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Back Roads Bill: Red Lake, gold country and other gems

This week Bill, as a tourist, takes us to Red Lake – like other Northern Ontario communities it has its share of gems

When you leave home and travel a short distance away from your usual routine you become a tourist. When you poke around you find interesting stops as you, yet again, visit another Northern Ontario community.

One example is Red Lake a long way to go almost at the end of the road. There is the natural and cultural heritage of the area, the real gems to be found and appreciated on the back roads and waters. There is more than a handful of “neat things” to discover.

It is such a dichotomy. The total population of the group of communities – Red Lake, Balmertown, Cochenour, McKenzie Island, Madsen and the near, almost ghost town of Starratt-Olsen is four thousand people.

In keeping with the whole of northwestern Ontario, almost half of the entire area of our province is inhabited by less than four per cent of Ontario’s total population. At the same time, the area is one of the richest.

In 1995 Goldcorp (now Evolution) then owners of the Red Lake Mine discovered the world's richest grade gold ore (two troy ounces of gold per metric ton).

Artist’s footsteps

So off you go. In Red Lake, you can stand precisely where Group of Seven artist, A.Y. Jackson sketched and then painted the Dickenson Mine painting. You can see his effortless style, featuring rolling rhythms and rich, daring colours, He often chose industrial themes when painting as a commercial artist.

Alexander Young Jackson, a founding and leading member of the Group of Seven, was recognized during his lifetime for his contribution to the development of art in Canada. All his life Jackson remained a leading proponent of the Group's land-based nationalism.

Red Lake was one of his stops in 1953. He gave a talk there and was remembered for: “Neatness in painting is not a virtue.”

At the time his works were well sought after. For the mine painting take #105 to #125, turn east onto Mine Rd. in Balmerton. This road will intersect with Dickenson Rd. at the arena. You will end up in a small parking lot in front of what was the main office of the mine. The parking lot overlooks the mine.

By the fence to the NW, on the hill, would be where he sketched the mine. His nearby April Faulkenham Lake painting location is just a few km to the west of Red Lake and just off Highway #618. You can also stand in the spot where the artist sketched/painted The Break up Snib Lake Huile.

Rock collection

If you like rocks and want to see one of the best collections of museum quality visit the Erle Crull Rock and Mineral Collection at the Municipal Office in Balmertown. Donated by the family there are over 2,600 specimens of various rocks and minerals to view, including real gold samples.


Like the Abitibi River ferry near Cochrane, Red Lake has the Miss McKenzie II. The passenger ferry connects 70 McKenzie Island residents to the mainland at Cochenour-Red Lake It is removed seasonally when the Bruce Channel begins to freeze. When the ice reaches the required thickness the Municipality begins maintaining an ice road to allow islanders access to their properties.

Norval’s home

The famed Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau spent a great deal of time in Red Lake. He rose to fame in the 1960s when he developed the unique painting style known as the Woodland School.

His works evoke ancient symbolic etchings of sacred birch bark scrolls and pictograph renderings of spiritual creatures, Morrisseau “reveals” the souls of humans and animals through his unique x-ray style of imaging. Sinewy black spirit lines surround and link the figures.

Visit the Red Lake Regional Heritage Centre. As a bonus see the drum, one of the oldest, handmade native artifacts remaining in existence, the dream dance drum is a large drum of great importance to the First Nations people of the area. It was featured on the CBC ‘Ideas’ program in May, 1993, The Search for Fair Winds Drum,” (Maureen Matthews).

Bush plane

Red Lake is known as the ‘Norseman Capital of the World.’ Up north, it’s different. The sights and sounds of bush planes, there the romantic nature of that, and way better than the four-lane “main drag” with too many traffic lights, signs, cars and people. (There is one traffic light in Red Lake though.)

The Norseman is best described as one of those 'workhorses,' so important to this gold-producing town’s heritage.

Out of this emerging need for a robust freighter aircraft, the Norseman was born in 1935. The fuselage structure was of all-welded steel tubing, a technique that was innovative and a bit controversial at that time. The Red Lake waterfront replica on the pedestal is well done and the setting so “apropos.” Dawn and dusk are great times to sit and watch and listen. There is something different about a float plane taking off on the water.

Spirit Rock

Not too far out of town is one of the largest glacial “droppings” in northwestern Ontario this erratic is a significant boundary and spiritual place for the Oji-Cree. Like pictographs, the Medicine Rock is one of those important markers for First Peoples. It is worth a look for the sheer size of this boulder.


Red Lake is also the gateway to the Woodland Caribou Provincial Park is a paddler’s paradise offering almost 2,000 km of maintained canoe routes on a myriad of rivers and lakes. It sees fewer than 1,000 paddlers per season.

This undisturbed boreal forest is home to one of the largest groups of woodland caribou south of Hudson Bay. It spans spans 1.2 million acres/486,235 hectares. Check out the green space it occupies on an Ontario Road map. It is wilderness, navigation aids such as portage and campsite markers are nowhere to be found in Woodland Caribou Provincial Park. In their place, paddlers can rely on traditional axe blazes to mark the way.

And don’t forget the water access, West Red Lake Mining Museum, for something different again. Take the self guided tour of the many stops on the lake – this is a real find.

Travel is about discovering new places and meeting new people. See the map for all these destinations. It would take many hands to experience all the neat things in communities across the north. So many back roads.

Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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