Points North: Beyond the Border, Adventure Awaits

Pigeon River
Pigeon River

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“Why are we going to the trout ponds?” asked Jim Boyd of Grand Marais as we crossed the Pigeon River and entered Ontario.

It was a fair question. The North Shore has a wealth of lakes and streams brimming with fish, so why would anyone pay to fish in a stocked pond? In moments, Jim had his answer, because the Eagle Ridge Trout Ponds are just across the border. The owners, Rick and Judy Ostipenko, showed us around their property, which consists of a large pond stocked with rainbow trout and another stocked with smallmouth bass, as well as a couple of comfortable cabins, an outdoor swimming pool and a camping area.

We learned Rick had fulfilled a lifelong dream by creating this business. An avid angler, he wanted to provide safe, accessible opportunities for folks who otherwise might not have a chance to go fishing—small children, people with physical challenges and the elderly. He was waiting for a busload of seniors to arrive the morning of our visit. He graciously allowed the “kids” on our crew, Kate Watson and Amber Pratt, both of Grand Marais, catch their first rainbows. By the time we left, Jim was making plans to return later in the summer with his grandchildren.

The trout ponds were the first of four days worth of unexpected surprises and adventures Jim, Kate, Amber and myself had north of the border on a writer familiarization trip sponsored by Thunder Bay Tourism. Later in the afternoon, we saw a stunning exhibit of Anishinaabe art by the late painter, Roy Thomas, at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. That evening, we enjoyed a Lake Superior excursion with Sail Superior charters, leaving from the marina at Prince Arthur’s Landing, an ongoing renovation of the city’s waterfront that will include a 267-slip marina, public gardens and open space, a cultural center, condominiums and more.

Joining us was our host, tourism director Paul Pepys, who explained Thunder Bay is presently experiencing an economic boom and rapid growth. Once supported by pulp and paper mills, Thunder Bay took a tumble when market changes devastated the Canadian forest products industry. Now, a combination of new mining ventures and expansions in health, education and technology have allowed the city to reinvent itself. A wave of well-paid and highly skilled executives and engineers are moving in. There are 13 commercial flights per day between Thunder Bay and Toronto.

“Right now, you can hardly find a house to buy in Thunder Bay,” Pepys said.

Much of the growth is being driven by the development of the Ring of Fire project, a mining venture about 250 miles northeast of the city. Chromites, used to make stainless steel, will be mined there. Processing will occur near the northeastern Ontario community of Sudbury, but the mine headquarters will be in Thunder Bay. As a result, the city’s population is expected to grow by 20 percent in the next five years. Pepys said the newly arriving professionals are attracted by the North Shore’s quality of life and outdoor recreation opportunities. Operations such as the sailing charter are already seeing an uptick in business. The boat on which we were sailing was reserved the following day by a group of Australian executives.

The next morning, we set off to experience the North Shore’s outdoors. We drove to Marathon, stopping in Nipigon to visit a children’s park themed to the famous book Paddle to the Sea. By chance, we met two older gentlemen who built miles of local hiking trails along the rims of cliffs towering high above Lake Superior. Outside of town we stopped at a highway wayside atop one of those cliffs for a view of Nipigon Bay and distant islands. Arriving in Marathon, we learned there, too, mining for gold, platinum, palladium and copper more than made up for the closure of a pulp mill, which may be retooled to produce wood fuel pellets for the European market.

Just outside Marathon is the entrance to Pukaskwa National Park, where hiking trails and canoe routes cross a large wilderness area on Superior’s northeastern shore. Although it was the first week in June, we were surprised to find the visitor center hadn’t opened for the season, because most tourists don’t arrive until July. We stopped to photograph a surprisingly rotund black bear near the park entrance. Turning around and heading west, we stopped at Neys Provincial Park, the site of an internment camp for Canadians of Japanese descent during World War II. The park is so wild and remote that woodland caribou are occasionally seen there. That evening, over dinner in Terrace Bay, the community development director told us how his dog was nearly killed by a bear just a few feet from his back door. The bear was being chased through town and the unfortunate dog just happened to be in its way.

The next day, after a visit to a pottery shop and lunch in a local cafe, we went sea kayaking among the islands off Rossport with Dave Tamblyn of Superior Outfitters. Rossport is the gem of the North Shore, a quiet former fishing village sheltered by lovely islands that once inspired the Group of Seven, renowned early 20th century Canadian landscape painters. We also learned Rossport is a heck of a destination for fishing, because the sheltered waters around the islands swarm with native lake trout and steelhead.

We finally sampled the fishing on our final morning, when Quebec Lodge in Red Rock arranged two guides to take us out on the famed Nipigon River. Jim and Amber went in one boat, while Kate and I were paired in another. Kate, who once worked for me and remains a friend, is no stranger to the outdoors, but has little fishing experience. My task was to teach her how to fish. She quickly learned how to use spinning gear as we trolled for lake trout, steelhead and salmon in the river’s strong currents. Then, in a quiet area at the mouth of a tributary creek, she learned how to cast.

However, fishing’s just luck and Kate had none. While I managed to land two pike and a small lake trout, as well as losing two strong fish that were likely steelhead, she had nary a bite. After a couple of hours we met up with Jim and Amber, both grinning from ear to ear. Jim had caught a sizeable coaster brook trout and a laker, while Amber landed a plump walleye. We trolled for another hour, but poor Kate returned to the landing fishless.

We finished our tour at Ouimet Canyon Provincial Park, about 30 minutes east of Thunder Bay. A short walk leads to a cantilevered overlooked nearly 500 feet above the canyon floor. To say the view is breathtaking is an understatement. Here our host, Ed Chambers of Dorion, told us something that had become a recurring theme of the trip. Far fewer Minnesotans are visiting Ontario’s North Shore these days. No one can point a finger at the reason for this drop in close-to-home tourism, though it is likely related to the need for a passport at the border, higher Canadian gasoline prices and a strong Canadian dollar, which reduces the buying power of the American greenback. Whatever the reason, the four of us agreed our fellow Minnesotans don’t know what they’re missing.

Airdate: June 15, 2012

Photo courtesy of Paul Weimer via Flickr.

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