I grew up in Southwestern Ontario, wandering the woodlots and fishing the trout streams with my father. We’d take his second-hand canvas topped pop up trailer and camp along Lake Erie, Lake Huron and inland. The trailer always leaked during a rainstorm, and we’d buy more fish at chip stands than catch them in the local creeks. But I certainly connected to the natural and diverse landscape of this part of the province. After college, I worked contract jobs in fish and wildlife, then in outdoor education. My writing career started here as well with a syndicated nature column titled Nature’s Way. Basically, this part of the province introduced me to my love of the outdoors—and a lifelong career in it as well. It was due time for me to return and reconnect with the familiar.
I planned a two-week camping road trip around Southwestern Ontario, pitching my tent at various Provincial Parks and Conservation Areas. My partner Kristine, and the two dogs (Angel and Oliver) joined me.
It had all the fixings for a road trip camping adventure. The province was suffering from a heat wave, followed by severe thunderstorms. My dog got the trots from the heat, Oliver threw up in the car—twice. I got a bad rash. Along the way, however, we camped at some amazing places, had some incredible wildlife sightings, paddled and hiked some scenic spots, experienced local charm, and relished in the small business mentality by stopping off at numerous breweries, restaurants, fish stands and farmer’s markets along the way.
Here’s my breakdown and review of the first three days—and provincial parks—of the tour. More to come.
Turkey Point Provincial Park
We arrived a little late to our first park. A paddle at Big Creek Nature Reserve had to be done first. This waterway has been labelled the Amazon of Ontario for its lush forest cover and countless bird species. It definitely has that “jungle” feel as you paddle through the entanglement of massive Carolinian Canada deciduous trees. The full length of the creek takes an entire day and can be problematic in parts due to low water and log jams clogging the waterway. We took the easy route and accessed the lower stretch near Port Royal, along Lakeshore Road #42. We paddled downstream where the creek empties into Lake Erie, and then back against the slow current to the access.
Our site was a good one, set under a stand of oak with a solid barrier of undergrowth between our neighbouring campers. Most of the sites at Turkey Point have lots of privacy.
There was only enough time left in the day to do one hike: The Oak Savannah Trail (one kilometre). It started pretty close to our campsite and took us through where the park had completed a prescribed burn of conifers in an attempt to recover an oak savannah forest. If you’re looking for something longer, and more scenic, check out the Lookout Bluff Trail (2.2 kilometres). It wanders through some decent forest and to a lookout over Lake Erie and the Long Point Peninsula.
Selkirk Provincial Park
Selkirk is the only park en-route that I hadn’t camped at before. I’m not sure why. It was one of my favourite during our entire tour. The sites were extremely roomy and mostly private, and the size of the oak trees shadowing over us were absolute giants. The beach wasn’t as pristine as the more common Lake Erie beaches, like Rondeau or Long Point. But Kristine and I aren’t the type of campers to sit at the beach all day.
We took the dogs on a nice hike—Wheeler’s Walk—which is a fairly level, 1.5-kilometre loop trail running through woodland and marsh area with a boardwalk. We also went into town for more Lake Erie perch and a visit to Wilson MacDonald Memorial School Museum. This place is a must if you’re an outdoor writing geek like me. It’s the old school of lyric poet Wilson Pugsley MacDonald (1880-1967), the author of several published works that rejoiced the natural world, including “Out of the Wilderness,” and a “Flagon of Beauty.” In the 1920s he was so popular that he outdid Robert Service and Pauline Johnson. Albert Einstein once stated that MacDonald was “the best thing I have found in Canada.”
Before going back to camp for a cozy campfire we went for a taste testing at Concession Road Brewery and a dinner of barbecued pulled pork at the local (and infamous) Fresh Market Kitchen & Steeltown Smokers.
A theme had begun. Kristine and I became focused on helping small businesses along the way. The province had just finished another Covid lockdown, and they needed all the help they could get. Besides, craft bear and pulled pork seemed far better than roasted hot dogs and KD back at the campsite.
Rondeau Provincial Park
Rondeau can seem like a mini city nestled in the woods; it can be a busy place at times, where most people are camped because of the big beach along Lake Erie. We went there for the nature trails.
This park is alive with rare and diverse flora and fauna, and a series of day hikes takes you to some real gems: a rare dune, prairie and savannah ecosystems, a provincially significant wetland and the largest remaining tract of deciduous forest in Carolinian Canada.
Over 80 species at risk hang out here, which is the highest number of any Ontario Provincial Park. Over 300 nationally, provincially or locally significant plant species and over 1,700 insect species—many of which are found in only a few places in Ontario—also call Rondeau home.
My favourite trail at Rondeau is the Harrison Trail: eight kilometres one way, 16 kilometres return. It’s a solid four-hour hike but is on an easy surface—the old gravel road that leads to the lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula. The trail goes right through the heart of Rondeau and its old growth Carolinian forest. It’s a perfect place to view an amazing variety of bird and butterfly species.
We finished the day off, of course, at another local brewery. This time it was the Red Barn, a place to perfectly characterizes a local family run business. And their beer was one of my favourite en-route as well.