By the time I got to the Ontario border I was lean and tanned and understood the rhythms of cycle touring. I had been on the road for nearly a month, but Northern Ontario had intimidated me more than any other stretch of the journey. I packed my passport with me from the beginning of the journey so that I would have the option of taking the alternate route that some x-Canada cyclists choose through the United States.
I had been told scary stories about the dangerous roads of Northern Ontario with heavy traffic, big trucks, bad pavement, and no shoulders. I’ve been told that the bugs were unbearable and that the stretches between towns were long and isolated. And then there are the significant hills around Lake Superior, like mini mountain passes. People told me about their friends who tried to bike across Canada but couldn’t make it through Northern Ontario. Since the very beginning in BC, I had feared Ontario. I knew if there was anywhere that would make me want to quit, it would be this 2,000 KM stretch.
But I’m stubborn, and I wanted my journey to truly be across Canada. So I went for it, starting with Kenora; another town that I probably would have never come across were it not for this trip, but one that left a lasting impression on my heart with its landscape of endless lakes.
As I continued on to Dryden I watched a storm creep towards the highway. I tried to sprint the last 40 KMs but I was still 15 KM away from the town by the time the dark grey clouds were directly overhead. I had to choose between riding through the storm or stopping at a house on the side of the highway to ask if I could wait out the storm under the couple feet of roof overhang. I chose the latter. Little did I know that when I knocked on that door I would make friends that I still keep in touch with. Not only did they let me wait out the storm, but they invited me to stay for dinner, use their shower, and stay the night in their spare room. After dinner we got dressed up, went out for ice cream, and they took me on a tour of Dryden which included a suspension bridge that leads to nowhere. I was caught off guard and humbled by their kindness to an absolute stranger who appeared on their doorstep in the wake of a storm.
About 40 KM past Dryden is where the paved shoulders on the highway end (there are, however, gravel shoulders that are slow and difficult to ride). I strongly suggest that anyone who rides this highway has a bike mirror, as mine literally saved my life on more than one occasion. It is a two lane highway and if traffic is going both ways, the vehicles have nowhere to move over and it is the cyclists’ responsibility to veer off the road into the gravel, as I did many times a day. At first I had a mirror that fitted on the bar end, but I didn’t like how I had to look so far down each time, so in Kenora I picked up a much better mirror.
After a couple days of riding in Northern Ontario I started to realize that the things that made Ontario intimidating were also what made it incredibly rewarding. This stretch of the journey felt wild, yet brought an inner sense of peace. It was remote, but not beyond the reach of help if I needed it. While I had struggled to occupy my mind on the prairies, Northern Ontario was all forest, lakes, and wildlife. A bear ran across the highway about 100 m in front of me, almost causing a crash with an oncoming vehicle who managed to slam on their brakes in time to avoid disaster. I was conscious of keeping my food far from the tent, preferably hung high beyond the reach of bears.
Because I had started at the beginning of July, I hadn’t come across many other cycle tourists. But the highway in Northern Ontario acts like a funnel for the cyclists who are all forced onto the same route. Luckily for me I came across a father/son x-Canada duo and spent a couple days cycling and camping with them.
In my mind I divided Northern Ontario into two sections – Kenora to Thunder Bay, and Thunder Bay to Sault St. Marie. Before getting into Thunder Bay I crossed onto Eastern Standard time and over the Atlantic watershed. I even saw a logging truck on fire.
Getting to Thunder Bay meant that I was approximately halfway through Northern Ontario, and certainly halfway across Canada. I got my first glimpse of Lake Superior from the harbour in Thunder Bay, and from that moment on I was enamoured with it.
It would take a whole week of effort to get around this lake that felt more like an ocean. The next morning I decided to get up before dawn so that I could see the sunrise at the Terry Fox monument on the outskirts of the city. This is the place that he was force to end his ride, and it was a powerful moment in my trip.
In my opinion, Lake Superior is the most underrated region of Canada. My days melted into a blur of beauty, always tempting me to stop cycling and explore. Shorelines and docks and sunsets on repeat.
The hills I’d been warned of began in earnest east of Nipigon and continued until Sault St. Marie. But what surprised me was that I loved them. They were a challenge that I took seriously, but by the time I got to Terrace Bay I understood that I had exaggerated the perils of Northern Ontario in my mind. That is not to say that it wasn’t difficult terrain, but that I was better prepared than I had given myself credit and that it was precisely the difficulty that made it so wonderful.
I will always contend that traveling by bike is the way to see Lake Superior from land. My bike and I could go places that cars couldn’t, like to beaches where the tiny parking lots were full, or down random trails off the highway where cars would never be able to noticed, let alone safely park. Lake Superior Provincial Park was stunning.
I was genuinely sad when it was time to part ways with Lake Superior, even though it wasn’t rational. Next stop, Sault St. Marie where my bestie and her husband spent a day goofing around with me.
Reaching Sault St. Marie felt like the end of Northern Ontario, though I know there is some contention as to where that boundary actually lies, and most would argue that it was still a long way off. But with the big box stores and the traffic, it felt like I was out of the wilderness and into populated Ontario. Though somewhat deflated after leaving the serenity of Lake Superior, I was getting closer to Ottawa where my friends awaited me. Each step of the journey had its own particular challenges: the steepness of the mountains, the flatness of the prairies, the isolation of northern Ontario, and the next challenge was the population density of southern Ontario.