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Three must-do things in Ontario Parks (7 photos)

Gearing up and heading out to some outstanding places on the Back Roads with Bill

During the past 15 months, statistics have been daily rituals. Pretty soon we will be able to enjoy camping in Ontario Parks and a word of warning the next bits of information should not dissuade you from getting on to those back roads and waters. Summer is within days!

Conor MacLean at Lefebvre's Source For Adventure, in North Bay, the oldest outdoor retailer in Northern Ontario answered my questions about merchandise availability.

“The early bird most definitely gets the worm in 2021.

"In these trying times, quantities are severely limited, with almost all available merchandise accounted for months before the season.

"Most companies make 20-30 per cent extra merchandise for what we call fill-in orders later in the season, already almost all of that extra product has been spoken for or purchased. If you’re in the market for new camping equipment, expect very little to be available come summer.”

Conor shared this camping tip, “Comfort is the key. Nothing ruins a camping trip faster than being wet, cold and sleepless."

"You are leaving your house for a tent. Size and weight are your main variables to keep in mind when looking for a new tent.

"Typically, with a lot of higher-end tents, the number of people a tent sleeps refers to just people (not gear, dogs, wet clothes etc. ...). If you don’t mind the extra packed weight, often a three-person tent is more comfortable for two people than a true two-person tent.

"Additionally, you want to ensure your tent has good waterproofing, as well as an attachable footprint (footprints are a fly-like piece of material that helps keep you dry from underneath).”

Back Roads Bill tip, if you are using facsimile heavy plastic groundsheet, make it bigger than the surface area of the floor, by about 10 cm, it goes in the tent, not on the ground, that’s what keeps you dry and prevents water wicking from entering from the sides of the tent.

Ontario Parks

Don’t let the next wave of stats deter you Charlene Coulter is the Strategic Planning Officer – Issues Management, Coordination and Planning for Ontario Parks.

“Ontario Parks' stats are pointing to a busy summer (increased statistics compared to last year). Reminders to folks to look to underutilized parks," Coulter said.

"2021 is already looking to be a busy year for Ontario Parks, we are always proud to be able to provide the people of Ontario with a safe place to get out of their homes and into nature. Spending time in nature is good for our mental and physical health.”

This year, OP has experienced an almost 135 per cent increase in reservations made over the same time last year (Jan. 1 to March 28, 2020, versus Jan. 1 to March 28, 2021).

“With more than double the number of customers attempting to make reservations arriving during the months of July and August compared to last year, it is highly competitive. In many instances, there can be hundreds of customers vying for the same site for the same arrival date.”

You want a camping spot, her tips:

  • Try a new park – our busiest five parks fill up first: Algonquin, Killbear, Pinery, Sandbanks, Bon Echo.
  • Check back regularly – keeping an eye out for cancellations
  • Visit us mid-week or shoulder seasons

Reserve a site online or by phone at 1-888-668-PARK (7275) - open daily from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Eastern Time, 363 days a year. Back Roads Bill says there are so many underutilized parks in Northern Ontario.

One of the best

There is no end to the beauty and variety of Canadian landscapes. No one place can lay claim to the most beautiful spot in Canada. There are, however, many places that uniquely define Canada.

As you drive along the Trans-Canada Highway its head, Adam's apple, chest and knees dominate the landscape. It is one of the awe-inspiring lookouts east of the Rockies so you have to go there.

When the CBC polled Canadians about the seven wonders of Canada the Sleeping Giant made it to the shortlist.

Your ears will pop as you switch back and forth to the top of some of the highest cliffs in Ontario. If you have limited time there are three 'must-do' destinations within Sleeping Giant Provincial Park - it is the pick of the lot in Northern Ontario for its diversity to meet all camping types.

More stats

“The Marie Louise Lake Campground in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park was the busiest single campground in the Northwest Zone for 2020 with 56,798 camper nights.,” said Park Superintendent, Christian Carl. “However, the two campgrounds in Lake Superior Provincial Park (Rabbit Blanket and Agawa Bay) had 64,461 camper nights combined, which left Sleeping Giant with the second most overnight stays in the Northwest Zone last year.”

Sleeping Giant Provincial Park had 89,196 total visitors in 2020, which was the second-highest total in the Northwest Zone behind Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park. Its been growing since 2014 when there were 59,576 visitors.

Background - Formation

The Sibley Peninsula or the Sleeping Giant, as it's known in the northwest, is a natural rock peninsula in the shape of a giant sleeping person. The rock juts into Lake Superior and forms Thunder Bay.

It is a formation of mesas and sills which resemble a giant lying on its back when viewed from the West to North-Northwest section of Thunder Bay. When measured from the elevation at Lake Superior 182 m (600 feet) to the highest point 563 m (1847 feet), the Sleeping Giant has the highest vertical rise in Ontario 380 m (1247 feet).

The most popular destination on the Sleeping Giant is the chimney lookout on the knees which overlooks Lake Superior and spectacular rock formations. The highest point is on the chest and it is 600 m away from the Chest Trail which leads to the Nanabosho (Nanabijou) Lookout.

A mesa is a flat-topped, steep side hill with a resistant rock layer top that protects softer, more easily eroded rock layers below. The caprock on the Giant is made of Keweenawan diabase intruded into sedimentary rocks more than one billion years ago. At that time, North America was being stretched almost to breaking point across a broad area called the Mid-continent Rift.

According to Native legend, the Sleeping Giant is said to be Nanabijou, the Ojibwa Spirit.

Nanabijou found silver near the shore of Lake Superior and warned his people that if white men ever found it he would be turned to stone.

A chieftain supposedly made silver weapons that were discovered by a Sioux scout who led white men to the area. Nanabijou disobeyed the Great Spirit and tried to protect the secret of the silver his people had hidden at Silver Isletby raising a large storm that sunk the white men’s boats.

As punishment for his actions, Nanabijou was turned into stone where it still lies today.

One billion years of erosion has resulted in the formation of five flat-topped mesas that, when viewed from across the waters of Thunder Bay resemble this profile of a recumbent human form.

Top of the giant

The park is one of the province’s best examples of diversified hiking within a reasonably small area.

The park consists of more than 80 km of interior leading along the rugged shore of Lake Superior, past towering cliffs, to scenic vistas on top of the Sleeping Giant or to quiet lakes and streams deep within the park’s wilderness areas.

There are 20 different trails to choose from. Superintendent Carl said, “What’s new? The park has developed a backcountry zoning system this year. The 27 backcountry campsites in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park are sorted into seven zones. This change will assist in managing the increased demand for our signature backcountry campsites.”

Depending on your destination on the Sleeping Giant, there are a few options for the trek.

The most popular destination is the chimney lookout on the knees of the giant and can be reached by taking the Kabeyun Trail from the south trailhead on Highway 587 just a few km south of the Marie-Louise Lake Campground.

Take the Kabeyun Trail west for 7.5 km to the junction with the Talus Lake Trail. Take the Talus Lake trail north for 0.8 km until its junction with the Top of the Giant Trail. This trail steeply ascends the Sleeping Giant and terminates at 2.7 km at the chimney lookout.

The Kabeyun is a 37 km scenic coastal trail that follows the shores of Lake Superior and rounds the famous Sleeping Giant. During the hike, you can venture to the end of a cantilevered platform at Thunder Bay Lookout 100 metres above Lake Superior, relax at a secluded beach or join the Top of the Giant trail. The Kabeyun is ideal for overnight backpacking with interior campsites nestled beside Lake Superior's ever-deep-blue presence.

The Top of the Giant Trail is 22 km return and considered the park's signature hike. It is a heart-pumping, zig-zag ascent.

Once on top of the Giant, the trail takes you to scenic lookouts on both east and west sides of the peninsula with spectacular views 300 metres above Lake Superior.

Within the last full year of operations, more than 20,000 day-use visitors attended Sleeping Giant Provincial Park with the vast amount of these day users alone, using the park for hiking as a primary focus.

From Back Roads Bill the key is to take your bike for the first portion to the trailhead along a flat trail that hugs the shoreline. This saves more than a third of your hiking time. (Or kayak to Tea Harbour and take a beach campsite, the ascent starts there. Get an early start and the trail guide says 'strenuous.' So the best trail greeting, as I was descending, meeting the ascending 'buddy' hiker, "Well, my hangover is now gone!”

Thunder Bay Lookout

If time is really precious, drive the 30 km off of Highway 11/17 to the Thunder Bay Lookout; one of the first interior access roads within the park.

It is 9 km in on a good gravel road from Highway 587. Some engineers were thinking, you step out a few metres on a platform suspended high over a cliff and it’s like the world is spread out at your feet as you peer downwards through the see-through metal grate. (This design was also implemented at the nearby Ouimet Canyon, “another go-to” just west of Nipigon. Panoramic views of a 150-metre wide gorge and sheer cliffs that drop 100 metres straight down to the canyon floor highlight this day use park only.)

Hundreds of metres below, the clear, cold waters of Lake Superior lap at a rocky shore lined with varying shades of green. Off to the right (north), you can see the purplish outline of Caribou Island. To the left (west) you can spot Thunder Bay in the distance.

The giant's form looks better from a distance.

One of the best views of the giant’s outline is from Hillcrest Park within central Thunder Bay, it provides one of the finest scenic outlooks over the city. 

The giant is also very discernible from the Terry Fox monument as entering Thunder Bay for the east on Highways 11/17. The platform at the Thunder Bay Lookout is not for the faint of heart but there are plenty of spots where you can see the view while standing on more solid ground.

Sea Lion

If you take your canoe/kayak to the “great northwest,” stop at one of the most photographed landmarks in Ontario. There are a number of sea arches along the coast but this is the most accessible. The water perspective is different and easily done.

The Sea Lion is a thin rib of diabase forming a natural wave-cut arch. It crystallized from hot melted magma that intruded into the shale while it was buried deep in the earth. It is about 8 m high, 1 m thick and projects about 15 m into Lake Superior.

This feature once resembled a lion sitting on its haunches; prior to 1930, when its head broke off. However, the name has persisted. A view of the sleeping giant is in the background and you can see the head, Adam’s apple, chest and knees high above the Sibley peninsula.

Two years back while in the kayak below, Back Roads Bill was taking photos, bouncing around in the backwash from the cliffs; best comment, from dialogue with 'buddy' teenager, trying to climb on to the pinnacle of the arch above; then his mother came with the 'get down from there' advice. And, after she departed, he sheepishly said as he safely retreated, “I should have come here with you.”

Do the doubleheader, try another perspective on land.

The nearby trail is easily found from the Kabeyun Trail Head; it is then a short hike of about 0.5 km. Bonus, put your boat in the water at nearby Silver Islet and paddle southeast and then around the point, north, across the bay; less than 30 minutes. You get a good look at the cliffs and the energy of the storm waves and the ongoing erosion of the shale.

And at the end of Highway 587 on the Sibley Peninsula, there is the old abandoned Silver Islet mine almost entirely submerged. More than $3,450,000 of silver was produced between 1868 and 1184. There is a historic cemetery there as well.

Viewed from afar this land formation looks for the entire world like a sleeping giant.

As the second-largest country in the world, Canada doesn't lack natural assets. The giant is one of those northern Ontario must-see destinations - it’s so much closer than the Rockies and has amazing natural beauty and fascinating geology to explore; it is a Canadian icon. It is time to explore our backyard.

This has been a potpourri of information leading into a summer of 'get outside' and 'go camping' somewhere, any time. We need Vitamin N – Nature. It was exciting just to think about what lies ahead on the 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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