Travel Log: Thunder Bay, Ontario

June 8-11, 2018 ~ 840 miles

Minneapolis, MN; Duluth, MN; Two Harbors, MN; Grand Marais, MN; Thunder Bay, ON

It’s still under debate whether or not I had visited Thunder Bay, Ontario before last weekend’s trip. The confusion is about whether or not I was included in what family lore now refers to as the ‘vacation from hell’. I would have been less than one year in age, if I was alive at all, and somehow being present as an infant or a toddler with no memory of anything or anyone still counts as me having visited. For further explanation of that logic, I will refer you to my mother…

Mom has cancer, again. On May 23, 2018 she was given the diagnosis of Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) which is a group of blood cancers sometimes referred to as ‘pre-leukemia’ and requires chemotherapy. Since the effects of the chemo on her life are yet unknown, she made the decision that she wanted one more vacation before she might become unable to travel. It had been about 45 years since her last trip to Thunder Bay and since I live in Minnesota, off we went.

Mom arrived on the evening of Thursday, June 7, after having attended her 60th high school class reunion the day before. She is afraid of getting lost in Minneapolis, so I arranged to meet her at a Starbucks inside a Target outside of downtown St. Paul. As I waited drinking coffee, my cellphone rang and she informed me she was already lost in downtown Minneapolis.

Me- “How can you be in Minneapolis? Did you pass Lexington Ave?”
Mom- “I’m passing 35-E…”
Me- “Mom, you’re in St Paul…”

I hurriedly packed on Friday morning, the first day of our trip, which is not my preference. I work full-time and after navigating mom in for a safe landing, we went out for dinner and ice cream with my niece. There was no other time to pack so we left later than we wanted to- but what’s the rush? We didn’t have to be back until Tuesday. After breakfast we headed straight north on I-35 to Duluth. Mom started to count the number of lakes we passed. She wanted to verify there were 10,000.

We followed I-35 to highway 61 north. Here are some highlights of the trip:

2- Duluth

Duluth appeared over the hill and our North Shore Lake Superior adventure began. It is our modus operandi that if there is a historical marker, we are stopping to read it. If there is a scenic overlook, we are stopping to look at it. We almost regretted this decision later in the trip… see last paragraph.

According to Wikipedia, Duluth is the second-largest city on Lake Superior’s shores, after Thunder Bay, Ontario. It is accessible to oceangoing vessels from the Atlantic Ocean 2,300 miles away via the Great Lakes Waterway and the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Duluth forms a metropolitan area with neighboring Superior, Wisconsin, called the Twin Ports and the cities share the Duluth–Superior harbor, the Great Lakes’ largest port.

3- Gooseberry

Outside of Two Harbors, we stopped at a smokehouse for trout and cheese curds, then ate lunch at ‘Betty’s Pies’. I regretted packing so hastily and forgetting my cooler at home. We continued to poke along the route north and visited Gooseberry Falls. Mom wants to hike like she used to but can’t. We took a more leisurely stroll, what she was up for, and were able to enjoy some of the natural beauty.

According to Wikipedia, the area was officially designated Gooseberry Falls State Park in 1937. The rustic style resources in Gooseberry Falls State Park were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1934 and 1941. The structures are notable for their stone construction, using red, blue, brown, and black basalt. The designs were supervised by the Minnesota Central Design Office of the National Park Service and construction was supervised by two Italian stonemasons.

4- Grand Marais

We stayed the first night in Grand Marais, enjoying our smoked trout and cheese for dinner on the lakeside. Later at the ‘Voyageur Brewing Company’, Mom regaled me with the story of the ‘vacation from hell’. I wrote it all down as she remembers it… It’s not every vacation that you get three flat tires on a two-tire boat trailer…

According to Wikipedia, prior to inhabitation by white settlers and Minnesota’s statehood, Grand Marais was inhabited by the Anishinaable, the thriving woodland indigenous people also known as the Ojibwe. The area was a bustling fur trading station since the 1700s, and the French Voyageurs termed the settled village ‘Grand Marais’ which is French for “Great Marsh”. This refers to a marsh that, in early fur-trading times, was situated at the head of the little bay and harbor that led to the settlement of the village there.

5- Thunder Bay

On Saturday, June 9 we stopped at the ‘World’s Best Donuts’ donut shop then turned north to Canada. The border patrol let us in after a few questions and my admission that yes, we had a six pack of beer but no firearms. Upon arriving in Thunder Bay, we immediately got lost while driving around the city. I had no cell service or city map and they have two downtowns (one on the south side and one on the north side) so I claim no responsibility for my confusion. We finished off the trout and cheese at Marina Park.

According to Wikipedia, Thunder Bay is the most populous municipality in Northwestern Ontario with a census metropolitan area population of 121,621. European settlement in the region began in the late 17th century with a French fur trading outpost on the banks of the Kaministiquia River. It grew into an important transportation hub with its port forming a link in the shipping of grain and other products from western Canada, through the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence Seaway, to the east coast.

6- Fort William

We spent the afternoon touring the Fort William Historical Park. This was the reason mom wanted to come back to Thunder Bay. To our surprise, the annual Anishnawbe Keeshigun Festival was happening that weekend. The festival celebrates the indigenous culture and we saw demonstrations of traditional games, foods, and crafts. We saw wigwams for smoking fish, wigwams for sleeping, a large collection of pelts, traditional dancing, birch bark canoes, and got to talk to many Ojibwe about their culture and traditions.

According to Wikipedia, Fort William Historical Park is a living history site. Numerous historic buildings have been reconstructed to show the range of the post, and costumed historical interpreters recreate Fort William of the year 1816. Fort William was a central transport depot within the North West Company’s network of fur trade outposts. Due to its central role, Fort William was much larger, with more facilities than the average fur trade post. Reflecting this, Fort William Historical Park contains 42 reconstructed buildings, a reconstructed Ojibwa village, and a small farm.

7- Kakabeka Falls

On the morning of Sunday, June 10 we visited Kakabeka Falls and the only larger falls I have personally have seen were at Niagara. Breathtaking, powerful, and so worth visiting.

According to Wikipedia, the falls have a drop of 40 m (130 ft), cascading into a gorge carved out of the Precambrian Shield by meltwater following the last glacial maximum. Because of its size and ease of access, it has been consequently nicknamed “the Niagara of the North”. The rock face of the falls and the escarpments along the gorge are composed primarily of unstable shale and are eroding. These rocks host sensitive flora, and contain some of the oldest fossils in existence, some 1.6 billion years of age. Due to the fragile rock, going into the gorge below the falls is prohibited. The name “Kakabeka” comes from the Ojibwe word gakaabikaa “waterfall over a cliff”.

8- Road to the lookout

In the afternoon, we visited Sleeping Giant Provincial Park and drove the long, thick tree lined roads. I had spied a sign that said, ‘Thunder Bay Scenic Overlook- .9’. I now know that the point in point nine was a speck of dirt and it was a grueling 9km (5 mile) drive up and down a gravel road. Along the way, a park ranger stopped us to check if we had paid for admission (we didn’t know we had to) and let us off the hook (it helps to have a little old lady with you) after warning us the road was about to get more rough and steep. This turned out to be the understatement of the century as it turned into a granite road which mom was convinced was the Sleeping Giant’s scalp. Who knew that stopping at every scenic overlook would result in treat to life and limb? But it ended at the Thunder Bay lookout, a picture of only about 1/8 of the view is at the top of this blog…

We were left utterly breathless…

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, June 2018

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