A GeekDad Takes Southampton’s Chantry Island Tour

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A few weeks back, my family wrapped up a two-week camping trip at MacGregor Point provincial park, near Ontario (Canada’s) Bruce Peninsula. I’ve posted about the park before, so this time I focused on some of the camping gear I found especially useful on the trip. But this year we also finally got around to exploring an island with a lighthouse that we can see in the distance. We always wondered what it was and now—thanks to the Chantry Island tour—the mystery is not only solved, we’ve set foot on the island.

Chantry Island
The mysterious Chantry Island from the Southampton breakwater (Photo by Brad Moon)

Chantry Island Tour

Southampton is just a 15-minute drive from MacGregor Point. The small town is home to a collection of nice little shops and restaurants, including Outlaw Brew Co., where I enjoyed the micro brewery’s own Two Moon Junction wheat beer with blueberry and an excellent pulled pork sandwich.

There are also beaches with beautiful views of Lake Huron—including Chantry Island—a harbor (the Saugeen River), and that rarest of things in a beachside town: free parking.

We called about one week ahead to book our tour of Chantry Island. The Marine Heritage Society operates the tour. It’s staffed by volunteers, and their boat accommodates just nine passengers per trip, so it’s really rolling the dice to expect there will be seats available on demand.

We arrived about 20 minutes before the scheduled departure on a gorgeous, sunny day. The society’s boat is a shiny new aluminum number that does double-duty as a rescue boat when needed. It has seating indoors with windows for those who want to avoid the weather (it doesn’t run during heavy rain), with a few spots for sitting and standing outdoors. The ride to Chantry Island doesn’t take long (I believe it was around 15 minutes), with the island located just about one mile offshore. During the trip, one of the guides explained much of the history of Southampton, the island, and its lighthouse. There are over 50 known shipwrecks around the island—which is why that lighthouse was needed…

Arrival on Chantry Island

Chantry island actually has two claims to fame. There’s the lighthouse and the restored (by those volunteers) lighthouse keeper’s home. But the island itself is also protected as one of nine designated Migratory Bird Sanctuaries in Ontario. It gained this distinction in 1957, and at just 64 hectares (158 acres), it’s the second smallest of the bunch. There are over 10,000 mating pairs of cormorants, black-crowned night herons, great blue herons, and egrets, with up to 50,000 birds on the tiny island during the height of the breeding season.

We saw mostly cormorants—who have made their presence very obvious with trees and surrounding areas that are bare of foliage—along with some egrets.

The tour was split into two groups on arrival at the island. One went to the lighthouse, the other to the lighthouse keeper’s cottage, each with their own guide.

Chantry Island
The Chantry Island lighthouse and lighthouse keeper’s cottage, flanked by trees full of cormorants (Photo by Brad Moon)

The cottage has been carefully rebuilt by volunteers after years of neglect left it as remnants of walls piled with rubble. It’s been filled with local artifacts, replicating the look of the cottage and the life of its inhabitants circa the 1800s. This aspect of the tour was very informative and interactive, with our guide not just pointing out details and offering explanations, but also asking questions of the participants. The idea of one lighthouse keeper having to row his kids to school on the mainland and then back, every day—in a massive wooden boat that makes my SUV look like a Mini—put my complaints about having to play taxi driver to my own kids in a big heap of perspective.

The lighthouse tour was also very interesting, although a little more physical with 106 steps to climb in very tight quarters. Built in 1859, it’s 80 feet tall. One interesting fact we learned is that late in its life when it was no longer permanently manned, the lighthouse was converted from liquid fuel (the keeper used to have to haul the fuel up those 106 stairs!) to batteries. Car batteries. And while someone had to carry each of those batteries up the 80-foot climb, at some point they decided not to bother carrying the spent batteries down. They ended up being thrown at the cottage, contributing to its collapse, and making for an even bigger mess to be cleaned up by the Marine Heritage Society volunteers.

Chantry Island
Looking out over the Chantry Island bird sanctuary from the top of the lighthouse (Photo by Brad Moon)

That lighthouse part of the tour also has a payoff with spectacular views of the island and shore from the top. From this vantage point, you get a much better perspective on the bird population. There is no walking around the main bird sanctuary to protect the nesting grounds and prevent spooking the inhabitants. Based on the mess those cormorant colonies make, I don’t think I’d want to be walking around their territory anyway…

When our boat pulled back into the dock two hours after departure, this little guy was darting around, looking for easy access to the water. I’m pretty sure it’s a mink. After a few moments, he scampered off then slipped into the harbor water.

Chantry Island
Mink(?) on the dock (Photo by Brad Moon)

Naturally, there’s a gift shop at the end of the tour. This one is a nice change because instead of being 90% candy and mass-produced toys, it features many on-theme pieces by local artists.

If you happen to make it to the Southampton area in the summer, the Chantry Island tour is a family-friendly way to spend a few hours on the lake. With a combination boat ride and guided tour, it was a great way to take a break in the middle of a two-week camping trip. Tour prices are Cdn $30 per person. There are no child rates, but there is a discount for groups.

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