With summer camps closed, online learning (or unlearning) finished and all of us suffering from varying degrees of stir craziness, this just may be the time for an epic Canadian road trip.
One of our family’s all-time favourite adventures on the road was along the shores of Lake Superior. With its vast yet sparsely populated spaces, incredible scenery, and adventurous pursuits it was a true family odyssey. The best moments were when our teens (15 and 13 at the time) became kids again. Surrounded by nature, they giggled at chipmunks that ate from their hands, peered into the water to search for voyageur artifacts on a kayak, rock hounded for amethyst and skipped stones almost everywhere. Smooth, multi-coloured stones –some of the oldest on earth –covered many of Lake Superior’s beaches and were perfect for skipping. At the beginning of our road trip, many of the rocks our son threw sunk straight down; but by the end, he was a skilled rock-skipper. At our last beach stop, he counted 10 skips and raised his hands in victory (body language normally reserved for high scores on video games). Still, on our shelf is a mason jar holding all the treasures our daughter collected from the beaches–pieces of quartz, bits of driftwood and beach glass.
Here are the highlights of our journey in case you’re considering your Superior family vacation.
Toronto – Sault Ste. Marie (700 km)
Eager to stretch our legs after the long drive, we visited Whitefish Island. This 22-acre national historic site had trails and boardwalks to explore the history and wildlife of this important indigenous island. It was here that we first glimpsed the mighty Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world in surface area, holding the same amount of water as the four other Great Lakes plus three additional Lake Eries.
We stayed at the Delta SM Waterfront, which had a lovely view of the St. Mary’s River shoreline. There were a surprising amount of family-friendly activities in ‘The Soo’, this northern city’s nickname. The Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre is a 25,000-square-foot hangar dedicated to the bush plane and its historical connection to the region. Entomica, a ‘bug zoo’ that encourages a hands-on approach to learning about insects, is also housed inside the site. For an adrenaline rush, check out Treetop Adventures. This obstacle course of planks and ropes is set high among the pines and offers increasingly tricky challenges until it ends with an exhilarating zip line ride. You can even go on the city’s most famous attraction –the Agawa Canyon Train Tour, a day-long train ride that takes passengers through pristine wilderness to the Agawa Canyon Wilderness Park.
We weren’t in The Soo long on this trip, so we spent the next morning at Kinsmen Park, where we walked along a boardwalk to view the stunning Crystal Falls.
Lunch was at Gigi’s Bistro & Pizzeria, and then it was time to hit the road to our next stop.
Sault Ste. Marie –Wawa (230 km)
Wawa, an Ojibwe name meaning ‘Land of the Big Goose’ is, of course, known for its giant goose. This famous roadside landmark is 28 feet tall, 22 feet long and has a wingspan of 20 feet. It’s an obligatory photo stop.
However, we weren’t there for the goose, but nearby Rock Island Lodge. It was at this remote paddling destination that we first experienced the ‘lake effect’, a term coined for the attraction and power Lake Superior held as we watched our teens reconnect with each other and nature.
The lodge offered accommodation and kayaking excursions, ranging from multi-day expeditions to half-day jaunts. We chose the latter; and after reviewing the basics of kayaking with our guide, Jake, we started paddling the Michipicoten River. Silver Falls, a scenic waterfall, was our rest stop, and we scrambled onto the rocks to enjoy some hot chocolate. Back on the water, we explored the river’s banks.
“Often, we find Voyageur artifacts –pieces of pipe and china,” Jake told us and explained how this was an essential stop for the fur transporters en route from Montreal to Thunder Bay. The half-day adventure was the ideal introduction to the history and beauty of Lake Superior as was the lodge accommodation itself.
Wawa to Thunder Bay (485 km)
We spent a full two days in Thunder Bay, but we could have spent a full two weeks there was so much to do and see, including some of the most pristine protected wilderness anywhere. Just deciding where to have a picnic on our way from Wawa was a challenge, as there were so many appealing options — Ouimet Canyon, Ney’s Provincial Park or Pukaskwa National Park. In the end, we stopped for lunch at Pancake Bay Provincial Park. Located just off the highway, 150 km west of Wawa, it was a beautiful spot with sandy beaches, hiking trails and expansive views of Lake Superior.
Our base in Thunder Bay was the TownePlace Suites, which suited our needs well with its family-friendly units including kitchenettes, on-site laundry facilities and a pool. From here, we explored some of the area’s best attractions.
Ziplining at Eagle Canyon Adventures: At half a mile long, 175 feet high and speeds reaching over 45 mph, this zip line claimed to be Canada’s longest, tallest and fastest. The kids loved it! Since I closed my eyes and screamed the whole way (a reaction they continue to remind me to this day), I couldn’t appreciate the beauty of the view. Luckily, there was a suspension bridge, which extended across the canyon for an exhilarating but not terrifying vantage point.
Amethyst Mine Panorama: Ontario’s official gemstone, amethyst’s sparkling purple hues have enchanted people throughout the ages. We still have the treasures that we found at this site, which has the largest deposit of this precious gem in North America. For a reasonable four dollars a pound, we rock hounded to our heart’s content, and the hardest part was deciding what not to keep. We left with a bigger bag than we planned.
Sail Superior Cruise: More of a sailing adventure than a scenic cruise, it was thrilling to experience the boat tilting, as we sailed into the waves with water spraying and cooling us while the kids were grinning from ear to ear. With less than ten people on board, the cruise was easy to customize, so when a couple from Saskatchewan wanted to see where their grain went, our captain brought us close to the massive grain elevators close to shore. My favourite view was of the Sleeping Giant, a land formation resembling a giant lying on his back with his hands folded across his chest. It’s a Thunder Bay landmark and part of Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, known for its dramatic cliffs and pristine wilderness.
Fort Williams: At this historical park, we travelled back to 1816 to meet Francois Bouvet, a tradesman at this 250-acre site, which was the headquarters of the fur trade. In the early 19th century, thousands of people gathered here every summer for the Great Rendezvous to trade furs and socialize. On our visit, that history was recreated through displays and interactive demonstrations that engaged the kids so much they scarcely registered that they were learning something. They were particularly fascinated, morbidly so, with the apothecary. The bone saws and bloodletting tools revealed more than history books ever could about the harsh conditions voyageurs endured while transporting furs from the interior to Montreal.
Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park: Our final stop on the Canadian shores of Lake Superior mesmerized us with its 130-foot thunderous waterfall. As we walked along the wooden boardwalks and platforms, I was struck how few people were here even though it was the height of tourist season.
Kakabeka Falls embodied all that I loved about this epic family road trip –the grandness of nature with none of the crowds. It just may be what we all need in a family vacation in 2020.
Tourism Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay Tourism and Ontario Tourism provided assistance, but they did not review this article prior to publication.
By Jennifer Merrick
Jennifer Merrick is a Toronto-based freelance travel writer, ESL teacher and mom of two teens who has been writing about family travel since 2008. Her stories have appeared in 30+ print and online outlets, including Today’s Parent, travelingmom.com and Montreal Families. You can follow her on Instagram @JenniferMerrick3.
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