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New exhibit at North Bay Museum highlights the work of Backroads Bill Steer

'The beauty and the heritage of northern Ontario is on the backroads and the backwaters and there isn’t always a ton of information in how to get there and I felt like it was my job to make those links and connections'

“Rooted” is all about the people and places that make us proud to call our community home. 

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For over three decades Bill Steer has been encouraging people to explore northern Ontario through his writing

“I started with the Thompson newspapers a long time ago and that’s where I learned to write,” he says.

Steer would publish articles once a week for the North Bay Nugget beginning in the mid-1980s and became known for his “Backroads Bill” segments on CBC which promoted the region and the reasons to explore it.

“My stories are destination driven,” he says. 

“They usually have something to do with heritage, it could be contemporary heritage as well, but they are usually unique and has something to do with the natural and cultural heritage.”

That work is now on display at the North Bay Museum in a new exhibit called “Ruins in the Trees: The Work of Back Roads Bill (Wilson Steer).”

You can read past Back Roads Bill stories here.

Director and Curator Naomi Hehn says, “I have to give credit to our volunteer Pat Moulson for coming up with the idea and doing a lot of the background research. As soon as she brought the idea to the museum staff, we were all really intrigued.”

Steer says he was honoured by Hehn and Moulson reaching out.

“I was flattered and honoured that they would want to do this. They were looking at a certain theme of infrastructure and humankind made things.”

Hehn says, “I have been reading Bill Steers's work as it comes out and have always been interested in the content and the places he has investigated in northern Ontario. It wasn’t hard to be convinced that this would be a great idea for an exhibit.  

"We were able to reach out to Bill and see if there was any interest in working with us and he was happy about the idea and was very gracious in letting us go through his work and he helped us decide which ones to feature.”  

Steer says he started going through his expansive catalogue of stories and photos.

“I found a North Bay Nugget article that came out in 1988 that was called “The way we were,’” he says, reflecting on his work.

“I did it all because of the love of telling those stories and I never earned a paycheck for those written articles and there were hundreds or thousands of stories that I did. I did one every week and it was just because of a love for the outdoors.”

Steer says that was a result of “playing outside as a child and having a camp on the south shore of Lake Nipissing.”

“That has never left me and the exploration part comes from when I first discovered I could find whatever I was looking for and that adrenaline has really stayed with me my whole life and it just happens to be my hobby.”

Steer is the founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre concept, an outdoor environmental education centre located within Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park. He remains as its General Manager and Head of School. He is a part-time professor at the Schulich School of Education, Nipissing University – Outdoor Education and BPHE.

He says all of those avenues give him a chance to continue to share his passion.

“I really like looking at nature photos and a good photo really enhances a story. That’s the formula I follow. Whether it is in a newspaper or digital print people will look at the photo first and it grabs the reader's attention and that’s what I’m aiming for. I want them to say ‘Where is that, and what is all that about?”' 

He says he developed a following of people who wanted to find the sites he wrote about.  

“It was always very heartfelt and sincere when people would follow up on what I wrote and tell me about their own experience,” he says.

The museum exhibit features 12 photographs and stories of Bill's travels that were chosen to show the history of the North Bay area and highlight the ‘ruins’ that people can visit.

“There are a number of really interesting ruins,” says Hehn, “Including the Spanish Residential School that Steer once visited.” 
 
Hehn says, “A lot of people from Nipissing First Nation were sent there. And it is an extremely relevant landmark right now and we wanted to share that story.”

Hehn adds, “We’re pointing out the places that are in our community that people may not stop and take notice of and to give another perspective of how important the history is in North Bay and the fact that there are these historical remnants in the area.”

She says in some cases there are landmarks and ruins that are hundreds of years old.

Steer says when it came to exploring for himself it was all about access and making sure people could get to these spots efficiently and safely.

“The beauty and the heritage of northern Ontario are on the back roads and the backwaters and there isn’t always a ton of information in how to get there and I felt like it was my job to make those links and connections,” says Steer.

 “A great example is the Devil's Rock in Cobalt. When you go up on highway 11, there is no sign that tells you you are nearing the Devil's Rock. When you get closer to it, there is some indication of what you’re looking at now, but for years there was really nothing. It has the distinction of being the featured landmark for House on the Cliff, The Hardy Boys story. It ranks right up there as one of the most spectacular views and landmarks in the whole province.”

Steer says with travelling having been limited due to the Covid-19 pandemic, he is now receiving more messages as people are getting the opportunity to be able to move around again.

“People have also messaged me over the years for recommendations for places to check out and so I’m glad to do that. Especially over these last 18 months since the Covid-19 Pandemic hit and people are happier now to go outside and explore their backyards.”

If you have a story idea for Matt, send an email to m.sookram@outlook.com