BIG: The Canadian Shield, Niagara Escarpment and the French Language…Où est ouest?

When you travel and live in British Columbia, you just know you are in the most beautiful part of the country. But over the years we have found so many great pieces of the Canadian landscape that we know BC isn’t the only beautiful part of Canada. 

Sunset on the Canadian Shield

For example, traveling through Alberta, Saskatchewan and on to Manitoba, for many years, has shown us that just because it is flat doesn’t mean it doesn’t possess its own raw beauty. Years ago, 2013, we camped at the Cypress Hills. These little bumps of sedimentary rock and glacial till that the ice age missed when scraping the prairies, have the highest alpine forest east of the Rockies!!  They lie on the  Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan border and we were gobsmacked with not only the beauty but with the history; the “massacre” and the great trek west that followed: the flora; “watch for orchids the size of your little fingernail!”: and the fauna; “watch for cougars!”. The absence of tree stumps in the forest caught me the most. This land had never been logged. Before the bison were massacred, it was grassland. A new forest because of industrialization; did you know that bison hides were used to make giant machine belts? So terrible. But beautiful too… the “Beautiful BC “conceit that we entertain disintegrates daily.  

Camping at Cypress Hills 2013

On to Ontario. It seems everything in Ontario is BIG. After passing through the area known as Lake of the Woods, misnamed by the white guy that didn’t take the time to understand the aboriginal name, Lake of the Islands because there are 15,000 islands in the one lake. Think about that! We drove through Kenora and its BIG Husky the Muskie fish statue. Sorry no picture. We stayed at Blue Lake Provincial Park which I described in my last post. After Blue Lake, the first town we came to was Dryden, Ontario. Dryden is a mill town with the largest pulp mill I have ever seen. It had to be 1-2 kilometers long with the piles of wood chips, conveyors, smoke stacks and buildings. Internet statistics do not give the mass of the site so my exaggeration will have to do. Growing up with Nanaimo’s pulp mill, the Dryden mill made it look miniscule. Dryden history includes poisoning the people of Grassy Narrows first nation, downstream, with mercury in the mid 1900s which recently was still playing out in court. For shame. Mining and logging are prevalent throughout the drive through western Ontario. That and the billboards asking for Jesus to save us all. It is a bit of a conundrum.

But they do have a great BIG moose beside their tourist info place. Again, sorry, no photo.

Next stop, Thunder Bay. We could see the landscape change as we approached. We were getting into escarpment territory. We were definitely out of the flat prairie and into the rocks, hills and trees. This was the introduction to the size of everything we were about to experience over the next few days. It took us two days to go over the north side of one lake.

escarpment territory

Lake Superior reminded me of when we were in NASA and we walked beside the Saturn 5 rocket constructed for the Apollo moon missions. It was longer than a football field. Before that it was just a puny rocket on the 14” black and white TV jetting into the stratosphere. Lake Superior is BIG. It is an ocean. Everyone knows this but until you start driving around it, it is just the little blue lake joined to the others on the map.

We arrived in Thunder Bay and read the little info paragraphs, found in our CAA booklet. Thunder Bay is Canada’s 3rdlargest port and it is a bit bigger than Nanaimo!! BIG!!! We couldn’t believe the size of the grain elevators. They made the ones in Vancouver look miniscule. These towering buildings had at least 60 silos and there were 8 different companies represented on the waterfront. We drove past in awe. It made us realize how much Canada produces for the rest of the world. 7.5 million tons of grain flows out of there every year.

Plus, all the mining … how did we not remember this from grade 6, or was it 9, social studies? In order to support the grain industry, we stopped for a beer at the Sleeping Giant Brewery. The “Sleeping Giant” is the escarpment across the lake from TB. The legend tells of a silver deposit and too much greed that turned the greedy one to stone….

Just doing our part….

We stayed overnight at a provincial park called Kakabeka Falls 30 k west of Thunder Bay. It is along another escarpment that was dammed for a large power plant. With all the water, lakes, rivers and elevation drops, there are many hydro projects that dot the routes.

These were necessary for so much mining extraction and milling. I can’t help thinking that a lot of this was sacred land  for thousands of years… I always thought that with all that human intervention the great lakes would be disgusting, and downstream they are…But Lake Superior was glorious. 

Following our overnight at Kakabeka Falls and heading into the August long weekend, we were worried we would be overnight in a rest stop. We knew the Great Lakes Provincial Park was all booked up and we had reserved at a private campground too far away to make in one day. Especially since we kept stopping to look at interesting and beautiful things. Just east of Thunder Bay the Terry Fox Memorial is a glorious rest stop up the escarpment that looks out over the lake and Thunder Bay. His run finished 10 k east of here when the cancer returned to his lungs and he was unable to finish. He had already put in a mere 5373 kilometers. These numbers become real knowing we were half way across the country and had driven about the same distance. With cushioned seats, music and air conditioning. We are so soft…

Along the route we kept seeing hiking trail heads and signs pointing out the Casque-Isles trail system. This is a 52km trail system, with multiple access points, that follows along the coast line similar to Vancouver Island’s Juan de Fuca Trail, or West Coast Trail systems. The trail winds through rocky outcrops that are 2 million years old. Cypress, pine and maples landscape the route. It has tent sites built in and some interpretive signage. This could definitely be a bucket list endeavour when we return. The final trailhead was at Aguasabon Gorge Falls near a pretty little town called Terrace Bay. This picture shows the whole trail route. 

We drove about 8-10 hours with a few touristy stops, but it was becoming a long day and nearing sundown. And with the local rumours of those two kids from Port Alberni, running from the law, on the loose, and possibly spotted in Ontario, we were a bit affected by the idea of staying somewhere remote. Silly or sensible? We stopped in Wawa to get some groceries and some information. There is a BIGgoose there.

The BIG Wawa Goose

There are many BIGgeese there…. Wawa was the name the first nations gave the geese, because it sounds like “wawa wawa” when it sounds off.

Talking to the tourism info people they managed to get us on the phone with Pancake Bay Provincial campground and there was room for us, about an hour down the road. The campground weaves along the Lake Superior shoreline for a couple of kilometers with 345 sites. BIG. We arrived at sundown, set up, made our dinner and were chased in by the mosquitos. The next morning before heading out, we walked to a nearby wetland that provided plenty of mosquitos and was full of life. The most interesting flower in the swamp was the Venus Fly Trap. Again, grade school biology made me think these grew in the Amazon, not Ontario!!

After that we walked the shoreline with its tan coloured powdery sand, no rocks, and no weeds!! We went for a walk on the beach and it was void of humans. There must have been 1000 people camped there and the beach was ours. WOW!!! BIG!!! We were disappointed that we had just one night there. We will come back, one day, book a week or two at a beach site, and spend some time hiking the trails and swimming in the lake. 

Pancake Bay

On the road again, and this time the destination is Caledon to visit another Albert cousin. 

We got to the end of Lake Superior at Sault Ste Marie. Sault Ste Marie border both  the USA and Canada. The bridge coming in from the US towers over the St. Mary’s River (Ste. Marie?), and an old gnarly neighbourhood, bordering the area of the original locks that opened all the great lakes to shipping. “The Soo” as most locals call it, has original canal locks that made climbing from downstream to upstream for trade possible. A lot of water flows through here so a large Ontario Hydro plant is side by side with the locks. There is a tiny replica lock built into the ground for people to see and just around the hydro plant there is a National Parks Historic Site lock system that is used for tourism and smaller vessels.

Then over to the USA side there is the massive lock system, continuing the St Lawrence Seaway, that allows the freighters through. Along the old canal are historic red buildings, some refurbished and some in ruin. These beautiful burgundy red rocks striped with dark grey, were quarried out of the channels dug to build the locks.  It is evident that the Soo is trying to create a historic waterfront with residential and commercial tourism near the canal at St Mary’s Island, but we also noticed the tell-tale signs of poverty and addiction with the needle sites, and a discarded wallet, lost or stolen from some unobservant soul. Downstream from the locks, and the original trade companies and industrialized factory areas, the Soo has a wonderful waterfront with walking and biking pathways, restaurants, museums, art galleries and viewpoints. Winnie Whitefish shares the Soo fun facts there! 

A tourist boat going through the locks at the National Parks Historic Site on St Mary’s Island

Our next stop was inland where the road turns south at Sudbury, home of the Giant Nickle. Growing up on the west coast, we always heard that Sudbury was a barren land of mine waste, factories and kind of the Canadian wasteland. But Sudbury is interesting. And the reforestation of its barren wasteland is beautifying the landscape. They even have an interpretive sign for the 3 millionth tree that was planted near the Giant Nickel.  It is a definitive mining town with many exhaust towers from the smelters that employ the town that was formed by a massive meteorite that landed there almost 2 billion years ago leaving a crater basin that left magma rich in nickel, copper, platinum and gold. So, of course, extraction will happen with the onset of human industrialization and the abundance of hydroelectric plants.

Solar power is scattered throughout Ontario
Canadian Geese…1,2,3,4,5
Open air camper…queen sized bed in the back of that trailer

We paid the $6 to park, read some free interpretive signs and take a photo with the Giant Nickel. 

120 nickels to park

Then we left. 

As we headed south, the land flattened again, and larger farms were evident. The waterways that we passed were the inlets from the Lake Huron-Georgian Bay shoreline. This was nothing like Lake Superior with her grand long sandy beaches and treed rocky bluffs. We were heading into Toronto and the traffic increased exponentially. 

We arrived at Gary and Ann’s that afternoon. They live in the Toronto bedroom community of Caledon on the Niagara Escarpment. While Niagara is about 1.5 hours away, this ridge is the backdrop of all the towns bordering Toronto and stretches to the north of lake Michigan and Huron from just north of Milwaukee to Rochester on the southern Lake Ontario Shoreline. They have a historical house that dates back to the war of 1812 and the Loyalists that moved to the area to settle and farm.  They bought the 40 acre place as a ramshackle house and barn with brambles growing over the front door. They have restored it and added on over the years still keeping with the personality of the era. Originally there was a farmer who “came with the place” and had a cattle operation. He retired and they decided to reforest it with thousands of trees that had grown naturally before the farming began. 

We stayed 3 days and spent a day exploring the Caledon Trailway at the foot of the escarpment. Downhill for about 10k. Yup, that means uphill later. On our way to the trailway we saw many riders on road-bikes along the concessions, parallel roads that border the original farms, and numbered side roads that run perpendicular to them. We rode the trailway through Caledon East to the Albion Hills Conservation Area where we found some mountain bike trails. 

The next day was an errand day, with the truck having a spa day. At two of the local farm markets we visited, there were perfect zucchini blossoms for sale. I wish the farmers in the Parksville region were confident enough to harvest and sell them. 16 male blossoms were $5 and I paid it!! Gary and Ann had never eaten them so we served them stuffed with Boursin, chevre and Little Qualicum raclette, dipped in egg and flour and pan-fried, then drizzled them with Venturi Zanata balsamic vinegar. Warm field tomatoes and fresh basil salad and BBQ chicken rued the day.

The next day off to Niagara Falls and the Niagara-on the Lake wine region. Niagara Falls is where the Niagara river dramatically drops off the escarpment into a lower elevation. More power plants, old restored mansions and lots of people are there. It is probably the most famous waterfall because it borders the USA and don’t we all like bragging rights. Visited by us and over 25 million of our closest friends, it boasts many touristy things to do. Mostly selfies probably. They have toned down the original tight rope endeavors with a zip line and of course the Maid of the Mist, the sightseeing boat that takes you into the mist of the Canadian side Horseshoe falls.

Horseshoe Falls…AKA Niagara Falls

Enough of that, we were off to see some vineyards. Niagara peninsula is perfect for grapes as the microclimate is surrounded by waterways, the land is flat and nutrient rich like a delta, and the southern latitude and hot humid summers with cold winters produces grape that will ripen into award winning whites, reds and especially ice wines. So, we tasted them all…. We chose 3 vineyards. The first two boasted that they have the oldest vines in Ontario. “Let’s go there! “.  Most of the wines were minimum $25 – $40 and it was difficult to justify the cost.  REIF Estate Winery had a lovely and affordable Pinot Noir. Bought it. Lailey also boasted oldest vines and recently sold leaving the original winemaker unemployed. It is the Ontario location of the wine company that also owns Lulu Island in BCs lower mainland and Grizzli in the Okanagan. The new owners hail from Richmond, BC, and originally Korea with most of their production apparently going to Asia. Then the gem of the tour. We headed to a hilltop on the peninsula called Jordan Station, and Sue-Ann Staff Winery. Their dog, a massive Burmese named Brix, approves the various vintages. There we tasted the highlight of the day, a Brix approved, Cabernet Franc. It may make it on the mail order Christmas list. 


The following day we bade Gary and Ann a thankful farewell and headed for Prince Edward County. This is not to be mistaken for Prince Edward Island. Prince Edward County is an island and formerly an isthmus on the northeast shore of Lake Ontario. It is south of Trenton Airforce Base.  We looked at the Harvest Host site, to see if there were any vineyards offering a free stay in that area, since it is about halfway from Caledon to Montréal. Success with Lacey Estate Vineyard. 

My first visit to Prince Edward County was in 1989 when I went to visit my colleague and friend who worked at Montréal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel with me in the early 80s. Willi Fida hailed from Austria and when he left Hilton hotels in Montréaland then Toronto, he and his wife bought a house and 9 room motel in the small village of Bloomfield. He opened Angeline’s, a fine dining restaurant built in the 1800s, and a place of refuge for the Underground Railway. They fixed up the motel rooms to a quaint Hilton/Fairmont standard. His mission was to support and promote the local producers who supplied him with fresh fish, cheese, meat, vegetables and friendship.  In doing this he transformed a sleepy little community into a food focused tourist area. The wine industry followed. About 10 years ago, after not talking to him for many years, I googled his name. He was gone. Shock and sadness. He had a heart attack and passed quickly. His family still run the property and there is a bursary in his name for students from the area that go to cooking school. We drove by but with the trailer behind and a busy little community, we didn’t go in. 

We chose Lacey Family Estate winery. When we arrived, we pulled our rig right into their level parking lot, bought an interesting Pinot Gris Blush; “ROSE EMILY”. Pinot Gris is usually a white wine but their daughter Emily made this one by leaving the juice on the skins for varying times. Her first vintage experiment was lovely.  Emily, who is in her early 20s, and is working with famed winemaker, Ann Sperling, at her organic Niagara winery. She has told her family that she is learning so much but one day will return to the family farm and take over the reins. So, we will watch for Emily Lacey, winemaker extraordinaire!!

Next day we left early; 7 am early. Albert’s first sunrise since we left the coast on that first ferry!! We were heading for Montréal where our daughter, Elly, lives with her partner Taylor, and both work in the theatre industry. Our plan was to get to the Sogarive campground on the south-shore before it filled up as there are no reservations and it is very close to downtown, the bike path and the metro-subway. We didn’t want to drive the rig through downtown Montréal and over one of the massive bridges fording the mighty St. Lawrence so we detoured south about 60k from the outskirts. All went well until we went left (a gauche) instead of right (a droit), and we were thrown onto a toll highway headed for downtown Montréal and the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport. MERDE!!! NO!!! We re-googled the directions and made our way back to the town near the original exit where we went wrong. This was a 40-kilometer U-turn!! Worth it. We clicked right into our destination and found a corner waterfront site overlooking the port of Montréal and the St Lawrence. We are here for a week so until next time…Au Revoir!! A la prochaine fois!!

Unicorn sighting….stay tuned!

6 thoughts on “BIG: The Canadian Shield, Niagara Escarpment and the French Language…Où est ouest?

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this chapter. Your descriptions are excellent! I admit to being slightly jealous at all of the different vineyards and breweries you are tasting 🤩Have a wonderful visit with Elly 💕 Safe travels to you both xo


  2. The last and only time I was at Kakabekka Falls was in summer 1967 when me & 3 other teacher-friends drove to Montreal for Expo & camped all the way there. Your voyage so far is wonderful! So happy it’s been so smooth for you so far!. Give Elly a big hug from us! xoxo


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