Balm for the soul

An image embedded in my brain since early childhood in the 1930s and 1940s has been the profile of Giant’s Tomb Island, with its long hump that legend claims is the last resting place of Kitchikewana.

The story goes that long, long ago this giant’s love for a beautiful maiden was rebuffed, and in the anguish of a broken heart he waded out into the waters of what is now Georgian Bay and vented his sorrow. His great arms flailed and thrashed into the shore, grasped enormous handfuls of rock and soil and hurled them into the distance. At last, totally bereft and exhausted, he lay down on one of the islands he had created, and he died.

Where Kitchikewana’s great hands dug into the shoreline we now have the bays of Penetanguishene, Midland, Hog, Sturgeon and Matchedash. Where his flung handfuls landed are the many islands of Georgian Bay. Where the giant lay down and died, over time his remains became buried and that, says the legend, created the hump that runs down the middle of Giant’s Tomb Island.

Today, much of the Giant’s Tomb, or just “the Tomb” as I’ve always called it, is part of Awenda Provincial Park on the adjacent mainland in Tiny Township. Like the other large islands in this part of Georgian Bay, it is made up of sandy soil and huge boulders with stands of tall, straight deciduous trees mixed with some of the pines and cedars that thrive on the rocky isles to the north and east.

In the late Forties, mention of an expedition to the Tomb was enough to quicken a young boy’s pulse. For one thing, we’d be going in a big boat because that was open water and to a kid who loved boats that was an adventure in itself. Then there were the beaches along the east side of the island to swim at and explore. After the adults moored the boat offshore, we youngsters would drop over the side to dive and play all the way to the beach many metres away.

Sometimes the grownups would take us around to the more formidable west side of the Tomb where huge boulder beds loomed through crystal clear waters and some of the largest smallmouth bass I’ve ever seen were lured aboard. This shore was strictly for serious fishing. No gentle beach here, just three miles of boulders where landing small boats was risky, so we stayed aboard the big boat and learned how to catch bass.

During these excursions there was always a sense of mystery about the big uninhabited island. What was it really like deep among those densely growing trees? Did anyone ever go in there? What about the hump that supposedly covered the remains of Kitchikewana? What would it be like to climb up it, and what would we discover there?

The chance to find out didn’t come until a Victoria Day weekend decades later. In town, that’s when the gardeners and campers flock into the great outdoors for the first time of the year. Out on the Bay, however, fog can play havoc with boating in late May. That Sunday in the 1960s was calm, clear and warm. Several family members decided it was a perfect day to try and get to the Tomb, penetrate the interior, climb the hill and maybe even commune with the spirit of Kitchikewana.

In our little boat we followed the route to Whalesback Rock then struck directly west to the beaches of the Tomb. The water was glassy. Reefs would suddenly loom like yellow monsters from the green depths but were still too deep to do us any damage as we sped along. We had the entire shore to ourselves. After mooring close into the beach, we shouldered our backpack, took a compass bearing and plunged into the woods.

Last year’s dead leaves crunched underfoot. Except for a few buds on the shrubbery and new grass shoots and blooming trilliums on the ground, there was little greenery. It was easy to see among the trees. Even so, not many meters into the woods it began to feel otherworldly. We trekked on, wondering when the ground would start to rise up Kitchikewana’s hill. Instead, ahead we could see what looked like a solid wall of tree trunks. The hump was indeed just that – a steep tree covered slope rising sharply in the interior of the island.

Before climbing it, we paused briefly to catch our breaths. There wasn’t a sound other than the leaves crackling beneath our shoes when we moved. The sense of mystery deepened.

The hump now became the Tomb. On top it was flat as far as the eye could see and was strewn with boulders, some as big as a cabin. Tall silver birches and other hardwoods soared above us. Without leaves yet, their branches filtered the afternoon sunlight pouring from above. Around it blue sky gave colour to the otherwise black, brown, gray and white scene. The silence up there was even more profound. We spoke in whispers.

We climbed onto one of the larger boulders where a sun-spot reached, sat and just absorbed the stillness. Occasionally rustling leaves would echo among the trees – probably a chipmunk looking for seeds on the forest floor – but that was the only sound amid these acres of woodland. Time drifted by as we each enjoyed our own personal nirvana in that tranquil setting.

Yes, of course it was the spell of the giant upon us. We were pleased to realize that Kitchikewana had found a place of such beauty and peace in which to spend the rest of eternity. We were grateful for the hour or two that we had been refreshed there. The message of those moments has stayed with us over all the years since.

An earlier version of this story originally appeared in the Midland Free Press.

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