Neglected Country: Northern Ontario and the Prairies

Hello friends and family!

As I’m writing this, from a coffee shop in Saskatoon (the “Paris of the Prairies”), it has officially been a month on the road. Can you believe it? I’ve crunched some of the numbers, and in one month, we’ve:

-hiked over 100 kilometers;

-had one real shower; and

-slept in four Walmart parking lots.

We’ve firmly entered pick-up truck country, where every parking lot looks like a Ram dealership. The radio stations play country, classic rock or christianity, and feature hyper-local advertisements (e.g. in Fort Frances you can take a $50 pontoon boat ride around Rainy Lake while a local realtor shows you all the houses for sale!). Every podunk town appears to have a bowling alley and/or a windowless tavern selling ma’s home cooking. The Royal Canadian Legion is the centre of civic life, hockey games, and meat raffles. I believe they call this “the heartland”. 

All joking aside, though, people outside of the GTA are just nicer. They strike up conversations in parking lots, and say hello with genuine welcome. I call this sort of indiscriminate friendliness “trailnice”. Think about this: when we’re hiking, we are our best selves. We are friendly, cheery and welcoming: trailnice. People I would never say hello to in the trailhead parking lot receive a wide smile and a friendly “how’s yous doing” when I pass, just by merit of walking the same trail as me. I never fail to offer encouragement, motivation, and, if necessary, white lies about the next vista being “just around the corner”. I’m trying to apply this sort of kindness to the nontrail aspects of my life and be more open to new people and experiences, like everyone else here in the heartland seems to be.

My last update left off from the Sault, as we were about to leave the shores of Lake Huron and enter Lake Superior’s watershed. Driving north along the shore of Lake Superior from Sault Ste Marie is the most incredible section of the Trans-Canada highway. The road twists and rises and falls, so you’re always driving around a corner and suddenly coasting down into an infinite vista of Superior’s blue waters. We camped two nights in a tucked-away Crown land campsite on the lake and hiked a few trails in Lake Superior Provincial Park, where I once spent a summer cleaning washrooms and busting beaver dams. We even took a dip in the frigid waters of the largest freshwater lake in the world (by surface area). You have to unthinkingly throw yourself into the water all at once, or it won’t happen – Lake Superior, even in July, is a polar bear plunge.

A misty morning

We continued north through Wawa, home to a gigantic Canada goose statue and the best Canadian-Chinese-Caribbean restaurant in Ontario. What ties together Alan Rickman, Ted Nugent and Canadian popstar Shawn Desmond? They all have signed photos hanging on the walls of this random roadside restaurant! We then drove through all the little towns us southerners have only heard about: Marathon (a paper town), White River (birthplace of the black bear that Winnie the Pooh is based on), Terrace Bay (built on a series of glacial terraces) and Nipigon (home to the nation’s smallest Canadian Tire store). The drive up here is an education in Northern industry: laden lumber trucks with tree trunks stacked high, the manmade mountains of mining operations visible behind the trees, and signs for fly-in hunting and fishing lodges that cater to the American tourist.

Posing in Pukaskwa

Along the way we stopped for a few hikes. Notably, we hiked to a suspension bridge hanging over a waterfall in Pukaskwa National Park, and did the famed “top of the giant” hike in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park (where I also once spent a summer, grooming trails and hauling brush). The aforementioned giant is a rock formation that slumbers on a peninsula outside Thunder Bay, referred to as Nanabosho by the Ojibwe people, and really does look like a guy sleeping. We did the requisite tourist activities once we hit Thunder Bay: “mining” for amethyst (aka the real miners put chunks of amethyst on a dusty field and we ran around “discovering” them), visiting the spectacular canyons and waterfalls of the area, and eating a ton of the local delicacies: Finnish pancakes and a berry-iced cinnamon donut called a Persian.

View from the Top of the Giant

We headed through the rest of Ontario pretty quickly and entered Manitoba, the most overlooked province in Canada! But it really does have a lot of rich history and a strong sense of provincial pride. I mean, Louis Riel’s – the icon of minority and Metis rights – face is everywhere here. We had a nice week hitting the highlights: white sand beaches on Lake Winnipeg, the suprisingly charming city of Winnipeg, and hiking in the Riding Mountain National Park (and we now understand why people joke about the mosquito being the official bird of Manitoba). And even the boring drives through the prairies are lightened up by the milk-carton shape of old wooden grain elevators, achingly beautiful fields of sunflowers with their faces turned towards the sun, yellow canola fields, and the silver-domed minarets of Ukrainian Orthodox churches.

Also, for some reason, every person on the plains drives a PT Cruiser, and Eric and I have adapted the punch buggy game to reflect their prevalence – I think my arms are bruised to the bone from our sightings. There are ways to keep oneself interested in a place that may be perceived as boring – you just have to look harder, and find a little bit of wonder in every crossroads town you pass through.

Now we are in Saskatchewan, where we’ve entered a time warp because they don’t use daylight savings time. It’s more of the same landscapes here, of rolling fields and industrial grain elevators and yellow/blue/green landscapes under a sun so hot and bright it hurts to open your eyes. We were just hanging out in Prince Albert National Park, and are now landed in Saskatoon for a day or two.

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