North Shore

Aha!  So you thought that Barrie and Orillia were close by.  Think again!  It’s about 40 kilometres from Barrie to Orillia.

Ice fishing, Lake Simcoe, Highway 11

Ice fishing on Lake Simcoe, just watch out for global warming

As an ignorant southern Ontarian I always grew up associating the two, sort of Barrie is to Orillia what Hamilton is to Burlington.   Well, it’s a mistake that I made countless times – thinking that once you hit Barrie, you’ll hit Orillia about 10 minutes later.  Well no, you won’t.  It takes a while, especially if you think past the distance between the town boundaries and actually are driving from Barrie town centre to Orillia town centre.

This is where the transition begins, southern Ontario slowly blending northward into a no man’s land of cottage country temporariness.  It’s evident in the mix of permanent and seasonal businesses that dot the highway – the junk stores disguised as antique shops, the candy stores for the kids, a Napoleon barbecue outlet, the cottage furniture stores, the old-school huntin’ and finshin’ sporting goods and outfitters, the portable sawmilling service, the ads for timber framing, the cycle of independent burger joints constantly opening and closing juxtaposes against the opening of a new Oliver & Bonacini restaurant to serve the cottage crowd.

Highway 11 near Hawkestone

There are a few towns in between Barrie and Orillia along the north shore of Lake Simcoe but I haven’t profiled them because this section of Highway 11 is more like a real highway – it has four lanes, it has exits, and it completely by passes the area’s small towns in the name of faster travelling.  So I’m sorry, Crown Hill, Guthrie, Oro, and Forest Home, I haven’t visited and considering that this is the last stretch of real highway on Highway 11, I’m unlikely to stop anytime soon.

Additionally, many of the towns are a bit of a detour off the highway, sometimes all the way to the shores of Lake Simcoe.  If it was in northern Ontario I’d probably take the detour, but up north towns are few and far between.  They’re a luxury.  In southern Ontario and especially in cottage country towns are a dime a dozen.  So I’m sorry Shanty Bay, Oro Station, and Hawkestone, I haven’t visited.Church, north shore lake simcoe near Barrie, Highway 11

I’ve always found this bit of a difficult drive.  You go from the 400 series Highways, averaging 120 kilometres an hour over three lanes to a highway littered with fast food restaurants on the side, cars merging and exiting at speeds way too high for the two-lane divided highway that is this part of Highway 11.

So now that you know there is some space between Barrie and Orillia, you may continue your journey to either of those two cities.

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.

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

Kirkland Lake

I almost moved to Kirkland Lake, and I’ve always kind of regretted that it didn’t work out.  Kirkland Lake is a neat little town that’s been described to me as the ‘wild west’ of northeastern Ontario.

Forty five kilometres east of the Québec border on Highway 66 (not Highway 11, we’re on a detour right now), Kirkland Lake is a largely anglophone town of about 10 000 8000, and is the largest town between North Bay and Thunder Bay on Highway 11.

Mines and Garbage

Kirkland Lake is extremely well known throughout Canada despite its small size and relatively remote location.  Since gold was struck in the early 1900s, KL has been one of Canada’s most famous mining towns, complete with gold mines, drinking hotels, and highgraders.  There’s a miner’s memorial as you come into town, which is actually quite classy and lists all the names of those who have died in mining accidents since the town began.

Kirkland Lake Adams Mine Protest

Adams Mine protests in Kirkland Lake in the 1990s

KL is also famous for Adams Mine – an abandoned open-pit mine that would have been the site for Toronto’s garbage, had the local community, First Nations, farmers and environmentalists not fought it so effectively.  They were in the media, they wrote thousands of letters, they united many groups that had not worked together before.

Kirkland Lake is a story across Canada showing that no matter how small you may be if you do it right and smart – you can win.  Adams Mine was seen as a huge story across Canada – so much so that the effort which started small eventually changed a lot of minds across southern Ontario.  The provincial government put the plan to rest in 2003.  The Grievous Angels, a band based in northern Ontario, wrote a song about it (the lyrics are here.)

Harry and Hockey and … other interesting stuff (that begins with the sound “wh”)

Kirkland Lake was named after Winifred Kirkland, a secretary at the old Ministry of Mines.  (Ah to be an early provincial bureaucrat – you might get a town named after you.) Kirkland Lake, arguably, has it’s own suburb – King Kirkland – which consists of about 20 houses and trailers about ten minutes east of town on the highway.

Sir Harry Oakes is probably Kirkland Lake’s most famous and most wealthy citizen. American-born, he was a prospector who finally struck it big in KL after stints in California, Australia, and the Klondike.  His mine in KL was the second largest gold mine in the Americas.  By the 1920s, Harry Oakes was Canada’s richest individual.  However in 1943, Oakes was allegedly murdered at his home in the Bahamas, and although fingers were pointed towards his son-in-law, no one was ever convicted of the crime.  Today his former house is home to the Northern Ontario Museum in KL.

Kirkland Lake Mansion museum

Harry Oakes’s former mansion – now the Kirkland Lake museum

In terms of other famous KLers, Kirkland Lake was also once home to Growing Pains star Alan Thicke, figure skater Toller Cranston, and former NHL goalie Darren Puppa.

Hockey Heritage North, Kirkland Lake OntarioOn the subject of hockey, Kirkland Lake used to be known as a hockey hotbed.  CBC broadcaster Foster Hewitt used to call KL “the town that made the NHL famous” due to so many Kirkland Lakers filling the roasters of early NHL squads.  Today KL is home to Hockey Heritage North, a museum that celebrates hockey and northern Ontario’s role in the NHL.  Hockey Heritage North has a parkinglot that’s bigger than the museum itself – seemingly twice the size of the facility – and the parkinglot is probably a bigger draw for kids learning to ride bikes or for rollerblading and skateboarding.  In three visits I’ve come to believe that Hockey Heritage North’s parkinglot is the nicest smoothest stretch of pavement in all of northern Ontario.

Downtown Kirkland Lake

The place to see a show in Kirkland Lake. I mean a normal show. Don’t get any ideas. Those days are over.

Way back in the day, Kirkland Lake, however, was arguably almost as famous for its red house.  KL had a reputation for being a party town, thanks in part to the mining boom and the many bachelors who ventured north to prospect and work. I have been told that one of the highlights of Kirkland Lake’s heyday was its internationally-known brothel.  Soldiers from the area went to Europe to fight in World War One and regaled Europeans with tales of “the Red House of Kirkland Lake” or “5 Main Street” which was in fact a popular brothel well-known across the north.  Supposedly the tales were so tall or so enthralling that other soldiers and even Europeans have actually come back to the area to visit Kirkland Lake’s red whorehouse.  The house itself still standing but is no longer red.

Kirkland Lake: The Town

Kirkland Lake, to me at least, is a town of contrasts.  When you enter the downtown along Government Road, it looks a bit like Huntsville in cottage country – a windy street revealing the town turn by turn, forming the backbone of an old but not pretty interesting little downtown.  Actually, I like the downtown – it’s may not be “quaint” by some people’s standards but has character. With a decent downtown and as a town of 10 000, Kirkland Lake is big by Highway 11 standards.  You don’t have to worry about whether there is a gas station or a liquor store.  There are two hotels (HoJo and Comfort Inn), a Canadian Tire, a McDonald’s, a KFC, a Subway, a pizza shop, two Tim Hortonses (heck Timmins only has three!), a northern Ontario Chinese place, the Downtown Family Restaurant, and ‘The Zone’, which is a little club sort of thing in the basement of the local MP’s office.

Yet one could say that there is very little shopping.  Other than Giant Tiger and Hart, that’s about it.  No Zellers, no Walmart, one (and a half) grocery stores, a music shop, a pawn shop, and that’s it.  The Kirkland Lake Mall has maybe about 20 shops and services.  I guess you either go to Timmins, or to Rouyn-Noranda.

Kirkland Lake Ontario's mall

Kirkland Lake has a “mall”!

For a number of years, Kirkland Lake also had a significant Jewish community. As the mining boom spread northwards, Jewish families from Eastern Europe and even the United States moved up into the Englehart and Kirkland Lake area. Some settled as farmers in the area around Krugerdorf, while others formed the backbone of the commerce that fed Northeastern Ontario’s mining towns. A synagogue was built in 1927, with land donated by Sir Harry Oakes on Station Road. The community peaking in the late 1940s at a couple hundred members. Eventually, as the sons and daughters of the community moved southwards, and as fewer immigrants came north, the community shrank, and the synoguge was turned into apartments in 1980. Kirkland Lake’s original ‘Ark’ (I think that’s the wooden structure which holds the Torah) was eventually transported to the Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto. While the community may have migrated, the history and the impact of Jewish immigrants lives long in the north, in places like Kirkland Lake, Iroquois Falls, Krugerdorf, and Timmins. Check out the virtual museum at the Kirkland Lake Jewish History link at the bottom of the page for first hand stories from community members.  (Check out KL’s Jewish history here or here.)

Kirkland Lake today still has a bit of a reputation as a hard-scrabble town. The cyclical ups and downs of the mining and logging industries make Kirkland Lake a boomtown one decade and an economic sponge the next. Just like many towns in both northern and southern Ontario, as life in Northern Ontario requires a little assistance to get by the booms and busts of the economy. Like all mining towns, Kirkland Lake is a little rough around the edges. But that’s what makes places like this interesting, and unique. Like someone posted below, KL is a mining town, past, present, and future.

Downtown Kirkland Lake

Forget the mall.  Kirkland Lake’s downtown is rough and old school and kindofabitof awesome

I have one beef with KL though, and I’ll get it off my chest now.  The signs outside the town blatantly lie.  They tell you it’s 15 kilometres to town and then 15 kilometres later you see a sign that says “Kirkland Lake 6 km” and then five minutes later you see another sign “Kirkland Lake 5 km.”  Now I’m sorry, first off you’re lying the first time, and then the second time I was driving 90 kilometres an hour and I did not manage to go only one kilometre in that span of five minutes.  It’s frustrating. Bad signage is one of my pet peeves in general.

I like Kirkland Lake.  It has a lot of potential if marketed correctly.  I’ll be back.

Gull Lake, near Kirkland Lake Ontario

Gull Lake outside of Kirkland Lake

 

For an archive of the 40 comments that were posted to Highway11.ca’s profile of Kirkland Lake between 2008 and 2012, please click here.

Cochrane

Chimo the Polar Bear in Cochrane, ON

Travel blog lesson #31 – always take a second, empty, non-person photo.  Or else you may end up with a blog full of photos of previous girlfriends.

Most towns would make a big deal of the fact that a former hockey player and doughnut baron hailed from their community.

Instead, Cochrane advertises Nanook, Aurora, and Nakita as its three most famous citizens.

Yep, we’re talking about animals.

If you have a fear of polar bears, steer well clear of Cochrane. I’m just teasing – they’re well contained. Cochrane has adopted the polar bear as their town symbol, even though true polar bear habitat is more than 300 kilometres away.  There are even fake igloos in town.

Chimo, the town mascot, is honoured with a big polar bear statue just as you enter town.  There’s also the Polar Bear Conservatory, where Nanook, Aurora, and Nakita spend their time.  There you can watch feedings, see interpretive displays, and “swim with the polar bears.” Ok, so if you’re more than 4 feet tall it is more of a wade than a swim but don’t let my teasing dissuade you – the Polar Bear Conservatory is interesting. Kids love the wading with the polar bears part. There’s also an adjacent ‘old style’ village with gas pumps, farm implements, and a collection of really awesome vintage skidoos.

Polar bear conservancy in Cochrane, Ontario

This was pretty cool, to be honest

Old Tyme Village ski-doo collection, Cochrane, Ontario

Definitely the most northern Ontario museum in northern Ontario

Cochrane is a very pretty little community of 4500 (slightly more anglophone than francophone) on Highway 11.  No matter what language you’re in, Cochrane is pronounced like cock-ran.  This might seem pretty intuitive but once in a gas station with a bunch of tourists from Belgium who kept asking how to get to a place that sounded like Cosh-rahnne and no-one, not the anglos nor the francos knew what the heck they were talking about.  I only figured it out about a year later.  Hopefully it didn’t take them that long.

Old locomotive on display in Cochrane, Ontario

(Credit: Patrick)

It has a growing tourist industry built on the Polar Bear Express, which runs north to Moosonee twice a day in the summer.  Or at least it did, until the government stopped supporting the railway and now no-one knows what’s happening to the ONR.

Fishing and ATV expeditions often start here.  Greenwater Provincial Park is about an hour west of the town, providing fishing, swimming, and hiking around a series of kettle lakes.  Greenwater is pretty, and quiet. Also notable is the Tim Horton arena, home to the Tim Horton museum, that I didn’t have a chance to visit.

One of the coolest things about Cochrane, in my books at least, is Lake Commando. One -  that’s a sweet name.  Lake Commando. Sure, it’s more like a pond, but the words ‘Lake Commando’ just sounds so cool.  That’s awesome.  That’s even cooler than Geraldton’s Hardrock Drive, or Iroquois Falls’ Oil Tank Road. Two – it’s pretty.  It has parkland around it, a walking trail, and a quaint little bridge.  There’s also a bed and breakfast bordering the lake.

Cochrane, Ontario train station leads to James Bay

Cochrane train station.  (I do not know how to effectively use my camera in any lighting – dark or bright.)

As for amenities, since Cochrane has about 4500 people it’s fairly well served.  If you’re looking to bring out your fancy-pants you may be out of luck, but otherwise there’s everything you need.  Cochrane has a Tim Horton’s (which pays homage to the town’s most famous son with plaques on the walls, memorabilia all around), a KFC, and some other diner-style restaurants.  There’s also a rib/wing place and the Station Inn if you want a real sit-down meal, and, of course, a place serving Authentic Northern Ontario Chinese Food.

Cochrane, Ontario on Highway 11

Can you milk a polar bear? Well, Cochrane sure does. (Photo credit: Patrick)

There’s a small farmer’s market at the north end of town every Saturday, and a country store you’ll see across from the polar bear statue that sells cottagy-type stuff that you see in Muksoka.  Also, Cochrane has the last Giant Tiger on Highway 11 after Kirkland Lake.

Cochrane is also notable for receiving Ontario’s first ever permit to serve liquor on a Sunday, for a winter carnival held in the mid 1960s. Despite the devastating fires of 1910, 1911, 1916, and Cochrane still exists to this day.

Thanks to Paul for some of the Cochrane.

Lake Commando, Cochrane, Ontario

Lake Commando.  Still looking for Rambo River. (Come to think of it, there was a Rambo Creek near to where I grew up…800 km away)

Cochrane, Ontario off highway 11 highway11.ca

(Credit: User P199 at Wiki Commons.)

Cochrane, Ontario street

Streetscape in Cochrane

Cochrane, Ontario municipal building highway 11

A nicer Cochrane streetscape. (Credit: User P199 at Wiki Commons.)

Geraldton

Compared to the many other spots on Highway 11’s mid-west corridor, Geraldton is a relatively bustling town of 2400, apparently with its own suburbs – Jonesville and Geraldton East.

Geraldton has two town mottos – ‘Spirit of the North’ and ‘The Friendly Town with a Heart of Gold’.  It’s obvious that the town has put its golden heart to good use, as it is one of the most actively and professionally marketed towns in northern Ontario.

Geraldton, Ontario Highway 11 tourist centre

Geraldton’s fancy and new tourist center, visible from Highway 11

Thirty-eight kilometres west of Longlac, Geraldton has actively used a restored mine headspace in all its tourism literature.  The mine shaft is quire nicely restored. If you turn down Hardrock Drive (yes, it’s the best-named street in northern Ontario after Iroquois Falls’ Oil Tank Road) you’ll see a rocky landscape which I believe is the headframe’s parking lot and the starting point for the two hiking trails seen below.

The Geraldton Discovery Centre, on Highway 11 across from the mine shaft, is also really nicely done-up.  The Discovery Centre has exhibits on the area’s forestry and mining history, current practices in both industries, and also allows you to dress up in fireman gear and have your photo taken (handy if your wife or girlfriend is into that kind of thing and you’re not a firefighter like the most of us.)Geraldton's restored mine headframe on Highway 11Geraldon is on the shores of Kenogamisis Lake, which, by the way, offers some low-level cliff diving opportunities (I don’t endorse/condone/promote/suggest doing this, I just observed some people doing while I drove past. Do not jump off cliffs into the water, it’s really dangerous.)  Geraldton also has a nice golf course and some hiking trails.

Hiking trails in Geraldton, Ontario, highway 11

I think I’ll take a pass on the first one

I happened to be in town for their annual August long-weekend Jamboree.  I was planning to stop after I saw a Bristol board sign indicating that it was in nearby Macleod Provincial Park.  With my drive time approaching the six hour mark, and the valuable contents of my wallet becoming increasingly sparse with each stop for gas and coffee and doughnuts, and the rain beginning to pour, I declined my chance to jam with the locals.

Geraldton downtown, highway11.ca Ontario

Downtown Geraldton, Ontario north of Highway 11 (Credit: User P199 at Wiki Commons.)

I missed the town itself.  Geraldton is about five kilometres north of Highway 11.  (I was tired. I was trying to make it to Nipigon without getting gas. (Danger Will Robinson.  Red alert.  BAD IDEA!)  Plus. it was raining.  I had just passed a hitchhiker and felt really really guilty but not guilty enough to take my life into my own hands in the middle of nowhere in order to save the guy from the downpour.)  Therefore I continued along Highway 11, and missed out on mainstreet Geraldton.

If you continue up the road past Geraldton, you’ll eventually hit Nakina and Aroland, two of Ontario’s more isolated northern towns.

Greenstone municipal building in Geraldton, Ontario, north of Highway 11

Well this is pretty swish. (Credit: user P199 at Wiki Commons.)

Pearl / Dorion

Welcome to Ontario’s “Canyon Country…”

Dorion gas station mural canyon country pearl highway 11 yonge street thunder bay ontario

The mural at the now-abandoned gas station at Dorion, near Pearl on Highway 11

Situated between the Wolfe River and Coldwater Creek, Dorion is your typical Highway 11 dot-on-the-map.  There are some scattered houses and an abandoned motel, but nowhere really to turn off the highway, at least that I have seen in my drives for work along the road.

Dorion indian head ontario highway 11 thunder bay rock statue canyon country

Dorion’s Indian Head on Highway 11. I’m really not saying the human head or face here…

Dorion is home to Canada’s largest wildlife mural – but not in the local gallery, or the town hall, or the café, but ….drumroll… at the Esso station.  The station is painted on all three sides, with moose, fish, and wolf representing Dorion’s place in “Canyon Country”.

As well, the station features a recreation of an Aboriginal sculpture known as the Indian Head.  (Both are pictured here.)  This sculpture is a recreation of Indian Head, a rock formation found in nearby Ouimet Canyon Provincial Park.  This is pure Highway 11 – random things in a completely random place.

Highway 11 randomness #347b: random fake animals near Pearl, Ontario

Highway 11 randomness #347b: random fake animals near Pearl, Ontario

Dorion is in the middle of what is called “Canyon Country” as Ouimet Canyon Provincial Park is approximately 12 kilometres north of the ‘town’. Nearby Eagle Canyon is a private park that has built Canada’s longest suspension bridge over the Ouimet Canyon – 600 feet across and more than 200 in height.

Dorion is also home to a bottled water works, Ontario’s largest fish culture station, the Trillium Motel, a bait shop, and a bible camp.

Pearl wasn’t on the map.  In Pearl you can find the Rocksville Amethyst Shop, some animal statues (which are small by Highway 11 standards), and a few bush side-streets.

 

Old Fort William

Old Fort William is not a town – it is an historical site in the vein of Ste-Marie-Among-the-Huron, except that it focuses on the fur trade rather than a Jesuit mission.Old Fort William is a recreation of a North-West Company fur trading post that existed at Thunder Bay in the 1800s.  People there are costumed, play specific roles, and make minor attempts to speak in 1815 accents.  The level of commitment to their characters varies, but that’s what makes it most fun – some are really into it, while for others it’s quite simply a summer job.

During my visit, the committed outnumbered the uncommitted.  How did I find this out without talking to each and every staff member? Well, no word of a lie, each and every costumed staff member, save for one, approached me at some time in my two hours there. In full accent and character. And not just to ask me not to walk on the newly-sodded lawn. They were actually into it. From a bunch of 16 and 17 year-old’s, that’s what I call enthusiasm.

And as for the one historical interpreter who failed to approach me on his own, well, apparently he was pretty into it too. As I found out, when I asked him how far Rainy River was from Thunder Bay.

The teenage interpreter responded that “he had never heard of such places.

Having caught on to his character-induced ruse, I smiled and asked how long it would take me to get to Rainy River.

He responded that “he had not heard of such places, but that it took multiple days paddle to get to Rainy Lake, depending on the weather.

This time I flat out asked him how long. It would take. To drive. To Rainy. River.

He responded that “he did not understand drive.  To drive a plow to a Rainy Lake?  That would be impossible! What could I want with a plow at Rainy Lake. Was I going there to trade?

Knowing the only thing I had to trade was a nasty hand gesture, I walked away.

Evidently this was one guy who didn’t see the golf cart shuttle that ferried visitors between the gift shop and the fort. Nor had he questioned why I had a digital camera or just how the grass was kept so golf-course-like short.  Another slightly less dedicated fort guy (if you can call wearing hides and furs and skins in the searing summer heat as “less committed”) eventually helped me.

Entrance to Old Fort William is about 14$, 12$ if you’re a student, and takes about two hours.  There’s fair amount to see, especially in the summer with the canoe rides and the farm.  It’s well worth it.  Every year the fort used to host “Rock the Fort,” a musical festival hosting some of the biggest names on the small-to-medium summer music festival circuit in Canada (believe me, I know, my hometown has one every year as well) such as April Wine, Trooper, Burton Cummings, and others.