Ride the Wild Side in Northwest Ontario
One gorgeous summer night last July, watching the golden sun sink lower into the deep curves ahead of me on highway 17 just shy of the Manitoba border, it really sunk in just how much space there is out on the wild side of Ontario. It’s just really, really BIG. And that bigness translates into the most glorious feeling of freedom when you hit the road, knowing there’s almost no limit to how long you can ride.
Northwest Ontario stretches from the north shore of Lake Superior in the east to the Manitoba border in the west; from the Rainy River in the south to Hudson’s Bay in the North. As you’d imagine, the geography changes drastically from place to place. And so many of these places are just a joy to ride.
From the causeways and swooping shorelines around Lake of the Woods and bustling, vibrant Kenora to the open green wild of Greenstone stretching along Highway 11; from the fascinating and delicious cultural history of Thunder Bay and the spectacular scenery of its environs to the deep and remote wilderness north of the TransCanada, you definitely won’t get bored – but you may get lost.
Lake of the Woods & Kenora
Heading west on Highway 11 from Thunder Bay, I wasn’t sure what to expect – I’d never driven this far in Ontario. The road is one of those easy kind of summer-day cruises that has enough gentle curves and ups and downs to keep a little smile on your face. Atikokan, about halfway to Fort Frances, has gas and a pretty great lunch counter at the White Otter Inn.
Entering Fort Frances, over low causeways stretching out over the bustling lakes, feels like another world for a rider from the south. Pelicans break away from the sandy beaches that line the boardwalk, swooping out over the glistening blue water. These are recent additions thanks to climate change, and add to the mystery of the region.
Just an hour or so west of Fort Frances, hiding away from highway 11 down bucolic back roads through farmland and tall grasses along the banks of the Rainy River, you’ll find the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historic Centre. Only 40 miles from the headwaters of the Mississippi, this ‘place of the long rapids’ was at the center of a continent-wide trading network for close to 8,000 years. Traces of Ojibwe villages are found among the burial mounds and village sites of more ancient aboriginal peoples.
Curious riders should be aware though, the road in isn’t in very good shape. My BMW F650GS handled it flawlessly, and if you’re adventurous, this very special place is worth the extra effort – but it might not be suitable for every type of rider.
The Ojibwe Cultural Centre is home to several fascinating exhibits, and the Hungry Hall restaurant serves up delicious local fare, such as wild rice soup and bannock, as well as burgers, tacos, and coconut cream pie.
But for a rider, the road between Caliper Lake and Sioux Narrows, north on 71, is the reason you’re out here. The road swoops and twists over causeways and around the beautiful glistening blue of Lake of the Woods, where fishing lodges for every possible budget line the deep curves of the rocky bays. From Sioux Narrows to Kenora, the road winds inland through thick forest.
Kenora is a small and vibrant city with a sweet main drag and tons of outdoor outfitters to get you out in the wilds. There’s a lot of history to be proud of here too, from the days of old Rat Portage, and the Kenora Thistles taking home the 1907 Stanley Cup! The unofficial mascot of the town, Huskie the Muskie, holds court in the guise of a huge sculpture on the shores of the lake.
If you’re heading east from Kenora along the TransCanada, don’t miss Busters BBQ in Vermillion Bay for the best ribs north of Kansas City. Their homemade barbecue sauce has taken home top honours in several national and international competitions, and you can take home a bottle or two for those envious friends and relatives back at the ranch.
The Tetris of Greenstone
Northeast of Nipigon, the citizens of Greenstone have some of Northern Ontario’s most epic scenery as their backyard. A recent amalgamation, the Greenstone municipality chops like a Tetris piece for a hundred kilometres or so along highway 11, and consists of the wards of Beardmore, Geraldton, Nakina, and Longlac, as well as the smaller townships and surrounding areas.
The stunning precambrian cliffs of the Pijitawabik Palisades form a deep valley—almost 500 feet high—with highway 11 and various small lakes tucked into the twisty curves in the basin, about 30 km south of Beardmore. It’s home also to the massive Lake Nipigon, known by some as the sixth great lake. Riders looking for the awe-inspiring scenery will get their fill here. There is not a dull corner in the Palisades valley.
Thunder Bay & the North Shore of Lake Superior
The biggest city in Northern Ontario, you should plan on spending a day or two in Thunder Bay – there are some amazing gems here you won’t want to miss. With its unique cultural history of Finnish and Polish settlers, it’s not your typical Northern town.
Just an hour from the bright lights of Thunder Bay is the peaceful peninsula of Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. Fill up in Thunder Bay – there’s no gas on the peninsula. The road to Silver Islet is winding and green, and a day trip destination on its own. Stop for a cinnamon bun at the charming Silver Islet General Store.
As we all know, the north shore of Lake Superior is some of the best riding in Ontario. The road hugs the coastline on the way into the sleepy village of Rossport, nestled between the water and the train tracks, about an hour from Nipigon. Continuing east, Highway 17 veers north around Jackfish Lake and twists through forest and around smaller lakes inland – dropping down to shore sporadically for surprise big water vistas before tucking back inland again – for most of the way to Wawa, about 260 km/160 miles.
The Wildest of the Wild Side
From the little town of Ignace on Highway 17 north to Pickle Lake, Ontario’s longest secondary highway is also the farthest north you can travel on paved roads in Ontario. This is a road built for bragging rights, but there are enough sweeping turns, pleasant unique views and amenities to make it much more than just bragging rights. I personally recommend doing this route, and spending a night on Lake St. Joseph. Most lodges here can outfit you with a rod, reel and boat, and this is easily some of the best fishing I’ve ever experienced.
While the town of Pickle Lake doesn’t hold much for tourists, there are plenty of small resorts and camps along the way. The fishing is incredible, and the stars at this longitude are a whole ‘nother thing.
There are enough turns, twists, rises and descents to keep you entertained and awake for the full 300 km ride to the top – and it’s paved all the way!
There is gas every 150 km on this road, so don’t pass up an opportunity to fill up. Watch yourself on weekends and after hours.
Vast and awe-inspiring, Northwest Ontario is a great place to get lost for days, heading down the highway into another glorious sunset.
For more information on where to go and what to do, check out http://www.sunsetcountry.ca/ and http://www.greenstone.ca/. And as always, if you want more information about riding in Ontario, check out Routes.OntarioRides.ca or visit the home for Ontario Motorsports – http://www.gorideontario.com/ for information on all everything to do with motorized fun in Ontario!
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