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By Sarah Ryeland
For families that have lived or played in Muskoka for many years, the simple pleasures of the region are exactly what make it so appealing. Unwinding and enjoying nature are what you need to escape the daily grind. And while your tried and true activities are fun, sometimes a little adventure helps you enjoy beautiful Muskoka that much more.
For me, living in Muskoka is an adventure unto itself. Born and raised in the GTA, I did spend quite a bit of time up in the Parry Sound-Muskoka region with my family. I’d like to think I’m a pretty adventurous girl – I have, after all, travelled the world and used my lifelong Muskoka experiences to do things like live in a tent for three months in the various landscapes of New Zealand.
But there are still some things I haven’t tried. And now that I’m living in Muskoka, I figured I might as well have an experience that takes my city-girl status down a notch.
When you’ve done the all the camping, canoeing, hiking, snowmobiling and ATVing needed to have a fairly decent grasp on the area, what comes next? Well, for three members of my family, the next step was taking to the skies in a floatplane.
Georgian Bay Airways planned the fly-and-hike day out for us: float plane pickup in Milford Bay, drop off on the remote Wreck Island in Georgian Bay to hike for a few hours, water taxi to an island restaurant for fish and chips, and then floatplane pickup to take us back to Milford Bay.
All in a day’s work for the editor of Sideroads, right? Well as ideal as the day sounded, things didn’t go exactly according to plan.
As my mom and I prepared for the day ahead in her house in Milford Bay, my brother Jon was making his way over to the Georgian Bay Airways headquarters in Parry Sound. Hopping in the Cessna 180 with our pilot for the day, James Ferguson, they left Georgian Bay and made their way over to Muskoka.
As the responsible journalist I am, I was calm. After all, going on a floatplane adventure was work, you know. I readied my pad of paper and pens (always bring a backup), my recorder and my camera. Just to be extra-cautious, I checked my camera to make sure it had a full battery. Check. Memory card empty? Check. Camera functional? Um… uncheck? It wouldn’t work.
With about 10 minutes until pickup, Mom and I were frantically searching the house for her little pink point-and-shoot. Found the camera. Plugged it in. Problem solved. Mom ran to Cathy’s Corner Store in Milford Bay and bought a disposable camera, just in case (more backup) and we set out down the road for Beaumaris Dock on Lake Muskoka.
The day was pleasant enough, if a little cloudy. That’s fine, we thought, a little wind makes for less blackflies. We walked out to the end of the dock and right on cue, the floatplane appeared above us. Taking out Mom’s pink point-and-shoot, I got ready for my first shot of the day.
No dice. The camera wouldn’t work. I was officially panicking.
The plane landed gracefully on the lake and I, perhaps not so gracefully, started rifling through our bags for the iPhone. Thank goodness for backup-backup.
By that point I was fairly certain that the innocent bystanders were thinking of me as some kind of harried tourist with the mouth of a sailor. My brother (who had already received a few colourful texts about the predicament I was having down on solid ground) hopped out of the plane and said “Relax… just chill out and enjoy the day.” Typical, the city-girl in me wanted to cry out, but instead I tried to remain calm.
Ok, so the two cameras were out of commission. My recorder was sitting on the counter by the door at home (did I mention that?) so what do I do? Sideroads is all about beautiful pictures and so is a floatplane tour. Uh, what do I do?
Well if there’s one thing those camping/hiking/ATVing trips have taught me, it’s how to be resourceful. So cell phone pictures it was.
While I was frantically trying to re-think the purpose of my story and how to explain to the powers that be why on earth I didn’t use a proper camera on today of all days, my mother and brother were happily climbing into the plane with James.
Here goes nothing.
Soon, we were gliding across the surface of Lake Muskoka, preparing for takeoff. As we gained speed and finally soared into the air, my worries about cameras and recording devices began to slip away.
For all the beauty to be found on land in the region, seeing Muskoka from the sky is truly an amazing experience. Massive lakes and waterways are dotted with islands ranging from small rock formations to impressive landmasses. Some even boast a few pretty impressive homes and cottages.
From the golf courses and resorts to rustic cottages by the shore, you feel as if you can see the whole world from that little plane in the sky.
Our pilot James was happy to point out interesting landmarks and familiar places that didn’t seem so familiar from our vantage point. He even circled around particular sights we wanted a better look at.
One of the most interesting views was the change in scenery from Muskoka to Georgian Bay. Gradually, the lush, forested landscape of Muskoka gave way to the rocky shoals of the Bay, and the expanse of water beneath us offered a sense of just how vast our region really is.
By the time we were above our first stop, I’d almost forgotten that I didn’t have a camera. I had been snapping shots with the iPhone, but my brother in the back was really dedicated to getting the best possible shots on his own mobile.
Circling Wreck Island, James pointed out the shipwreck that gave the island its name. The Waubuno, a side-wheel paddle steam ship that carried passengers and goods from Collingwood to Parry Sound in the 1860s is thought to have gone down in a storm in late November, 1879. Losing all 24 crewmembers and passengers, the Waubuno never reached Parry Sound, and its remains can be seen off the shores of Wreck Island today.
In warmer months, Georgian Bay Airways includes tours to the shipwreck where passengers can get out and snorkel around the actual wreck. For us, the water was still too cold, so we settled on seeing it from above.
Soon enough, we were preparing to land on Georgian Bay. For a huge body of water that is notoriously rocky and choppy, the landing was perfectly smooth and we cruised on into shore.
James dropped us off and let us know he’d see us in a few hours. Four, to be exact.
So, Mom, Jon and I stood on the deserted island and watched as our pilot took to the skies above us.
Now we definitely felt like castaways. Fending off mosquitoes and pretending we were on Survivor, we picked our way along the shore to the head of the Wreck Island Trail.
In the spirit of “roughing it” (also known as “Sarah doesn’t want to reach into the box holding the papers because there are some bugs inside it”) we did without the informational newsletter available at the beginning of the trail and started walking.
The 1.5-km trail is clearly marked with tree markers and rocks engraved with numbers. So even if you’re going without a guide (or are too nervous to brave a few bugs) you’d easily find your way along the trail.
The Wreck Island Trail is gorgeous. Incredible rock formations open up to gorgeous views of Georgian Bay that you simply can’t find anywhere else. The area surrounding the island was silent other than the occasional fishing boat cruising past and a few seagulls overhead.
Cell phones were at the ready – for pictures, of course. We got fantastic reception and knew that our pilot is just a phone call away if we needed anything at all. Not that I was worried. Not me.
The hike was just challenging enough to be fun. Most of the trail followed the shore, with the occasional pass through the interior of the island. Wild orchids, towering pines and everything in between seemed to be totally untouched by visitors to the island.
After about an hour’s hike, we closed the loop and made our way back to the rest area to wait for our water taxi. Jon, always prepared for fun, was armed with a Frisbee, so we passed some time wading in the water and playing along the rocks.
Soon enough, the boat arrived to take us to lunch. Next stop: Henry’s Fish Restaurant.
Our water taxi driver happily carted us over to Henry’s – a restaurant famous for its fish and chips, as well as its remote location. The restaurant on Frying Pan Island has been serving customers for close to 40 years and is a must-visit for anyone in search of a unique dining experience.
After a delicious lunch, we heard our ride coming in. James met us at the dock and we boarded the plane to head back to Muskoka.
The day got cloudier, but the view was still spectacular. As we crossed back into Muskoka, we kept our eyes open for the landmarks we were eager to recognize. Moon River shone like a silver snake winding its way through the vast expanse of forest beneath us.
When Milford Bay came back into view, we knew our adventure had come to an end. With another graceful landing on Lake Muskoka, we pulled into Beaumaris Dock and said goodbye to James and Jon, who prepared to make their way back to Parry Sound.
It was an excellent day. Sure, there were a few technical glitches along the way, and I’m not totally convinced that I can call myself a northern girl just yet. But in the end the trip was even better than I could have imagined. And the cell phone shots weren’t too shabby, either.