GRAN’S CANADA HIGHWAY – EPISODE 6: THUNDER BAY TO KENORA by Jaimie Vernon


The pass between Pays Plat and Cavers at the top of Lake Superior is nearly 11 km long divided almost evenly between uphill and downhill escarpments with grades approaching 8% on many sections so those who are weak stomached or decide to skimp on new brakes for the car need to turn around and go back to Toronto.


Cavers is the first spectacular scenic lookout, followed by another band of mountains at Kama Bay and the post-card immortalized Kama Rock Cut, allowing the highway to drop below the neck-craning red cliffs and the camera-friendly expanse of Nipigon Bay. From there Highways 17 and 11 merge en route to the town of Nipigon.

The highway rounds southerly toward the U.S. and through the dotted towns of Dorion, Ouimet, Pearl, and Loon with Black Bay on the left and ultimately Thunder Bay itself which is home to one of Canada’s Seven Wonders: The Sleeping Giant landmark on the Sibley Peninsula. It’s interesting to note that Canadian comic-book rock star THOR would immortalize the location in a song of the same on his 1976 album Keep the Dogs Away.  To that end, the town and the landmark are the only things people still remember.

Those wanting to carry on into the USA can pick up the starting point of historic Highway 61 at Pigeon River as it meanders south into Minnesota. My grandmother and I decided to stay in Thunder Bay at the Holiday Inn instead.


Thunder Bay (from the 17th and 18th century French fur trading settlements that designated it Baie du Tonnerre) is the bastard child of a lengthy lurid liaison between the twin cities of Fort William and Port Arthur. It is an important link between the grain and other industries in the prairies through the Great Lakes, or Lakehead region, and Eastern Canada as well as foreign destinations beyond the St. Lawrence Seaway.

When metals were discovered in the ground – like everywhere else along the Superior Route – Ojibwe who couldn’t be converted by Jesuit missionaries were shipped south of the Kaministiquia River by the Canadian government in 1850 and given a plot of land where they could catch the effluence of the rivalry of Fort William and Port Arthur who were attempting to establish a foothold in trading with the Northwest Trading Company and The Hudson’s Bay Trading Company.

The arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1875 exacerbated a Hatfield-McCoys like pissing match between the towns whereby the CPR had one of its locomotives seized in 1889 during an ongoing tax dispute with Port Arthur.

Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier focused on the area in the early 20th Century by opening the trade lines even further with land rights given to both the Canadian National Railway and the Grand Trunk Railway out of the United States. The area flourished until after the First World War when the Canadian government’s own National Transcontinental Railway took over the CNR and Grand Trunk portions going through the area to stabilize services east and west from the financial uncertainty that would lie ahead during the Great Depression.

Still, the pulp and paper industries shipping out of the region into the USA thrived. And on the cusp of the Second World War, the Canadian Car and Foundry Company re-opened to build aircraft for the British Air Force. Female engineer Elsie MacGill was commissioned by the government of the day to help manufacture the Hurricane bomber for wartime by utilizing a 1/3 female workforce of riveters, welders, and engineers. From there, MacGill would go on to be a Chair on the Royal Commission for Women’s Rights in the 1960’s. By the time I visited Thunder Bay in 1975, Fort William and Port Arthur had resolved their grievances during amalgamation five years before.

Heading west out of Thunder Bay is the Kaministiquia River and at the northern tip is Kakabeka Falls. The falls are 40 metres high and the third tallest waterfall in Ontario (after Agawa Falls in Lake Superior Provincial Park at 69.0m and Niagara Falls at 53.0m). The flow of the river itself has cut so deep into the rocks that 1.6 million year old fossils have been discovered at the bottom of the falls themselves.

A peace-loving chieftain from an Ojibwe encampment named White Bear learned of an imminent attack from the Sioux. Too old to defend his people in battle, his daughter – Princess Green Mantle – devises a plan to ward off the warriors. After paddling a canoe up the Kaministiquia river to a point above the waterfall, she brazenly entered the Sioux camp. Pretending to be lost and frightened, she bargains with the Sioux to spare her life in exchange for revealing the location of the Ojibwe camp. Leading from the front of her canoe she sacrificed herself and the the Sioux warriors as the entire entourage drifted over the falls to their deaths and saving the Ojibwe tribe from attack. Many claim that you can see Green Mantle when looking into the mist of Kakabeka Falls.

In 1870 the Canadian government would send troops portaging across the river/falls on their way to quelling the Red River Rebellion led by Metis leader Louis Riel after the U.S. government refused to allow the Canadian troops to bypass the terrain via U.S. lakes and rivers. They didn’t stay in the area for lunch.


The route from Kakabeka heading west is split between the diverging of highways Hwy 11 and Hwy 17. At Shabaqua Corners the two roads finally split – with 11 heading due west and ultimately paralleling the U.S. border. Hwy 17 swings north-west through Raith, Upsala, English River, and Ignace (which is situated at the top of Turtle River Provincial Park. If you like trees, this is a place to grow tired of them.

Small one-horse towns like Borups Corners, Dinorwic, and Wabigoon dot the Trans-Canada before coming to rest 100 kms west of Ignace in Dryden, Ontario.

The settlement was founded as an agricultural community by John Dryden, Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture in 1895. While his train was stopped at what was then known as Barclay Tank to re-water, he noticed clover growing and decided to found an experimental farm the following year. The farm’s success brought settlers from the Uxbridge area of southern Ontario and the Bruce Peninsula and the community came to be known as New Prospect. It became a town in 1910 and a city in 1998 after merging with the neighbouring township of Barclay. Dryden’s eastern boundary is located near Aaron Provincial Park on Thunder Lake. Pulp and Paper came to the town in 1910. Today, its main industries are agriculture, tourism and mining. Paper/pulp industries in Dryden were a major contributor in its local economy.

The town was also the site of the March 10, 1989 crash of Air Ontario Flight 1363, which killed 24 people and led to the Moshansky Inquiry on airline safety. For tourists like myself and my grandmother, the town was home to a statue of a giant moose named “Max” standing at 5.6 metres (18 ft) high – which we took pictures of and then promptly left.

As you head west from Dryden you ride the forested top of Eagle Lake from Oxdrift to Minnitaki all the way to Vermilion Bay. In the 1970s there were souvenir shops dotting the entire run allowing you to take pictures of the beautiful scenery and culturally inappropriate native chotchkes like beaded and feathered head bands, plastic warrior chiefs, and wooden nickels with buffalos and indian heads carved into them.

The next 80 kms is a seemingly unending series of tiny lakes bisecting both Winnange Lake Provincial Park and Eagle-Dogtooth Provincial Park. The auto trail makes its next major stop in the Land of the Woods city of Kenora, Ontario – jokingly referred to by the residents of Toronto as the home of the lumberjack fashion statement known as the Kenora Dinner Jacket.

Kenora is located in Ojibway territory discovered by the first European, Jacques de Noyon, who happened to stumble across Lake of the Woods in 1688. Pierre de La Vérendrye established a secure French trading post in 1732 called Fort Saint Charles (to the south of Kenora) near the current Canada/U.S. border.

France lost the post in 1763 to the British in the Seven Years’ War. In 1836 the Hudson’s Bay Company set up a trading post on Old Fort Island, and in 1861, the Company opened a post on the mainland at Kenora’s current location. By 1878 they had surveyed land to establish a permanent settlement known at Portage-aux-Rats (aka Rat Portage or portage to the country of the muskrat)

Thinking about its need for a better name, the town of Rat Portage convinced the towns of Keewatin and Norman to amalgamate in 1905 and renamed the new town Kenora. In the middle of this re-branding, Rat Portage found itself in the middle of a land dispute with the province of Manitoba from 1870 to 1884. The overlords in Ottawa eventually favoured the province of Ontario and so Kenora became Ontarians in 1889, maintaining a restraining order from Winnipeg of a distance of 200 kms to this day.

 

NEXT INSTALLMENT – EPISODE 7: PORTAGE & MAIN

=JV=

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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