Anyone who admires the Group of Seven will relish the majestic landscapes they painted in Northern Ontario.
An invitation to a fishing trip in northern Saskatchewan gave me, as a budding artist several years ago, the opportunity to make the 580-kilometre drive on the Trans-Canada Highway along Lake Superior.
The hope was to experience what Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson encountered as they trekked through the rugged beauty: the vastness of the lake, the mesmerizing changes in light and colour. I felt overwhelmed, and ultimately inspired, by the stunning views.
Turning north from Sault Ste. Marie, a brief drive inland along Highway 17 brings you into great lush forests, river crossings and granite cliffs. You come around a bend and get a peek at the Great Gitche Gumee, the name given to Lake Superior by Henry Wadsorth Longfellow in The Song of Hiawatha, pulled from the Ojibwe’s “gichigami.”
As far as the eye can see, wind-swept pine and sharp granite cliffs jut into the lake. The highway hugs the shore, revealing gorgeous vistas on the bays, dark blue water on the horizon, shifting flashes of light, sculptured clouds, and teal-coloured waves rolling into the white-sand beaches.
To the east is Agawa Canyon. Frequented by canoeists and naturalists, the Agawa is a maze of lakes and mountains. In the fall, when nature switches on the colours, the region turns intensly brilliant: crystal blue sky, fire-red, blazing orange and violet hills.
The Algoma railway runs through the canyon, providing a comfortable seat to see the show. Lawren Harris (Autumn, Batchewana, 1918) and J.E.H. MacDonald (Falls, Montreal River, 1920) captured this rugged terrain boldly and beautifully.
The Big Goose
Past Lake Superior Provincial Park, the highway turns north to Wawa, and the Big Goose. It’s a good place to snap some pictures and have a coffee.
From here, the drive is inland until Marathon and the north shore of Superior. The road demands full attention as it sways and dips through spectacular scenery filled with lakes, rivers, majestic pines and cliffs. There are many passing lanes, but no one is in a hurry to do so.
At Marathon, the north shore of Superior appears. The southerly view is doubly impressive, the infinity of the body of water bewildering. Islands, shrouded by low clouds and late afternoon light, dot the horizon. A golden shine blankets Superior as the lake winds down for the night. Lawren Harris painted this view many times (From the North Shore of Lake Superior, c1923). Down the road is Terrace Bay, a lovely place to stop for a bite. Past the lighthouse is another fantastic view of Superior.
Next is Rossport, where the highway winds and dips down into town with more islands and bays to the left. The evening light breaks through, a violet blue glow cascading along the shore.
Probably the most northerly point on the drive, at the junction at Trans-Canada 17 and Highway 11 is Nipigon. It’s not visible from this road, but Nipigon is a gorgeous drive that travels through rolling hills and picturesque lakes and valleys.
Lake Nipigon, to the north, is a massive body of water that has abundant fishing. The route is dotted with small towns bursting with North Ontario flavour and colour.
With failing light, the massive granite cliffs are still visible, glowing purple and red. It is early evening and Thunder Bay is but a few kilometres away. Further along the highway, a sign trumpets the point where water begins to flow north – the Arctic water shed.
At Thunder Bay, the drive ends – unless you wish to continue southward towards Duluth, Minn. However, the drive from here to Kenora is an ongoing panorama of landscape and towns that flow into Lake of the Woods, which rivals Muskoka for its bounty of beautiful lakes and islands.
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