As we look back at the articles we've been posting since our trip began we notice that our focus has been on the natural beauty of the area that surrounds us. We focus on the friendly people, the unique attractions, our reactions to the beautiful wilderness along the way. As it is, we have been conveying our journey through rose coloured glasses. We have only beensharing the best of our experiences, but we are not conveying the whole truth, only part of it. Now, we shall take a moment to share the other half of the truth; the reality that makes up the large part of Northern Ontario.
I grew up in Campbellford in Southern Ontario, the largest town surrounded by many smaller towns that in many ways rely on and contribute to the small yet bustling economy there. When I left home I moved to Ottawa, the capital of our nation; a large city with a hometown feel. Braden grew up in South East Oakville, one of the most affluent small cities in Ontario, if not in all of Canada. Although poverty existed to some extent in all of these places, we were not keenly aware of its presence. In many towns and cities in Southern Ontario, you can simply turn your back to the impoverished neighbourhoods and ignore the poverty that exists there; face the other direction. The ability to do this in Northern Ontario is greatly diminished. After leaving the Lake Huron area and moving North, past Owen- and Perry Sound; past, even, Penetanguishene and Sault Ste. Marie, you find yourself in small towns made even smaller by the fact that many of their businesses and social services have hung up their CLOSED signs for good.
On the map, an increasing number of towns are marked by "community" markers instead of "town and city" designations. These communities are mostly made up of abandoned roadside motels, closed general stores and boarded up family restaurants. Even so, many of the larger places marked as towns or cities (often with a population estimated between 500-3000 individuals in the surrounding area), are made up of anemic downtown cores in which half of the businesses are no longer open or operate under seriously reduced hours, we can only assume, to save money on operating costs. The houses here are mostly cubes, finished with vinyl siding or, in some extreme cases, painted insulation. They are cheap and utilitarian. In many communities, not one house is made of brick or stone, or even log. In Wawa, the library was closed at 1:30 in the afternoon in the middle of the week, and even their Laundromat (a business that we had previously assumed would be an automatic, albeit small, success) was no longer open for business; it's interior filled with junk, hardware, and dust. Here, sinks in the public bathrooms refused to give us water.
As we continued West on the Trans-Canada Highway, a shocking number of motels and rest stops were boarded up, vandalized, and crumbling; skeletons of their former selves. We ponder over these. Opening a business, no matter where you are is a costly and risky endeavour. Some of these operations are two storey motels, featuring a connected office building, each unit with their own bed, plumbing, and likely a desk, chair, telephone, curtains, and perhaps even a TV or radio. In the case of a restaurant, this would also include all of the kitchen equipment, tables, licenses and inspections. The start-up cost would be astronomical but in every case, hopefully, worth it. Perhaps the owners hedged their bets and took out a large mortgage in the hopes that this might be their retirement fund, their ticket to a fortune; surely along these long, lonely stretches of Northern Ontario highway weary travellers will need a clean and affordable place to lay their heads. How many of these entrepreneurs went bankrupt? How many simply abandoned their life's work, unable to sell their properties and businesses? Why do so many of these establishments fail? We believe that the answer, unfortunately, is just down the road.
In so many cases, only meters down the road, big chain restaurant and gas station conglomerations have parking lots full of cars. Why stop in the town and go to the little cafe, independent gas bar, family run restaurant, or roadside motel when you could go to a place that is familiar, even if it isn't all that exciting? Isn't it just easier to stop at a Holiday Inn, a Tim Hortons, a Wendy's, or an Esso? Isn't it even easier still if you don't have to get off the highway to do so? If you venture further into town, often you find independently owned hardware and grocery stores have closed their doors, unable to compete with the big names of Canadian Tire, Home Hardware, Loblaws, and Sobeys. Small cafes bow to Starbucks and Tims. Local pharmacies give way to expansive Shopper's Drug Marts. The list goes on forever, and herein lies the death of the small town and the small businesses that are their lifeblood; North Ontario or otherwise.
The trouble is these big name options are no better than their smaller, locally owned and operated counterparts, and on a personal level they're worse. Case in point, in Nipigon (a much larger town than many others we encountered at a whopping 2000 inhabitants), we decided to stop in a tiny cafe near the waterfront to use their WiFi so that we could post a new article. The owner, a young man named Dan, approached us, his new baby on his hip. "Where you guys comin' from?", he asked us. We chatted with him about our plans for travel and asked him to recommend a "must-see" in the Nipigon area. He recommended an old trestle bridge near a small community off the highway called Pass Lake, drawing up a very rough map on two separate piece of paper. This has been the single coolest, most breathtaking, most exhilarating, very off-the-map tourist "attraction" we have EVER been directed to. We found ourselves on an abandoned train bridge, at least 200 feet high above a valley, with vistas of Lake Superior and the Boreal Forest spreading out around us as far as the eye could see. Below us, and between the gaps in the railway ties, the tips of the towering pines pointed up at us from below. I suspect, had we gone to a Tim Hortons, no employee would have approached us, no local tips bestowed, and no tangible joy extracted from the experience. We have discovered that it is well worth it to take the extra fifteen minutes to drive into town and stop for a coffee and a bathroom break at a small independent business and chat with the locals about the town in which they live. No one knows better where to go or what to see.
It would be unfair, though, to place the blame for the crumbling of small town economies solely on the backs of these Big Box Giants. In some cases, the towns that we visited were established in the infancy of Canada itself. They were built around mining and logging operations, railway hubs, old shipping ports and government docks, many of which are irrelevant in today's society. Being so far north, with an antiquated economy, the towns slowly shrink. Residents move South to more prosperous areas hoping to find work, and young people move away to go to school in the big cities. Those left behind rely on people passing through to spend money in their towns, and unfortunately, we don't.
Also at fault is the fact that the north shore of Lake Superior, for some reason is far less treasured as a destination by comparison to other beautiful areas of Canada like the Gaspe, the Cabot Trail or the mountains of BC. Undoubtedly, Lake Superior is amazingly beautiful; on par with the vertigo inducing cliffs of Forillon National Park, the winding roads and ocean views of the Cabot Trail, and the lush rain forests, rolling hills and jewel-like lakes of BC's interior. Why is this area not as widely talked about with the same language that is used for other beautiful areas of the country? I do not have the answer, but I urge you to come and see the beauty that awaits in the vast expanse that is Ontario.
It is a shame that these once beautiful, small, bustling towns on the biggest lake in the world are falling into poverty and disrepair. Yet, there is hope for reinvigoration, and it lies in our hands. We must take the time to make the drive part of our trip, not just the means to our destination. It is difficult sometimes break out of our old habits, inconvenient to spend our precious time searching out local haunts and mom and pop operations, but it is worth it. Follow the old adage and take the road less travelled, and heed the advice of the license plate of the traveller in front of you; Ontario, it's yours to discover.