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Flowerpot Island

2003 June 26 – Flowerpot Island

Active Pursuits, Travel Column
Toronto Star Newspaper

If you were to follow the Niagara Escarpment north, either on road by vehicle or along the Bruce Trail by foot, you’d eventually end up at Tobermory on the tip of the Bruce Peninsula. Here, roads stop, the approximately 800-km-long footpath of the Bruce Trail comes to an end, and the bodies of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron unite in a vast hue of blue. By every indication, it appears the limestone ridge of the Niagara Escarpment reaches its conclusion here too. But appearances can be deceiving.

The escarpment doesn’t actually stop at land’s end, rather it drops with a cliff that plunges underwater to a depth greater than the height of Niagara Falls. Onwards, submerged, the magnificent gray mane of rock continues northward. About 5 km offshore, however, it breaches the surface with a triangular landmass called Flowerpot Island.

Northeast of Tobermory, the island is an amazing microcosm of escarpment highlights. It has cliffs, caves, old growth cedars, rare ferns, orchids, and of course its namesake rock formations the “flowerpots”.

Shuttle to the island from Tobermory is offered by glass-bottom tour boat operators. Two main companies offer shipwreck viewing with an optional island stopover. Cost is approximately $20 (less for seniors and children).

Welcoming and user-friendly, the island is part of Fathom Five National Marine Park, a mostly underwater park protecting shoals and shipwrecks. At its docking site, interpretive signs and free brochures provide an island overview. Wheelchair accessible boardwalk leads to an outhouse and to the trails. During July and August, guided tours are offered twice a week by park interpreters. Also, half-a-dozen campsites are available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The most exciting of trails is a 3-km loop that runs along the eastern shore and returns through the interior. Crowned in cedar, the island is rimmed by gray limestone in the form of boulders, cliffs, and flat slabs that extend into turquoise-coloured water.

At the flowerpots you’ll probably use a lot of film no matter how many times you’ve seen their picture already. The rock stacks are shapely formations of layered rock with tops wider than their bases.

“The cap rock is made of fossilized coral and is harder, denser and more resistant to erosion than its lower part which is composed of fossilized sea floor,” explains Ethan Meleg, a park naturalist for Fathom Five National Marine Park.

A staircase brings visitors up to a cave where interpretive signs explain that it was carved by wave action about 10,000 years ago when water levels were much higher.

Notice the small, twisted cedars clinging to the cliff walls. The tenacious, eastern white cedar manages to grow in the most unfathomable spots and are the oldest trees east of the Rockies. One tree on the island was dated as 1,860 years old.

“The cliff face is one of the most ecologically pristine places in the country,” said Meleg. “The trees have never been logged, browsed by deer, and they’ve escaped forest fire.”

Meleg also points out a rare fern on the rock wall. One could unwittingly brush against the tiny jewel and destroy it.

“The biggest challenge that we face in parks today is finding a balance so that ecological integrity can be preserved while people can visit and have a great experience,” said Meleg.

At the northernmost point of the trail, hikers reach a pretty red and white lighthouse and adjacent homestead. The historic station is maintained by the volunteer group of Friends of Fathom Five (www.castlebluff.com).

Beyond the lighthouse, the Niagara Escarpment carries on northward submerged again. It next appears on Manitoulin Island. But that’s a whole other story.

The admission fee to Flowerpot Island is $4.50 for adults, less for seniors and children; contact Fathom Five National Marine Park at 519-596-2233, www.parkscanada.gc.ca. For more information on Tobermory and Bruce County, contact 1-800 268-3838, www.naturalretreat.com.