Story by Maureen Littlejohn
SAULT STE. MARIE, ONTARIO — Think about the Group of Seven, those iconic Canadian artists whose work can be seen everywhere from postage stamps to gallery walls, and visions of craggy outcroppings, winding rivers, cascading falls, endless forests and spikey evergreens come to mind. This is exactly what you’ll find in the northern Ontario region of Algoma — along with fabulous fresh-water fishing and delicious food.
Algoma spreads north of Sault Ste. Marie, west along Lake Superior and east along Lake Huron. If you’re headed up that way, a trip to Agawa Canyon on the historic Algoma Central Railway is a must. Not only is it stunningly beautiful, it’s where members of the Group of Seven went to paint many of their remarkable works including “Little Falls” by J.E.H. MacDonald, “Fire-Swept Algoma” by Frank Johnston and “Above Lake Superior” by Lawren Harris. The artists, who began frequenting the area after the First World War, travelled in a custom-made boxcar rented from the railway. This became their home once they reached their wilderness destination and started to paint. In Sault Ste. Marie there is a replica of the boxcar by the train depot, plus you can see the painterly fruits of some of the collective’s expeditions at the Art Gallery of Algoma.
Sault Ste. Marie is a thriving northern community with plenty of activities to keep visitors busy. At the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre you can admire 27 heritage aircraft including a Canadair CL-215 water bomber made by Bombardier Aerospace in Montreal and used to fight forest fires in southern France and Corsica. There is also a flight adventure simulator with three different four-minute flights and a Women in Aviation exhibit highlighting the careers of women in flight, including Eileen Vollick, the first Canadian female pilot, and astronauts Dr. Roberta Bondar and Julie Payette.
The Sault Ste. Marie Canal Historic Site, managed by Parks Canada and used as a shipping route from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Superior, was designated a National Historic Site in 1987. Built in 1895, the canal’s history is shared by Parks Canada guides and you can even rent fat bikes to explore the nearby trails.
There is also the city’s Heritage Discovery Centre with an exhibition covering the War of 1812, plus a gift shop. If you have a group of 10 or more, the site offers a Group of Seven dinner theatre option. Moments in Algoma is a 25-minute, one-man show inspired by the letters and reflections of the founding members of the Group of Seven during their first visits to Algoma in 1918.
One thing I love about the north is the proximity of clean, refreshing streams, rivers and lakes. Drive 20 minutes west of Sault Ste. Marie and you can dip your toes in the water at Pointe des Chenes, where St. Mary’s River meets Lake Superior. Travel northwest for an hour along the shores of Lake Superior and you’ll find Batchawana Bay and Pancake Bay Provincial Park with 3.5 kilometres (2.2 miles) of sandy shore and 325 campsites. There’s a viewing platform where you can see the spot where the ship that singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot memorialized, the Edmund Fitzgerald, sank in 1975.
Food and Drink in Sault Ste. Marie
These days, most destinations have a distinguishing craft brewery and Sault Ste. Marie is no exception. Northern Superior Brewing Company produces signature suds and its tap room offers an “After Work Party” with local entertainment every Friday. Another hot, hipster hang out is OutSpoken Brewing’s Taphouse where you can sample Rabbit’s Foot India Pale Ale or some of the Reserve Batch.
Then there’s the region’s food. At Frank and Gail O’Connor’s Voyageurs Lodge & Cookhouse in Batchawana Bay, people line up regularly for the Friday Night Fish Fry. A summer tradition, the locally sourced white fish and lake trout is wrapped in bacon and served with a wild blueberry horseradish dipping sauce made by Algoma Highlands Wild Blueberry Farm. If you go, make sure you try some of Gail’s oven-baked bannock that comes with all the entrees. “I learned to make it when I was in Girl Guides,” Gail told me. Since her oldest child is now 30, I figured she’s been perfecting the flatbread recipe for a few years.
Around 45 km (28 miles) east of Sault Ste. Marie is St. Joseph Island with 15 maple syrup producers. For those of us with a sweet tooth, the good news is that key ingredient is used in many local dishes. “I’ll let you in on a secret, it’s what we use in our butter tarts instead of corn syrup,” Heather Bot, who works with the Algoma Country tourism office, told me. Some of her favourite spots to indulge in the gooey treats are Bobber’s Restaurant in Bruce Mines, Joanna’s Bakery in Thessalon and the Butter Tart Shack in Echo Bay.
Another regional, summer treat is blueberries. Algoma Highlands Wild Blueberry Farm grows a mighty annual crop and stocks many of the area’s gift stores and other outlets with delicious jams, sauces and syrups. Plus, the company will be producing blueberry wine soon.
When it comes to walking off the calories, there are loads of hiking trails to choose from. Right in Sault Ste. Marie the 191-acre Fort Creek Conservation Area has wetlands and paved paths, popular for jogging, biking and dog walking. A little farther out, Hiawatha Highlands offers 35 km (22 miles) of hiking trails winding under fragrant pines.
The Algoma region is laced with memorable scenery, outdoor activities and tasty bites. A Northern Ontario summer paradise that inspired the Group of Seven 100 years ago, the area is filled with a natural beauty that is likely to refresh and inspire you, too.
MORE ABOUT SAULT STE. MARIE
Getting There: Sault Ste. Marie Airport is serviced by Air Canada, Porter, Sunwing and Bearskin Airlines. Non-stop flights from Toronto take a little over an hour. If driving, go north on Highway 400 (turns into Highway 69) to Sudbury, then west on Trans-Canada Highway 17. Distance from Toronto is 691 km (430 miles) and the drive takes approximately eight hours. If you’re driving from Thunder Bay, take Trans-Canada Highway 17 east, distance is 700 km (435 miles).
Where to Stay: The Water Tower Inn (360 Great Northern Road). Independently owned and part of the Best Western Premier Collection, the inn offers pet-friendly rooms and Club Cabana Aqua Spa with four pools and whirlpools (one is outdoors, four seasons). Room Rates: Queen guest rooms without breakfast start at $125 per night ($139 with breakfast). Website: watertowerinn.com.