Huntsville

I’ve been to Huntsville at least four times, if not five.  Yet nothing really rings a bell.

I’m trying to think of what I’ve done in Huntsville, other than eat and get ready for Algonquin Provincial Park.  (Not that I have much to get ready for, being a day tripper and all.  I’ve certainly never ventured off the beaten path.  I doubt I’ve been more than a few miles from the highway.)

I once bought a flask though at the Northern General Store on the main drag right across from the Pita Pit.  Another time I had an extra pickles veggie pita too.  I once used a pita from the same Pita Pit to convince the local Beer Store (or was it LCBO?) to stay open an extra five minutes.  I’ve been to the bank in Huntsville. I got super ridiculously lost trying to find the Swiss Chalet in Huntsville.  But…most of my memories are of Algonquin.  I think that pretty much sums up my activities in Huntsville.

Hunstville from above, highway11.ca Ontario

Huntsville from a lookout. (Credit: User P199 at Wiki Commons.)

Huntsville is the last real town on Highway 11 before North Bay and is also the last major centre in Muskoka cottage country. Huntsville is an important cottage and camping area, boosted by two fancy resorts, close access to Arrowhead and Oxtongue Lake Provincial Parks, and the busiest access point to Algonquin Provincial Park.

Huntsville is pretty cute.  There’s a nice little winding downtown (that reminds me a bit of Kirkland Lake, but nicer) that skirts around the lake, and the town is very much cottage country magnet full of stores and services both useful and tacky.

Tom Thomson Statue, Huntsville, Highway 11

Statue of Tom Thomson, group of seven founder (though he was never a member)

Huntsville hosts an annual arts festival.  The town is home the Muskoka Museum, an art gallery, and the new Algonquin Arts Theatre which produces plays during cottage season.  There is also an annual book reading festival, the Firefly Festival in July, and a summer car show.

Founded in 1869 as an agricultural post, Huntsville today is a town of 18 000 focused on tourism, cottaging, and a bit of manufacturing.  Algonquin Provincial Park is about 60 kilometres east and that means that there are numerous lodges, inns, motels, and outfitters in and outside of the city.

The Wolf Den Bunkhouse, about 30 minutes east in Dwight, is a great little hostel with cottages as well as single rooms in a neat log house.  In addition to a Pita Pit, Huntsville has a Harvey’s, an East Side Mario’s, a Swiss Chalet, and a movie theatre.

Huntsville also has two top notch resorts – Hidden Valley and Deerhurst, the latter being where Shania Twain got her start.  There is train (not twain) and bus access from the ONTC, and Huntsville is the proud owner of a one-route municipal bus system.

HUnstville's town hall slash theatre, highway 11

HUntsville’s new town hall and the Algonquin Theatre, which hosts a comedy festival during cottage season (Credit: User P199 at Wiki Commons.)

Motels, Highway 11, Huntsville

Highway 11 is littered with B-list motels near Huntsville that look empty and forlorn in the off-season.  But in tourist season, they sure fill-up.

Untsville, highway 11, deerhurst resort

Deerhurst Resort.  Obviously not my photo.

Shania Twain played in Huntsville before she was a superstar

Sure Huntsville.  You can try to steal her from Timmins but you will never succeed

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

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