Barrie

London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Philadelphia, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Moscow, and Barrie.

…wait a second.

Barrie, Ontario Live 8

Live 8 in Barrie.

How does Barrie fit into a list of world class international cities?

Barrie hosted Canada’s Live 8 concert at Molson Park, when Toronto couldn’t handle the last minute capacity due to other festivals and events.  And Barrie was sufficiently far enough away from the Big Smoke that putting “Toronto” down on the list would have been misleading.

That must have felt good, Barrie.  Real good.

Barrie is a suburban community of about 150 000 135 000 (175 000 if you count the greater area) that has the potential to be the next Brampton.

For the geographically challenged, or very narrow-minded, Barrie is considered the start of northern Ontario.  But for everyone else on the planet, it’s completely clear that Barrie is in southern Ontario.  So they’re at a bit of a crossroads.  Barrie is also where Yonge Street ends and the real Highway 11 begins on its route across Ontario.

Barrie waterfront highway 11

Barrie’s waterfront

Barrie used to be a farming, industrial, and brewery town.  But they developed much of the land and Molson’s closed up its operations so now Barrie is a regional centre and a suburb for those who work in Toronto’s suburbs or who are willing to do the commute all the way into the big city.  This means that while it used to have more in common with towns like Sarnia or Stratford, some might say it now has more in common with Brampton.  Barrie is Canada’s fastest growing city, at a whopping 25 percent between 2000 and 2005.

Barrie, Spririt Statue, Kempenfelt Bay Highway 11

Spirit statue near Kempenfelt Bay

Highway 400 to Toronto is congested, busy, and used above capacity.  This is especially true during cottage season and on long weekends.  So be warned.  While they say it only takes 50 minutes to go from Toronto to Barrie it’s usually about an hour and a half.  Barrie has commuter train service via the GO Network, but if I recall correctly the station isn’t downtown.  The government has introduced legislation to keep a belt of land between Toronto and Barrie essentially undeveloped, it is very likely that sprawl will simply hop this area, called the “greenbelt”, and continue to develop it on both sides.

Barrie also gained international notoriety for having one of Canada’s largest drug busts.  Someone had converted part of the old Molson’s brewery into a secret pot operation and it apparently flourished until getting busted.  Everyone was really surprised.

Barrie's "Arch", Highway 11

This is no St. Louis Arch, that’s for sure

To me, a product of the southern Ontario suburbs, Barrie isn’t particularly different…it is a lot like home.  Its population is large enough to give you some stuff to do.  The Barrie Colts are the local junior hockey team.  There are two ski hills in the area (Blue Mountain and Horseshoe Valley), and there are many beaches on Lake Simcoe.  Barrie has a nice waterfront along Kempenfelt Bay, with boating, swimming, and other recreational opportunities.  There are many cottages nearby as Lake Simcoe is a cottagey area. For those who like Art there is the Maclaren Art Centre and the annual Kempenfelt Arts Festival.

The Downtown offers good waterfront access, a fish and chip shop, and a few nice walks along Lake Simcoe.  And there is a Pita Pit.  Any town with a Pita Pit gets points from me. Barrie has made an effort to keep its downtown alive despite the box stores and these new outdoor mall plaza things that have taken over outskirts of every suburban city these days, including their own.  Like any other city of this size, there are the usual indoor attractions, including miniputt, movies, and bowling.

I’ve received a fair amount of emails (okay, six) complaining that I painted Barrie as dry, uneventful and homogenous.  In a sense, it is.  That’s not a criticism; that’s the point of the suburbs, including the one I called home for more than 20 years.  Barrie doesn’t fit into the molds (e.g. rural, or northern, or isolated, or tiny, or non-existent) that apply to most of the towns on this site. So if anyone is from Barrie and thinks this doesn’t do the town justice, I’m sorry.  That was never my intention.  Please add to this – send me an email with your thoughts and tips:  info (at) highway11 (dot) ca

Orillia

Orillia is an interesting town.

A bit of a mix of blue-collar rural town-dwellers, working-class provincial employees, and left-leaning urban-escapee folkies, Orillia is a strange brew – the kind of place where you’ll see a lineup at both the spelt-flour bread stall and the Dairy Queen.  Imagine Guelph without the university.Orillia, Ontario Highway 11My first substantial visit to Orillia came in March. And I must say, even in the drab, dreary days that aren’t quite winter but aren’t quite spring, I was pretty impressed.

Orillia has enacted by-laws to try to keep its downtown quaint and small-towny. And they’ve succeeded.  Downtown Orillia is pretty cute.

There are many independent and specialty stores. We visited a specialty kid clothier. A store that sold upscale pet accessories. Apple Annie’s bakery and breakfast that sold french desserts alongside pancakes and waffles. Hudson’s kitchen store that sold everything from fancy La Creuset enameled cookware to cat-themed soap dishes, where I finally found myself a plastic thing to help scoop chopped and diced vegetables. The main street was pretty full, for a good three blocks. I can only imagine that it is cuter, busier, and even nicer in the summer.

Downtown Orillia, Highway 11

Downtown Orillia is cuter when it’s not winter and when I’m not the photographer

Home of the Ontario Provincial Police, Orillia is a town of 32 000 people about 45 minutes north of Barrie on Highway 11.  One hundred and thirty five kilometres north of Toronto, Orillia has waterfront on both Lakes Couchiching and Simcoe.  Home to the Stephen Leacock Museum, the Orillia Opera House, and the Orillia Museum of Art and History, Orillia also has a nice waterfront park with a boat launch, walking trails, and a boardwalk.

Orillia was founded in 1867 and has been home to eminent Canadians such as author Stephen Leacock and musician Gordon Lightfoot.  It was the first North American municipality to adopt daylight saving time.  Today Orillia is a retirement and casino community, as nearby Casino Rama draws both gamblers and seniors.  It has almost 20 doughnut shops.  ___Insert OPP police joke here___

The Orillia Opera House is a pretty impressive building. With two turrets, it stands out in downtown Orillia, and is pretty much unmissable. The Orillia Opera House hosts plays, concerts, and even comedy. In the back, the Opera House hosts a farmer’s market every Saturday morning, that runs through winter (we bought some jam.) The morning we were there, there were about five older men and women standing outside the opera house, protesting against war. For no particular reason, as far as I could tell, except that it seemed like something they probably did every Saturday morning since they moved there in the 1960s. Wrapped in wollen blankets, ready with pamphlets, rainbow flags, and thermoses, these grown-old hippies showed pure dedication, even if they were small in numbers.

Opera House, Orillia, Ontario

Every Saturday Orillia’s Opera House hosts a farmer’s market and a protest for peace

Orillia is well known for the Mariposa Folk Festival and less well known for its annual perch fishing derby. There is also a store across from the Opera House that sells bongs, and only bongs. I know that Orillia has the leftover hippie element from its folk music days, but a store specializing in selling technicolour, skull-and-crossbones, flaming ninja bongs? The woman in the store was nice enough to let me take a photo. And this is only one half of the store.

Other than Opera, hippies, folk music and maybe the bong store, Orillia is also known for is Weber’s Hamburgers.  This place is so popular that it built its own pedestrian overpass over Highway 11.  Sometimes the lineup stretches over Highway 11.  This is a popular stopping spot for people on their way to cottage country.  I’ve heard of many people who swear by their burgers but with a big lineup and a Harvey’s in Orillia, I’ve never stopped.

Highway 11 overpass, pedestrian, Orillia, webers

Pedestrian overpass on Highway 11 built to serve customers of Weber’s Hamburgers, near Orillia, Ontario

Best bong store ever, Orillia, Highway 11 Ontario

I’m guessing this bong store serves the folk music crowd more than the opera crowd in Orillia, Ontario.  They told me that people come from as far as Huntsville and that I wasn’t the first to ask to take a photo.

Gravenhurst

If you’re coming up Yonge Street / Highway 11 from the south, Gravenhurst is the first real town north of Orillia.

And Gravenhurst is one of the first towns to truly straddle the northern-southern divide.Being in cottage country, Gravenhurst is home to all sorts of little things you’d not find in a northern town – a tea shop, two independent cafés, an upscale pub, a resort restaurant.  There is a small arts community – the downtown is littered with murals – and there is even the Gravenhurst Opera House, built in 1901.  The Muskoka Gallery By the Bay displays art near Gravenhurst’s cute waterfront.  The town hosts an annual Music on the Barge festival at Gull Lake Park, with many musicians playing in a picturesque setting.

But you can tell that there’s a bit of north in this town too.  It’s evident in the nature statues and the goofy motels and that one of its best-rated restaurants is a truck-stop.  It’s in the tacky miniputts and the ageing tourist traps and the way a community that essentially hugs a single main road tries to brand itself into two distinct districts (Downtown vs. Uptown).

And it is in the local restaurant rivalries that split long-time residents – the stone hearth knotty-pine rustic welcome of the China House versus the more run-down but all-day dim sum of the Rickshaw, and the Greek-Canadian combo at the Uptown Diner pitted against the Greek-Canadian-Italian of Rombo’s Family Restaurant.

Gravenhurst on Yonge St, Highway 11 Ontario

I’m a little bit country – Fish-and-bear statues, strange motel-restaurant combos, big weird cottage chairs (watch out Callander and Fort Frances), and more bear sculptures…Gravenhurst has touches of northern Ontario

It's not every Muskoka town that has an Opera House and a statue of a communist doctor

And I’m a little bit rock and roll – It’s not every Highway 11 town that has an Opera House and a statue of a communist doctor – Gravenhurst is still a bit southern, too.

Gravenhurst was named after a village in England which is mentioned in Washington Irving’s book Bracebridge Hall.  Between 1940 and 1943 it was known as “Little Norway” due to its proximity to the Norwegian Air Force’s temporary training base in Canada.  Today Gravenhurst is a retirement and cottage community.

With a permanent population of 10 000, Gravenhurst is the smallest of the towns that make up the cottage country triangle (Bracebridge and Huntsville being larger) but it is still big enough and touristy enough to have the main food and lodging franchises, as well as other tourist amenities.   Muskoka steamships operate three different ships that give tours of the many picturesque lakes in the area, with dinner and music cruises available.

But what struck me most about Gravenhurst was the pace.

Cars sauntering down the road, none hitting more than maybe 30 kilometres an hour.

Moms chatting along the main street, enjoying a sundrenched May weekday before their kids get released from school in six weeks.

A young family resting in the shadow of the statue of Dr. Norman Bethune, likely oblivious to the fact that he’s the only westerner to have a statue in China (and probably the only communist to have a statue on Yonge Street) taking in the fresh air whilst retrieving the shoes that their toddler had kicked off.

Local kids out for lunch, meandering in their flip flops having jumped at the chance to wear summer clothing in the decidedly spring weather, full of the listlessness of near-freedom in the face of limited opportunity brings after a tiring, cold winter.

Everyone enjoying the space that becomes so competed-for once the cottagers come in, yet likely all-too-aware that none of this would be possible without the annual invasion of busy and bustling out-of-towners that trample this vibe for twelve weeks each and every year.

Gravenhurst Ontario chinese food

Even after all of these years eating at northern Ontario Chinese food restaurants, I have never ordered the “Canadian” food

Downtown Gravenhurst on a warm and sunny May morning

Downtown Gravenhurst on a warm and sunny May morning

More AdirondackoopsImeanMuskoka chairs on Highway 11

More Adirondack oops I mean Muskoka chairs on Highway 11…and another inexplicable Yonge Street / Highway 11 dinosaur sighting.

Bracebridge

I never actually meant to visit Bracebridge.

I was heading for Muskoka Falls when I had my head turned by a highway sign advertising a McDonald’s, a Harvey’s and a Subway just a couple of kilometres from my intended destination.  I didn’t need food – I had a sandwich packed from home.  I didn’t need coffee – I’d already had one extra large one-cream-two-sugar and one small one-cream-two-sugar from Tim Horton’s.  I didn’t need anything sweet – I was saving that treat for a milkshake somewhere along the way back.

But I really had to pee.

Bracebridge, Ontario, off Highway 11 highway11.ca

Bracebridge, Ontario and North Falls, off Highway 11 (Credit: User P199 from Wiki Commons.)

So instead of turning right to Muskoka Falls I turned left, following the instructions of the sign.  I’m sure it really didn’t take as long as it felt, but when you have to pee as bad as that kid in the Robert Munsch book, one minute feels like 10.

I followed a winding road through old farm land, a short bit of bush, past a cement plant, past a conveyor belt factory.  I don’t know what I might have missed or where I missed it, but I never saw another sign for any of those fast food joints.  I passed dinosaur, and a strangely placed totem pole and statue of a nurse, until I was faced by Marty’s World Famous restaurant, an ice cream parlour, and a couple of stores that sold cottagey stuff.

Somehow I had ended up on Manitoba Street.  I was smack-dab in the cutesy cottage country downtown of Bracebridge.

Bracebridge is a town of 13 000 right smack dab in the middle of cottage country.  It is one of the three main towns of Muskoka, the other two being Gravenhurst and Huntsville.  It is not directly on Highway 11 – just a smidge west of it.

Downtown Bracebridge, Ontario, just west of Highway 11 / Yonge Street

Downtown Bracebridge, Ontario, just west of Highway 11 / Yonge Street

Named after the book Bracebridge Hall by Washington Irving.  I believe the local postmaster was reading it at the time the town was to be named.  Gravenhurst also had the same postmaster, and was also named after something in the same book.  Bracebridge is exactly halfway between the equator and the North Pole.

Bracebridge was founded on the backs of a number of different industries, including furs, agriculture, brewing, logging, milling, and hydroelectricity.  In fact, Bracebridge was the first town in Ontario to have its own hydroelectric generation due to North Falls (see the falls tour).  There is still some hydro generation, and there is still a brewery too.

Today Bracebridge, being in the heart of the Muskokas, is all about tourism – as evidenced by another random dinosaur, a distinctly aubergine-painted bike shop and a store advertising the largest selection of Muskoka tshirts in the country (I knew that Muskoka had appropriated the Adirondack chair, but I didn’t know Muskoka it had laid claim to its own style of clothing.)

SANTA! I KNOW HIM! HE LIVES IN BRACEBRIDGE

Oh man I wanted to go here so bad when I was a ten five year old

Being a tourist town, Bracebridge is relatively full of places to eat, drink, and sleep and have fun.  You’ll have no problem finding accommodation.  I mean, book ahead of course (especially during the summer!) and don’t just show up expecting to find something.  But you don’t need me to tell you where to go in cottage country because places abound.

The main tourist attraction in Bracebridde, aside from cottages, is Santa’s Village.  I have a friend who is 37 years old and he can’t stop telling me how magical it is.  Whatever.  Maybe because it is relatively cheap.  He also likes that it’s in off the highway and in the bush.  It’s low key and kid oriented, but supposedly inexpensive and not too touristy.  And it’s full of men with bad beards, if you’re into that kinda thing.

Bracebridge is home to Woodchester Villa, one of the finest octagonal houses in Canada.  As well, Guha’s Lions and Tigers is a little lion and tiger zoo in Bracebridge and is another one for the kids to see.  There is also golf, boating, art, parks, cottaging, camping, snowmobiling, a water park, a movie theatre, a little film festival put on by the highschool, and the Festival of the Falls which celebrates the 22 waterfalls within Bracebridge’s fairly expansive town limits (one of them is even referred to as the north’s Niagara Falls – someone should tell that to Kakabeka.)   I arrived in town about a month after the floods of 2013 – which shut down Highway 11 in a few spots – and the waterfalls were still running high.

Bracebridge has all of the hallmarks of rural/northern Ontario touristiness - the tacky shops, the hokey Canadiana, and big weird random big things for the kids.

Bracebridge has all of the hallmarks of rural/northern Ontario touristiness – the tacky shops, the hokey Canadiana, and big weird random big things for the kids.

This was kinda neat - a statue commemorating a local midwife whose naturopathic discoveries, based on knowledge from local First Nations

This was kinda neat – a statue commemorating a local midwife for her naturopathic remedies based on knowledge from local First Nations

On my last visit, volunteers were repainting Bracebridge's old hydro station - it's going to be a town museum.

On my last visit, volunteers were repainting Bracebridge’s old hydro station – it’s going to be a town museum.

This tree location makes no sense.  Come on Bracebridge!

This tree location makes no sense. Come on Bracebridge!  Way to ruin a great photo spot.

So this Ontario Public Health sign was up in the washroom of the visitor's centre, where I parked in Bracebridge.  And I got to reading it.  Does anyone truly wash their hands for a full 15 seconds?  This was news to me.  So I followed their advice - and re-washed my hands whilst humming "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" aloud to myself...only to be interrupted by a knock at the washroom door - the staff attendant had heard me humming, and wanted to check on me to see if I was alright.

So this Ontario Public Health sign was up in the washroom of the visitor’s centre, where I parked in Bracebridge. And I got to reading it. Does anyone truly wash their hands for a full 15 seconds? This was news to me. So I followed their advice – and proceeded to thoroughly wash my hands … only to be interrupted by a knock on the washroom door.  The staff attendant wanted to check on me to see if I was alright – apparently I had been mindlessly singing “Row Row Row Your Boat” just a little too loudly.

North Bay

Although considered to be in northern Ontario, if you look at it North Bay really isn’t that far north.

“Just north enough to be perfect” according to its slogan, North Bay is the second city of Ontario’s near north (after Sudbury.)

Considering what southern Ontario considers to be ‘north’, maybe “just north enough to be perfect” should be Barrie’s slogan? Kidding…!North Bay, Ontario, Highway 11

Explored by Samuel de Champlain, North Bay wasn’t founded until 1891.  Primarily a railway town, North Bay once harboured massive ambitions of being Canada’s Panama – there were plans for a canal stretching from the Ottawa River through the town to Lake Nipissing, which would have essentially been a massive shortcut for boats en route from Thunder Bay.  This never materialized.  North Bay did however play an important role during the silver rushes in Cobalt as it was the hub of both the CPR and the ONTC line up to northeastern Ontario. Today, North Bay is largely a university, military, and (most importantly) a transportation town.

Highway 11 ontario north bay highway11.ca

Highway 11 heading out of North Bay (Credit: P199 from Wiki Commons)

I’ve driven through North Bay five times, and stopped in a couple of other times for visits of a few hours.  It has all the amenities a trveller could need – from motels to real hotels, from diners to chain restaurants, from no name doughnut stops to Tim Horton’s.

North Bay is essentially the last place to get a full range of big city shops, services, and franchises before Timmins, or if you plan to stay solely on Highway 11, the last place before Thunder Bay.. I was once told by a facetious friend that North Bay is Cree for “a place on the lake where the gas is cheaper.”  While that’s obviously a joke, the general point about gas prices is true – sometimes as much as 15 cents cheaper than its more northern counterparts.

Lake Nipplesing, North Bay, highway 11

Lake Nippissing under clouds.

North Bay is home to a really nice restored theatre – the Capitol Centre – that hosts plays and concerts. (I got dragged to an Anne of Green Gables play while we were there…and I can’t believe I’m admitting this but it was actually kind of good.  The island, the island, we’re from Prince Edward Island…we’re island, we’re island throughandthrough…)  Although the theatre doesn’t immediately catch the eye (it’s on Main St, or Oak St, I can’t remember) the inside is really quite nice. There truly isn’t a bad seat in the house.

North Bay was home to Mike Harris, a two-term Ontario Premier during the late 1990s in Ontario whose name pretty much became a curse-word if you were a public school student at the time.  He’s famous for the coining the phrase “common sense revolution.” Oh, and the Dionne Quintuplets were born in nearby Corbeil Callander.  Their exploitation brought a fair amount of money to North Bay during the depression.  Kids in the Hall comedian Scott Thompson was born in North Bay (I think he grew up in Scarborough though), as is weatherperson Susan Hay and a pretty not so great band called High Holy Days.

Plan in North Bay, highway 11, Ontario

North Bay’s “some big weird thing” is a bit more refined than some other northern Ontario towns

North Bay is also famous for being the hometown of Roy Thomson, the founder of the Thomson media empire and the namesake of Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, one of Canada’s premiere music venues. Roy Thomson started out selling radios door-to-door in North Bay. This interest in radio led to him taking over the local radio station, taking over or establishing more radio stations, then expeanding into newspapers – eventually making him one of Canada’s most successful businessmen.

North Bay cruise tour highway 11

I once chuckled at an acquaintance who recounted their engagement story, which occurred under a Tuscan sunset.  I shouldn’t have laughed – I almost proposed on a boat tour of Lake Nipissing

Tourist activities include the Commanda boat tours on Lake Nipissing, and the beach, walkways, and mini train ride at the city’s waterfront.  There are plays (Nipissing Stage Company) and festivals (The Heritage Festival every August Civic holiday.)  The Dream Catcher Express used to run a day-trip train to Temagami to view the leaves in the fall – but that’s been cancelled since the government shut down the ONTC. There is also the original Dionne House, where to Dionne quints were born (the house pictured second from top on the left), which has been moved into town and turned into a little museum. The museum is open from Spring to late October, and entrance is about 3$ each, and is worth a visit if you’re in town.

Dionne House Museum, Ontario, Highway 11

I never cease to amaze myself with how crap my photos can get. This is the Dionne Quints Museum house.

What else can I say about North Bay?  You know, this site is kinda focused on the more northern towns, like Timmins, so I guess I’m not always putting as much content up about places like Barrie or North Bay, etc. I guess since North Bay is a bit bigger than the average town on this site, there is less I have to tell you. North Bay is pretty nice, it seems like a good place to live and a great place to grow up – but this site is a bit more about the smaller, more remote towns to its north. (I got flack from a poster on the Huntsville page for this site’s north-centric focus, I’m waiting for same flack to be posted on behalf of North Bay too…)

Fun in North Bay, Highway 11

For a while I had no photos of North Bay, and this was the first that came up in google

Cobalt

Cobalt, OntarioIn my travels along Highway 11 I’ve noticed that some towns are:

And then there are some that are just plain cool.

Enter Cobalt.

Cobalt is just really neat.  Part of it is the history.  Part of it is the town’s independent streak.  But mostly, it’s just so old and, well, old, that it’s really interesting.

From “Yikes” to “Cool”

My first impression of Cobalt was “oh god.”  And not in a good way.  But boy was I wrong. Cobalt is the kind of town that would have five taverns but no grocery store. And that’s what makes it so interesting.Abandoned storefront in Cobalt, a reminder of its heydey

Cobalt headframe, hgihway 11 Ontario

Preserved mine headframe in Cobalt – really cool

It was when I stopped to take a break from driving that I really saw my surroundings.  I realized that what looked old and run down was simply historic.  That was looked grotty and old really had a tonne of character. That instead of tearing down older buildings and erecting cheap, shoddy new ones in their place, Cobalt had preserved its history. A history they were proud of. This place wasn’t run down, it was preserved.  Cobalt was named Ontario’s most historic town for a reason.

Sure, there aren’t a tonne of stores or boutiques.  But at least there aren’t a tonne of places selling crap either.  There is no grocery store left in town (it closed in 1992 when the store owner cleared out the remaining products and held dance parties in the store to commemorate its closing), but what else is there is because it needs to be there – like museums, mine shafts, and bars.  More than a few of them.

Cobalt Train Station, Highway 11

Cobalt ONTC station

Highway 11 Book Shop, now closed. Cobalt, OntarioThe Highway Book Shop was a classic tourist destination that never feels like a tourist destination.  It was a family-run used bookshop on Highway 11 just outside of Cobalt and it is not only worth a visit, it is worth some time.  Maps, books, magazines, teaching materials, kid’s lit, old books, new books, big books, rare books – you wouldn’t have believed all the crap they have in there.  I think I spent an hour on two separate occasions perusing the cramped store. It might smell like your grandmother’s basement, but it’s really neat, and no visit to Temiskaming is complete without a stop, in my opinion. Sadly, the icon has closed.  Ready to retire for years, the owners couldn’t find anyone to take the store on and had to shut one of Highway 11′s best attractions down.

Cobalt Classic Theatre is the only remaining theatre from Cobalt’s heyday in 1920s.  While other towns were using economic development funds to build golf courses, Cobalt restored the old Classic Theatre in 1993 and now hosts students, playwrights, and actors from across Ontario. The theatre is restored to what it looked like in the 1920s and is a focal point for the community.

Cobalt, mining equipment, Highway 11

Antique mining equipment on display at the lakefront.  Other towns would have just thrown this stuff out.  Cobalt, refreshingly, doesn’t run from its roots.

Mine headframe now a bar, Cobalt, Ontario

This headframe is now the world’s only bar in a mine headframe! That’s revitalization, northern Ontario style.

The Cobalt Mining Museum has the world’s largest display of silver and offers the only underground mine tour that I’ve seen outside of Timmins.  The Bunker Military Museum has a good collection of memorabilia, the Great Canadian Mine show displays mining technology, and there is also a firefighter museum in town.

Cobalt also has two separate self-guided walks.  The Cobalt Walking Tour brings you through town past historic buildings and historical places, while the Heritage Silver Trail is a self guided tour of many of the abandoned mine headframes in the area.

There’s more.  There is Fred’s Northern Picnic, an annual music festival that the local Member of Parliament usually plays at (he’s a musician by trade) and where you get three days of music and free camping for like $60.  The Silver Street Cafe has good food and decent prices, and they also cater local events with real food (forget hamburgers and hot dogs, think steak on a bun and pulled pork with onions.)  The Silverland Inn and Motel is a restored hotel from Cobalt’s mining heyday and also serves food.  There is a stained glass shop, a gem shop, and Iddy Biddy Petting Farm.  Cobalt also has more murals than Nipigon.

Fred's Northern Picnic, featuring MP Charlie Angus, Cobalt, ON

Not sure if they’re still running Fred’s Northern Picnic, but that’s where I saw Serena Ryder before she was big, and the local MP get up and do a set too

History of Cobalt Mural, Cobalt Highway 11Hockey, Streetcars, and Casa Loma

I read in the James Bay tourist brochure that there is a legend that Cobalt blacksmith Fred Larose threw his hammer at a fox, uncovering a rich vein of silver in the process.  Further silver and mineral deposits were found in 1903, triggering a mining rush like no other in northern Ontario.  The significance of the Cobalt finds supposedly led to riots over mining stocks in New York City.  Others say that Cobalt built Bay Street (Toronto’s Wall Street.)  A testament to the town’s wealth, the Cobalt Silver Kings played the 1909 season in the NHA, the NHL’s precursor. Another first in Cobalt include the Temiskaming Streetcar Line, which was installed between Cobalt and Haileybury, and was the first streetcar system north of Toronto.

Mining ruins, Cobalt, Highway 11 Ontario

Mining ruins east of town

Cobalt Lake, Ontario

Cobalt Lake, once drained, then filled, now restored

In addition, the mines of Cobalt built Casa Loma, the famous “castle” built upon Spadina Heights in Toronto. Sir Henry Mill Pellatt was a wealthy Canadian mine owner (some say Canada’s richest man at the time.) It was his mining operations in Cobalt that allowed him to gather the immense wealth to build Casa Loma. Construction began in 1911 and took more than three years, 3.5$ million, and more than 300 full-time workers. With 98 rooms, it was the largest residence in Canada at the time. Pellat eventually lost his residence, as the Depression and the decline of mining in Cobalt led to his financial ruin. Casa Loma was essentially built with the revenues Sir Henry Mill Pellatt gained by draining Cobalt Lake for silver mining.

The Cobalt rush eventually produced more than $260 million worth of silver, countless myths and stories about how and where silver was found, who struck it rich, and who lost their pants in speculation. The Cobalt silver rush resulted in a whole little Cobalt culture developing – embodied by the Cobalt Song (click here to download the sheet music.) Cobalt led to the founding towns like North Cobalt (a bedroom town for miners) and Haileybury (a bedroom town for wealthy mine owners.) The mining boom in Cobalt also paved the way for exploration further north, which led to massive gold finds in Timmins and Kirkland Lake, both of which far exceeded the value of the mines of Cobalt in the long-run.

Cobalt, Ontario, downtown, highway11.ca Ontario Highway 11

I could move this photo of downtown Cobalt closer to the text that talks about downtown Cobalt but in wordpress moving photos around is a pain in the rear. (Credit: User P199 at Wiki Commons.)

Although Cobalt survived the usual northern Ontario disasters, including a typhoid outbreak in 1909, and Great Fire of 1922, it couldn’t survive the decline of mining.  Well, it survived, but it’s much smaller today and mining no longer exists.  There is some exploration for diamonds, but I don’t think they’ve been found.  I’ve heard that many of the old mines still have minerals in them, but that it’s just not economical to mine such old shafts for minerals at today’s prices. But, in the end, the history of Cobalt is one of a town that conbtinually gets kicked, but then manages to find its way back up.

Cobalt is considered the third part of the Tri Towns along with New Liskeard and Haileybury.  But for some reason it didn’t amalgamate into Temiskaming Shores in the late 1990s when the province forced municipalities to squish together.  Maybe it’s too far away.  Maybe old hostilities with North Cobalt scuppered a move.  Maybe the town is too independent.  Maybe there is still an old hockey rivalry between Cobalt and Haileybury from the one season both towns had a team in the NHA.  I’m sure someone in the town of 1200 put up a fight.  I don’t know.

I haven’t spent as much time as I would like in Cobalt, and, I must admit, haven’t visited any of the touristy things here other than the Highway Book Shop.  But I’m sure I’ll be back again.

Old mining carts, Cobalt, Ontario

My grandfather worked in coal mines in Europe for a time.  Seeing these things, all I could think of was my disbelief that people actually went underground with these things…that’s ballsy

The Cobalt Song Mural, Cobalt, Highway 11 Ontario

Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay has a big random curling rock statue?  A massive four city-block-long woodpile?  Statues of polar bears, even though polar bears live nowhere nearby?  Yes honey, we're still in northern Ontario.

Thunder Bay has a big random curling rock statue?  A massive four city-block-long woodpile? Statues of arctic animals that live nowhere nearby?  Thunder Bay may be the big city but we’re still in northern Ontario.

I once heard a pretty prominent Canadian comedian joke something to the effect that there’s a reason that the Marathon of Hope ended in Thunder Bay.

I never really got the joke.  Maybe it’s because the city’s initials stand for a deadly disease, but I haven’t figured out what he was talking about. I like Thunder Bay.

TBay has a list of things going for it. TB has probably the best lookout on Highway 11 at the Terry Fox memorial.  It also has a majestic port bordered by rock formations on both sides.  There’s a pretty decent rap song about the city that was recently written up in the Toronto Star. It is the hometown of the most pro hockey players per capita. They have their own special foods that you can’t get anywhere else – superflat Finnish pancakes and their own type of doughnut. And I’m told that it has the largest Finnish population outside of Finland (more than 10 000…)
TB-16-TBay-SkylineThunder Bay:  A Tale of Two Cities

TB-16-TBay-Thunder Bay Demilitarized Zone

The TB DMZ. Keeping hostilities between Port Arthur and Fort William to a minimum since 1907.

Thunder Bay is actually two cities – Port Arthur and Fort William amalgamated in 1970.

Since then, they really haven’t come together in a physical manner.  There is a bit of a ‘no man’s land’ between north and south Thunder Bay, filled with a golf course, a hospital, an expressway, and some suburban-style office parks.  The street names change between north and south.

So how did they choose the name “Thunder Bay”? I have no idea if this is true, but I once read in a book that when Port Arthur and Fort William merged in 1970, they couldn’t decide on a common name. In order to solve the problem, they held a referendum. As always, the voters were split. Some thought it should be named “Lakehead.” While others preferred the more regal-sounding “The Lakehead.” When the final tallies were counted, the two Lakehead options combined had a majority of votes. However, with the two camps splitting most of the vote, plucky little “Thunder Bay” slipped up the middle to win a plurality. Is it true? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

It’s as if the two cities are still buffering against each other, or just don’t know what to do with the space between them. Is there animosity?  Bobby Curtola is from Port Arthur.  Paul Shaffer is from Fort William.  I don’t know if a rivalry exists, but there’s potential…

My first car had only AM radio.  Which means only oldies music.  Which means you hear a lot of Bobby Curtola to make up the CanCon requirements.

My first car had only AM radio. Which means only oldies music. Which means you hear a lot of Thunder Bay’s Bobby Curtola so the station can be in compliance with CanCon requirements.

Thunder Bay has a lot of variety in neighbourhoods.  Many parts are littered with old northern hotels and taverns (a la Timmins), while some residential areas have stately turn-of-the-century homes (a la Haileybury), while there are the 1960s suburbs (a la Etobicoke, but with bigger lawns), while Walsh Street is essentially a paved hydro corridor with homes on either side (a la Longlac.)  The whole situation means that, while Thunder Bay is a really nice city, it can be sprawly, confusing, and makes for horrible driving.

The Sleeping Giant, from Thunder Bay's waterfront

A not-so-great photo from yours truly of The Sleeping Giant, from Thunder Bay’s waterfront

Of course, nothing says ‘Thunder Bay’ to the history-conscious Canadian than grain elevators.  The prevalence of shipping means that the city is criss-crossed by train tracks, which pretty much cut off the city from most of its waterfront, save for a nice park in the north.  I think that the port in south Thunder Bay is bigger, but that the elevators in north Thunder Bay are near the waterfront park and therefore make for nicer photos.  There are beautiful views of Sleeping Giant (the big rock formation off the harbour) from both the waterfront marina park or from Hillcrest Park on High Street.

One of the coolest thing about Thunder Bay is the massive rock-bubble-things that border the south part of town.  You can’t miss them no matter where you look to the south.  They’re called the Nor’Westers (after the fur traders) and the largest (Mount McKay) is open for cars to drive up, for a small fee.  There’s something Rio de Janeiro-esque about it – they just need a statue on top, looking down over the city.

Maybe they can put a statue of a famous Thunder Bayer up there.  Again though, who to choose – Port Arthur’s Bobby Curtola or Fort William’s Paul Shaffer? I’ll pledge 50$ to that.

Thunder Bay has art grafitti. Yep it's big

Flashes of the cosmopolitan. (Photo credit: Lloyd from Wild Goose)

Thunder Bay:  The North’s New York City…?

Thunder Bay wins the north’s big city sweepstakes not only because it is the subject of a rap song (click here, the video is surprisingly good) or the presence of art graffiti but also because, compared to the rest of the north, Thunder Bay is practically a metropolis:

  • Thunder Bay has 110 000 people
  • Almost ten percent of them speak a language other than French or English (Finnish)
  • Thunder Bay has multiple occurrences of the same store or franchise
  • There are more stoplights than you can count on your hands and feet in Thunder Bay
  • Thunder Bay has satellite towns that resemble suburbs (real ones, not like the hamlets outside of Hearst or Geraldton)
  • Eight cities on four different continents around the world are twinned with Thunder Bay
  • Heck, Thunder Bay even has its own semi-pro soccer team that employs a handful of Brazilians for a few months every summer

But nothing shows off Thunder Bay’s cosmopolitan flair better than its International Friendship Garden.

The Thunder Bay Soroptimist International Friendship Garden - featuring installations from the Chinese, Dutch and Croatian communities.

The Thunder Bay Soroptimist International Friendship Garden – featuring installations from the Chinese, Dutch and Croatian communities.

The Garden was founded by various ethnic civic organizations to commemorate Canada’s centennial in 1967.  You can meet Croatia’s King Tomislav.  You can pose with the concrete geese representing Finland.  Italy, Scotland, Greece, India, the Philippines, and others are all there too.  It almost feels like a ‘mini-putt your way around the world’ exhibit that you’d find on Highway Six south of Hamilton.  Maybe it’s the Dutch windmill.  Or the random Italian villa surrounded by a chain-link fence.  Or maybe it’s the sawmill from Deutschland, which I thought was a garden shed until I spotted the faux waterwheel (sans water.)

However, you have to give TB some credit here.  It’s actually pretty cool and totally endearing. Most cities couldn’t have attempted this.  Fewer would have even considered it.

It’s more than a bit hokey, but that’s what makes it undeniably charming.  Sure, the Confucius statue and adjacent mini-pavilion looks like it could be beside Chinese restaurant in Markham, but who cares?  It’s a great park and apparently one of the ‘in’ spots for wedding photos in Thunder Bay.

No, we're not on the set of Logan's Run, these are the Finnish, Italian and Slovakian monuments at the Thunder Bay International Friendship Garden

No, we’re not on the set of Logan’s Run, these are the Finnish, Italian and Slovakian monuments at the Thunder Bay International Friendship Garden

If you’re in Thunder Bay, you need to try a Persian. A Persian is a holeless doughnut rubbed with cinnamon and topped with a bright pink sugary raspberry glaze. They were …ahem…”invented” in Thunder Bay (in the 1930s), perfected in Thunder Bay, and only sold in Thunder Bay.

These look so much bigger in real life

The Norwesters.  These look so much bigger in real life

A Persian is like the oil-soaked goodness of a fresh farmer’s market doughnut and and the sugaryness of a Beavertail all rolled up into one bundle of super fatty northern Ontario goodness. As one of my co-workers has told me, she works with people in Thunder Bay and when she asks them about Persians, she could practically hear their mouths water through the phone. When she goes there for meetings, she buys two flats and brings them back from Thunder Bay on the plane, and only one flat makes it back alive. But if you’re gonna take the plunge – make sure you avoid the chocolate and go for the real thing – the one with the pink topping.

That being said, they're eerily similar to the Unique to TBay - except they look like the Paczkis of Cleveland or the doughnuts of pretty much anywhere else.

Persians – unique to TBay, tho eerily similar to the Paczkis of Cleveland or the doughnuts of pretty much anywhere else.

There are two locations that sell Persians (the doughnuts – not the ancient peoples) – one on Tungsten (out by the university), and one on Balmoral. Just look for The Persian Man.

For non-doughnut grub and shopping the major streets are Red River and Memorial in north Thunder Bay, and Arthur in south Thunder Bay.  There is a real mall, a movie complex, the only Swiss Chalet since North Bay, some other chain restaurants, but no Giant Tiger (disappointing.). At one time, TBay had the only East Side Mario’s since Timmins but Keith emailed me to deliver the bad news – it is closed.

To-Do in TB

Thunder Bay - Art Gallery highway11.caAs far as culture, the Thunder Bay Art Gallery on the campus of Confederation College had a great Norval Morrisseau exhibition while I was there.  The gallery is small, but entrance is ridiculously cheap.  Thunder Bay also has a symphony, as well as a charity casino.  The corner of Algoma and Bay in north Thunder Bay is a bit of a hip spot, with some pubs, a hostel, and specialty shops nearby (a Finnish-language bookstore, and Finn-tastic Sauna and Gift Shop).  While I was there, an Italian festival had blocked off the intersection (beer tent + meatball & sausage stands + old nonnas telling you to eat more = my kind of thing!)  There’s also a really nice ballpark in Port Arthur that hosts The Thunder Bay Border Cats, a minor league team in one of the American independent leagues.

But as soon as you get start getting visions of grandeur, Thunder Bay returns to its northern roots.

There are all-you-can-eat cabbage rolls and pirogi every Friday from 12-1 at the Polish Hall on Algoma.  The Superior Bowladrome is one of four bowling alleys I counted in TB.

(Where I grew up we had double the population but only half the bowling alleys.)

There are the second- and third-tier franchises some common to the north – Robin’s Doughnuts gives Tim Horton’s a serious run for their money in northwestern Ontario, and especially in TB.  There is Tacotime, some sort of Mexican franchise that has placed its geometric cacti throughout the city. (This picture does not do those catci justice. And the food is pretty good too…)

highway11.ca TACO TIME - Thunder Bay, ON, Logan, UT, Toronto, ON

Taco Time! I’ve been obsessed with Taco Time ever since I visited the one in Thunder Bay (left photo) and came under the spell of its sort-of art deco cactus. I was overjoyed when I found one on my honeymoon in Logan, Utah, and when another opened in the Atrium on Bay in Toronto. Sadly, the Torontonians have no taste. :(

But for a real Thunder Bay meal, you need to go to the Hoito. It’s a diner serving traditional Finnish food, and in its heyday it was a focal point for the very politically-active Finnish community. There’s even been a book written on stories told in the diner. It’s located in the old Finnish Labour Temple, which the local community is working hard to restore.

There are also the totally random people.  I saw kids sitting unseatbelted (not even strapped in with a rope or duct-tape) on a flatbed truck, as well as roving from side-to-sid

e in the cargo hold of pickups. This wasn’t just in cottage areas, but on main drags like Arthur.  I learned that Vampiro, Canada’s top wrestler on the Mexican lucha libre circuit hails from TB.  In one of my strangest (?) memories, I witnessed a man smoking a cigar walk out of his home with his dog on a leash.  He walked across the street to a cemetery.  He let his dog poo in the cemetery, and he walked right back across the street to his home.  Gross, but funny. (Maybe this is the sort of thing that inspired White River‘s pet relief station.)

Finally, you know Thunder Bay is a true northern town as it obeys the two main laws of Highway 11 – that each city must have something big, and something in a pile.  Thunder Bay has both – its five-foot tall curling rock, and the ever-popular pile of wood.

View from Fort William First Nation, near Thunder Bay, Highway 11.ca

I used to have these teeny-tiny 200 pixel square photos of the Thunder Bay waterfront on this site.  What would this website be like without User P199 at Wikimedia Commons saving everyone from my pitiful photography?  (The photo at the top of the post is also his.)

Thunder Bay - Sleeping Gia highway11.ca

An absolutely killer photo of The Sleeping Giant, thanks to Wiki Commons contributor P199