Wendat country and the islands of Georgian Bay
Just an hour and a half from Toronto, Midland is home to one of North America's most significant historic sites: Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, founded by Jesuits in 1639. The village there today is a replica of the original French settlement, which was destroyed in 1649.
Predictably, the term "Huron" used by Europeans is pejorative (from the French word "hure", the head of a boar, a reference to the men's hairstyle). The Hurons called themselves Wendat (dwellers of an island or peninsula), and their region, Wendake. However, these latter words are little-known and used by white people even today.
The first white man to set foot in the area was Étienne Brûlé in 1613. He was sent by Samuel de Champlain himself, who arrived two years later. Though reputed a scoundrel toward Wendat women and a traitor among the French, Brûlé led the way to European settlers in the New World.
The Sainte-Marie village is a reconstitution of approximately 30 different buildings, showing everything from the original fortification walls and entrance to churches, the Jesuit rectory, tailor's and shoemaker's shops, Wendat longhouses and French settlers' farmhouses. Every half hour throughout the day, costumed guides give demonstrations and lectures on themes such as Wendat games and storytelling, ancient waterways lock systems and French clothing in the 17th century.
The demonstrations are entertaining as well as informative. During the old clothing workshop, for example, we learn that the short pants men wore were a way of saving money on replacements, as the lye soap used for washing was harsh and the chamber pot contents habitually thrown out of windows would splash the calves most, needing a good launder (long socks were cheaper than replacing long pants). Meanwhile, I find out that all those fringes on Native clothes had a purpose other than decorative: they were useful as string or rope, to help tie things. Women with fringed skirts would pull on a fringe, or several, and break them off to use to bind whatever they needed. Once they ran out of fringes, they added new ones before going out in the bush again.
Guides are available in each building to field questions and seem able to answer all of them, from the origin of the roofing and the number of weeks each building took to construct, to the matrilineal customs of the Wendat people. Staff members here seem to care genuinely about the history they illustrate. There are also hands-on demonstrations for adults and children alike, for items such as clay "okies", representing faces that were thought to be a good portent, and paraffin candles made by dipping strings hanging from a stick into a molten mixture and building the residue.
All in all, the $12 admission rate is well worth it to see crucial Canadian heritage, with such knowledgeable staff.
Right next to the village is the Wye Marsh National Wildlife Area, designated as an Important Bird Area (IBA). Just across Highway 12 is the Martyr's Shrine, commemorating the sacrifice of early Jesuits such as Jean de Brébeuf.
There are several other attractions in Midland. A good place to unwind and have a picnic, weather permitting, is Little Lake Park, just north of Highway 12 off King Street. The Huronia museum, with its reconstituted Native village, is also in the park, so it's a good day excursion for those staying a few days in the area.
The other main attraction is a cruise out to the 30,000 Islands. These are scattered out into Georgian Bay and are touted as the "largest concentration of islands in the world" and "finest sailing area in the Northern hemisphere" by Midland Tours Inc., the boat tour company.
Native legend has it that the islands were born when the giant Kitchekewana got angry and scattered earth on the water. For those who don't have their own boat, the two-and-a-half hour cruise on the Miss Midland out of Midland Harbour is a worthwhile alternative to the Honey Harbour shuttle to Beausoleil Island, which leaves at 9:30 a.m. to drop off passengers for a four-hour taste of wilderness and collects them again at 1:30 p.m., for $16. Miss Midland leaves in the morning, afternoon or late afternoon and also has a sunset dinner cruise. Without dinner, the tour is $23. It encircles Beausoleil Island and gives a water-based view of the Georgian Islands National Park encompassing 59 islands, with a running commentary. Over 20 points of interest are discussed during the tour.