GRAN’S CANADA HIGHWAY – EPISODE 4: ONTARI-ARI-ARI-O by Jaimie Vernon


The Province of Ontario has a total area of 9,984,670 km2 of which 9,000,000 km2 is either farmland, forest or impenetrable igneous rock which geologists have affectionately named The Canadian (Precambrian) Shield; Not to be confused with the post-Cambrian, menopausal-Cambrian or bi-Cambrian Shields. In the 1960s, NASA sent astronauts to Sudbury’s nickel mine slag heaps to do practice runs on its hostile terrain because it made for a close approximation of the surface of the Moon. When they actually got to the Moon, much to NASA’s surprise, there were no nickel miners to be found.

To follow the highways in Ontario, the distance from Cornwall at its most easterly tip through Toronto, and then westerly again toward its border with Manitoba just past Kenora, is approximately 2300km depending on how many food, gas, and bathroom side trips you take; the distance from Toronto to Kenora alone is twice the width of Texas at just over 1800km. Things might be big there…but the real estate here is mind numbing. Needless to say, Ontario is really f%#*g huge.

The more intrepid journeyman today could, with enough Tim Hortons’ coffee and Red Bull drink stimulants, drive the Toronto to Kenora corridor in a single day (maybe even reaching Winnipeg in 24 hours if you’re vigilante and full of caffeine). The less reckless tourist would be wise to divide the expanse into three legs: Toronto to Sault Ste. Marie, Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay, and Thunder Bay to the eastern fringe of Manitoba; in the ‘60s and ‘70s the speed limits, fatigue, and the dangers of driving after dark – because electric street lights were still a novel concept – usually kept these legs to 10 or 12 hour excursions as long as you started at 4 a.m. to beat the morning rush-hour on the Trans-Canada’s single-lane routes.

THE FIRST LEG
The opening salvo from Toronto to Orillia on Hwy 400 was, and still is, an uneventful snooze as you slowly drift past the bustling Toronto industrial corridor towards Newmarket, past Gasoline Alley  – a tourist trap meant to scare drivers on both sides of the highway into thinking that it was their last chance to refuel – through the calming sea-level furrows of the Holland Marsh’s vegetable farms, and escaping through the twisting slow elevation divergence around the outskirts of Barrie and into the homestretch of Orillia itself.

Prior to Orillia being thrust into abject poverty from the gambling addicted community when the Casino was built, this modest town was a thriving industrious watering hole for industries thriving on its peripheries – and well, it’s the birthplace of Gordon Lightfoot.

As then, Orillia is still the fork in the road to Northern Ontario as it sits on the tip of the Parry Sound regional triangle – with North Bay as a junction to the North East and Sudbury as a gateway to the West. It is here that Canadian travelers must make a choice between these two cities; in 2000, I made the wrong choice in picking Hwy 11 heading out of Orillia northwards into the wilds of Temagami where I decided to play chicken, mid-highway and head-on, with a teenaged moose and my van.  Don’t go that way. That’s not to say North Bay isn’t a nice place – my first honeymoon was there and I seem to recall a comic book store and a quaint 1950’s era movie theatre – it’s just that it’s a little off the beaten path if you’re trying to make it to Western Canada during the same calendar year.


The more scenic, and less precarious, Hwy 69 is the by-pass of choice. Officially known as the Georgian Route, it meanders through picturesque Gravenhurst and the work-a-day Parry Sound over a flotilla of tributary rivers, including the beautiful French River, before slam dunking you onto the plateau steppe of Sudbury itself; still, if you’re hankering for a water-front view you can still take Hwy 103 out of Orillia for a brief tour of the 30,000 Islands on Georgian Bay where the road eventually re-joins Hwy 69 again and off you go.

On all my Granny’s many trips, and even on the one I took with her in 1975, the route taken was never clearly defined as there’s no bread crumb of clues to follow in all our combined memorabilia. My own diary entry from 1975 says we left Toronto and ended in Sudbury 12 hours later with no mention of the towns we passed in between – mainly because, at that earlier hour of the morning, I was bunking it in the back seat of her ’72 Skylark; and no one ever bothered taking pictures on the way to Sudbury because there wasn’t much more than a million hectares worth of trees to photograph especially in the Georgian Bay Forest. The world at large has taken it for granted. One day this area of the Province needs to be investigated a little deeper if for no other reason than to see what all the settlers living there love about the place…and what do they all do for a living?

Sudbury was originally named Sainte-Anne-des-Pins (St. Anne of the Pines) which is still a rather strange name to call a place that is home to 330 lakes – not all of which are surrounded by pines. Or Saint Annes for that matter; in 1856 provincial land surveyor Albert Salter discovered magnetic properties in the area after he kept getting stuck, face first, to rock outcroppings via his belt buckle. The towns folk thought Albert a jokester and promptly ignored him little realizing that government workers have no sense of humour, so he must have been telling the truth.

It would be the intrusion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1883 that led to the discovery of nickel-copper deposits during the blasting of the bedrock to make way for the laying of train tracks. It was located in a basin believed to have been created by the impact of a meteor some 1.85 billion years ago (give or take a month or two). CPR’s commissioner, James Worthington, thought this a grand thing to impress his wife with but she was suitably unfazed by dirty base metals so, instead, he re-named the entire place after her hometown of Sudbury, England.

Soon prospectors were being brought in and out of the area as itinerant miners by way of the new rail line leading to a Klondike-style rush for fresh ores. Thomas Edison even got in on the act by staking a claim in 1901, but eventually abandoned the idea of setting up shop there in 1903 despite cracking a major nickel vein in what became one of the richer deposits now known as Falconbridge. Instead, Edison decided to waste the rest of his life on such nonsense as light bulbs, phonographs, and movie making.

The Sudbury economy ebbed and waned as the need for nickel did the same. But there would always be a call for it by the Royal Canadian Mint. Of course, politicians in Ottawa had no idea where Sudbury actually was, so the town built a thirty-foot Nickel effigy with King George’s face on it as a sort of Bat Signal to the world to let them know where Sudbury, and its nickel deposits, could be found. This, of course, led to rival towns all across Ontario building their own over-sized mascots in the form of Canada Geese, Huskies, and all manner of Plaster of Paris wildlife.

But it was the Big Nickel, and the mine in proximity to it, that brought in the tourists including myself and my Granny…though she refused to go down into the mine saying she had no problems with plummeting to her death from great heights, but wasn’t stepping foot in any place where she could be crushed in a glorified cave. No harm done, I thought. We’ll just test that theory when we get to the gondola rides in the Rocky Mountains. What we did miss in Sudbury later that November was NORAD’s official report that radar and visual sightings had confirmed a UFO event over the town; no doubt in an effort to hijack that giant nickel and its sister, Mini Penny, during a time when both precious metals were actually worth something.

Continuing on Hwy 17 heading west out of Sudbury one rolls through small satellite towns like McKerrow, Espanola, Massey, Blind River, Serpeant River, Thessalon, and Bruce Mines hugging the fringes of the North Channel outline where the wash of Georgian Bay’s water mixes with those of Lake Huron and is trapped there by the grip of Manitoulin Island’s northern shore; and just past the town of Desbarats the highway bends like an elbow at a 90 degree turn as it ricochets past St. Joseph’s Island and two nearby American islands – Sugar and Neebis – to land in the lap of Sault Ste. Marie.

NEXT WEEK – EPISODE 5: THE SOO

=JV=

Skip Prokop’s “Sunny Days” is available as a 325 page book from Bullseye Publishing
http://gwntertainment.wixsite.com/bullseye-records
Or Amazon
https://www.amazon.com/Sunny-Days-Skip-Prokop-Story/dp/1698098464

Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 41 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 24 years. He is also the author of The Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and editor of “Sunny Days: The Skip Prokop Story.” Available through Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/s?k=Jaimie+Vernon

 

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