Northern Ontario vacation – Part 1: Ivanhoe and Kakabeka


I have lived in Ontario almost all my life (43 years minus the four months I lived in Redmond, Washington), and the size and beauty of this province never fails to astound me. We don’t have mountains as high as the Rockies or white sand beaches or palm trees or cute little fishing villages on the ocean. But we do have hundreds of lakes and millions of hectares of forests, all built upon one massive rock known as the Canadian Shield. You can drive on a single road for 24 straight hours (Toronto all the way to the Manitoba border) and not even leave Ontario. And that route wouldn’t take you anywhere near Windsor or Ottawa and is more than 800 km from the northern tip of the province. It’s a big place.

For our summer vacation this year, we took a camping trip (with Gail’s dad John and stepmom Jackie) along the north shore of Lake Superior. We stayed at three different provincial parks and also visited family for several days. We tried scuba diving, dug for amethysts, visited an old fur trading fort, went sailing, made slingshots, and played lots and lots of cribbage. We had a great time and as I have done in the past with France and the UK, I’m going to write about it here – not because my millions thousands dozens several readers are dying to know what happened on our trip, but so that we can look at it again in a few years and remember.

This article was getting really long, so I broke it into three parts. Part one: Ivanhoe Lake and Thunder Bay. Part two: Manitouwadge. Part three: Pancake Bay and then home.

August 6

The trip started on Monday, August 6th with a rather inefficient trip to St. Catharines, which is 45 minutes directly away from where we wanted to go. Ryan has been playing house league soccer for many years and this year, he was asked to play with the rep team, which he was very excited about. Monday was his first game with them, and he really didn’t want to miss it so we packed up the van and drove to St. Catharines for a 7pm game. The team got smoked (something like 7-0, we lost count after a while), but Ryan really enjoyed the game. Afterwards, we headed back around Lake Ontario (passing within about 5 km of our house) and then north to Gail’s dad’s place in Sundridge, arriving there around 1:30am.

August 7

Driving day #1. After a quick sleep, we hit the road around 8:15am. We drove north through North Bay and Sudbury, with a stop in the little town of Gogama where Jackie’s sister has a trailer. After a brief visit, we continued north to the outskirts of Timmins before hanging a left down Highway 101 to Ivanhoe Lake Provincial Park, arriving in time for dinner. John and Jackie brought their trailer for the trip, and after setting it up and enjoying a short campfire, all six of us slept quite comfortably.

August 8

Ivanhoe LakeThe beach at Ivanhoe Lake the next morning might have been the quietest place I’ve ever been. There were lots of camp sites around us with trailers on them, but almost no people. I walked down to the beach by myself and just stood and listened – other than the occasional loon call or chipmunk chattering, there was no noise whatsoever. It was amazing. We spent the day walking around some nature trails, reading, playing cribbage, and generally relaxing. One of the nature trails featured a “quaking bog”, which is a bog that is so overgrown with weeds and grass that you can walk on it. Each step caused the ground around you to shake, giving the place its name. The forest was very wet and mossy, and the ground (even away from the bog) was very springy. It was like no other forest I’ve ever been in.

We had another campfire in the evening before heading to bed. I hit the hay somewhat early; we had driven over 500 km the previous day, but the next day’s drive was going to be even longer so I wanted to be well rested.

August 9

WawaGot up, had a quick breakfast, packed up, and hit the road by 8am. Our first stop was about an hour away in Chapleau, where we planned on visiting the rail museum. We arrived too early and didn’t want to wait for another hour until it opened, so we just kept going. We stopped in Wawa, another hour away, for lunch, gas, and the obligatory stop at the Big Goose. From there, we temporarily parted ways with our travelling companions, as John and Jackie drove to Manitouwadge while we continued west to Thunder Bay. Jackie’s son Rolly is an OPP officer in Manitouwadge and visiting Rolly and his wife Candyce was the main reason for our trip. But we had never been to Thunder Bay so we decided that since we were in the area (relatively speaking), we’d continue on for a couple of nights there before heading to Manitouwadge.

As we went further west, we got into some serious hills. I won’t call them “mountains” in case anyone who lives in the Rockies reads this and laughs but for an Ontarian, these were pretty big. The road went up and down and was winding all over the place. There were a number of places where you’d come over the crest of a hill and it looked like the road went straight down into the lake. I have to say that the part of the Trans-Canada Highway between Nipigon and Terrace Bay might be the most beautiful piece of highway I’ve ever been on, and that would include both the Sea to Sky highway from Vancouver to Whistler, and the 17-Mile Drive in California. Actually, trying to rank them is difficult because they’re all beautiful for different reasons, so let’s just say they’re all awesome.

We stopped for dinner at a truck stop in Nipigon. We were booked at Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park, which is west of Thunder Bay and we didn’t arrive there until around 8pm, at which point I heard a sound I hadn’t heard in days – my phone finally had a signal again, and I was able to check my email. Since we knew John and Jackie were taking the trailer to Manitouwadge with them, we brought our tent and in less than an hour, we were all set up. We bought some wood at the park but after an hour of fumbling with it we couldn’t get a fire going, so we abandoned it and went to bed.

August 10

The night was chilly (7° when we woke up), but we were all comfortable in our sleeping bags. After a quick breakfast, we headed back to Thunder Bay to visit the Fort William Historical Park, which we thought was an old military fort that had been refurbished and turned into a historical site. As it turned out, we were wrong on both counts. The park is a re-creation of the original Fort William, a trading fort (which was located elsewhere in Thunder Bay) where voyageurs would come to trade their furs. The fur trade is a defining part of Canadian history, and we all enjoyed learning more about this part of our heritage. We learned about how they built canoes, how it took six weeks to get there from Montreal, and about the different kinds of furs they traded (obviously beaver, but also squirrel (!), wolf, seal, bear, deer, lynx, and fox). Nicky and another kid got to be “the fire” during a fire engine demonstration (and was drenched for the rest of the day), and the boys and I even played a little lacrosse using old-time wooden sticks and a ball made out of deerskin filled with feathers.

The boys favourite activity was axe throwing. They had a huge log to aim at, and you stood about ten feet away and tried to bury the head of the axe in the wood. The training and safety instructions for this consisted of the guy giving you an axe and saying “Here ya go, now throw it.”. There were very few people there, so Nicky, Ryan, and I each had a couple of turns and Gail took one as well. Nicky loved it so much that the rest of the day he kept asking if we could go back and try it again, but it was a timed thing, so you couldn’t just go any time and throw. In the picture below, you can see the axe in the air just before it hit the log.

Ryan throwing the axeWe originally planned on spending about half a day at Fort William, but it was after 4:00 before we left. After the Fort, we drove into Thunder Bay to see if we could get a good view of the lake. We had been told that from just about anywhere in the city, you get a great view of the “Sleeping Giant”, and we were curious to find out what that meant. We stopped at a grocery store and picked up a pizza, then happened across Hillcrest Park. From here, we did indeed get a great view of the Sleeping Giant which is a huge rock formation across the bay that looks like a man sleeping on his back. We ate our pizza, took some pictures, walked around the nearby gardens, and hung out at the park for a while before heading back to Kakabeka.

Once again we tried to get a fire going and once again we had no luck. It was obvious that the wood was very wet – once it got hot enough (with almost constant fanning with our empty pizza-box lid) we could see dribbles of water and lots of steam coming out of the ends of the wood but we had to work almost constantly just to keep it alight. After going through about 10 chunks of firestarter (usually two is sufficient to get the fire going) and gradually reducing our fan size by tearing off strips of cardboard to burn, we finally decided to just leave it alone and let it burn itself out and head to bed. Of course, that’s when the fire caught. But we were tired by that point, so after another 15 minutes or so we doused the fire and went to bed anyway.

August 11

Kakabeka FallsAnother chilly morning at Kakabeka, but we had places to go and people to see so we got a move on. After a quick breakfast we packed up and drove out to see Kakabeka Falls, which were amazing. They’re not all that high, and the amount of water going over them doesn’t compare to Niagara, but there was something about them that fascinated me. I could have stared at them for hours. After I managed to tear myself away, we made our way back east, making at least four stops on our way to Manitouwadge (and saying goodbye once again to my phone signal until six days later in Sault Ste. Marie). The first was at the Terry Fox memorial, just east of Thunder Bay. This is near the spot where Terry was forced to end his Marathon of Hope after running halfway across Canada in 1981. After a short stop to pay our respects to a true Canadian hero, we continued on to our next adventure, an amethyst mine.

The mine site was about 10 km off the highway, and totally wasn’t what I expected. It’s an open-pit mine, and it’s built on a fault line so it just looked like a little mini-canyon about 50 feet wide. They occasionally use blasting but mostly it’s manual digging, with high-pressure water and pickaxes. It’s a family business so it’s not like there are hundreds of miners working there. They did say that their rate of digging is an amazingly slow two feet in twenty years, though with the amount of amethyst they’ve got for sale, that number seems low. Anyway, after a short tour of the mine, we were let loose in the “digging area”, which is a big area that they’ve seeded with (likely) dump trucks full of stuff they’ve dug up but haven’t gone through themselves. There are little chunks of amethyst everywhere, and you can take whatever you want for $3/pound. Most of the pieces there are pretty tiny, but there were some bigger ones here and there. The boys had a great time digging and while we likely bought too much, we did come away with some pretty nice pieces for the garden.

Our next stop was Eagle Canyon, home of Canada’s longest suspension bridge. There were actually two bridges across the canyon, one 300 feet long and 125 feet up and the other 600 feet long and 150 feet up. By comparison, the Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver (which Gail and I visited in about 1996) is only 450 feet long but 230 feet high. We all walked across the first (shorter) bridge, but both Gail and I were a little more nervous than we were expecting. Neither of us is really afraid of heights, but it was a little more shaky and windy than we thought and I took a few pictures with one hand gripping my phone as tight as possible and the other gripping the bridge as tight as possible. I gradually became more comfortable out there, but Gail did not. She finished the first bridge and decided to take the nature trail down to the bottom of the canyon rather than come back across the longer bridge. The boys and I ventured on and it turned out that the second bridge wasn’t nearly as scary as the first one, though I have no idea why not since it was just as wobbly and just as windy. I even took some video from the middle of the bridge, which required me to let go of the bridge with both hands. Graeme the daredevil. Gail took a couple of pictures of us from the ground which gives you an idea of the scale. Here’s the entire bridge with us in the middle, each of us about a pixel high:Suspension Bridge

and here’s us after Gail zoomed in a little (yay telephoto lens!):

Suspension Bridge 2

After descending the steps down to the valley floor, we walked along a trail back to the parking lot and continued making our way towards Manitouwadge.

One thing that surprised us during this drive was the number of cyclists between Thunder Bay and Marathon. Considering the hilly road and the fact that towns were few and far between, we were pretty impressed with these people. Most of them were riding bikes equipped with numerous saddle bags that were, I would assume, filled with Rub A-535.

There are a number of scenic lookouts along this road and at one particularly nice one, we pulled off the road for a look. After we pulled off, a transport truck behind us pulled off as well. This was a particularly big place which was empty so there was lots of room for him to park his rig. The driver got out and approached us. I started to wonder if I’d cut him off or something without realizing it and he was coming to pound me into oblivion, but he smiled and just asked if we’d take his picture (with his rig). He said he loved the area but because he was always driving by himself, he could never get a picture taken with him in it. I took a couple of pictures and we chatted to him for a few minutes. We asked where he was going (just a short trip to Toronto and then New Jersey) and if he ever got bored with the scenery (never). He said he loved the north so much that if he got to Toronto and they told him he’d forgotten something in Nipigon, he’d just smile, turn around, and walk back to his truck. He said that his usual route is a triangle from Toronto to Vancouver to Los Angeles and back to Toronto – a circuit of about 10,000 km which he drives in nine days. We drove off a short while later and then stopped for gas about a half hour after that. He must have passed us while we got gas because I passed him again a short while later – and he remembered us and waved at us out the window.

Pebble BeachOur next stop was in Marathon, only an hour from Manitouwadge but we were starving so we stopped for dinner. We found a Pizza Hut and did the same thing as we had done in Thunder Bay – bought a pizza and found a nice park to sit and eat. In this case, Gail knew of a place called Pebble Beach but we didn’t know where it was. We asked the Pizza Hut guy (who, it turned out, was originally from Kitchener/Waterloo), who gave us directions to the parking lot. We parked at the top of a cliff overlooking the beach and enjoyed our dinner. Afterwards, we walked down to the beach itself. If that beach is made up of what Marathon people call “pebbles”, I’d love to see what they call “rocks”. You can see the pebbles (some of which were four or five inches wide) in this picture. This was definitely not a fine sand dig-your-toes-in kind of beach – flip flops would have been pretty dangerous and bare feet was painful. But the boys had a blast climbing over the hundreds of pieces of driftwood. We grabbed a few nice rocks and a piece of driftwood for the garden, and then went back to the van for the final leg of the day’s trip.

The drive north to Manitouwadge was uneventful, and an hour later we were at Rolly and Candyce’s place.


Our next installment is just like that Brad Pitt movie: Three Days in Manitouwadge.

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