Northern Ontario 2013 – Part 1: Straits and Sleeping Giant


The Perrow Family summer vacation 2013 was a camping trip to Northern Ontario. “Hold on,” I hear you say, “you guys went to Northern Ontario last summer! I remember you writing about it!” Yes, dear loyal reader. You’re right: we did, and I did (parts one, two, and three). But last year the people we went to visit in Manitouwadge, Rolly and Candyce, were (gasp) living in sin and last winter, Rolly popped the big question. They decided to have the wedding this summer, and of course we were excited to make the trip back to the ‘Wadge (I don’t know if Manitouwadge residents really call it “the ‘Wadge”, but if they don’t, they should) for the festivities. Since this was the second wedding for both of them, they decided to forego the traditional wedding and do something different, and what could be more different than a Hallowe’en-themed wedding in August?

But we’ll get to the actual wedding later. As I have done with vacations in the past, I wrote in a mini-journal every night so I’d remember what we did, what we saw, and any other interesting facts that would likely get lost in the mists of time if I didn’t write them down. I do this so that once we return, I can write about them here, creating an online “web log” – a “blog”, if you will (I just coined that term now) – of our vacation.

We were away for two weeks, and stayed in four different places. I’ll write about the first two (Straits State Park and Sleeping Giant) in this article, and then the second two (Manitouwadge and Pancake Bay) in the next article. I’ve also created a Google map of our trip though it’s a bit hard to see since there was a lot of driving overlap, i.e. about half of the drive from Straits to Sleeping Giant was the same as most of the drive from Sleeping Giant to Manitouwadge, and the drive from Manitouwadge to Pancake Bay was entirely along roads we’d already travelled.

Aug 17

Driving Day One (of five). We left home around 9am and got to Sarnia a little over 2 hours later. After one of the quickest and most painless border crossings ever, we continued east from Port Huron to Flint where we stopped for gas. Then we hung a right and headed north to Straits State Park, just on the north side of the Mackinac1 Bridge.  The bridge is pretty impressive – 8 km (5 miles) long, and 200 feet above the water. They even have a free service where they will drive you across (in your car) if you’re uncomfortable driving across yourself. We arrived at the park around 4:00, got set up, and then had dinner.The Mackinac Bridge

We had a lot of fun on the way to Straits. We have a DVD player in the van so the boys brought movies, but Gail also got a couple of books on CD from the library. One of them, Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, turned out to be 35+ hours long so we didn’t listen to that, but the other was a classic: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, read performed by Stephen Fry. I had read this book years ago, but forgot most of it. Fry did a great job with it, changing his voice or accent for the different characters – only slightly but enough that it was easy to figure out who was speaking. Obviously the book itself is hilarious, and we all enjoyed it. We got about 75% finished when we got to Straits, and then finished it a couple days later on Driving Day Two.

There are lots of restrictions on what kinds of food you can bring into the US, so we didn’t take any chances and brought very little that was suspect. The last thing we needed was to be stopped at the border and have to throw half our food out. All the meat we brought was still sealed in the original packaging, and we didn’t bring any eggs, milk, fruits, or veggies. After dinner, we headed over to the local grocery store to stock up on these supplies we didn’t bring. Going grocery shopping in a strange area is interesting; sounds dull but I really enjoy looking at all the differences from home:

  • Products we don’t have – various cereals and chocolate bars, aerosol cheese, pork rinds, strawberry marshmallows, Cherry Coke Zero (Dear Coca-Cola Canada: THIS. Thank you. Love, Graeme)
  • Packaging that’s different – Kraft Dinner is called Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Knorr Sidekicks are called… something else, that kind of thing. Being from Canada, it’s also weird to see no French on any packaging.
  • Products that have the same name and packaging but are made differently – in Canada, Mike’s Hard Lemonade is a vodka cooler but in the US, it’s a “malt beverage”. Actually I think all coolers are malt beverages in the US. I don’t think there are malt beverages in Canada at all.
  • Being from Ontario, it’s weird to me to see alcohol on a grocery store shelf next to the bottled water, or beer in the cooler next to the cream cheese.

After shopping, we walked down to the beach, right on Lake Huron. The bridge is the dividing point between Lakes Huron and Michigan – this side of the bridge (the east side) is Lake Huron, and the other side of the bridge is Lake Michigan. From the beach, we got some great views of the Mackinac Bridge all lit up. We took a bunch of pictures (including the one above) and stargazed for a little while before heading back to the campsite. We were pretty tired and it was already getting late so we skipped the campfire and went straight to bed.

1 – The bridge and island are spelled Mackinac and the city is spelled Mackinaw, but they are all pronounced “MACK-in-aw”. It took Nicky a couple of days to stop saying “Mack-in-ack”.

Aug 18

Quick breakfast, then drove into nearby St. Ignace (pronounced IG-nuss) for the ferry ride to Mackinac Island. The ferry we took was called a “hydro-jet”, which meant that it had a rooster-tail of water shooting out the back. It actually did move pretty fast, and we specifically chose a time where they went under the Mackinac bridge as well.

Ferry with hydro-jetNo cars are allowed on Mackinac island. Later in the day, we did see one driving in the middle of the island somewhere, but it was an ambulance so we let them off the hook. We got off the ferry in a little downtown area, where we saw lots of little touristy shops as well as tons of bike rental places and horse-drawn taxis. There are lots of walking trails throughout the island, and we decided to take the one that goes all the way around the outside. We do a lot of walking on our vacations, so we figured we could handle the 8.2 mile perimeter trail. The trail was almost right on the edge of the water; usually there was only a rocky beach between the trail and the lake. In a number of places, previous visitors had made tall piles of rocks – similar to an inukshuk but just a single pile, some of them five feet tall or more. We saw hundreds of these things.

We stopped for lunch at the “world-famous” Cannonball grill (obviously you’ve heard of it, since it’s world-famous) for some pretty decent though overpriced burgers and dogs. (Three burgers, a hot dog, a couple of orders of fries and some drinks cost > $40.) After lunch we continued on our around-the-island trek but just over half-way around, we realized that we wouldn’t be able to finish it. We probably could have, except that we wouldn’t have seen anything else. There were a few things on the interior of the island that we wanted to see, and it would have been too far to walk into the middle of the island, see what we wanted to see, and then walk back to the outside. An 8 km hike is no big deal for us, but we were starting to realize at this point that 8 miles is not the same thing as 8 kilometers. 8 miles is more like 13 kilometers, and by now we knew that we were going to be pretty tired on the ferry ride back.

We headed for “Crack-in-the-island”, which Nicky wanted to see though we couldn’t find a description of what exactly that was. All we knew was the name, and that it was right next to “Cave in the woods” which Nicky also wanted to see. We did find it (the walking trails on the island are fairly well marked) but it was a bit underwhelming. Crack-in-the-island is just what it sounds like – a fissure in the ground, maybe 7 feet deep and 20 feet long. The boys actually walked through it and when they did so, they saw the cave in the woods, or so they think. There was no sign around saying what or where cave in the woods was, but there was a little cave (apparently not much more than an indentation in the wall) at the bottom of the crack, so we figured that was it.

Some battles during the War of 1812 were fought on Mackinac Island, and Ryan wanted to see the battlefields. When we got there, the “battlefields” turned out to be a couple of informational signs describing what used to be there, and the actual field itself was now part of a golf course. That was kind of on our way back to the south end of the island, so we didn’t really feel like we’d wasted a lot of time finding it. From there, we headed towards the Grand Hotel. This is when the GPS and Google Maps on my phone would have come in handy but it was not available. (The data rates when roaming to the US are insane a little too high for my liking, so I turned the mobile network off as soon as we entered the US and didn’t turn it back on until we were back in Ontario.)The Grand Hotel

We weaved through the town until we reached the hotel, which is absolutely magnificent. The balcony out front is massive, and the gardens are beautiful. Of course, I’m saying this based on the limited view we had and the pictures I’ve seen, not so much based on what I actually saw. I’ve never before seen a hotel that charged admission just to walk around, but this one does. If you are not a registered guest, it costs you $10 (half price for kids under 12!) just to get onto the grounds. It would have been $35 for the four of us, which we were not willing to pay, so we took some pictures from the road and decided that that would do. The only part of the building that you’re allowed in without paying the admission is the ice cream shop, so we took advantage of that.

At the time, we assumed the place was expensive but had no idea how much it would be to stay there. Once we arrived home, I did some quick research. For the cheapest room during the cheapest time of the week, it would be $264 per night. Per person. And that’s just for two of us. For extra people in the same room, it would be $59 for Ryan and Nicky would be free, so a single night would cost us, once you factored in the taxes and “Mackinac Island assessment” and luggage fees, about $786. For one night. Now, that includes both dinner and breakfast, so there’s that. But still.

We continued through the cute little town back to the docks, and caught the 5:30 ferry back to St. Ignace. Despite not finishing the 8 mile walk around the island, we figured that we’d walked at least 8 or 9 miles anyway, or 13-14 km, so we were tired and hungry. We decided that cooking dinner would take too long, so we asked one of the guys on the dock if he knew of a good place to get a pizza to go. He pointed us to a place across the street called Pizza Builders. We got a couple of pizzas to take back to the camp site and enjoyed them thoroughly. After a campfire and some obligatory marshmallows, we all went to bed.

Aug 19

We slept in a bit today and enjoyed a full pancakes-and-bacon breakfast before having showers. Once we were all refreshed, we took a drive back over the Mackinac bridge into Mackinaw City, stopping at Colonial Michilimackinac Park, where we took 10 or 15 minutes to learn how to say the name of the place (MISH-ill-uh-MACK-in-naw). We had been to Fort William in Thunder Bay last summer, and we figured this would be very similar to that so we didn’t actually go in, just stopped to pick up some of those touristy brochures for other things to see. We were headed for a place called Mill Creek, and figured it would be half a day so we were looking for somewhere else to go once we were done there. Turns out we needn’t have bothered.

Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park is the site of a two-hundred-year-old sawmill which was in use for years but subsequently destroyed. It has been painstakingly recreated in every detail, and there are regular demonstrations of how it helped transform the logging industry. Sawing logs into long boards used to be a slow and very labour-intensive procedure – a single board might take an hour to cut, and they’d get 12 of them cut a day. Once they built the mill, no manual labour was necessary and a board could be cut every 7 minutes. The show was really interesting and the guy who did it was very knowledgeable and entertaining.

Boys on the climbing wallThere was also an “adventure tour” which we enjoyed. It started with a short nature hike with a guide who pointed out local flora and told us about local fauna, not that we saw any fauna. In fact, I don’t think we saw so much as a squirrel or chipmunk at our campsite, on Mackinac Island, or at Mill Creek. A few birds, but that’s about it. That would change later in the trip (foreshadowing!). In the middle of the hike was a bridge made primarily of ropes and wires, but with a narrow wooden floor to walk across. The views from here were pretty nice, and despite being 50 feet up, the bridge felt strong and we were also attached with wires to cables above the bridge so we felt secure. After a bit more of a hike (the hikes on this tour were maybe 1km total), we got to the zip line. This was nowhere near as long as the one at Horseshoe Adventure Park, but still a lot of fun. After zipping over the river, we went around the corner to the 40-foot climbing wall, which Gail and I passed on but the boys enjoyed. Both made it to the top without any trouble.

There were some walking trails through the forest, and we never pass up a good walking trail. They were only a few km as well so it was nothing like the walking on Mackinac Island, but we got some good views of the beaver dams in the river (but we didn’t see any beavers). We ended up spending the rest of the day at Mill Creek and thoroughly enjoyed it all. The whole place was clean and very well kept. The place was quite inexpensive too – admission was $4.75/person and the adventure tour was another $8/person. My only complaint was that there was no food available other than some ice cream, small snacks, and drinks in the gift shop. A place to buy overpriced burgers and dogs would be a good addition. We had brought our own sandwiches, veggies, and drinks for lunch anyway so we were fine.

We headed north again to our campsite (trip #3 over the Mackinac Bridge – total tolls for the 3 trips: $20) for dinner, a campfire, and bed.

Aug 20

Driving Day Two. We packed up quickly and left Straits about 8:45am, heading north. After another very quick customs stop (this is not always the case, so we got really lucky twice on this trip) at Sault Ste. Marie, we stopped at the Sault KOA for a quick visit with John and Jackie (Gail’s dad and stepmom) who were camping there on their way to Manitouwadge. We only stayed a half hour or so since we still had over 700 km still to drive. We finished the Hitchhiker’s Guide, and the boys watched The Dark Knight and then the first half of Batman Begins. Yes, in that order, and no, they didn’t even bring The Dark Knight Rises. They do that. I don’t get it either.

We stopped for lunch at Krazy Fries (a chip wagon) in Wawa, where we also got gas. (Old joke.) After another gas[oline] stop in Nipigon, we finally ended our 11-hour driving day at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park around 8pm. For this part of the trip, we were camping with Jackie’s daughter Sandy and her 17-year-old daughter Alison, who had already arrived. While we were getting set up, Ryan and Alison went for a  short walk (that turned into a long walk because they got lost) and saw the first fauna of our trip: four deer walking through the campground.

The Sleeping Giant is a huge rock formation that is clearly visible from the city of Thunder Bay, and looks somewhat like a man lying on his back. We saw the Sleeping Giant from Thunder Bay last summer, and I was hoping we could get to these rocks and climb them, getting a view of Thunder Bay from the Giant. No such luck though, as the cliffs that make up the Giant are a 22 km hike from the campground, and there are no roads that go there. It’s not an easy 22km walk either, it’s recommended that you take provisions for a night or two and you should be an experienced overnight hiker. So we had to make do with the great views of the Giant from the beach, which was a two minute walk from our camp site.

Aug 21

Our first day at Sleeping Giant was a little more laid back than our days at Straits. In the morning, we played some cards and did some reading. Sleeping Giant more than made up for our lack of wildlife sightings at Straits; there were chipmunks all over the place. They were tame too – they’d take peanuts right out of our hands.

Nicky made a friendAlison and her friend

After lunch we headed over to a walking trail, of which this park has many. The one we chose was called the Wildlife Habitat trail, and I believe it was designed so that wildlife would be drawn to that area. The trail was very nice but for viewing wildlife, we should have stayed at our site. We saw a few birds and one butterfly, but that was about it. The visitor’s centre had a map that listed recent wildlife sightings, which over the last month or so had included wolves, bears, deer, various kinds of birds including cranes and herons, and various others. The hike was only a couple of kilometers so it didn’t take long. After the hike, we returned to our site for more card games. I alternately read and napped for a while.

We barbecued steak and potatoes for dinner, and just as we were finishing up, Gail suddenly gasped and pointed out towards the road behind our site. Walking across the road was a deer. We thought the chipmunks were cool, but this more than made up for any lack of wildlife sightings at Straits. I grabbed my phone and took a few pictures. In this one, you can see Nicky behind the deer.

Mama deer

After she moved off a bit to my left, I went up the road to try to get a better picture, and that’s when I saw the others – two baby deer, covered with white spots, playing on the next road over. They jumped around each other a few times and NIcky and I just stared in awe at these beautiful and majestic creatures before they bounded with amazing speed into the forest. This was our third trip to Northern Ontario and we’d never really seen much wildlife on previous trips, so this was certainly a highlight. But we weren’t done with the wildlife on this trip. (More foreshadowing!)

Baby deer

Aug 22

After a lovely breakfast of French toast (my wife is awesome), the boys and I borrowed Sandy’s canoe and went paddling on Marie Louise Lake. We only had two paddles so Nicky got a free ride in the middle, but Ryan was in the back (the steering position) and was proud to show off his skills. The beach is on a little bay at the south end of the lake, and we were going to do a tour of the lake. But when we went around the point, we found that the lake was far bigger than we originally thought so we killed that idea and just stayed in the bay.

After lunch, we went on a couple of other nature hikes. The first was called Sea Lion, but not because there are sea lions living there. There is a rock formation visible from part of the trail that apparently looked like a sea lion at one point, though the head fell off about a hundred years ago. Now it just looks like a stone arch. The total of the wildlife on this trail was a garter snake that Ryan saw. We got some great views of Lake Superior though, and were able to walk down right by the lake. Gail likes to walk on beaches with her feet in the water, but there was no way that was happening here, the water was just too cold. This trail continued on for another 10 km or so, and then joined other trails that went all the way to the Sleeping Giant itself, but we weren’t up for a hike that long so we turned back.

Once we finished that trail, we took another one called Ravine Lake. This was a loop that included a climb to the top of some cliffs where we got more great views of Lake Superior as well as Ravine Lake. Each of these trails was just a couple of kilometres, but the Ravine Lake one was quite hilly so by the time we were done, we were done, and we went back to camp for dinner. After dinner, the boys and I went on another canoe trip (our legs were still tired from the hikes but no leg muscles are needed for canoeing), then some desperately needed showers before campfire and bed.

At one point during this day (I think it was after dinner but I don’t remember exactly), we saw movement on the other side of the trailer. I assumed it was one of the many chipmunks that visited us during our stay, but then saw that it was much bigger than a chipmunk. It turned out to be a very cute little skunk. Of course, a skunk isn’t the kind of animal that you try to pet or toss peanuts at, and while it was wandering around our site, nobody moved. We weren’t afraid of the animal, just afraid that we’d spook it. We all know what could happen if a skunk gets spooked. I was standing near the open tailgate of the van and our visitor strolled nearby as well and actually went under the van for a short time. I very casually took a couple of steps to my right and closed the tailgate; the last thing we wanted – well, the last thing we wanted was to get sprayed. But the second last thing we wanted was to have the skunk jump into the back of the van and either steal some food or find a soft place to have a nap. It turned out to be fine; Mr. LePew just kept on walking across the road and we didn’t see him again. Gail thought she smelled something the next morning though – something must have made him unhappy.


The next day we left for Manitouwadge. The story continues in the next article.

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