Bradford, Ontario GO train station, highway 11 yonge streetI’m from the burbs, from a family of commuters.  But Bradford to Toronto on the GO Train?  That’s one heck of a commute, without even thinking about the mention inevitable track delays or having to transfer to the TTC.  Needless to say, if it has a GO Train station then it’s a real town.  Bradford is not a village or a hamlet or a siding or a corners.

Another Victim of the Southern Ontario Squeeze

Bradford is one of those southern Ontario towns that is at a cross-roads.  It’s still small, rural, and agricultural enough to be surrounded by farms, have a big feed elevator siding the railway, and host a goofy festival like the Marsh Mash every May.  But it is not so rural that it is immune to the pressures of urbanization that have slowly seeped into its cracks.  Bradford is close enough to the big city to be constantly affronted by its demands, but may be just too far away to reap its full share of the benefits.  These are the sort of towns that are pinched between two realities, and that are too often never given the choice between one or the other.

Bradford, Ontario, Yonge Street, Highway 11

Highway 11 heading south into Bradford

With ten thousand people or so it has the usual amenities, including Tim Hortonses, a McDonalds, etc.  This is not the kind of place where you need to worry about getting gas.  Or getting anything.  It even has a 7-11.  (So if you’re into slushies – my favourite is Schweppes Ginger Ale, hard to find but worth it – Bradford is a good place to stop.)

But Bradford is unique in the sense that it is not so small that it can only support a couple of third-tier fast food joints, but also not so big that the economies of scale are sufficient to support those generic, sit-down dining franchises like Kelsey’s and Boston Pizza that seem to be infecting every southern Ontario community from a secret mist of spores wafting from some suburban power-centre nerve HQ.

It was refreshing to see the number of independent restaurants for a town this small and this rural.  There is old-school greasy roadside fare like BBQ King, two diners, a Portguese bakery, an English chip shop (Cook’s Bay), a Dutch tea room, Bangkok Saigon Noodle, a Mexican restaurant, a souvlaki place, and a couple of independent pizza parlours.  And, of course, there are the standard old-school sports bars you’d expect of a rural Ontario town.

ENV305:  Informal Travel Blog Training at the U of T

I lose most of my inhibitions anytime food is involved.  I’ll eat almost anything, anywhere, with anyone.  I’m not particularly big on small-talk, I generally keep to myself, but I don’t have much of a problem strolling into strange restaurants, whether it’s for coffee at a francophone diner in Kapuskasing, a midweek lunch at Sister’s in Englehart or a bustling Sunday morning post-church congregational brunch at The Roosteraunt in Smith’s Falls.

Downtown Bradford, Ontario, Yonge Street, Highway 11

When you’re alone and life is making you hungry you can always go downtown

I attribute this fact to the specialized training I received at university: ENV305 Ecosystems of Ontario.  The course description was a complete yawn.  The fact that it was only offered in alternating years made it seem unpopular.  But the lucky few who enrolled were all surprised when, during the third week of class, we received a syllabus that seemed nothing like the description.  It became obvious – the course was made to sound so dry as to attract only the die-hard, and offered only every other year in order to derail word-of-mouth.  Because, reading that syllabus, it become clear that the course would have been more appropriately titled:  “Drive around Ontario, go hiking in the bush, wolf down greasy diner food, identify rare flora, end the day at a sadsack sportsbar in some tiny rural Ontario town, and then find a way back to your camp to freeze your ass off in a tent.  Repeat biweekly.

So, when you’ve closed the Halloween night party at the Pacific Hotel in Wiarton, scoured Norfolk County for a place that was open after last-call, traded your pita for entry into The Beer Store five minutes after close in Huntsville, bought every last cinnamon bun in the bakery on the last Saturday morning of the cottage season in Bala, and gotten propositioned by cougars whilst dancing to karaoke in your yellow rain coat and rubber boots in Ridgetown, stepping into a local restaurant for lunch is nothing to speak of.

Usually.  Joe’s Restaurant and Bar was a bit of an exception.

Just a Little bit Chickens**t

I was about to settle for Subway – it was 11.30 am on a Monday, and most of the aforementioned restaurants were closed – when I saw it.  Scribbled hastily in magic marker on a whiteboard in a dark window of a non-descript hole-in-the-wall on the north side of town:  Portuguese  Chicken  Dinner.

Not that there was anything wrong with the restaurant at all.  It was fantastic.  (Actually, if you want to skip the over-written anecdote below, the food was the best meal I’ve ever had on Highway 11 / Yonge Street.  Province-wide.)

Bradford, Ontario Yonge Street Highway 11 court house

Council chambers and courthouse, in Bradford

I waited in the vestibule to be seated.  I could see that there was no-one in the dining room or at the bar, but I could hear noise coming from the back.  It was still technically morning so I knew I’d have to take a little initiative.

I headed to the kitchen, at the far back of the restaurant, where I found an aproned woman ladeling steaming stews into painted terra-cotta dishes.  Seven or eight huge guys huddled around her, all of whom were staring at yours truly.

It’s at times like this that being a guy with a preference in footwear isn’t necessarily a cool or quirky touch.

I have never heard my boots sound louder than they did when I walked across the restaurant.  (Do the Portuguese tile everything?)  I probably sounded like Mr. Ed.  From the sound of my steps maybe those guys expected me to be wearing a sheriff’s costume.  Or chaps.  Or maybe they wondered if the owners were about to get a shakedown.

Whatever they thought, me in my cowboy boots and jeans and sideburns and my foam trucker hat (it’s not a fashion accessory, I swear, they’re the only baseball caps that fit my huge head), well, when compared to the guys with their plaster-stained t-shirts and steel-toed boots and heavy-gauge jeans sagging under the weight of their tool-belts…I felt like a member of the Village People.

Bradford, Highway 11 Yonge Street mural, Ontario

It is Highway 11 here … so there’s gotta be a mural!

I waited my turn and asked the woman what the lunch options were.  She responded to me in Portuguese.  (My best guess was: something fishy, something else fishy, and something beefy and fishy.)  Normally I’d just make a blind choice and chalk it up to ‘an adventure’ if it didn’t turn out.  But today, sticking out like a phoney cowboy in an ethnic restaurant, I was off my game.  Thankfully my local bank has a “We Speak Portuguese” sign in the window.  And I’ve spent years scrolling foreign websites for soccer stats.  So after a quick mental translation, I managed to cough out a weak “Falamo ingles?”

She turned to her side and removed the lid off an aluminum tray that was being warmed beside the main dishes.  She took its contents to the back.  She checked over her shoulder and seemed surprised that I was still waiting.  “You?Chicken.Sit.

I didn’t know whether to be relieved or offended.  I’m not used to being the mangiacake.  But damn, was it ever a good day to be the mangiacake!  That was hands-down the best Portuguese chicken I’ve ever had.  Crispy skin gave way to succulent chicken that was cooked just right so the fat had melted into the meat.  And the potatoes?  Wow, soft, sweet, they yielded to your bite like little pillows of Portuguese potatoey goodness.  The piri piri sauce was tangy and spicy but didn’t blow the tastebuds out of your mouth.  The rice was, well, let’s just say I’ve never understood why Portguese chicken comes with potatoes and rice.  The second is just an unnecessary starch.  Give me a veg or something.  Anyway, it was the best meal I’ve had travelling all of Yonge Street or Highway 11.

Bradford, Ontario's windmill hosts the Classic Car Restorers Guild, on Yonge Street, Highway 11

Not only does this windmill contraption count as Bradford’s “big weird thing”, but it also houses “The Guild”, a killer classic car restoration showroom.



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

And then there are some that are just plain cool.

Enter Cobalt.

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

From “Yikes” to “Cool”

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

Cobalt headframe, hgihway 11 Ontario

Preserved mine headframe in Cobalt – really cool

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

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

Cobalt Train Station, Highway 11

Cobalt ONTC station

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

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

Cobalt, mining equipment, Highway 11

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

Mine headframe now a bar, Cobalt, Ontario

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mining ruins, Cobalt, Highway 11 Ontario

Mining ruins east of town

Cobalt Lake, Ontario

Cobalt Lake, once drained, then filled, now restored

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

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

Cobalt, Ontario, downtown, Ontario Highway 11

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

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

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

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

Old mining carts, Cobalt, Ontario

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

The Cobalt Song Mural, Cobalt, Highway 11 Ontario


Located on the most northern point of Lake Superior, Nipigon is pretty much the only true town between Geraldton and Thunder Bay.

You know what this means.

Out of the way Tim-Br Mart.

Move over Home Hardware.

Nipigon has a Canadian Tire…!

Nipigon, Ontario, marina lake superior

Even Nipigon’s little port is cute!  The lookout is up at the top of that hill in the back of the photo. (Photo: User P199 at Wiki Commons.)

When you drive into many northern towns, there’s usually a sign telling you that they’re the home of a semi-famous Canadian celebrity.

Well, fooling around on the internet one day I found out that a crater on Mars was named after Nipigon.

Why isn’t this on a sign beside the highway?  You could put “Nipigon – we’re so out of this world they named a crater on Mars after us!” or something like that.  Moonbeam would kill for this! I’d pledge 50$ toward that…

Nipigon shrine Ontario Highway 11Instead, you’re greeted by a sign that tells you that churches are open Sundays and are directed to a ‘scenic lookout’ which looks out over a cemetery.  Is this considered a God’s-eye view?  Nipigon does have an abundance of churches, and the town’s Catholic Church even has a little shrine beside its virgin Mary statue.

Hydroelectricity, fishing, forestry, tourism are the mainstays of Nipigon’s 2000 people. (I wonder if they did the census in the summer, and how that would impact the head-count – there seem to be some cottages in the area.) Nipigon is blessed with a scenic little harbour, complete with a waterfront park, a boat launch, and hiking trails.  It even has a nice kid’s bookshop, and a stained glass store to boot.  This is not your average Highway 11 town.

Paintings and Big Things

Nigion is full of murals Highway 11 OntarioWell, I take that last statement back.  Nipigon is your average Highway 11 town because, of course, it has to have its share of weirdness.  Of course, there is the mandatory “big weird thing in town”, but also in this case, it is public art.

Nipigon seems to love murals.  I counted four, plus the town museum which has paintings on it as well.  The one on the Legion celebrates forestry.  Another recognizes the history of the railroad.  A third shows the town’s first general store.  A fourth celebrates ‘northern Ontario time’ – encouraging workers to call in sick in order to go fishing.  It’s a great idea. I’m a sucker for any kind of public art.

Nigion is full of murals Highway 11 OntarioLike most northern Ontario towns, Nipigon has a festival and a some big weird thing displayed in town.  Every August long weekend the town celebrates the Blueberry Blast festival, although I was there on the long weekend and didn’t see any blueberries raining down anywhere in the town.  In the “some big weird thing” category, Nipigon has two entries, 1) a historic turbine taken from the electrical plant up the river, and 2) a big trout on the highway.

Big weird thing #2 - Nipigon's trout, on Highway 11

Nipigon’s big weird thing #1 – Nipigon’s trout, on Highway 11

Nipigon is the best stop to eat or refuel before you hit Thunder Bay or Geraldton.  There is a foodmart, a Robin’s Doughnuts, multiple gas bars, a Beer Store, a Mac’s Milk, a few motels, a bank or two, a Subway where I waited 70 minutes to get a sub (beware of people coming in from camps and ordering 12 subs each), and a Pizza Pizza/KFC outlet.  Out on the highway there’s Gus’ Broasted Chicken, for those wanting a non-fast food meal.

Lots of people end up leaving Highway 11 for Highway 17 after Nipigon.  If you’re interested, check out the towns that run along Lake Superior’s shore by going off-route here.

Other random stuff

Nipigon Ontario - big weird thing #1 - hydro turbine

…and Nipigon’s big weird thing #2, an old hydro turbine

Oddly, east of Nipigon past Highway 11 there is an ad for construction company in based in Hearst.  That’s past Highway 11.  In the opposite direction of Hearst.  Really, it’s nowhere at all near the town.  Do the owners know where they’re being advertised?

Nipigon is also the town that got me in trouble in Grade Four.  Whilst playing Cross-Country Canada in computer class, Mme. Bennedsen caught me and three other kids giggling at the computer screen.

Now, this long before the advent of the internet, so in hindsight there wasn’t much risk we were up to anything particularly nefarious.  But maybe she was having a bad day, or maybe she was practicing her walk-stare-scold combo for use in future computer classes once the internet became a fixture of public education – whatever the reason, she rushed up toward us, eyes glaring, finger pointing, heels clicking ominously.

We looked at each other.  Once of us would have to come clean.  After multiple protestations from us that we were up to nothing, she finally flushed it from us.  And I took the hit for the four of us.  I was forced to stand before the class, head bowed, and admit out loud that there was, in fact, no town in Ontario named Nipplegone.

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.