Northwestern Ontario: The Motorcycle Valhalla
The Vikings believed Valhalla was a warrior Heaven where only the greatest and noblest of fallen warriors went. It was a place where the most honorable became immortal and sat with the God Odin. Well, if there was a motorcycle Valhalla full of only the greatest and noblest of rides, worthy of Odin himself, who probably rides a chopper with ram horns, then I feel confident in saying several of the roads in Northwestern Ontario reside there.
Riding my 800cc Kawasaki Vulcan through the endless wilderness of those Northwestern Ontario roads definitely left me feeling, at times, immortal. My ride actually started in Cincinnati, Ohio and took me around much of Lakes Huron and Superior. When I reached Thunder Bay, after a long stretch on the epic Ontario-17 Trans-Canada Highway, my route finally diverted me away from the Great Lakes.
Initially, I felt the best parts of my trip were over after putting Lake Superior in my rearview, but I quickly found out Northwestern Ontario has as many or more pleasant surprises in store than the Great Lakes.
The point I feel like the Northwestern Ontario portion of my ride began was at the Terry Fox Monument and scenic overlook. If you are unfamiliar with Terry Fox, as I was, he is a Canadian hero who upon losing his right leg to cancer decided to run on a prosthetic across Canada to raise awareness and money for cancer research. This hero ran over 5,373km in 143 days, (over a marathon a day), until he reached the spot of this monument near Thunder Bay when his cancer returned and ultimately took his life. Due to Terry Fox’s influence and his charity, he has posthumously raised over a half-billion dollars for cancer research. It was Fox’s moving monument for me that became the gatekeeper to the Northwest. With a newfound appreciation and respect for the beautiful roads I was riding, roads Fox never got to cover, I continued my journey in the direction of Dryden.
As I moved away from the choppy Great Lake weather and the skies became crystalline blue, the roads and the wilderness really began to open up. As I crossed into the Arctic Watershed and then across the Central Standard Time Zone marker I began to realize how far north and west I was really going. It’s important to note when riding this section of Ontario-17 that you are pretty far out and it is good to have a jerry can for gas in case of an emergency. I went nearly 100 mile stretches with out seeing gas stations. The plus side to this is I went nearly 100 mile stretches without seeing any traffic. It was as if the roads had been reserved just for me.
The beauty of the ride became surreal when I hit the Lac des Mille Lacs region. The many offshoot streams, rivers, and smaller runoff lakes of Lac des Mille Lacs create a diverse landscape that can take the rider into dream mode. Additionally, after separating from Lake Superior the lakeside roads continued. Northwestern Ontario contains thousands of lakes, many of which ON-17 runs around and over.
Even in the most desolate areas I was never alone as small Inukshuk rock people followed me along the side of the road. Inukshuk are small sculptures of people made from stacking flat stones on top of each other. They were originally made by the Inuit to warn of danger, mark places of respect, or simply show the way. You can’t drive too far without seeing them watching down on you from small cliffs and boulders on the roadside. These happy little omens kept me company on my way.
The stunning vistas around me just kept continuously coming as I neared Dryden. My route carried me through meadows, rivers, lush pine forests, fields of green and gold, by the occasional teepees of Native American trading posts, and of course past my cordial chaperones – the Inukshuk.
Arriving into the bustling little city of Dryden after vast wilderness and a long day of riding was a nice surprise. It was like an outpost with just the things I needed – food options, a warm bed and entertainment. The best part of my brief stay in Dryden was my room at the Best Western Motor Inn Dryden. This was by far the nicest room I stayed in during the duration of my trip. It was as superbly clean and stylish and appeared very recently refurbished. It also had a fantastic bed and a shower with solid pressure to beat on my sore muscles after the day’s 350-mile ride.
Heading out the next day, with Kenora as my next destination, I had to bundle up a bit more as this was the northern most route of my trip. This day’s ride was significantly shorter, but it was no less scenically packed. With a greater abundance of lakes to navigate around than the previous day, the road began to evolve, adding more and more curves. The saturation of wilderness also brought some new sights as well with flocks of vultures sitting carefree on occasional fences and bald eagles soaring overhead. There was even the occasional isolated house with a plane floating in the home-side dock.
With so many meditative views that usher the brain into automatic Zen mode (or motorcycle pure instinct mode), the day’s ride was over in a flash and I found myself in Kenora. Kenora is a cool little lakeside town that has several small and locally owned businesses. You’ll notice you have some good options for food while walking down the colorfully mural-laden streets, but my favorite was the Lake of The Woods Brewing Company. This microbrewery and restaurant had some tasty beer on tap, my favorite being the Firehouse smoked I.P.A. It didn’t hurt that I paired the beer with the decadence of some mouth-watering pork-shoulder poutine.
After lunch I checked into the Best Western Lakeside Inn, which sits directly on the edge of the beautiful Lake of the Woods. The view from the hotel and specifically its restaurant contained on the upper floors were amazing. Below you have views of Kenora’s harbor and you can watch the many boaters and occasional airplane being active on the lake. After dinner I headed down to the hotel dock and watched the sunset sink into the opposite side of the lake. Not too shabby.
The next morning I woke up with the bittersweet feeling of knowing this was my last day of riding in Northwestern Ontario. I looked up at the sky that was so vast and blue it reminded me of Montana. Then I looked down at my map and smiled as I realized what was in store for the day. As I followed Ontario 71 south on my map from to Kenora to Fort Frances on the Minnesota border, I saw two different riding experiences smashed into one perfect day of riding. The first 50% of the route curled like a snake winding with endless turns in and out of lakes. The second 50% saw a transition into long straight lonely roads through the open countryside of Native American territories. Valhalla indeed. The motorcycles gods had put together one last epic ride for me in Canada.
Just as the map had foretold, the first 70 or so miles whipped and snaked me through abundant turns with each corner revealing another wild sun-drenched landscape. In the next 70-mile stretch the lakes suddenly gave way to wide-open empty straightaways that leave you feeling like the last man on Earth. I stopped at points in the dead center of the highway and looked forwards and backwards for miles in either direction down the highway not seeing a soul. It felt like I could have laid out a blanket on that road and safely stretched out under the blue skies and watched the eagles float around.
I pulled into my final Canadian destination in Fort Frances, at another competent lakeside inn – the La Place RendezVous Hotel. After checking in and dumping my gear into my room I headed out to La Place RendezVous’ gorgeous back patio and stared out at the Rainy Lake. Watching the last rays of light glitter on the water I reminisced on my last few days in Northwestern Ontario. Knowing the US border was only a mile or so away I wondered if it was too late to turn around and head back north. Alas, the duties of home were calling. I guess I’ll just have to wait until next year to return to Motorcycle Valhalla.
For more information on planning a ride through Northwestern Ontario and around Lake Superior, check out these immensely helpful websites that I used: GoRideOntario.com, RideAlgoma.ca and RideLakeSuperior.com.