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…) 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

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

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

Rosslyn Village

We’ll get to Rosslyn Village’s agricultural background, it’s big weird things and its woodpile in a minute.

But what’s truly notable to someone blogging the world’s longest street is that Rosslyn Village is the first place that I almost locked my keys in the car.  (Yet.)

Having driven from Timmins to Thunder Bay and visiting each and every possible thing in between, I thought I had perfected the art of pulling a u-turn, dashing from the car, snapping a photo, and jumping back in.  I guess I was getting cocky.  Rosslyn was the first instance where I contemplated leaving my keys in the ignition.

After having paid homage to the cow-on-a-stick, I heard a creak.  Found at the old Canada feed station site on Highway 11, the white cow peers expressionless across the highway at a height of about 30 feet.

I paid no attention.  So I took some photos of the two big weird wooden moose hunter figures.  The wooden ‘statues’ of brothers Mike and André Allen stand against Highway 11.  Being on someone’s private property I didn’t venture further, so their meaning is thus unknown to me.  (Maybe they are northern Ontario’s version of a nutcracker?)

Rosslyn Village HuntersI had just finished taking a photo of André when I heard it.  A light thud.  A plasticky thud.  It was unmistakeable.  My car was a tiny city car.  It had the heft of a Pringles container.  That sounds couldn’t be anything else.

That was the sound of the wind closing the driver’s side door!

I returned to my car to find my door locked shut thanks to Thunder Bay’s crazy winds.  Relievingly, the keys were in my pocket.

Now, that might not sound like much.  But when you’re 12 hours from where you’ve been staying, and likely 24 hours from home, and your wallet is in the car, and your only other clothes are 65 km back, and off the main road to boot, that’s freakin’ scary.

Rosslyn Village seems to be the concentration of what is a tiny little farm belt just west of Thunder Bay.  With 6000 people (combined with Kakabeka Falls), and corn and hay and dairy operations, the area is reminiscent of the towns of the Temiskaming claybelt (just replace Earlton’s giant buffalo with a miniature cow-on-a stick, of course.)  And of course, Rosslyn Village wouldn’t be northern Ontario without a woodpile, which is visible on the south side of the highway.

The town of Rosslyn Village itself is actually a few kilometres off Highway 11, and considering I had driven more than a 1000 kilometres in the past two days I decided that I’d had enough detours for the time being and continued back to Thunder Bay.

I shoulda made a website on woodpiles of northern Ontario...

Rosslyn Village’s woodpile, west of Thunder Bay.  I shoulda made a website on woodpiles of northern Ontario…


Welcome to Atikokan, Ontario, highway11.caYou might think that any town whose website lists its public library as a tourist attraction would be in need of some excitement. However, Atikokan actually has a fair amount to do.

Atikokan started off as a mining town when ore was discovered nearby in 1938.  After diverting ten kilometres of river, damming the water flow, and draining a lake, workers had shifted twice the amount of earth moved to build the Panama Canal in half the time it took to build the world famous waterway.  For even more history, check out Charles Dobie’s site.

Atikokan subsisted on two mines until 1980 when both closed.  Today, Atikokan is known for forestry, hunting, canoeing, hiking, lodges, and a coal-fired power plant that is constantly giving the area’s local MPP a kink in his party’s anti-coal platform.  The town is now home to 3400 citizens.

(Thirty-four hundred seems a bit high – I’m sure there is some sort of “Ontario small-town population formula” used to make it seem like there are more than 2000 people in any small town in southern or northern Ontario. Maybe they count population during the annual fair or something.)

I can barely portage let alone do it whilst smoking a pipe, Atikokan

I can barely lift a canoe let alone do it whilst smoking a pipe

Atikokan is a good spot for fishing, camping, or starting a wilderness journey – it’s not called the “Canoe Capital of Canada” for nothing.  Atikokan has great access to Quetico Provincial Park, a wilderness park often recognized as one of the most beautiful places in Ontario, if not in Canada.  As well, there is the White Otter / Turtle River Wilderness Area just north of town and public swimming at the beach on Crystal Lake.

Other tourist attractions include tours of the local walleye hatchery, Scenic Little Falls, the Atikokan Centennial Museum, the Mining Attraction, and the Scenic Little Falls Golf Club. And, according to Wikipedia, Atikokan is Ojibway for “caribou bones”. Atikokan - water falls

However, the neatest thing in Atikokan (remember, in northern Ontario something can be “in” a town and still be 40 minutes away – or in this case, 64 kilometres away by boat or snowmobile) is White Otter Castle.  Started in 1905 by a strange local bachelor named Jimmy McQuat, the three story log cabin was built over ten years on the shores of White Otter Lake.  Jimmy single-handedly built his home out of red pine logs.  The castle has been restored by the local community and prints by a local artist are on sale for 100$.

As for services in town, I don’t have much info.  There are some lodges, a motel, a Foodland, and I’m sure a few diners in town.  Patrick reports that there is a great little campsite just outside of town.

Atikokan - White Otter Castle,

Okay, Jimmy McQuat’s White Otter Castle is a ‘castle’ in the sense that Hamilton, Ontario’s escarpment is a ‘mountain’, but it’s still really freakin’ neat.

Atikokan camp site, highway 11

Camp site in Atikokan

Atikokan camp site

The camp site runs on the honour system for travellers heading in at any time of day or night.  (Camp photos: Patrick.)

If you have, please email me to add to this page. My address is info (at) highway11 (dot) ca

Fort Frances

With a population of around 8000, Fort Frances is the largest town on Highway 11 west of Thunder Bay. Fort Frances is on the border with Minnesota, which you can cross to via the International Bridge.

Fort Frances got its start as a fur trading crossroads.  No less than four independent fur trading companies set up shop where Rainy River meets the lake of the same name.  The Northwest Company, Fort St-Pierre (a French fur trading station,) the American Fur Company, and later an HBC outpost named after the wife of its governor were all present in the area.

The modern town was founded in 1903 around the local paper mill and its power generating station. The last I heard, the mill was facing a crisis with a shut-down potentially on the horizon for its 700 employees.  I don’t know what they’ll do with the hydro station if the mill shuts down – it’ll probably be kept online to generate power regardless.  You can take a tour of the mill if you call ahead.Like every good town on Ontario’s Highway 11, Fort Frances has a few big, weird, random things in town.  One is the Mermaid Statue on Copenhagen Island just off in Rainy Lake, apparently made by some Hans Christian Andersen fan.  And there’s also a really big chair in one of their parks.  I’m not sure if they have a competition with fellow big chair enthusiast Highway 11 towns Gravenhurst and Callander.

Fort Frances Chair and Mermaid

Fort Frances’ mermaid is more Hans Christian Andersen than Walt Disney. And if probably a lot more comfortable on that rock than she be in Fort Frances’ big chair.

In terms of tourist stuff, For Frances has a museum which recently celebrated the town’s centennial.  There are the requisite lodges and wilderness outfitters found in northwest Ontario.  Fort Frances has a nice waterfront and hosts the annual Fun in the Sun festival on Canada Day, with children’s activities, food, fish and chips, bathtub races, and more (according to the municipal website.)  There is also a two week long festival of the arts hosted by the town in April.

Just seven kilometres east of Fort Frances you can travel the Noden Causeway, which goes from island to island with nice views.  There is also the Kitchen Creek Golf Club just outside of town.

Other interesting things about Fort Frances include that more than one quarter of the population is Ukrainian, that it was hit by a Tornado in 1945, and that it hosts the annual Canadian Bass Fishing Championship.

Sunset on the River near Fort Frances, with the bridge crossing to Minnesota in the photo above this one.


Emo. So many possibilities.

The home of the 16th century Villa Emo?

The inspiration behind whiny, over-emotional, largely pre-teen rock?

The humble beginnings of an Irish oil company?

The birthplace of comedian Emo Philips?

Alas, Emo, Ontario is none of the above.  However, Emo is a town of about 1000 on Highway 11 midway between Fort Frances and Rainy River. A small agricultural town, Emo may be reminiscent of many of the small farming communities that dot southern and eastern Ontario, making it unique for something this far north.

Emo, Ontario, Highway 11,

What is this, Temiskaming? Emo’s main drag is cute cute cute. (Photo: User P199 at Wiki Commons.)

Like most of Canada, Emo was settled by people looking for free land and eventually became a little outpost on the Rainy River in 1889.

It soon became the centre of the agricultural industry in northwestern Ontario, and today is home to the Emo Agricultural Research Station.  The research farm began as a crop check in Pinewood in 1985, but moved to Emo in 1990 as they outgrew their surroundings.  Today the farm does research on oilseeds, forages, and cereals.  You can visit on pasture nights held in early June and late September, as well as during their annual open house in late July.  There is also a farm settlers’ museum run by the local Women’s Institute. The fact that Emo has a local Women’s Institute just screams “rural farming community” – I love it.

Emo provides good fishing opportunities due to the Clearwater/Pipestone Lakes found just north of the town.  There is stock car racing at the Emo Speedway.  Emo is also home to the Norlund Chapel (pictured), which ranks as one of the smallest usable churches in North America – it can only hold 8 people at a time.

Emo one-upped Barwick's tiny lighthouse with their own tiny chapel.

Emo one-upped Barwick‘s tiny lighthouse with their own tiny Norlund Chapel.

There are some places to stay in Emo, but since I’ve never been there, I can’t give any informed opinions.  I found listings on the internet for True North Outposts and Cabins, Little Moose Lodge, and Pipestone Lodge.  There is also a hardware store, variety stores, a food and jam shop, and a little grocer in town.

Other Emo events include spring fever days in April, the annual Emo Walleye Classic in May, and a fall fair the third week in August.  There are events held by the snowmobile club in the winter as well.

Emo municipal office, Ontario Highway 11

We’ll end this profile of Emo with the obligatory shot of the municipal office. (Photo: User P199 at Wiki Commons.)



Barwick, Ontario, on Highway 11 highway11.caBarwick is a village of around 900 people just west of Emo.

Barwick has Riverfront Park which provides nice views of the Rainy River.  There is a boat launch and some picnic pavilions. Apparently, the area provides some nice birdwatching.  There is also St. Paul’s Heritage Church in town.  I assume it’s old.

Barwick is also home to a lighthouse, not an old one but one built in 2003.  There is some talk that there were lighthouses on Lake of the Woods in the past, but no confirmation of one being in Barwick.

Barwick, Ontario's lighthouse,

AHOY MATEY…I see a miniature lighthouse. (Photo: User P199 at Wiki Commons.)

That’s what’s cool about so many towns on Highway 11 – when someone gets inspired, the community tends to get something done.The Chapple Museum is home to Barwick’s history.  It is located at a former trading post, and now displays material from local farms, the old Hudson’s Bay Company post, local artists, and is home to a war memorial.

There is a gas station, a RV/campground, a garage, a Christian school, four churches and an oriented-strandboard plant.  You can take tours of the Voyageur Panel OSB plant by calling 807-274-2000 in the summer.

And like all the surrounding villages, Barwick tries to lay claim to the Native historical centre as a local attraction, but it is in Stratton, one town west.