Rivers and lakes are more than just water; in Canada, they represent a collective history of settlement and exploration; the backbone of the narrative that made this country. Without the waterways, and indeed the canoe, Canada (known to Indigenous peoples as Turtle Island) would have never been travelled as rapidly or extensively as it was. The great stories of this nation all share a unique and intimate relationship with the lakes, rivers, and bays that connect this beautiful and rugged country. Today, that history is reflected in Canadian industry, artwork, and many leisure activities. It could be said that Canada was born of the water.
The Beaver River winds its lazy way from Simcoe County, through the Grey Highlands; carving its way through the Beaver Valley on its journey to Thornbury and Lake Huron. This wide, slow-moving waterway offers the opportunity to view this gorgeous land from another perspective. Whether you are paddling along it, walking beside it, or simply sitting and enjoying the serenity that rivers provide, a day on the Beaver River is always a good day.
Start your river-day with breakfast in picturesque Thornbury. The Thornbury Bakery Café offers a delicious breakfast menu, with something for everyone. They have all kinds of dietary options including keto-friendly and gluten-free bread. A local favourite is definitely the “Smithwich”, named after the family who owns the cafe. Perfect in its simplicity, the Smithwich has a fried egg, a slice of peameal, and gooey, melted cheddar cheese held together by a fresh bagel; all the energy you need to start your day right.
After breakfast (or perhaps while finishing your Smithwich) take a stroll towards the harbour and cross the trestle bridge on your right-hand side, which offers a beautiful view of the river as it flows into Georgian Bay. The former railway bridge was built in the 1870’s and is an important part of Thornbury’s (and all of Canada’s) heritage. The last train to cross it was in 1984 and in 1989 it became a part of the Georgian Trail, a walking and cycling trail that runs 34 km from Meaford to Collingwood. Depending on the season, you are likely to spot all manner of water birds including ducks, geese, swans, and the occasional great blue heron. Follow the trail down along the banks of the river and up the wooden staircase next to the roar of the Thornbury Dam. Built over 150 years ago, the dam now features a “fish ladder” and viewing area that allows you to watch as fish swim upstream to spawn. In the spring you will see Rainbow Trout, and in the fall Chinook Salmon. It is incredible to watch these powerful lake-giants, usually invisible to us, as they dance and weave their way back to their gravel-nursing grounds. For most, this will be the last journey they make.
From Thornbury, hop in your car, or on your bike, and make your way out to Heathcote, located on Grey Road 13. (It is about 10 km from downtown Thornbury to Heathcote) Today, Heathcote is a tiny, one-intersection hamlet, perched on the banks of the Beaver River. Given its current size, you might be surprised to learn that Heathcote was the first modern settlement of any importance in all of Grey County. It had the first post office in the area, and because of its proximity to the river and the Old Mail Road (which has been in use since 1835) Heathcote boasted two stores and a tavern, supplying the needs off weary travellers and eager settlers alike. Today, Heathcote is home to two stops on The Apple Pie Trail.
The Blackbird Pie Company is on the right-hand side of the road as you enter town. A family-owned bakery and catering business, they pride themselves not just on the quality of their many delicious products, but also on the warmth and friendliness of their staff. They serve a variety of sandwiches on fresh bread all day; alongside homemade soups and a wide variety of delectable treats (my favourite is the apple crumble muffin). You can dine indoors or out as you soak in the sounds and sights of the countryside. Of course, you can also stop in after your paddle for an afternoon snack or pickup one of their amazing frozen dinner entrées to take home.
After lunch, it’s time to get out on the river! Make your way across the bridge to Free Spirit Tours, located right on the edge of the Beaver. They offer rental packages and tours that cater to paddlers of all levels of experience. If you are a more seasoned paddler you can simply “grab and go”; pick up your gear and start at any one of the put-ins along Grey Road 13. The experience and expertise of Free Spirit’s guides will guarantee a safe, fun, and often educational paddle, something the whole family will enjoy. It is a good idea to book ahead, either online or by phone. On the river itself you may spot all manner of local wildlife like beavers, muskrats, minks, turtles, deer, or even a rare river otter. You’ll also float past a few farms, and you may spot or hear cattle, horses, and sheep in nearby pastures. Enjoy the natural flow of the outdoors as you float past gnarled old trees and under over-hanging branches, taking in the sights and sounds of life on the Beaver River.
After you get off the water, stop and enjoy a glass of cider or wine at one of the nearby Apple Pie Trail stops; T&K Ferri Orchards, Spy Cider House and Distillery, and Georgian Hills Vineyards all lie between Heathcote and the Blue Mountain Village. As you sip, reflect and cherish the fact that you have experienced an activity that resonates deeply with the history of this land, something people have been doing for thousands of years.