Northern Lakes: Riding the Shores of Lake Superior

Story by Richard Szpin// Photos by Richard Szpin
March 1 2010

Starting at the Manitoba border and along the north shore of Lake Superior, Highway 17 is a stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway that leads to Sault Ste. Marie as it continues east. For a motorcyclist, the tour follows a spectacular highway of easy riding, allowing you to observe and absorb the beauty of the surroundings.

Sunset Country is part of this northwestern wilderness, containing huge blocks of lakes and forests and particularly favoured by outdoor enthusiasts. It is a region where moose and deer outnumber the human inhabitants. In the summer, it is not unusual to encounter road construction and delays along this route, but these can become opportunities for socializing with all kinds of motorists. Les Gordon, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, expressed it as he toodled along in his beautifully restored 1946 Buick: “It’s a great road for driving my baby and seeing the indescribable beauty of north-central Ontario.” Enroute to the first large city centre of western Ontario, Kenora, you ride flanked by long expanses of breathtaking arboreal and rocky panoramas created by eons of glacial scraping, sculpting and gouging. This has resulted in thousands of lakes of varying size as well as a matching number of islands dotting these lakes.

Noted for its gold mining in the late 1800s, then as a railroad centre in the early 1900s, Kenora was linked into Canada’s Trans-Canada Highway system during the 1930s Great Depression, the logging and lumbering industry of its past replaced by tourism. Perched on the northern shore of Lake of the Woods, Kenora is a jewel of nature’s beauty as it overlooks the multitude of small islands anchored within the lake. Because of the surrounding expanses of dense forests and glacier-carved lakes, Kenora has become the fly-in hub for hunting and fishing camps to the northwest wilderness.

Even in the summer, an early morning departure from Kenora means a surprisingly cold ride, and multiple layers barely fend off the unexpected northern chill. About 20 kilometres east, you encounter the Great River Road, which is part of an interconnected road system running along the Mississippi all the way to New Orleans. About an hour further along Hwy 17, you arrive at Dryden, the next significant town and a perfect place to take time for a morning break.

Dryden, founded on agriculture but developed by the pulp and paper industry, is also home of the 20-foot statue of “Max the Moose,” a worthwhile sightseeing stop.

The road now meanders through a watershed of lakes and bogs, a legacy of glacial erosion and sculpting known as the Precambrian Canadian Shield. It is an infinite wilderness of nature extending far north of the Great Lake as you enter the region named North of Superior.

Here everything appears in giant scale: massive granite lookouts millions of years old, endless expanses of birch and spruce trees, and dramatic granite outcroppings. The projecting rock formations within the forested area are a welcome interruption to the seemingly endless road ahead. It’s worth a brief stop, just to breathe in the vastness and the immense scenic beauty that surrounds you on your two wheels. As you continue cruising southeast on Hwy 17 to your next destination, Thunder Bay, about three hours away, you are reminded of any northern U.S. freeway: broad, long sightlines, smooth and flat pavement. Hwy 17 is a primary roadway through Ontario and along the north shore of Lake Superior. Along this northern route, motorists hitched to their ubiquitous camping trailers are the most commonly encountered vehicular traffic. However, motorcycle riders are also present and some of them can be unique stories unto themselves.

For the most part, it is an easy ride from Kenora to the Soo (the nickname for Sault Ste. Marie). The highway is not busy, but the gaps between towns are long. The roadway itself is level, clean, well maintained and very comfortable to ride. The expected open views of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world, can be seen only by detouring away from the main highway, a short diversion in many places after Thunder Bay.

As you approach Thunder Bay, you cross from the Central to the Eastern time zone, and in the blink of an eye, you lose an hour. Thunder Bay is an excellent place for a stopover and night’s rest. Created by the 1970 merger of Fort William and Port Arthur, it is Canada’s third-largest port and the western terminus for oceangoing freighters of the St Lawrence Seaway. Three hundred years ago, the community was the gateway west for fur-laden canoes and their trapper crews. Once the shipping conduit for the entire wheat production of the Canadian prairies, the Great Lakes freighters that docked here were also the lumber-product carriers for the northern and western regions of Ontario and Manitoba in the early 1900s.

There are four must-sees, must-do’s in Thunder Bay.

Given that Thunder Bay has the largest concentration of Finns of any city in Canada (over 15% of the residents are Finnish), the local Hoito Finnish Club is a landmark, renowned for its scrumptious breakfasts at budget prices. Crepe-thin pancakes with wild north-Ontario blueberries, deeelicious!

Ride to any high point in the city and look out over Lake Superior to see the Sleeping Giant, a rock formation 10 kilometres long and 300 metres high, jutting out from the bay’s entrance. Legend has it that as punishment for revealing the secret location of the area’s silver mine, the chief of the local Ojibwa Indians was entombed in stone in the water, blocking the open view of the lake from the shoreline. The vista on a foggy, misty northern Ontario morning is mystical and mesmerizing.

Every bike tourer must go to the International Friendship Garden. Completed as part of the celebration of Canada’s centennial in 1967, the peace garden is a reminder of the multicultural diversity of the city. Throughout the park, there are tributes to the local ethnic groups, memorials and monuments honouring their forebears. It is a moving place to walk or ride through early in the morning.

The final must-see location is the memorial garden dedicated to Terry Fox, a courageous young man who lost his battle with cancer midway through his cross-Canada Marathon of Hope run in the summer of 1981. He has been an inspiration to cancer patients throughout the world ever since. In his memory, a 9-foot statue has been erected on a 45-ton pedestal base of Ontario amethyst atop a promontory overlooking Lake Superior. Many bike groups use the park as a convening point to begin their rides. The spirituality of the treed and flowered park sanctuary is inescapable.

Continuing east along Hwy 17, you pass many small communities, all just off the highway: Dorion Landing, Hurkett, Sprucewood, Nipigon, Dublin, Gurney, Cavers, Pays Plat and Rossport. Each one relates its local archaeology, logging, railway and early settlement history. As you ride onward, a mantra comes to mind: “Slow down. You’ll enjoy the ride more!”

Detour into Rossport. Originally an Indian fishing village, the peak of Rossport’s history was when it became a Canadian Pacific Railroad terminus for shipping goods to the local islands. Today, home to about a hundred residents, this small harbour town offers two notable eateries: one makes memorable wild blueberry shortcake; the other is renowned for its professional chef who serves exceptional dinners of local fare. Sport yachtsmen dock their vessels to refuel and restock in Rossport. If you want to trade the stresses of the big city for the leisure, serenity and splendour of nature at the edges of Lake Superior, experience Rossport.

The north-shore region of Algoma-Kinniwabi is home to the largest game reserve in the western hemisphere, and as Hwy 17 snakes its serpentine way through the area, it offers you a route of lumber history, pulp and paper mills and modern resorts, and you feel shrouded and one with nature. On your bike, your lungs experience the pleasant cleansing effect of the aromatherapy provided by the air’s refreshing pine fragrance. On the road again, you spot the communities of Schreiber, Terrace Bay and Marathon, all dots on your GPS as you now veer inland. The changing terrain makes the ride to the next destination pleasurable, though seemingly longer. You continue through White River, turning south for a long trek of about four to five hours to your next stop, Wawa, just west of Michipicoten Harbour.

As you ride into Wawa, you are greeted by a 28-foot steel sculpture of a Canada goose overlooking the highway. The sculpture has achieved worldwide publicity because of its stature and size. Wawa, meaning “wild goose” in Ojibwa, refers to the thousands of geese that rest on Lake Wawa during migration. The small town’s boom years are long gone. Once an iron ore and gold centre, now the town is increasingly dependent on tourism. Given that the next major destination, the Soo, is far away, an overnight stay here is a good idea and accommodation with bar/diner fare is competitively priced.

The ride south, Wawa to Sault Ste. Marie, is the final leg of the north-shore tour. Again, the riding is easy, though you will encounter more traffic now as the communities along this stretch of road are more numerous and more populous. The Soo, as the city is nicknamed, has been a crossroads for travellers since the mid-1600s when French Jesuits established a mission there. French traders crossed Lake Superior in their quest for furs. Later, English explorers arrived, followed by lumbermen and exploiters of the mineral deposits.

Longfellow immortalized the region and the Ojibwa Indian tribe in his celebrated poem, “Hiawatha.”

Sault Ste. Marie is a low-rise metropolis spread over undulating hills and flanked by the vastly wooded Algoma wilderness, with the St. Mary’s River at its door. The border town shares its name with its American counterpart and is 550 km north of Detroit and 690 km northwest of Toronto. A journey of 650 km southwest will land you in Milwaukee.

There is a welcoming feel to the Soo on this breezy summer day. A tourist centre because of its variety of attractions, the Soo is ground zero for me, as I grew up here. The area is a summertime recreation region, with vacationers enjoying the warmer waters of the lake here. Riding farther south, you will pass the “Riviera of Algoma,” the beaches of Batchewana, Haviland and Goulais Bay, still very popular summer spots.

As you ride into the outskirts of the Soo from the north, you encounter a commercially built-up strip about eight kilometres or so in length: hotels, motels, restaurants, shopping and strip malls, and vehicle service businesses. It is the “golden mile” of retail businesses for the Soo and has likely contributed to the decline of the city centre because it is so new, so modern and has such a variety of retailers.

Located in the narrow neck between Lake Superior and Lake Huron are the famous Parks Canada Sault Ste. Marie Canal and Locks, operated jointly by the United States and Canadian governments. It is fascinating to watch a big ship being raised and launched on to the next water level.

The Soo offers numerous other interests: the Roberta Bondar Marina and Park (named after the Canadian astronaut), an open-air community meeting place, the Great Lakes Forestry Centre, the waterfront boardwalk, new shopping malls, art galleries, museums and natural attractions. If you want to park your wheels for a day and see the interior, take the Algoma train to the Agawa Canyon and get a feel for the rugged beauty of nature north of Superior.

From your western entry into Ontario to your arrival in Sault Ste. Marie, you have ridden south 3.3 degrees of latitude, over 1100 kilometres by mileage, and crossed a time zone. Sault Ste. Marie is a fitting end to a beautiful tour of the north shore of Lake Superior, and it is worth staying here for a few days.

As daylight waned, I found my night’s accommodation, and as my head hit the pillow, I drifted off reminiscing of my earlier years in the Soo and of more motorcycle tours in Ontario, mine to discover.


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