An incredible introduction to Thunder Bay: waterfalls, sun rings and great food
THUNDER BAY, ONTARIO - A visitor hears Kakabeka Falls outside Thunder Bay is the "Niagara of the north" and immediately thinks lesser of the place. I mean, we all hear that nonsense about how Toronto is Hollywood North and we know it's not true. Or maybe it's Vancouver.
Anyway, I didn't think much of the analogy and the photos I saw didn't quite overwhelm me. But the tourism folks suggested I take the 20 minute drive from the airport out to see the falls so I figured they knew what they were talking about.
I made the short drive as I listened to something called "Trucker Radio" in my rented Mazda 6; a nice car in a brilliant shade of red that's perfect for a Canadian road trip. There was a great song about finding a beach somewhere and another fun one with a woman talking about how she's "rough around the edges" and that was a long list of "reasons why you shouldn't date someone like me."
I rolled past picture postcard farms with towering grain containers and small motels with names like The Pines and roadside signs for a turnoff with streets called "Jelly Road" and "Wing Road" and pretty soon was in a fine mood, anticipating the day ahead.
I pulled into the parking lot for the falls and immediately heard the road. The falls aren't nearly as wide across as Niagara, of course; few in the world are. But the drop is hugely impressive and the setting is far more intimate and rural and remote and satisfying.
The water from the Kaministiquia River hurtles with sudden force down a huge cliff and there's a giant, roughly triangular shaped slab of black rock in the middle where bushes and small trees cling precariously to life. The brownish water thunders onto outcroppings of rock in a powerful torrent and mist rises high into the air. The water falls a couple dozen meters in full fury and then collects in a series of small steps that gently spill into a stunning, deep canyon.
You can take a short walk on an old portage trail that reveals fabulous views of the canyon rock; black and brown and rust and red and white streaks of broken, ancient stone. The canyon is riddled with small caves where the local Ojibwa thought evil spirits lived And perhaps they were right, although on this day all I could think about was the beauty and the power and the sheer joy of seeing nature at work on a sunny, 23 degree day.
I also spotted a great sign that talked about the first road built through the area. The path was surveyed by one Simon J. Dawson and was apparently a bear to build on tough, rugged land. The sign I saw talked about the route and had a great quote from a worker: "pitched our tents, had supper and went to bed having first cursed old Dawson."
Isn't that great?
If you've never heard of Kakabeka Falls, you should go. If you've heard of them but never been, you should go. If you've been before, you should go again.
As I drove away, I thought to myself, "That's a nice welcome on my first day ever in Ontario's north." But things were just as good later.
I made a brief stop at historic Fort William, an old fur trading post near the shores of Lake Superior. But I didn't go in, reasoning that we have a lot of forts in southern Ontario, including Fort York in Toronto. Instead, I opted to take in a view of Thunder Bay and the lake from a lookout on nearby Mt. McKay; something I had spotted on a map of the town.
It's a giant outcropping of rock on an island just south of the airport and west of the city. You drive up a very safe dirt road and a huge, rocky mountain suddenly juts up out of the forest canopy; a bit like the Niagara escarpment but seemingly way taller. The views are terrific out towards the city and the nearby peninsula known as Sleeping Giant. But what REALLY got my attention was when I stepped out from beneath a tree and looked up and saw a giant rainbow encircling the sun.
I wasn't able to get the entire image in my camera, but I spotted a photographer nearby, a great guy named Mike Taddoe, and he sent me his shot. Amazing! Apparently these happen now and again where the moisture in the air is just right but I'd never seen one. And it blew me away.
I was still thinking of that sun ring when I pulled into my home for the night, a wonderful B and B called McVicar Manor. Located on an acre of property with lovely, sunny gardens and a gurgling creek I can hear from my second floor room as I type this blog, it's a thick, massive building with a cavernous living room/dining area, a front porch big enough for a soccer game and a glassed in porch on the other side that would be wonderful in winter.
My room was huge, with a rounded turret that features a settee and table and chair and a large bathroom with a standup shower and a huge jacuzzi tub. The owners, Tom and Dorothy, have aromatherapy products in the bath and also a set of candles. I felt a little silly, but I wanted to see what the ambience was like so I filled the tub last night after dinner and lit the candles and thought, "Wow, this is cool." I also thought maybe I should've asked my wife to come along, but that's another story.
Anyway, it's a great, great place to stay and it's only a 10 minute walk to the waterfront, where I had a terrific dinner at a bright, modern airy spot called Bight that wouldn't look out of place in a posh Niagara vineyard or on north Yonge St. They serve up everything from steaks and fish to Korean chicken wings with orange sambal sauce, inventive pizzas, great salads (mine had fresh fennel, arugula, almonds and orange slices; yum) and thick, juicy shrimp in a gently spicy Thai sauce that were out of this world. Not only that, I got six of the big guys for $12. For that price in Toronto you'd be lucky to get two. Maybe three if the chef is in a good mood and you tipped the owner on the way in.
It's a beautiful spot filled with attractive locals and most definitely a place you should check out if you're up here. They're building a new Delta hotel just steps away from the restaurant, as well as a couple of waterfront condos.
Most definitely a city on the rise.
Check back in this space on Wednesday (I'm now blogging three days a week, not five) for my drive from Thunder Bay to Sault Ste. Marie, including stops at the Terry Fox memorial, Sleeping Giant, Ouimet Canyon and the Lake Superior shoreline.