Thunder Bay is the Martial Arts Capital of Canada

A little over a week ago I settled into my 1998 Jaguar early in the morning with my thirteen year-old son, who was already wearing the innocuous white air pods so common among today’s youth. I turned right, out of my neighborhood, and headed north on US-23 toward Sault St. Marie. The plan was to circumnavigate Lake Superior, see a moose if we were lucky, and meet up up with family in Brule, Wisconsin.

Because the route is a circle, there was no destination per se; though the logical start and end point would naturally be the same. However, when we hit Thunder Bay, Ontario a little more than 1000 miles later, it felt like the destination since it marked the furthest point from home as the crow flies. It therefore became in hindsight the “there” before the “and back again” as J.R.R. Tolkien might have described, though only for the convenience of being able to identify where we went on vacation to friends.

“[You’re] one brave soul traveling more than twenty miles from home in an older Jaguar,” commented one friend after he learned of my anticipated journey; said another, “You have AAA, right?” I don’t by the way, and am not sure how this may have helped if I became stuck in the middle of nowhere in Canada, but that’s beside the point. Instead, these common refrains fell upon deaf ears for I have successfully completed previous road trips without incident and intended to do so for the foreseeable future.

Driving US-23 and then Interstate 75 from Columbus was fast and easy, if not exceedingly boring. I’ve always maintained that multiple lane highways were built solely to transport goods quickly from one place to another; they are not designed to leisurely experience the people and places through which they were set. That’s not to say one can’t leave the highway and immerse themselves in local flavor; we did that very thing when we stopped in Frankenmuth for dinner — Winner Winner Chicken Dinner! However, my experience is that side trips off major thoroughfares are generally planned excursions, as opposed to extemporaneous exercises off the proverbial beaten path. For me, this dilutes the organic experience of the roadtrip, though I freely admit we benefited from the opportunity of speed and arrived at the starting point of our real journey in a single day.

It is at the Straights of Mackinac where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron converge; a mere 70 miles further north, Gitchigumi joins the party. From here, three of the Great Lake Circle Tours can begin or end. Among the T-shirt and fudge shops at Mackinaw City, and from beneath the shadow of the beautiful Mackinaw Bridge, we did both.

As luck would have it, we crossed the Marie International Bridge into Sault Ste Marie, Ontario on July 1; Canada Day. This was not the original plan, as I earnestly searched AirBnB options in Michigan for that evening, intending to visit the Soo Locks and eat at Antlers. Unable to find a suitable place to stay, I “called an audible,” booking a quaint loft apartment in downtown Sault Ste Marie on the Canadian side of the border instead. With a look toward my son that exclaimed, “What the hell, let’s see what there is to do over there!” we ventured forth to unexpectedly celebrate Canadian independence and eat at the Sault Ste Marie Poutinefest, which was in full swing just three short blocks from our apartment! Buffalo Chicken for my son; Buttered Lobster for me.

The next morning as we traversed the two-lane stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway between Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay I couldn’t help but consider how beautiful were my surroundings. With few settlements along the way, it was mostly uninterrupted scenery the entire 700 kilometer drive. It was as though Canada took the beautiful bits of the United States and amped it up a bit, so much so that by the time I reached the Minnesota lakeshore a few days later, that just didn’t resonate the way it had once before. In addition to hiking trails, there were waterfalls, gorges, and so many scenic views of Lake Superior that threatened to extend the long drive to Thunder Bay beyond the long day I had planned if I kept stopping; a sentiment that was shared by a couple I met when I stopped for gasoline in White River, home to Winnie-the-Pooh.

Descending into Thunder Bay eight hours later, my first impression was that of an old industrial town wanting desperately to shed itself of that image; where even though it’s the largest city on Lake Superior, population growth seemed more a function of birth rate than incoming U-Haul. The most dominant sight is Nanabijou, a natural geologic formation on Sibley Peninsula across the bay from the city that resembles a giant lying on its back sleeping; it is the area’s most well-known natural wonder and is visible from nearly every vantage point in Thunder Bay. It is a seemingly perfect unofficial mascot to an equally sleepy city.

Modern condominiums lining Prince Arthur’s Landing and ongoing revitalization in the Waterfront District quickly challenge this assertion. There are a number of good restaurants, funky shops, and art galleries clearly aimed at a younger, dare I say Hipster crowd that would take more than a few weeks to work through. The number of proudly displayed rainbow hued flags makes a clear statement that this is not some stodgy, unaccepting place to be, though interestingly the Historical Bay & Algoma Neighborhood where this is strongest is also the same area that retains Thunder Bay’s past: its Finnish influence.

The first Finns settled here in the 1870’s and has subsequently established the largest population of Finnish descendants per capita in Canada, second by shear numbers only to Toronto, which has just 240 persons more. In fact, the Finnish presence in Thunder Bay is so significant that the country of Finland established a consulate here, just down the road from the world famous Hoito Restaurant where we sampled some Finnish style pancakes (they were fantastic!).

When we departed for the boarder just 45 miles away, grabbed a Thunder Bay style Persian and made a quick visit to Kakabeca Falls. It was July 3 and it was time to celebrate Independence Day back in the states, so a quick bee-line along Minnesota’s North Shore loomed ahead. Ironically, while viewing the falls we witnessed a bald eagle feeding.

The remainder of our trip around Lake Superior was beautiful in its own right, but somehow lacked the grandeur of the Northern side. The road was more congested and for the first time we had somewhere to be; first to Brule, Wisconsin for some time with family and then again when we left Brule to head home. That’s not to say there aren’t memorable stops along the way. Duluth is one of the coolest small towns in America and the Brule River is an outdoor playground. Bayfield, Wisconsin and Marquette, Michigan are worth stopping at as well for both natural and man-made summer and winter activities. But we simply drove through, saving those for another trip because as it turned out, Thunder Bay was the destination after all.

By the way, Thunder Bay is indeed the martial arts capital of Canada.

Who knew?

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