Across The Top Of Lake Superior
North America is blessed with many scenic drives. Some, such as the Cabot Trail, Oregon Highway 101 or Pacific Coast Highway, run along the sea coast and are famous for their spectacular scenery and dramatic ocean vistas. Less well known but no less scenic is Ontario Highway 17 which traverses the north shore of Lake Superior from Thunder Bay to Sault St Marie. This route shares many of the same scenic attributes found along more well known drives such as rugged headlands, a rocky shoreline, sandy beaches and shimmering waters. In fact, the landscape along the north shore of Lake Superior is so picturesque and compelling, it has inspired countless generations of artists including members of the famed Group of Seven. So, please join my wife and I as we explore this breath-taking landscape.
Starting With Thunder Bay
Our journey across the top of Lake Superior began in the city of Thunder Bay at the western end of the lake. After stopping to explore some of Thunder Bay’s many attractions, my wife, Maureen and I continued east on Ontario Highway 17 – the TransCanada Highway – heading towards the city of Sault Ste Marie. (For more information on our Thunder Bay experiences, check out my previous blog post, “Thunder Bay – A Tourist Gem” ).
Travelling east put us on the lake side of the highway which had its advantages when driving an RV. Most of the pull-offs, rest areas and parks were also on the water side which made entry and exit with a big rig, much easier. As an added bonus, there were no sheer cliffs or sharp drop-offs along the pavement’s edge, something that’s all too common and sometimes terrifying on some other scenic routes. Passengers tended to appreciate that.
The first 60 km of highway from Thunder Bay to the community of Pass Lake consisted of a divided, four lane highway. Despite a couple of construction zones, traffic flowed smoothly and swiftly along this newly built section.
The exit to the community of Pass lake was also the turn-off for the “Sleeping Giant” Provincial Park which occupied most of a large peninsula across the bay from Thunder Bay. With more than 80 km of hiking trails, unique geological features plus lots of camping and boating opportunities, the park was a popular recreation area for locals and visitors alike.
The Pass Lake exit was also the end of the four-lane section. Just past the exit, the highway narrowed to two lanes as it headed inland, away from Lake Superior. The pavement was in good shape with few cracks or breaks which was amazing considering the heavy traffic flow. This section of the TransCanada Highway was the only road link between the eastern and western parts of the country so, the flow of vehicles tended to be constant and considerable.
Nipigon And It’s Bridge
About 70 km past Pass Lake was the town of Nipigon and a new bridge spanning the Nipigon River. The bridge was unique in that it looked like a 1/2 sized replica of the Alex Fraser Suspension Bridge near Vancouver. While striking to look at, it seemed totally out of place in this setting.
Just past the bridge, the road split. Highway 17 continued east, along the north shore of Lake Superior while Highway 11 branched off and headed north. After looping around through mining and forestry towns with names like Geraldton, Long Lac and Kirkland Lake, it eventually rejoined Highway 17 at North Bay, over a thousand kilometers further east. Some claimed that Highway 11 was the better, quicker route for reaching Ottawa and Eastern Canada but far less scenic. Needless to say, we stayed on Highway 17 – the “Superior” route.
Past Nipigon, the highway rejoined the Lake Superior shoreline and we were treated to some breathtaking scenery. The sparkling waters of Lake Superior, the rugged forest covered hills and headlands, the rocky shoreline, the bays, inlets and offshore islands combined to create stunning and scenic vistas. Thankfully, there were a number of large, wide pull-offs which easily accommodated big rigs. That allowed us to stop, take pictures and marvel at the picturesque beauty of the area.
Continuing on, we passed through the communities of Rossport and Schreiber before reaching the town of Terrace Bay, a little over 100km past Nipigon. For tourists, the town’s most obvious attraction was the Terrace Bay Lighthouse. This 50 foot high replica of a real lighthouse found on one of the near by Slate Islands, was situated right beside the highway in the center of town. It was hard to miss. Even though it was only 50 feet high, the observation deck provided a scenic panorama of Lake Superior, the Slate Islands and the surrounding vicinity. This lovely community also boasted a beautiful sand beach and was the gateway to number of nearby provincial parks.
Terrace Bay was also one of the first places I encountered a phenomenon which I called, “the curse of the small service station”. For some reason, many (most?) gas stations in Eastern Canada occupied a much smaller space then their western counterparts. Entering and exiting these tiny establishments caused huge headaches when driving a large RV as we discovered in Terrace Bay. The layout of the pumps, office, entrance and exit made it virtually impossible to make the swing when leaving the gas pumps and not hit something. Some backing, turning and manoeuvering was needed to make an unscathed exit – not the easiest thing to do in a tight spot with constant traffic flow. After a “near disaster” experience, both my wife and I quickly developed a keen eye for evaluating our chances of “fueling success” when approaching one of these sub-sized stations.
From Terrace Bay, the highway continued east along the Lake Superior shoreline. Although some of the view was blocked by trees, there were enough open spots to appreciate the beauty of the coastline and landscape.
Marathon – The Town
About 100km further east was the town of Marathon. With a population of around 3,500, it was the largest settlement between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste Marie along Highway 17. Like many northern communities, Marathon’s economy was a mix of old, established resource based industries like mining or forestry and nouveau enterprises like tourism which also capitalized on the area’s natural beauty to promote activities such as hiking, swimming, fishing, kayaking and canoeing, in places like Pukaskwa National Park, Pebble Beach, the Pic River Sand Dunes and Neys Provincial Park. The town was also famous for having the smallest Canadian Tire store in Canada. Might that be considered a tourist attraction?
Marathon was also our stop for the night. We were lucky enough to find a spot at Penn Lake Campground, a municipal park on the shores of Penn Lake, not far from downtown. 18 serviced sites were available plus several more unserviced tenting spots. 16 of the services sites had sewer, water and 30 amp power while the remaining 2 had sewer, water and 50 amp power. The price for both 30 and 50 amp sites was $40.00. The unserviced sites went for $26.75 a night.
The park was nice enough but did have one quirky feature. The sewer and water connections were on the “street side” of the RV while the electrical connection was on the curb side which made hooking-up interesting. On the plus side, the WiFi connection was one of the fastest we’d encountered on our trip. Go figure!
On To White River
The next day, we were back on the road, heading inland, away from Lake Superior. For this leg of the trip, we were treated to endless miles of trees, rock and muskeg – typical Northern Ontario scenery. This may also be why the Lake Superior route was not better known for its scenic beauty. About 30% of the trip was not along the picturesque shoreline but rather inland, through forests, rocks and bogs that were decidedly unpicturesque. I wonder which areas travellers remembered most?
The next community of any size after Marathon was White River, about 100 km further east. With a population of about 600, White River was not a large settlement however, it did have an older style gas station with more room and better accessibility for large RV’s. Even though I didn’t really need fuel, I couldn’t pass up this easy “in and out” opportunity. As a bonus, the station was connected to an A&W restaurant – our favourite fast food joint. Outside, on the edge of the parking lot was a huge sign proclaiming White River to be the coldest spot in Canada. At some point in the past, the mercury had dipped to -58° C (-72° F).
Wawa and It’s Goose
About another 100 km past White River was the town of Wawa. Are you detecting a pattern here? The Northern Superior area was very sparsely populated so communities, for whatever reason, tended to be about 100 km apart. That made planning for rest, refueling and refreshments easy. Simply put, if your gas, bladder or belly could not last another 100 km, then stop and take care of business because, there would be virtually nothing – no services, no petroleum and no washrooms in between.
The name “Wawa” may sound familiar because it’s the home of the famous Wawa Goose. The huge goose statue plus several other interesting displays were located on the grounds of the local tourist bureau. Situated at the junction of Highway 17 and Highway 101, this visitor’s center was one of the nicest I’d seen on our trip. The large and airy log structure was staffed by friendly, knowledgeable folks and filled with all sorts of information on local events and activities. Also available was a wide variety of locally made products and wares.
About a kilometer or two north on Highway 101 was the actual town of Wawa, situated on the shores of Wawa Lake. At the north end of town was a wonderful little park on the water’s edge. With picnic tables, public washrooms and a nearby beach, it was the perfect place for a picnic lunch, had we thought to pack one. Instead, we treated ourselves to a noon meal at Mona’s Kitchen, just a few blocks south of the park on the main street. More a food stand then restaurant, this eatery had them standing in line and for good reason. The prices were very reasonable, the food was fresh and delicious and the portions were huge. I made the mistake of ordering a large poutine, thinking that I was hungry. I couldn’t finish half of it. Nevertheless, the experience was positively idyllic; sitting out on the patio, under the warm summer sun, enjoying great food and watching the world (or in this case, the world of Wawa) go by. Life was good.
A few kilometers past Wawa, we rejoined Lake Superior’s shore at Lake Superior Provincial Park. This park boasted many attractions but, was best known for the Agawa Rock Pictographs. These drawings on a sheer rock face along the edge of Lake Superior were created by generations of Ojibwe people. The fact that the pictographs were still visible given the damage caused by sun, wind and wave action was amazing.
Reaching the pictographs was no small feat. The description from the park web site explained it best.
The trail to Agawa Rock is rugged, descending 30 metres (98 feet) through some interesting geological features: rock chasms, broken boulders and sheer cliffs. Beside the lake, a rock ledge stretches along the base of the pictograph cliff, which is accessible only when Lake Superior is calm.
!!Caution is advised when venturing onto this rock ledge due to its slope and the unpredictable nature of Lake Superior and its wave action!!
Disregarding the warning, I climbed out on the rock ledge for a better look. Thankfully, I was not swept away by a rogue wave which do occur on occasion. I was however soaked enough by smaller waves to appreciate just how cold the waters of Lake Superior really were. Apparently, the lake was so big and so deep that water temperatures varied little from summer to winter.
Having gotten my adrenalin rush for the day, we continued on to the park’s nearby visitor center which housed a fantastic collection of displays and exhibits highlighting “The Power of Lake Superior” as well as cultural and natural features of the park.
In addition to the Rock Pictographs and visitors center, the park also had several campgrounds. Perhaps the most appealing was the Agawa Campground, located on a 3km long sand beach, close to the visitor’s center. Unfortunately, most of the sites were on the small side, suitable for tenting and smaller RV’s.
Further south was Pancake Bay Provincial Park. Although smaller in size, this provincial park offered a wider variety of camping sites including some suitable for larger RV’s. It was tempting to stop for the night but a long line of motor homes waiting at the front gate convinced us to keep moving.
The next settlement past Pancake Bay was Batchawana Bay. There were a couple of RV parks in the area however, the first one we tried was full. The second one – Sunset Shores Resort – was also full as well but offered us an unserviced spot in their overflow section. We grabbed it!
The resort featured a number of amenities including a lovely little sand beach. One of my bucket list items was to swim in all five Great Lakes and this seemed like the perfect place to start. As an added bonus, Batchawana Bay was also quite shallow so, the water was much warmer. A relaxing swim and walk along the beach was the perfect way to end a wonderful day.
The End Of Our Odyssey
The next morning, we were once again on our way. To the east lay Sault Ste Marie and the end of our odyssey across the top of Lake Superior. It had been a wonderful journey filled with spectacular scenery, breath-taking vista and amazing attractions. While the drive may not be famous, that’s just fine with me for it makes a perfect route less travelled.
Lake Superior Provincial Park
Marathon: Pebble Beach ON
Marathon/Penn Lake ON
Pancake Bay Provincial Park
Pukaskwa National Park:
Sunset Shores Resort
Terrace Bay, ON
Wawa, ON: Tourist Activities