Do you KNOW Ontario?

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Written by Iloe Ariss

The first step of a road trip is planning your route. Even if your destination is unknown you’ll need to know how to get out of the city and in which cardinal direction you intend to go. If you have an idea of how long your road trip will take and how long you intend to stay at your destination, then you will know how much you need to pack. Then pack up the car and off you go.

Personally, my destination is often Thunder Bay, a 17-hour (some may say 16) drive to the Northwestern part of the huge province of Ontario. Packing has always been an immense struggle as my family is rather volume-challenged, however, after much rearranging we usually manage to squeeze everything in, including the cat. Then off we go up the Allen expressway, onto the 401, the 400 and away! We travel north through southern Ontario, past the suburbs and the industrial wasteland that surrounds the city and into the Greenbelt (a strip of land on which development is restricted in order to protect the nature that exists there). It is also the home of much of the local agriculture that fills Toronto’s Farmer’s markets. Often I am too sleepy because of the early departure to appreciate the farmland of Holland Marsh. I do not fully wake up until Parry Sound; the town that marks the border from southern to middle Ontario.

Now driving northwest along Georgian Bay, the woods get thicker with more varieties of pine, as well as birch trees (black and white striped trees, with bark that peels easily). There’s not much along this stretch until you reach French River. French River is a town but also a lovely provincial park and an ideal lunch spot. It features a small semi-museum/information center with a large bathroom and many picnic tables in the shade, as well as a scenic walk over a bridge traditionally used by snowmobiles.(Pro tip: When travelling with a sedated cat make sure to tie him to a picnic table or he’ll get too excited and run into the forest.)

Further along the road, after travelling north, is Sudbury. This city rivals Thunder Bay and is probably best known for its incredible amounts of nickel and its university, Laurentian. The road does not take you through Sudbury but around the bottom of it so that you end up travelling west, in fact you have to change roads, and from now on you are on Highway 17. And what a highway it is! Rock outcrops on either side fly past your window and the dense trees become a green blur as you speed up. Passing through towns such as Massey, Blind River (which is featured in a Neil Young song [ask you parents]) and Thessalon. Sault Ste. Marie appears shortly after Thessalon. It is a little city, and is exactly half-way between Toronto and Thunder Bay. We usually stay in a place called the Water Tower Inn, which, as it happens, is named after the city’s water tower.

Another option, which is easier to do without a sedated cat, is camp in Lake Superior Provincial Park. Let’s just clarify, this is not any provincial park, this is the most beautiful park in the world. The nature is incredible, the water is clearer than in the Caribbean (and obviously much colder) and the view out onto Lake Superior framed by the Canadian Shield rock is breathtaking. This is the boreal North.

It may be hard to understand why there is such Northern pride, especially if you’re from the South. I suppose it is because of the small population, the ever-lasting fight against the cold and the impression (and fact) that you are surrounded by nature, nature that is accessible to everyone.

The next stop is Wawa. Wawa is the home of a giant goose statue, the reason for this being that Wawa means ‘Wild Goose’ in Ojibway. Its ideal location makes it a pit stop heavily relied on by almost everyone travelling on Highway 17. The Tim Horton’s is always busy. Driving further northwest, the town of White River will appear, sporting a statue of Winnie the Pooh and his friend Piglet in a tree. Why have a statue of a famed Disney character and inhabitant of the hundred acre wood? Because he was never just a Disney character. A real bear cub, by the name of Winnipeg (which soon became Winnie) lived in the woods near White River and was bought by a soldier heading off to WWI in 1914. He transported the bear with him until he could no longer do so and left her in a zoo in London, England. In this zoo Winnie met A. A. Milne the author of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories (his son’s bear was dubbed this because of Winnie from the zoo). Also, amazingly, the soldier, now captain, survived the war and returned for Winnie in 1918, though he did not take her back as a pet because of the joy that she brought to all the Londoners who visited the zoo.

The journey is almost complete, the land becomes hillier, you are on top of the Canadian Shield now and the trees yet more dense, with foliage and underbrush of all kinds. At Marathon you are on the northern shore of Lake Superior -the biggest lake in the world- and you can glimpse it through the trees as you drive by. This is a rather desolate and cold stretch of road, yet beautiful. The beauty is evident at Neys Provincial Park which offers long stretches of the Canadian Shield jutting out onto the endless wavy water, with a beach on which plenty of driftwood resides. This provincial park is also a historic site for it used to be a prison of war camp for German soldiers during WWII. Some remnants of old buildings linger in the forest and some old rusted metal is laid out on the rocks accompanied by an informative plaque.

The final leg of the journey begins as you cruise through Schreiber and Terrace Bay. Highway 17 merges with Highway 11 and they become 11/17, the sign that reads FISH in capital letters (designed by my former Thunder Bay neighbor) approaches. It is here on a little turn-about that the fish lady lives. She sells freshly caught red fin Lake Trout, jams and a variety local Thunder Oak gouda cheeses. Her smoked whitefish is outstanding.

Not too long after this you are on the outskirts of the city of Thunder Bay. The east side used to be the town of Port Arthur. The west side was once Fort William. The twin towns formed one in 1970. Many Finnish people have immigrated to Thunder Bay and the Finnish tradition of sauna-ing is widely practiced because of the similar climate. Thunder Bay has its own dessert that is not made anywhere else. It is called the Persian and it consists of fluffy white pastry topped with pink strawberry icing. Thunder Bay’s inhabitants enjoy the city but also how easy it is to access nature, right outside of the city.

Although the road trip seemed very long Thunder Bay is by no means the most northern point of Ontario. Ontario extends thousands of kilometers northward to land on which First Nations people live, accessible only by plane.
Ontario is a very large province and although travelling overseas is a very worthy endeavor, why not try going on road trip and get to know the place you call home?

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