During Spring Break 2013, my girlfriend and I went on a pretty fun and random trip up to Northwestern Ontario in Canada. This is the story, with lots of photos and a video.
On The Road Again
The drive from St. Paul, Minnesota to Thunder Bay, Ontario is absolutely beautiful. While it’s not the shortest trip (340 miles, 7 hours with breaks), it is certainly worth it. This is one of those trips where it would be a loss to fly because of what you would miss along the way (though you can fly, Thunder Bay has an airport). The old cliché is very true…traveling is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. This was such a refreshing journey. For reference, here’s the route we took, via Google Maps.
For most people the fun would not start until you get to Duluth, Minnesota 150 miles into the trip (see below), but for us it started right away. You see, I have been driving a lot through Missouri and Iowa and Moana spent four years in Indiana, so we both have gotten used to seeing farms, farms, and more farms…with some trees here and there. However, this drive takes you through some amazing upper Midwest forests and eventually into the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province, which is filled with seemingly endless pine trees and is just so damn different from anything either one of us have seen in the southern states. It’s this difference that made it beautiful. Of course, there are pine trees in the south too, but there are so many of them up there, it’s awesome. After driving through these pine forests for about two and a half hours north on Interstate 35, you arrive to Duluth.
Duluth is the last major city you will see in the Untied States on this drive, and is one of those hidden treasure cities I never knew existed. Duluth does not get a lot of national attention (when I lived in Kentucky I heard of it a total of zero times), but it is truly a treasure. The fourth largest city in Minnesota, it’s located on the shores of Lake Superior and on the northern border of Minnesota and Wisconsin. The first impression of this city is that it is a blue-collar, workers’ town. You see a lot of industrial elements, such as factories and trains carrying only coal. However, as you drive into the center, Lake Superior appears in front of you and, after driving for hours with only forest in sight, it looks like a vast ocean. Downtown Duluth is nestled along a few hills which wind down to the shores of the lake. The first time we were in Duluth, we arrived at night and Moana said all the lights of the hills going towards the darkness of the water reminded her of Izmir, Turkey. While the city is definitely industrial in nature, it’s so much more than that.
Once you get down to the water, there is a nice, albeit touristy, area with numerous restaurants, bars, and shops designed to make the visit to the lake even more fun. All of that is hardly necessary, however, because the beauty of the lake defines Duluth and causes you to stop in your steps and just take it all in. This city is not too big and not too small, it’s perfect in many ways–and I recommend that you visit it. After our break in Duluth, we started the most epic part of our journey towards Canada.
Minnesota/Ontario Highway 61
Think of those car commercials you see on TV where the cars drive on beautiful winding roads that seem to be on cliffs along even more beautiful water. That’s pretty much Minnesota Highway 61, which turns into Ontario Highway 61 after you cross the border. If you look up at the route map, you’ll notice that more than a hundred miles of our trip was right on the north shore of Lake Superior. The fascinating beauty of this drive cannot be understated. It’s no wonder that it’s designated as a scenic highway, that there is a movie named after it, and that the one and only Bob Dylan, a native of Duluth, named one of his albums after it. Since this is not an interstate highway, you can easily stop wherever and enjoy the view.
After driving on this beautiful road for a few hours, you will cross into Canada and will eventually end up in the first big city, Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Thunder Bay is also located on Lake Superior and is also very industrial, it is used as a major trading port due to its location on the lake. The city is very similar to size to Duluth…about 100,000 in population. Moana and I both had an itch to leave the country and this is why we chose to go to Thunder Bay. This trip was in March, and as you probably can tell from the photos, this part of the world in March is still very much in winter. It was very cold, so cold that the lake was frozen and there was a decent winter storm while we were there (3-5 inches in a few hours). The city was very nice, though it quickly became obvious to us that for tourists, it’s more of a late spring/summer destination. The cold was pretty unbearable…we spent most our time inside and even ended up seeking out the local greenhouse to see some green for a change. It was still worth it. Things in this part of Canada are the same in many ways, yet different in many other ways.
For example, even compared to Minnesota, the efficiency and speed with which they cleared the roads after the snow was amazing. Also, they LOVE doughnuts. There were doughnut shops everywhere. Thirdly, the people there were incredibly nice and helpful. During the snowstorm, we got lost and ended up going into a Tim Hortons to ask for directions back to our hostel, and the barista lady drew a map for us on a napkin. We still didn’t find our way back for a while, but that’s besides the point . We also went to a movie while there, and the interior of the cinema looked more like the inside of a fast food restaurant than it did like the cinemas I’m used to in the states, which usually have darker and less vibrant interiors.
Despite the bitter cold, going to Thunder Bay was still worth it. One of the best parts about our trip was where we stayed, the Thunder Bay International Hostel. This is the homiest hostel I have ever stayed in. The older gentleman who runs it (we never got his name) traveled the world with his wife (she passed away) and they always stayed in hostles so he decided to open up a hostel in his native city as well. The most amazing thing about him is that he is still traveling…when we first arrived he showed us photos of his recent trip to Colombia. Also, he writes detailed reports of all his travels, prints them out, and places them in each of the hostel rooms for visitors to read. This man was truly and inspiration, and if you go to Thunder Bay, stay in his hostel! Just look at how homey it is. Just one note…if you are allergic to cats call him before to make sure you will be okay, when we stayed there two cats were also guests.
This was an amazing Spring Break trip, and I hope this entry has inspired you to put it on your list. I recommend flying up to Minneapolis, renting a car, and going on this adventure (don’t forget your passport). All you need is three days. However, if you don’t want your car looking like my car did, and if you don’t want to be freezing the whole time, don’t go anytime between September-April. If you go during the warmer months, you can really appreciate the beauty of all the nature you will see.