Day 59 – Peace in the Valley

We began our descent out of Northern Ontario with a late morning jaunt down highway 11 from Mattawa to Pembroke, where we hooked up with Ottawa Valley Tourism’s Melissa Marquart for an afternoon adventure in the land of the rushing rivers.

After a late lunch at the Pembroke Best Western, we headed west to check out the pretty little town of Wilno, the first Polish settlement in Ontario. We had been through the area in early June, but it’s always nice to have a local guide to let you in on all the little secret gems, and she took us to some great little spots we never would have discovered otherwise.

On the way to our evening accommodation, the Pinewood Inn in Barry’s Bay, Melissa took us to the lookout over Wilno, where from a low shady bluff the green hills roll away down the valley. A plaque commemorates the long Polish history and unique culture of the community.

We whiled away the heat of the afternoon swimming in Kamaniskeg Lake in Barry’s Bay, strolling in our bathing suits and towel sarongs along a grassy path down the hill right behind the Pinewood.

But the absolute best part of the day was the surprise that awaited us at the Wilno Tavern. An unpresuming white building tucked up on a rise along the highway with a beautiful folk art mural on the wall, we had passed it by on our first run through town on our way to Bonnechere in June, but it had appeared so quiet and sleepy we didn’t think much of it.

Opening the door we were swept into a bustling mix of local families and tables full of vibrant river rafting guides, everyone lining up for the brimming smorgasbord of traditional (yet uniquely local) Polish fare. Because Wilno was so culturally isolated for most of its history, and the Polish settlers all arrived from one area of Poland, the dialect and food of the Wilno area is quite distinctive.

It’s also totally delicious. For $17.95, we stuffed our faces with gigantic cheese, potato and bacon-filled pierogies with all the fixings, cabbage rolls, pickled whitefish, meatballs, sausages and fried onions, braised red cabbage, mashed potatoes and gravy, salads, and even homemade lemon meringue and rhubarb pies.

The Tavern also hosts open-mike nights on Tuesdays, and the audience crams in from miles around. The Valley is home to several white water rafting companies, and guests and guides alike make the trip to Wilno to dance the night away accompanied by, as one guide put it, ‘lots of Polish beer.’

After dinner we went for a short digestive stroll down the old train tracks, along which the community has developed a beautiful homage to their history with a museum of old log buildings surrounded by flower gardens and the old wayfinding wooden crosses used to mark property boundaries when the area was first settled. The museum was closed for the day, but the photographic history of the area’s churches offered a fascinating glimpse of what life was like in this little Polish town.

Saying goodbye to Melissa, we headed back to Barry’s Bay and the cozy Pinewood Inn.

Tomorrow – Onward to Peterborough on the legendary Peterson & Elephant Lake Roads!

Photo by Alexandra Sawicki

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