Thunder Bay Experience: The Sights

This is part one of a two-part series on my 6-week stint in Thunder Bay. See the next entry for the food of Thunder Bay.

At the end of 2016, I spent 6 weeks in Thunder Bay as a part of a program called the Northern Studies Stream (NSS). The purpose of this program is to send students to smaller communities in Northern Ontario for clinical placement. There, they can experience small-town life, learn from the diverse caseload in those unique settings, and — this is probably the ultimate goal — hopefully come to love the community and want to work there after graduating. Since smaller communities are generally in need of medical professionals, this works out quite well: students get an adventure, smaller communities get some exposure to soon-to-be-graduating students.

My whole life has been spent in or around pretty large cities. I grew up in a suburb of Vancouver, went to UBC for university, and then worked in Vancouver, San Francisco, and Toronto. So, my interest in NSS was two-fold: I wanted to experience life in a smaller community, and I wanted to have a unique experience in Northern Ontario, hopefully one filled with adventures!

Of course, even the best laid plans don’t always work out — I ended up being placed in Thunder Bay, a city of a little over 100,000 people. So, not quite the small-town experience I was looking for. But it is still pretty remote and it definitely has a lot to offer. Another challenge was that the placement went from early November to mid-December, a time of transition between seasons: it’s too cold for autumn activities and too warm (or not snowy enough) for winter activities. But, what is life without a few challenges?

Mount McKay

My first weekend in Thunder Bay featured some beautiful weather, perfect for hiking. Though it would have been great for hiking the Sleeping Giant, we all elected to sleep in and hike Mount McKay instead. Around a 20 minute drive south of Thunder Bay, Mount McKay is located on the Fort William First Nation reserve.

While the hike to the top wasn’t very long, it was very, very steep! Combining that with the 20+ Celsius weather, let’s just say that there was some sweating happening. However, upon making it to the top, all the effort was worth it! The top of Mount McKay is 270 metres over Lake Superior (442 metres above sea level), and features some beautiful views of Thunder Bay, the Sleeping Giant, and the surrounding area.

Kakabeka Falls

Our second weekend in Thunder Bay found us buried under a foot or more of snow. Plows seemed to be waiting for the storm to end, so road conditions were absolutely horrific. And to top it off, we had reserved a car to drive out to Kakabeka falls, only to find out the car would not have snow tires on it. Yikes.

Downstream from the falls.

Being from the west coast, I’m not terribly experienced with driving in the snow. Add to that driving in an unfamiliar area, the large amount of snow, and the lack of snow tires and you can understand why I was a bit nervous. However, I thought that I would try driving, and if it become too sketchy, I could always turn around.

Winter wonderland at Kakabeka Falls.
Long shadows cast on the new-fallen snow.

Thankfully, my slow and cautious driving with no quick turns went very well, with no incidents to report. Yet, it was still scary how belligerent and careless other drivers were around me. This culminated when we drove past the scene of a head-on collision on our way back to Thunder Bay. Rushing just isn’t worth it — I wish that more people would realize that.

A view to the frozen falls.
Broader view of the falls — still flowing, even with the bitter cold.

Aside from that one dark note, the entire trip was fantastic. Kakabeka Falls was gorgeous with its fresh coat of pure, white snow. The falls were partially frozen, creating a cool effect, and the wildlife was putting on a show for us visitors.

A visit by a bald eagle.
A hungry squirrel, perched on a branch. He would eat his pine cone, run down into his burrow, grab another, run back up the tree to that exact position and continue eating. I must have watched him do that 5 or 6 times in a row!

Terry Fox Monument

The Terry Fox monument was one of the sights that I was really sorry to have missed during my ride across Canada. So, in a way, finally seeing the monument on this trip brought some closure to the ride.

The Terry Fox Monument, marking the furthest point west that Terry Fox made it on his Marathon of Hope.

We drove out to the monument during another snowy, windy, and bitterly cold weekend day. Despite subzero temperatures, the sun was bright and the skies blue, making the monument even more inspirational than it otherwise would have been.

Sleeping Giant Provincial Park

The Sleeping Giant is a formation in the Sleeping Giant Provincial park, which resembles a giant lying on its back when viewed from Thunder Bay. It features as part of an Ojibway legend, in which the sleeping giant is Nanabijou (spirit of the deep sea water), turned to stone after the location of a nearby silver mine was given to European settlers.

The Sleeping Giant, as seen from Thunder Bay.

In addition to dominating the view of Lake Superior from Thunder Bay, the Sleeping Giant is also accessible via a challenging 23km trail in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. The trail climbs up onto the Sleeping Giant (250 metres above Lake Superior), giving sweeping views of Lake Superior, Thunder Bay, and the surroundings.

Naturally, hiking the Sleeping Giant was the number one item on my list of things to do in Thunder Bay. Yet, after the first weekend, the weather turned cold and snowy, and my dreams of climbing the giant were all but crushed.

Towards the end of every week, I would keep a constant eye on the weekend forecast, looking for a break in the weather that I could take advantage of. Most of the time, it wasn’t even close… until we got a lucky break on our second last weekend in Thunder Bay. The weather was supposed to be clear, the temperatures around 0 Celsius. Certainly not ideal conditions, but I was willing to take a chance!

Snow-covered trees on the trail.

Early Saturday morning, the sky still dark and the air piercingly cold, my placement roommate Chris and I piled into a rental car and headed north towards the Sleeping Giant. Arriving at the parking lot as the morning sky was just starting to brighten, we set off promptly; the short days meant that we had to move fast to avoid being stuck on the trail come dusk.

The trail was frozen and snow-covered, with only a few sets of foot prints visible in the snow. Clearly this wasn’t a popular winter trail. As we proceeded down the trail, we noticed some animal footprints that were much too large to be from a dog… perhaps bear prints? While I wasn’t too concerned about running in to bears, I do have to admit that from that point forward we were a lot noisier while walking; after all, a surprised bear is not a happy bear.

The first 5-6 km of the trail were pretty flat, and it didn’t take long for the human foot prints to disappear. We were now officially alone on the trail.

Up we go!
It’s pretty flat from here on out.

06babd7f2c4ac0c746542c692eb3cd64As we started climbing the Sleeping Giant proper, we noticed that there were more bear prints following the trail. They looked more than a day old, but still… Chris joked that we should only be concerned if the prints suddenly stopped. We both had a laugh, picturing a bear waiting in ambush for us two unsuspecting hikers.

Suddenly, the bear prints did, in fact, stop! Tense horror movie music flared up (in my mind) and we both nervously glanced around, expecting a furious bear to come charging out of the bush at any moment. Thankfully, life is not a horror movie and we managed to avoid being turned into tasty treats for a hungry bear!

Though we didn’t run into any bears, the trail wasn’t lifeless. We did see many squirrels, a woodpecker, and an occasional nervous grouse, as well as tracks for deer or elk.

I am pleased to say that we made it to the top of the Sleeping Giant. We went as far as the giant’s knees before turning back. And while we both wanted to take the trail to the giant’s head, we both were acutely aware of our limited daylight. So, after spending a short time taking photos and eating at the top, we started the tricky descent back down the Sleeping Giant.

The hardest part of the trail came with the last 5km. The trail was flat and wet (large areas of the trail that were frozen in the morning had thawed out with the day’s sun), and the surroundings were unchanging. With our exhausted bodies and minds ready for the hike to be over so we could warm up and eat, those last few kilometres seemed to go on forever!

When we finally emerged from the trail, we had a mere 30 minutes of daylight before it was dark. Talk about making it just in the nick of time! It was with immense satisfaction that we got back in the car for the drive back to Thunder Bay. A little less satisfying was the parking ticket that awaited us on the windshield…

The 6 weeks in Thunder Bay flew past much faster than anticipated. And while I did get to experience quite a few of the sights around Thunder Bay, there were several more things that I missed out on, due to the transitional period between seasons. It was too cold to do any cycling or to go to Eagle Canyon for ziplining (and they were closed for the season), and it wasn’t snowy enough to do any skiing or snowshoeing. But I am pleased to have had some of the key Thunder Bay experiences. So, until next time, Thunder Bay!


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