It’s 9.30 p.m. on tiny Beausoleil Island in Ontario and I’m sipping some pinot at a picnic table on a deserted, forest-fringed beach. A cloud-brushed tangerine sunset is unfolding ahead, my heartbeat has slowed to hibernation levels and the only sounds are gently lapping surf and the whir of helicopter-sized dragonflies buzzing the soft, dusk-lit sand.
I’ve always been a city slicker but the appeal of overnighting in Canada’s great outdoors suddenly seems obvious.
Of 214 Parks Canada properties across the country – from swathes of northern wilderness to wildlife-packed mountain regions and from remote islands to historic sites where pioneers first slept – most are open to intrepid types with a penchant for tent-pitching and an ability to start campfires with a handful of twigs.
But delicate urbanites like me, more used to hotel sleepovers than sleeping under the stars, aren’t left out in the cold. From heated yurts to solar-powered cabins, our national parks have made a play for city sophisticates in recent years. And although I was apprehensive about unplugging from the digital world for a couple of nights, social media soon became a distant memory – and “tweeting” returned to its original avian meaning – within minutes of my arrival.
One of 63 outcrops and shoreline stretches in Georgian Bay Islands National Park – located in Lake Huron, North America’s largest freshwater archipelago – 13km-long Beausoleil Island is only accessible by boat. Collecting day visitors and overnighters via its regular short-hop service from Honey Harbour, Parks Canada has long offered campsites here. But two years ago, they added eight cedar-built cabins in two woodland waterfront areas.
Opting for a cozy, two-person Christian Beach unit, I spent my first evening outside among the trees cheffing up a juicy burger and a veggie-packed pasta feast on the provided propane barbecue – there’s a handy grocery store near the Honey Harbour dock and the cabins are furnished and well-stocked with utensils and pots and pans.
After a second glass of wine (there’s also a liquor store in Honey Harbour), I sank into a deep sleep, the forest silence disturbed only by a brief, middle-of-the-night rainfall that drummed hotly on the roof. By the morning, though, I was hungry to head out and explore. I hadn’t been on a bike for five years, but I’d rented one from Parks Canada ($25 per day) and was about to try my lazy city legs on the island’s well-marked trails.
Helmet locked in place, I teetered gingerly into the forest, quickly gathering speed as my lilywhite legs remembered what to do. Dense pine and hemlock trees stretched overhead as beady-eyed birds stopped singing, sensing a loose canon lurching towards them. Zipping along, the lake occasionally glittering at me through the foliage, I strained up several slopes, with the wind-rushing pay-off of coasting down the other side.
I fell off twice, in a spongy, sandy area that I should have walked though and which gripped my wheels like treacle. But the landings were soft and I was soon back in the saddle. And although concentrating on potential hazards like gnarly roots and slippery rocks, I spotted some eye-popping Technicolor fungus, growing on trees like the spiny plates of dinosaurs.
Ready for a break, I emerged panting onto a small, gently curved beach, peeling unsteadily off the bike. The boatman who’d brought me over had told me all about the island’s abundant flora and fauna. But while I hadn’t spotted any wild orchids – pink lady slipper is the one to look out for – I also hadn’t seen any wandering critters.
Deer, turtles and raccoons – plus Ontario’s only lizard – call Beausoleil home and there are also rare rattlesnakes that spend their time quietly avoiding humans. In addition, black bears sometimes swim between the islands and snuffle around for food. Last year, a moose did the same, surprising some with its aquatic abilities before disappearing almost as soon as it had arrived.
There was nothing as dramatic on the beach this morning, except a short strip of shed snakeskin and a neat trail of dainty hoof prints that could have been deer.
But while I perched on a striped granite rock drinking in the panorama of surrounding islands, a huge osprey suddenly swooped into view, briefly eclipsing the sun as it headed towards its nearby nest. Fumbling forlornly for my camera, I almost missed a great blue heron arrowing in the opposite direction. Then two orange-beaked Caspian terns zipped by, eyeing the water for dive-bombing opportunities.
Back on the bike after this impressive feathered fly-past, I weaved to the Cedar Spring cabin area. Busier than Christian Beach – it has mooring sites for those with their own boats – there’s a Parks Canada visitor centre here. The friendly staffers told me about their artist in the park program where painters, sculptures or photographers stay on the island to showcase their work and take inspiration from the landscape.
The centre also runs free interpretive walks. And since I’d cycled enough, I was ready to stretch my legs without working up another sweat. Minutes later, I ambled uphill through the sun-dappled trees with my guide, Shawn, who explained that the island had just received a National Historic Site designation. Aside from its natural charms, Beausoleil has a long First Nations past.
I learned there were Aboriginal inhabitants here up to 7,000 years ago but after the Europeans arrived it became a reservation. Three communities were moved here from their traditional mainland homes in the 1830s but their attempts at farming largely failed, due to the sandy soil. By the 1850s, most had moved to another island but those who died here were buried in a small cemetery.
Half-hidden in the trees near the top of the hill, it’s still here. I took my time perusing dozens of white-painted little crosses, including the one for Chief John Assance who led the 19th-century inhabitants. It had a little pouch of tobacco strung around it.
Back at the cabin for my final wilderness sleepover, I enjoyed another mesmerizing sunset with thick bands of cloud creating tiger-like stripes across the glowing night sky. I’d hardly thought about the outside world all day, but the idea of facing hundreds of unread e-mails on my return was starting to creep over me like a cold dread.
For now, though, the island had one last treat: walking back from the beach, I heard a strange noise in the forest, like the sound of glass beads rolling together. Looking up, I spotted a large, silver-eyed porcupine rapidly scaling a tree, its quills rustling on its back as it scampered upwards. The wildlife highlight of my trip, it was a final reminder that I need to get out more. Far out.
If you go (100 words):
For Beausoleil Island visitor and accommodation information, see www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/on/georg/visit.aspx. Cabins cost $140 to $160 per night, two-night minimum required. To reach Honey Harbour’s boat dock from Toronto International Airport, hire a car or book the handy Simcoe County Airport Shuttle ($99 each way, www.simcoecountyairportservice.ca).
Aside from traditional tent sites, Parks Canada and its partners offer additional accommodation options at 16 locations across the country. These include cottages in Prince Edward Island National Park; heated yurts in Bruce Peninsula National Park; century-old lodges in La Mauricie National Park; and a B&B at Fort St. James National Historic Site. Further information: www.pc.gc.ca/eng/voyage-travel/hebergement-accommodation/list.aspx