This blog piece is going to be a bit different from the others. I really didn’t know how I was going to carry a whole post on just a couple of white-tailed deer photos, then it struck me: I should make this post about where I took the photo rather than what I took the photo of. So I’m going to talk a little bit about one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen – Kenora, Ontario, Canada – as well as the stunning drive through Lake Superior Provincial Park that makes up Day Two of our three-day road trip whenever we drive out for a visit. You see, even though we live in the same province, Ontario is so massive that when we leave our home – about four hours from the eastern border we share with Quebec – it’s about a 22- to 24-hour drive to reach Kenora, and even then it’s still another two hours or so from there to the western border with Manitoba. A lot of this is due to having to drive around the top of the largest freshwater lake in the world (by surface area), Lake Superior. (It’s the third-largest by volume, after Baikal in Russia and Tanganyika, shared by several countries in Africa.)
Don’t worry, though: I’ll toss in several animal photos, too!
Kenora began as a Hudson’s Bay Trading Company post before it became a permanent settlement under the name “Rat Portage” (“portage to the country of the muskrats”), as muskrat fur was a sought-after commodity at the time. Gold was discovered in the area in 1850 – nearly a quarter-century before Rat Portage was established – and this led to the town becoming an important destination on the cross-country railroad, which was completed in 1886. In 1905, the town of Rat Portage amalgamated with the nearby towns of Keewatin and Norman, to form Kenora (taken from the first two letters of each town’s name: Keewatin, Norman, Rat Portage). This has amused me ever since I learned of this history, as Norman and Keewatin still exist, and only Rat Portage obtained the new name. I suppose, all in all, it’s for the best. I mean, it’s a beautiful area of the world and I imagine my feelings towards it would be somewhat diminished if it were still called “Rat Portage.”
The first time I ever saw Kenora I don’t recall any special feelings towards it. In 1971, my family took a month-long road trip across Canada and the US (at least, the western parts). We left Toronto at the beginning of June, headed out to Victoria, ultimately, and then dropped down into the States for the return voyage, getting as far south as Yellowstone but mainly sticking closer to the border. I was aware of Kenora because its hockey team won the Stanley Cup in 1907 (the Kenora Thistles), back in the years when it was still a Challenge Cup before the NHL was formed. I thought that was a terrific story, so I absolutely remember passing through the town, but little else about it. I recall seeing the giant goose in Wawa, the sign denoting the time change (to CST from EST), the Arctic Watershed marker, and such. Then I remember getting to the Manitoba border. Well, as I discovered on my next trip to Kenora 33 years later, the problem was that we approached it from the wrong direction: from the east.
Sarah’s parents were born and raised in Kenora. Her Dad moved back several years ago (before I met Sarah) and we’ve visited him and his partner several times over the past couple of decades. In the early years, we couldn’t afford the trip for both of us so only Sarah would visit, summers and every other Christmas. But in 2004 I made my second visit to Kenora: Sarah and I flew from Toronto to Winnipeg, spent a couple of hours there exploring the city, then met up with her Dad for the drive to Kenora. This one I will never forget. Coming from Winnipeg, the journey begins at the eastern edge of the prairies, then gradually the landscape changes and becomes progressively more beautiful as you enter the Canadian Shield. The road winds, the anticipation grows, then – suddenly, and absolutely without any warning – there’s a break in the trees and Lake of the Woods appears, taking your breath away. I was absolutely overwhelmed by its beauty the first time I saw it – I mean, really saw it, coming from the west – and it’s a sight that is permanently etched into my memory. And not long after the first sighting of LOTW, Kenora itself comes into view, nestled in a bend in the road, in a corner of the lake. I knew right then I would never want to leave, even though we had to just a week later.
So far, that was the only time I have flown out for a visit. After that, without planning it this way, we visited every three years in the summer until finally missing the pattern up in 2016 (we were still “broke” from our trip to the UK the previous year and stayed home that summer). From then on, however, we decided to drive out there: partially because we now had our own car; partially because we wanted to camp on the way; partially because this gave Sarah two weeks off which is far better for relaxation purposes; and partially because this way we had a vacation alone and a visit to family. And from the very first time we made the trip, we knew it was the right choice for us, if even just for the second day alone.
Our first day on the road is the longest. We leave Toronto early in the morning, head north on Highway 400/69, break the gravity of Toronto by the time we hit the Shield near Parry Sound, and are usually in Sudbury around lunchtime. Then we make a left turn and head west on #17 for… well, for the rest of the trip. By just before dinner we pass through Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and it’s about another 45 minutes along Highway 17 until we reach our favourite destination: Pancake Bay Provincial Park, on the very north-eastern corner of Lake Superior. Now, there are several versions of how Pancake Bay got its name, but one way or another, it was connected to the Voyageurs, who were early Quebecois fur traders. With white sand stretching as far as the eye can see in both directions, it’s a spot very dear to our hearts; in fact, Sarah and I have now twice visited the Provincial Park there just to spend a few days in the area and not travel the rest of the way to Kenora.
And then, it’s Day Two: The North Shore Drive. And I could spend a month just driving along the north shore of Superior, back and forth, and never get tired of it. After a short drive west from Pancake Bay, you enter Lake Superior Provincial Park. The road winds and climbs and dips and straightens and you get occasional glimpses of the beauty of the lake through the thick trees, and then, all of a sudden, you crest a hill, the road falls away, and this is your view:
To me, the only comparable view in Canada that has this kind of effect on me is on the Laurentian Autoroute in Quebec, at a point where the road crests in a similar manner and the valley falls away to the right, with a rock wall on your left-hand side. But I’ve never taken a photo there, as there is no place to stop. Here, above, I pulled the car onto the wide shoulder, and eventually got up enough nerve to venture out to the middle of the quiet highway (it would have been a Thursday morning), to take the shot.
From here, the rest of the day is just one wonderful place after another. There’s “Old Woman Bay,” so named because the rock face looks a bit like the face of an old woman:
And Wawa, with the iconic goose:
Next up: White River, home of the bear who eventually became “Winnie the Pooh”:
Late in the afternoon, we come upon one of our favourite places to stop on the entire trip, Ouimet Canyon:
And then Sleeping Giant, the Terry Fox Memorial, and on into Thunder Bay – where sometimes we camp, but most often we hit a motel because our camping gear is wet from Lake Superior overnight rain:
The last day on the road is the shortest one; from Thunder Bay to Kenora it’s only about five hours, but we often stretch it out with a few stops. There’s not a lot to see on that stretch of highway as you head farther north while you go west, but a few things do jump out. For example, Nippigon has established a “Paddle to the Sea” park, and it’s wonderful:
And Dryden celebrated its centennial in 2010, which resulted in a “beautification” project for the downtown, and other initiatives:
But by far the most beautiful sight of Day Three shows up very early, just a half an hour outside of Thunder Bay. It’s Kakabeka Falls. And they are spectacular.
I want to pull one of the shots out of that mosaic and feature it here full-sized, because it’s a perfect example of how it’s not always about the equipment, but the moment (I shot this on an old Fuji point-and-shoot, and it’s one of my favourite photos ever):
And then, just like that, you’re in Kenora. I’ve barely scratched the surface of this magnificent little piece of heaven – for one thing, I’ve not even mentioned the float planes that are so dear to my heart – so I think I’ll have to do a whole post on just the town some day in the future. But as for the story of the deer, well… Kenora is absolutely loaded with deer. As you will see in the mosaic following this paragraph: they can be spotted all over town. They like to frequent the cemetery, as there are often fresh flowers and fruit to nibble there, in every season. They are seen wandering down main roads with no fear whatsoever. The shot I used this month was taken from Sarah’s grandmother’s house (now the home of her father and his partner) while the fawn and doe were grazing in the yard next door. The only thing unusual about this sighting was that they didn’t then proceed into our yard, where they often spend a great deal of time nibbling on the plentiful raspberries that grow in the bushes in the backyard. Here is a collection of my favourite deer shots over several summers in Kenora:
There is so much more I want to say and show to you about Kenora. I’ll stop here, for now, and tell you that next month is the last of the two-post months for a while, as I am only producing one calendar next year. Let me tell you this, though: I’m going out in style. If you haven’t looked ahead, you are in for a treat. These two are probably my very favourite babies born over the past few years at the Zoo, and that is a very tough contest, believe me. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one last mosaic: a set of many of the other animals we’ve encountered on the way or in town. See you in December!