The Canadian Riviera

The Wreck of the Atlantic

For years, the protected waters of Long Point Bay have been used by ships seeking shelter from Lake Erie storms. But the lakebed off the tip of the point is littered with the wrecks of vessels that didn’t quite make it to safety.

One of Lake Erie’s most famous wrecks is the paddlewheel steamer Atlantic, which sank off the tip of Long Point in 1852, taking hundreds of Irish and Norwegian immigrants to their graves. No one knows the exact number of people who were aboard the Atlantic since, as was common practice back in the day, her owners didn’t bother with details like manifests, adequate lifeboats or other safety essentials. However, historical accounts agree the ship was seriously overloaded, with no room below and at least 250 passengers crammed shoulder-to-shoulder on the main deck as it sailed from Buffalo to Detroit.

At some point on the night of August 19, after stopping to pick up still more passengers in Erie, the ship was passing through dense fog when it collided with the eastbound steamer Ogdensburg, a propeller-driven package freighter which T-boned the Atlantic, slicing deeply into its hull on the port side just ahead of the engine room. It sounds unbelievable today, but after determining that his own vessel was only minimally damaged, the captain of the Ogdensburg simply reversed out of the crumpled Atlantic and sailed on. It was nearly an hour before anyone onboard considered that the Atlantic might be in trouble.

No one knows the exact chain of events that followed, but the Ogdensburg did turn around and return to the collision site, arriving just in time to watch the Atlantic slip beneath the surface. Although the crew of the Ogdensburg was able to rescue several dozen survivors from the water, the majority of those onboard the Atlantic went with it to the bottom of Lake Erie.

Today, the Atlantic sits upright on the lakebed off the tip of Long Point, undamaged save for the deep slice in its hull. Considered a gravesite, it is protected from souvenir hunters by the Ontario Provincial Police, who monitor the vessel with a sophisticated electronic surveillance system.

The Old Cut

A severe storm in the late 19th century washed away a narrow portion of Long Point’s thin sand spit right at the base of the peninsula, effectively turning it into an island. The resulting opening, now known as The Old Cut, was originally large enough to be navigated by ships. In due course, a lighthouse was built on the lakeside of the channel to mark its entrance.

Unfortunately, the lighthouse and its promise of safe passage to protected waters in the bay was quickly recognized by local shipwreckers. In stormy weather, dozens of these individuals — known locally as Blackbirds — would erect temporary, fake lighthouses all along the southern shoreline of Long Point in the hopes of luring ships onto sandbars, where they would be wrecked and promptly looted.

The Old Cut has since silted in and closed up on the lakeside of Long Point, but local boaters continue to use the northern portion of this one-time channel to access the bay from their summer cottages.

Resources

The Canadian Riviera

by Craig Ritchie
01-Oct-2019
Dominating the north shore of Lake Erie, Ontario’s Norfolk County and its magnificent white sand beaches have long been a boater’s paradise, with protected waters, delightful ports to discover and Canada’s biggest boating party always top of mind.
As a Canadian, I’m always amused when I travel abroad and face the inevitable stereotypes that arise the moment after someone asks me where I’m from. All around the world, people seem to embrace a romantic image of Canada that’s built upon Mounties, igloos, maple syrup and totem poles — a living, breathing snow globe where a hockey game could break out at any moment. And while those things are very much a part of our national fabric, there’s a lot more to Canada than just the Great White North. Indeed, one of our better-kept secrets is the fact we also have a Great White South, which we affectionately refer to as the Canadian Riviera.

That little piece of paradise is better known as Norfolk County, the delightful, welcoming region that lies on the north shore of Lake Erie nestled behind the protection of Long Point, and includes the lakeside towns of Port Dover, Turkey Point, St. Williams and Port Rowan. It’s aptly named because the fact is that our Canadian Riviera actually sits farther south than the French one. It sounds unbelievable, but at 42 degrees north latitude, the town of Turkey Point, Ontario, is about 70 miles closer to the equator than the Cote D’azur. So forget about working on that St. Tropez tan; if you want to look good next summer, toast your buns on the beaches right here in Norfolk County.

With a year-round population of just 65,000 people, Norfolk County is much like the French Riviera — stunning beaches along the coast, fronting rich farmland as you head inland. As befitting any summer playground, this area is all about sun, sand and good times, with plenty of fine restaurants, excellent wineries, a full slate of events and festivals, and all sorts of other things to see and do. By far, the best way to experience it all is by boat.

Life’s a beach

The luxurious sand beaches along Norfolk County’s Lake Erie shorelines reflect a gradually-sloping, sandy lakebed with few hard obstructions to concern visiting boaters. Getting there is easy — head for Long Point and you’re halfway there.

Located nearly directly across the lake from Erie, Pennsylvania, Long Point started off as a shoreline sand dune that got completely out of hand, extending further and further into the lake as centuries of currents piled centuries of sand along its shoreline. Today, Long Point extends roughly 25 miles east-southeast from shore, creating a large protected bay behind it that is immune to the majority of Lake Erie storms. 

Turning into the protected shelter of Long Point Bay from the open waters of Lake Erie, you’ll want to give the tip of the point a wide berth in order to avoid the shallow sandbar that continues for some distance underwater. The beach just inside the tip is a popular sunbathing and rafting-up spot for boaters, best approached from a due-northerly course. If you choose to navigate west along the point’s marshy shore in search of birds and wildlife, you’ll want to keep an eye out for Bluff Bar — a well-known sandbar that begins near the tip of the point and hooks back in a northwesterly direction for several miles. It’s well-marked by numerous green cans that are visible for a considerable distance. 

Long Point Bay is locally referred to as either the Outer Bay or the Inner Bay, and roughly divided by the First Sandbar, a shallow, sandy ridge that runs between Turkey Point in the north and Pottahawk Point to the south. The North Channel, well-marked by numerous buoy pairs, is wide, deep and easy to locate, allowing safe passage for boaters headed into the Inner Bay. There is also a South Channel, which is shallower, narrower and unmarked; leave that route for the locals. 

Charms of the Outer Bay

Port Dover is the first village boaters will pass as they enter Long Point Bay from Lake Erie proper. Located on the north shore at the mouth of the Lynn River, Port Dover is a  thriving community of a little over 7,500 people who enjoy its charming atmosphere, lovely beach and tremendous water views. 

Port Dover is definitely a top-stop for foodies, particularly seafood lovers in search of pan-fried Lake Erie perch. Numerous restaurants line Main Street and the base of the west pier adjacent to the beach, with The Beach House or the rooftop patio at the Erie Beach Hotel being local favorites. After lunch, stop by The Dover Cheese Shop to load up on some fantastic fromage made by local artisans. The Port Dover Harbour Museum offers an insightful look at local shipwrecks and the Lake Erie commercial fishing industry, with displays of fishing boats, various artifacts and a kid’s area to keep the little ones amused.

If you’re looking to get off the boat for a bit and stretch those legs, you’ll find the Waterfront Trail runs right through Port Dover, offering a chance to explore further afield. Rent a bicycle or join an organized tour with Red Apple Rides, which offers a full range of scenic, historic and culinary tours. They also offer a walking tour of Port Dover itself and can put together custom itineraries to suit any interest.

Visit Port Dover on a Friday the 13th and you’ll be joined by thousands of motorcyclists from all over the northeast. Friday the 13th is a tradition that began with a single motorcycle rally in 1981 and has since grown to attract upwards of 200,000 people when it falls in the summer. Described as the single largest motorcycle event in the world, Friday the 13th is a family celebration for motorcycles of all types. While the show-and-shine that takes over Main Street is the star attraction, the festive atmosphere and wide variety of pop-up sidewalk attractions make it a fun and endearing event for all.

Perhaps the best part of visiting Port Dover is that it’s all so easy. Outstanding marina facilities are located just east of the river mouth, where the 458-slip Port Dover Harbour Marina welcomes transient boaters from all over the Great Lakes. From there, it’s an easy walk, bike ride or short taxi trip into the thick of the action. The Port Dover Yacht Club, just up the river beyond the road bridge, also welcomes transient visitors with reciprocal privileges for members of recognized yacht clubs.

Continuing farther west into Long Point Bay, the next major feature boaters will come to is the hamlet of Turkey Point. This is a great spot to log some beach time, with the magnificent, tree-lined beach being one of the area’s top attractions. MacDonald Turkey Point Marina, located just west of the beach, offers 750 slips catering to local and transient boaters, with full facilities. The Jetty Bar & Grill, located at the end of the pier, or the Sandbar on the Beach restaurant with its lakeside patio, are perfect stops for refueling and refreshing with a view.

Nearby Turkey Point Provincial Park is unique in Ontario in that it’s the only provincial park with an on-site golf course. A pretty, nine-hole course with dual tees to allow 18-hole rounds, Turkey Point is a fun place to play because of the abundant wildlife that constantly distracts players from making that perfect drive or putt. Turtles, playful red foxes and, of course, wild turkeys are often observed crossing fairways and occasionally stealing golf balls.

If you like a glass of wine now and then, you’ll find Turkey Point is an ideal jumping-off point for exploring Ontario’s South Coast Wine Trail. Although not really walkable from the marina, Burning Kiln Winery, Inasphere Wines and Blueberry Hill Estates are all located within relatively easy cycling distance on nearby Front Road. If you’d be happier with a guide, Ride The Bine Tours offers a variety of guided visits to local wineries, craft breweries and more, with custom tours available. Some of the wineries now offer summer concerts in the vineyards with top-notch acts; check the wineries for specific dates and detailed information. 

Visit in mid-July and Turkey Point becomes a hub of activity as boaters use it as the base for Canada’s largest boating party, held on the shores of nearby Pottahawk Island. Officially named the Pottahawk Pissup, this annual event typically attracts in excess of 2,000 boats and more than 10,000 people, all rafted together in the shallows surrounding the island. Pottahawk is all about enjoying the summer sun with music, good food and cold beer. Boaters are generally well-behaved, and a significant police presence ensures everyone has a good time without getting silly. 

Best of the Inner Bay

Once you pass west of Turkey Point and enter the Inner Bay, the first community you’ll come to is the tiny settlement of St. Williams, with just 400 residents — many of them direct descendants of the commercial fishing families who first settled this area in the 18th century. No less than four marinas — Fin and Feather, Booth’s Harbour, Inner Bay Marina and Shady Aker’s — serve the village, where you’ll also find a small beach and pier for docking small boats.

A short distance farther west is the enchanting village of Port Rowan, with a population of less than 2,000 people. A short walk from its excellent marina brings boaters to a delightful downtown with shops, restaurants and the first-rate Twins Ice Cream Parlour, where you’ll find tasty ice cream, homemade waffle cones and a white, upright piano. In season, Port Rowan is also home to a terrific farmers market featuring locally grown produce and artisan cheese, making it a great place to provision.  

If you should happen to visit on the first weekend in September, you’ll be right in time to enjoy Bayfest, an annual Labor Day weekend festival that has run for more than 30 years. Attractions include a midway, homemade boat races, food vendors, parades, fireworks and more. Originally known as Tomato Fest in honor of the local farm crop, the event changed its name to Bayfest in 2001 to be more inclusive and better reflect the town’s extensive maritime heritage.

Regardless of when you visit, you’ll soon find that Norfolk County is a festive place at any time of year. Visitors and locals alike can enjoy a wide range of annual festivals and special events, including the South Coast Jazz Festival, Canada Day celebrations, Beerstock (celebrating craft beers), Summerfest, the Norfolk Studio Tour, and the Norfolk County Fair and Horse Show. The Norfolk County Tourism office maintains a full list of upcoming celebrations on its website (norfolktourism.ca/events).

Apart from playing host to visiting boaters, Port Rowan is also a top destination for serious bird watchers, who flock to the area every year. Port Rowan marks the eastern edge of the Long Point Biosphere Reserve, designated as a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO and as a globally significant birding area by Bird Life International. The surrounding shorelines, marshes and woodlots are home to no less than 400 species of birds, 102 species of fish, 46 species of mammals, 34 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 91 species of butterflies. Pass through on their annual migrations, including an estimated 30,000 Tundra swans. Visit here in spring or fall and you’ll definitely want to keep those binoculars close at hand.

Other nearby locations to view birds and wildlife include the Big Creek National Wildlife Area, located at the base of Long Point at the mouth of Big Creek, and Long Point Provincial Park on the point itself. The park makes a great home base from which you can explore the Long Point Birding Trail, with more than 40 public access sites. It’s also a good home base if you wish to pay a visit to the Long Point Bird Observatory. Founded in 1960, it remains among the leading bird research centers in North America. A number of marinas sit just outside the park entrance, including Marina Shores, Old Cut Marina and Sandboy Marina, putting the entire area within easy cycling distance.

Forget the French Riviera, my friends, the Canadian Riviera is where it’s at. Though it may fly in the face of all those old stereotypes that paint Canada as a land of muskox and igloos, Norfolk County’s first-class marine facilities, protected waters, fine sand beaches and small village charms make this one Port of Call you’ll want to put straight at the top of your bucket list. 

You might even get to see a hockey game.  


South Shore JUN17
South Shore JUN17