2 Weekends in a Row in Northwest Ontario

It has been over two years since I stepped on Canadian soil. My last visit was in April of 2019 before I took my current job. I knew it would be a while before I would accrue enough vacation to make another trip. I made sure to make the best of that trip.

I was living in Austin, TX, at the time, but Victoria and I planned to move back to Wisconsin. We would renew our lease another year (we were shooting to move in March 2021). When we received our lease renewal in December 2019, we decided to pull the plug and not renew it. We would move up a year early.

In the meantime, I made sure to maximize the time I had left in Texas. Since I only had about three months left, I decided I’d visit all 254 counties to say I saw “every inch of Texas.” I completed that trip in 52 days and mere weeks from when I’d be moving up to Wisconsin.

I was excited to move back to Wisconsin. Thunder Bay is one of my favorite places to visit. It would now “only” be an 8-hour drive each way from the Madison, WI area. I knew I’d be able to make several trips in the summer of 2020. I ended up getting the keys to our Wisconsin apartment on February 29th, 2020. We all know what happened a few weeks later…

…the border closed due to COVID, and there was no indication on when it would open. In the meantime, I holed up in my apartment. My job was already 100% remote. Besides being a hermit in my social life, everything else chugged along as usual.

I tend to be on the more cautious side of things, so I didn’t even get takeout for several months. I also got curbside pickup on my groceries. It wasn’t until about August when I started feeling a bit more comfortable venturing out. Finally, we had a better idea of how COVID was transmitted and the risks. I also knew I could mitigate most of these risks by traveling like a hermit. This would include sleeping in my car, paying at the pump, and packing all my food.

It had already been nearly a year and a half since I’ve visited my Canadian friends. The Facebook video chats were great, but I really wanted to visit in person. When you’re living like a hermit, you have a lot of time to think. So I got inventive and found that there were spots on Pigeon River that we could meet. We would be able to stay in our respective countries. This would effectively get around the border being closed.

The first trip was to the old border crossing. That location worked out well enough. However, I did find a second location at Grand Portage State Park that would be even better for my next visit. The in-person visits were nice, but they weren’t the same as hanging out in the same country. Shouting across the river still doesn’t have the same feel.

I anxiously waited for the border to open. It seemed every month they pushed it back another month or two. For the longest time, it seemed like it was never going to open. Then all of a sudden, the announcement came! On August 9th, they’d open the border to vaccinated Americans.

I received my second shot at the end of April, so I was good to go. August 9th was on a Monday, so I was tempted to be the “door beater” and get there right at 12:01 AM. However, I decided that probably wasn’t the best plan. It was too short notice to take off of work and also find a dog sitting arrangement for Maya.

I figured I’d just come up and visit two weekends in a row to work around my daily obligations back home. Yes, you read that right. I planned to drive 8 hours one way to Thunder Bay. I’d then spend the weekend there. After the short visit, I’d drive 8 hours back home to then do it again after a week of working.

The first thing I had to do was figure out the process to come to Canada. They required proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test within 72 hours of crossing. You also needed to fill out the ArriveCAN app. Of course, the biggest thing is timing everything right, but I was able to get everything in order. You can read about the process that successfully allowed me to cross twice here.

So come Friday, August 13th, I headed up to Thunder Bay after finishing work at 1 PM. It was a long drive up I-94 and US-53 through Wisconsin.

You may already know that I have a goal of visiting every county in the USA. So I left the visiting the Minnesota North Shore of Lake Superior counties for a trip up to Thunder Bay. On my way up, I first stopped at the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth.

I then headed south to visit Carlton County in Carlton. After the visit, there was a little backtracking to get back to MN-61. From there, I’d head up to the Canadian border.

Before you know it, I was in Canada! My due diligence paid off, and everything was good to go. I was able to fulfill the additional COVID crossing requirements. I was questioned a bit on why I was crossing so late (it was around midnight). When I explained that I left at 1 PM after I got done with work, that answer seemed to be sufficient.

I drove into Thunder Bay and stopped at the Metro grocery store on Arthur Street. This was actually the visit place I ever visited on my first trip to Thunder Bay. It provides a good place to park, get my bearings, and also message my friends that I’ve made it to Thunder Bay.

It was now close to 1 AM. I was going to meet my buddy Ryan at 7 AM to go exploring. I needed to figure out a place to sleep. I figured it wasn’t worth spending $100 for a few hours of sleep, so I found a boat landing with a view of Mt. McKay. There was a van there that had the same idea.

Before picking up Ryan, I headed to the ATM to get some Canadian currency.

I picked up Ryan, and then we started heading east towards Nipigon. He brought along his professional camera, and we were excited to explore and take a bunch of pictures.

We took a slight detour down Lakeshore Drive. The sun was pretty brutal!

We thought going to Ouimet Canyon would be cool, so we headed up the steep road to the park.

We realized that the hike would be at least 1-2 hours. In addition, we realized we would not have time with our plans to visit Nipigon, Red Rock, Silver Islet, and a few other places. So we turned around to head back to the main highway.

Before heading back to the main highway, we turned down a gravel road and checked out a wind farm.

We then got to the main highway. We noticed an abandoned hotel along the way, so we stopped to take some pictures.

Soon after that, we were in Nipigon!

Our first stop was Canada’s smallest Canadian Tire.

I decided I’d pick up some flammable windshield washer fluid. Even in Wisconsin, I’ve never seen something with a freeze point so low it’s flammable.

Our next stop was Zechner’s, the local grocery store. I was a bit hungry and got some pepperettes.

After that, we headed to the Nipigon General Store. We talked to Terry, the owner, for a while, and I bought some locally made fudge.

I always love going to Paddle to the Sea Park and the Nipigon Marina. Ryan had told me there was a turtle conservatory there, so we headed to the lagoon to see if we could spot some turtles. It was a very scenic walk!

Sadly, we did not see any turtles, but the views of nature were amazing!

We walked back to the marina, and I got a few more pictures.

We said goodbye to Nipigon and then headed to Red Rock.

The marina in Red Rock was pretty cool.

After the marina, we checked out the Red Rock Inn. Ryan is friends with Don on Facebook and wanted to say hi. We also wanted to see the incredible history of the place as it is well-preserved. The bar looks out of the 1950s, including a cigarette machine (which is now an ornament). Don let us look around and then told us about the days when Neil Young played there.

After checking out the Red Rock Inn, we made our way to Silver Islet. ON-587 is such a beautiful road to drive!

It didn’t take long, and we made it to Silver Islet!

We first checked out the store that has been operating for a good part of 150 years. It was closed for a few years until new management took over. They have since fixed everything up and brought it to its former glory.

After the store, we took the treacherous two-way one-lane road. It’s not really that treacherous. It just can be a challenge to drive when it’s busy. The nice thing is there’s a lot of courtesy there, so any person who can pull over to let the oncoming person pass will. I found plenty of places to pull to the side, and other drivers returned the courtesy.

One interesting thing is Silver Islet is fully off the grid. The first time I visited it, I just thought people were trying to be eco-friendly with all the solar panels. In reality, they are eco-friendly, but they need solar panels for power.

Silver Islet is such a scenic town, and there are many great views of Lake Superior!

It was great seeing Silver Islet, but it was time to keep heading towards Thunder Bay. We stopped at Crystal Beach Variety along the way. It’s always nice talking to John, the owner, and I love the old-school nature of his gas station.

After talking to John a bit, we hit the road, and Mackenzie Point was the next place we stopped.

Next up was the Terry Fox Memorial. If you don’t know about Terry Fox, it is an amazing story. Terry had lost his leg to cancer but still wanted to run a marathon a day to raise awareness for cancer. So for 143 days, he ran that marathon a day on his prosthetic leg. He achieved 3,338 total miles before stopping near this spot near Thunder Bay due to his cancer coming back.

Soon, I was back in Thunder Bay. I checked into the Prince Arthur Hotel and ended up getting room 533, which was on the corner of the top floor. It had amazing views!

I was hungry, and Babylon Quick Fix was a short walk from the Prince Arthur. This was the single place I absolutely wanted to visit on this trip. My buddy Kal had initially opened this to be a bar. But then, COVID hit and threw a wrench in the gears.

Now out of all people I’ve met, Kal has to be one of the most creative, especially when it comes to food and drinks. He could not open Babylon Lounge as a bar but was able to pivot and open it as a restaurant, hence Babylon Quick Fix.

I wanted to get the most Thunder Bay things I could, so I got a Persian waffle pop and a pierogi hotdog. I chose the surprise on the menu for a drink and told Kal to make the most Thunder Bay thing he could think of. He did not disappoint when he created an amethyst drink. It was based on blue raspberry, blueberry, grape, and lavender. Everything was excellent, and I can tell you this was super unique!

I dropped Ryan back off at home, and he was going to take a nap. So I had a little more time to do some exploring. As you probably know, I am trying to visit every county in the USA. Canada has its own set of “counties.” It’s a bit different than the USA, but there are sub-provincial divisions that can be visited.

The Extra Miler Club, which I belong to, has a goal of visiting every county in the USA. It has also defined these Canadian counties. So I am using that as a reference as I visit Canada’s counties. The USA is my priority, but I might as well if I can pick up some Canadian counties when I’m there.

Canada’s judicial system is different than the USA’s, so there isn’t always a county courthouse. Therefore, I decided to use city halls as my focal point instead of courthouses. The Thunder Bay District was the first Canadian “county” I visited. However, they did have a courthouse, so I visited the city hall and courthouse.

After that, I stopped by Maltese Grocery and Safeway to buy some Canadian groceries.

The sun was starting to set, and I went back to my hotel room. I sat for a few minutes to rest before I planned to meet up with some of my friends.

One thing that is different than past visits I’ve made is the capacity restrictions. A lot of bars have tables outside. So I met up with my friends Ryan and Matt on Red River Road, and we looked for a place where we could have a few drinks.

One thing about the capacity restrictions is it was hard to find a bar, not at full capacity. We tried four different bars that told us there was close to an hour’s wait for a table. Waterhouse was the 5th place we tried, and we were finally able to get a table.

I had a Caesar and a few Canadian beers as we caught up and talked.

We ended up staying out until about 1 AM. It was crazy how quiet things got. When I walked back to the Prince Arthur, I didn’t think I’d ever seen Red River Road this dead!

The next morning, it was time to hit the road and make it back to Wisconsin. I made sure to stop at Metro and get some more Canadian groceries, and then I headed to the border.

Before you know it, I was back in the USA! This border crossing was pretty painless.

I made sure to detour on my way down and visit the Cook County Courthouse.

I then made it to the Lake County Courthouse. This was actually a milestone courthouse as it was my 600th courthouse visited in the USA!

It was definitely a long drive home, but I made it back and then looked over all the Canadian groceries I had bought.

Now it was time to attend to the day-to-day life back home. That consisted of walking Maya every morning before work…

…changing oil…

…and getting a second COVID test.

I did the daily routine, and on Friday, I hit the road again at 1 PM.

Once I got a little north of Duluth, I stopped at one of my favorite gas stations. It’s an unattended Sinclair station that is very minimalistic. It represents the minimalistic nature that I travel, so I love to stop there. Also, I got stellar gas mileage on that way up!

 

I was soon on the road and traversing the tunnels and other scenery of MN-61.

The next border crossing was easier than the first. The border guard did make the comment that I was cutting it close. I only had 10 hours left on my COVID test results window. It does seem like timing is the most important thing right now with border crossing. I’m happy I timed it right, and soon I was driving ON-61.

I stopped at Metro again to get my bearings and then headed to the boat landing I had slept at last time.

Unfortunately, after about an hour of sleeping, some idiots came. They started honking their horn, and I couldn’t sleep. I ended up finding another boat landing to go to.

Ryan and I agreed to meet at 6 AM this time. Instead of heading east, we were planning on heading west. We’d visit Atikokan and Fort Frances. I picked Ryan up, and we hit the road. We made it to ON-11 and started a long drive west.

Along the way, we discovered where the Atlantic and Arctic watersheds meet.

Eventually, it started to rain. In many ways, the rain was good since there were a lot of wildfires around the area. We could smell the smoke in certain places, so it was good to know some relief was in sight.

We finally made it to the Rainy River District “county” line. You could tell it was a bit rainy at that time, so it lived up to its name.

Eventually, the sun did come out.

Right outside of Fort Frances was this little island next to the bridge. So we stopped and checked that out.

After a short stop of taking pictures, we made it into Fort Frances.

I found the city hall so I could officially count the Rainy River District.

As we looked around, we saw someone else had made the long drive from Thunder Bay (they are based out of Thunder Bay).

It was interesting checking out the marina and staring across the river into the USA.

We also drove up the road and checked out this campground\beach.

We then stopped by Safeway for a snack before we headed to Atikokan.

We started heading back on ON-11, and my tire pressure light came on. The lower temperatures must have brought the pressure down a little bit. Luckily, there was a gas station with air that I could fill the tires up.

One thing you always need to be aware of when driving in the Ontario wilderness is your fuel levels. They even remind you along the way since services are very limited.

We made it to Atikokan and decided to check the town out a little bit and find a place to eat.

The only restaurant that appeared to be open was The Outdoorsman Restaurant.

I got some poutine, and Ryan got a cheese pizza.

After eating, we hit the road and were soon back in the Thunder Bay District.

We did have a long drive to get back to Thunder Bay, but we were able to stop a few times and take in the scenery.

When we got back to Thunder Bay, I dropped Ryan off. I needed to head back to Wisconsin in the early morning, and the stores I wanted to go to wouldn’t be open. So I made sure to stop by Eatlocal Pizza to buy some hot sauce and also Metro.

I then wanted to check into the Prince Arthur but found out they didn’t have any rooms. So I drove over the Prince Arthur’s Landing to devise a plan.

I decided I’d meet up with Ryan and another buddy, Matt, at The Hodder. I’d then head back to the USA and find a rest stop to sleep at. I had some time to kill, so I headed over to that boat landing by Mt. McKay. It had gotten windy, and the smoke from the fires blew a bunch of smoke into Thunder Bay. The whole town smelled like a campfire.

I then picked Ryan and Matt up, and we went to The Hodder. I had a soda to caffeinate a little bit, and we talked for a while.

I dropped Ryan and Matt back off at home and then headed for the border. This border crossing ended up being interesting. It was around 11 PM. With the border is still closed for Canadians, I think I caught the US border guards off guard. I assumed nobody was really crossing around that time.

I had to wait a few minutes before they finally came out of the border shack and waved me to come forward. After that, I could tell I had the full attention of every border guard working there. In a short amount of time, they surrounded my car.

I was grilled with questions as they searched my car with me in it. The whole crossing took a while, but I was happy they finally let me cross so I could make my way back down to Wisconsin.

I drove for about an hour and found a rest stop to sleep at. I did catch a few pictures before going to bed.

The interesting thing is my phone never changed back from Eastern to Central time. So I ended up waking up an hour early and hitting the road. I guess that was good because I was on a time crunch to get to Marshfield for my dad’s birthday.

I made it to my parents’ house a bit early, and Victoria drove up from Madison. We celebrated with the standard Wisconsin fare.

After we left my parents, I decided to take the scenic way back. I figured I had seen some Canadian wilderness, so I’d take WIS-80 and see some Wisconsin wilderness.

After I got back, I unloaded my Canadian groceries.

Ryan had also given me some records, so I knew I was going to be busy listening to some good music. Of course, I’d also enjoy all the Canadian food I bought.

I can say it was a heck of an adventure! I got to check out both the Thunder Bay and Rainy River Districts. I clocked nearly 3,000 miles and over 50 hours of driving. I got to see a ton of stuff, and it was awesome catching up with friends that I hadn’t seen in forever in person!

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