In our technologically-driven society, we’re always on or at least we pretend to be, so when you need a ‘break from life’, I can’t think of a better place to reconnect with yourself and nature than Sault Ste Marie. Nestled along the banks of the St. Mary River, this friendly and diverse community of 73.000 people is the perfect gateway to Lake Superior, in area, the world’s largest fresh water lake and the pristine, rugged wilderness that surrounds it.
After dropping our bags at our hotel, an easy stroll along the boardwalk found us crossing the narrow bridge atop the locks to Whitefish Island also known as Bawaating. Legend has it that when the Chiefs of all the First Nations needed to find a meeting place to gather without boundaries, a place to exchange information, ideologies, trade goods, and socialize, they sent out a crane to find the perfect gathering space. He led them to Bawaating, the place where the fast water flows and he chose well. Hundreds of years later, it remains a place with no borders except those created by Mother Earth, a place to align mind, body and spirit and heal.
Whitefish Island might be small in size, but it’s a naturalist’s paradise set within an urban landscape, a tranquil place where we found ourselves slowing down to the speed of life. For the next couple of hours, we wandered the trails bird watching, observing industrious beavers tending to one of the three dams that are essential to maintaining the island’s delicate ecosystem, ducks settling their broods and a fox on the prowl for his dinner.
As the sun began to descend, we realized we were famished and quickly made our way to the downtown core where a group of passionate and innovative young entrepreneurs, chefs and restauranteurs are celebrating their Northern roots and serving up local fare with local flair.
At J. Caroline’s we indulged ourselves with an Anvil Red Ale from craft brewer Outspoken and nibbled on tasty tempura fish tacos that left us wanting more, but we were destined for the Whisky Barrel Pub. On Thursday evenings local musicians congregate here for a JAM session that packs the house, but I have to admit that the Whisky Barrel’s other appeal was the opportunity to quench our thirst with a flight of five premium Scotch from their extensive collection accompanied by the best lamb Sheppard’s Pie I’ve ever tasted!
Despite having had way too much fun the previous evening, we awoke to a cloudless sky and promptly headed for the road to get our first glimpse of Lake Superior along Highway 17. Around every bend we caught spectacular glimpses of the crystalline waters of Lake Superior that appeared to be more like an ocean than a lake.
Our first stop was Chippewa Falls which marks the midway point on the Trans Canada Highway, a sacred place for the Ojibway people and anyone seeking the spiritual solitude of its flowing waters. After meandering along a few trails where we spotted evidence that a moose had been there earlier that morning but was now proving to be elusive.
We knew that more sustenance was required and we stopped at the Voyageur’s General Store for one of their world-renowned apple fritters. Honestly one fritter would have fed a family of four but somehow, I managed to devour all of mine before resuming our exploration of the coastal road!
For next several hours, we hiked along the edge of granite cliffs, searched out the easels that marked the vistas that had inspired the Group of Seven, waded into caves and simply let our minds wander and our bodies enjoy the warmth of the summer sun. With cameras in hand, we climbed the lookout at Alona Bay, and then took the almost hidden path to the right about 100 meters down to the shore to dip our toes in the cold water.
It was a calm day but as we gazed across the massive expanse of blue we were reminded of how unpredictable the weather can be. Someone in the group mentioned the number of shipwrecks in these parts and we took time to honour the twenty-nine souls that were lost one fateful night when the Edmund Fitzgerald floundered and sunk to the bottom of Whitefish Bay. It was a tragedy that inspired Gordon Lightfoot to pen the lyrics to a song that honour the bravery of ship’s sailors and remind us of the power of nature.
On the advice of a fellow traveler, we then found our way to Katherine Cove, an idyllic spot where the locals go to picnic and relax. Truly a carefree way to while away a few hours in harmony with the environment, but the highlight of the day was still to come.
Our last stop was Lake Superior Provincial Park where we scrambled around massive boulders and traversed a series of narrow chasms to make our way to a rocky ledge that jutted out over the lake that would lead us to Agawa Rock and Ontario’s largest collection of pictographs. This sacred site may date back more than 400 years and while the depictions of a canoe, a bear and a horse are interesting; it’s the magical, mythical Misshepezhiew that will capture your imagination.
It is said that this Great Lynx has the power to calm the lake or bring on the wind and storms by simply slashing his tail which is why we waited until late in the day to pay homage to the Spirit of the Waters.
The following morning with a storm looming on the horizon, common sense told us that this was a good day to do some indoor exploring so we made our way to Algoma University to experience the past and discover what lies ahead on Canada’s road to Truth and Reconciliation. As we pulled into circular driveway at Shingwauk, the building was certainly impressive but when I walked through the doors and began the tour it was only then that I understood how intimidating it must have been for a five or six-year old arriving alone to a place they would call ‘home’ for a decade or more.
Until 1970 Shingwauk Hall was a residential school where Indigenous children were sent for acculturalization. Once inside they were expected to disavow their language, their culture, their traditions and culture, a wrong that Canadians are trying to right. Today, Shingwauk Hall is the main building on campus dedicated to furthering Anishinaabe education and preserving knowledge. Exploring Indigenous culture is a unique way of seeing the world through a different lens. Aboriginal stories have a quality that inspires the soul and connecting to history, ancestry and tradition helps us all truly appreciate the beauty and the diversity of the communities we visit, wherever we travel.
Shingwauk has been transformed into a place for gathering, learning, sharing, reconnecting and healing and with opening of the new National Chief’s Library later this year, Chief Shingwauk’s vision of a ‘teaching wigwam’ will finally be realized.
The next day, we were off to ‘ride the rails’ for a 114-mile journey that would take us deep into the boreal forest to the Agawa Canyon. We boarded the tour train just before 8 am, and those in the know quickly fanned out to claim the window seats on the right, knowing this is where they would get the best views. In a matter of minutes, we were headed out of the city and rolling past a replica of the red box rail car that had served as the living quarters for the Group of Seven who spent several months from 1917 to 1918 in the canyon capturing the images in their sketchbooks that would bring Canadian art to the world stage. Shortly after that we lost cell service which was fine by me because it allowed me to kick back and be fully present in the moment.
Upon disembarking, I headed straight for the ‘Lookout’ an observation platform situated 76 metres (250 feet) above the canyon floor. Three hundred and twenty-one stairs later, and more than a little out of breath, I felt like I had climbed a mountain but peace and serenity I found at the top was worth the effort. The view was spectacular and I have to admit that I tarried longer than I intended so I had to do a bit of power walking to make it to the Black Beaver, Otter Creek and Bridal Veil Falls before the train whistle sounded reminding me that it was time to leave.
On the return trip under the tutelage of Eileen Halfpenny, a resident watercolour artist, I feverishly tried to imitate Lawren Harris’ painting of Isolation Peak but much to my chagrin this endeavour confirmed, that while I may have an artist’s soul, I do not have an artist’s touch. No worries, I’ll settle for taking photographs of the lone white pines that figured so predominantly into Tom Thompson’s work.
On our flight back as I watched the forests disappear and the city lights of metropolitan Toronto come into view, I had time to reflect on the importance of making time to unplug and enjoy the simple pleasure of just being present and aware of your surroundings and taking time to make new friends and explore new places. Perhaps I can delay the inevitable return to the busyness of everyday life by not turning on my cell phone? I’ll let you know how that goes!
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