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Family Travel Ink
The Lake Huron Shore is Ideal for Families
The eastern shore of Lake Huron, the part that hugs Ontario with its fine white sand and almost turquoise waters, has been called many things-Ontario's West Coast, the Huron Fringe, even Ontario's Riviera (though the stars here are 8 million miles up). But bring an eight-year-old to this Great Lake for the first time. He'll look at it with awe and call it something else. "Coooool," he'll say. "The Ocean."
And why shouldn't he? Other summer lakes may be misty, green with weeds and reverberating with powerboats and Skidoos. But here, fog can roll across in massive shrouds, the waves hike up to high decibel crescendos and the skyline fills with swoops of seagulls, cormorants and ospreys. Even Samuel de Champlain, who discovered the lake in 1616, wrote that the land was "shaped like Brittany and similarly situated, being almost surrounded by la Mer Douce."
Since our kids were babes, we've been stuffing them and assorted animals into the van and driving three hours west to play along this coast. We've hunted for fossils on the beach in Kincardine, caught assorted snakes, turtles and minnows along the beach, climbed the waterfalls at Sauble Falls Provincial Park and chugged out into the Goderich harbor on a real tugboat. Mostly, though, we've waited for that perfect day of sun and sand when we can swim in the clean water, no lake intruders biting at our fingers. At beach towns like Southampton or Sauble Beach, the kids wade far out and they're still only waist high. The water is so clear they can see their toes wiggling below in the sand. When they tire of swimming or jumping off the tall rocks along the shore, they float sticks down a small river they've damned, swing on a lakeside swing or play army in the dunes, diving headfirst into the soft, white powder. An added bonus- strong breezes seem to clear out the mosquitos. Summer as it should be.
The other reason to holiday along Lake Huron is that as most Toronto cars head north to Muskoka or Haliburton, parts of this shore remains devoid of tourists. As one of our visitors pointed out as we sat on a rock overlooking the deep blue lake, "Wow! If this was in Europe, it would be crawling with tour buses."
Of course, it isn't all perfect-but what real family holiday is? Mud fights get out of control, one of the kids lets a garter snake loose in the visitor centre, another one gets lost in the dune grass without his compass. But in the evening, watching the famous Lake Huron sunsets, declared by National Geographic magazine to be the best in the world, and licking an ice cream cone from the General Store, all is well.
An additional excuse to come to Ontario's West Coast is that several excellent provincial parks are situated along the water. One of the best ways for families to learn about this shoreline (and there is more of it here than at any of the other four Great Lakes), is to sign up for one of their excellent educational programs. It used to be that once through the park gates, you were pretty much at one with nature. No longer. Over the past few years, park staff (in bright new uniforms this year) have worked hard at developing activities which get youngsters excited about their natural surroundings. In this day of televised stimulation, it also takes buttons, pencils stamped with animal tracks, certificates and collector cards.
At MacGregor Point Provincial Park, just south of Port Elgin, we signed up for a family swamp exploration. "Would we have to wade through the swamp?" I wondered. I just couldn't face removing leeches from smelly T-shirts. Not to worry. We walked along boardwalks that stretched over ponds and vegetation. At the Ash Swamp, the park interpreter armed everyone with sieves and bug nets. Soon, kids and adults were stomach down on the boardwalk dipping their nets into the water to catch specimens. Although the park is known for its spotted turtles, most of us turned up water striders, beetles and other smaller inhabitants.
At night, we attended a Ghost Walk. As we sauntered along the hiking paths in the dark, spirits with lanterns lighting up their faces appeared suddenly in the clearings in front of us to tell us stories of shipwrecks, sailors and the early pioneers. At one point, a "ghost" forgot her lines. She asked the audience if she could start over, ran off into the woods and reappeared. These were ghosts with obvious human foibles! Sign up for an edible plant hike, set the kids loose on the wrecked ship moored on the beach or catch critters for the Visitor Centre tanks. (Kids love the annual Creature Release ceremony at the end of each summer.)
Take a drive southward, past Kincardine with its lighthouse you can visit, through Goderich where you have to take the kids to see the Huron County Gaol with its balls and chains still imbedded in the cell floors, to Grand Bend, the quintessential summer town with mini-golf, Bikini Land shops and every fattening fast food under the sun. At the Pinery Provincial Park just south of town, get back to nature. Children aged six to 12 can explore the wetlands, learn about turtles or owls or discover the Pinery's "slippery sensations," such as the eastern hog nose snake. If they attend a program, rake the campsite, pick up 10 or more pieces of litter in the park and collect 10 bottle caps or any litter at the campsite they can become Junior Friends, winning a special certificate with their name on it. Parents raved about the program. "We'll be back," said one Michigan mom as she herded her excited 8-year-old son from the Visitor Centre. This year, families can also rent canoes or kayaks to glide down the Old Ausable Channel or rent bicycles to explore the 10 km of bicycyle trails. We hiked the oak savannah, a rare habitat unique in North America with its mix of vegetation, and saw a deer just in front of us on the trail. He stared at us for a full minute before leaping off. There are more than 700 deer in the park so your chances of seeing one is good.
Tromping through the rare oak savanna under a canopy of leaf and butterflies, it was hard to believe that the vast expanse of a Great Lake was but a few steps away. But, sure enough, cross the dunes strewn with bushes and dune grass, climb up the wooden steps, make your way over the high boardwalk to the viewing platform, and there it was-Lake Huron, looking very much like the Caribbean with fine white sand and watery stripes of turqoise and blue. No wonder the aboriginal peoples living in the area considered it a to be spiritual place. Your family may too.
GETTING THERE: The Lake Huron shore is about three hours drive west of Toronto. For the northern part of the shore, take Highway 410 north to Orangeville and then head west along Highway 9. To get to Grand Bend and the Pinery Provincial Park, take the 401 west to Kitchener and then head southwest through Stratford.
LOOK OUT FOR: Lake Huron is known for its sudden storms; the weather can change drastically along the shore in a matter of hours. Although most beach areas are shallow and safe, parts of the shore could be dangerous for swimming especially for kids. The soil along the shore is prime for poison ivy growth so ask a park official to point out the shiny "Leaves of three, let me be" to you and the kids before setting out on hikes. If you want to take the family pooch along, dogs are permitted on the trails and can even participate in interpretive programs as long as they are leashed. At MacGregor Point, there is a special Dog Beach where they are allowed to take a dip.
ACCOMMODATION: Campsites usually have to be reserved ahead; day use fees of $7.50 at MacGregor and $8 at the Pinery can be paid at the park gates. This year, both parks are introducing "Habitat" lodging, tent-like structures that accommodate six bunk beds, a table and chairs and all the dishes. When they arrive in August, the fee will be $40 per night.
MORE INFO: For Parks information, call 1-800-ONTARIO. MacGregor Point Provincial Park 519-389-9056; Pinery Provincial Park 519-243-2220. Or, visit the award-winning provincial park Web site at www.OntarioParks.com
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