We finally left the prairies and clambered up onto the Canadian Shield in Whiteshell Provincial Park in eastern Manitoba. What a change! Coming from the driest province in the country, it is a wonder to enter a part of the world where the lakes are a seemingly endless string. Liz had done some research and found an interesting bit of outdoor adventure for us at Caddy Lake, which is part of a multi-day canoe route along such a string of lakes. What makes this part of the route interesting is that Caddy Lake is connected to the next lake by a tunnel carved out of the rock. It was a small adventure to drift into the tunnel and have the swallows nesting inside fly around us as we slowly guided our rental canoe through. The 40-minute paddle to get there was enough for us, and we selected a rocky island in the next lake at which to disembark and spend a couple of hours au naturel, sunning on the rocks and swimming in the very pleasant waters.
The natural beauty continued as we entered Ontario the following day. I have done this drive before on a motorcycle and remembered it as being monotonous, but now realize that this impression was informed by my mindset at the time, when I was focused on crossing the country as quickly as possible. Now that we have all the time we need, it is awe-inspiring how beautiful this part of the world is. We passed through Kenora on beautiful Lake of the Woods, and a thousand other smaller lakes, all as beautiful. The hardwood forests are beautiful as well, and must just be a riot of colour in the fall. The rocky nature of the land also lends to many waterfalls, and having seen this land in this way myself I have developed a new appreciation for the Group of Seven art and that of Bill Mason, the great canoeist.
I was excited to see Lake Superior as it was something that had made an impression on previous trips. It is unfortunate that when crossing the country, one’s first contact with the largest freshwater lake in the world happens in Thunder Bay. This is a scrappy industrial town dominated and largely informed by its port and the railway, with apparently little thought having been given to appreciating the waterfront until relatively recently. We toured the waterfront park and dropped in on the sacred fire that is being maintained there in honour of the residential school unmarked graves. Being obviously non-indigenous we were not warmly welcomed, but it was a powerful event to witness nonetheless. We were glad to leave this place, which badly needs a fresh coat of paint.
We passed by the point at which Terry Fox had been forced to stop his run and found a place to free-camp for the night. I noticed in the area a number of samples of bear scat, one of which had a nice clear impression of a large paw. We set up to spend the night and had our dinner. We were inside the van, keeping away from the bugs that appear in the evenings, and began to hear movement outside and at points actually felt the van move. Liz caught some motion in a rear view mirror and asked what that was. I looked outside the passenger door window and there was the apparent author of all the scat I had seen!
We watched our visitor sniff around the vehicle for a few more minutes and then Liz watched them amble away through one of the rear windows. We were a bit buzzed by this close encounter and were discussing it when Liz looked over my shoulder and there was the bear again, front paws up on the hood and looking into the van through the windshield! Liz leapt forward and gave a blast on the horn, which sent our curious bruin scrambling off into the woods. That seemed a little bit too curious for comfort, however, and we were worried the animal might cause some damage to the vehicle or our bikes, so despite the darkening hour we re-located to a farmer’s field. It didn’t help that en route we spotted another, larger black bear in a field not far from where we were parked, but we sure felt Canadian!
We survived the night and decided to check out a local attraction, the Ouimet Gorge. The Canadian Shield is composed of ancient rock dating back to the formation of the planet, and so has been subject to tectonic, volcanic and glacial action for a long time which leads to the formation of some fascinating features.
The highway in this area follows the north shore of Lake Superior, which gave us lots of opportunity to appreciate the country. We stopped in the town of Schreiber where we experienced our first pebble beach and walked along a portion of the Casque aux Isles trail. We battled bugs on the outbound leg, following the trail through the woods, but smartened up for the return leg and clambered over the rocks that line the shore of the lake, which was a lot more fun!
There is nothing like a slow drive along Lake Superior to make you realize what an incredible body of water it is. Even the map we are using has a different scale for northwest Ontario, in order to depict the vast spaces that it incorporates. And just when you think you have seen the most beautiful possible thing, something else comes along that blows your mind.
We decided to go into Wawa, where the whole “World’s Largest (fill in the monument)” trend along the Trans Canada Highway began with the famous Wawa Goose. We were glad we did, because we discovered Wawa Lake and its popular ioverlander overnight parking spot, where we met a number of like-minded folks all crossing the country for various reasons, in all kinds vehicles. We struck up a friendship with Lucy and Joe, who are just finishing up a build of their Ford Transit, so we spent a lot of time comparing notes.
We only made it about thirty kilometres down the road before we had to stop again. This time it was for some pictographs on the Agawa cliffs that drop into Lake Superior. The pictographs incorporated an element of danger, as the rocks along the bottom of the cliffs can be swept with waves, so ropes have been bolted into the rock just in case. Even so, some people have been killed here.
It is a welcome feature of this part of the world that there are ample opportunities for free-camping. We have actually gotten to be a bit picky, wanting some lakefront and not too many bugs and privacy, etc., etc. Using some intel we had gathered from other overlanders in Wawa, Liz found us a prime piece of Lake Superior waterfront to call our own for the night. Our sliding door opened up to the water for a fantastic view in the morning, and I had ample opportunity do do some cold water bathing.
We finished our traverse of the north shore of Superior and checked out the delights of Sault Ste. Marie. From here we are in Huron country! We have elected, instead of grinding along the Trans Canada to Sudbury, to take the road slightly less-traveled and explore Manitoulin Island. The top end of that trip is easy, as it involves merely driving across a causeway from mainland to island. The other end of the journey requires a ferry trip, which requires a reservation and a need to be at a certain place at a a certain time. This is a strange feeling for us, and we bridle a bit at being at the behest of an itinerary. Strange how quickly we have become accustomed to not having a schedule!
We had to stop in at the Manitoulin Brewing Company as we feel it is important to experience an area through its gastronomy, as well as replenish my IPA supply. The weather is a bit gloomy, as is the landscape along the highway that connects to the ferry, and we are feeling a bit glum about having to wait a couple of days for our ferry reservation. We spend our first night in Manitowaning, eating at the marina/beach and camping on a vacant lot. The next day is better as we explore the island and discover its charms. Beautiful lakes abound, which is a bit odd on an island within a lake. We hike the Cup and Saucer Trail, which takes us up onto the Niagara Escarpment that extends 900 km from Niagara, up the Bruce Peninsula to Manitoulin. We get some great views and a bit of an adrenalin rush from the rock ledge that hangs off the escarpment. After taking the “adventure trail” (in other words, you should have signed a waiver to do this one) back down, we carried on to Bridal Veil Falls in the village of Kagawong. (That has to be the singularly most unoriginal name for waterfalls – how many Bridal Veil falls are there?) We braved the throngs and the pummelling waters before repairing to the town where we discovered another fantastic beachfront free-camping site in the sleepy but historic little town. We re-charged our personal batteries before having to face the now-considerable stress of catching a ferry!
We grudgingly packed up and headed to the ferry in South Baymouth. We primped the van at a carwash along the way, in anticipation of doing our “finished the van” video while we waited at the terminal. Liz primped herself as well, putting curls in her hair in order to host the video. But, as life will have it, we first met a couple of through-hikers who had just finished a 30-day traverse of the 900 km Bruce Trail, and Conroyd, who is making a self-supported crossing of Canada on a completely inadequate bike, but smiling the whole way. Just when we think we are on the edge, we meet other travellers who remind us that it is always about the journey!