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Back Roads Bill: Where to go for a Sunday drive

In the first story of three, Bill looks at 'Sunday drive' opportunities

A Sunday drive can be taken any time but historically with the advent of the automobile or 'horseless carriage,' it was typically taken for pleasure or leisure usually in the afternoon. During the Sunday drive, there is typically no destination and no rush.

Wow, what a spate of good spring weather we’ve been having, the back roads are opening up and the frost heaves are subsiding. For the next three weeks let’s look at three types of back road adventures, this week the easy-to-do 'Sunday drive'. Followed by drives that may be day trips and finally those treks that take a little planning and maybe with an overnight or two.

There are so many destinations in Northern Ontario and this review will get the “Nature juices” going. In no order but with some thoughts of geographic parity here are some Sunday drives that will involve your vehicle only. Check out the map links or easy-to-follow directions within each story. And there will be some value-add opportunities near your destination.

Ferry ride

Seeing is believing. You might as well take this very small vehicle ferry; it is a short ride and free!

On the way and with little warning, there’s a very sharp inverted, right-angled turn on Highway #579 where the pavement unexpectedly ends. You’ll be braking alright.

The gravel roadbed starts to immediately slope down to the river, past the flapping Canadian and Ontario flags and warning signs where there is a different-looking sort of barge. The view ahead is open water, light brown but solid in colour, it’s very turbid; you can see the other side but there is no bridge.

It takes just under two minutes to cross the 230 metres (755’) of open water, at about 10 kph (6 mph), and it is the most northern cable ferry in Ontario.

Yes, there are ferry crossings in Northern Ontario. This is the year-round car/truck ferry crossing/ice bridge on the Abitibi River.

Highway 579 was extended north of the Abitibi River in the late 1950s. After fording the Abitibi it continues for approximately five kilometres on the east side of the river, terminating at the Ontario Northland Railway (ONR) track.

There are four permanent residents on the other side of the river within Gardiner a 'dispersed rural community' (a recognized place name descriptor) within the unincorporated Blount Township.

The ferry (barge/boat ) is the Cassiopeia IV run by a 60-horsepower diesel and there are two gears on it - forward and reverse. There is so much to know about operating a ferry. Have the experience.

Head a little west of Cochrane (about 32 km) and look for the Gardner Ferry icon.

While in Cochrane take in the Polar Bear Habitat stretch your legs, and walk around Commando Lake in town.

Big Boulders

If you wonder where all those big round-like boulders come from, there are a couple of stops where erratics are located roadside.

“Humans sometimes exhibit erratic behaviour but even rocks can do so. There is also the numinous nature of stones, pebbles, boulders, scree and talus.

Most parts of Northern Ontario have been glaciated that is, ice sheets once enveloped the landscape. There are pieces of landform evidence of this momentous event.

Perhaps the most prevalent souvenir of the past is erratic boulders, large and small, mostly round-like. Why can’t erratics have an extraterrestrial source? After all, think of the house-sized boulders on the moon examined by crews of the Apollo missions.

But our erratics show no signs of the necessary flight through the Earth’s atmosphere and they can be traced to rock types' characteristic of the most recent ice sheet.”

Here is the story and the map link; the Cartier one north of Sudbury and the one between Chapleau-Wawa are easier to just stop at. Archie’s Rock just west of Timmins now has signage and a trail.


Perhaps before these are moved you will want to see one of the best Indigenous artifact collections in Canada you will have to find the library.

“Artifacts are present in all lives, they symbolize and represent relationships, history and events that matter.

Behind the four light brown hardwood display cases of expansive glass, single doors and pull-out drawers at the Iroquois Falls Library are more than one thousand indigenous artifacts denoting lifetimes of residence on Lake Abitibi.

Consistent with the findings of Honouring Truth, Reconciling for the Future (2015) two smaller communities are recognizing repatriation as a priority, the right thing to do; and are doing something about it.

This big story of repatriation is evolving between Wahgoshig First Nation and the Town of Iroquois Falls…The collection is featured in the Wayne F. LeBelle book titled Folly – The Story of Iroquois Falls.

On page two it reads: “The Iroquois Falls Public Library display 1,000 artifacts of archaeological specimen includes important large prehistoric stone implements, flaked on faces (bi-faces), extremely large crescentic end scrapers, trihedral adzes (similar to an axe). Some of the items are 9,000 years old.”

From Iroquois Falls you are not far from Cochrane or Timmins. Kettle Lakes Provincial Park is a great place for a swim and bike ride. Or take the Northwest Industrial Road from Iroquois Falls, stop and walk out on the bridge for a view of the Abitibi River and then proceed north to Hwy. 652 east of Cochrane.


Depending on where you are this could be a number of Sunday drives.

Mining is so important to Northern Ontario and has a rich heritage. At the same time, there has been suffering, injuries and deaths. Mining memorials remind us of such. Appreciate the artistic design and inscriptions that tell us so.

“It is part of a history lesson we know little about, so perhaps we need a little schooling.

Envision hard rock miners, once toiling far underground in dark, cramped and dangerous conditions; it was arduous and risky work.

They emerged tired and dirty at the end of their shifts, walking back to small wood-sided homes and their immigrant families. Mining, along with forestry, created what was then called ‘New Ontario,’ -- what we know as Northern Ontario.

Indigenous mining in the north began after the last period of glaciations, people of the Plano culture moved into the area and began quarrying quartzite at Sheguiandah on Manitoulin Island. Mining is an important economic activity in Northern Ontario. It has been since the first copper mines at Bruce Mines in 1846 and Silver Islet in 1868.

Monuments are structures that pay tribute to the achievements, heritage, or ideals of a person, group, event or time in history. Memorials are different. Like cenotaphs, they are built to honour and remember those who die for unselfish reasons; their names are present…”

Your destinations are Cobalt, Kirkland Lake, Timmins, Sudbury and Elliot Lake.

Height of Land

It is all about the most recent ice age that was triggered by climate change. And the geography of Northern Ontario is what remains.

There are a number of height-of-land signs to stop for selfies and to appreciate the magnitude of the location.

“You’re headed to your next back roads adventure and you see those distinctive green and white highway signs announcing the water flows in different directions. Strange thing though there’s never any water by the signs. . .

There is a moose and a bear figurine and an elevation number. On one side it says the water flows to the Atlantic Ocean and on the other to the Arctic. What’s that all about?

It’s a line alright. There are personal and physical boundary lines; some are well-demarcated, and some are invisible. Sometimes these lines indicate physical features or reflect the social limits of people.

A height of land is a region of high ground that may act as a watershed boundary. Heights of land were important in the historic fur trade for their influence on the determination of routes and portages and they have affected many transportation routes since then. Drainage boundaries were important to Indigenous peoples in defining territoriality, as they were later to European colonists…”

There are a number of signs across Northern Ontario the one near Kenogami on Highway 11 is just north of the northern exit for Kirkland Lake. Two of the mining monuments are nearby, one is in Kirkland Lake and the other is in Timmins.


This drive will take you to a spiritual place and the opportunity to do much more.

So after many years of walking labyrinths, it seemed like the right thing to do – create one. It is almost finished near the Canadian Ecology Centre and within Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park located on a decommissioned baseball field (main Bagwa Beach turnoff before the campgrounds).

After two years, site location and preparation were completed. The labyrinth outline was scribed onto the landscape. The centre is festooned with a huge piece of amethyst from this mine.

See the history behind this lead and the history of labyrinths.

While in the Park take in the Mattawa River Visitor Centre and see the replica of a voyageur canoe. If there is time take the short Red Pine Trail to the Mattawa River vista or bring along your inner tube and raft down the river. Yes, you will need a day pass, but it's well worth it.

Then journey to Mattawa to see the historical heritage statues as you walkabout town and out to Explorer’s Point to see Big Joe Mufferaw. Stop in at the Duval gallery to see this Back Roads Bill inspiration.


The above are on asphalt and then there are the granular back roads with all kinds of road surface descriptions. These also provide a reason for Sunday drives. There can be potholes, washouts, dust and flying stones to contend with.

But first, what is a logging road?

Heather Hamel, Communications Coordinator, Northeast Operations of the Ministry of Transportation explained.

First off she said, “The Crown Forest Sustainability Act (1994), states that the Minister of Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry (MNDMNRF) shall ensure that a Forest Management Plan (FMP) is prepared when a Crown forest operation is being conducted. An FMP is a legal and binding document that serves as a contract for the implementation of forest operation on Crown land.”

Logging roads are like that and to continue my existence I am going to stop and give thanks after every adventure on the back roads.

Next week, we'll look at those roads that are day trips but may take a little thinking.

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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