I happened to be in Wiarton twice the day before the start of the Canada Day long holiday weekend, on my trip to and from Owen Sound to run a bunch of errands. Both times the northbound traffic was as heavy as I’ve ever seen it, in 37 years of living on the Bruce Peninsula.
The big difference now compared with then was the multicultural nature of the tourist traffic. Cars and vans full of families of people who appeared to be of south-east Asian background were by far the most numerous by my unscientific reckoning and observation. They were lining up at the Gateway town’s only gas station, at the soft ice-cream windows next door, the Tim Hortons down the street, the new Foodland supermarket, and other stores and restaurants as many of the visitors took a much-needed pit-stop for their vehicles and themselves before continuing on to their destination.
By all accounts I’ve heard, and read, in the current edition of the Tobermory-based Bruce Peninsula Press, it was a “record-breaking” holiday weekend, with the understaffed Bruce Peninsula National Park’s main attractions unable to cope with the overflow demand. Hundreds of vehicles were turned away Saturday afternoon on the Cyprus Lake Road leading to the mainland park’s main campground. As a result there were numerous complaints from local residents about parked cars blocking their driveways and other problems on the road to Singing Sands beach and in the Cameron Lake area as the visitors looked for alternatives, and especially any place to park or pitch a tent.
This was not good for local seasonal and year-round residents, or the many visitors likely making their first trip to the area. Fewer people trying to crowd into the national park/Tobermory area would have been a good thing, but not as a result of a turn-off experience like that for everyone.
There were even calls for National Park officials to consider doing a “de-marketing” program to discourage, rather than encourage, tourists to make the mainland Bruce Peninsula and Fathom Five Marine national parks their destinations of choice.
In other words, the two national parks, created in 1985 amid high hopes they would put the Bruce Peninsula on the major tourist destination map, have become too successful in that regard – at least in the peak, summer holiday season. Trouble is, after stopping or slowing down for a while in Wiarton, too much of the new tourism traffic is going non-stop up Highway 6 to the tip of the peninsula 75 kilometres north. The two national parks and Tobermory are the destination, not the whole peninsula.
While they overflow like proverbial tourist traps, other places well worth seeing are noticeably less busy than they were, say, 10 to 20 years ago. I can remember summer days in the pretty little village of Lion’s Head, halfway up the peninsula on the Georgian Bay side, when hundreds of sightseeing people walked its streets, and visited its shops. Lots even found their way to Dreamers, my little art gallery, and before that my Family Deli.
Yes, my children, I was the “Sausage King” of Lion’s Head, as my old friend and former Wiarton Mayor, Barney McKillop, used to joke.
Anyway, the tourism situation on the Bruce Peninsula now cries out for a much better, more thoughtful, cooperative strategy to spread the good times around.
A new generation of multicultural visitors are clearly testing the local waters. They like the reassurance of knowing where they’re going. But in time they will want to branch out, turn here or there, and explore the area, including more of the Grey-Bruce area, as well as the whole peninsula itself.
It’s been 37 years since I first discovered the Bruce, and wondered and regretted that it had taken so long to find such a beautiful, natural place in urban, southern Ontario’s virtual back yard.
Back then, in the summer of 1979 I soon began to explore the peninsula and its many special places. St. Margaret’s Chapel on the Forty Hills Road north of Lion’s Head was one of my first “discoveries.” I haven’t been there for quite a while, but I assume the framed copy of a story I wrote years ago for The Owen Sound Sun Times is still on a wall by the back door. A little farther north in the Cape Chin area I found a secluded flowerpot formation just below the brow of the Niagara Escarpment. After making my way slowly down the old iron staircase, I pressed an ear against the cliff face and listened to spring-water running through the rock, saw it dropping like a string of pearls from a ledge just below the formation, misnamed the Devil’s Pulpit. It is indeed a spiritual place, but not in the negative sense the name suggests.
I also got to know and appreciate the peninsula’s friendly people and communities. I was reminded of them again a few days ago when I went to Wiarton with my elderly mother to help her sort out change-of-address needs a few days ago. The over-the-counter service she got that day at the post office and the Service Ontario office made me proud again to be part of the peninsula community.
Here’s my point: It’s not just about the national parks and, by association, Tobermory. It’s about the whole peninsula. Those new people visiting our area as tourists will keep coming back; they too will fall in love, but only if they have a good experience, only if they retain good memories of their visit, and get more help finding their way around.
Otherwise, they will cross the Bruce Peninsula off their destination list. And that will be their loss, as well as ours, because there is so much that’s wonderful about it, from one end to the other, to discover.
A version of this was originally published in The Sun Times in July, 2016