Local is the new exotic. We want adventure with peace of mind. A world away in our own backyard, we’ve discovered Ontario’s exhilarating Northwestern hub of activity: Thunder Bay. Surprised? Take a look at this!
1. Get off the Beaten Path. This is an astonishing all-season destination of outdoor activities. Cradled between Lake Superior and the Canadian Shield are six Provincial Parks. We reach remote lodges by floatplane and then paddle through pristine parkland to get up-close and personal with Canadian wildlife. Fall colours are spectacular. Ouimet Canyon, among other parks, is wheelchair accessible. Hike through dramatic forests like Casque Isles Trail, or surf the waves of Terrace Bay. Views are breathtaking. Winter is a paradise for every sport, from fat biking in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park to snow kiting in Mission Island Marsh, and ice climbing in Silver Harbour to ice fishing in, well, anywhere. The large Scandinavian population has ensured a network of Nordic ski trails for some of the best cross-country skiing in the world. As winter springs into summer the cycling and hiking opportunities are endless. Outdoor Skills and Thrills guides us to world-renowned Orient Bay, the mecca for climbing in North America. Lake Superior is the Everest of fresh water sailing. Rent a boat from Sail Superior, leisurely sail along the rugged coastline to the trail-head of “The Giant,” swim, snack and hike up to one of the highest points in Ontario. Another favourite jaunt is to sail out to Thompson Island, enjoy a barbecue on the boat, swim, lie on the beach, and hike through the woods toward a beautiful waterfront Finnish sauna. It’s all yours! Light a fire to heat it up, and unwind at your own pace. Afterwards, jump back in the lake and watch the sunset on the beach. It’s so liberating.
2. Fish. You don’t have to go and find a spot — everywhere is the spot. There are a dozen lakes just 15 minutes out of town, and 150,000 lakes and rivers in the region. Head north for bigger fish like sturgeon and muskie. Head west for rivers of trout and lakes of walleye and perch. Head east to Lake Nipigon for giant Brook trout. South is Lake Superior. Nothing has been over-fished. I’m the only guy on the lake! It’s pristine and untouched. If you can’t catch a fish here, you belong at the frozen section of a supermarket.
3. Taste The Northwest. Thunder Bay’s local food movement encompasses the surrounding lakes and forests that are essential to its cultural and culinary identity. Before hiking the 8km Nipigon River Recreation Trail that hugs the shoreline between Nipigon and Red Rock, we stop at The Cheese Encounter to pack a lunch of local edibles like maple-smoked duck breast, Boreal Birch Syrup, Thunder Oak extra old Gouda, rosemary flat bread and sparkling sweet apple cider. Locavores love their artisanal coffee. Rose N Crantz Roasting Co. is offered in most restaurants where we sample their smooth single origin coffees from Columbia and Costa Rica. St. Paul Roastery has richly blended espresso from Burundi and Guatemala with raisin-y notes and a nuanced Rwanda coffee in a 12oz glass pourer. The hip Tomlin Restaurant features local ingredients within an eclectic menu. We indulge in local red fin trout, smoked cauliflower, veal cavatelli with charred garlic scape pesto and walnuts, and tender duck breast with cider jus and sweet potato latkes. Northern inspired, Silver Birch Restaurant offers local cuisine from birch syrup pickerel wraps, elk Sheppard’s pie, bison bourguignon and a northern saltimbocca of prosciutto-wrapped pike with wild rice risotto, to richly textured Saskatoon berry butter tarts. Flavours abound!
4. Hyvää Päivänjatkoa. The largest Finnish population outside Scandinavia is in Thunder Bay, home of Canada’s Finnish Cultural Centre. In the Finlandia Club, where Finnish speaking is the norm, we enjoy a breakfast of champions at the Hoito Restaurant of salt fish, karjalan piirakka pastry and Finnish pancakes. Thin and fluffy, they perfectly envelop local blueberry jam. En route to Sleeping Giant, our to-go lunch stop is The Fish Shop for local and traditional Finnish style smoked trout, white fish, herring and northern pike — all smoked by fire. Skewers, wraps and spreads like smoked trout guacamole, smoked white fish salad and smoked fish platters with cheese and Finnish-style rye bread fuel our day. Then, we relax in our private Finnish sauna at Kangas.
5. Toast the Craft Beer Scene. Red Lion Smokehouse, the specialty is a smoker and a northern focused beer list. Addictive English style crisped potato wedges with a creamy potato centre accompany our savoury 14-hour smoked brisket with maple bacon and coleslaw. This deserves a tasting flight including Stack Brewing Northern Cream Ale and Imperial IPA; Lake of the Woods Nut Brown; and Sleeping Giant Skull Rock Oatmeal Stout. On the waterfront, we dine at Bight for juicy local Tarrymore beef burgers, and ask that our fries be “poutined” with Thunder Oak Gouda. We pair our bites with Sleeping Giant Northern Lager and Lake of the Woods Forgotten Blueberry Ale. Sampling what’s on tap during a free tour of Sleeping Giant Brewery, we browse gifts of beer bread mix, beer beef jerky, beer soap, beer jellies and doggy treats with spent grains. Visit the new Dawson Trail Craft Brewery for a pint of Border Run Cream Ale.
6. Travel in Time. This is not a typical tourist site with a costumed tour guide reciting a script. Fort William Historical Park is a living museum: a sort of Ground Hog Day circa 1816. One of the “locals” asks me where I’m from. I say, “Toronto.” She replies, “Oh, you’re from Fort York.” We casually talk about the news of the day, and she never breaks character! No one does. They’re all working within 42 authentically reconstructed buildings on a 25-acre site churning butter, baking bread, chopping wood, building canoes and preparing for an 11 a.m. rendezvous with dignitaries. They have proclamations to sign that will impact their future (our past). My allergies are bothering me, so I visit the apothecary. We haven’t traveled to another place; we’ve entered a time warp, and it is truly disarming. What a brilliant way to get out of a textbook and into in a day in the life of the largest fur trading post in the world? I budgeted one hour, and stayed all day. We ask questions in the dining lodge and sign contracts to hunt and trap for the Northwest Trading Company. I hope they don’t mind that I’ve gone AWOL.
7. Explore the Vibrant Arts Scene. Public art adorns the waterfront, coffee shops, restaurants and studios showcase local artists and the Thunder Bay Art Gallery exhibits contemporary artwork of Canadian Aboriginal and Northwestern artists. The Ojibwe style, exemplified by Norval Morrisseau and Roy Thomas, is on display at the Ahnisnabae Art Gallery where the focus is on regional art and the Woodland School of artists. Bold colours interpreting the land and the animals with lore and spiritual symbolism are evoked by six generations of close to 300 artists. Louise Thomas shares with us the various Native styles across Canada, providing a forum for native artists to showcase their work. She also sells potent chaga tea.
8. Rock Hound at Amethyst Mine Panorama. The amethyst deposit in Canada is in Thunder Bay. It’s Ontario’s official gemstone, and also the jewel of love. With bucket and digging tool in hand I stand in an open field surrounded by purple rocks. They’re literally everywhere. I need only pick them up, choose the ones I want, wash them off, and purchase them according to their weight. This is fun. I’m like a kid in the dirt collecting rocks — except these ones are really worth something. Families, couples and friends enjoy this surprising find. I’ve found the right one for my love.