I can’t wait for the next six weeks to crawl by so that I can ‘go north’. And in my somewhat narrow perception of the term, I’m referring to a sojourn that will take me north up Highway #6 for a little over three hours to the village of Lion’s Head. Lion’s Head is, to be brief, a pretty little hamlet found on the Georgian Bay (read, eastern) side of the Bruce Peninsula. If you use Owen Sound as your southernmost reference point and Tobermory as your northernmost point, Lion’s Head is about halfway up…and not four feet from the lion’s tail for you jokesters out there.
As an aside, I know that those of you who are reading this in Subdury, Cochrane, South Porcupine, or Thunder Bay will snort and tell me that I have no clue about what north ‘really’ is, and you’re right. In fact, I spend the second week of the November deer rifle hunt at slightly higher latitude, relative to Lion’s Head, just north of Seguin Falls. Neither are the high Arctic, but certainly both have a different environment and yes, even climate, than the mix of pastoral plains and generally urban/suburban areas that I see down here in Southwestern Ontario. In a tongue in cheek fashion I’d retort that residents of Thunder Bay, ON do not understand the hardships to be found further north in say Churchill, Manitoba (polar bears anyone?), but I digress as this is not a post about geographical perceptions of climate or hardship.
The village of Lion’s Head serves as the launching point for my “adventures in hunting” (which, by the way, was the alternate working title for this blog…I made my choice though and I’m happy with it). The farm where my father and uncles grew up is the home base from which I can head to any number of sites to chase after, and usually find myself defeated by, wild game. Someday I’ll evolve into a competent photographer and have some photos that illustrate the unique beauty of this area, but for now let me take you on a virtual tour through some hunting stories alone.
As a pre-emptive defense, a lot of the places I’m about to mention don’t have much value in the way of ‘tourist’ spots. If you’re looking for me to gush about The Grotto or something like that, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I’ve been there (The Grotto) and it is beautiful, but I can’t even swim so it holds no real allure to me. Same goes for Tobermory; been there (both in the high tourist season of July when it is as crowded as a Hollywood nightclub, and in the off-season when a lot of the stores aren’t even open for business during the week) and done that. It is another great Bruce Peninsula destination but not a place where I can go hunting, so I’ll leave the point at that. Restaurant reviews and shopping destinations will be fairly thin on this post (although I will say that the Farmer’s Breakfast at Mom’s Restaurant in Ferndale is an absolute must).
My first exposure to hunting came in a village north of Lion’s Head known as Cape Chin South, so that’s where I’ll start.
On a cool Thanksgiving weekend when I was eight years old, I awoke in the darkness early on Saturday morning and went goose hunting with my Dad. I remember being bundled up like Ralphie’s brother Randy from A Christmas Story as I was wearing, to mention just a few of the items, long underwear, sweatpants, lined work pants that were a couple of sizes too big, and a wool sweater. I had my Wellington boots on and my feet were wrapped in toasty wool socks. Wool mitts and a grey toque completed the ensemble. There was no way that I was going to get cold and want to come home early.
But most of all I remember the much-too-large olive drab hunting coat that my Dad put on me. I imagine that to an invisible observer there was one of those tender, paternal, very Rockwellian scenes as my Dad helped me into the coat and zipped it up to my chin. While I lacked mobility and dexterity (and frankly, I still kind of do now over 20 years later), I recall the key benefit of this particular coat being that it was big enough for me bury my whole face into it if I got cold.
And despite all the preparations, I still got cold. Did I mention that this hunt pre-dated the common use of padded foam seats, and ‘Heat-a-Seats”? It did. Dad jammed a black garbage bag into my pocket that would serve to keep my derriere dry, but it was lacklustre in keeping my little tush warm.
We got out of the car and walked into the field in the grey, beetling morning before I was sat down in the nooks and crannies of a rock pile that had a bunch of old cedar rails piled up around, and upon, it. They did a very good job of breaking up the human outline, and with the addition of a half-dozen shell body decoys we were ready for the goose hunting to commence. I can’t recall how many geese flew around that day, but it was by no means a huge flight. In fact I can only recall one small bunch of three of four. Dad pulled an old Olt goose call out of his pocket and began to cluck away on it a bit and the birds circled before coming in to land with our fakes.
So long as I’m able to remember, I’ll never forget those geese hanging in the air, as big as jetliners, with their feet down ready to land. Dad took a double with his Remington 1100, although he missed a third with his last shot, and laid the geese in the rocks by my feet. A short, gooseless while later Dad decided that two birds were enough and we headed back to the car. Dad carried a goose, an old feedbag with the decoys in it, and his shotgun. I got the honour of carrying out the other goose. I bumped and dragged that poor goose’s head through the grass for some ways before Dad turned around and told me to pick the goose’s head off the ground and treat the game a little better. My eight-year-old biceps got quite the work out; I think I held that bird’s head almost above my knees the rest of the way to the car. Since then I’ve hunted waterfowl all around Lion’s Head; in the Ferndale Flats, at Spry, and in Dyer’s Bay to name a few spots in weather that ran from balmy early September hunts in t-shirts to chilly mid-November pursuits in driving snow. Still, that young boy’s first hunt on a Thanksgiving Saturday in Cape Chin hooked me in.
In the same area as Cape Chin South are Otter Lake and Cape Chin North, and this area is where the family deer hunting takes place during early November. My Dad wrote a fine piece about Otter Lake for the Chatham-Kent Times, so I won’t pretend to best that. Instead, I’ll just talk about deer hunting.
In 1995 at a rangy, awkward fifteen years old I found myself sitting on a blown down birch log at 6:30 in the morning with a Remington Model 14 pump action rifle across my lap. I was in the wooded uplands just west of Otter Lake waiting for deer. I didn’t have any calls or experience, but as a first-time deer hunter the camp elders had seen fit to place me in a reasonably good spot near some known deer runs. At around 8am my great uncle Bower came around and checked on me; he said he’d return in about an hour. At ten minutes to nine I heard some crunching in the leaves behind me and turned to see Bower. Instead I saw that a doe and a fawn were loping down the ridge and towards me! As a party we had two or three antlerless tags, including one that I had been fortunate to draw in my first year of deer hunting and I slid the safety off, raised the rifle and fired at the doe as she bounded quartering away from my right. She never broke stride but the fawn crossed me broadside at fifteen yards. The rifle barked again and the fawn went down after some stumbled leaps. Then everything was silent. I hadn’t had time to be nervous before, but I was in the moments immediately after the drama I was shaking, elated, sad, proud, and a little nauseous. Yes, the first-time deer hunter speeds rapidly through a broad range of emotions after their first successful hunt.
I now hunt deer a bit in the Parry Sound district, and I have had offers for some hunts in the Elmira area not too far from home, but I always make sure that I get time in every November at the Otter Lake camp. I’ve shot a couple other deer in those hardwood uplands since, including one in 2009 that I shot at nearly the same time of day while sitting in basically the spot. That fallen birch has long since rotted away though.
I’ve turkey hunted all over the North Bruce in Dyers Bay, Lion’s Head, Barrow Bay, Ferndale, and Cape Chin (North and South) but I have not yet managed to connect on a Bruce Peninsula gobbler, despite some close calls. That terrible record notwithstanding, these treks have taken me through some of the prettiest country I have ever walked in. The verdure of the spring as it comes to life around you is something special to behold everywhere, but the ridges, fields, and hardwood bottoms of the Bruce seem to do it better than anywhere else I’ve been to date. For me when I think of turkey hunting I picture sitting in the sun-dappled hardwoods of Cape Chin or watching the dew form on the balsams south of the farm in Lion’s Head with a soft Georgian Bay breeze blowing in around me.
Winter on the Bruce, in my experience, is like winter anywhere else and by that I mean that it is variable to a fault.
Some years it is bitterly cold, other years it is buried in deep snow, and one notable year it was so mild that we hunted rabbits in January with no snow on the ground at all. The rabbits showed up neon white against the browns and grays of the woods, their fur coats having already changed colour with the photoperiod. Despite this advantage for us we still had a tough time shooting these little escape artists and only managed to take a couple of them home to the larder. By contrast, during a coyote hunt almost exactly a year later, it was so cold that the thermometer outside the farm bottomed out, while the outside temperature for the morning hunt (at least according to my cousin’s truck console) was -27 degree Celsius. I’ve been out on snowy days on the Bruce where visibility was basically nil, while on other January days, although snow was on the ground, it was so warm that one could hunt without wearing a jacket, especially if you were exerting yourself.
Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your perspective I guess, I haven’t hunted any public land in the Bruce Peninsula. This is primarily because I am the beneficiary of a family tradition of hunting in the area (which I am trying to honour and maintain as the older generation might one day step aside), family held land in some locations, and a network of friends on the Bruce who put up with my nonsensical metaphors, interminable stories, and sometimes hilarious ineptitude.
Despite the occasionally misguided attempts of some to bring what they feel is urbanization and their skewed views of ‘civilization’ to the area, I have found that the hunting ethic, as part of the rural outdoors ethic at large, is still strong on the Bruce Peninsula where it is a tradition built on personal relationships, respect for the resource and the landowners, and a history where hunting played a vital role in survival for the ancestors of the longer-term residents of the area. I think that those are the keys to any place where you love to hunt, or fish, or camp, or hike, or whatever it is that you do to get out and enjoy nature and the wilderness.
For this particular observer historical tradition, camaraderie and shared enjoyment in the outdoors all make up the fundamental appeal of hunting as a pastime. In my mind, the Bruce has all of the above and more.