Archive for September 2010

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

September 9, 2010

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.


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.


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….”


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.



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


World’s Lamest Northern Pike

September 7, 2010


And I caught him.