May 17 to Memorial Day, 2017
Despite having nothing to hide, we were quite nervous about crossing the border. We researched the rules for border crossing: dogs, alcohol, produce, meat, passports and more. We had gotten the dogs’ vaccination records and even kept their food in the original bag, as recommended. We had cooked all of our meat and eaten any fruits or vegetables. We knew exactly how much alcohol we had (not much) and we were sure it was under the amount we were allowed to bring into Canada.
Sure enough, when we pulled up to the Thunder Bay Border Crossing, the border agent asked for our passports and then asked about alcohol. Then he asked about weapons. No guns, just a couple of pocket knives.
Him: “How about pepper spray or mace?”
Me: “We may have some bear mace.”
Him (changes body language and looks at me over his glasses): “You MAY have some bear mace or you DO have some bear mace?”
Me (afraid): “We do.”
We had gotten a bottle of bear mace for the grizzlies in Montana. He asked to see it and after seeing the bottle, he gave it back and sent us on our way.
Crossing into a different country had us questioning time, space, weight, distance and more. In Canada we entered back into Eastern time zone, despite being well west of much of the Central Time Zone in the US. Due to the distance West and North, it stayed daylight until 10 p.m. Note: It’s hard to get a 5-year-old to bed when it’s still daylight for almost two hours after his alleged bed time.
Beyond time, we were also faced with metric measurements. We switched the GPS over to kilometers and felt like we were really going fast on the roads with 80 kilometer per hour speed limits. I know it’s purely just an illusion, but you do feel better on a long trip (say 246 km) to see the kilometers tick away quickly.
We had also said goodbye to gallons (liters), pounds (kilograms) and Fahrenheit (Celsius). As someone who has always struggled to keep up with how many cups are in a pint, teaspoons in a tablespoon and quarts in a gallon, I can totally get on board with liters and kilograms are fine. Celsius, however, I cannot endorse. Here’s the way I understand it: zero means freezing; everyone was happy when we reached 14 degrees in Ontario; by 40 degrees I think the sky is on fire. With Fahrenheit, we have 40 degrees to represent the temperature from freezing to room temperature. In Celsius, they have 22. That’s just not a lot of difference. I like to pretend I can tell the difference between 64, 66 and 68 degrees.
The final scale that was different was currency. US dollars were running about 75 cents for every Canadian dollar.
So when we saw a price, weight, height, distance, volume or temperature we had to convert it. We got so used to not trusting numbers that when we passed the sign for Thunder Bay that said population 104,000, my brain tried to determine if that really meant 208,000 or 68,000.
Let me start off by saying we really liked Canada, but at first, it felt like all of the characters from one of your favorite TV shows were suddenly inhabiting the setting and costumes from one of you other favorite shows. It was familiar enough but subtly different. Construction barrels are orange and black instead of orange and white. The stick figures on the road signs have a slightly different style. The grocery stores have about half the cereal selection of the US and if the stores have Pop Tarts, they are all frosted (we only buy unfrosted). Nabisco is “Christie.”
Another subtle difference at the grocery store turned out to be the worst thing about Canada — they sell milk in bags instead of jugs. Jess took one look at the dairy section, noticed the lack of jugs, patted me on the chest and said “Good luck, I’m going to get the pasta sauce.”
Moving on to more pleasant things, we stayed at Fort William Historic Park which wasn’t officially open for a few days. We needed to stay in Thunder Bay for a Wednesday and a Thursday before the park opened Friday so I called and the people were nice enough to let us stay. It’s a nice park with a planetarium and historic fur trading fort.
We learned that Thunder Bay has the highest number of Finnish people anywhere outside of Finland. The have a Finnish Heritage Center and in the basement, there is a Finnish restaurant called Hoito that has been featured on Food Network and the New York Times.
At Hoito, I thought we were on a TV show of our own. We ordered pikarra and Finnish pancakes, which were good. Pikarra was like a doughy mocassin (in a good way) and the Finnish pancakes were kind of like crepes. When we arrived, the restaurant was fairly crowded except one area on the left where one lone old man sat reading the newspaper.
We sat at one of the empty tables around him and noticed he seemed to by trying to make every body sound possible. It started with a shrill and musical nose blowing. Next came the grunts, a burp, a couple of hacks and then throat clearings. Then he passed gas and grunted about it.
I looked around to see if we were on hidden camera, but no one came out and told us. He left shortly there after and other old men hurried over like vultures to pick through his newspaper.
Jess and Braden took a tour at Fort William to learn about the history of the fur trade, the guide was great and we shared the tour with a nice family.
While staying in Thunder Bay, we went to nearby Kakabeka Falls. It was our first clue that Ontario knows how to do waterfalls right.
Rainbow Falls State Park
Our visit to Rainbow Falls didn’t start off great. It was their first day open for the season and they had a sign up in the water-tank fill up area advising guests to boil water since they had just turned on the system.
They suggested a gas station about five kilometers down the road. When we pulled into the station, which was also the check-in area for the Fallen Rock Motel next door, the big sign out front said “This is It” with music notes around it. The two gas pumps were bright green with oversized disco-era album covers plastered below the face of the pump. It was the same man in each cover and as I reached the front door, I saw more albums covers and memorabilia with the same guy on it. When I went inside, the interior was even more of a shrine to the nicely-mustached disco guy. Then, when I looked to my right, I saw an older version of that man sitting in a reclining chair, watching a black and white Western near the door of the store.
“Come in!” he said, and asked what I needed. When I said “bottled water” he told me he had “the good stuff” on the bottom shelf of the cooler. He kicked the recliner foot in and got up to ring me up.
As it turned out, I was meeting a celebrity. As I learned later Cosimo Filane http://www.filanes.com/cosimo.htm was an author and a singer with 35-year career and four albums to his name. He also has a booming business called Filane’s Canadian Spring Water.
As he rang me up, he asked where I was from and when I said Tennessee, it happened. I’d been concerned about this and it occurred only on our second full day in Canada. “From Tennessee?” he said. “How do you like your man Trump lately?”
This was a week after the president had fired the FBI director. I explained to him that Tennessee may have voted that way, but I sure didn’t. He said he didn’t understand how we could elect a guy like that. I said I couldn’t either. Filane said it’s one thing to disagree with his policies, but we had put a “bad kid” into the White House. He said a week or two earlier a guy came in who loved Trump — “And he was Canadian!?” Filane exclaimed.
As I left, me and the aging disco-icon-turned-water-magnate agreed that if there was that much smoke with the Russian scandal there probably was some fire there. Maybe, he said, by the time we got back to the States, President Pence would be in charge.
When I got back to the park, I stopped at the window and asked the ranger “Is the guy at the gas station famous?”
“He thinks he is,” the ranger said.
The two other things I will remember about that park are that we were a few sites down from the biggest campground party of the whole trip and me and Braden found our first grouse. We were hiking down a trail near the campground and heard a “whump … whump … whump-whump-whump.” It was cool because we could feel it in our chests before we knew what it was.
Neys Provincial Park
Our luck with animals continued at Neys Provincial Park. While many of the trails had too many downed trees or mud for us to hike we were in for a rare treat on the way out. As we neared the exit to the park, a lynx walked out of the brush right across the road in front of us. We never expected to actually see one and the rangers said it was very rare to see one. We were super lucky. That’s kind of a theme of this trip.
Pukaskwa National Park
Pukaskwa (Puk-a-saw) National Park was a beautiful place on the shore of Lake Superior. The granite mountains dropped right off into a pristine bay. Once again we were lucky to see the wildlife, including a moose, a loon and a beaver. Unfortunately, even though it was May 20th, the temperatures were in the low 40s and upper 30s with misty rain. And since there was almost no cell service, Andy had to sit outside next to the closed visitor center for two days to be able to work. Those little “Hot Hands” packets and multiple layers of clothing came in handy.
From the shore there appeared to be a neat little series of bays that lead to Lake Superior, but with the rain and cold, we decided not to get out the kayak.
Pukaskwa also had life-sized statues of a moose and two wolves that totally freaked out our dogs. They growled at the wolf statues until they eventually got brave enough to do the dog butt sniff thing and determined they weren’t real.
This moose, however, was real and posed nicely next to the sign.
Between Pukaswka and our next stop we pulled into a depressing little town called White River. White River is known as the town where a Canadian Army Lieutenant Harry Colebourn bought a bear when his train stopped in White River on the way to Europe for World War I. He named the bear Winnie, and the bear was later the inspiration for the famous Winnie the Pooh. Here’s the full story. The town itself has a little museum and a nice playground, but we really wanted to see the train station where it all started. The station was sketchy with broken windows and sadly no marker or monument or anything.
Our next stop was Wawa, Ontario, a small town that has really embraced Canadian geese with giant statues around town. They also had a series of doors around town with educational topics and unusual tiki-style totem poles carved from driftwood by a local artist. You could tell from the boarded up windows that the town had really fallen on hard times economically (it was a former timber town) but you could also tell that people still had pride in where they lived.
Still skirting around Lake Superior, we were treated to great sandy beaches and a couple more gorgeous waterfalls, but the most memorable part of our stay in Wawa was probably driving up high on the Trans Canada Highway on the way out through Lake Superior Provincial Park with crazy fog rolling in off the lake below us. It was a sight to see for sure.
Pancake Bay was a very pretty provincial park where we could here the waves of Lake Superior crashing against the beach from our campsite. There, I had a great conversation with a fellow ukulele player named Mario who was part of a research team from a university in Quebec headed to Yellowknife to study the lichens that caribou eat. The other three team members had drivers licenses, but Mario couldn’t drive. So while they drove the 54-hour drive to Yellowknife, he sat in the back of the van and learned the ukulele. I have no idea whether or not Mario and the ukulele made it the whole way, but I suspect one or both may have been left at a truck stop in Manitoba. Cool guy to talk to though.
We spent Memorial Day weekend there and had long stretches of nearly deserted beaches, since Canada doesn’t have a holiday that weekend.
Pancake Bay was unfortunately also the site of what is unequivocally the worst hike of our entire life. We took the Edmund Fitzgerald Trail to a lookout site to see the spot where the famous freighter sank. Seeing as any sign of the boat is fathoms below the surface, the pay off on this hike was likely to be minimal from the get go. The mosquitos and black flies were horrible. Black flies are basically tiny gnats that draw blood with their painful, itchy bites. Then once blood is drawn from one bite, others flock there to that spot and make their own bites. Our US-bought bug spray didn’t offer much defense, even though we reapplied it every 15 minutes or so of the two-hour hike. I really can’t describe how horrible they were. Months later, I’m itching while I write this from the memories. We swatted for the entire hike.
On top of that, the trail degraded rapidly. The blazes that mark the route were inconsistent and the trail surface ranged from pleasant at the beginning to swampy to soupy by the end of the 6-kilometer loop.
“I wish I could move my hair around like a horse tail,” Jess said as we hiked. That would have been handy.
Also along the way, we somehow lost a dog leash. I don’t know how this happened, but it was on them and then it wasn’t.
By the end, we were bloodied from the bugs, muddy, squishing in our socks, swatting our hands around and exhausted with one dog running free.
Black fly bites we learned swell up into huge hard knots. Describing one of the bites was the first time I’d ever heard Braden use the word “colossal.”
It was not only the worst hike we’ve ever done, but it’s probably the worst few hours of the trip.
Moving on …
Just south of Pancake Bay, we reach Saul Ste. Marie, which marked the end of one of our “wildest” sections of the trip. Despite being much bigger than all of the other great lakes combined, Superior’s shorelines are home to only about 4 percent of the people living around the Great Lakes. All in all it was a beautiful and relatively empty space and we loved it.