On a mid-spring afternoon in Point Pelee National Park in Ontario, you’d think the spectacle were blubbery seals at first glance. Not so. Try a bunch of wet-suited body surfers taking to the waves as they pummelled the park’s Northwest Beach’s sandy shores.
Me? I was there with dad, ready for that long overdue hike we promised ourselves years ago.
Spring in Point Pelee National Park is another world.
The moderate temperatures from Lake Erie means this 15 square kilometre-swath of marshy peninsula never gets too wickedly cold. On the same parallel (the 49th) as California and Rome, the season here is remarkably warm.
Yet the water off Canada’s most southerly tip often with its tempest-like swells remains unpredictable and is best to avoid for a dip even on the sunniest days.
Point Pelee National Park
Cyclists, hikers, canoeists and birders arrive en masse to this gnarly tip of God’s country, not far from Niagara Falls, for their own selfish reasons.
We ventured because I recently discovered dad held a deep desire, a secret dream, to visit Point Pelee National Park’s celebratory spring bird migration of songbirds ever since he arrived to Canada in 1957.
So the plan for a hike there was a no-brainer. We packed our overnight bags, made the trek east from Niagara Falls, and arrived to the park one late afternoon last May.
When we got to Canada’s Deep South, we left behind the boisterous Northwest beachfront of giggling surfers who were a few kilometers north of the visitor centre, and laced up our hiking shoes for what we thought would be another worldly experience of birds, birds and birds.
But the Point Pelee we saw was a stark contrast from the fun beach combers.
We did an easy 10-minute walk to the famous point then watched harsh waves splash high. The wind was churning sand into ditch-like bowls and there was dad holding onto his cap.
Reminiscent of that action adventure flick, “The Perfect Storm,” starring George Clooney, the sky blackened and rain hit hard. On the dirt path a few metres away from our feet lay the shattered remains of old ship wrecks submerged in this cold lake.
“Maybe we should come back tomorrow,” I sheepishly murmured, eying the historic Pelee Passage known as the most treacherous in the Great Lakes due to its shallow waters and many shoals.
Since the mid-1800s over 275 ships have been lost between the point and Pelee Island.
We got out of the rain and tucked into the Visitor Centre to learn about a guided naturalist hike the next morning. “There’s a hike tomorrow leaving at 8:30 bright and early,” chirped the store clerk.
That night, we checked into a cosy B&B in Leamington, Canada’s tomato capital, flipped through the Peterson and Sibley bird guides while I surveyed the hiking trails.
“How many do you think we can conquer in two days?” I asked reading aloud the descriptions of the eight trails spanning over 12 kilometres across this UNESCO designated wetland of international significance. The pocket-sized park is 2/3 marsh-covered.
Picture the 2.75 km Woodlands Trail which is an interpretive looped hike through the oldest forest habitat of red cedar savannah in the park.
The 4km winding multi-use Centennial Trail meanwhile is linear, popular among cyclists and leads through a hackberry dry forest and continues along the isolated West Beach.
Many prefer the Marsh Boardwalk, a 1 km loop trail on a floating boardwalk laden in cattails. Equipped with an observation tower and telescopes, red-winged blackbirds are abundant there.
‘Maybe the redheaded woodpecker will show up,” I said, teasing him about one of his favourites.
By morning we munched on fresh Belgian waffles then it was off to Point Pelee for the hike of our lives.
Carl Konze, the naturalist, met us at the Birder’s Roost by the Visitors Centre for the Tip Trail hike.
He spoke in hushed tones then got all fidgety when a delicate chestnut sided warbler flitted between the red mulberry branches above our heads. It was a sight to behold.
Located 2km past the visitor centre, the 1 km Tip Trail is a loop and good for novices. There’s nothing to negotiate with the exception of the sandy tip itself which is optional and not part of the regular tip trail route. It’s off-the-beaten path.
So feeling a bit like Indiana Jones, we departed the group and together ascended some precarious beach boulders then stepped over the seaweed mossy rocks until finally touching down onto the spit itself. I don’t know but standing on the most southerly mainland tip of Canada had a weird euphoric feeling, something like a conquest.
“We made it,” I yelled.
We hugged, watched the water rise with its unpredictably high waves hitting the pencil thin spit then decided it was time to bask in this achievement back at the wider triangular portion.
Off we trekked through this Carolinian forest rife with Black Walnut and Red Cedar. The buds hadn’t started to peak yet so the sights of other warblers, and orioles were rampant. Hikers hunched behind shrubs and flung out their long lenses.
In a dizzy haze dad announced, “I can breathe again!”
No doubt the fresh spring air gave him a boost of energy and me a run for my life as we motored back from the seemingly disappearing spit. He seemed to have gotten his second wind.
“Okay, let’s make our way to the Tilden Woods Trail. It’s a 1-km loop,” he said.
By the visitor centre, a wooden boardwalk leads through more Carolinian scrub. The humidity is dank.
The scene looks truly like a slice of the Deep South, vines dripping off the trees and pools of brown murky swamp reflecting the tall trees.
The day after a storm (that explained the swells from the previous day I learned), the skies open, giving hikers one of the best times for bird sightings.
It’s true. The further in we hiked, the more we saw.
When to Go to Point Pelee
Festival of Birds in May
What to bring to Point Pelee
Binoculars, long lens, Sibley and Peterson Bird Guides
Guided bird hikes at Point Pelee
Guided bird hikes available by registration online or by calling 1-888-707-3533 or 519 326-6173. Book hikes online and for more information call 519-326-6173 or 1 888-707-3533. Canoe and bike rentals are available from Friends of Point Pelee at the Marsh Boardwalk.
Where to stay at Point Pelee
Marlborough House ((866) 530-4389 / (519) 322-3953) www.marlboroughhouse.ca is a quaint Victorian styled, three-bedroom property. Proprietors Amy and Troy Gee are keen on the local birding scene and whip up a hungry man breakfast ideal for long hikes and early bird watching.
What to eat at Point Pelee
Birder lunch. During the spring bird festival Friends of Point Pelee offer morning snacks and a BBQ lunch of hamburgers, hotdogs and veggie burgers.
What else to do at Point Pelee
You might be surprised to learn that Ontario is home to amazing islands, which you can explore on one of the Thousand Islands cruises.