MY FAVOURITE PLACE ON EARTH
Almost everyone has a favourite place in the world. A place that is full of memories that warm the soul and make us smile. For me, that place is an island on Lake Nipissing, and this is its story.
Since I can recall (the late 1970s +/-), this chunk of Canadian Shield and coniferous trees has been a steady presence in our summer vacations up north. Originally starting in 1969 (which predates yours truly by 3 years), my family made the trek up highway 11 in the family wagon to spend 3 glorious weeks on the most perfect sandy beach this side of the Caribbean.
To help with the visuals, let’s have a look at this magical island.
The view as you approach from Greening Bay
As you come around the side, you can see the island is long & narrow
From a boat or canoe, the island looks like any other - that is, until you visit it a few times and start to discover the things that make it so special. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favourites.
THE PEOPLE’S ISLAND
Fun fact: 87% of Ontario is Crown Land, and this little island is no exception. At the top of the rock on the north face, you’ll find a metallic stamp of sorts that identifies it as a piece of land under the control of the Ministry of Natural Resources.
Another fun fact: the Canadian Shield was formed nearly 3 billion years ago, which explains why not much has changed on the island over the 40+ years I can recall visiting it.
Coming around the back of the island to the dock...
We're not sure how the name Whiskey Island came about, but that's what it seems to be known as these days. That said, it has had several different labels over the years.
For several years, we also called it Blueberry Island. Yes, there are naturally growing blueberries on the island, which we'd pick and eat (back when kids eating berries unaccompanied by adults was a reasonable thing to do).
In fairness, they look like blueberries...
It also became Pirate Island for a while with my kids, as a result of some imaginative stories as we headed out there to start their own memories.
All that said, if you look it up on the map, it remains without an official name, which kind of adds to its allure, if you ask me.
THE BOAT DOCK
Nature has a funny way of making things easier sometimes. Look no further than the island dock. Around the back, sheltered from the wind, there is a natural ‘V’ cut into the granite. On the left side, a flat stone is at about boat level. On the other, a shelf of stone just under the water's surface. Approach slowly, cut the engine, someone hops out to guide the boat in, tie it up & off you go.
In an ironic twist, I didn't get an up close & perfect shot of the dock, but these will give you an idea:
This is from another location but gives you an idea of the concept...
It's hidden behind the trees in this cove. I promise.
Meanwhile, around the front, there is a rock shelf just under the water which makes the perfect spot to float in on canoes and kayaks. Step out, pull your boats up on the rocks, and you’re officially landed!
Just under the surface of that water, is the most perfect shelf of grippy rock for you to disembark on.
This is arguably the best activity of choice on the island. On the north side, with views of North Bay across the lake, you’ll see the granite slope down into the water.
No filter. True story.
A lesson in refraction in water: The stone face under the water will cause you to pause, as the stone looks as if it juts out into the water. Fret not - it is safe to dive out into the water. The heart rate kicks up a bit. After all, if this is your first dive head-first into the dark waters of a lake, it’s a bit of an adrenaline kick.
Again, here is where nature shows up to help. The slope of the rock increases from left to right, so if you’re a little timid, the slope is much more gradual on the left side. Either way, there is nothing like that first dive. The temperature of the water plummets as you slice into the dark, fresh depths. Come back up and you’ll likely be looking up at smiling faces as your travel companions look at you from the sun-warmed rocks above.
The view from out in the water...
You have just taken the literal leap of faith and dove into the cool waters out in the bay of Lake Nipissing. As you look back at the sloping wall of granite in front of you, there appears the most glorious, as-if-humans-made-it set of steps cut into the stone.
The view from above...
About a foot under the water, there is a ledge that is big enough to sit on. Otherwise, it’s the first step as you climb back up the ‘ladder’ to rest and prepare for your next dive.
CATCHIN' CRAYFISH (*crayfish not included)
Each side of Whiskey Island is very different from the other, and the south side couldn't be more different than the rest. It is shallow with a small cove that gets gradually more shallow as you approach the shore. Rather than a granite shelf under the water, this little cove has small, smooth granite stones, no bigger than your hand.
As kids, someone saw a crayfish at some point. From that point on, we would be obsessed with delicately wading in the water, careful not to disturb the quiet. We'd slowly pull the stones up, one at a time, hoping to see a crayfish which I can assure you, none of us ever caught.
If you find yourself there, you are well advised to swim in the foot deep water. Attempting to find stable footing on the small rocks is not going to work. And extra points if you see, let alone catch, a crayfish.
THE ABANDONED GRILL
I don’t know who they are, but there always seems to be the remnants of a campfire left behind by a visitor on the island. Some charred wood, a few rocks brought in for chairs, and a grill or an old pot.
Everytime we're out there, we find something similar...
Thankfully, that is typically the only sign that humans have visited.
The term cave is used loosely, but nonetheless, this large chunk of granite leaning up against the island is the stuff of legends. At least amongst our family.
It was a beautiful summer day back in the early 80s. My brother Jimmy was out on the island with other family members when a storm rolled in. At this point, it’s worth noting that my beloved brother passed away in 2020, so his version of events will live in infamy, unchallenged by naysayers. Perhaps one of the upsides of an early departure is that your stories have a better chance of surviving scrutiny.
True story or not, it goes like this. Storms on Lake Nipissing can show up quickly, and that is what happened in this instance. With nowhere to hide, they sought refuge behind this:
Again, not a cave in the literal sense, but cave'ish?
There are a few things to know.
- Spiders love this cave. The first thing you’d have to do to get in there would be to clear out the endless cobwebs and hope the spiders head for the hills.
- Second is the space is not big. How they jammed in there to wait out the storm is beyond me, but again, as my brother tells it, that is what they did that fateful day. I prefer to keep it as a true story.
THE MAGICAL & MINIATURE LAKES
Back 2.5–3 billion years ago when this island was pushed up out of the lake, cracks and crevices formed as the granite waged war on itself. As a result, you'll find several magical little ponds and miniature 'lakes' scattered across the island. They dry up and reappear as the weather changes from rainy to dry and sunny.
It's the kind of thing that can occupy the imagination of my 8-year old self for quite a while...
To this day, I love the vegetation growing beside the little pools of water, active with small who-knows-what-they-are swimming around in the water.
A sign of the resilience of nature, a lot of the greenery is literally growing up through the cracks in the stone, surviving from whatever their roots are finding down below.
Those trees grew over many years out of a crack in the granite...
A few hundred feet behind Whiskey Island is an outcropping of rock that has been inhabited by an army of seagulls for as long as we've been going out here. So no, that rock isn’t actually white…
Sorry. No zoom capabilities but you get the point.
On a very quiet evening on the beach back at the cottage, you can hear those gulls yelling at each other in some inane debate about who is the cooler seagull. Or something like that...
THE VELVET COVERED ROCKS
Nature has a way of making it easy to walk barefoot on the island; namely through the velvety moss and lichen on the rocks. I'm very much not a fan of velvet but for some reason, the surface of these rocks feels great underfoot. In fact, shoes are highly not recommended on Whiskey Island.
A velvet pathway...
I'm pretty sure that's lichen...
THE OSPREY NEST
For several years, there was a massive nest at the top of this tree:
The nest was at the top of the tallest tree in this photo...the top 20% was lost to a lightning strike...
And for several years, that nest was occupied by an incredible Osprey. If you haven’t seen one, think of a massive hawk with a 5-foot wingspan. This particular Osprey, with its own private island, was a perfect island resident. That is until a lightning strike took out part of the tree. What happened to the bird I don’t know, but that nest is unfortunately gone. Nature strikes again.
Additionally, the presence of a larger bird of prey could be what keeps the gulls on gull island, as I can't recall a seagull ever venturing over to Whiskey Island. Hopefully things stay that way.
HOW TO GET THERE
First step, find your way to Lake Nipissing.
Then, out from the mouth of Greening Bay, you'll find this glorious chunk of stone & trees. You can go, but on one condition: Leave it as beautiful as it was when you found it.
I'll leave you with this...
On our last trip, we met a family who was visiting from Germany. Like many of us up there, their family had been coming to the area for decades. As they swam home (they lived on a point about 800 metres away), the father said "enjoy the island".
I love that. And I hope if you manage to find yourself on Whiskey Island, I hope you enjoy the island as well. :)
For the more technical reader, here are the coordinates:
Long live Whiskey Island!