often interrupted by icy blue lakes, you arrive at this intense, unadulterated stretch of Canadian landscape nestled in the heart of Rainbow Country – the Manitoulin Island, a Canadian lake island in Lake Huron. It is the largest freshwater lake island in the world and comprises of a number of inland lakes of its own. Some of the bigger lakes, in turn, have islands within them. Hence, the name Thousand Islands or Thirty Thousand Islands. The scene here is ever-changing partly because the actual number of islands is close to sixty thousand, the count varying according to the rise and fall of water levels that make some islands appear and others disappear.
According to legend
Manitoulin means Spirit Island in the aboriginal Ojibwe language and has long been considered as sacred by the natives (also known as first citizens). According to one legend, giant god Kitchi-Kiwana, the last of his race, was carrying a mountain when he tripped and fell. The mountain shattered and the pieces are what we today call the thirty thousand islands. Another story tells the tale of how Kitchi-Kiwana, known for his volatile temper, got angry when Wanakita, a woman he had decided to marry, told him that she was already spoken for. Kitchi-Kiwana was so taken over with rage that he grabbed a large ball of earth and flung it into the great lakes and, thus, thirty thousand islands were created. He then lay down to sleep in what is now known as Giant’s Tomb Island.
Whatever the fables surrounding the islands, Geologists will tell you that the Thirty Thousand Islands form the largest freshwater archipelago in the world. These islands with hues of pink, white and black sand and curious rock formations have been frozen and baked, scoured by wind, kissed with water and moulded into breathtaking shorelines. Maybe since the last ice age, a great tropical sea washed these shores, leaving fossils of molluscs, crustaceans and vivid corals on the sea floor and erosion of limestone formed caves and oddly shaped rock formations. One such unique landscape feature can be found at the Misery Bay Nature Reserve Park, an ancient flat rock sea bottom known as Alvar. Alvars are very rare and in North America, these relict remains of inland beaches left on rocks by retreat of giant pre-historic lakes, are to be found only here at thirty thousand islands.
Discovering the islands
Visitors often wonder where to begin when visiting the Thousand Islands. The Thousand Island National Park or The Georgian Bay Islands National Park, often romantically referred to as the Garden of the Great Spirit is a celebration of traditional knowledge and culture, aiming to preserve the legacy of ancestors.
Beausoleil is the largest of the over forty islands protected under the Georgian Bay National Park established in 1929 and one of the prime camping sites offering hiking, biking and plenty of other interactive activities. Giant granite rock formations and windswept eastern White Pines are characteristic features of the island and make up for most of the undulating shoreline.
There’s also Cedar Springs, the main docking and parking area in the National Park, and the prime departure area on trails to other parts like the popular Cup and Saucer Hiking Trail and Mississagi Lighthouse Trail. Cedar Springs has approximately sixteen log houses, a church, two barns and some eighty hectares of land cleared for growing corn and potato. There is a museum with exhibits of ancient pottery, hunting implements, tools and mystical dreamcatchers (which the natives believe help in filtering out bad dreams and allowing only good thoughts to remain). You can witness some traditional sacred ceremonies performed by the Natives here, too. On the way back collect a keepsake from the souvenir store that houses traditional artwork, sacred dreamcatchers, intricate paintings and beautiful handicrafts made by the native tribes.
Besides being blessed with incredible natural beauty synonymous with Canadian panorama and some great insight into the times and life of ancient Canadian tribes, Manitoulin also offers miles of spectacular shoreline tempting you to a canoe or a kayak; quiet roads snaking through trails lined with riotous suffrutescent growths are ideal for an exploratory drive through the remote country while chic esplanades lined with quaint souvenir shops and swank watering holes explain why the place is fast gaining popularity as a playground for most.
Take a pick from cruising past the beautifully sculpted islands; visiting the majestic retreats; camping at quaint sleepy villages; or locating the lighthouse at Whiskey Island. Manitoulin is far removed from the touristy scene and you will realize it soon enough as you amble along soaking in the transcendent beauty. Manitoulin is atmospheric, almost surreal and visiting it is like stepping back in time.
Manitoulin is, roughly, a five-hour drive away from Toronto and a two-hour drive from Sudbury, the mining capital of Canada. The Swing Bridge at Little Current connects Manitoulin to Ontario’s highway network. There are a number of day cruises from Parry Sound through the wild, rugged and ravishingly beautiful Thirty Thousand Island region. Parry Sound, the world’s deepest natural freshwater port, is 150 miles and 2.40 hours north of Toronto and can be reached by taking highway 427N. There is a regular bus service run by the government to Parry Sound from Toronto. The adventurous may also think of hiring a float plane to the islands from Parry Sound.