Travelling to the True North

Last summer we drove the Alaska Highway as far north as Liard Hot Springs (just south of the Yukon border) and vowed to return; we were the only people who were not heading further north. We listened to several stories from excited campers who raved about the beauty of the landscape and wonderful people.

However, after spending last winter travelling through the U.S. during such uneasy political times and dropping an extra thirty-seven cents on every dollar, we decided Alaska could wait for a bit.  We’re spending the next several weeks travelling through northern British Columbia and the Yukon instead.

We began to feel we were “north” when we stopped for gas in Pink Mountain. I chatted with the woman behind the counter about bear safety (I am petrified of close encounters), and asked her if she had ever come across a grizzly. She laughed and said, “There was one on my back deck a few weeks ago.”   Well, that got my attention – “What did you do?“, I asked.  With the inimitable common sense of a northerner, she replied, “I stayed inside.

Next northern stop: Tetsa River Lodge. The signs for Cinnamon Buns began appearing a few miles in advance, and since we needed gas anyway and could use a break from the road, naturally we pulled in.

The price of gas up north had been a pleasant surprise until now, but there is a stretch of northern British Columbia where gas prices hover around $1.80 – $1.90. Interestingly, prices drop again in the Yukon to about $1.34, but we couldn’t wait that long.

Obviously we weren’t the first to gasp when we saw the price – $1.79.

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This lodge (motel, campground, gas and fresh baking) is a well-known way station.  We stopped here last year for the cinnamon buns and they were every bit as fabulous this time. A sign on the wall proclaims the Tetsa River Cinnamon Bun as one of the Top 50 Iconic Desserts in North America. When I asked owner Gail Andrews for a photo, she sighed. “I wonder how many ugly photos of me are out there? My daughter keeps bugging me to put on makeup.” Gail’s husband bakes the cinnamon rolls and fresh bread and also makes artisan meat products. Don’t even think about driving past this spot – it’s a culinary highlight.

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We reached Liard Hot Springs Campground by mid-afternoon – time to set up and head to the hot springs for a soak. The campground is just beautiful – well-treed and private, and it’s very popular. Be sure to make reservations or arrive early in the day to nab a first-come, first-served site.

I loved the whimsy of the potted palm and flamingo set out in this northern boreal forest. We chatted with these campers later in the day; they are on the road for an extended period and she needed to bring “a little piece of home with me wherever we go“.

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As we walked along the boardwalk to the hot springs, there was a small crowd and three park rangers watching a cow moose and her calf. The cow had a significant scar on her back rump and she was favouring one leg – possibly she had been hit by a vehicle.  The rangers told us she was staying in the marsh for the safety of herself and her calf, and they were monitoring her behaviour. Since she continued to graze, the rangers assured us we were safe on the boardwalk to quietly watch her.

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The Hot Springs. This end of the hot springs is extremely hot; close to the source and neither Stephen nor I could stand the temperature.
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The water temperature cools off gradually as it makes its way down to this end and around the corner. The water is clear and clean and moving and soaking in these springs is nothing short of heaven.

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The first day we arrived this place was packed.  As we cruised down to the lower level, we encountered a German couple in their fifties who were passionately entwined. It seems the warm water had sprung some blood vessels. They began making growling guttural animal sounds to one another; oblivious to the bathers all around them and the Girl Guides just around the corner.

Or perhaps it is simply the matter-of-fact approach to sex in the north. The birds do it, the bees do it, and for us humans, there are free condoms in the washroom at the laundromat.

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The area between Fort Nelson B.C.  and Watson Lake, Yukon is called “The Serengeti of the North.” Big animal sightings along the highway are almost guaranteed.  We didn’t see any big-horn sheep this year, but we did see nine black bears, including two yearlings. Just when we had given up hope of seeing bison, we turned the corner to this:

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The calves were well protected. We watched them kicking up their heels and being corralled back into position away from the road.

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This big old fellow strolled right by our truck, confident of his place in the world. I could almost have reached out to touch him, except that would have been an entirely bad idea.

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Watson Lake was our first Yukon destination. It is not a picturesque place, but has some very interesting historical landmarks and serves as a hub for fuel, groceries, laundry and showers. We stayed here for three nights, at the Watson Lake Territorial Campground, just outside of town. You cannot reserve campsites at Yukon campgrounds; they are first-come, first-served, charge just $12 a night and provide free firewood.

Here is our huge site, preparing for the last campfire we will be allowed for the duration of our trip, due to wildfires further north.

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The beauty of  a northern lake.

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Although the park operator told me there had been no sightings of bears in our campground so far this year, we had the lucky fleeting sighting of a mama bear and her cubs on the road out.
As we drove slowly by, she watched us carefully.

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Watson Lake was developed during WWII, with the first settlements by the U.S. and Canadian militaries. The airport was built to ferry US airplanes to Alaska. Today, the airport terminal is still in use; as a log-sided building, it is unique in Canada.

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The pictorial display inside is a fascinating glimpse into that era.

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Watson Lake has a number of original buildings, including this old garage. Still in business, it was once the largest garage in the territory.

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We know our chances of seeing aurora borealis during the summer are slim, so the show about the northern lights being held daily at Northern Lights Space and Science Centre was appealing. We settled back into our reclining seats and watched flashing green lights being beamed across the ceiling. A complex explanation about the science and folklore of the aurora borealis ensued, set to Anya-type music. We have never done acid, but this experience had to have come close. Mesmerized by the lights, the music and the narration, we promptly fell asleep.  All the more reason to return to the Yukon in the winter and see the real thing.

The biggest tourist attraction in Watson Lake is the Signpost Forest. It began as a homesick effort by G.I. Carl Lindley during WWII. While working on damaged signposts, he created one for his hometown in Illinois, and it has since grown  into a forest, with the last estimate at over 80,000 signs, contributed by travellers from all over the world.

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Naturally, among the simple place names are personal stories.

The poignant:

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The ambitious:

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The romantic:

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Such a unique collection of travellers and their stories; the Signpost Forest was designated a Yukon Historic Site in 2013.

Retired among the signposts is Gertude, a 1938 International TD 35 tractor that worked for 40 years in the Yukon, including the Alaska Highway. Today she sits quietly, but for the attention from the odd tourist.

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Our next stop is Teslin Lake, and from there we will literally go where the wind blows. As you may have heard, some significant wildfires have broken out in Alaska and northern Yukon. The smoke has created air advisories in Whitehorse and north.

We’ll travel with the most current information we have, so at this point, our trip has become a bit loose-goosey.  See you again in a few days.

North of Superior: heroes, home cooking and flying geese

If you are driving east from Manitoba, you’ll know immediately when you have entered Ontario. The ground rules for travel in this province are laid down tout de suite ( in both official languages).  Signs for every misdemeanour from drinking and driving, distracted driving, speeding in construction zones, speeding (and the fines and demerit points assigned) are posted within 10 minutes of crossing the border. These are followed by entreaties to “take a break – fatigue kills”, which makes sense since the stretch of highway from Thunder Bay east across Lake Superior while stunningly scenic,  is notoriously long. One’s boredom is mitigated by magnificent scenery and hopeful glimpses of animals, prompted by frequent postings of “night danger”. We did see two moose and one bear, but all three times were unable to pull over safely as we had cars right behind us.

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We spent one night in Thunder Bay, with plans to hike in Sleeping Giant Park the next day, but the weather gods were still uncooperative, so we switched to Plan B and headed to Wawa. We stopped just east of town to see the Terry Fox Memorial that is situated high on a hill overlooking Lake Superior.  Thunder Bay and Terry Fox will forever be connected, as it is very close to this location that Terry was forced to stop his cross-Canada run for cancer.  It is impossible to imagine the character and strength of this young man, who ran a marathon a day for 143 days under the conditions he did. Not for one moment to compare myself to Terry Fox, but it doesn’t take much to realize I have a long way to go when a 10-km. hike can bring on the whining.

A beautiful setting and appropriate memorial for a true hero.

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About an hour east,  we pulled off the highway to check out the Ouimet Canyon.  It is a massive gorge, 150 metres across and 100 metres deep – with a unique ecosystem at the bottom that supports arctic plants normally found just 1000 km. north. We had to take their word for it, because looking over the side bought on intense vertigo and besides – 100 m. is too far down to see much of anything. A 2-km. boardwalk led to the lookouts, which are well buttressed.

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The view looking back into the canyon.

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On the way back to the car, we passed by a massive deposit of moose poop (I Google’d later), which was a thrilling reminder of how close we might have been to an up-close sighting.

You’ve all either seen or heard about the famous goose at Wawa. It commemorates the final link of the Trans-Canada Highway to Sault Ste. Marie and Western Canada. Since the new highway bypassed and ultimately threatened the livelihood of downtown businesses, the giant goose was erected to attract drivers and direct traffic into town.

In recent years, the poor goose has deteriorated – as you can see from the photo, the body is pretty rusty. A brand-new goose has been built and will be unveiled on Canada Day, but we bring you a final glimpse of one of the most photographed monuments in Canada.

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The miles rolled by and so did the vistas – forests, water and Canadian Shield.

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And construction. Always construction – but we never waited for very long.

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We stopped at Timmy’s for a quick break and met two enterprising German girls who had bought this car in Vancouver (already outfitted with platform), and were spending a couple of months travelling across the country. They were cooking up a lunch of pasta and sauce right in the parking lot. And yes, it was as cold as it looks.

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Finally, we reached Manitoulin Island – the largest freshwater island in the world and a place with a very special place in our hearts. We went there for two or three summers when our boys were young.  It was perfect for little kids – rustic and easy and they were still at an age when going for ice cream was a big treat. We rented a cabin and we ate hot dogs, built campfires, swam in the lake and picked leeches off our legs. We were keen to see how the island survived our rosy memories.

Almost symbolically, we left our stormy weather behind as we drove onto the island.

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Still quite chilly for camping, so we rented a trailer at South Bay Resort – an intro to trailer living for us… and we are sold. Cozy, comfy with a bathroom, tiny kitchen and protection from the elements, but the outdoors is right there – fire pit, picnic table and view of the lake.

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The resort is set on a large lake, with swimming, boating, fishing, all available, and a good mix of tents, cabins and trailers. Many people (the seasonal) leave their trailers here year-round for the very reasonable fee of $1400 a year. This becomes their summer home, and many of the guests here are French from Sudbury (including the young owners) – we are surrounded by great humour and joie de vivre.

The path to the main lodge
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We wanted to check out Bass Creek Resort ( the place we visited with the kids) and had a bit of difficulty finding it at first, as there are no signs on the road. Finally, we turned into the familiar old driveway, only to find it all locked up. The owners we knew had sold it after 60 years (it is over 100 years old), and the new owners had a sign up saying they would not be open until July. So, we decided to trespass (with good intentions), and see how it measured up to our memories. It looked pretty rough, but it hasn’t had a winter cleanup and spruce up for the season yet. Still…what was rustic 25 years ago appears not to have changed a bit. The dock looked rotten, and the cabins looked saggy, but I saw little ghosts…
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Manitoulin is filled with small resorts like this – tired old cabins with mismatched tables and chairs and perhaps the odd mouse or two. I’m sure there are luxurious resorts on the island, but the island is a no-frills place and that is exactly why we love it.  Our host at South Bay confessed it was hard going to keep their resort in the black, but after seven years, they’ve turned a corner.

Not the same can be said for every business. We drove by many buildings that looked just like this one. A lady walking by told us this business has been closed for years – the sign still remains to re-direct potential business.

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Manitoulin is filled with prosperous, thriving farms and enough herds of beef cattle to merit having their own abattoir.

But there are plenty of old farmhouses just like this one – left to the elements after years of sitting empty – no-one willing to take on such a risky venture.

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Manitoulin Island has so much to offer,  including incredibly, a lack of bugs – almost no mosquitoes, no black flies. This may be due in part to being surrounded by water and a steady light breeze, but that would be enough to lure me here for an Ontario summer.
There are fantastic hiking trails, including the famous Cup and Saucer trail (closed while improvements to the trails are being made), but we did check out Bridal Veil Falls.

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Apparently that pool is a popular swimming spot in the summer, but we just followed the 2-km.trail along by the creek.

IMG_0064And then we came upon a sign that took me back to my Girl Guide days – “leaves of three, let it be”. I know poison ivy exists out west, but for some reason it reminds me of Ontario.
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Our trail ended here – where the creek spills out to the North Channel.

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Much of Manitoulin is First Nations land, including parts like Wikwemikong that are unceded, as their chiefs refused to accept the treaties being offered at the time. The island is policed by both O.P.P. (Ontario Provincial Police) and a native police force. Without any insider knowledge, the two cultures appear to co-exist without too much trouble.  Summertime is non-stop with crossover events such as festivals, fairs, marathons, pow wows, fishing derbies, etc.

Manitoulin specializes in “summer food” – barbecued meats, ice cream, shortcake, and fried foods. While there are any number of spots to indulge, locals and tourists come from all over the island to Mum’s in Mindemoya. They serve killer breakfasts and dinner-plate sandwiches, but they bring in the crowds for their baking, in particular for their cinnamon rolls – about 5″ x 5″ of sticky deliciousness. They are on the counter at 11:00 am, and in the summer, they are gone by 11:30.  We decided to split one. “Do you want butter with that?” (which apparently is considered a legitimate question).

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“Home cooking” is the way of the road here and sugar, fat and salt are restaurant mainstays – a cardiologist’s nightmare.  We popped down the road to Carol and Earl’s for a perch dinner, which began with a generous salad (or soup), followed by: a dinner plate piled with hand-cut fries, and topped with five pieces of battered perch and a cup of creamy coleslaw. Earl looked a bit crestfallen that we weren’t having pie.

Stephen couldn’t leave without at least diving in the water. It was 15 degrees out and I was wearing a hoodie, watching from the sidelines. Clark Bay swimmers – we’re throwing down the gauntlet!

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