Ontario is Canada's second largest province by area and the most populous with over 38% of the country's population. However 94% of the people live within Toronto and its surrounding suburbs that make up only 10% of the territory, leaving a vast area to be explored. Having already experienced the sights and sounds of Toronto we decided it would be interesting to see what some of the other places had to offer. After arriving at Pearson Airport we rented a car and headed north for Sudbury, our first planned overnight stop.
As soon as you leave the flat lands of Southern Ontario you begin to enter cottage country and the start of the Canadian Shield which stretches from the Great Lakes to the Arctic Ocean and contains one of the world's richest areas of mineral ores. It's also some of the world's oldest rock and, as a result of glaciation, the exposed igneous and metamorphic bedrock has been scraped of all but a thin layer of soil and created thousands of lakes. Building roads or railways through this rock is extremely time consuming and expensive but the exposed patterns of pink and black granite are very beautiful.
In Parry Sound we stopped at the Francis Pegahmagabow statue that was erected posthumously to honour the most decorated Indigenous soldier of the First World War, and its most effective sniper with 378 kills. Treated shabbily by the Department of Indian Affairs authorities when he returned to Canada he spent the rest of his life fighting for Indigenous rights.
Two hours out of Toronto is the district of Muskoka, the heart of cottage country within an area of 2,500 square miles that stretches from Parry Sound on the shores of Georgian Bay in the west to Algonquin Park in the east and contains more than 1,600 lakes. While filled with villages and towns, the area has only 60,000 permanent residents but another 100,000 seasonal property owners. And, with over 2.1 million people visiting it every year, it's a major summer destination.
In 1883, during construction of the railway, blasting and excavation revealed high concentrations of nickel-copper ore in the Sudbury basin area and this led to the formation of the city of Sudbury and the establishment of two major mining companies, Inco and Falconbridge. During both World Wars Sudbury was the major supplier of nickel for armament production and by the 1950's Inco was producing 85% of the world's nickel. With nickel being used in so many products (particularly to make stainless steel) many other nickel deposits have since been discovered and Canada is now only the world's 6th largest nickel producer. No visit to Sudbury would be complete without a picture under the Big Nickel.
Dynamic Earth, an interactive science museum, owned and operated by Science North, is home to the Big Nickel and it operates a tour of a demonstration mine seven stories underground. The tour showcases the evolution of mining from turn-of-the-century to modern day and the facility also offers a variety of films on geology and mining history.
The main Science North facility on the shore of Ramsey Lake is an even more impressive interactive science museum with two snowflake shaped buildings connected by an underground rock tunnel. Inside the main building a 20 metre fin whale skeleton hangs from the 4 storey ceiling and fills the inside of the spiral walkway. On each floor there are various displays of animals native to the region including Kash the beaver, snapping turtles, snakes, frogs, bats, and Maple the porcupine. There is also a tropical butterfly gallery, a tech lab, and an Imax theatre. A beautifully designed and situated facility that is great for children and adults alike.
But the most remarkable thing about Sudbury is how green it is. For its first 100 years it was one of the most toxic places on Earth thanks to all the sulfur dioxide released into the air from smelting nickel ore. The acid rain pollution triggered the complete loss of all vegetation and left the hills nothing but a moonscape of blackened rock. But then 40 years ago citizens, government, and mining companies got together to try and repair it. After learning that putting crushed limestone and grass seed on the land would allow tree seedlings to grow they eventually planted 12 million trees and repaired thousands of hectares of land. People can now swim and fish in the 330 lakes in the area that were once highly acidic, and Sudbury has some of the cleanest air in all of Ontario.
Continuing along the shores of Lake Huron (where I couldn't resist going in for a dip) we passed more cottages, First Nations reserves, and languid fields of recently mowed hay, until we eventually pulled into the pleasant city of Sault Ste. Marie.
While the Ojibwe, the Anishinaabe people of the area called it Baawitigong, meaning place of the rapids, the Jesuit missionaries named it Sault Sainte-Marie or Saint Mary's Falls. To the south is the Michigan city with the same name. The two communities were one city until a treaty after the War of 1812 established a border between the two countries, the International Bridge connects them now. The rapids of the St. Mary river drop 20 feet from Lake Superior to Lake Huron and in 1855 the first Soo Locks were completed on the American side but in order to control their own water passage Canada built the Sault Ste. Marie canal in 1895. Nowadays the main commercial shipping traffic uses the American Soo Locks and the smaller recreational and tour boats use the Canadian Sault Ste. Marie canal.
For hundreds of years Sault Ste. Marie was an important fur trading post being situated at the crossroads of the fur trade route that stretched from Montreal to the country north of Lake Superior. Nowadays steel making is the main industry with Algoma being the city's largest employer. The historic buildings of the former St. Mary's Paper have been converted to a variety of bars and restaurants making up the Canal District which we checked out after touring the canal and its locks.
The Saint Mary's Boardwalk or Hub Trail is a wonderful sightseeing walkway that goes along the river from the Canal to the Bushplane Museum and provides an excellent way to see the waterfront and the various landmarks along the way. Running roughly parallel to the city's main shopping streets and a little over a mile in length it's a great way to stretch your legs.
The Canadian Bushplane Museum/Heritage Centre is one of the City's main attractions and dedicated to preserving the history of bush flying and aerial fire fighting in Canada. The main focus is on float planes and water bombers. With more than 30 planes on display guests are invited to explore and interact with the beautifully preserved exhibits.
But the biggest attraction by far in Sault Ste. Marie is the 114 mile Agawa Canyon train ride that takes passengers for a 10 hour return train ride through the Northern Ontario wilderness. Forest and lakes, waterfalls, towering trestles and majestic views are on display the entire time. At mile 114 you get a chance to explore the Black Beaver and Bridal Veil waterfalls and hike up the 325+ steps to a fantastic lookout of the Agawa Canyon Park. This is the area where the Group of Seven artists were inspired to create some of their most famous paintings including the Algoma Waterfall by Lawren Harris. Autumn was still a couple of weeks away when the forest would turn into a spectacular riot of colours but tickets to ride the train were already sold out.
Heading now along the shores of Lake Superior, the world's largest lake by surface area and third largest by volume, and holding 10% of the world's fresh water we stopped at Alona Bay to read the interpretive panel with details on the first discovery of uranium in Canada and the nearby wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Ojibwe name for Lake Superior is Gitche Gumee meaning great sea, and its vastness and beauty are truly awesome.
Stopped in at the dodgy trail to the Agawa rock pictographs to grab some photos. The pictographs are one of the many stops on the Lake Superior Circle Tour, a self-guided tour around Lake Superior that connects Ontario with the American states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
But that big body of water is more than capable of creating its own weather systems and it caught us by surprise when the fog started rolling in out of nowhere. But when it cleared the views were magnificent and we cruised along all the way to Thunder Bay admiring the endless scenery.
At the outskirts of Thunder Bay is the Terry Fox Memorial and Lookout which sits on a hill offering a pararamic view of Thunder Bay and its surroundings including the Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. It was at this almost exact spot where Terry Fox had to give up on his Marathon of Hope on August 31st, 1980. To see this monument and read about his remarkable achievment and all the accolades he received is a very moving experience.
Second only to Sudbury in population for Northern Ontario cities, Thunder Bay has grown from its fur trade roots to become an important transportation hub and link in the shipping of grain and other products from western Canada through the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence seaway to the east coast. In 1970 the cities of Port Arthur and Fort William merged to form Thunder Bay and end their historic rivalry. With traditional industries in decline the city is transitioning to a more knowledge based economy and promoting the Waterfront District, with its eclectric restaurants like The Sovereign, to tourists.
Left Thunder Bay and headed out on Highway 11 to our next stop in Cochrane, a scenic 700+ km road running through more Canadian forest and muskeg and very few towns, but also devoid of any moose, inspite of signs every mile or so advising us to watch out for them.
There were two main reasons for stopping in Cochrane and the first was to check out the Polar Bear Habitat. Cochrane has built a unique and amazing refuge for Polar Bears that provides an interactive (through glass) component where children especially can get up and close with the bears in a swimming pool. The three bears on site, which have been relocated from other zoos, are free to roam in a large 24 acre facility (stocked with cool toys) that includes the 10 acre Hector Lake, and they can be viewed on live cameras going about their business. An educational institute that seeks to promote a greater understanding of polar bears and improve the standards for their care when they cannot survive in the wild, this rescue and rehab facility, in a natural sub-arctic setting, is a very informative place to visit.
They also have a nice walkway around Commando Lake and a great pub located on the 49th parallel that calls itself, surprisingly, The 49th Parallel.
The second reason for visiting Cochrane is because it's the terminus of the Polar Bear Express, an Ontario Northland Railway train that offers passenger service to the bustling twin cities of Moosonee and Moose Factory, located on the banks of Moose River just before it empties into James Bay. There is no road to Moosonee and the Polar Bear Express is also the only remaining flag stop train in existence (people living along the route literally wave down the train and hop on). The 186 mile route takes 5 hours each way and makes a two hour stop in Moosonee before returning to Cochrane. There are no polar bears on this route and once again we missed out on any moose sightings but the Canadian Shield scenery continued to awe.
Moosonee is considered to be Ontario's "Gateway to the Arctic" because of its location only 12 miles from James Bay. Here goods are transferred from the train to be delivered by barge to more northerly communities. A water taxi service takes people from Moosonee to the community of Moose Factory which is the second oldest Hudson's Bay fur trading post to be established in North America. A few historic buildings still remain including the HBC staff house and the St. Thomas Anglican Church. Unfortunately all of the interpretive centres and museums in both Moosonee and Moose Factory had been closed due to COVID so, after exploring things, there wasn't much else to do except check out the outrageous grocery prices at the Northern Store before getting back on the train which thankfully had a reasonably priced dining car.
From Cochrane it was a long drive to Kingston with only a pit stop in North Bay to stretch our legs. The countryside was mostly well maintained farming communities with fields of hay, potatoes and corn stretching as far as the eye could see. It couldn't have been easy to clear all that land on the Canadian Shield when they first started out. In spite of weather that changed from bright sunshine to nasty thunderstorms we made it safely to our hotel in time for dinner.
Kingston is located at the end of Lake Ontario where it flows into the Saint Lawrence River and was Canada's first capital city. An important fur trading post and military fort since its inception, it underwent the construction of even more defensive fortifications after the War of 1812. It's also the location of Canada's first military college. After a fire in 1840 destroyed most of the city the use of wood construction was prohibited and all buildings had to be built out of limestone or brick which, to this day, gives Kingston its distinctive look.
After exploring Princess Street, the Waterfront, and some of the other city attractions in the rain, the skies cleared and we were able to go on our planned Thousand Islands sunset dinner cruise. A perfect evening for admiring all the stunning homes/cottages and the archipelago of more than 1,800 islands that straddle the Canada-U.S. border in the St. Lawrence seaway, stretching from Kingston to Brockville.
It was time to say goodbye to all the small towns of Ontario and finish up in Ottawa, the nation's capital. Checked into the Lord Elgin which was right downtown and immediately started exploring the nearby parks, admiring a beautiful statue honouring First Nation veterans, and walking along the Rideau Canal pathway.
First stop was the Canadian Museum of Nature an absolutely amazing collection of Canada's natural history displayed in a historic building that was once Canada's House of Commons and Senate when the original Parliament Block was burned down. Over 500 birds are mounted and on display along with all of Canada's mammals (including at last a moose) a dinosaur gallery of 200 fossils, a world class collection of minerals and rocks, and hidden amongst a display of ocean life is a 19 metre blue whale skeleton. Number 1 playground area for children and adults.
A fantastic city for walking, Ottawa is filled with historic buildings, iconic statues like the National War Memorial with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and great places to eat.
The National Gallery of Canada is the home of the most comprehensive collection of Canadian art including Group of Seven artists and First Nations, Metis, and Inuit artists. The award winning architectual gem offers stunning panoramic views of the surrounding area and atrium displays that are truly inspiring.
Across the street from the National Gallery is the stunning Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica and from there you enter into the ByWard Market area with all its funky pubs, various eateries, and public market.
Not to be missed is the Canada Aviation and Space Museum with its collection of military and civilian aircraft including the remains the infamous Avro Arrow. Canada's contribution to the International Space Station is also on display along with one of the original Canadarms and Alouette, Canada's first satellite.
This wasn't our first visit to Ottawa and it won't likely be our last and it seems there is always something new to see and do here. Our whirlwind road trip through small town Ontario had given us a greater appreciation of what Ontario had to offer and the scenery of the Canadian Shield and Great Lakes shorelines was incredible. If only we had seen a moose.
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