Canada: Coast to Coast – Northern Ontario

“It took cancer to realize that being self-centred is not the way to live.  The answer is to try and help others.”  – Terry Fox

There are some days when the drive is easy and others where the road road seems endless.  For three days, from Winnipeg to Manitoulin Island, the highway wove it’s way through granite cliffs and along the edge of pristine lakes among the boreal forest, accompanied by a sky as grey as the steel that comes from this region.  The alternating grey and pink (yes, pink!) highway skirts Lake Superior, a freshwater lake just slightly smaller than Austria, and I find myself climbing in and out of fog so thick you can barely see more than a few meters in front of the car.

I passed the longitudinal centre of Canada just outside Winnipeg, and the mid-point of the TransCanada Highway two days later at Chippewa Falls, having travelled over 4000 km through 5 provinces and three time zones.  Normally one of the most beautiful drives in the country, there’s little to see beneath the dreary sky and less interest in stepping out of my warm car into the 6º chill.  But there is always reason to do so.

Terry Fox Memorial

I doubt there’s a Canadian alive who doesn’t know the name Terry Fox.  Perched on a cliff overlooking Lake Superior, just outside Thunder Bay, stands a monument to one of Canada’s greatest ordinary hero’s.

After being diagnosed with cancer at the age of 18 and losing his right leg above the knee, Terry decided to do something to raise money for cancer research.  He was just 21 years old in 1980 when he began his cross-Canada “Marathon of Hope” by dipping his toe in the Atlantic in Newfoundland and heading west.

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Terry Fox Monument

Terry ran a marathon a day over the course of 143 days, garnering attention and donations along the route, until cancer forced him to put aside his marathon just outside Thunder Bay.  With a goal of $23 million – $1 for every Canada,  Terry’s Marathon of Hope succeeded just prior to his death and the Terry Fox foundation has raised more than $650 million worldwide since.

The first Terry Fox run for cancer research was held the September following his death and is now held in more than 9000 communities across Canada.  Terry’s story is a reminder that an ordinary person can change the world, one step at a time.

Winnie-the-Pooh

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It’s in the forested lands of northern Ontario that the story of Winnie-the-Pooh really begins.  Orphaned when a hunter killed her mother, the cub was found by a trapper and brought to the town of White River.  It was at the railway station there that Lieutenant Harry Colebourn spied the cub and purchased it for $20, calling it Winnie after his hometown of Winnipeg.  The bear accompanied him to England where she was left in the care of the London Zoo when now-Captain Colebourn was shipped to France.

The rest is well-known history, how author A.A. Milne’s son, Christopher Robin, took a liking to the bear, and inspired the books that would enrapture children for generations.

Stuck

When someone flashes their lights at you on the highway, it means one of three things – there’s a cop poised on a side street looking for speeders, there’s an animal on (or very near) the road, or there’s an accident.  It’s a warning to slow down.  Someone else should have.

Just a few kilometers outside White River, I heed the warning and drop my speed.  Coming around the turn, I can see why.  A semi has jack-knifed and struck the stone escarpment, the cab now facing the back of the truck and blocking the entire highway.  There are no alternative routes here, no way to get around.  The only thing we can do is wait.

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A rare reprieve to the rain allows us to wander the highway, talking to each other, speculating how the accident happened, thankful no one was hurt.  It would be three hours before the tow truck would haul the rig far enough off the roadway to allow traffic to move again, albeit single lane.  My plans to make it to “the Soo” (Sault Ste Marie) that night are quashed.  Wawa would have to do.  And it’s started to rain again.

Agawa Pictographs

The stone canvas on which the Ojibwe painted their pictographs with red ochre descends vertically to the white capped waters of Lake Superior.  It’s along this wall that the the largest collection of pictographs in Ontario, including images of fish, deer, and canoes, as well as some mythical creatures, have existed for centuries.

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Agawa Pictographs

The billboard at the top of the trail is deceiving, showing a group of people standing comfortably on the rock ledge, studying the sacred images.  Looking at the same ledge, I’m not sure if the ropes attached to the rock are there to help you along or to grab hold of if you happen to find yourself washed into the bay by the waves that batter the rock.  Being the only person there (because it’s raining and bitter cold and no one else on the highway was that foolish), the thought of taking a dip in Lake Superior without someone present to toss the life ring didn’t really appeal, so I settled for studying the few I could see from land before the fingers started to turn blue and I returned to the comfort of my car.

Yes, there are days the road is long, but the sun has come out on Manitoulin Island my last few hours in Northern Ontario, a hopeful sign as I make my way south to the Bruce Peninsula.

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