GREY COUNTY – It doesn’t seem possible.
I’ve walked maybe five minutes, past an old apple orchard, through a small meadow dotted with tiny white and purple wildflowers, and then into a hardwood forest of maple, birch, ash and beech trees filled with the soft, filtered light of an early autumn day.
Suddenly, my guide for the day stops.
“Look over there,” he says.
I look out and gaze in wonder. I know my car climbed a reasonably steep hill to get to the Old Baldy/Kimberley Lookout. And I know that the Bruce Trail snakes along the Niagara Escarpment, with plenty of great views along the way. But I wasn’t somehow wasn’t prepared for this; a view of the Beaver Valley rolling out at my feet like some kind of natural welcome mat. It’s officially only the first day of autumn, but I see patches of brilliant yellow and burnt orange and red leaves the colour of an RCMP tunic spread out on the hills that rise to the west. Perfectly weathered wooden barns rest among deep green fields. Above my head, a turkey vulture circles lazy patterns in the sky.
A short walk away, my local Bruce Trail guide for the morning, Jack Morgan, points out rocky “outliers,” tall sections of rock that have split off from the main formation and hang precariously over the valley below. A few brave souls appear to have clambered over crevasses to get onto the outlying formations, but I choose the safer route and snap away from a distance.
On our way back to the parking lot, Morgan and I clamber over exposed, gnarly roots of cedars he’s been told are up to 600 years old. We also snake through beautifully lit forests carpeted with Maidenhair ferns, wild strawberries and small plants with stems the colour of red wine that bear tiny white berries with black dots; a plant with the nickname of “doll’s eye.” I’ve never noticed them before but I love the colours and the evocative name.
It’s only a short walk to the overlook from the parking lot, but I’m entranced by the ingenuity and variety of nature on display all around me. Over the next couple days, I’ll also be surprised by the variety of the natural scene in Grey County; ridges that rise 500-plus metres into the sky, glittering waterfalls that tumble over ancient black and gold rock, pretty river valleys, endless apple orchards with crisp fruit waiting to be picked and the vast expanse of Georgian Bay.
Following my Old Baldy hike, I make my way nearby Eugenia Falls, one of ten major waterfalls in Grey County (which encompasses Owen Sound, The Blue Mountains and Thornbury, and a large number of communities to the south, including Markdale and Flesherton).
Eugenia Falls is a lovely patch of water that tumble into a wide gorge. It’s even more accessible than the Old Baldy viewpoint; maybe 50 or 100 metres from a parking lot in the little village of Eugenia.
Not far away is Walter’s Falls, where you’ll find an old mill and barn and a lovely Inn with a fine patio overlooking the valley. There’s a nice viewing platform that’s a 30-second walk from the Inn, so it’s a great spot for folks with mobility issues who still want to enjoy nature.
The most impressive falls of the bunch, at least among the ones I saw, was Inglis Falls, which also is easily viewed and doesn’t require a hike unless you want a prime view from a bit downstream, in which case you only have a short walk down a hill.
It’s a fairly high waterfall (18 metres), but what makes it distinct is how it flows down over a series of black rock “steps” that look like they were carved by hand. The water hits the rock and sprays up in a series of miniature falls, creating a lovely effect that I haven’t seen on other waterfalls in Ontario.
You can see the ruins of an old mill on the water (the Sydenham River) and there are pretty walking paths all around. It’s also an easy, 10-minute drive from downtown Owen Sound, which is undergoing a good deal of change and has some cool shops and restaurants.
This time of year is salmon spawning season, and the Sydenham is a prime spot for salmon. There are several excellent vantage points to see one of nature’s most compelling rituals. You can drive or bike or walk into Harrison Park from downtown Owen Sound and see a fish ladder that the salmon use to get past a small dam. You also can wander along the stream and soak up tranquil views along a boardwalk under a canopy of thick trees as you head toward Weaver’s Creek Falls. I’m told it’s a wonderful snowshoeing trip in winter, as well.
Further upstream I watch as the salmon swish their way through shallow waters in an attempt to get back to where they were hatched. Their fins slice through the water as their powerful tails propel them up ever forward, fighting the current every step of the way in a timeless march that will lead to their personal death, but to the life of their offspring. If you’ve never seen a salmon run like this in person, and I hadn’t, it’s a truly intoxicating, wondrous experience.
I finished my Grey County nature tour with a wonderful kayak trip on Georgian Bay with Jim Samis, an entertaining, expert kayaker and outdoorsman who works for Free Spirit Tours. Georgian Bay is massive and can generate huge waves, but on the day I visit it’s calm and cool, with hardly a breath of wind. The clouds hang low against the blue-grey water, giving the bay the feel of a Claude Monet painting of the coast of France.
Brilliant sun would be nice, but it’s 23 degrees and I welcome the cloud cover and gentle conditions as we paddle along, soaking up views of the Niagara Escarpment rising over the edge of the bay.
Samis tells me stories of shipwrecks (there’s one you can spot in the water but it’s several kilometres off shore) and talks about his former life as a social worker and his love for the water and for the Georgian Bay area in general. He also shows me some cool tricks about kayaking.
“There are a lot of cottage areas of Ontario that you really only visit for the summer. And they’re packed with people and boats. But this,” he says, gesturing to the open water all around us, “is what you get here. It’s also a four-seasons destination, with great skiing and winter sports and caves and so many other things to do.”