Place of Rolling White Sands

A Trip to Christian Island

No visit to Penetanguishene would be complete without a side trip to Christian Island.

The 13,000-acre island belongs to the Beausoleil First Nation and takes its name from the Huron Catholics and Jesuits who took refuge there during the Huron-Iroquois wars. While relocating to the island protected these people from slaughter at the hands of the invading Iroquois, all but a handful starved to death during the harsh winter of 1649.

With its beautiful beaches and Caribbean-blue waters, the island today is a popular day-trip destination for boaters and scuba divers, given the number of easily accessible shipwrecks in the area. You can venture off the island for free, but the Beausoleil First Nation charges a modest access fee if you want to go ashore. On the island you’ll find gas (bring a Jerry can), coffee shop, ice, and a convenience store that sells pizza and offers a nice selection of groceries. There are day-use, short-term docks located near the ferry docks in 14 feet of water and numerous places to pull a dinghy up on shore. — C.R.

Resources

Place of Rolling White Sands

by Craig Ritchie
01-May-2015
With first-class marine facilities and close proximity to Georgian Bay, the 30,000 Islands, Trent-Severn Waterway and so much more, it’s little wonder that Penetanguishene remains a popular destination for Great Lakes boaters.
Owning a boat on the Great Lakes is a bit like owning a time machine. Because so much of our region was originally settled from the water, approaching a new community by boat lets you see it as its first inhabitants might have, and that’s especially true when you travel to more sparsely-populated parts of the Great Lakes, like Georgian Bay.

Still dependent on water for travel and trade right up through the mid-20th century, much of Georgian Bay’s coastline remains as wild and untamed today as it did when the Hurons first settled here more than 2,000 years ago. Many of the modern communities dotting the shoreline began as Native settlements; others were French trading posts, while others still claim British roots. And then there’s Penetanguishene, a tiny hamlet nestled in the southeast corner of Georgian Bay that owes its rich and colorful history to all three of its founding cultures.

Located at the head of Penetang Bay, a protected finger of water just off Georgian Bay at the entrance to Severn Sound, Penetanguishene (pronounced “penna-TANG-wisheen”) is home to a permanent population of about 9,500 people — a figure that nearly doubles each summer as visitors from Toronto, Hamilton and other cities in southern Ontario arrive to enjoy upscale summer homes throughout the area.

Getting settled

Settlements of one sort or another have existed at present-day Penetanguishene for more than 1,000 years. First described by the Hurons around 800 AD, the fertile land at the head of Penetang Bay gets its name Penetanguishene from the Wyandot language, which loosely translates to mean “place of rolling white sands.” While that name might evoke thoughts of towering dunes, it more accurately reflects the fact that Penetang Bay isn’t completely ringed with solid granite — like so much of the shoreline just immediately to the north, where the Canadian Shield comes to the surface. The sandy soil at least made agriculture possible, and made Penetanguishene an attractive place to live.

The young French translator Étienne Brûlé was the first European to set foot in this area when he arrived in 1614, joined by explorer Samuel de Champlain the following year. French settlers established a fur trading post, then a permanent village shortly thereafter. Following their victory over the French in the Seven Years’ War, the British seized control of Penetanguishene in 1763. The town’s French and British influences remain very much in evidence today, with a largely bilingual population and local road signs in both English and French.

In 1793, the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, established a large naval base at Penetanguishene, which operated until 1834. While the warships are gone today, the local waters and shorelines still appear much as they would have during the War of 1812, contributing to that time-travel feeling.

Center of everything

One reason Penetanguishene is such a favorite with both local and visiting boaters is because of its proximity to, well, just about everything. Situated at the mouth of Severn Sound where it connects to the open waters of Georgian Bay proper, Penetanguishene provides boaters with easy access to both the big open bay and the sheltered waters of Severn Sound. It’s just a short hop to the southern end of the 30,000 Islands, and only a few miles from the northern entrance to the Trent-Severn Waterway, a 280-mile system of lakes, rivers and locks that takes boaters all the way to Lake Ontario. The nearby communities of Midland, Port Severn and Honey Harbour are easy day trips, making Penetanguishene the perfect home base for exploring this beautiful area.

In spite of Georgian Bay’s reputation for rocks, the approach into Penetanguishene is comparatively clear and easy. Most boaters entering Severn Sound from the big bay will skirt around either side of Giant’s Tomb Island, then follow the shoreline to starboard into Pentang Bay. You’ll see the town at the southern end of the bay (look for the prominent twin steeples of St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church), as well as several marinas located on either side of town.

The first set of docks you’ll come to on the eastern shoreline, tucked behind Magazine Island, belong to the former British naval base and are operated today as a living history museum known as Discovery Harbour. The complex is pretty hard to miss, with its replica 1812 warships HMS Bee and HMS Tecumseth tied up at the dock. Don’t be alarmed if you hear cannon fire or notice colorfully-painted Indian canoes full of warriors sneaking in to attack, since re-enactments of historical battles are a big part of Discovery Harbour’s experience. The large, red building on the shore is King’s Wharf Theatre, a delightful, 385-seat venue that presents everything from historical presentations to Broadway musicals throughout the year. If you want to pop in for a visit, continue past Magazine Island (so named because that’s where the ammunition was stored), then approach through the deeper south channel and tie up at the T-shaped visitor’s dock.

Catering to boaters

It’s hard to miss the large, modern marinas as you make your way along Penetang Bay towards town. Facilities for visiting boaters are outstanding, with no less than seven major marinas operating more than 1,600 slips in all.

A marina at the foot of the harbor in a park-like setting is Beacon Bay Marina. With its professional and experienced staff, this full-service marina caters to the ultimate boating lifestyle. Explore countless destinations from the docks of this family-oriented facility, and your crew will want to return year after year.

If it’s your first time in the area, start your visit at the Historic Port of Penetanguishene — the first docks to the east of the town and its towering church spires. Also known as the town dock, the Historic Port is easy to spot from the water. If Georgian Queen isn’t moored along the dock face, look for the big sign and the Penetanguishene Tourist Information Office, with its bright blue roof.

The Tourist Office, open seven days a week from May until October, has plenty of on-site dockage, including a day-use shopper’s dock that’s popular with boaters running into town to reprovision. Main Street starts right at the dock and offers most of the essentials within easy walking distance. A short stroll to the south brings you to ATMs, liquor store, deli, butcher shop, pharmacies, hardware stores, restaurants, coin laundry, and a couple of grocery stores. If you want to save a few steps, come to the town dock on Saturday mornings, when you can load up on fresh meat and produce at a weekly farmer’s market.

If you walk north from the town dock on Beck Street, you’ll find the Penetanguishene Centennial Museum one block away. Built in 1875 by Charles Beck, the building began as a general store and office for Beck’s lumber business, but was repurposed as Penetanguishene’s town museum in 1967 as part of Canada’s Centennial celebrations. It houses a number of pioneer artifacts from the period and offers an interesting glimpse into 19th century life on the Great Lakes.

If you’re looking to stretch your legs after a long boat ride, the town dock also is where you can pick up a paved waterfront trail that offers scenic views, whether you walk, jog or cycle. You can follow it for miles, so be sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen.

Back in time

In the spirit of nautical adventure — and as a nod to its not-so-distant past — many of Penetanguishene’s most treasured attractions are accessed by water rather than roads.

Georgian Bay Islands National Park, for example, has no roads at all; the only way to enjoy its spectacular vistas and unspoiled beauty is by boat. Located in the 30,000 Islands straight out of Penetang Bay, Georgian Bay Islands National Park is a Group of Seven painting come to life, with sheer granite outcrops, weathered pines, loons and low-lying islands that are absolutely unique on earth. The billon-year-old rocks — part of the Earth’s original crust — were once Himalayan-sized mountains that have been scoured smooth by time and the glacial grinding of multiple ice ages. Part of the United Nations’ Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve, the 30,000 Islands form the largest archipelago of freshwater islands in the world. Their calm, peaceful waters and breathtaking scenery offer some of the best cruising anywhere.

While the largest island, Beausoleil, offers tent camping, overnight and day docking, geocaching, hiking, and biking trails, plus a range of interpretive activities, most boaters visiting the park prefer to simply find a quiet cove, drop the hook, and enjoy having a piece of the world all to themselves. With more anchorages than one could visit in a lifetime, this is one place where you need your GPS and paper charts as a back-up, since there actually are more than 30,000 islands, and a lot of them look very, very similar.

Where Georgian Bay Islands National Park provides the opportunity to escape the world and find your own private paradise, Awenda Provincial Park, located on the mainland just north of Penetanguishene, is where you go to get off the boat and enjoy a picnic on one of its excellent sand beaches. Hikers enjoy the opportunity to escape on miles of pristine trails, while bird watchers flock to the area since at least 120 different species call the park home. Besides birds, the park also is home to several dozen species of reptiles and amphibians, many found in few other places in Ontario.

Never a dull moment

To the south of Penetang Bay in the nearby community of Midland, Sainte-Marie among the Hurons is another popular day trip from Penetanguishene. Ontario’s first European Community, Sainte-Marie among the Hurons was the headquarters for the French Jesuit Mission to the Huron Wendat people. In 1639, the Jesuits, along with French workers, began construction of a fenced community here that included barracks, a church, workshops and residences. By 1648, Sainte-Marie was a wilderness home to 66 French men, representing one-fifth of the entire population of New France. Sainte-Marie’s brief history ended in 1649, when members of the community were forced to abandon their home of nearly 10 years. Following years of extensive archaeological and historical research, Sainte-Marie among the Hurons has been recreated on its original site, and its compelling story brought to life.

Also in Midland, the Huronia Museum offers a unique opportunity to visit a replica “pre-contact” Huron village, complete with lookout tower, wigwam and a full-size longhouse. The museum also features an exhibit gallery displaying thousands of historic artifacts.

Nearby, Wye Marsh provides habitat for a wide variety of birds, wildlife and waterfowl, including trumpeter swans, black terns and least bitterns. A side trip to the Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre is an interesting way to spend an afternoon and provides an opportunity to observe a number of different species from its extensive boardwalk system.

If time allows, additional day trips to nearby Port Severn or Honey Harbour bring even further opportunities to explore. Grab a mask and snorkel to check out local shipwrecks, or fish out the rod and reel for an afternoon of fun catching bass, walleye, pike and muskie. Finding something to do is never the problem here — the big challenge is simply deciding what to do first.

No matter what your interest, chances are it’s only a short ride from the comforts and amenities of Penetanguishene. With its first-class facilities and so much to see and do, it’s little wonder that this charming destination has long held such a magnetic attraction for Great Lakes boaters.

Navigation charts
Penetanguishene and the surrounding areas are represented on the following Canadian navigation charts. The Nautical Mind, a marine book store in Toronto (www.nauticalmind.com), will ship charts anywhere:
2241: Port Severn to Christian Island
2202: Port Severn to Parry Sound; Sheet 1, Port Severn to Tomahawk Island
2218: Penetang Harbour

Local Resources
Town of Penetanguishene
penetanguishene.ca

Discovery Harbour
discoveryharbour.on.ca

Penetanguishene Centennial Museum
pencenmuseum.com

Georgian Bay Islands National Park
pc.gc.ca

St. Marie among The Hurons
saintemarieamongthehurons.on.ca

Huronia Museum
huroniamuseum.com

Wye Marsh
wyemarsh.com

Blondin Boat Repairs
705-533-2310

Paul Gauguin Cruises
South Shore JUN17