Ontario is Canada at its most Canadian

Canoeing is one of the most popular activities in Canada – James Smedley/Destination Ontario

In recent years, Mario Gionet has had the same dreams: his grandmother, by a fire, in a clearing of cedars. “She gives me my lessons,” Mario explains as we walk through the Hiawatha Highlands, the mist making the deep forest suitably dreamlike. “She speaks in Ojibwe, and I speak it too.”

This is strange, because Mario can’t do much in his waking life. Although he is fifty, he is only now learning the language of his ancestors. “It’s difficult,” he admits. “The words are so long!” (“Blueberry pie,” for example, has 66 letters: miinibaashkiminasiganibiitoosijiganibadagwiingweshiganibakwezhigan.)

“I never used to remember my dreams,” he continues. “I think it’s because my mind is more open now and I’m finally getting to know my culture.”

Mario belongs to a generation of native Canadians whose parents were sent to residential schools and grew up alienated from his heritage. Now he not only embraces it, but shares it. Together with his partner, Cheyene Nanie, he has launched Walk Among the Trees, which offers walks full of tradition and honesty: medicinal plants and identity crises. It makes the experience authentic in an open way.

Cheyene Nanie and Mario GionetCheyene Nanie and Mario Gionet

Cheyene Nanie and Mario Gionet are the founders of Walk Among the Trees – Sarah Baxter

“We can share what we know and what we learn,” says Mario. “I don’t mind people seeing that struggle in us.”

“Our parents were more ashamed; they couldn’t talk about things,” Cheyene adds. “Now we are breaking that chain. Recently I realized that I have not lost my culture; it was just sleeping.”

Hiawatha Highlands is located on the edge of the Canadian Shield, the ancient rock that makes up half of Canada. It is also on the outskirts of Sault Ste Marie. ‘The Soo’, as the town is known, is located in Northern Ontario’s Algoma Country, between Lakes Superior and Huron, on the edge of Canada itself: Michigan is visible across the swirling St Mary River. But despite its proximity to the United States – or perhaps because of it – this region could be Canada at its most Canadian. I would come and find out.

The story of the Soo is very Canuck. It was a gathering place for First Nations peoples long before French missionaries and fur traders arrived in the 17th century. And long before the Sault Ste Marie Canal opened in 1895, the final link in creating a navigable waterway from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.

The canal is now a national historic site; Most of the original machines still operate the enormous lock – 70 meters long and 14 meters deep – although nowadays purely for pleasure traffic. Watching the big trough empty in the blink of an eye, I’m not sure I feel like paddleboarding through it.

The Soo is also home to the hangar-sized Bushplane Heritage Center, which celebrates aerial exploration and protection in this vast country. The irrepressible guide Tim Murphy shows me around the various historic vessels used to fight forest fires. Grimly, this couldn’t be more timely: Canada’s 2023 season was the worst on record, with 6,669 fires destroying 18.5 million hectares.

A seaplane at the Bushplane Heritage CentreA seaplane at the Bushplane Heritage Centre

The small Bushplane Heritage Center celebrates Canada’s aerial exploration and protection – Sarah Baxter

The museum maps the special innovations over the years, from Noorduyn Norsemans with fabric wings to the development of rolling tanks, which pilots fill with water by skimming lakes with extreme precision. Although I did question the modifications to the iconic Beaver, which included ashtrays for each passenger.

I was then introduced to the Group of Seven at Algoma’s Soo’s Art Gallery. This early 20th century collective wanted to capture the essence of Canada through contact with nature – and was repeatedly drawn to the landscapes of Northern Ontario. Their bold, emotional, impressionistic paintings of the region helped shape the artistic identity of a rapidly growing young nation.

I soon came across this cohort again. Driving north from the Soo, I stopped at Chippewa Falls. Here, an information board in the shape of an artist’s easel – one of many on the Moments of Algoma Group of Seven route – indicated where AY Jackson painted the rapids. The water lapped over the billions of years old pink granite and a fisherman cast a line. I would put myself in a very Canadian image. I had also placed myself in the heart of the country: Chippewa marks the halfway point of the Trans Canada Highway; both Victoria and St John’s were now 2,300 miles away.

Ryan Walker and dog Mason canoeing on Mijinemungshing LakeRyan Walker and dog Mason canoeing on Mijinemungshing Lake

Ryan Walker from Forest the Canoe with his dog Mason – Forest the Canoe

The coast-to-coast highway was completed in 1962, making travel by car easier. But it is the canoe that truly defines the country and connects Canadians to nature, each other and their heritage. I was headed to Lake Superior Provincial Park, 600 square kilometers of lakes, islands-within-lakes and native pictographs, where sugar maples give way to boreal forests, to give it a try.

First of all: getting there. The section of the Trans Canada Highway from Chippewa through the provincial park is perhaps one of the most spectacular drives in the country, with the road winding with expansive lake shores, endless trees and ancient rocks. But there was hardly any traffic.

The busiest spot was Batchawana Bay, where – as I had been advised – I stopped at Voyageur’s Lodge for their apple fritters. “They taste like deliciousness!” said a sugar-lipped man outside. I ordered one: hot, fresh, heavy like a steak. It took me the entire 90 minute drive north to my canoeing appointment to eat it.

As I dusted the bits of fritters off my lap, I met Shana and Ryan Walker of outdoor operator Forest the Canoe at the turnoff to Mijinemungshing Lake. They were going to take me on a one night backcountry adventure. Mijinemungshing (‘where loons feed’) is the park’s largest lake, with a handful of well-spaced campsites. We loaded two boats and set off, paddling into beautiful skies, dark water and silence – it was July, but there didn’t seem to be another soul here.

Ryan Walker and Sarah Baxter at Mijninemungshing LakeRyan Walker and Sarah Baxter at Mijninemungshing Lake

Ryan Walker and Sarah Baxter at Mijinemungshing, the largest lake in the park: Forest the Canoe

We soon arrived on a small island and pitched our tents; there was a fire pit, a picnic table and, hidden in the trees, a thunder box (bush toilet). Base. But then Shana brought out the ‘canoe-terie’ – a spread of local smoked trout, cheese and pickles served on an upturned canoe, on our own beach – and life felt more five-star. She forgot the coffee filter funnel, so Ryan made one out of birch bark.

“The canoe is part of the national consciousness, but we always learn about it from the colonizer’s perspective,” Ryan, who is part Mohawk, told me as we paddled out again late that afternoon, gliding past bays and beaver dams. “The canoe is an ingenious native invention. When the settlers came, the indigenous people taught them their ways – otherwise the settlers would have died.”

Our mini-adventure involved no such danger. Shana and Ryan had brought enough food to feed a fleet, the water was gently lapping, the fire ban had just been lifted so we could spend the evening chatting around the campfire. Every time a Canada Jay whispered, I felt the Canuck-ness sink deeper. The night was cloudy – too bad, the park’s Dark Sky Preserve is one of the darkest around. And the day started damp. But Shana and I “took a bath” anyway: an almost transcendent swim in the lake, light rain skimming to the side, no one for miles.

Without any urgency we had breakfast: bacon, pancakes, maple syrup. Ryan taught me how to fish (I caught a stick). Then we packed up and left, taking the long way back to the jetty, via small islands and archipelagos of lily pads. It was a heavy blow, leaving behind what felt like a private wilderness. Fortunately, my last stop, a few miles away, provided a gentle reintroduction to civilization.

The Mijninemungshing LakeThe Mijninemungshing Lake

Mijinemungshing Lake is the perfect place for a backcountry adventure – Sarah Baxter

Rock Island is a greenstone peninsula that juts out where the Michipicoten River flows into Lake Superior. David Wells, an avid canoeist, came to paddle here in the 1990s and was impressed; he bought a house. Now he runs Naturally Superior Adventures and Rock Island Lodge in an infectiously relaxed way, so that others can paddle and stay here too. It’s kind of like jean shorts, endless water-n-trees, a super fun place to be. During the communal dinner, a fellow guest from Toronto summed it up: “You’ve basically arrived at the pinnacle of Canada.”

I didn’t sleep in the lodge itself, but rather in a geodesic dome on the beach – the closer to the lake and I would lie on it. That was soon the case: guide Tate took me kayaking on Superior. The world’s largest freshwater lake is more like a sea, with its own weather conditions and whims. Luckily it was calm as we paddled north. We indulged in real estate porn – there were some stunning houses on the coast. Then we dived into a cave and stopped at a long sandy beach.

“If there’s five people here, we think it’s busy,” Tate grinned. Today there was no one there at all, just some driftwood and another Group of Seven info easel: AY Jackson painted the view I was now taking in. Jackson had a strong desire to paint the Canadian landscape and traveled extensively, as far as the Arctic. and from coast to coast. However, it was precisely here that he chose to purchase a summer cabin, which he owned until his death in 1974. Well, if Northern Ontario was good enough for a founder of Canada’s artistic identity, then it was certainly good enough for me.


Air Canada (00800 669 92222; aircanada.com) flies to Sault Ste Marie via Toronto, from around £550 return. Canadian Sky (01342 395583; canadiansky.co.uk) can organize tailor-made holidays to Northern Ontario.

Walk Among the Trees offers walks from C$40pp (walkamongthetrees.com). Forest the Canoe (forestthecanoe.ca) offers two-night backcountry trips from C$675pp, including guides, equipment, permits and food. Naturally Superior Adventures (naturallysuperior.com) offers many paddling options, including half-day canoeing (from C$105) and multi-day expeditions; rooms at Rock Island Lodge (rockislandlodge.ca) cost from C$185pn B&B, GlamDome from C$110pn.

Admission to the Canadian Bushplane Museum costs C$15.50 (bushplane.com). For information about the Group of Seven route, see momentsofalgoma.ca. For more information, visit Destinationnorthernontario.ca

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