A Travellerspoint blog

February 2020

Know Northern Ontario

Driving from Toronto to the Agawa Canyon Tour Train

all seasons in one day

Sample Itinerary
- Day 1: Drive from Toronto to Sudbury (with stops in Barrie and Parry Sound for stretching and petrol)
--> In Sudbury see: the Big Nickel, Dynamic Earth, Lake Ramsay, and Lake Laurentian Conservation Area

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- Day 2: Drive from Sudbury to Sault Ste. Marie (a.k.a. "The Soo")
--> Stop at: Webbwood where Canada elected its first female mayor; Chutes Provincial Park for hiking; Blind River for petrol; St. Joseph Island to explore the shops and marina in Richards Landing; Echo Bay to see the world's largest loonie; and then drive onward to the Soo where you can watch sunset from the boardwalk

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- Day 3: Agawa Canyon Tour Train
--> Depart from and return to Sault Ste. Marie

- Day 4: Explore the Soo then drive to Manitoulin Island
--> Visit the Sault Ste. Marie Locks and wander nearby Whitefish, North and South St. Mary's Islands then walk back to the Mill Market Wednesday and Saturday Farmer's Market; drive to the Ermatinger Clergue National Historic Site or the Bushplane Museum in the Soo; drive south to Bruce Mines to see their art, copper mining museum, or take a rest stop in Espanola en route to Manitoulin Island

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- Day 5: Explore Manitoulin Island
--> See Macleans Mountain Lookout then go west toward Kagawong stopping for a hike at the Cup and Saucer Hiking Trail before continuing to the Bridal Veil Falls, and Gore Bay (you can detour to two lookouts just east of town: Hindman Park Lookout and Harold Noble Memorial Park East Bluff Lookout), or continue to Mudge Bay for a serene sunset

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- Day 6: Drive from Manitoulin Island to Toronto
--> Stop at Ten Mile Point for a scenic view, have breakfast in Manitowaning and check out their harbour, then head to South Baymouth to catch the ferry (book well in advance) to Tobermory, drive back through Wiarton, Flesherton, Mono, and Orangeville before hitting the 410 in Brampton and switching to the 427 in Etobicoke to return to Toronto

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Where to Stay
- Day's Inn in Sault Ste. Marie for a budget hotel
(full disclosure: if I went back I'd try to stay at the Delta waterfront hotel, as it's also walking distance to the Agawa Canyon train but seemed nicer)
- Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Center in Little Current on Manitoulin Island

Where to Eat
- Gloria's Restaurant in Sudbury
- Solo Trattoria fine Italian dining in Sault Ste. Marie
- Shabby Motley in Sault Ste. Marie for tea and pastries (e.g. maple bacon vegan cupcake)
- North 46 Restaurant in Little Current, Manitoulin Island
- Trufood Cafe near Lion's Head (south of Tobermory) for a sandwich, but not their cookies

What to Bring
- Hiking: whistle and/or bell, water bottle (and snacks), season-appropriate outerwear (e.g. hiking boots, rain jacket, etc.), bug spray, sunscreen, phone (and consider a portable charger for longer hikes), ID, keys
- Road tripping: extra windshield washer fluid, spare tire (if possible), towels and blankets, flashlight, water (and snacks), hard copy maps, reflective road signs/gear, GPS, car manual, license/insurance/car ownership papers, toilet paper/tissues, sunglasses

Agawa Canyon Tour Train Description and Tips
Northern Ontario is a hidden gem, not only for its culture, but also for its nature. A highlight from my trip was definitely the train ride I took to the Agawa Canyon. Although I didn't enjoy waking up at 6:30 am while on vacation, I was thrilled to travel 228 miles (round trip) through pristine forests, past clear waterfalls, and directly into a colourful canyon. As someone who gets motion sick, I was a bit nervous about the trip but because I made it there for 7:15 am I had some choice in where I sat. I faced forward on car 5, and had an empty seat beside me while I sat opposite two lovely American sisters from Indiana. Our car seemed to be the most comfortable with its cushy red-velvet seats, so I'd request it if possible.

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The dining car was #9, and walking there was a slight challenge as the ride could be bumpy at times. You'll want to walk over at some point though because you get a refreshment/food voucher when you purchase your ticket. There isn't much selection so it's a good idea to take your own food, if you're a picky eater. Anyway, we arrived at Mile 114 (the canyon) just before noon and were allotted 1.5 hours to explore. One of the sisters and I promptly set off to explore the waterfalls: Bridal Veil Falls (quite different to the Bridal Veil Falls on Manitoulin Island), and Black Beaver Falls. We also climbed over 350 stairs to get to the lookout. It was a spectacular view, and also an amazing opportunity to realize how out of shape I am. The view was breathtaking though, so maybe that was a factor.

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The train ride is narrated, and they also provide you with a supplementary guidebook/pamphlet. It was interesting learning about how the Soo is the 3rd largest steel producer in the world, and also the geology of the region like how it was created through faulting 1.2 billion years ago and then later ice ages affected the canyon's width. It was even more important to hear about the history of the Ojibwe people in the area, and some context about the different cultures still living here. Learning about local cultures from people who lived there and knew the history of the land was probably the most valuable part of the trip.

For anyone who's curious, here are the mile markers of my favourite spots on the train ride: Bellevue Valley (miles 19-20); Achigan Lake (miles 43-45); Ogidaki Lake (mile 48); Trout Lake (mile 57); Mekatina Lake (mile 62); Mongoose Lake (mile 75.5); Regent Lake (mile 89); and, the Montreal River Trestle standing at 130 ft above a dam providing the Soo with energy (mile 92). On the trip, you'll also learn more about the Group of Seven who sometimes painted there between 1918 and 1923. Make sure to visit their paintings set up near the train station at mile 114.

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Reaching the precipice of the climb was incredible, but for people who aren't able to hike, it's still a nice trip to take because the views on the train trip are stunning and at mile 114 you can happily picnic beside the river/waterfalls for the 1.5 hour stop. It's a long day though because you leave early in the morning and only return back to the Soo around 5:30 pm. If you're sitting with great conversationalists (which fortunately I was), it goes by quickly. In addition, you can also take a few quick strolls on the train so that your knees and back don't feel too stiff after all the sitting sandwiching the quick burst of hiking. In spite of my achy body, the trip was well-worth the $123 (CAD) cost. It was also worth paying the extra money to go during peak time, i.e. fall.

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My Travel Diary
Whenever people find out I'm from Canada, their assumption is that I live in Toronto. This is a massive assumption, given the sheer size of the country. In fact, Canada is the second largest country (by landmass) in the world - second only to Russia. It always pains me to confirm their assumption - yes, I live in Toronto. The reason why I get frustrated is because there's so much more to Canada than Toronto. Having traveled to eight provinces to visit tiny towns and larger cities, I can assert that there is considerable cultural and topographical difference even though we all identify as "Canadian". In spite of my awareness of the misplaced assumption about Toronto representing Canada, it's taken me a long time to realize my implicit bias that Toronto represented the province of Ontario. The first step to overcoming a bias is to recognize its existence. The next step is to take action. To conquer my assumptions about Ontario, to learn more about Indigenous cultures within this land from Indigenous peoples, and to enjoy the fall colours (especially in the Agawa Canyon) in the process, I chose to partake in a solo journey northbound from Toronto.

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My first step was renting my favourite car: the Nissan Qashqai. Fortunately, Enterprise Rent-A-Car put one aside for me and I was able to pick it up seamlessly. The only hiccup was that my father accompanied me, which meant a 45 minute delay to examine every inch and crevice of the vehicle. He came equipped with an endless barrage of questions: "Is there sufficient windshield washer fluid? Is there an extra tire? Can I get fries with that?" Finally I'd had enough and I thanked him for his concerns (some of which were genuinely helpful), and told him that I didn't want my solo roadtrip to be around a rental car parking lot. I finally set off, but I actually stopped about an hour and a half after leaving Toronto because I needed a stretch and a break from all the traffic. After some back bends in the Barrie OnRoute parking lot, I continued to Parry Sound where I filled up the car. It was just under two hours from there to Sudbury. Along the way, I had the pleasure of seeing the changing colours of the forests' leaves, being passed by a Cadillac going around 180 km/hr, passing a trailer with a helicopter on it, and spotting ads for a company that advertised its bug and bear removal services - two-for-one deal!

In Sudbury, I stayed with a friend from Toronto, his wife, and their newborn. They, like many young couples, had decided to leave Toronto for greener and more affordable pastures. One of their favourite spots is Lake Ramsay, which I enjoyed walking around. In the summer, Sudbury would be a great city for canoeing or kayaking, but when it drops below 25 degrees Celsius water sports basically turn into winter sports (in my opinion). My friends also suggested I explore the Lake Laurentian Conservation Area, which seemed gorgeous, but which I was too nervous to explore enough of alone. To be honest, one of the challenges of a solo road trip is determining your own limits. In my case, I get nervous hiking alone sometimes because I start worrying about aggressive wildlife encounters, including dangerous humans lurking in the woods. This trip helped me realize that that's OK - it's my choice to hike further into the woods in some places, and not others. I also have to be more understanding of my own anxieties: sometimes a thought can be altered before it turns into a scary feeling, but other times that scary feeling should not be ignored. Although I've traveled alone all over the world, I still felt nervous at times driving and hiking alone in rural Northern Ontario because there were such long stretches without human contact.

I realized that an important step is feeling prepared: keeping my phone and ID on me really calmed me. Another tip for anyone with chronic illness, like me, is writing down your conditions, prescriptions and doctor's contact information on a piece of paper. In my case, I did experience some health concerns on the road, but it never progressed, and knowing that my information was on me at all times made me feel better in spite of the scares.

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In my opinion, the most immersive experience in Sudbury is Dynamic Earth. I happened to visit during the annual Vale Open House, which meant that entrance was free and there was a special mining tour involving mine rescue demonstrations. Before entering the site, I stopped for an obligatory picture beside the Big Nickel - a 30 ft replica of a nickel from 1951 that happens to be the world's biggest coin. I can add this to my "world's largest" site visits across Canada: the dinosaur in Drumheller, Alberta; the hockey stick in Duncan, British Columbia; the big apple in Colborne, Ontario; the big loonie in Echo Bay, Ontario (which I also saw on this road trip); and the large lobster in Shediac, New Brunswick. I guess my motto should be: go big, then go home.

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After taking my picture with the Big Nickel, I explored Dynamic Earth to learn more about mining in the Sudbury region. Westerners started mining the area in the 1800s; however, the nickel, silver and other minerals were being used by Indigenous people in the area for thousands of years before that. There is still a large Indigenous population in the Sudbury area. In fact, according to a 2016 census by Statistics Canada, 9.5% of the population in Greater Sudbury self-identified as Indigenous, while Manitoulin District came in at 40.6%; compare those numbers to the percentage in Ontario overall - 3%. As an immigrant to Canada who's grown up mainly in the suburban Toronto area, I never knew any Indigenous people (or at least anyone who disclosed their identity), and I knew very little about Indigenous cultures. This is not something I'm proud of. In fact, one of my hopes for this trip was to listen and learn from the people I met up north because I should know more; I think everyone in Canada has an obligation to better understand the history and the current realities Indigenous communities face here. Particularly in this current climate, where many of the mainstream media mentions of Indigenous cultures are tied to pipeline politics, it's important to not only inform yourself of those issues but also understand how much more those communities and cultures experience and stand for too. I tried to make a concerted effort on this trip to be open, but not overstep. For example, I never showed up unannounced on a reserve, but I did choose to stay in a hotel on Manitoulin Island owned and operated by six First Nations: Sheshegwaning, M’Chigeeng, Aundeck Omni Kaning, Wikwemikong, Whitefish River First Nation, and Sagamok. Travel is an opportunity to learn, and it's also a chance to choose to support specific causes or communities.

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Back to mining... Although I had visited East Coulee, Alberta where I learned about coal mining and also saw Canada's last standing wooden tipple (built in 1937), I'm still fairly ignorant to the process and its intricate ties to local communities' economies. Dynamic Earth was the best place to go digging for more information. I set off on a journey to the center of the earth - or at least 70 ft. below ground. I was very underdressed - not in a black tie formal way, but moreso in that I should have been wearing a jersey and jacket. It turned out that it was freezing underground, and the humidity was over 95%. We were informed that the world's deepest mine is 4km underground at which point the temperature is more like 70 degrees Celsius. I'm not sure which is better: a pervasive damp cold, or a boiling heat? I had no choice in the matter, so I danced my way through the tour trying to avoid turning into an ice sculpture. I learned that labour laws weren't so great in the 1880s (who would have thought?) which meant that boys as young as 12 were working underground, and earning far less than their adult counterparts who walked away with 2$/day (and worked 7 days a week). In the 1950s the mining technology was revolutionized, but still very dangerous; although apparently nothing was as scary as seeing a woman underground. I suppose not much has really changed though - many men are still afraid of female gold diggers. Bad puns aside, we were told that women were just generally considered bad luck, so it took a lot of change management for women to finally be accepted as miners starting in the 1970s. Nowadays there are numerous female miners in Sudbury's 600+ km of mining tunnels. There are also some very brave women who volunteer to do mine rescues. Although there are very few incidents each year, considering there are over 4000 miners, there have been fires underground. One of the underground fires was so intense that it's been raging for 30 years and all the rescue folks could do was contain the fire and evacuate the miners. The volunteers performed a demonstration for us where they used fake smoke to show us how useless flashlights are, and how important infrared/night googles are instead. I also had the honour of putting out a fake fire using a laser fire extinguisher. I think the volunteer was embarrassed on my behalf when I confidently held the fire extinguisher backwards. You live and you learn; or maybe, you live because you learn? Either way, if I took nothing else from this trip it's that I now know how to use a fire extinguisher.

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As you drive north of Sudbury, things change. I started seeing more anti-sex trafficking signs, hotlines for malnourished mothers to call, and also ice-fishing ads. Although there are serious social issues in Toronto, I have a feeling that northern communities are affected in different ways given that they're smaller, and more isolated. I passed through some small towns that were comprised mainly of: abandoned buildings, methadone clinics, and junkyards. I also stopped in some thriving towns like Richards Landing on St. Joseph Island, which had a beautiful marina and lots of people milling about. Note: there was also an exceptionally clean and free public washroom in Richards Landing right across from their touching memorial to fallen soldiers from the area.

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One of the joys of a road trip by yourself is that you can do whatever you want. I took full advantage of this, and did a lot of detouring. The most beautiful and surprising stop was definitely Chutes Provincial Park, which I hadn't even heard of before this trip. It turns out to have stunning waterfalls and a long, empty beach. I felt really brave wandering through there by myself. I stood alone near the top of the waterfalls, feeling like the most powerful woman in the world just because I had made it that far on my journey. It may sound corny, but I think it's helpful to acknowledge your little milestones particularly when life may make you lean more into your limitations more often than not.

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My sense of empowerment quickly turned to a feeling of bemusement when I detoured off highway 17 to 17B in search of the world's biggest loonie. This huge loonie proudly stood there, off the side of the highway, straddled by a bakery named "Lucy Loo's" and a very long explanatory plaque throwing shade at Sudbury's Big Nickel. I found Northern Ontario to be very quirky - particularly in its street names, e.g. Seldom Seen rd. and Boozeneck rd. I also found it tricky to navigate at times because Google Maps lost reception multiple times, and in other instances it just flat out misdirected me. Before leaving for my destinations, I would always eyeball the map to have an idea of where I was going but it may be helpful to also have a hardcopy map on the seat beside you (if you're alone) so that you can pull over and reference that in times of need. Fortunately I wasn't in a hurry, and had flexible plans, so I was never too inconvenienced by the subpar virtual assistance but it's something to be aware of when you're planning a trip like this.

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The city of Sault Ste. Marie seemed poorly planned: why build a half-empty mall on the waterfront blocking the views of the water, but not offering views to it? Why not encourage more businesses to stay downtown, rather than the current hodgepodge of abandoned buildings, methadone clinic, dance studio and restaurants? It's definitely possible to take a nice short stroll along the boardwalk from the Roberta Bondar Pavilion, but it seemed like a missed opportunity not to have more parkland beside the water. The most beautiful area to wander had to be the small islands across from the Sault Ste. Marie Locks: Whitefish, North and South St. Mary's Islands. Apparently the Batchewana First Nations is working with Métis populations and the Canadian government to revitalize Whitefish Island National Historic Site so visitors gain a better understanding of its historical and geographical importance. After chatting with some locals downtown, I realized that the city itself is undergoing a revitalization. I was told that there's been a push to retain young people in the city, and try to make the downtown streets attractive to residents and tourists alike. One of the women explained to me that it's also important to consider the economic context there: the now-closed pulp mill used to be a significant source of revenue, as did the steel mill which has suffered from random closures (although it's supposedly open and fully-functioning now). I think more and more communities across Canada will be faced with the reality of economic/labour transitions, and two key strategies will need to be investments in other industries, and securing local advocates who want to back reform. These conversations were a good reality-check for me: ask and listen more before forming your opinion. Beyond that, it's even more helpful to observe rather than judge.

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On the theme of business initiatives, one of the locals I chatted with suggested I visit the Mill Market farmer's market on Saturday morning where I enjoyed a voipulla Finnish sweet butter bun. For reference, it's very close to the Sault Ste. Marie Locks, which were completed in 1895. At the time, it was the world's largest lock and the first to use electric power. It now runs mid-May to mid-October, and is a useful channel for the many boaters who want to visit northern Ontario and Michigan and Lake Superior or Lake Huron. I didn't spend much time in that area, as I was interested in visiting the sites around town participating in the Fall Rendezvous, like the Ermatinger Clergue National Historic Site. The event included historic reenactments, candy cannons, and Indigenous craft tables. I started my time there chatting with a man who was pretending to be an army engineer. He clarified how tense the ambiance there would have been during the War of 1812 given the proximity to the US (and he also explained that's why there was a fort on St. Joseph Island). It was kind of amazing hearing his perspectives on the war given that it ties back into what I learned in New Orleans when we visited Chalmette Battlefield. At the time, I found out that the Battle of 1815 only happened because news of the War of 1812 peace treaty hadn't traveled fast enough.

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Speaking of battle, I chatted next with a mid 1800s surgeon who talked about blood letting (they used to slit patients' wrists to draw pints of blood to cure them), amputations and how the steel industry developed so that barbers and surgeons could have the tools they needed for their trades. In this case, my experiences at the Surgeons' Hall Museums in Edinburgh came in handy because I already had some background on early surgical techniques. The volunteer was curious to hear about the exhibits there, and told me he would consider visiting (if possible). I moved on quickly to learn more about voyageurs and coureurs des bois - the people who came from Europe with supplies, and the middlemen who worked with those Europeans to trade with Indigenous peoples. I then left those volunteers to chat with a Métis woman and her friend who was a local historian. They talked to me about how different the land looked as settlement patterns changed, like how Métis people had ribbon lots of land which the government appropriated and then forced them to buy back (even though many couldn't afford it) so that they could redraw the city into a European grid design. They also talked a lot about identity, and how challenging it is to find your community. The Métis woman told me how proud she is to live in the Soo, an historic Métis community. At that point a French-speaking woman joined the conversation and told me she feels like there are still major challenges there in terms of "othering". In her case, she's been yelled at (to speak in English) while having conversations with her husband in French. This paralleled a conversation I had with an Indigenous woman there the day prior who told me that she had faced discrimination just for being Indigenous. It's frustrating when people look for an excuse to exclude others, rather than create a sense of community comprised of unique voices.

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I appreciated the conversations, but I also enjoyed the opportunity to work with my hands and just listen. I was fortunate to be able to make a moose hide braided bracelet, and also some porcupine quill crafts while there. The people teaching me were Ojibwe from Manitoulin Island. One of the people was a college lecturer who had a clear and kind voice. She talked to me about how they would traditionally use moose brains to soften the hide and make it more flexible when weaving bracelets. She also talked to me about how proud she is to share her culture with her students. She said it's encouraging when people come to places like Sault Ste. Marie and interact with contemporary First Nations communities, and hear their stories. I appreciated our conversations, and their humility. I feel it's a stark contrast to the arrogance I often see (and sometimes embody) in Toronto where you're rewarded for speaking loudly and brashly, rather than listening. One of the women I spoke with pointed out how much some people love to categorize and label everything, which can lead to dangerous questions of blood quantum rather than an emphasis on compassion and community. We need to become better at turning strangers into friends.

Driving through different neighbourhoods was insightful. For example, as I drove through the Garden River First Nation en route to the Soo, I paid attention to their signs: campaigning for a local election, honouring the missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada, and asserting their right to their lands through graffiti on a train track stating in bold font: "This is Indian Land". It's not surprising given that the Sault Ste. Marie area has been inhabited by First Nations people, specifically Ojibwe, for millennia (and still is). I found it interesting driving through the small towns like Bruce Mines too. I wish I had had more time to explore the different places, and get to know more residents.

On my trip back down south, I decided to stay on Manitoulin Island. The Island is home to six different Anishinaabe First Nations, and I wish I had been able to see more cultural sites - from theater, to art galleries. There just wasn't enough time to see what the island has to offer given how large it is: it's the largest freshwater island in the world, to the point where it even has 100 lakes of its own! I managed to explore its scenic sides by visiting lookouts like Macleans Mountain Lookout, Ten Mile Point, Hindman Park Lookout and Harold Noble Memorial Park (East Bluff Lookout). I also appreciated watching the second set of Bridal Veil Falls on this trip. It was an easy walk from the parking lot to the waterfalls, and I enjoyed witnessing their soft unified fall to the waters below. I found more still waters when I sat on a dock in Mudge Bay watching the sunset gracefully fall into the lake.

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Although there's a lot of natural beauty, I'd imagine there's a serious need for resilience in the north given the harsher terrain, climate and isolation. It can be hard at times not to romanticize regions like the north, but that can serve to undermine the gravity of their problems - especially when it comes to access to education, jobs, medicine, and safe standards of living. When you're alone on a trip like this you can't help but get lost in your thoughts, so I decided that I should listen to local radio stations to better inform those thoughts. On Manitoulin Island, I appreciated that a local radio station announced birthdays on the island and I listened carefully to the DJ's commentaries about religion and culture. The only people that I actually chatted with on the island were at the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Center. They suggested places for me to explore, and told me about some of the local cultural events. Unfortunately, almost everywhere I went was closed: from galleries to restaurants, my timing was off. Fortunately, I was on time for my ferry from South Baymouth to Tobermory. The journey was awful because of the harsh winds and strong rain, but we made it to land in just under two hours and I magically managed to avoid sea sickness. Tip for other people with motion sickness like me: try Gravol (dimenhydrinate), but limit your intake so it doesn't make you too drowsy to drive.

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I absolutely adore the area surrounding Tobermory, from Bruce Peninsula National Park to the Flowerpot Island. The hiking is incredible, and the wildlife is diverse (though I could do without another rattlesnake sighting). However, I didn't have time to explore more of this area on this short trip, so instead I stretched out my drive back to Toronto from Tobermory by visiting places like Wiarton (where the groundhog that predicts spring comes from), Flesherton, Mono, and Orangeville. Who wouldn't want to experience Mono, right? Maybe one day the town will go viral.

Anyway, I really did fall for Northern Ontario on this autumnal road trip. Fall is a beautiful time to wind your way through rural Ontario because many towns are hosting their fall fairs - so if you're into pie and apple cider, it's basically Christmas. And staring down into a canyon bursting with orange, red, yellow and green genuinely lifts your spirit. You forget the stress, congestion and pollution that looms over a place like Toronto, and remember what it means to breathe in life. This journey was emotional for me: I explored an unknown area on my own, and I struggled at times with my fears and health issues. I felt a certain amount of pride knowing that I set this goal of exploring the north as a solo female traveler with chronic health conditions, and managed to keep an open heart and mind while up there. I'm glad to have seen a different side of Ontario, and gained more context politically for what people are advocating for in terms of anti-racism, education, environmental protection, healthcare and social justice in northern areas. What struck me when I returned to Toronto was actually how hard it was to return the rental car - a sign that the trip was truly finished. I've realized since then that the trip isn't finished. When people ask me why I went up north by myself, I reopen those experiences and tap back into those memories letting them come rushing out like the beautiful waterfalls that I visited.

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Posted by madrugada 20:58 Archived in Canada Tagged waterfalls trains road_trip nature hiking fall ferries fall_colors tugboat sudbury island_time agawa_canyon agawa_canyon_tour_train northern_ontario sault_ste_marie the_soo dynamic_earth mining_towns manitoulin_island little_current scenic_road_trip indigenous_culture canyon_climb bridal_veil_falls Comments (2)

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