After leaving the United States, from either direction, one is struck by the immensity and the remoteness of Ontario’s Lake Superior coastline. Close to 500 miles, most of the drive cuts through vast swaths of Canadian Shield forest, punctuated occasionally by small towns that exist only because once the railroad passed through on its coast-to-coast traverse. Whereas the US portion of the so-called “Circle Tour” has enough civilization to keep the average tourist happy, driving across the Canadian side makes even the steeliest road tripper keep one nervous eye on the gas gauge and the other looking out for wolves and moose on the road.
The biggest city on this journey started out as two. Before 1970, Thunder Bay was actually two separate towns — Fort William and Port Arthur — on the namesake bay. First a British trading outpost, by the 19th century, Finnish immigrants came in droves to work in the mining camps; their heritage can be seen in the cuisine, architecture and names. Thunder Bay is a relic of an industrial age, when shipping, logging and mining were booming in Ontario. Nowadays, ships rust in drydocks and grain silos stand derelict. But the faded glory of the city makes for rewarding cultural exploration, as do the burgeoning collection of brewpubs, public art, surprisingly eclectic cuisine and world-class sailing that make Thunder Bay a legitimate destination after decades in the dark.
Northern Ontario is a land of superlatives. Kekabeka Falls, on the outskirts of Thunder Bay, is the largest waterfall in Canada other than Niagara and farther north, Ouimet Canyon is a two-mile long, 300-foot-deep rift in the earth that is like the Grand Canyon in miniature. These natural wonders, if they were located closer to major cities, would be swarmed with tourists — but even on a weekend, you can have them all to yourselves.
After a 100-mile detour inland that skirts the huge Pukaskwa National Park, the road emerges on the eastern shore of Superior, on what many consider one of the most beautiful drives in all of Canada.
As the Trans-Canadian Highway turns east around the top of Superior, the distance between settlements grows and the road empties. Rossport, Schreiber and Terrace Bay all provide places to gas up, stretch the legs and take in empty vistas south across the big water. Farther on is Neys Provincial Park, formerly a World War II prisoner-of-war camp, where hiking trails cross the foundations of old cell blocks and emerge from the pine forest onto rocky beaches littered with rotting fishing boats. This is an empty coastline, windswept and melancholy, but also impossibly beautiful.
After a 100-mile detour inland that skirts the huge Pukaskwa National Park, the road emerges on the eastern shore of Superior, on what many consider one of the most beautiful drives in all of Canada. Here are the postcard-worthy coves of Old Woman’s Bay and Katharine’s Cove and the secret beach where savvy locals strip down and wade out to tiny Bathtub Island, where the sun warms pools of lake water. At Agawa Bay, Native American pictographs tell ancient stories on the treacherous sheer rocks that get pounded by the surf, daring tourists to shimmy out to admire them. After Agawa, it’s a race against the sunset to civilization and the Trans-Canada aims due south — and there’s no gas between Batchawana Bay, so plan accordingly.
Sault Ste. Marie, at the eastern tip of the lake, is where the St. Marys River lets Superior leak into Lake Huron. Like Thunder Bay, it has the feel of a once-prosperous port city, but with the mighty Soo Locks still seeing extensive shipping traffic, the town buzzes with activity. The downtown is gray and industrial, but the waterfront provides cheap thrills, as 1,000-foot freighters thrum past just feet offshore all day long. The Bushplane Museum is a fascinating look at the history of aviation, as well as that of Canada’s frontier culture, where floatplane has long been the quickest way from one remote lake to another.
The queue of cars at the border crossing is jarring gridlock after days of empty highways and wide-open lake views. Across the St. Marys River is Sault Ste. Marie, an American city confusingly named like its Canadian twin. Before the War of 1812, the two Soos were one city until the border was established. But now, leaving the Canadian side, miles replace kilometers and civilization is closer at hand.