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Lake Superior Circle Tour – Part II – Ontario

My husband Hans and I left Stillwater Minnesota, our home east of St. Paul on Saturday August 31st to circle Lake Superior. This is Part II of our Lake Superior Circle Tour which picks-up where “Part I—Minnesota” left off…

Just so you know if you go into Canada on Labor Day, even though it is a Monday, stores are closed. All stores. No exceptions! How do I know this you might wonder? The pump to inflate my blow-up mattress broke. No matter how many valiant attempts my husband Hans made to revive, the little engine just couldn’t anymore. Unlike their American neighbors to the south, Canadians actually observe the holiday and ditch their toils. Thunder Bay was like a ghost town! Here I should mention, shut off your smart phone. Not only is Canada a large country that sports a large red maple leaf on their flag, they have rather large roaming fees I have come to learn! So much for my Grand Portage, Minnesota casino winnings, Eh?

lake superior circle tour
We really enjoy the scenic views at Lake Superior

Located on the shore of the world’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Superior, and nestled among Canada’s boreal forests and Canadian Shield, Thunder Bay has everything you need to get outfitted properly for any adventure, plus urban culinary and cultural attractions to enhance any epic exploration. Just don’t plan on shopping for it on Labor Day.

Tourism Thunder Bay operates two Information Centers for the convenience of the traveling public: The Terry Fox Tourist Information Centre as you enter Thunder Bay from the east on Highway 11/17, and the Pagoda by Thunder Bay’s waterfront at Red River Road and Water Street.
We stopped at the Terry Fox Center. A tall bronze statue, set on a 45 ton granite base, with a foundation of local amethyst, commands a breath-taking view of Lake Superior. The statue was erected in memory of Canadian, Terry Fox, the courageous one-legged runner who embarked on a cross-country run for cancer research called the “Marathon of Hope.”

At the center knowledgeable staff will assist you. The selection of maps, brochures, guides, etc far outweighed our expectations. Everything we needed to plan the Ontario leg of our circle tour, and then some, we grabbed there. The amenities include spotless public washrooms, vending machines, picnic area, payphones and Ontario Souvenirs. I scored some discounted end-of-season tee shirts for some little Americans back home extolling the wonders of Canada! There is a currency exchange service during certain hours of the day. This is a must stop that is well worth your time!

As we debated which Ontario Provincial Park to set-up camp our first night in Canada, we made a geological discovery. Amethyst Mine Panorama is located 30 miles east of Thunder Bay off Hwy 17 on East Loon Rd. For eight Canadian bucks [loonies actually] you can grab pails, digging tools, running water is provided, and hunt through a huge patch of dirt and jagged stones. There is a minimal price per pound. I chose to hunt up a pair of perfectly acceptable purple earrings in one of the plentiful jewelry cases in the Mine’s gift shop/interpreter center. The air conditioned gateway to the amethyst field.

The cover of the Amethyst Mine Panorama brochure shows two smiling teenage girls, each holding an amethyst the size of a healthy cantaloupe, presumably kicked-up in the self-help patch of dirt and jagged stones. Neither rock looks like they could possibly fit in the pails provided. The brochure has info about the self-guided tours, collect your own amethyst site, and store. There were families galore having a blast. The mine’s staff were friendly and clearly passionate about their purple stones.

You’ll discover the Ontario portion of the Lake Superior Circle Tour travel route takes you through the remnants of a mountain range. A range that was once higher than the Rockies and still offers spectacular views of Lake Superior. The Parks are phenomenal. I can report first hand that Ontario Provincial Parks provide modern campgrounds with great hiking trails, forests, impressive waterfalls, beautiful lakeshore beaches, picturesque scenery and more.
For those who love observing beautiful scenery on a drive, the road east of Nipigon to Coldwell and Neys Provincial Park, doesn’t get any better than this! I would describe it as “eye candy for a nature lover’s soul.” You are within sight of the lake most all of the route. You travel up, over, and around some impressive mountains. Impressive enough if you were raised landlocked, corn fed, a Midwestern prairie lass from Minnesota.

lake superior circle tour
Thunder Bay has everything you need to get outfitted properly for any adventure, plus urban culinary and cultural attractions to enhance any epic exploration

Southern Ontario is rugged. You can’t help but notice properties along Hwy 17 make no pretense. They look purposeful. Firewood is proudly stacked and squirreled away for the winter cold. Antlers hang over doors and on the sides of sheds. Snowmobiles and all manner of water transportation; canoes, kayaks, fishing boats, inner tubes, and jet skis litter yards and openings to garages. Homes here all have one thing in common . . . satellite dishes pointed to the heavens . . . worshipping the God of Reception or so it seems. Signs for “Walt’s Worms, Dry Campfire Wood, Bea’s Honey, Guide Services and Fresh Eggs” speak to the entrepreneurial spirit of the residence of the region.

Rossport is a sleepy little lakeside fishing village 120 miles east of Thunder Bay just off the Trans Canada Highway. The harbor & bay area has sand flats and warm south facing beaches nicely sheltered from wind and waves by a ring of islands. It is a Sea Kayaking haven. We camped at Rainbow Falls Park which has two distinctively separate campgrounds. One is on Lake Superior with a nice view of the lake and Rossport Islands. We chose Whitesand Lake Park where the campsites are sheltered by trembling birch and aspen, the white clad brides of the forest.

If you should decide to hike alone with your camera in hand to take bridal shots of the lovely trembling white birch and aspens, may I suggest you note the number and location of your campsite prior to your departure! I can attest to the fact that a quick little photo opt can turn into a very lengthy jaunt. Luckily, I found my way back to campsite #68 before the Mounties were mustered to rescue me and my Nikon, or worse yet, before I became a Scooby Snack for a wolf with the munchies. Hans being an engineer is not one to over react to a missing bride! When interrogated as to my status of vanished, he said he trusted in my survival skills honed at Camp Sacajawea–courtesy of the Girl Scouts of America–in the mid 60s. That’s all well and good until the only thing recovered amongst the bridal boughs is the steel toe guards of my spiffy new hiking boots, a couple of wisps of fine grey hair and some camera parts.

Due to exhaustion and the late hour of my return I had to forego the hike to the walking bridge over the river’s gorge. Witnessing the waters of Whitesand Lake cascading over granite ledges, forming colorful rainbows above the mist of the Whitesand River below, would wait until the following day. A view not to be missed when morning brings an apricot colored sunrise to delight and inspire.

An adventurous couple we met from Texas who had just spent several weeks camping in New England and were heading home, told us the most beautiful park that had been their privilege to explore was just up the road, Neys Provincial Park on the rugged coast of Lake Superior’s Coldwell Peninsula. They were right! Granite shaped by glaciers have eroded into a wild coastline providing white sand beaches, scattered with driftwood and tufts of tall coastal grass, that catch the wind like unruly strands of hair a bald guy combs-over to hide his lack of locks. We enjoyed a campsite that offered a lakeside view of Superior’s blue waters. Neys is home to an elusive group of Woodland Caribou who had no trouble eluding us. The park has 144 campsites, visitor center, park store and picnic pavilion to name a few of the amenities we enjoyed during our two day stay. I love the sound of passive-aggressive waves as they pound and recede against shore and sand.

East of Neys is the town of Marathon at which point the highway moves away from the water and the landscape flattens until the town of Wawa where we were reunited with the big lake. Wawa is home to the largest Canadian Goose on the planet. Always an excellent companion and witty conversationalist, I told Hans if I’d of lived in Wawa when my biological clock was ticking, I’d of bequeathed my Wawa children with names like Mimi, Coco, Gigi, Lulu or Bamm Bamm. The “Lake Superior Circle Tour Adventure Guide” travel magazine, in an ad, promised that at the Best Northern Resort you could “Taste Poland’s Best Real Old World Cooking.” I had been cooking over a campfire since we left Minnesota so it was time for a break. I’ll admit we’d be hard pressed to turn up an opportunity to sample the rich tradition of European peasant cooking anywhere, at any time!

If like us, you plan to partake in a couple of Polish beers with dinner, call “Kookie’s Kab” and Kookie the cab driver—the only cab in town—will pick you up at the Wawa Ontario Campground. She’ll deposit you a couple of kilometers to the east at the door of one of the best authentic Polish restaurants it has ever been our privilege to dine. Perogies light as feathers and the stuffed cabbage rolls, tender beyond belief. The menu boasts “Welcome to the Church of the Holy Cabbage! Lettuce pray!” Did I mention the potato pancake and spicy stew is beyond divine? Five Stars ***** Oh, and Kookie will come fetch you for 15 loonies. Advises you “stay put until dawn . . . moose everywhere, Eh!”

Pancake Bay, the last of the Ontario Provincial Park we camped, is located on the east shore of Lake Superior. It is a sheltered sandy bay with a superb sand beach, nature trails, and a lookout viewing platform, from which you can see the spot where the famed Edmund Fitzgerald sank in the fierce November gale of 1975. It is said that the voyageurs in centuries past would stop at the bay with just enough flour left to make pancakes before restocking supplies in nearby Sault Ste. Marie. This was by far our favorite campground.

The lake offers nice swimming, fishing, boating and canoeing. The sand beach, just steps from our campsite, is spectacular. I told Hans as his bluish-white Austrian skin was frying lobster red in the noon day sun, I felt like I was in the Caribbean. In place of palm trees and seashells, we enjoyed pine trees and squirrels. No fu-fu fruit drinks were sipped on this beach–cold Molsons chased our thirst.

It is here we met Hank and Sue. Picture a guy with hippy hair who is a cross between Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and David Crosby of Crosby, Stills & Nash fame, hanging out with a woman you would not think was his wife. Two of the nicest campers we have ever met! We shared hours of conversation and laughter around several campfires. Hank was friendlier than a happy poodle and Sue clearly was enjoying the long strange trip her union with Hank had created “truckin” through the years together. We hung out for three days and the experience was “Far Out! Groovy! Eh!” The warming to total strangers and the sharing of lives is the very best of what camping has to offer to those who camp!

My one regret is we did not take time to hike to the Agawa Rock, site of ancient rock paintings located on a cliff face rising 30 meters above Lake Superior and decorated by 35 paintings. The posted reminder that “when viewing visitors should exercise caution—the rock can be slippery” put me off since it was sprinkling and I am not as gazelle-like in my movements as I once was.

Lake Shore Salzburger Hof Resort & Restaurant, Batchawana Bay, advertises in the Circle Tour publication “Authentic Austrian and German cuisine served in a cozy atmosphere overlooking the resort grounds and out onto Lake Superior. Fresh locally caught Lake Trout and Whitefish plus Canadian favorites are also prepared in our kitchens for your dining pleasure.” The ambiance was not as alpine as one might expect. The night we were relishing golden schnitzels and peppery Hungarian goulash it was to a “Rat Pack” kind of vibe. Not a polka or waltz to be heard during our meal. Only the martini smooth sounds of Frank, Dean and Sammy crooning over the sound system throughout the chalet.

After a couple of beers and delightful food, Hans left behind his beloved hat. A hat covered in hat pins that extolled the location of many of our most treasured camping adventures. The hat was not missed for about three hundred miles. Not only did the good owners of the Lake Shore Salzburger Hof Resort & Restaurant promptly dispatch the hat to our home in Minnesota, it was discovered upon arrival that an additional pin had been added, a pin of Salzburg, Austria. The pin a reminder of another wonderful camping memory!

We followed the northern shore of Lake Superior, passing through Sault Ste. Marie. Back in the U.S. we cut a hard right into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Heading home—the next leg of the Lake Superior Circle Tour along the southern shores—we followed the sun west into the beauty of Northern Wisconsin.

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