HONEY HARBOUR, ONT.-They call this the forgotten national park.

Maybe it’s because people mistakenly figure they need their own boat to get to Georgian Bay Islands National Park. Or perhaps it’s because we forget that Ontario has five national parks, not just 113 operating provincial ones.

It’s a spectacular June weekend just before school ends and we’ve got the Cedar Spring campground on Beausoleil Island half to ourselves. In a good way, though. There are enough people here to make us feel part of a secret club, but enough empty campsites to make us feel . . . part of a secret club.

We’re an urban family. I haven’t been in a tent or camper van since I was a kid, and my three kids only know hotels. This is pathetic and unCanadian.

But times have changed. Parks Canada knows not everybody has tents and camping gear and has options to entice lapsed and new campers. Georgian Bay Islands has 120 campsites for those who like to rough it, and 10 rustic cabins, five oTENTiks and two island safari tents (prospector tents with cots) for those who don’t.

We’ve booked an oTENTik for our Muskoka camping experience. It’s a cross between an A-frame cabin and a prospector tent, set on a raised wooden floor, and it has a great name. It sleeps four (on fancy high-density foam mattresses) and comes with a table and chairs, a deck with propane-fuelled camp stove, picnic table and fire pit. There’s a private bear-proof food locker and a communal “comfort station” nearby with showers and flush toilets.

We bring our one sleeping bag, three blankets, four pillows, a flashlight, barbecue lighter and cooler full of bison steaks, pasta and cereal. Di Cain of Di’s Picnic Basket meets us at the boat launch to deliver lunch. Parks Canada loans us pots, pans, plates, forks and knives, but you’ll have to bring your own. The visitor centre sells ice and firewood.

It takes a split second (two hours) to drive from Toronto to Honey Harbour with my husband, 8-year-old and 3-year-old in tow. Parks Canada has a secure parking lot and two DayTripper shuttle boats. You can take the Parkbus here if you don’t drive, and there are private water taxis if you miss the shuttle. You can just come for the day.

“We’re a great getaway for people who want to try a national park experience,” says the park’s promotions co-ordinator Ethan Meleg, who takes us for a picnic and boat ride.

Jordan Mulligan, Muskoka Tourism’s marketing manager, frets this “forgotten national park” is a gem that never gets the recognition it deserves. The park was formed in 1929 to keep some prime land for the public in a fast-growing vacation spot dominated by wealthy families. It’s a chain of 63 islands, but most of the action is on the largest, Beausoleil.

This is Ontario’s north-south transition zone. The island’s south side is dominated by picturesque hardwood forests. The north side is iconic Group of Seven territory, with the Canadian Shield and, in Parks Canada’s words, “barren, glacier-scraped rock and windswept pine.”

This is also black bear, eastern massassauga rattlesnake and poison ivy territory, so we stay alert. All we run into, though, are leopard and green frogs, one turtle, one rabbit and one eastern hognose snake.

“That’s one of our celebrities,” enthuses Meleg of the hognose snake. “It’s a species at risk. I’m really glad to see it.”

I dutifully print off the park’s list of things to do with a Type-A grand plan to maximize our time.

Photography, picnicking, swimming and hiking on groomed trails — check (if walking counts as hiking). I create a Geocaching account but never get around to looking for treasure. We rent fat-tire bikes but never get on them. We don’t have the gear to fish.

Mostly we hang out and, dare I admit it, relax and enjoy our cushy and cosy oTENTik site.

We boil pasta, barbecue steaks on the campfire and show the kids how to toast marshmallows and make s’mores. The 8-year-old completes five activities in the Parks Canada Xplorers booklet to claim a certificate and a park necklace. The 3-year-old is transfixed by the communal food storage building. It has a yellow warning sign on the door with a picture of a black bear, so he thinks this must be the spot where bears come to eat.

Luckily, it isn’t. He gets his animal fix safely with leopard frogs instead.

“This is the best day ever,” he declares after dinner.

He’s never said it before, or since.

Jennifer Bain was hosted by Muskoka Tourism and Parks Canada, neither of which reviewed or approved this story.

When You Go

Do your research: Find out more about Georgian Bay Islands National Park at the Parks Canada (pc.gc.ca) website. The park is open from Victoria Day weekend to Thanksgiving. Daily entry fees are $5.80 adults, $4.90 seniors, $2.90 youth, $14.70 family/group.

Get to Honey Harbour: It’s about a two-hour, 200-kilometre drive from Toronto to Honey Harbour. You can also take Parkbus (parkbus.ca) from Greater Toronto to Georgian Bay Islands National Park (and others). Adult tickets are $84 return and there are four pickup spots.

Get to the island: The largest island is Beausoleil Island and it has various campgrounds. The park is only accessible by boat, so take the Parks Canada DayTripper ferry shuttle, a water taxi or your own boat. Reservations are recommended for the DayTripper, which leaves from the park dock in Honey Harbour. Adult tickets are $15.70, but include park entry and a return trip.

Get around the island: The park is made up of 63 islands, but most of the action is on Beausoleil Island. Once you’re on the island, you can walk or bike. Parks Canada rents bikes.

Camping: For an oTENTik, reserve online or by phone at 1-877-RESERVE for $140 per night with a two-night minimum. This fee includes return DayTripper ferry shuttles for four people, park entry and parking in Honey Harbour. Rustic cabins are available for $150 or $175 per night. To simply camp with your own gear, fees range from $15.70 to $25.50. Firewood is $6.80 per bundle.

Get a picnic: Di’s Picnic Basket is based in Port Severn. Details: facebook.com/dispicnicbasket.

Explore Muskoka: discovermuskoka.ca

More national parks: The other four national parks in Ontario are: Pukaskwa, Bruce Peninsula, Point Pelee and Thousand Islands.


Originally published:
July 16, 2016
Jennifer Bain – The Toronto Star