Adam Reeve hangs upside down from the underside of a boulder about the size of a large shed. With chalk-covered fingertips, he clings to tiny grooves in the rock and, like a spider, he scales around the overhang, making his way to the top.
Reeve is giving me a demonstration in bouldering, an activity that has recently been permitted in designated areas at the Bruce Peninsula National Park. Part rock climbing and part acrobatics, the sport involves scaling boulders, rather than cliffs, without any ropes or equipment other than a mat to break your fall.
It's an elegantly uncomplicated pastime, provided – like Reeve – you're good at it. And the park, about 300 kilometres northwest of Toronto, is the perfect place in which to practise. Magnificent rock formations are this park's main attraction, and the shoreline of an area called Halfway Log Dump, overlooking Georgian Bay, offers great three- and four-metre-high boulders, just begging to be climbed.
Reeve, co-chair of Ontario Access Coalition (a volunteer group that promotes environmentally responsible rock climbing and bouldering) encourages me to give it a try.
Each surface presents dozens of "problems," or sequences of footholds and handholds, he explains. Graded by difficulty, a "V0" climb is the easiest, while "V10" is considered the hardest. The seemingly impossible manoeuvre he just showed me, starting from an upside-down position, qualifies merely as a V6.
I clumsily scrabble up the side of a couple of V0-level boulders, not so much strategizing my movements as grasping at any jutting parts of rock that allow me to heave myself up to the top.
"Try this one," he suggests, leading me to a boulder he says even a young child can conquer.
This is fun. I feel like a child on a schoolyard jungle gym. Maybe that's why I only get halfway to the top before my fingers lose their grip and my toes slip. It doesn't take long before my underused muscles begin to tire. I'm thoroughly humbled, but Reeve reassures me that beginners generally start out by practising at indoor climbing gyms.
Fortunately, you needn't be great at climbing, or even in top athletic form, to experience the incredible geology at Bruce Peninsula. The glacier- and water-sculpted stone that forms this land make it a fascinating natural – albeit potentially treacherous – playground.
Mere metres from the boulders at Halfway Log Dump are giant slabs of rock, naturally carved into perfect, rectangular blocks. Partly submerged in the turquoise waters of Georgian Bay, they seem designed by nature for swimmers to sun themselves.
Farther north is a precarious but breathtaking lookout over Indian Head Cove, where the cliff plunges straight down into the water below. Notices throughout the park, however, warn that cliff jumping is prohibited. Meanwhile, official park maps state that serious injuries are common, and urge visitors to be wary of the terrain, weather and wildlife. They're sober warnings that, as inviting and idyllic as this place is, the dangers are very real.
The Bruce Peninsula sticks out like a finger, separating Georgian Bay to the east and Lake Huron to the west. It makes up the northern portion of the Niagara Escarpment, recognized as a World Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Here, you'll find a wide variety of flora and fauna, from pockets of hardwood forest to wetlands, and animals like black bears, white-tailed deer and the massasauga rattlesnake.
As Ethan Meleg, visitor co-ordinator for the park, explains, the peninsula is located where boreal and Carolina forests meet. "We don't know if we're north or south," he says. "So that makes it great for diversity."
It's hard to imagine that 400 million years ago, this area was submerged beneath a tropical sea. Yet evidence can still be seen in a layer of pockmarked, fossilized coral. Beneath the coral are further layers of dolomite and limestone, each of which have eroded at different rates, creating all sorts of pits, caves and overhanging cliffs.
"If there's one thing we kick butt on, it's hiking and spectacular shoreline scenery," Meleg says.
The famous Bruce Trail, an 800-km hike from Niagara Falls to the town of Tobermory at the tip of the peninsula, traverses the water's edge of the park. It's along this stretch that you'll find geological gems such as the Grotto, a must-see cave scooped out of the dolomite by centuries of waves, and the Overhanging Point, a massive bowl hollowed out of a cliff. (In the summer, these sites tend to be overrun by visitors, so the best time of year to see them is in spring or fall.)
It's possible to reach both of these areas the conventional way, by hiking. But a much better approach is to lower yourself through holes in the ground, and climb through rocky tunnels down the cliffs.
"What I like about this place is you work for this spot," Meleg says as we descend into a tunnel that leads us beneath Overhanging Point. "You have to earn it."
Sure enough, the rocks open up and we find ourselves standing inside the hollow bowl. It's like being inside a gigantic satellite dish, facing a stunning panorama of forest and water. Inside this structure, created over millions of years, I feel incredibly small. All the effort I exerted is completely forgotten when I consider the tremendous forces of nature that shaped this place. Awestruck and breathless, I express my admiration: "Wow."
IF YOU GO
Where to eat:
DNA Fish & Chips Wagon: Indulge in satisfying, deep-fried local whitefish at this roadside chip wagon, located off Highway 6, about 15 kilometres south of Tobermory.
Smiths' Apples and Farm Market: Take a detour to pick your own apples at this orchard run by friendly owners Steve and Micki Smith. The farm also has a corn maze to explore. 470 The River Rd., Port Elgin; 519-832-2971; smithsapples.com.
Where to sleep:
Acres on the Lake B&B: This new bed and breakfast offers all the luxuries of a high-end resort. Hosts Donna and Morgan Robins built this secluded dream house on 9 hectares on the edge of Lake Huron. The scenery here is stunning, and if the sunset views don't persuade you to extend your stay, Donna's blueberry-stuffed French toast just might. 85 Sadler Creek Rd., Miller Lake; 519-379-2941; acresonthelake.ca.
Cabot Head Lighthouse: Become assistant lighthouse keepers in a week-long stay (there's nothing shorter) for $350 a couple. In exchange for doing minor chores and joining the "Friends of Cabot Head," which maintains the lighthouse, you stay in the modest, one-bedroom historic landmark. For inquiries, e-mail email@example.com; Cabothead.ca.