tobermory - with half our body weight strapped on our backs, my companion and I set out for the cedar forests, cliffs and blackfly clouds of the 170-kilometre stretch of the Bruce Trail between Wiarton and Tobermory. The stubborn, mostly wild arm of land that separates Lake Huron from Georgian Bay gets its name from eccentric Scottish hermit Robert Bruce, who, according to legend, when he wasn't in and out of the Owen Sound jail spent his time working on the railway, lounging in caves and smoking forest leaves. When he was found dead at age 90, he was buried in his only suit, which he had apparently never worn before.
Today, the small population is a mixture of permanent locals and cottagers. But the Bruce Peninsula is a far cry from the faux wilderness resorts of Muskoka. Some of the farms in the interior are still being worked, and I've heard that many of the old-timers take advantage of the moist climate to supplement their incomes with backwoods pot plantations. Much of the sparse population gets its electricity from wind power.
DAY ONE: Hitchhiking from T.O., we're picked up on Highway 10 in Shelburne by Joan, who lives near Owen Sound. She gives us a history lesson on that town. Its status as a port for prairie grain gave it a culture that mixed genteel shipping barons with rough sailors and the Wild West. Owen Sound was the last city in Ontario to live under Prohibition, and apparently the partying hasn't slowed down much since the day it was lifted. During the dry years, bootlegging thrived, and wet Wiarton was the refuge for drinkers of all types.
That's where she drops us off. All around there are homages to the town's most famous resident (or residents, if you remember the scandal). There is something a little off-putting about the steely-eyed stone statue of Willie that looks over the town from near the harbour. I suggest leaving an offering for good weather at the feet of the meteorologically inclined rodent, but our food supply is limited.
DAY TWO: We've pitched tent about 12 kilometres north of Wiarton, overlooking Colpoy's Bay. Lying on a hard surface and waking up to freak out about forest noises (at one point raccoons attacked our food bag), we haven't had much sleep. Today's hike, about 25 kilometres up the coast across the territory of the Chippewa of Nawash, turns out to be one of the hardest. The landscape changes from fields to leafy forests to savannah-type open land to mossy cedar woods.
DAY THREE: Our mosquito bites multiplying and joints getting sore, we head into the third day of walking the peninsula. We stop for a few hours in the hamlet of Hope Bay to eat maple-flavoured cookies and drink sugary ice tea from the general store.
DAY FOUR: This trip is exposing my frightening addiction to coffee. We're running out of fresh water, and that means the mood-altering brew is a luxury we can't afford. After a day of getting soaked in the rain and walking on rocky trails, I'm more or less breaking down. The store in Barrow Bay has closed down, so we're short of everything. We camp at McKay's Harbour, a desolate rest stop filled with elaborate stone campfire circles (and signs saying that no campfires are allowed).
DAY FIVE: We arrive at Lion's Head in thick fog and head straight for Hellyer's Food Market. After a few days of quick-cooking rice, instant soup and trail mix, we're stumbling bug-eyed through the produce aisle, grabbing things left and right. Outside, everything but the flashing beam from the lighthouse seems lost in the cold fog.
Lion's Head is off the main highway, and it shows - just quiet streets lined with cottages and old brick houses. Chowing down on a veg burger at the Lion's Head Inn, the only pub in town, I feel a little out of place demographically. Everyone seems so much older.
At a nearby bookstore, we look through a book showing old photographs of the peninsula and ships that were wrecked on its shores. The beat-up wooden maritime-style houses in the pictures and the grim faces of loggers look far removed from today's reality. Almost all of the Bruce's forests were logged or destroyed in fires a century ago, so virtually no old-growth trees remain. After the last logs were floated out to barges in the lake, the companies packed up and moved north, taking many of the people who had settled here with them.
DAY SIX: As we hobble out of Lion's Head, we run into our first massassauga rattlesnakes. An encounter with the threatened species turns out to be an almost daily occurrence on the trail from this point on. Their warning sounds more like an electrical buzz than a baby's rattle. We make our camp on a rocky beach. The sunset is beautiful, the loons come out and the food I cook on the little stove tastes good. If only the bug spray I bought at the health food store worked.
DAY SEVEN: We walk 30 kilometres, mostly through the bush. Rounding Dyer's Bay, we head inland, dizzy with tiredness and the weight of the bags.
DAY EIGHT: I wake up with several hundred mosquitoes and assorted other stinging things trying to head my way through the door of the tent. My companion has stayed awake nearly all night worrying about black bears. Dehydrated, we walk as fast as possible through the inland swamps. I feel about ready to punch the day hikers who zip past us saying things like, "Now let's see you run with those packs! Har, har!"
DAY NINE: It feels good to be back amongst people (and food), but Tobermory is a bizarre place. It's like the set of some 80s comedy, with pastel-coloured motels, crowds of badly dressed tourists in Hawaiian shirts and plenty of evidence that the village will become a ghost town in September. There are houseboats. More than one store has "trading post" in its name (I wonder what sort of stuff they'd trade me?) and the wait staff at a pirate-themed restaurant wear bandanas. There are expensive yachts and scuba gear and Americans in droves. Minivans dominate all other forms of wheeled transport.
DAY TEN: We're having coffee and toast at Craggie's, the only place in town that doesn't seem like it was built by a casino impresario. A little shack by the wharf, it's already packed. Six good-ole boys from Michigan sit next to us stuffing down eggs and bacon. Our trip's been nine days, but it feels like a month in the wilderness.
We hitch south with (in this order) a South African sailor, an English dogsledding fanatic who thinks the trip would have been a lot more fun with a handful of Alaskan Malamutes, and a man who works in a Mississauga box factory. We're let out at Long Branch, half-asleep, to the smells of sewer gas and smog. It's never felt so good to be back in Toronto.