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Rock star

The Niagara Escarpment is dotted with caves: its dolomite capstone covers much more porous limestone and the action of rain and snow causes cracks and fissures in the rock, providing homes for wildlife and adventure for hikers and climbers.

Towards the north end of the escarpment, on the Bruce Peninsula, the 7,000 year old shores of the post-glacial Lake Algonquin also feature caves, these ones formed by the action of the waves against the limestone. One of the most accessible of the cave formations is Bruce’s Caves, near Wiarton.

The caves are on a seven-hectare conservation area, on land originally purchased in 1875 by Robert Bruce, a “remittance man” (an individual in the “new world” who collected regular shipments of money from home, usually in Europe) who fought with the Scots Guards in the nineteenth century. There were rumours that he was a deserter from the Crimean War, and that he lived in the caves in the winter, but in truth, he had a cabin near where the picnic pavilion is today. He worked on the railways in the summer, and returned to his land in the winter. He was eccentric: photos of him on the information board at the start of the trail to the caves show a tall, slender man dressed in flannel pyjamas he sewed himself, with a square flannel cap on his head. His outfits were sewn from sheets, with the pink or blue striped trim decorating the cuffs.

According to his obituary in the Toronto paper at the time, he was originally from the Scottish Orkney Islands. Bruce was born around 1818 and emigrated to Canada, settling in Keppel Township north of Owen Sound before he bought around 300 acres of land. According to his obituary, he also had “several thousand dollars” in an Owen Sound bank, but “spent several hard winters in the county jail” where he paid for room and board. He enjoyed bathing in the open air and smoked a mixture of forest leaves. When he died in 1908, he was buried in a suit of blue broadcloth, made by a Glasgow tailor, that he had kept in a trunk in his cabin.

Although less grand than Greig's caves, further north on the peninsula, these caves are spectacular and more accessible for inexperienced climbers. Active elders/ seniors could certainly enjoy this hike. Bring water and a walking stick and, of course, remember to take out what you bring in. Reached via an easy, clear trail from a parking lot, the large cavern’s entrance is bisected by a chimney of stacked rock. The cave floor is a scree of small boulders and gravel, a challenge to climb over, but certainly possible. The space’s popularity with local (probably) youth was underlined by the obvious fire pit to one side and the graffiti on the walls, some separated by a century.

On a hot day, the temperature change between the trail and the cave is significant. If you scrabble to the very back of the cave and look to your left, you’ll see a passageway into another, smaller cave. You can climb through there, or just go around the outside and see the other space, with its “window” high up on the wall. The deep fissure in the ceiling, dripping with water, is a little daunting when combined with obvious rock falls on the cave floor, but Bruce’s really are the least claustrophobic caves ever.

From the inside, looking out, the main cave looks like a skull with the rock stack forming the nose. The adjacent cave is shaped like a Hershey’s kiss chocolate, with graceful arches of rock forming the entrance.

The initial parking lot, off the highway, is also the start of a side trail of the Bruce Trail: this will take you above the caves, through a meadow to a good view of Colpoys Bay. But, either walk along the gravel road, or drive (be aware: it’s really rutted) and park near the picnic pavillion. From there, it’s a 15-minute walk along an easy trail to the caves.

Colpoys Bay is a deep fjord into the peninsula between Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. The trail from its head over to the sandy beaches of Lake Huron was a major portage route for the Ojibway whose traditional territory encompasses the Bruce Peninsula. The land was ceded in 1836, but recently, the band has lodged a legal objection to its terms. The Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation have turned part of their traditional lands into the “Cape Croker Indian Park” campground, a beautiful, well-run space on the north and south shores of Cape Croker.

I haven’t kept track of how many miles of the Bruce Trail I’ve explored, but this little trail is a lovely introduction to the area. On our walk, on the Victoria Day weekend, we passed through dozens of patches of trilliums, including rare pink and red ones. The walk was a beautiful beginning to the summer hiking season and we ended with delicious homemade ice-cream cones as big as our heads from the café in Big Bay, self-proclaimed “Stone Skipping Capital of Canada.”

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