In autumn, Ontario’s landscape is ablaze with the fiery reds and oranges of leaves changing colour before they drop to the ground. This is one of the best times to visit Sault Ste. Marie, a city of 73,000 situated on a point of land where Lake Superior meets St. Mary’s River. Why? Because you can take a day’s train journey (183 kilometers north of the city) on the historic Algoma Central Railway to the Agawa Canyon, in the Algoma region, and catch one of the most spectacular leaf peeping shows the province has to offer.
I had always wanted to see Agawa Canyon’s striking topography and on a recent trip to the area that wish was fulfilled. Algoma’s deep forest, craggy outcroppings and cascading waterfalls were even more beautiful than the paintings of them by the Group of Seven. Canada’s Group of Seven, iconic painters who were known for their rugged, wilderness landscapes, came to the area in the years after the First World War. The remarkable works that resulted from their visits include Little Falls by J.E.H. MacDonald, Fire-Swept Algoma by Frank Johnston and Above Lake Superior by Lawren Harris. Harris, heir to the Massey-Harris agricultural machinery fortune, encouraged his colleagues to experience the raw beauty of the region and hired a railway boxcar that they rode into the wilderness. Kitted out with bunks and a small stove, the boxcar was their home for weeks at a time as they sketched and painted their surroundings.
On the Agawa Canyon Tour Train, the ride was probably a lot more comfortable than in a basic boxcar. The coach seats were generous, large picture windows allowed me to take in the scenery and a dining car and snack bar was stocked with beverages and goodies. After we reached Agawa Canyon Park, I decided to get my bearings at the Lookout. Huffing and puffing up the 372 steps, I finally reached the summit. A stunning panoramic view of canyon, forest and river greeted me. It was well worth the challenging ascent. Descending was much easier, and I walked along the Agawa River to view Bridal Veil Falls where it felt like I had literally stepped into a painting. Both Harris (Waterfall, Algoma) and MacDonald (Algoma Waterfall) had captured it on canvas and I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
The work is scattered in galleries across the country, but you can see some Group of Seven paintings and sketches at the city’s Algoma Art Gallery. A highlight for me on this trip was the Group of Seven dinner theatre performance at the Heritage Discovery Centre. It is presented in August, September and October and in other months it can be booked for groups of 10 or more. Titled Moments in Algoma, the 25-minute, one-man show was inspired by the letters and reflections of Harris and the other members of the group who visited Algoma. The meal that followed included a heritage beef stew and tarts made from local fruit.
There were a few other historical, educational sites I was keen to explore. At the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre I admired vintage aircraft and took in the Women in Aviation exhibit highlighting the careers of people such as Eileen Vollick, the first Canadian female pilot, and astronauts Dr. Roberta Bondar and Julie Payette. Bondar is from the city and there is a park named in her honour.
Another spot I visited was the Ermatinger-Clergue National Historic Site with the Charles Oakes Ermatinger stone home, built in 1808. Ermatinger was originally from a Montreal family that gained its wealth through the fur trade. The site is also home to the Clergue Blockhouse, originally a Hudson’s Bay Company powder magazine that Francis Hector Clergue turned into an office and living space. Clergue, who was from Maine, was an energetic industrialist who came to Sault Ste. Marie at the turn of the 20th century and built part of a railway, as well as a paper mill, steel plant and hydroelectric dam. Costumed interpreters guided me through both homes. “Clergue was a confirmed bachelor,” the guide told me. “But he had two loves, both named Sue.” It took me a minute, but then I got it. She was referring to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and Sault Ste. Marie Michigan, just across the St. Mary’s River.
Driving northwest for an hour along the shores of Lake Superior, I came to Batchawana Bay where I enjoyed a mouth-watering whitefish dinner. Algoma is famous for its fresh-water fishing and anglers come many miles to try their hand at landing bass, pickerel, whitefish, pike and brook trout. At Frank and Gail O’Connor’s Voyageurs Lodge & Cookhouse I tucked into a plate overflowing with succulent, fried white fish. Frank, formerly a high school teacher, decided to open the business after reading Peter C. Newman’s book Empire of the Bay: The Company of Adventurers That Seized a Continent. “That was about the start of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a British company that dealt primarily in furs and was founded more than 350 years ago. But no one was telling the story about their rival, the North West Company, started by traders in Montreal. I wanted to honour the French Canadian voyageurs who travelled up here by canoe, stopping for supplies on their way to Fort William to pick up furs.” There is a 26-foot canoe mounted on the complex’s lawn, a smaller rendition of what the voyageurs used. “The original canoes were 36 feet long and called freight canoes. They would hold 15-20 paddlers at a time,” Frank explained.
My final stop was Lake Superior Provincial Park to see Agawa Rock, one of the most famous pictograph sites in Canada. Pictographs are paintings done with plant pigments by indigenous peoples and these ones were from the 17th and 18th centuries. Located 135 km north of Sault Ste. Marie, the park had a long, slippery trail that led past mossy cliffs and imposing boulders. Holding onto a rope, I made my way gingerly along a sloped rock face next to the water. The figures were faded, but looking closely I could make out some caribou shapes as well as a pointy, cat-like creature. Reading the interpretive plaque at the start of the trail, I learned that the creature was said by the Ojibwe people to be “Misshepezhieu” or the Great Lynx, the spirit of the water. One thrash of his tail and the lake would begin to boil with dangerous waves. Luckily for me, Misshepezhieu was napping that day and the lake was calm and clear as glass.
In and around Sault Ste. Marie, the rugged beauty that had been channelled by First Nations peoples and inspired the Group of Seven had also captivated me. Go and you too will feel as if you are in a painting come to life.
Feature image courtesy Algoma Country. All other photos, Maureen Littlejohn.
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