Thunder Bay – A Tourist Gem
Thunder Bay is a unique city. Located within Canada’s most populous province, it’s one of the country’s most isolated cities. An urban oasis amidst a hinterland of rocks, trees and muskeg, Thunder Bay is a long way from anywhere. Winnipeg is a day’s drive to the west while Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa are far to the east. Small wonder this community is on no one’s list of top ten tourist destinations. Nevertheless, the city offers a surprising number of visitor attractions and activities for those willing to spend a little time and do a little exploring as my wife and I discovered during a recent cross-Canada trip.
The base for our Thunder Bay explorations was the, “Happy Land RV Park and Cabins” an RV park near the town of Kakabeka Falls, about 30km west of the city. The park was a mix of mobile homes, rental cabins and RV sites. Prices ranged around $50.00 per night for a full hook-up, pull-through pad. While the staff were friendly and the facilities clean and well cared for, I found the sites to be on the small side and interior roads somewhat narrow. Some sites were somewhat over grown and could definitely use a little pruning. Wifi was available throughout most of the park but very slow.
Thunder Bay Map
Thunder Bay is port city at the western end of Lake Superior, the biggest of the Great Lakes and the largest fresh water lake in the world. Thanks to canals and the St Lawrence Seaway, it’s not unusual to see ocean going vessels plus Great Lake freighters moored in the harbour. What was unusual, at least in my opinion was a lack of pleasure boat traffic. With easy access to such a vast fresh water lake, I expected to see more boating activity. Instead, I noticed just a few sail boats out in the bay. Perhaps it had something to do with the lake itself and the violent storms it was famous for. Remember the Edmund Fitzgerald?
As for the city itself, forestry, mining and transportation remain the main economic activities however, tourism has grown in importance over the past years.
One example was the Fort William Historic Park. Arguably the area’s best known tourist attraction, this park contained a replica of Fort William, a huge stockade built by the North-West Fur Trading Company back in 1803. It was and still is one of the largest wooden forts of its kind in North America. The place was huge and one of the best historic sites in Canada, in my humble opinion. The fort, the buildings, the exhibits, the activities, the re-enactors were all fist rate. There was so much to see and do that spending a full day there would not be difficult. Even my wife, who was not a huge “fort” fan enjoyed our visit.
Fort William Historical Park Re-Enactment
Unique to this site is the fact that it is privately owned and operated. It may be the only one of its kind in Canada. As a result, the facility had some distinctive features such as a souvenir shop, restaurant, banquet and conference center, educational activities, astronomy program, RV park and a concert venue. That’s right – a concert venue. On the day of our visit, they were setting up for a week-end event called, “Fort Fest” featuring acts like; The Cult, Platinum Blonde, Sass Jordan, Cinderella’s Tom Keifer, The Trews, Starship featuring Mickey Thomas, 54-40, Helix and Doucette.
While Thunder Bay is no stranger to big name entertainers, it also has a tradition of supporting and encouraging home grown talent as my wife and I discovered while exploring Marina Park near downtown. It was early evening when we noticed a lot of people with lawn chairs heading for a nearby field with a stage at one end. As luck would have it, we had stumbled upon a free concert. Every Wednesday evening during the summer, local entertainers performed for the enjoyment of residents and visitors alike. They gained exposure and experience while the audience enjoyed free entertainment – win/win. Each week had a specific theme or genre such as blue-grass, country and western, rock and roll, etc. . On this particular evening, the genre was Celtic and we were treated to some great fiddle music and step dancing performed by talented artists.
The downtown park and marina were examples of several areas along the waterfront which were once industrial but have since been reclaimed and redeveloped as parks, lakeside walkways and bicycle paths along with space for shops, restaurants, cafes and a farmer’s market. While the marina itself appeared quite small, there were a few visitor focused activities such as fishing charters and sail boat excursions.
Harbour Tour Of Thunder Bay, Posted on YouTube
A few blocks back from the waterfront park in the downtown area was, “The Hoito”, a Finnish-Canadian restaurant, famous for its ethnic cuisine. Located on the ground floor of the Finnish Labour Temple, this eatery has been serving up hearty, tasty, reasonably priced meals for almost a century. While the menu contains a number of traditional Finnish dishes, the best know item had to be a type of pancake known as “lettu” or “lätty” in Finnish.
The Hoito (From The Finlandia Neighbourhood Website)
Across the bay from the city was a large peninsula called the “Sleeping Giant”. Its outline resembled a person, sleeping on their back. Most of the peninsula was part of the Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. With 80km of hiking and biking trails, spectacular geological features and excellent wildlife viewing, the park was popular with locals and visitors alike. It also featured a variety of camping facilities including some that were suitable for RV’s.
Another popular attraction was nearby Mount McKay which rose over 1000 feet above the surrounding landscape. An observation area about half way up provided amazing views of the city, Lake Superior, the “Sleeping Giant” and surrounding area. Mount McKay was on First Nations Land so, a $5.00 fee was required to access the observation area. On the plus side, the access road also ran through First Nations Land and passed by several native run gas stations offering fuel at significantly lower prices. Amazing views and cheap gas – an RV’ers heaven.
Thunder Bay as seen from the view-point on Mount McKay
Mount McKay Panorama
To the east of the city, along the TransCanada Highway was the Terry Fox Memorial and look-out. The memorial which is situated in a beautiful, park like setting with a panoramic view of Lake Superior, was near the spot where Terry was forced to end his Marathon of Hope, many years ago. It’s a magnificent tribute for such a heroic and beloved icon.
A little further east was the Panorama Amethyst Mine. If Thunder Bay is famous for anything it’s amethysts. The city is one of the few places on the planet where these purple, semi-precious stones are found. Several mines in the area offered tours but, I wanted to check out the Panorama Amethyst Mine because I had seen it mentioned on a TV series called, “Canada Over The Edge”. The series, which aired on both the Knowledge Network and the National Geographic Channel, featured beautiful aerial footage and interesting stories from the Canada/US border region.
The mine was located about 14km off the TransCanada Highway. The first 4km were paved while the remaining 10km were over reasonably good gravel. With the exception of one steep hill which proved to be a bit of a challenge, we had no trouble traversing the route with our truck and trailer.
The mine itself was little more than a huge trench flanked by an office/gift shop and some out buildings. For most visitors however, the main attraction was not the mine but the tailings area. This football sized field was strewn with waste and discarded rock but, mixed in were amethysts. Only large amethyst “chunks” were kept and processed. Smaller bits (about 25% of the amethysts mined) were discarded with the waste rock. For a small fee, visitors were provided with a bucket, a hand-tool and a brief tutorial from mine owner Steve Lukinuk. Mr Lukinuk has owned the mine for over 40 years. He bought it as a “retirement project” and at the age of 91, still worked there every day. Buoyed by his enthusiasm and tutoring, we spent a pleasant morning wandering about the waste rock field searching for the elusive purple crystal. In the end, we came away with a 4-pound bag of rocks which may (or not) contain any amethysts. It’s hard to tell without some time spent cleaning and polishing to bring out the true beauty of these stones.
As we headed back to the TransCanada Highway and our journey east, it occurred to me that Thunder Bay was a lot like an amethyst. It’s attractiveness and appeal were not readily apparent but, for those visitors willing to take the time to discover and explore, it’s a real tourist gem.
For More Information
Fort William Historic Park
Happy Land Campground
Panorama Amethyst Mine
Sleeping Giant Provincial Park
Thunder Bay’s Marina Park
Thunder Bay Tourism
Thunder Bay Tourist Information