I leave Chutes Provincial Park and ride along the north shore of Lake Superior into Lake of the Woods.
You don’t realize how big Ontario is until you have to drive it. The people I know who’ve driven across Canada say getting through Ontario feels like half the journey. It’s made long in part by having to circumnavigate Lake Superior, but seriously, what better obstacle could there be? I’ve written about my love for the geography north of gichi-gami, aka The Great Sea, and in that article I said “you could drive from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay in eight hours, but why would you?” Well, if you had to be in Calgary in five days, that’s why.
I’ve driven in the car Highway 17 to Thunder Bay with my wife, and I’ve ridden on the bike Highway 11 as far as Kapuskasing, but this would be my first time riding the beautiful 17 on the bike. That was a large part of the reason for my smile upon waking at Chutes Provincial Park that morning: I knew the ride that lay ahead of me for the day.
Whether you have time to stop and savour the landscape or are on a tight timeline, the ride is amazing. The weather was cooperating and the bike was running great so I put on the miles and made it all the way to Pukaskwa National Park in time to set up camp, eat, and stroll the shoreline before losing the light.
Upon leaving the park the next morning, I saw a sign indicating that there was a National Historic Site nearby, so naturally I followed the signs to The Pic, an important Aboriginal meeting place for thousands of years and the site of an important trading post during the height of the fur trade.
I continued west, but was soon diverted by another sign marking Ausable Falls and Gorge.
There’s a convenient parking lot right off the highway, and the short little hike down to the lookout makes a good rest stop. Best of all, there is no charge to get a view worth a million bucks.
Okay, now it was time to avoid the distractions and pound out the miles. There are a number of spectacular lookouts along the north shore but I sadly had to blow past most of them or I’d never get to my destination just west of Thunder Bay by evening. It was hot, like 30+C (~90 F), and I was glad I’d purchased the Klim Marrakesh jacket specifically for the tour and days like this. It vents a ton of air, and my fuel pack meant I had plenty of water to keep me hydrated.
Still, I pulled off on one of the lookouts just to take a break in the heat and ran into two other riders, about my age, it seemed, maybe a little older, heading east on sport tourers. They had travelled from Victoria and said the heat bubble followed them for the first several days of their trip and was pretty unbearable. Their red, puffy faces showed the aftereffects, and I was glad I missed the worst of that. I experienced it on TV newscasts from the comfort of my air-conditioned living room. I would ride in heat the entire trip, but nothing like they experienced.
The heat got worse, and the stretch from Nipigon to Thunder Bay seemed endless! All I had on my mind was finding the first Tim Horton’s and getting a large Ice Cap, which I did. As I was standing outside savouring it (the A/C dining area still closed due to Covid), a Harley pulled in riding two-up. He was struggling in the heat to back his bike into a parking spot, so asked his wife to dismount first to make it easier. I thought, “He’s tired.” Turns out he’d been on the road since 4:30 a.m. and this was his first stop since leaving Sudbury. And I thought I was in a hurry.
“That was some heat coming down through those hills,” he said. And then, before I had slurped the last of my drink, they were back on the road again, apparently to Regina.
I thankfully had another small errand to run, happy to be in A/C for a little longer. I stopped in to the local grocery store to pick up something for my hosts that night who live in the Shebandowan area just west of Thunder Bay on Highway 11. This is a lovely cottage area with its own network of lakes. Marilyn and I stayed with her cousin last summer and did some water skiing there, which left me stiff for days but was exhilarating. This time there was none of that; I was happy to relax, see familiar faces, and meet more extended family.
The next morning I continued west along Highway 11 toward International Falls. The evening before, in conversation with a fellow biker, I was told that “the road is straight and remote, and you might be tempted to see what your bike can do, but be careful because OPP are along there.” I now saw what he meant so “sped responsibly.” I really couldn’t afford a whopping fine let alone having my licence suspended.
I was excited to experience Lake of the Woods, which I had never visited before but had only read about in researching an article on The Northwest Loop. But first I decided to explore Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung, or Manitou Mounds, another ancient Aboriginal meeting place of national significance that contains “the records of 8000+ years of recurring use or habitation” and “the largest group of burial mounds and associated village sites in Canada” (https://manitoumounds.com/history-culture/). It was about forty minutes out of my way but I decided to pay the price to learn first-hand about ancient Indigenous history and culture. Only once I had paid the price, not only in time but kilometres of dirt road, the only thing I learned was that it was . . . you guessed it, closed due to Covid. Nothing on the website indicated that, which would have been nice. (I could hear my wife’s voice in my head saying “You should have phoned first,” which is probably true and would have saved me the frustration.)
Now I was in the mood to see what my bike can do. I’ve never had it pinned and have always wondered. Okay, the bike was fully loaded, but it still hit 160 km/hr in a tuck, which is pretty good for a 650 that is 16 years old with over 100,000 kilometres. As luck would have it, soon after that little test, I passed an OPP sitting at the side of the road. Sometimes you get lucky.
Highway 71 lived up to its reputation, winding up through a mixture of forest and wetlands as it skirts the eastern border of Lake of the Woods. My wife who grew up in Winnipeg has talked about this region using similar tones that Torontonians use to talk about the Muskokas. It’s beautiful cottage country, for sure, and its remote location has saved it from the more obnoxious development that has altered the Muskoka region during my lifetime. The road north of Nestor Falls is twisty and hilly with views of lakes and wetland. I stopped at The Narrows Gift Shop and took a browse (I’m always on the prowl for pannier stickers). Beside is The Lazy Loon Restaurant. Okay, there’s some kitsch development here too, with fake inuksuks, fake totem poles, and mini-putt, but I forgave it all because THEY HAD ICE CREAM!
The final leg of the day and my ride across Ontario took me into Anicinabe RV Park and Campground in Kenora just as a thunderstorm broke. It had been a long, hot day, and the cooling rain was welcome relief. As it would turn out, it was one of only three showers I would experience in my six weeks on the road.
Have you been to any of these places? Drop a comment below. I love to hear from my readers.
Next up: Prevented from stopping in Manitoba due to Covid restrictions, I ride across in one day and spend the night in Moosomin, SK.