Cycling Ontario: To Thunder Bay

Cycling Ontario BRODIE CIRCUIT 2015

Kelly’s write up of cycling Ontario to Thunder Bay. Click here to check out Michael’s write up of biking through Ontario.

Cycling Ontario and it’s Lake-lands

Originally we had planned to dip into the USA and cycle the south side of Lake Superior. We had heard several horror stories about cycling Ontario, particularly the roads between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay, and though we’ve probably cycled worse roads in Iran and the Stans, we didn’t see the point in putting ourselves at unnecessary risk, especially when there were alternatives. So we headed to the USA border on highway 12 saying “goodbye” to Manitoba and the Prairies.

Highway 12 turned into highway 11 as we crossed into Minnesota in the USA. We followed this highway for 60km through the USA and back into Canada. The ride in the USA was absolutely horrible. It was 60km of hell, complete with thunderstorms, an extremely busy road and a hard shoulder with a rumble strip right down the middle, forcing us to cycle in the busy road.

Finally we made it back into Canada and started cycling Ontario! The road conditions immediately improved, and we couldn’t have been happier to be back.

Canada Won the Toss

The plan was to follow highway 11 through Ontario from Rainy River to Fort Frances (which was only a hundred odd km), then head back south into the USA, however our plans changed once we got a message from our German cyclists friends, Luisa and Jacque. They were also heading to Fort Frances, so we arranged to meet up at the campground. We caught up on stories, over what turned out to be Canada’s most expensive beer. They told us they were planning on taking highway 11 to Thunder Bay after locals told them that highway 17 was really dangerous. Michael and I looked at each, found a quarter and flipped on what to do. Heads go through the USA, tails (or I think it was a moose head) stay in Canada. It was the moose head! We were staying in Canada. Bring on cycling Ontario!

I learnt that the route we were following was known as “Mom’s Way” – the alternative route from Winnipeg to Thunder Bay, which (strangely) included the 60km stretch through the USA. It was a lot quieter, with less services than the more popular and direct route to Thunder Bay.

ontario by bicycle
Pretty obvious… exploring Ontario by bicycle!

Cycling with Friends

Surprisingly, though we have done a cycle tour before, Michael and I have not cycled with our cycle tourists that often (well it’s been twice, with the same people), so to cycle with other people was definitely a new and exciting experience for us. Unfortunately for us, Lusia and Jacque had been cycling about 8 weeks longer than us, and have covered a lot more distance, which meant we were the slower cyclists (mainly me being the slowest – which isn’t always fun). On top of that, my knee was starting to ache. However, it was still enjoyable cycling with others and time spent in the saddle definitely went a lot quicker. Hopefully, we’ll get the chance to cycle with others cyclists again (hint to any cyclists out there on our route).

The “Mom’s Way” route

The cycling Ontario from Fort Frances to Thunder Bay was enjoyable. The first night we spent on a First Nation’s reserve at Seine River. The locals were really friendly and even opened up the community centre to let us use the showers and fill up our water bottles. The second night we spent next to a lake, which meant we all got cold baths before bed. This is where Jacque taught us his trick of hiding his food bag in the (bear proof) bins, so the bears couldn’t get at it.

The last night to Thunder Bay was spent next to an ice cream van. We managed to cycle 115km in the heat, humidity and storms, and arrived at Shabaqua Junction hoping to find somewhere to camp. We found that, plus more! An ice cream van, complete with a cool chillout area was there to greet us. It was the perfect end to the day!

Camping at the First Nations reserve
Camping at the First Nations reserve

Lesson Learnt: Don’t drink and then set up the tent

Michael being the alcoholic that he is pulled then out a bottle of rum. I was feeling it after just one rum and ginger beer – and we still had to set up the tent and cook dinner. We somehow managed to do all this just in time for a huge thunderstorm to hit. This is when we learnt that we should not drink before setting up the tent – we set the tent up pretty wonky, and unfortunately we did get a bit wet!

After surviving the storm, we woke up in a rather wet tent. We decided to cycle 500m to a gas station and make breakfast there. Unfortunately, the gas station owners were jerks, but we did meet another cycle tourist, called Mike, who was also heading to Thunder Bay. It turned out he was also going to be staying with the same warmshowers’ host (5 cyclists in 1 warmshowers’ house – I hope he’s got a big house). Mike told us he started in Vancouver 3 weeks early, and was cycling something ridiculous like 150-200km. Personally, I can’t understand why you would even want to cycle that much – I don’t know how you would see anything along the way, and it must be so boring spending so many hours on the bike by yourself. You may as well just be driving or catch a plane. Anyway, each to their own!

So, we were on our way, all 5 of us stinky cyclists, heading to Thunder Bay – that last about an hour before Mike decided to zip on ahead to meet someone for lunch.

Thunder Bay

We stopped at Kakabeka falls along the way, and strolled into Thunder Bay just after 3pm. It was hectic! Thunder Bay was the biggest and busiest city we had been in since Regina, and it was safe to say we were no longer use to so much traffic.

We decided to stop in at Walmart, and then stop in at McDonalds (the German couple had somehow managed to score a $100 gift card for McDonalds, for free, from one of the owners). They kindly shouted us to a hot drink and treat. After that we headed to our warmshowers’ house, to meet our host, Frank. We had a great couple of days relaxing in Thunder Bay, and started to feel somewhat clean and normal, again.

Personally, I wasn’t overly impressed with Thunder Bay. It didn’t have a good vibe about it, and we didn’t find it particularly nice to cycle around. It did however have one of the most amazing dinner buffets EVER! Tokyo House – a Japanese buffet, only you order off the menu and they make it fresh for you. It was great! It was probably the best thing about Thunder Bay! Persians – a sweet kind of donut with pink icing topping, are also pretty good. Definitely worth trying if you happen to be in Thunder Bay.

After a few rest days in Thunder Bay, we said ‘goodbye’ to our host and our cyclist friends. They had decided to catch the bus for the next section of their trip. So, we hit the road, just the two of us and our bikes, ready to explore Lake Superior and continue cycling Ontario.

Are you planning your own self supported cycle tour? Check out this article about how to make money while cycle touring.

cycle tourists manitoba, Cycling Ontario
Our German cyclists friends – having lunch just after crossing into Manitoba