Travels with the Bear: Exploring Some of the Back-Roads of Northern Ontario

I often take photos of Junior Bear in such spectacular locations like a mountain peak somewhere in the Canadian Rockies, the shore or Lake Superior, or Yellowstone Park.    But there are times we also like to visit boring, plain, out-of-the-way places,  just to say we’ve been there.   Like some of the small towns in Northern Ontario.

For example, here’s the  Bear in downtown Thessalon, on the northern shore of Lake Huron.   I like to stop there when I’m passing through, because there’s a CIBC Bank and I can use their ATM.

Here’s the bustling metropolis of White River (pop. 841), which is about three hours north of the Soo.

White River was quite an isolated community until relatively recently.  It’s inland, miles away from the Lake Superior, so nobody could actually drive there until they completed the Trans Canada highway in 1960.   Before that, the only access was by train.

Today, White River has an A&W and a few modern conveniences on the highway.  But the older down-town area is a bit run down, because the local mill closed, and the railway boom-times have long since peaked.

The main hotel looks like it would have been a hopping place to be 30-40 years ago.  But it’s boarded up and the funky green and pink paint is peeling.

Many other areas are showing similar decay.

Though some of the newer houses look like typical suburbs you’d find anywhere…

…you still have reminders that you’re in Northern Ontario.    Like the local school that has signs for snow-mobile parking.

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Further northwest is Manitouwadge, a town north of Superior, halfway between the Soo and Thunder Bay.  It’s at the end of a 54-km highway that branches off of Highway 17.

Manitouwadge is typically a starting point for people going on hunting and fishing trips.    Wikipedia says this is becoming a retirement town, that has some of the lowest housing prices in the country.

I suppose that’s true….real estate can be a real steal in a town with limited services, where the main employer (the local mine) has shut down.

(Though why someone would want to retire in an isolated village surrounded by bush, with brutally cold winters is beyond me…)

And, as with all of these typical mill-towns up North, you can see indications of economic problems.    There are all kinds of shut-down businesses, hinting at days of former glory.

In these towns, whenever I stand in the middle of the road downtown, I never have to worry about traffic.

I mean, I realize this photo was taken on a was Sunday afternoon, but still…does anybody LIVE here?

What was surprising, though, was that Manitouwadge has a ski hill!   (And quite a respectable one, considering the location and the population density!)

I don’t know if it’s still open, but it seems to have been running recently enough, based on the clothing styles of the skiers illustrated on the ski map.

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Further down the road is Marathon, Ontario, right on the north shore of Lake Superior.   With a population of 3800, it’s one of the “bigger” cities in the 700 km stretch between the Soo and Thunder Bay.

10 years ago, I stayed at the Pic Motel just outside of town.  It was fun spending the night there, in their kitschy 1960’s era motel.

It was like going back in time,  though the motel has since been shut down and starting to fall apart.

Just outside Marathon is another ski hill, Superior Slopes,  where the top of the hill is right next to a rest stop by the highway.

The ski hill was still running last year, but it’s closed now.   I spoke to a woman at the visitor center.    She said the facility was run by the city, but it became too expensive to run, especially given that the town just lost 230 jobs last year when the mill shut down.

There’s just not enough of a tax base and enough people around to make it wortwhile.

It’s kind of sad.   These once-bustling communities are slowly dying out, and may soon become ghost towns.  It’s like I’m witnessing the end of an era.

But these were some of the “bigger” cities.

There are quite a few smaller ones, that are even more out-of-the-way.

Like Hawk Junction, located just east of Wawa.  It was a population of about 200.

I have no idea what people do here.  There’s not much, except a bush-plane service for hunters and fishermen.  And a railway terminal.

I like this sign that tells you that Highway 547 ends.    Just like that.

Lots of small towns in Northern Ontario located at the end of a paved road, which were built 50-60 years ago, to give them access to the outside world.   After that, you get around by logging roads, or by bush-plane.

And again, as with all the other towns, there’s the mandatory boarded-up shut-down railway hotel.

Half the streets aren’t paved.   The ones that are, aren’t very busy.

I like to think that in the entire history of mankind, I’m probably the first person who put his teddy bear on the street in Hawk Junction, Ontario, and took a photo.

By the way, here’s another reminder that you’re in Nothern Ontario:    piles of junk in people’s yards.

My theory is that this is to display their wealth:  I mean, there’s probably a few hundred bucks of scrap metal, there.

And if you’re looking for a cheap place to retire in, here’s a house that you probably pick up for $10,000.

Heading East on Highway 101 towards Chapleau is the Arctic Watershed.   This the the point north, above which all water will drain into Hudson’s bay instead of the Great Lakes.

I always love crossing this point.  Even though it’s only about ~ 48 degrees latitude, it makes me feel like I”m way up North.

Plus, I also like to take a leak right by the sign.   Who knows?  Some of my pee might end up at opposite ends of the continent.

Of course, I had to take a picture of the Bear in Chapleau (pop. 2200).    Only because he’s never been there

.

Labor Day Monday, downtown.   (Woo-hoo!)

On the way home, I decided to take a “short-cut” which cut 50 km off my distance.   There were signs warning of no gas stations for 120 km.

The last out-of-the-way village I came across was Sultan, Ontario.

Wow…this place was really in the middle of Butt-Crack, Nowhere.    I don’t know the actual population.  Wikipedia says 30.    But I’m guessing it could be 100.

The nearest school is 68 km away, in Chapleau.    And the most prominent building in town is the church.

The old railway station would have also been an important landmark (if it wasn’t cut in half and littered with rusty cars).

My favorite, was the abandoned playground.

Jesus.   This looks like it should be something out of a Stephen King novel.

I can almost hear the voices of ghost children, mournfully singing “Ring around the rose-sieeeee….”

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After Sultan, I still had quite a few hours of driving left, including an 80 kilometers stretch of unpaved logging road going through ugly clear-cuts and re-planted forest.

By the time I hit pavement again, I was within spitting distance of Sudbury.  Which, by my standards, is a “Big City”, close enough to cottages and traffic, that it no longer had that isolated, Northern feeling.

At that point, it was getting dark and I stopped taking photos.

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PS.   The Bear is in ten photos.   Can you find him in all of them?

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20 Comments on “Travels with the Bear: Exploring Some of the Back-Roads of Northern Ontario”

  1. Mama Gayle Says:

    I found the bear in all the pics:) I actually had to go back over them again though, sometimes the little fella was almost hiding, lol.


  2. I would be hoping that you would be hugging bear tightly in that last shot. REALLY spooky.

  3. Friar's Mom Says:

    Very informative,

    I commend you for taking the time to select the “Road Less Travelled”.

    I drove across Canada dozens of times and never took the time to detour from the Transcanada Highway.

    Over the years, I noticed several changes in small towns. We used to stay at the friendly Country Squire Inn in Moosamin, Saskatchewan. Staff were friendly, menu was not elaborate but food was good. It was fun to watch and listen to the locals who gathered for dinner and morning coffee. They wore a variety of baseball caps and drove pick up trucks. Unfortunately a new stretch of the Transcanada has now passed the town. In April, I stopped to refuel and noticed changes, it’s not as prosperous.

    It’s sad for people who live in similar towns along the TC, who worked hard all their lives. Once their children finish highschool, many leave for university and establish themselves elsewhere.

    Hence, you photographed the results.

  4. Eyeteaguy Says:

    I was disappointed not to see any pictures of fish or paintings of food.

    Oh well, maybe next post.

    Eyeteaguy

  5. Brett Legree Says:

    As Canada continues to transform from a nation of “makers and builders” to a nation of “knowledge workers”, we will see more and more of this – *unless* the older generation that is currently managing companies can get their heads around the concept of “remote work”.

    I can do the job I do from anywhere on the planet, given an internet connection and a computer. In fact, you can set up a web cam and watch me all day long, if that floats your boat. I don’t care.

    I am not allowed to do so because of the dinosaurs that run this establishment.

    They believe that in order for me to be productive, I must be “here”. They believe that if I am “here”, I will therefore be doing my job, and if I am “at home”, I would waste time.

    The truth is, I get more done at home than I do here, because it is:

    1. Quieter
    2. More comfortable
    3. Better equipped (office equipment)

    It would cost them less money and they’d get more out of me.

    Instead, I am here, writing on your blog 🙂

    If I could work from anywhere, perhaps I would move to one of those little towns you visited. Perhaps thousands would.

  6. Friar Says:

    @Mama Gayle
    I made one or two photos tricky. I like to hide THe Bear in the background.

    @Canadian Army Wife
    But what if someone happened to walk by? It would look a bit strange, wouldn’t it? A grown man clutching a teddy bear in an abandonned playground…?

    @Friar’s Mom
    Those towns are especially sad if you’re a teenager. There’s no future. The young people don’t want to stay.

    I would still go to that coffee shop, next time you go. Keep giving them your business.

    @Eyeteaguy
    Geez Louise…I just showed a picture of some fish on my last post! SHEESH!!!! What more do you want?

    @Brett
    I know…I’ve had the same problem. For three consecutive years, I’ve asked for a lap-top. Not even necessarily to work from home. But even just to allow me to find a quieter location, on company property. To allow me to concentrate when the cubicle farm is too noisy.

    But nope. They still can’t (or won’t) let me have one. I’m batting Oh-for-three now.

    Geez…wasn’t “telecommutuing” supposed to be the wave of the future, (back in in 1990’s)?

    WHEN…exactly….is that supposed to happen?

  7. Brett Legree Says:

    @Friar,

    I know. They’re just being dicks to you. Seriously.


  8. […] Deep Friar and his amazing exploration of Northern Ontario (with his pink bear, of […]

  9. Zhu Says:

    Pretty cool! I love the “Arctic Watershed” sign, it’s a classic.

    I went to explore rural Ontario last week as well and I took plenty of pictures of these snowmobile signs.

    It was an interesting place but I don’t see myself living in such small communities, although I’m sure people are lovely. I’m a city girl…

  10. Friar Says:

    @Zhu

    If you drive through the Rocky moutains, you get a lot of this…when you cross the “Contintenal Divide”.

    I don’t mind living in a small town…provided there’s a Big City within reasonable driving distance to shop and pick up stuff.

    But in Northern Ontario, the “Big City” might only be 4000 people. And still a 1 hour drive away!

  11. Lucky Lurker Says:

    Great trip summary and how brave of you to take the logging road through Sultan. I’ve contemplated it often, but chickened out at the last minute afraid of inclement weather and speeding 18-wheelers.

    In the same vein and if you are so inclined, I would also suggest the northern 11 route of once-thriving-now-declining towns: starting south from Hearst to Kapuskasing and then onto Cochrane-Iroquois Falls and Matheson skirting by Driftwood,Hunta, Florida and Tunis.

    However the bear will see the same landscape: same rust, different locations.

  12. Friar Says:

    @Lucky Lurker

    I did Iroquois Falls and Cochrane earlier this summer. If you did through the archives, you’ll find I blogged about it. Though I haven’t gone as far West as the Kap.

    Heh heh. I actually KNOW where Florida is. Been there once, in the winter, while off-roading with some friends.

  13. Ruby Says:

    I was feeling a little homesick and that’s how I found your site. I grew up along the shores of Lake Superior and, as much as I didn’t appreciate it then, I realize now that I loved it – and should have loved it better then. Your site made me remember those days with great fondness. Your pictures, as much as they reflect reality today, don’t do my memories any justice. You should have been sitting around a table at the Manitouwadge Hotel having a beer and a laugh in the early ’80s. Ah, those were the days my friend. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  14. svc Says:

    How interesting … It is great that you are able to see the bustling years gone by despite the decline.

    My early childhood was spent in Sultan, an arms throw away from the playground you shot, and my adolescence in the big city of Chapleau Ontario. It is not the community it once was… You are right about the sight of the playground … a little eary. The big city however also has these scenes. I remember the feeling I got when I visited the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, and saw the abandoned/unused grounds. I thought to myself: “I feels like I am watching a scene from the movie “Planet of the Apes” … like when you catch a glimpse of the statue of liberty. But based in the 70 ‘s when you look at the architecture.

    By the way, I have many a tales about the Ramsey Rd. Wimps… you should have seen the road originally. It was only wide enough for a single vehicle to pass, and if you met a speeding lodging truck guess who had the right of way. In the winter months, 20 to 40+ below zero, you would take your chances and pray the road was plowed all the way through, and that you would not get stuck. You always had our survival kit in the back, just in case, which included a bottle of something. If you drank it would have the illusion of being warm, or you could offer it to the scary trapper that would rescue you, or if you made it through you could celebrate at the end.

    Getting back, you would be amazed to know the level of commitment that the people and elders of these communities have to the land and the history of these areas, and this includes their children, and grandchildren. They still have life, and people know in their potential. Many cottagers can’t afford the Parry Sound, French River, or Sudbury area, and thus they are looking north. Where else can you get an acre of lakefront, and a cottage for under 100,000.00 and pay $14.00 in taxes a year, and have the best hunting, and fishing.

  15. Friar Says:

    @Svc

    My buddies and I used to go fishing around the Ramsey Lake area, along Cortez Lake, Ramsey Lake, Swallow Lake and Whitepine Lake. That was about 15 years ago.

    Don’t ask me how we discovered this area. We lived in Hamilton/Burlington at the time. We just picked a spot on the map and chose to try it. We liked it and kept coming back. It was just far enough to get away from the “Toronto crowds”.

  16. Brenden Jean Says:

    Honestly, I lived in Manitouwadge for 4 years and It was some of the best years of my life. I live in Thunder Bay now, and when I have time, I’m going to go Back to Manitouwadge. Heck, I might just get a summer house there when I retire.

  17. Gary Says:

    Truly a joy to read your bits about northern ontario. I was born in northern ontario to a bush pilot and as such have seen a few isolated places my dad would serve. Down here in the GTA since 1966, I often long for escape from the constant bustle and sprawl.
    My only taste of the back roads and windswept pines comes from the occasional canoe trip or bike ride.
    In 2005 I took a little sentimental, caffeine-soaked drive up to see South Porcupine, outside of Timmins. Not too shabby but not entirely as I remembered. What were once insulbrick (faux red brick) homes, were now covered in fading lapped vinyl!
    En route, in the bright of a full moon I passed through Cobalt.
    I’d like to know what you think of this area.
    Kindest regards,
    Gary

  18. Friar Says:

    @Gary

    Thanks for dropping by. Most of my travels have been around area of Sudbury/Chapleau/Wawa/Sault But I occasionally go up towards the Timmins area. A couple of years ago I did a trip up to Cochrane/Cobalt. You might like this post.

    https://deepfriar.wordpress.com/2010/06/14/a-quick-weekend-road-trip-with-the-bear/

    I actually find that area a lot more populated. Biggers towns, and more of them. Compared to North of Superior.

  19. walter Says:

    Some of us do live in towns like this actually . The quiet & community is priceless . You do not appreciate things like this until you go to the opposite end of the spectrum though . Disfunctional veterans dream about these localities (well , I do) Bigger cities are for the less nerve damaged 5 year olds . If they return repeatedly for the earth / human trip , you’ll probably see them at the Caisse Populaire sooner or later . Or sitting in their canoes (it does not matter if you catch any fish) Ahhhh , to rest someday…….

  20. Friar Says:

    @Walter

    I get where you’re coming from…having moved from the Big City to a small town of ~ 4000 myself.


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