Day 50 – Hayballs and Cloudbales

There’s always a day (or several) during your stay on Manitoulin where you do absolutely nothing and absolutely love it.

Mike and Bogdan went out with some Island cronies for an afternoon of off-roading around Lake Kagawong, leaving Alexe and I alone at the campground. We debated hiking the stunning Cup and Saucer trail — up the cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment to a spectacular view of the North Channel and the Island — which in retrospect perhaps we should have chosen, but opted instead for a dazy laze around the dock at MCC. I love that dock like no other. It’s gone through a few facelifts since I first jumped off its weathered boards into the always warm waves of Lake Mindemoya — in a lifejacket with a crotch strap, aged almost five — but when I unfold my old bones down on the grey boards by the big rocks and close my eyes against the sun, it feels exactly the same. There is still no place I’d rather be on a sunny summer afternoon.

After a few rounds of swim, sun-dry, swim, sun-dry other side, swim, sun-dry on the floating dock, swim, sun-dry other side, etc., I moseyed on back up to the trailer, slapped the steaks in a marinade, and took Alexe out for an ice cream at Three Boys & a Girl in Mindemoya. We ate our cones on the sweet little mini-beach pull-off at the junction of Ketchankookem Trail and the turnoff from highway 551, and headed back to MCC to await the triumphant return of Jamie, Kelly and Pete to our little road trip crew.

We barbecued up a storm on the MCC cookout patio, where there is always an incredible view of an incredible sunset over the lake to accompany the meal. At dusk we took our party indoors to laze around Pete’s rented trailer — guys, orange shag carpet! Like stepping back in time. So amazing — and spun yarns of our adventures well into the night. It’s so nice to have friends.

Tomorrow — Ride Manitoulin!

Photo by Alexandra Sawicki

Day 49 – Happy birthday, Casque-Roux!

We woke Alexe up today with a tinny serenade of NKOTB singing Happy Birthday through the miniature speakers of my phone. Her first act of the day was to slow dance with Mike around the picnic table. Then it became a lazy morning of gifts and breakfasting on crepes in the campground, and a mid-morning swim off the dock.

We spent an hour or two in the early afternoon exploring the random mysteries and treasures of the Up Top Sports Shop in Mindemoya — Episode Nine, coming soon, has a full report — and it is a shopping experience not to be missed! We then headed to Gore Bay to poke around in the shops and enjoy the delicious ginger frozen yogurt at the newly renovated Island Pantry.

Next stop was the “prettiest village in Ontario,” the lovely Kagawong, to sample the wares of the artisan Manitoulin Chocolate Works. With our treats in hand — handmade chocolates, from mint melts to white chocolate truffles, peanut brittle, and chocolate covered liquorice! — we opened the cooler for a quiet picnic on the beach, then explored the art galleries and studios of the Old Mill Heritage Centre.

Always the best part of any trip to Kagawong, which translates from Anishinaabemowin as ‘Mists Rising from Falling Water’, we pulled on our bathing suits and leapt through the lacy cascades of Bridal Veil Falls to swim in the pool below. Lake Kagawong flows over the limestone bluff and down the Kagawong River to empty in Mudge Bay on the North Channel. The water is quite shallow this year, allowing swimmers to walk back under the thundering sheets of water instead of swimming ferociously against the strong current. The low water levels are not good news for the spawning Atlantic salmon and trout, however, as there’s not enough room over the rocks of the river to allow them upstream.

After we were thoroughly swummed out, it was back to Mindemoya and MCC for a boisterous game of softball in the field. Declaring baseball a ‘fat-man’s sport,’ Mike cracked a hearty grand slam all the way to the cookout deck, and ran all the little kids home. Although the weekly games often end with a tie, this week the Beavers triumphed by one point, thanks to the new Babe Ruth of the Internets.

Then it was off to the antique interior of the Old Schoolhouse Restaurant in Providence Bay for fine birthday dining, Pernod and caesars, candles and homemade bread, mussels and steak, and antique schoolhouse paraphernalia. Their famous bread pudding and creme brulee finished the meal, and back home at MCC, the Thursday night bonfire completed our day with a classic rock singalong and roasted marshmallows under a starry sky.

A perfect Manitoulin day.

Tomorrow — Mike and Boggie are going off-roading with the Ride Manitoulin boys!

Photo by Alexandra Sawicki

Day 48 – Magic island

My favourite road in Ontario is the ride down highway 6 from Whitefish Falls to Little Current at 5pm on a sunny summer day. To use a phrase I learned in British Columbia (and which really should not be used east of the Georgia Strait), it makes my heart sing.

The landscape changes here, from the towering pink granite and quartzite rock cuts of the La Cloche Mountain passes to scrubby cedar brush, low dolomite and limestone miniature mesas peeking out from underneath summer scorched pale grasses, and grey and white lichen-covered shale slivers scattered with weathered branches throughout the clearings. The sun glints on the North Channel and the long flat rock steps that gently lead down into the water. Causeways carry the road through the bays of Great La Cloche Island, across the tiny Goat Island and down to the 100-year old swing bridge over the channel to the biggest island of them all, Manitoulin.

The largest freshwater island in the world, Manitoulin — translated from Anishinaabemowin as ‘Land of the Great Spirit’ — is an extension of the Niagara Escarpment that stretches north from New York State through the Bruce Peninsula. Surrounded by water, and dividing Lake Huron from Georgian Bay, it is filled with water too — 108 inland lakes give the island its distinctive scent (I think — but that’s also partly due to the sweetgrass on the wind) and cool breezes, and offer myriad secret fishing spots and swimming holes.

It’s a place of winding country roads, lined with hay fields and dilapidated barns; corn fields golden in the afternoon sun; unique white sand dunes and beaches stretching the shore of Lake Huron as far as the eye can see. The sunsets on Manitoulin are legendary purple, gold and orange affairs, and chances are you’ll be watching the sun fall over a lake. Locally made Farquhar’s Ice Cream has shops in almost every town, and with farmer’s markets almost every day of the week all over the Island and local sweets shops such as the Chocolate Factory in Kagawong, it’s a treat-hunter’s paradise. From fine dining at the Schoolhouse Restaurant in Providence Bay and the Garden’s Gate near Tekhummah to the relatively recent addition of the delicious Lake Huron Fish & Chips in Prov (so good!), you won’t go hungry. There’s even a sweet little espresso bar in Mindemoya.

The island has a long pioneer history and a longer First Nations history, and there’s even evidence of a Paleo-Indian settlement in Sheguiandah. There are several pioneer museums, and the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation in M’Chigeeng First Nation and Great Spirit Circle Trail of Wikwemikong — Canada’s only officially recognized unceded Native land — offer glimpses into the Island’s rich cultural heritage through experiential tours, curated exhibits, and art galleries.

We arrived in Mindemoya at that magic just-before-dinnertime again, and I left the others to set up the trailer at Mindemoya Court Cottages & Campground on the shores of Lake Mindemoya while I ran into town for groceries before the stores closed. The spacious, leafy campground has 18 sites with RV hook-ups, as well as camping cabins, rental RVs, and motel-style accommodation. It’s a great place for families with a huge grassy field and baseball diamond, an idyllic dock (with a diving board that’s been there for at least 29 years and still bounces!) and fishing boats to rent, and suberb fishing and swimming. There are nine cozy two-bedroom housekeeping cottages rented weekly; nightly as available. The owner/manager, Greg Adams, is a rider, and is a great resource for good routes and local rides. Surrounded by trees and accessed by a private gravel driveway off the quiet Ketchankookem Trail, the Court hosts nightly family actitivies: Monday, a potluck BBQ cookout; Tuesday, an all-ages softball game pitting the Chipmunks against the Beavers; and Thursday, a family bonfire complete with songbooks and marshmallows.

After dinner we headed down to the dock for a magic swim in the clear blue-green waters of the lake.

Tomorrow — Alexe’s birthday! We’re going adventuring around the Island.

Photo by Alexandra Sawicki


Day 47 – Moonbeams

We breakfasted with Greenstone’s Mayor, Ron Beaulieu, at the Longlac Pizzaria this morning, and learned a lot about the region and the challenges it faces. With the changes in local industry over the last few decades, with mining tapering off in the late 70s and now with forestry in decline, many Northern towns are going through periods of change and adaptation as they try new ways to sustain their vibrant communities — vibrant communities that also have a lot to offer those travelling through.

Greenstone, with its many trails and canoe routes, rich and colourful history, and unique attractions — such as the Fire Management Headquarters and world-class ice and rock climbing sites — is itself an out-of-the-box wilderness destination. Ron, like many residents of the area, utilizes and appreciates the gifts of his region, recently snowmobiling from Longlac to Mont Tremblant in Quebec entirely on trail systems, and is working to develop promotion of the snowmobile trail system around Greenstone.

After breakfast, we meditatively covered the peaceful 200km of nothing but forest, bush, and waterways along highway 11 between Longlac and Hearst. 100km after Hearst, we poked around Kapuskasing’s fascinating train museum, then stopped in little Moonbeam for a picnic lunch and a visit with the UFO. The name Moonbeam is attributed to early pioneers who allegedly witnessed flashing lights falling from the sky, which they called ‘moonbeams’. It’s thought that these lights could have been aurora borealis, the northern lights, as they often appear with the moonlight.

We arrived in Timmins at the magic hour of just before dinnertime, and settled in to our lovely cozy chalet at Cedar Meadows Resort & Spa. The chalets are fully self-contained housekeeping homes, with a spacious loft bedroom, wraparound covered porch right on the river, a full kitchen, laundry room, and comfortable living/dining area. If you’re in Timmins on an extended stay for business, this is where you want to be. It was a luxury to have a full indoor kitchen to work with, and we indulged in our craving for healthy food with a big kale salad and red pepper paella.

Tomorrow — To Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the world!

Photo by Alexandra Sawicki

Day 46 – The Tetris of Greenstone

After a cozy diner breakfast with Lee at Chummy’s Restaurant in Beardmore in the pouring rain, we packed away the soaking wet trailer and headed up the road to explore the rest of Greenstone.

A recent amalgamation, the Greenstone municipality chops like a Tetris piece for a hundred kilometres or so along highway 11, and consists of the wards of Beardmore, Geraldton, Nakina, and Longlac, as well as the smaller townships and surrounding areas.

We stopped first at the Geraldton Interpretive Centre, and pored over the scale model of Geraldton to get a better perspective of the geography of the area. The Centre itself is built on the site of an old gold mine — one of the ten gold mines in the area — and the Macleod-Cockshutt Headframe #2 is preserved for curiosity and photographs just across the road. The landscaped reclamation of the 200-acre tailing pond is also open for tours.

A scale model of the Bombardier CL-415 water bomber hovers over the entrance hall, and interesting and well-curated displays showcase Geraldton’s history, from the First Nations communities, who greeted the first European visitors, to the early pioneers and the development of the mining industry. Greenstone is famous for its Chromium deposits – the potential new Ring of Fire mine is 300km north of Geraldton.

The town itself is located amidst several smaller waterways about 30km west of Long Lake. The lake, prior to its damming, was a major waterway for paddlers traveling from Lake Superior to James Bay. Much of the fur trade used this route – the Hudson’s Bay Company even opened an outpost in Longlac to prevent their competitor North West from purchasing traders’ goods before they reached the closest HBC outpost at Moose Factory. (The companies united in 1821 to prevent bloody skirmishes between rival employees.)

Just east of Geraldton, Highway 11 passes over a causeway with Lake Kenogamisis stretching out into the distance on both sides, fishing lodges and camps tucked away in the tiny bays. And heading into Longlac, the road curves around the top of Long Lake and the jutting promontory where the old Infant Jesus mission church stands watching over the town.

Looking out over the water, the relative speed of our journey by highway and railway really makes one realize the immense scale and ambition of the old canoe route. We had just driven the several hundred kilometers from Lake Superior, and we traveled the 600km or more of the route to James Bay back in June. All of a sudden thinking outside the pavement, and learning about the importance of Lake Kenogami as a travelway, as well as the history of the Rainy River demonstrated at Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung, gives one a sense of the vast network of waterways that span this province – indeed the whole eastern half of the continent – and the pivotal role they played in the development of this country.

And this afternoon we really got to see just how vast this part of the country is. We visited the Greenstone Fire Management Headquarters just north of Geraldton, which is responsible for managing forest fires in one seventh of the total area of Ontario. It’s a full service operation: two water bombers – one is in the shop recovering from damage sustained from a recent lightning strike! – and several air attack planes, which scout the fires and report conditions to the bombers. There’s a repair and maintenance area, a warehouse, two monitoring stations, and an operations room. When we visited, the staff were managing 40 forest fires! We even got to hang out in cockpit of the landed Bombardier CL-415 water bomber with its pilot Steve.

On our way back to Geraldton we dropped in to the Recon Air barns just on the other side of the runway. Roy Leuenberger and his crew specialize in the rebuilding and resale of De Havilland DHC-2 Beavers and DHC-3 Otters. The ultimate northern Ontario bushplane, the DHCs were taken off the assembly line in the 1967, and there are only about 400 left – only 466 Otters were ever made; there were 1200 or so Beavers. Some planes, like the Otter operated by White River Air, are found languishing overseas – fusillage lined with chicken wire and housing a coop of hens; wings sliding local laughing children into a nearby water hole – and brought back to Geraldton to be restored for use in the bush.

Heavy rain and general exhaustion aborted our planned mission to Nakina and dinner in the old CNR Station restaurant, and after a little reconnaissance around Geraldton and a dinner of fried chicken and potato “wedgies” – a local tradition – we continued on to Longlac and the comforts of a roadside motel.

Tomorrow – Our hustle down the highway back to Timmins! And lunch with the aliens in Moonbeam…

Photo by Alexandra Sawicki 


Day 45 – Clifftop blueberries

After a ridiculously late sleep-in that we blamed entirely on the one-hour time change from Ignace to Thunder Bay, we woke up just in time to catch the free breakfast at the Day’s Inn (Waffle machine! And this time I didn’t mess it up). After a slow-paced pack-up, we headed off on our mission to outfit Mike with a more weather-appropriate riding jacket and new riding boots. On the way, as he shifted down at a stop-light, I could see daylight through the hole in the flapping sole of his left boot. A quick visit to the Harley-Davidson shop found a nice light-weight armoured jacket, and the Thunder Bay mall took care of the rest — as well as a fast and furious food-court lunch.

We were on the road north by 1:30pm, heading up highway 11 to Greenstone to meet local tourism maven Lee MacOdrum and hike the 1.2 billion year old Pijitawabik Palisades. The stunning precambrian cliffs form a deep valley — almost 500 feet high — with highway 11 and various small lakes tucked into the curves in the basin, about 30km south of Beardmore. The trail, built by Geraldton Community Forest and the Municipality of Greenstone, is a little challenging, starting with a fairly steep couple of kilometres, although they are tempered with wooden staircases in two sections. But once the hardscrabble is over and you’re up on the plateau, all that heavy breathing is worth it. Wild blueberries grow rampant along the trail, and the views of the winding valley and hazy cliffs in the distance are spectacular. There are four open lookout areas along the clifftop, where you can sit on the flat rock and enjoy the views. I spent most of my time nose deep in blueberries.

The trail continues another 3 or 4 km through lush bracken to a small cascade of icy cold runoff that plummets down the cliff-face to a pool below. There is a turnoff that loops around to a small lake, but as we started fairly late in the day, we didn’t have time to check it out. Lee mentioned that the trail is a great full-day excursion, tackling the cliffs in the early morning before the sun is at full power, spending mid-day picking blueberries in the shade, and then whiling away the afternoon swimming in the lake before heading back down as the day cools off.

As we headed on up the highway, the cliffs were bathed in the orange and purple glow of the setting sun, as they have been for over a billion years. Mind-blowing.

We arrived at the Poplar Lodge Park campground on Lake Nipigon just as dusk was falling. Alexe and I went for a twilight swim in the glassy dove-grey cove, small rocky treed islets stretching out as far as we could see into the darkness. After more physical exertion in one day than all the other 44 put together, we had a low-key dinner of tailgate Habitant Pea Soup and saltines with peanut butter and plain old passed out.

Tomorrow — Fighting forest fires in Geraldton!

Photo by Alexandra Sawicki
Rucksacks courtesy of Lee Kennard, Mayor of Ignace. “You Otter be in Ignace!”

Day 44 – Tailwinds and thunderstorms

Leaving Northwestern Ontario behind after nearly a week exploring the ‘wild side’ of the province, we headed down highway 11 out of Ignace this morning toward Thunder Bay and our afternoon Sail Superior adventure.

Captain Greg Heroux has been running charters and boat tours around Lake Superior since 2000, and has been sailing himself since age ten. We met him on board Frodo, a one-mast Finnish-built ocean-going sloop, at Thunder Bay’s Marina Park, and headed out into the harbour basin. Captain Brett Clibbery joined us aboard Sail Superior’s habour touring vessel Journeyer, a 38-ft downeaster ketch, and we raced for the harbour light.

It was a gorgeous day for a lazy spinnaker drift across the harbour, and Greg pulled the chute on his newest sail and brightened up the between-showers harbour with bold bursts of turquoise, yellow and fuschia. He entertained with stories of his Atlantic crossings in Frodo, and the eight-month voyage from Thunder Bay to Portugal and beyond with his family.

As beautiful as Lake Superior is when you’re watching it from the peaks and valleys of highway 17, it’s really a special thing to become acquainted with it out and on the water. Islands stretch out in the distance, and Sleeping Giant guards Thunder Bay with its peaceful head.

It’s a changeable lake — Thunder Bay’s not called Thunder Bay for nothin’ — and weather can go from gorgeous sunshine to ferocious skies in an hour or two. We were glad we were in such capable hands as the storm started back up again in the evening — Greg explained that the mast and the halyards formed a protecting pyramid around the cockpit, so even if the boat was hit we’d be safe. (And since Alexe has already been struck by lightning, the chances of it happening again were quite slim). The lights of Thunder Bay twinkled as we cruised back into the harbour surrounded by thundering skies and flashes of lightning over the town — a big glorious summer storm to break the heatwave.

Greg makes it easy for those traveling to Thunder Bay — and locals as well — to experience the beauty of the Superior, with a variety of sailing adventures for any itinerary and budget. He offers “big lake” adventures to Sleeping Giant and beyond, with Nature Retreat Packages that take in the best coastal towns and coves in the area. He’ll also customize private group excursions to the Welcome, Thompson, Pie, or Caribou Islands, just for the day or for overnight adventures including gourmet dinners onboard.

He runs four Thunder Bay Harbour Sailing tours everyday, where guests get a close-up look at the lakers and salties and the massive grain elevators for a different perspective of Thunder Bay. He’s also recently branched out with sailing instruction, and offers sailing lessons as well as cruise and learn holidays, from beginner basics to coastal navigation. For those with sailing experience, he also provides bareback charter rentals for do-it-yourself vacations to Isle Royale, Thompson Island, Slate Islands, and along Superior’s North Shore.

This was our second trip with Captain Greg and Sail Superior, and there’s not a single doubt that next time we’re in Thunder Bay we’ll be out on the water with him again. It was definitely one of the highlights of the Road Trip, both last year and this year!

Tomorrow — North, north, north again to Greenstone and up up up to the 1.2 billion year old Pijitawabik Palisades!

Photo of Captain Gregory Heroux by Alexandra Sawicki

Day 43 – Life after Pickle Lake

Photo taken from the balcony outside our rooms.

After the extremely long and incredibly hot trip back from Pickle Lake, all anyone wanted to do was jump in the lake. We headed to the deliciously retro Lone Pine Motel in Ignace, which feels like your grandma’s cottage and smells like fresh laundry and the outdoors, with matching knotty pine furniture, chenille bedspreads, and a gorgeous view of all the little islands in Agimac Lake.

A brief but amazing afternoon rain shower cooled everything down and cleared the sky just enough for a beautiful sunset over the glassy water.

Tomorrow – back to Thunder Bay for an awesome afternoon sail with Captain Greg Heroux and Sail Superior!

Photo of me by Alexandra Sawicki 

Day 42 – Chillin’ with the Silver Tops

This morning the lovely and generous folks at the Silver Tops Senior Centre in Ignace put on quite a breakfast spread for us. Doug Pronger of the Economic Development Office and Mayor Lee Kennard welcomed us with sizzling sausages on the grill outside, while the ladies of the Silver Tops flipped blueberry pancakes on the griddles in the kitchen. Wild blueberries are a local treat, and people come from all over to glean for the abundant berries along the Agimac River.

The townfolk shared a lot of local history and colour with us, notably the story of White Otter Castle, built deep in the bush 14 portages in in the early 1900s, and local newspaperman and archaeologist Dennis Smyk’s discovery of over 150 pictograph sites in the region.

After a wonderful time of good food and interesting stories, we headed up highway 599 — the longest secondary highway in Ontario, and also the northernmost paved road in the province — to Pickle Lake, pretty much as far as you can go on pavement. It’s even slightly further north than Moosonee! The road is verrrry long, with few towns or amenities on the way, but sparkles with lakes and tamarack forest and marshland.

We stopped for a picnic at the beach in Pickle Lake, and visited the Northern Store — they have everything! — before heading south about 30km to the Oz Lake Motel on the shores of St Joseph Lake, one of the top five fishing destinations in North America. Mike and Bogdan took out a little tinny on the water and caught so many fish they had to stop. Bogdan is perfecting his grandmother’s pickled fish recipe, which involves brining lightly floured fried fish in boiling vinegar, but there’s only so much brining one can do in motel rooms. (We actually ate sandwiches of Bogdan’s pickled walleye and onions at our picnic in Pickle Lake!)

Tomorrow — To the Lone Pine Motel on the shores of Agimac Lake in Ignace to recover from our long sojourn north.

PS: Also, a teenage bear and I played a little game of chicken this morning on my way back from the shower in Sandbar Lake campground. It was pretty exciting! I won, obviously.

Photo by Alexandra Sawicki

Day 41 – City frog, country frog

After a fairly lengthy morning swim and submerged confab at the campground for Mike and me — it was stinkin’ hot by 8am — we packed up the trailer and headed to the bustling Kenora farmers’ market on the shores of Lake of the Woods. Although there wasn’t a lot of produce on sale — onions, fresh herbs, and leafy greens with a few slender carrots and beets were the extent of it — it was a very vibrant place to be. It felt like the entire town was out in the big tent by the water, meandering down the aisles of handmade jewelry, soaps, honey and preserves, glass decorations, meats, quilts and knitting.

We sat in the coolness of a friendly coffee shop with some icy drinks and watched the town pass for a while before heading down highway 17 to our lunch stop at Busters Barbeque in Vermilion Bay. One whole wall is a testament to its award-winning blueberry barbecue sauce — prize ribbons overlap above pyramids of the sauce itself. It’s a hearty room, with lightning quick service and big rolls of paper towel on each table to help with the remnants of barbecue sauce. My ‘mini-rack’ of ribs came with four ribs moderately slathered in barbecue sauce, with homemade baked beans and potato salad. Options include cornbread, coleslaw, fries, tater tots, and sweet potato fries. Bogdan had the brisket sandwich, and Alexe the plain old hamburger, which she said was delicious. With two kinds of homemade iced tea on the menu, it was the perfect choice for a delicious and filling lunch to keep us going til Ignace.

We set up camp at Sandbar Lake provincial park, which, along with two miles of sandy beach, comes with a prodigious assortment of biting insects. We were forced to go to sleep early — the lights were attracting so many bugs even our electric killing racquettes weren’t up to the task! Prior to that discovery, Bogdan sprayed himself down with probably a whole can of Off! and headed off to test the waters with his borrowed tackle box, part of the provincial park Tackle Share/OFAH program. Happy as a clam, he came home with a nicely cleaned and filleted walleye courtesy of the DIY fish cleaning station.

Tomorrow — Blueberry pancakes with the Silver Tops in Ignace! And… all the way to Pickle Lake.

Photo by Alexandra Sawicki