It’s taken me a bit of time to get to this, but Georgian Bay Islands National Park has a new management plan, which you can read for yourself. As part of the plan’s development, park staff held a public consultation via Zoom on its draft. I participated, and I don’t think more than a handful of other people did so.
The plan prioritizes the park’s Indigenous dimensions, both historic and present-day, and promises a future that features less infrastructure, not more. Ecological integrity is a significant stated goal.
I was struck by how little mention the draft made of boaters. The park is after all water-access-only, and boaters represent a significant user base. I found it difficult to imagine how the park could hope to achieve its environmental/ecological goals if its management plan did not acknowledge the significant presence of cruising boats. The problem for the park is that most visiting boaters don’t pay fees, unless they make use of the increasingly less numerous docks or go to the bother of securing a beach permit for their dinghy (more on that below).
But that doesn’t mean boaters aren’t there, as anyone who has tried to anchor on a weekend in popular spots like Chimney Bay and Lost Bay at Beausoleil Island and the “hockey stick” and back anchorage at Bone Island. And just because many of these boaters do not set foot in the park doesn’t mean they’re not making use of it . The park’s land base provides sheltered anchorages (largely) free of cottages—and free of charge. And the boats that gather there impact the park by their presence, whether because of grey water discharges, dog poop, campfires, trash, fishing, or human activities that disturb wildlife.
In my Zoom comments, I drew attention to the draft plan’s invisible elephant, namely boaters who aren’t captured in visitor numbers because they aren’t customers who pay overnight fees at designated docks. I explained that I live a half-dozen miles from the park and have been accessing GBINP with my family since the mid 1990s with a variety of boats, and that in all that time we’ve stayed at a dock on no more than a handful of occasions. We tend to hang out in anchorages in the north end of Beausoleil and in the Gin Islands, and otherwise seek out the less visited parts of the park, such as the Hatch Islands and Gray Island. These holdings have no facilities and there is no way for someone like me to pay to use them.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not looking for excuses to spend money. And generally speaking, I don’t like red tape getting in the way of my enjoyment of natural spaces. Heaven knows, I’m not asking for designated mooring bays with fixed moorings that you have to reserve in advance. And I was not onside with the demands of a boater advocacy group a number of years ago that wanted the park to provide groomed beaches and shore power. GBINP is not a floating RV resort, nor should it become one. But as a longstanding park user and local resident, GBINP is a significant contributor to my quality of life, and if there was a way for me to give back that would help sustain the park and ensure that users like me were formally acknowledged, I would do it.
The only option is a beaching pass for a dinghy, but in all the years I have used the park, I have purchased one once, around 2012, by driving to the park office at the Wye River off highway 12 near my home. During covid, I tried to buy one as a “do the right thing” gesture, but the park office was closed to the public. I emailed the park, and I was told to go to the park office at Cedar Bay, dock my boat, and buy one. Not the most convenient solution when I rarely go near that part of the park, and I didn’t bother. Hopefully, with covid restrictions having eased, I can buy a pass at the Wye River office this year.
My advice to the park staff included these points:
•Make the beaching passes for dinghies much easier to purchase. People should be able to order them online and receive them in the mail.
•Conduct outreach efforts to marinas in the area to pursue mutual goals. The marinas would lose a significant reason for existence if GBINP wasn’t there. The park should work on ways to reach marina clients and promote their support of the park through beaching permits. If someone can afford thousands of dollars for a marina slip, they can afford about eighty bucks for a season-long beaching pass. It would be great if marinas would retail these passes. With most of the local marinas now owned by Maple Leaf, one phone call should get the ball rolling.
•The park would benefit from a non-profit “Friends of” group, which other significant parks in Ontario enjoy. I made it clear however that I was not volunteering to start one!
I saw heads nodding as I spoke, and hoped they would take my comments to heart. When the final management plan was released, I was pleased to see much more verbiage about cruising boaters:
There are also boaters who enjoy the national park and national historic site from the water offshore and anchor in various bays around Beausoleil Island. These boaters who are not coming onto docks or lands that are administered by Parks Canada are technically not visitors to Georgian Bay Islands National Park and Beausoleil Island National Historic Site. Although, some of these boaters use tender vessels (small boats or dinghies) to bring their dogs to shore to exercise them, deposit garbage or otherwise use island facilities. As of 2022, activities on the waters surrounding the islands in the national park are generally not within the control of Parks Canada. Outreach efforts to better connect more of these boaters with messaging about the national park and national historic site are needed, and options to expand Parks Canada authorities may be explored.
So that’s a start. The park management plan acknowledges that boaters who don’t pay fees at docks exist and that outreach efforts are needed.