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Rock and a hard place (Posted On: Wednesday, August 08, 2007)

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Paddling in the shadow of Blue Mountain can leave a kayaker stuck between a rock and a hard place. I recently took a kayak tour of some of the Georgian Bay shoreline in the Blue Mountains area via two lesser-known conservation areas managed by the Grey-Sauble Conservation Authority.

Christie Beach is located almost exactly halfway between Meaford and Thornbury about two kilometres off Highway 26. The small park is operated primarily as a day-use area, with limited beachfront that’s very popular for swimming.

It’s not nearly so well known for paddling, although it offers convenient access to Georgian Bay. After paddling it, it was clear there are obvious reasons for canoeists and kayakers to remain tight-lipped.

Christie Beach may be one of the more challenging areas to paddle that you can encounter. It’s an alluring mix of beauty and danger.

The area is relatively shallow and quite protected, thanks to a profusion of rocks that are apparently the relics of docks and landings that are likely more than a century old. That makes the beach very attractive on windy days, when the interior sections remain quite calm.

The rocks also lend a striking ambience to a paddle trip. By snaking between and around the pilings, it’s easy to lend the illusion of a longer paddle to even the shortest excursion. It’s very reminiscent of paddling through the rocky coastline along the east or west coasts.

Those same rocks, coupled with the shallow water, are also quite hazardous. Water levels fluctuate rapidly along the beach; any kayaker will quickly grow used to the disconcerting sounds of a hull scraping over boulders submerged by mere centimetres of water. It’s close to impossible to avoid some of these rocks. Polarized sunglasses are a must, since they provide far better visibility into the water.

If that’s not enough to make a paddler nervous, every so often the kayak will run partway up on a large boulder. The usual result is a nerve-racking list to one side, prompting furious back paddling to try to pry the boat loose. With the water temperature holding around 50 Celsius, this is not for the faint of heart.

Another highlight of Christie Beach, though, is the wildlife. A small flock of mute swans has laid claim to the area. Other noteworthy birds include a tiny colony of graceful common terns. Despite the name, these birds resembling miniature gulls are far from common anymore. Their rasping calls are usually the first indication of their presence.

By exercising some patience, it’s sometimes possible to drift very close to both the terns and the swans in a kayak, affording intimate looks that cannot be matched on foot.

The ubiquitous herring gulls and ring-billed gulls are abundant, and take full-advantage of the rocky outcroppings to roost. One flat rock had encouraged a ring-billed gull to nest precariously.

The scenery is also noteworthy. To the west lies Meaford, a paddle of approximately an hour in good weather. Huge sand banks line the shoreline there. To the east are Thornbury and the Blue Mountains, another hour or so away.

East of Thornbury is Peasmarsh Beach, also owned by the GSCA. This secluded beach is well worth a look, as it attracts even less attention than Christie Beach.

A short walk of perhaps a hundred metres leads to the water’s edge. Like Christie Beach, the water is initially quite shallow. Unlike its counterpart, this quickly changes.

Paddling less than 200 metres to the east leads to water dropping off in the 10-metre range. Like many places on Georgian Bay, the impressive water clarity makes it simple to see the bottom even at that depth.

Paddle another few minutes, however, and the bottom drops out of sight. This water is better suited to sea kayaks with skirts, although my open recreational boat handled it without difficulty.

This route offers some of the most outstanding views of the Blue Mountains to be found anywhere. An additional treat is a waterfront peek at some of the estates hidden along the shore, including one owned by Mike Illitch, the Michigan sports and pizza mogul who operates the Detroit Red Wings.

Beckoning in the distance is Craigleith and the Nottawasaga Lighthouse, which is approximately two hours away by kayak.

Double-crested cormorants, common mergansers and mallards are common along the section of shoreline. More interesting was a Merlin that circled the shoreline, calling incessantly. The small falcons are generally a more northern bird, although they are slowly spreading in the south.

Peasmarsh also offers a nature trail through the bush, but the authority’s Chris Hachey cautions against casual use. The property manager refers to the area as one of the best growing spots for poison ivy to be found in Grey-Bruce.

Shawn Giilck

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