Situated eight hours east through the thick woods of Northwestern Ontario from Winnipeg, and a mind warping fifteen hour drive from the bright lights of Toronto, Thunder Bay is a city in the wilderness, perched on the pristine shores of Lake Superior. It sits in the shadow of a massive mesa that takes on the likeness of a sleeping giant, and lies an hour away from some of the best paddling in the entire region.
Outdoor lovers, welcome to paradise.
While some urban souls might feel like reaching for a brown paper bag to breathe in and out of to prevent a panicked state of hyperventilation, never fear, freaked out culture vulture. This island of urbanity in a virtually never-ending sea of granite, spruce trees and locals clad in plaid has enough charms to keep you interested (maybe even mildly intrigued) while your nature loving better half/buddy goes crazy with all the hiking, canoeing, and wildlife watching that they’ll be doing over the next couple of days.
After all, it is usually the locations we have the lowest/no expectations of that end up holding the best memories of all on any trip.
While Thunder Bay does have several attractions worth mentioning that involve history or art that happened there, Thunder Bay has also marked the tragic end of a journey made by one of Canada‘s most memorable figures. In 1980, Terry Fox, a cancer survivor and amputee due to his battle with the disease, had to halt his Marathon of Hope that he was doing across the country to raise money for cancer research. He had committed to running the distance of a marathon each day, every day until he had spanned the distance from sea to shining sea, on one good leg, and on his prosthetic one.
The news was very bad: he had suffered a relapse, as the cancer had come back and spread through his entire body. He died shortly after, but his cause lived on, going on raise over $600 million dollars to date. The Terry Fox Monument, situated just outside Thunder Bay off the Trans Canada Highway, is a fittingly beautiful park that remembers the greatest human being Canada has ever brought into the world.
The largest attraction in the Thunder Bay area relates to the trade that led to its establishment, as Fort William Historical Park recounts in living colour the fur trading post that thrived here back in the 19th century. Live interpreters breath life into a meticulously reconstructed complex, which includes an Ojibwa village. Camping is available on site, allowing you to absorb the culture of Thunder Bay’s past, and save money … win-win!
With many of them skilled miners and tradesmen required to work newly opened industries in Thunder Bay in the early 20th century, workers from Finland immigrated to this region en masse and largely remained, as the region reminded them of home. These new Scandinavians were more socialistic in their outlook than other Canadians elsewhere, and formed string unions that forwarded their interests.
Their meeting place in Thunder Bay was the Finnish Labour Temple, which not only hosted labour meetings, but hosted Finnish cultural events and dances. While you’ll be drawn in by its distinctive architecture, you’ll stay for breakfast, as today it is home to the much hallowed Hoito Restaurant, which cooks up some of the tastiest pancakes in town.
Formed by a solid mass of rock that held fast against millions of years of erosion, the Sleeping Giant stands as a prominent feature on Thunder Bay’s horizon. Being the area’s de facto mountain, this highland feature is popular with trekkers, mountain bikers, and in the winter time, scores of cross country skiers.
While Niagara Falls may hog all the attention of travel professionals, it is over-touristed as a result, jading many who visit. Kakabeka Falls, which is a mere 30 kilometres west of Thunder Bay, offers redemption in the form of a cascade of white water that falls 40 metres into a spectacular gorge. Indeed, Ontario Parks closed down a hotel on the site when this place was made a park in 1955, making it a place for those that loathe the fanny-packed hordes that plague many major tourist sites in this day and age.
Those seeking the best canoeing in the region should make the trip to Pukaskwa National Park, located a bit over an hour, or 100 kilometres east of Thunder Bay. Many sheltered coves and bays offer gorgeous vistas that will deliver one of the most rewarding days of paddling you’ve had in your life to date!
Additionally, a 60 kilometre coastal trail allows for backcountry camping opportunities that will allow you to experience one of those seminal Canadian moments: camping by a lake with a roaring camp fire, all while watching the dying sun sink into the western horizon.