The Bruce – October 1945

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By William Sherwood Fox

The Bruce – the famous peninsula of Lake Huron – is, like all other peninsulas of the world’s great navigable waters, at once an aggravating obstacle and an object of fascinating interest. It may be that, because of a curious quirk of the human mind, the very fact that it is a peninsula focusses attention upon its many interesting features and thus seems to multiply their number. But be that as it may, any sailor of the Great Lakes knows beyond all doubt that “The Bruce” is one of the very important land masses of our inland freshwater seas; it is the one thing that makes Lake Huron unique among them all – two seas in one – and thereby adds to the problems of Great Lakes navigation.

This characteristic will be brought into high relief by a glance at some of the world’s great peninsulas. What Jutland is to Germany and the Scandinavian countries; what the Malay Peninsula is to India, Burma and the Dutch East Indies; what the Iberian Peninsula is to the sailing nations of Western Europe and the Mediterranean; what the stormy peninsula of Mount Athos was to Greece and the Persian invader, Xerxes, “The Bruce” is to people who inhabit the shores of the Georgian Bay and of the main body of Lake Huron. The Germans surmounted the obstacle of Jutland by digging the Kiel Canal, and Xerxes avoided the hazards of Mount Athos by cutting a channel through the narrows behind that eminence. But as yet the Malay and Spanish presque’iles are unconquered; those who would sail beyond them must sail around them. If small things may be compared with great, “The Bruce” is in the latter class; he who would sail from Southampton to Owen Sound has no choice but to take the round­about route through the straits between “The Tub” and “The Manitoulin;” to go twenty-three miles he must make close to one hundred and fifty and risk the perils of shifting currents and winds and of off­shore reefs.

Bruce Peninsula

The stern reality of this situation was recognized long before the exactions of modern shipping. The native Indian faced it and in his own way overcame the obstacle it offered. Of his victory over nature, he has left enduring records which may be read at a glance. The Peninsula is sixty miles long and of an average width of seven miles. Centuries ago the Indian discovered two isthmuses across this strip of rock and soil. One of these necks lies between Colpoy’s Bay and Oliphant near the base of the Peninsula, and the other midway between base and tip between Isthmus Bay (near Lion’s Head) and Stokes Bay. Each isthmus offered an easy portage route between the Georgian Bay and the main body of Lake Huron. At both ends of each route the Indians maintained villages or camp sites and left there in their midden heaps and scattered over the soil the artifacts common to their manner of life – arrow-heads, axes, skinning stones and so forth. These tell clearly but one story: the redman of primitive days carried on his traffic between Georgian Bay and Lake Huron despite the massive barrier that lay across his path.

But where the untutored native succeeded, the first white man in the region, with all the vaunted ingenuity of his race, utterly failed. In 1615 Champlain endeavored to make his way by canoe from Huronia to the great mer douce, the vast freshwater sea he had been told stretched out into the west. Setting out in that direction he skirted the southern shores of Matchedash and Nottawasaga Bays until he was brought to a halt by a line of towering rock cliffs lying squarely athwart his projected route. This extended to the north as far as he could see. Turning to the right he explored the smallest indentations in the coast in the hope of finding a westward passage or the end of land. Of the details of what he found he tells us nothing; all he has left us is his curt word that the land confronting him was a peninsula. But he found enough to discourage him. Doubtless his keen native caution in the face of a host of unknowns combined with efforts of the Indians to keep the white stranger from trespassing on their exclusive domain led him to abandon his original plan. But before turning back he made some observations upon the peninsula’s characteristics. His report, crisp as a commentary of Caesar, is cast in the tone and with the assurance of an eyewitness:

This country is fine and pleasant, for the most part unpopulated, shaped like Brittany and similarly situated, being almost surrounded and enclosed by the Mer Douce.

The comparison to Brittany, the great rock-bound and forest clad presqu’ile of France, is perfect. One now knows why the shrewd Jesuit missionaries of Huronia set up no more than one lonely mission outpost in the upper tract of this wilderness: there were but a mere handful of Indian souls in it to save. The Mission of Saints Simon and Jude pitched somewhere between Cabot’s Head and Gillies Lake on the Georgian Bay side, has left not a trace behind  save a dot on an incorrect though precious map.

It is interesting though unprofitable to speculate how the history of the Great Lakes would have been changed had Champlain forced a way across “The Bruce” or around it. All we can now say is that it would have been changed. There would then have been some reason for such localities as Goderich and Grand Bend proudly to point to Champlain as the first white visitor to their present sites. As it is, their tales are historically no more than wishful thinking; they are probably distorted recollections of the voyage up Lake Huron made half a century later by the French Sulpicians, Galinee and Dallier de Casson.

Sauble Beach, west side of “The Bruce” on Lake Huron. Image by Peter Burian

But what is “The Bruce” really like? At the best, Champlain saw but little more than one side of it, the east, which is one continuous line of precipices. The west side is quite different. I remember very distinctly my first views of both sides; both of them were afforded me within less than a year. Early in October of 1900 I boarded the old City of Collingwood at Sarnia en-route to Manitoba via Duluth, and so heavy a north­west gale was blowing at the time that the steamer could not make her way into the open lake until after daylight the next morning. Shortly afterward the wind suddenly increased in violence and the captain was unable to keep the usual course close to the Michigan shore. Instead we were driven to the eastern course a few miles off the Ontario shore. With the naked eye we could see first Goderich, then Kincardine and Southampton. With difficulty the captain kept the vessel well off the shoals of the Bruce Peninsula but so close were we that by means of glasses we could still see the low rocky shore-line and the breakers foaming over it. What struck a green observer like myself was that the land was low and flat. Where were the cliffs that Champlain wrote about? They simply weren’t there.

Isthmus Bay, east side of “The Bruce”, Georgian Bay. Image by Pyzote

The following May I traveled by the old Canadian Pacific liner, the Manitoba, from Fort William to Owen Sound. At daylight of the morning before reaching port we passed through the Straits between Tobermory and Fitzwilliam Island and then turned south. There in full view were Champlain’s forests and cliffs so like to those of Brittany – one long line of them continuing with little change in summit levels to within a few miles of Owen Sound itself. How different the east side of “The Bruce” from the west, the Lake Huron side! Comparison of my own observations of both sides introduced me to a geological phenomenon that has intrigued me ever since. In the study of it one learns why “The Bruce” is today just what it is.

The bald truth, as a scientist states it, is that “The Bruce Peninsula is formed by an extension of the Niagara escarpment that projects into Lake Huron for about sixty miles in a general northern direction. The further continuation of this escarpment to the north forms Manitoulin Island, thus cutting off Georgian Bay from Lake Huron . . . The exposed rocks of the Bruce Peninsula are almost entirely Silurian, being for the most part Guelph and Lockport dolomites, limestones with some Cabot Head shale exposed on the cliffs of the eastern side . . .” That is not the whole story, of course, but enough to show the basic stuff of which “The Bruce” was made.

The picture of the pre-ice stage of the escarpment in this region is relatively clear and simple; so is the process of the making of the Peninsula. The glaciers were the chief instruments. From the remote Arctic northeast came the first of them, an ice-sheet many thousands of feet inexorably grinding its way southwestwards. It sheared off stratum after stratum of the soft limestones and ground much of them to a powder, mixing it with the powders of the northern granites it had carried along. Then in time it retreated leaving behind its powders as soils of various kinds deposited in the depressions it had gouged out. With the return of. higher temperatures a varied plant life grew up, which on decaying gradually added to the soils, through the millenniums, that precious ingredient humus. Again and then again the glacier returned followed each time by a period of warmth and lush vegetation. The third, and last, glaciation is known among scientists as the Wisconsin; hence the warm period we now enjoy is called the “Post­Wisconsin.”

The action of the ice had two outstanding effects upon “The Bruce”: it left it a legacy of a unique plant life and gave it unique land contours. Each phase merits a long story, but now one may do no more than merely allude to its content.

The plants of the Peninsula area mixture of those peculiar to northern and southern zones. Here one will find the rare Alaska Orchid – found elsewhere only in the Gaspe, on Anticosti, Lake Superior shores and the Rockies. Here too grows the odd fern, the Hart’s Tongue, common to the northern parts of the British Isles and Norway. These are but samples of the vegetation that makes the Peninsula a botanist’s paradise.

The distinctive shore-lines of the Peninsula offer a special interest to navigators. As the ice ground its way to the southwest over the limestone strata it gradually planed off their surface until on the west there remained nothing but flat and almost dead level shelves of rock. When water took the place of ice these shelves reached out into what is now Lake Huron in the form of shallow and gently dropping shoals. The shore-line was left with numerous deep ragged indentations, none of which is deep enough to admit vessels of deep draft. The largest of these is Stokes Bay. On the east of the Peninsula the cliffs remain, in places towering three hundred feet above the waters of Georgian Bay, high enough to resist the thrust of the glaciers. On this side there are no harbors north of Colpoy’s Bay at the extreme south.

From the professional sailor’s point of view Tobermory is the crowning glory of “The Bruce” since it possesses the only genuine haven. In reality there are two havens, the inner and the outer. The former consists of a basin set well inland and which, like its canal-like approach, has been carved out of the rock by the glacier as though by a consciously directed skill, so even and clear cut are its outlines. The outer harbor would grace any ocean in the world.  It is formed by a circle of islands which protect its waters from the violence of wind and wave on every side. This ample gulf can shelter with ease at one time a whole fleet of the largest steamers that ply the Upper Lakes. To it many a lake captain has owed the safety of his vessel and her crew in times of storm.

For one who desires to enlarge his knowledge of the wonders of our Great Lakes I recommend a leisurely visit to “The Bruce.” A thoughtful provincial government has made it readily accessible by the building of a system of good motor highways which lead to it and cover the important scenic parts of its area. The motorist who is also an angler may add to the charm of his tour if he takes advantage of the unusual opportunities for game fishing that the shore and inland waters of “The Bruce” afford on a most generous scale.

Read More of Inland Seas Online


Learn more about our award-winning Inland Seas© journal and become an Inland Seas member