Carolyn Withrow

Discover the natural beauty of Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay. Situated at the head of Lake Superior —the largest, deepest, and coldest of the Great Lakes. If there is one thing to be said for this northern city it’s that the natural beauty surrounding it is undeniable.

Flying into the city for the first time, I was in awe. For almost the full 2 hours flight I was high above the lake, with waters that seemed to stretch on forever. Large cargo ships looked small below and tiny communities dotted the shore.

As the plane made its final approach over the city, I could see small mountains nearby. The trees covering the foothills were alive with gold and green. There were almost no red and orange fall colours like in southern Ontario. Thunder Bay's forests are largely composed of birch and poplar trees — which turn gold — and plenty of coniferous trees with their many hues of green. From the plane I could see the famous Sleeping Giant, a peninsula which resembles, you guessed it, a sleeping giant. I could also see the Kaministiquia River winding towards the harbour.

I was fortunate to have a local guide — my partner hails from Thunder Bay and had promised to take me to the best landmarks. Our first stop: Kakabeka Falls. A short drive out of the city and past the dutch owned farms brought us to Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park. The park offers plenty of camping sites and we could see trailers peeking out through the trees. But we weren't going to camp that day. We parked and followed the trail towards the falls.

Before it was visible, I could hear the roar as the water rushed over the rocks. The second highest waterfall in Canada, Kakabeka Falls stands an impressive 40 meters tall. It is deafening and awesome to behold.

The falls have lots of great viewing points, including observation decks on either side as well as a walking bridge across the river. You can feel the mist on your face almost anywhere you stand. Following the bridge, the hiking trails took us further down the river and deeper into the forest. It rained, so we didn’t stay long, but it was worth braving the weather to see the falls.

Our next day trip took us to Old Fort William. The fort is full of history and is among the largest living history attractions in North America. This site recreates the 1800s Fort William, where the North West Trading Company sent furs trapped in the north all the way to Montreal. We took a guided tour and had the guide to ourselves since it was a cloudy day in October. He took on the character of a young man who had joined the company as a trader to transport the furs by foot and canoe. The fort was complete with bunk houses, dining hall, watchtowers and even a small flock of sheep and chickens that had been kept once for food but were now there for viewing and petting.

There were furs to touch and we felt fox, wolf, and (of course) the beaver pelts — the most highly sought after pelt at the height of the fur trade. The medical building was full of herbs, tinctures, and smelling salts that the settlers used to treat illness. I nearly passed out listening to the guide’s explanation of how they treated the trader’s trench foot and vitamin deficiency, (the result of eating pork rind and lard for months on end.)

In the summer, the fort recreates the Great Rendezvous — a historic seasonal event during which the Indigenous people would arrive at the fort for trading. The best part? The managers of the site work with local Indigenous groups who still craft the enormous canoes that their ancestors used to travel to the rendezvous. While we couldn't see the canoes in action that day, we could still marvel at their size and construction as they hung from the rafters indoors. In the forest nearby there were teepees showcasing how the Indigenous communities lived.

We spent the evening recovering from the lesson in 1800s medical treatments and feeling thankful to live in a century with access to fresh fruits and vegetables year-round.

The next morning, we set out to visit the Sleeping Giant. But first, we had to make at stop at the Terry Fox Monument on the way there. The monument not only marks where Terry Fox had to end his famous Marathon of Hope but it also serves as an excellent lookout over the bay to the Sleeping Giant.

Finally, we arrived at The Sleeping Giant. The peninsula seems to stretch on forever. We first decided to find a lookout over the lake. Driving down a bumpy dirt road for several kilometers, I thought we must be lost until we arrived at the top of a cliff. A metal walk had been build out, stretching several meters away from the cliff’s edge. With a vice grip on my phone (least I drop it over the cliffs) I snapped a few pics and then retreated to the safety of solid ground.

Next, we drove a little further to a parking lot trailhead. This particular trail lead to a unique rock formation called “The Sea Lion”. To get there, we hiked through the forest and climbed between boulders. During this trip I was desperately hoping to see a moose. While peering off into the bushes during our hike, we did see some deer… but I did not spot any moose despite my efforts. At the top of the hike, the Sea Lion rock jutted out of the water. Further down from the landmark were some small stone beaches tucked away behind a line of trees.

We made our way down to the water.The lake was too cold to swim in that day, but the sun warmed the rocks and it was nice to sit after all of our climbing.

Having checked off the Sleeping Giant from our list, there was one more day left in my trip. There was one last waterfall to see: Pigeon Falls. An hour drive away from the city, in the opposite direction of the Sleeping Giant, is Pigeon River Provincial Park. The entrance is next to the Canada/U.S. border crossing (the river itself marks the border). Across the river sits the small tourist town of Grand Marais, with a harbour perfect for relaxing and watching the boats go by.

We parked our car on the Canadian side and began our hike to the falls. It had rained, so the hike was muddy and the trail had small creeks running across it in some places. We had to tiptoe along fallen logs and hop along rocks to avoid getting our feet soaked. My partner’s dog did not mind the mud one bit,his yellow fur turning brown after only a few minutes.

The Pigeon Falls are smaller than Kakabeka, but that doesn't stop the mist from brushing your face from the observation deck . The best part was the view over the forest. The rushing river contrasted with the gold and green trees, making for some great photo ops. We made our way back to the parking lot and packed a very muddy dog back into the car. It was time to take him home for a bath and warm ourselves up with some hot chocolate.

Late that night, we rushed outside. Standing on top of a shed, I got my first proper view of the Northern Lights. It was spectacular to see the light show so commonly associated with Canada’s northern lands. It was a perfect end to my trip north.

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