Exploring Manitoulin Island Back Roads and Trails

Story by Al Fletcher// Photos by Frank Watts
October 1 2009

Manitoulin Island is a large fresh water Island that is accessible from the Bruce Peninsula via the MS Chi-Cheemaun ferry from Tobermory, ON to the south, or Highway 6 from Espanola, ON from the north. I had heard about the great roads for motorcycling and the beautiful scenery, but more importantly, I had never been there. It was time to point the BMW GS Adventure north and explore!

I left Hamilton, ON, on a beautiful sunny day and headed first to Dundas, then Guelph and then Owen Sound to gather my friends for a weekend ride north. This initial portion of the ride was simply about getting the guys together, so it was more about almost obeying the speed limits and not concentrating so much on the scenery or the great detours we could have taken.

At about 10:30 a.m., our new bike gang–Frank, Paul and myself on our ’08 GSAs, Peter on his ’07 BMW GS and Fraser on his ’98 Kawasaki KLR–left Owen Sound heading for Tobermory. We headed north on Highway 6 to Wiarton, and then onto Regional Road 9 which took us through Lion’s Head on the Georgian Bay side of the Bruce Peninsula.

Traffic was essentially non-existent, clear blue skies and no clouds. I imagine come July, this place would get a lot busier. Just past Lions Head was the first sign these five enduro riders wanted to see, ‘Road Not Maintained in the Winter’. So a right turn it was, onto a beautiful rolling gravel road that wound along the eastern coast of the Bruce Peninsula. The road led us past a few cottages, but it seemed that not too many people were invading the summer dwellings yet.

We returned to Hwy. 6 heading north through Bruce Peninsula National Park where we hoped to see some wildlife, but other than a few hawks, we seemed to be the only ones out exploring. We did find a spot where a bear marked its territory in the middle of the road. Funny how when nature calls for humans, we head to the forest but for bears, it appears they prefer the middle of the road.

We arrived at Tobermory at about 12:30 p.m. and joined a small line waiting to be checked through to the holding area for the 1:30 p.m. ferry. There were about a dozen motorcycles awaiting the ferry and maybe 50 cars, trucks and RVs. Not many people travelling in early June. Seemed even amongst the Harley riders, there was curiosity about seeing three GS Adventures loaded for the weekend.

The best part of the ferry is that bikes are first on and first off. As a first time ferry rider, it was a cool experience driving up through the open mouth of the Chi-Cheemaun to the tie down area in the rear of the ship. We all came prepared with our own tie-down straps, but for riders that are not so equipped, heavy rope is available for securing the bikes. For a one-way trip with a motorcycle, the costs were $34.10 for the two-hour cruise to South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island.

I had an extra tie-down and I noticed the Dark Blue Pearl Harley-Davidson Ultra Glide (before riding the GSA, this was my dream bike) trying to tie down with ropes. Of course I offered up my extra strap so I could get closer to admire the bike. I still remain a closet Harley guy.

There was a reasonable selection of food choices in the Ferry’s cafeteria. After riding for about five-hours without any rest stops except to pick up the boys, we found the portions were of a good size for our appetites.

The breeze was cool on the decks of the ferry, and the views were beautiful with clear blue skies and a nice smooth cruise. Near the end of the cruise, the ferry parallels the south coast of Manitoulin Island showing off its rugged rocky shore and green treed landscape. Very little in the way of coastal cottages inhabit this area.

We came off the ferry in South Baymouth and continued north on Hwy. 6 (Hwy 6 stops in Tobermory and continues on Manitoulin) until we arrived at Tehkummah, at which point we turned west on 542A to Government Road. We followed Government Road westerly over rolling, sometimes gravel roads to Providence Bay where we turned south for our first photos of the bikes with Lake Huron in the background.

I took care of finding us a campground at the far west of the Island near Meldrum Bay. I began to wonder if I made the right choice after meeting a gentleman at the Providence Bay Marina. He asked where we were headed and we told him the lighthouse at Meldrum Bay. He looked at us oddly and said, “Why would you wanna go there? Been there once. Best part of Meldrum Bay was when I was leaving.” I got some funny looks from the guys with that, ‘what did you get us into this time’ look. I started to wonder as well, but this was supposed to be an adventure, and an adventure it would be, was my thinking.

We headed north on Highway 551 and then west on 542 to Spring Bay to fill up with gas. While Spring Bay is nowhere near the water, it was definitely a small town and exactly what we were hoping to find on this trip. The store was well-stocked and offered good beverage choices for that night at the camp. Interestingly, as we pulled out, in drove a pink Dodge Dart in great shape. Not our choice in rides, but certainly unique enough. We followed the 542 and then west on Union Road. The roads were almost vacant of any cars. The rolling roads were smooth and showed us some beautiful green scenery, views of lakes and lots of rock.

From Union Road we met up with 540 heading west into Meldrum Bay. Our destination was at the end of the road and the last town on the west portion of the island. There were Duke’s General Store, an Inn and a marina. There were a couple of campsites right along the water on Meldrum Bay within the North Channel. During the first weekend in June, there were hardly anyone inhabiting this area of the island. I can imagine that in July and August this little town is bustling with cottagers and the well-stocked Duke’s would be a local gathering spot.

We left Meldrum Bay and headed a short distance west where we turned south onto Mississagi Lighthouse Road. This was a great, twisty gravel road built right through the middle of a forest that took us eight kilometres south to Lake Huron and the Mississagi Lighthouse. The road provided access to our camp, but was also the route into a huge Lafarge quarry that loads directly onto the Lake-going ships.

We arrived at the lighthouse at about 6 p.m. and were welcomed by Mary Eadie. Mary is the caretaker of the lighthouse, museum, campground, and cook at the restaurant. For $20 each we had our choice of campsites. Surprisingly enough, the five of us were the only campers for this Friday night. The inch of soil over the rock made it impossible to properly set the tent pegs, but site ten offered some nice tree cover and easy access to the spectacular rocky shoreline. Mary kept the restaurant open late for us and as we headed back to camp we witnessed a beautiful sunset and then a light rain.

As a note, there is no phone on site and no cell coverage. While we didn’t get in any fishing, Mary told us that this is a prime fishing area and some visitors book sites for a month at a time for fishing.

We all enjoyed our stay in this beautiful area, but it should be noted that the quarry could be heard through most of the night, but come morning it seemed quieter and was more peaceful.

After a good breakfast we got on the road and it seemed we must have hit rush hour. The island has great roads with fabulous scenery and we passed about a dozen cars from Meldrum Bay to Gore Bay on Highway 540. We were never on a straight road for very long and while there were no huge climbs, the rolling terrain was a lot of fun.

It would appear that the appeal of permanent dwellers on the island might have lessened over time. There were many homes where it appeared that people just up and left their houses, and in some cases, just left their cars in the overgrown driveways.

We arrived in Gore Bay where a large marina is located, but at this time of the year there were only a few boats in the slips. Now that we had cell coverage again, we all checked in with our families. We met up with Highway 6 at the end of 540 and headed north across the swing bridge to Little Current, leaving the Island behind.

Fraser had loaded into his GPS the co-ordinates of Manitoulin Island Rail Trail, which was open to motorcycles and not actually on the Island. Wanting to explore like Charley and Ewan, we located the trail through the back of a quarry. The first part of the trail was a little sketchy for this first timer on the trails with my bike, but we took it easy and enjoyed every part of it. We rode several kilometres only to find a locked gate just before the road. Just like a good Copperfield show, the boulder beside the gate disappeared and we had enough room to walk the bikes around the gate (I apologize to whomever moved the rock there to deter access). Even the OPP cruiser that slowed as it went by didn’t bother us, but I imagine he had a smile on his face watching us manhandle the bikes around the gate.

We were heading to Parry Sound for a night at Peter’s cottage when just south of Whitefish Falls we found a new connection to the rail trail. The trail was mainly loose gravel with some areas of packed dirt. We crossed a few rail bridges with gaps between the ties just far enough to give you an uneasy feeling, but we all made it across without issue. The sights along this trail, which were blocked from the nearby road by mature trees and rock outcroppings, were incredible and well worth a few stops just to look around. Some parts of the trail had water crossings, and in one case Paul and I enjoyed a nice puddle shower right over the windscreen. We laughed, knowing that this is what these bikes were meant for. The Olympia gear kept us nice and dry.

The temperature was warming up, from five degrees early that morning to now nearing 20 degrees. As we took a break to remove some layers, three young guys came along the trail on their little KTM dirt bikes. We apologized for blocking the trail and then the leader looked at us and asked, “You guys didn’t have those big bikes on the trail did you?” We told him where we came from and I think we gained some respect with those young guys as they shook their heads, then took off to Whitefish Falls.

We continued north along the trail to Espanola where we once again met with civilization and lunch at the local Tim Hortons. A group of three GSAs just seems to really create attention from the passersby and many came over to chat, offered to take our picture and talk about the bikes.

We then needed to make some time and got on Hwy. 17 to Hwy. 69 south to Parry Sound, and Peter’s cottage. We still hoped to see some wildlife, but other than one deer and three moose grazing just off Hwy 69, there was only minimal wildlife.

In the morning we awoke to a light rain and Peter and I headed back to southern Ontario. Again, my Olympia gear kept me dry and I am glad I spent some money on good gear, thanks to Two Wheel Motorsports in Guelph for the recommendations. We rode through Wasaga Beach and down Airport Road to Hockley Valley for some fun riding on the twisties before getting deeper into Southern Ontario.

Fraser, Frank and Paul headed in the direction of Ottawa on the Seguin Trail. I have seen some of the pictures and this just might be the next adventure.

As a follow up to the trip, I think Peter realized how much fun the GSA was on the trails compared to his GS, so he traded his GS and now there will be four of us on GSAs cruising the trails and roads of Ontario this summer. MMM


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