Highway 17, the road not taken — sadly

Travel: Ontario’s Highway 17

Highway 17, which is the Trans-Canada Highway in Ontario, is surprisingly untravelled — mostly because Canadians know other countries better than they know their own.

 

Highway 17 sign

By Charley Gordon

If you’re tired of the predictable travel articles about beaches in Asia, castles in Europe and gourmet food just about anywhere, this is the travel article for you. It’s about good old Highway 17, the one you can drive for four days and still be in Ontario.

Highway 17, which is the Trans-Canada Highway in Ontario, is surprisingly untravelled. This is not because of the scenery, which is often magnificent, or the road itself, which is well-maintained and easy to drive. It is mostly because Canadians know other countries better than they know their own.

It’s a safe bet that more Torontonians have been to Bangkok than to Sudbury. For them, the north begins around Orillia and ends before North Bay. On their summer travels, they don’t get to Highway 17 at all.

Highway 17 begins at the Quebec border, as 417. It continues west through Ottawa and then, an hour northwest of the capital, loses two lanes and becomes simply 17, which it remains until 45 minutes west of Kenora, when it crosses into Manitoba and becomes Highway 1.

One nice thing about the highway is that you slow down to go through the small towns. Some, like Blind River and, later, Ignace, look vital, but not all of them are encouraging to look at. All the storefronts along the highway in McKerrow, west of Sudbury are shuttered, with the exception of the gas station/convenience store — oh, that’s closed too. The railway was once a big employer for many of the towns along Highway 17. Now it is not. Pulp and paper created thriving communities. Few of them thrive now. You are now actually happy to encounter the acrid sulphur odour at a place like Dryden, because it means that the mill is in operation.

In one short stretch just west of Sault Ste. Marie are three closed motels, one closed tavern, one closed grocery story and one closed restaurant. All through Northern Ontario are closed gas stations, deserted restaurants and motels, the sagging remnants of someone’s dream. Some of them were killed by the growth of chains. Some of them died because the communities around them did.

In one short stretch just west of Sault Ste. Marie are three closed motels, one closed tavern, one closed grocery story and one closed restaurant. All through Northern Ontario are closed gas stations, deserted restaurants and motels, the sagging remnants of someone’s dream. Some of them were killed by the growth of chains. Some of them died because the communities around them did.

There are all kinds of reasons businesses fail. It could be the dollar. When the Canadian dollar soared a few years ago, fewer Americans crossed at Sault Ste. Marie or International Falls. The same thing happened when security tightened at both borders. Many Americans don’t have passports. That hurt Mom and Pop motels, family-owned restaurants and gas stations — there are no deep pockets here; one bad season can spell disaster.

The trend has been heading in this direction for decades. When cars started getting better mileage, drivers didn’t have to stop so frequently. When the big chain hotels opened in the cities and larger towns, the motels in between took a hit. Trailers and campers took away some business too. When better coolers were invented, freezer packs, more people could picnic beside the road, rather than eat in a restaurant.

Currently and historically, the odds are stacked against the small roadside business. Yet many of them survive. In more than 20 years of driving along Highway 17, I’ve seen lots of them. A few years ago we found a place in Iron Bridge, 100 kms east of the Soo, that serves a good breakfast. Twenty kms west of it is a motel, the Carolyn Beach Motel, that we’ve been going to each year. It is now in its third ownership since we started going there. The second owners decided that the key to success was fine dining. They improved the menu in their restaurant. It didn’t seem to make much difference to the business. The food was more interesting but it took longer. Maybe that’s not what people on the road want. Maybe they just want something nourishing and quick — spaghetti, a steak sandwich, fried chicken.

The food served under the new owners is standard roadside fare, not very interesting. But it gets to the table faster. The motel seems to be doing about the same. My guess is that it survives because of the view. The sunset over the North Channel of Lake Huron is memorable.

A good travel article would be letting you in on undiscovered treasures, great places to get a meal along Highway 17. I can tell you where the good western sandwiches are, where the staff are friendly to people’s grandchildren. But great food? That’s not what the highway is about.

Although, come to think of it, there is a pretty good little restaurant in Rossport, a tiny village on Lake Superior between Marathon and Nipigon. Rossport used to be known for its fishing and for great lake trout at the Rossport Inn. Now the Inn has closed its restaurant, leaving only one, the Serendipity, in town. The Serendipity has great lake trout too, if you get there early enough. The only other businesses in Rossport are two B&Bs, a gift shop and a pottery studio. There are said to be only 60 residents of the village. But the B&Bs and the restaurant are always busy. There is something about Rossport, the quiet, the little bite in the Lake Superior air when you get out of the car.

Starting out from Ottawa, the thrill is the idea of going north, into the wilderness. You look eagerly for signs of wilderness and north. It starts to feel about bit northish once you’re past the farms of the Ottawa Valley. And there is a sign: “722 kms to Wawa.” That’s the town famous for stranding hitch-hikers in the ‘60s.

North Bay, four hours away, has the right sort of name. But you drive through on a four-lane highway, past chain hotels and restaurants, universities and colleges. Nothing wild here.

But then, just west of the city, past the vastness of Lake Nipissing, is the the first sign warning of moose. Moose! Now, I have to admit that there are moose near Ottawa, on the road to Montreal. And I also have to admit that it was many years ago that I last saw a moose on Highway 17. But hope springs eternal. And early this spring there was a news story about a fatal collision with a moose near Sudbury. That was encouraging. The bugs were said to be making the moose crazy in the bush and driving them out onto the highway.

On 17 you don’t get the touristy northiness that you see on the highways 11 and 69 leading north from Toronto — roadside establishments with phoney teepees, stuffed beaver and fudge. This is a true north, to coin a phrase.

North approaches with a gradual disappearance of farmland and encroachment of shield. Also encouraging, in a peculiar way, is an encounter at a restaurant/general store by a campground just west of Deep River, where the power has gone out. That feels like wilderness. The proprietor hands me a flashlight to find the washroom, with a kind of relaxed cheerfulness that I associate with northern people.

On 17 you don’t get the touristy northiness that you see on the highways 11 and 69 leading north from Toronto — roadside establishments with phoney teepees, stuffed beaver and fudge. This is a true north, to coin a phrase

The Sudbury bypass, from which you could exit to Toronto if you felt you had to, usually features the parked cars of blueberry pickers, another sign that you’re not in Central Canada any more. This year, they were scarce, as were the usual roadside blueberry stands on the way home three weeks later. At Thessalon, the water of Lake Huron is too cold for anyone but grandchildren to swim in, but we have not yet left the world of Central Canadian cautiousness behind, an example being the world’s least helpful highway sign: go here DRIVE ACCORDING TO CONDITIONS. Another example, a sign in a provincial park: source url WATCH CHILDREN NEAR WATER.

The road is mostly two-lane but passing lanes are frequent. You can make some time if you feel you must. Between Ottawa and Kenora I spotted only three OPP cars. That may explain why everybody is going 120. As for construction, once a source of dread, it’s not bad, certainly far less troublesome than summer in Toronto or Ottawa. Mostly now it’s one-lane bridges with traffic lights. The first flagperson is not spotted until Nipigon, on the third day of the drive.

*   *   *   *

Lake Superior appears soon after Sault Ste. Marie, a city you have to drive through that puts you back into civilization for about half an hour. Then you drive out, pass some abandoned restaurants and motels, some camp grounds, come over a rise and there it is.

Lake Superior is big, more an ocean than a lake. Your first couple of hours are spent, for the most part, driving at lake level. You are down low and seeing beaches and cottages and entrances to the beaches, campsites and trails of beautiful Lake Superior Provincial Park. The beaches are good picnic spots and a someone with the constitution of a grandchild can brave the water.

Then you go inland, at Wawa, for a two-hour stretch that Lake Superior aficionados find dull, but there is a series of small lakes that are nice to look at. The halfway point of that stretch is White River, once notorious for being the coldest place in Canada, now attempting to grab tourist attention as the birthplace of the bear that inspired Winnie the Pooh. There is an A&W and perhaps the most expansive gas on the trip. That’s another sign that you’re in the north: expensive gas. Another sign, more of a problem for some than for others, is the absence of CBC 2 on the radio. You can find CBC 1 but it keeps shifting on you.

That’s another sign that you’re in the north: expensive gas. Another sign, more of a problem for some than for others, is the absence of CBC 2 on the radio. You can find CBC 1 but it keeps shifting on you.

Not long after White River you pass gold mines — gold mines! — and soon, at Marathon, the lake reappears. Now you are high above and the lake is truly spectacular, from here to Thunder Bay, three hours later. There is a lot of up and down and around on the highway. Cruise control is not recommended. Fortunately there are many passing lanes and you won’t be stuck behind that Winnebago for very long.

Rossport is here, worth a look. Later on is Nipigon, famous for its proximity to the launching of the canoe in Paddle to the Sea. I went looking for that spot about 20 years ago and more or less found it. Now there is a Paddle to the Sea Park downtown which I haven’t seen. Nipigon also has a sign boasting, if that is the word, the smallest Canadian Tire in the country. It is small, but friendly and entirely adquate. Wonder how long it will stay. If Canadian commercial patterns hold it will probably be killed by a huge big box complex on the outskirts of town featuring a new and bigger Canadian Tire that will destroy downtown.

Just outside Thunder Bay and slightly off the highway is a large memorial to Terry Fox. There is a statue overlooking a particularly breathtaking vista of the lake, plus an information centre and bathrooms.

As for Thunder Bay itself, you can either skirt it, on a rather boring Highway 102, or drive through it, which is not difficult and has the added advantage of taking you to Kakabeka Falls, another lovely spot, a good place for a picnic and with lots of room for kids to run around.

Then it gets dull, as even Highway 17’s greatest fans admit. The lake disappears, the road straightens and flattens out and you see more than enough spruce trees. When a highlight is a roadside monument marking the change from Eastern to Central Time, you know you’re in trouble, scenery wise.

But around Dryden, some two hours later, things pick up. The lakes reappear, lots of them, and they accompany you on the hour and a half it takes to get to Kenora and the extremely large and beautiful Lake of the Woods. You can bypass the town, which is quite large and slow to drive through, but it is an interesting town with a main street that has changed little in the last half century. Except that many of the stores that sold useful things have been replaced with stores that sell knick-knacks, scented candles and T-shirts with not clever sayings on them.

You will also miss, if you bypass Kenora, the statue of Husky the Musky which overlooks Kenora Harbour, fascinates children and adorns many coffee mugs.

Now you’re in the home stretch. About 45 minutes-worth of hilly two-lane highway, with occasional views of the lake, take you to the Manitoba border, where Highway 17 becomes Highway 1. Manitoba displays a showy switch to four lanes right at the border, but the two lanes soon resume. Soon enough though, it’s straight ahead, four lanes all the way to Winnipeg.

A few weeks later we’ll turn around and do the whole thing again in reverse, at the end of summer. Amazingly, we look forward to it. You probably would too. If you must, you can have something gourmet when you get home.

Highway 17 continues in The Ex-Press…

To watch the NFB documentary version of Paddle to the Sea, click here

THE EX-PRESS, October 26, 2015

-30-

No Replies to "Highway 17, the road not taken -- sadly"