Road tripping through Canada

On a hypothetical list of lively immigration checkpoints, the U.S.-Canadian border near Grand Portage State Park would rank near dead last. Indeed, passage from the “nicest” state in the union to the politest country in the Western Hemisphere is downright pleasant. The wait is short, the questions are brief, and unless one specifically asks for an immigration stamp, one’s passport is returned in exactly the same condition it was given.

Despite this switch of nations being faster and less demanding than ordering coffee at Starbucks (the baffling transition to the Eastern Time Zone notwithstanding), the virtually nonexistent culture shock of zipping into Canada nonetheless comes with a certain thrill, even for an experienced traveler.

As a travel destination, Canada is tragically, criminally underrated. There are the varied, eye-widening landscapes on par with New Zealand. The cosmopolitan centers—Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver—that rival the world’s great cities. The wild and astoundingly vast distances between destinations, where, theoretically, an alien ship the size of the Mall of America could land undetected. And with 75 percent of Canada’s nearly 35 million people crowded within 100 miles of the U.S. border, finding utter solitude is only a short drive north from just about anywhere.

My intentions were tamer. I was setting off on a weeklong road trip through well-trodden southern Ontario and Manitoba. No world-class cities, no Lord of the Rings–caliber murderous mountain climbs, and no polar bear–infested Arctic outposts. Just a leisurely drive through mellow, likeable cities and eclectic towns, plus retreats to provincial parks for a little controlled communing with nature, star-filled night skies, and the odd splashing around in a canoe.

After the long drive from Minneapolis and the aforementioned border hop that barely warranted the vehicle coming to a complete stop, I pulled into Pigeon River Provincial Park mere feet after clearing Canadian immigration. From here, my friend and I got some desperately needed blood flowing into our legs during the non-demanding 1.5 mile hike to the High Falls of the Pigeon River, which is nearly double the height of Minnehaha Falls and decidedly more dramatic. Those who forgot their passports on the kitchen table can view the falls from the American side of the river, too. It’s inconspicuously signed, but for those in a hurry, a shortcut via a path leading from the north end of the parking lot will get you to the falls in just .75 miles.

I was one of those in a hurry. The Thunder Oak Cheese Farm, about 20 minutes north, was closing soon and I planned to stuff prodigious amounts of their Gouda samples into my face. 

Dutch immigrants from respected cheese-making families started producing cheese here in 1995. Thunder Oak is currently in the process of moving their cheese-making equipment from their former location to the new one, so soon it’ll be possible to watch the cheese making in action. In the meantime, this stop isn’t much more than a shopping visit and tasting opportunity. After much agonizing, I selected a dense Gouda wedge imbedded with sun-dried tomatoes and basil. I also couldn’t resist grabbing a brick of Ontario’s Chocolate Cow Fudge, sold here in limited supply. Both were delicious and fueled me for touring the heart of Thunder Bay, just another 20 minutes east. 

If you haven’t been to the Lake Superior–side city in the past couple years, be ready for some surprises. Thunder Bay has given itself a multi-stage facelift, including $57 million poured into the Prince Arthur Landing area alone. The silver lining to the recent recession here has been much-improved air quality, after all but one of the paper mills shut down and, due to the city’s more modest power needs, the coal-burning power station nearby now mainly sits in standby mode. 

Thunder Bay proper, while not exactly brimming with pulse-quickening options, has a few notable distractions, including sailboat tours with Sail Superior. Captain Greg, who proudly reports that only five people have gotten seasick on his sailing tours in 10 years, shares tidbits of local history and sailing tips for Lake Superior during trips ranging from 90 minutes to seven days. He may even invite passengers to “help” by taking the wheel while he yanks on lines and tweaks the sails. Never mind the autopilot. He once sailed this 40-foot boat across the Atlantic, so it’s pretty safe out on the lake.

We buzzed past two gigantic cargo ships loitering in the bay before anchoring at the Welcome Islands for lunch. Bringing your own picnic is perfectly fine, but you can also request, as we did, that your trip be catered by Lincoln Street Eatery (273 Lincoln St.), a food truck that hopes to open a brick-and-mortar location later this year. 

Those wanting a more compressed thrill ride can opt for a flying tour of Thunder Bay with Wilderness North, including a flyover of the “Sleeping Giant” hills to the east. 

Our other Thunder Bay highlight was touring Fort William, a remarkable reproduction of the real-life, frontier-era fur trading post, with tour guide duties performed by costumed re-enactors. The original fort was, in fact, located miles away; still, the size and scope of the faux fort and surrounding park will handily impress kids and adults alike.

Hearing the history and rowdy times of the fort is fun and enlightening, but any romanticized flashes of 19th-century Voyageur life will be squashed during the visit to the fort’s infirmary, where one is introduced to the crude tools and frightening medical practices of the time. The remedy for constipation—a common side effect of the typical Voyageur lifestyle and diet—for example, involved the pants-down application of a metal syringe the size of a power wash nozzle and, presumably, a lot of curse words. 

The drive to Manitoba’s Whiteshell Provincial Park from Thunder Bay is about eight hours, after all the time spent waiting to pass slow-moving lumber trucks on the two-lane Trans-Canada Highway. Tack on at least another 20 minutes for the requisite stop at Kakabeka Falls, just outside Thunder Bay, to gawk at the “Niagara of the North.” That designation may be over-selling Kakabeka a bit, but the falls are nevertheless larger and louder than anything closer than Niagara and unquestionably worth a stop.

We found our next destination at the end of the road leading around Whiteshell Park’s Falcon Lake: Falcon Trails Resort, which houses guests in lodge rooms and in a series of cabins that sleep four to five people, outfitted with full kitchens and hot tubs. Those seeking solitude will want to book one of the eco-cabins, which are located on the shores of the otherwise-deserted High Lake, and accessed by a 30-40 minute hike through the woods. Staff will haul in your gear if you wish.

Diversions in the area include canoeing, skiing (in winter), absorbing the stillness, and being “led” on hikes by Islay the dog, who will insist that you play fetch the entire way. As for food, most people bring in their own, and the nearest town, Falcon Lake, has a few places to eat. The Nite Hawk Café (Hwy. 44, 204-349-2580), a local institution famous for its fat, juicy burgers and thick-cut fries, is well worth the extra 15 minute-drive towards West Hawk Lake. 

From Falcon Lake, we cruised through Winnipeg and up to Gimli, about a 1.5 hour drive north, and home to the largest Icelandic settlement outside of Iceland. Settlers were literally marooned here in 1875 while steaming to their intended settlement site 20 miles farther north: Rough weather forced the tugboat pulling their barge to cut them loose for fear they would capsize. 

Gimli’s population is still estimated to be about 30 percent Icelandic today, though those looking for a quaint, Disney-esque little Iceland will be disappointed. This is a working fishing town, with a provincial feel. Buildings are squat, streets are wide, and hats are in danger of being blown away, never to be seen again, when the wind comes off the lake. That said, Gimli is a pleasant stopover. We visited the small-but-enlightening New Icelandic Heritage Museum,  where getting a photo with the Viking statue just south of the building is de rigueur, and in calm conditions, wandering the marina and beach area is lovely. The highlight of the Gimli calendar is the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba, held over four days each August, which is celebrating its 125th year.

We also stopped in Gimli’s obligatory shopping emporium H.P. Tergesen & Sons (82 First Ave.), the oldest operating store in Manitoba, managed by the fourth generation of the Tergesen family, featuring trendy street wear, nifty home and kitchen knick-knacks, and a bookstore with a surprisingly wide selection. For lunch, we were advised to try the pickerel cheeks at Kris’ Fish & Chips—defying all logic, the cheeks are the most flavorful part of the pickerel and worthy of the local designation as a delicacy.

Before leaving town, water bottles should be filled at the marina’s inconspicuous artesian fresh water fountain—really, the water is mountain-spring refreshing. 

Our objective that night was Lakeview Resort in Hecla-Grindstone Provincial Park, another hour drive north. Lakeview opened in 2013, combining a nature theme with high design, and has managed the difficult task of developing a non-resorty resort—the place is packed with amenities, yet doesn’t feel cheesy or contrived. Sure, there’s golf, five pools, and a kids’ water park with an outstanding three-story corkscrew waterslide (I personally tested it three times, in the name of research), but all are experienced with a mellow, nature-leaning undercurrent. The restaurant serves unexpectedly excellent food, including perhaps the best pickerel cheeks in Manitoba, and there’s all manner of trails for hiking and biking between visits to the waterslide.

The next day we returned to Winnipeg, which I hadn’t visited since 1990. Winter 1990. So I was fairly certain that today’s Winnipeg could improve upon that experience and, boy, was I right: It’s just so darn likeable. It feels like Minneapolis 25 years ago—a big city with a small-town feel. 

Winnipeg has world-class attractions, which will soon include the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a statement-making architectural triumph whose glass wings and elegant tower float above the Red River. And ’Peggers are enthusiastic eaters. Winnipeg has the most restaurants per capita of any city in Canada, and highlights include the exquisite small plates at Deseo Bistro, the died-and-gone-to-burger-heaven at Unburger, and the diverse food stalls at The Forks Market

Though the Manitoba Museum feels a bit dated at times, it has outstanding sections on earth history, the seas, the Arctic, and a life-sized reproduction of a 17th century ship, among its many galleries. Allot an hour to sprint through or two hours for a more thorough examination. 

We also took a tour of the nearby Exchange District, a 22-square-block historic area that survived due to the classic problem of there not being enough demand for new construction to warrant razing the area after it fell into neglect. Many buildings have since been restored and solo wandering (or a guided tour with Exchange District BIZ) gives a strong sense of Winnipeg’s rapid growth in the early 20th century, during its “Chicago of the north” heyday.

The highlight of our visit was the wacky, mind-bending Hermetic Code tour at the Manitoba Legislative Building. Architect Frank Worthington Simon and his Freemason coconspirators incorporated symbols from Roman, Greek, and Egyptian mythology, the Bible, and the occult while designing and building the structure, which was completed in 1920. The meaning of these symbols was never thoroughly questioned or scrutinized, and Simon took those secrets to his grave.  

Frank Albo, an expert in architectural history and ancient religions, was drawn to the building’s uniqueness and has spent years crawling around with a tape measure and studying the building’s symbols to uncover the treasure trove of occultism, numerology, and Freemasonry “hidden” in plain sight. He leads animated, enthusiastic tours Wednesday evenings. Not wanting to give anything away, I’ll simply say the tour—and Albo’s Da Vinci Code-esque storytelling—is filled with numerous jaw-dropping “ah ha!” moments and laughs. 

Leaving Canada and re-entering the US is a bit less hospitable than the reverse—our immigration agents are often unsmiling and a little intense. But again, the wait is relatively short and soon enough we were speeding back to the Twin Cities. A border hop into Ontario and Manitoba isn’t your typical international trip, but it offers enough intrigue to warrant the long drives to get there and around. As it turns out, these magnificent tours through Canada’s wild, open landscape—with stops in small towns to receive metric-system directions—are a big part of the appeal.