Editor’s Note: Franklin Beecham is a member of LTV’s content team, The Leisure Explorers. Do you own a Leisure Travel Van and enjoy writing? Learn more about joining the team.
It started like this…
In 1973, my father was a Royal Air Force serviceman stationed in Hong Kong. I was placed in the British Forces dependents’ high school on the mainland, with part of my curriculum studying geography. Ironically, the main subject we were to take on in this class was the country of Canada and specifically, the Great Lakes region. The irony was that after retiring from the R.A.F., my parents decided we would emigrate to Canada, and we relocated to Toronto, off the shore of Lake Ontario.
Studying the Great Lakes in geography class allowed me to drift off to the days of the voyageurs and the hardships of life as a nomad in a harsh environment. Canoeing and portaging across inhospitable lands and waters must have been an eye-opening experience. I know that now because I’ve endured long paddles in various small lakes, camping in the bush with nothing but what I could fit in my backpack, hiking with a heavy canoe atop my shoulders through black fly and mosquito infested forest trails to get from one lake to another. Why the heck would anyone do that, you ask? Well, I was in my early twenties and had the energy and wits to at least try to get the feeling of adventure like those before me – plus, I love camping. The Great Lakes have always projected a sense of frontierism to me, and in my forty years of living in Canada, I had been to all but one of them: Lake Superior.
Fast forward to the present.
As we all know, the year 2020 will be one to remember for everyone living on this earth – though I’m sure most would like it forgotten! We have all been affected by the global pandemic of COVID-19. One of the major drawbacks (despite it being a health hazard) is the limitations that we all have with travelling. Not just city to city, but province to province. The Maritime provinces had their own travel bubble, but travel through western provinces was almost impossible. Our big trip plan for the 2020 season had been to head to the west coast, which included a stop at the LTV Rally, but everything was canceled due to provincial closures. It wasn’t until May that we were actually “allowed” to venture out in our motor home. In our Wonder, we felt safe and managed small trips to visit friends, even taking in a few Harvest Hosts overnighters at breweries, wineries, and an awesome alpaca farm. Knowing that we were adequately isolated in our Leisure Travel Van brought back our adventurous feelings. We also managed a few days at Emily Provincial Park and I had a ‘guys’ weekend at Presqu’ile Provincial Park. Just to reiterate, we were adamant about adhering to personal hygiene restrictions such as mask-wearing in public spaces, hand sanitization, and small group gatherings. We still abide by that to this day, and we only travelled when our government said it was safe to do so. Read our previous blog, “When the World is Closed” for more about this. All these small trips were great and helped to pass the summer days, but my heart wanted to get out of Dodge and explore.
As our province was continuing to do well, my hope was we would soon be able to drive our LTV Wonder to Lake Superior. But the question was when. We were dragging our heels trying to decide, until one day our friends messaged us with an invitation to caravan and camp with them at MacGregor Point Provincial Park on September 7. They’d already reserved a campsite with other friends for a week-long trip, but when I tried the Ontario Parks online reservation system, I was only able to book two nights. Still, this was my opening to begin with plans for our trip around Lake Superior. Luckily, our friends booked a Harvest Hosts for the night before camping at MacGregor Point, so that we could have extra time together. As it turned out the Harvest Hosts was closed, so I re-booked another, Bad Apple Brewing, which we had previously visited.
For the next week or so I got right into research and planning. The first thing to do was to log in to my RV Parky app and begin loosely planning a route around the north shore of Lake Superior. Next was to check out some YouTube videos of other RVers’ experiences on the north shore. What I saw was some beautiful scenery – not just the majestic lake, but the forests, the waterfalls and rapids, and the stunning views. Some of the drone footage was spectacular! Based on this research and talking to friends who had taken similar travels, I decided that we should make our way to Thunder Bay, stopping at provincial parks along the Group of Seven Lake Superior Trail. We were to travel along Trans Canada Highway 17, which wraps around the north shore. For a change of scenery, we would take Highway 11 back. I pre-booked several campsites based on the availability indicated on the provincial park online reservation system. In hindsight, this wasn’t really necessary due to the time of year and the COVID situation, and in the end, doing so limited our stays. As it happened, the booking system wasn’t accurate because we saw a lot of empty sites. According to a park ranger at MacGregor Point, there were empty sites because of COVID. I thought this was odd because some campsites had adjacent sites that were occupied yet their reason for the empty sites was the policy to alternate campsites. It wasn’t making any sense. We were outdoors, and the campsites were separated by at least 10 feet or more of dense bushes and trees. For our second night, we asked to be moved closer to our friends. Still, we were at least four sites apart with no one in between. I really didn’t like that reasoning. At all future campgrounds on our trip we were placed in adjacent sites as usual.
Because we would be at the north end of Lake Huron when at MacGregor Point, it made sense to cut down on an unnecessary drive around Georgian Bay by taking the Chi-Cheemaun ferry to Manitoulin Island and taking the land bridge towards Highway 17. Social media posts recommended booking the ferry tickets early because of COVID limitations. I did this right away and took the first ferry of the day at 8:30 am. We had to be in the ferry parking lot one hour prior to boarding. This meant we had to find a spot to camp for the night. The ferry terminal is located in Tobermory, a small town on the Bruce Peninsula.
Before heading up the Bruce Peninsula, we stopped in Wiarton to say hi to our friends at Rural Rootz Nature Reserve, then we continued to Tobermory.
There are several private campgrounds near Tobermory and all mention how close they are to town on their websites. I ended up choosing Lands End Park because of its great reviews and because it was the closest to Tobermory. This park has amazingly well-groomed private sites with full hookups. Our Wonder fit perfectly. Turns out it was too far to walk to town, but the Wonder didn’t pose a problem when we drove in and parked for dinner by the harbour. We saw a LTV Unity and talked to the owners who were camping nearby. We had visited Tobermory, a small harbour town, with the kids some twenty years ago, taking a glass-bottomed boat to the nearby Flowerpot Island. There are many sunken shipwrecks outside the harbour, great for tourists and diving enthusiasts. We’ll have to plan a return trip some other time. Another reason for going to Manitoulin Island was that we had never been there before. I heard that there was a good brewpub on the Island, that used to be a Harvest Hosts, called Split Rail Brewing. Great beer, though to get food we had to order from a nearby pizzeria. Whilst sitting on the patio with our lunch and drinks, another Wonder drove up, same colour as ours. We exchanged greetings and they continued on their way. Apparently there are several private campgrounds on the Island, though some were closed during the pandemic.
Based on the video research I did, Chutes Provincial Park was a must-see, especially for its hiking trails and river rapids. I booked two nights there, seeing that we’d be driving around Manitoulin. One aspect of the online reservation system for Ontario Parks that I really like is that they post a lot of information about the prospective site you are thinking about, like the size of the site, where the fire pit is located, and also how far away the electricity post is, including photos. They indicate if there’s a gradient, what the ground surface consists of, and how private the site is. Chutes, I found out, is typically a one-night transient campground, but we were glad we chose two. It had rained for a few days and the campsites took a soaking, but maintenance staff gravelled each site’s entrance. Our site was huge! The main river trail was easy to do and led us along a variety of rapids. The water flow was so powerful it was hard to imagine loggers boarding up the river banks to make chutes for the felled trees to travel downstream.
On this trip we wanted to keep the driving time down to two hours or so, in order to stay longer and avoid being road weary as I am the sole driver. By choosing provincial parks, we knew that check-in time is after 2 pm and check-out is before 2 pm. This helps with planning the day at the campsite and on the road. As our next campground to book was at Lake Superior Provincial Park’s Agawa Bay, I knew how far it was from Chutes. It was doable, but after being on the road for six days I figured we would need to get supplies. The simple solution was to wallydock, so one night was to be spent in Sault Ste. Marie’s Walmart parking lot. We had wallydocked last year on our east coast trip and found it safe and useful. We would stock up on food and drinks, water, and even clothing, or whatever else we needed. The washrooms were always spotlessly clean and there were usually a few other RVers staying as well. Not to mention that, because of the chilly mornings, we could both use some warmer outerwear which was readily available in the store. As always, we asked Customer Service for permission to stay overnight.
After Sault Ste. Marie, I wanted to stay at Agawa Bay. Unfortunately, we were only able to book one night as the reservation system showed the park as being almost full. Agawa Bay has many hiking trails, one of which leads to ancient petroglyphs that I really wanted to see. We had a great site about three rows in from the beach, which was just as well because it was very windy and wet while we were there. Some of the trails were closed due to the coronavirus, and the trail to the petroglyphs was too wet to hike. A month later it was closed due to high water and winds.
Following Agawa, we gassed up in Wawa, home of the giant goose statue (we saw three) and boasting the smallest Canadian Tire store. The whole town is small and some of the buildings look like they have been standing a long, long time. We ate lunch in a quaint little diner run by a fun French Canadian lady. Their poutine is fantastic!
I posted a question about boondocking possibilities along the north shore of Lake Superior, and one fellow LTV owner suggested Batchawana Bay. I didn’t want to commit to a stay, but made a point to check it out. The beach was beautiful, and if we were caravaning l would have considered it.
The next park on our route was Neys Provincial Park and I was able to score two nights at a beachfront campsite. This was another gem of a campground that I’d seen on YouTube with a long beach, incredible rock formations, and the best view of the sunset and sunrise. This place was also part of the Lake Superior night sky preserve. Being secluded, away from any towns, cities, or villages, there is no light pollution at night time. This was a feature we had longed for. In 2008 we visited Peru, and a segment of the trip consisted of the most strenuous activity we had ever endured. We hiked the Inca Trail, a gruelling but rewarding 4-day hike and camp to the ruins of Machu Picchu. At an average altitude of 4,000 metres above sea level, the night sky in the Andes mountains afforded the most spectacular view of the stars. We had never seen so many stars in our lives. It was absolutely magical. Of course, Neys and Lake Superior are in the northern hemisphere so we’d be looking at different star systems than the Incan people, but it would be a greater opportunity to see the Milky Way than at our city home in southwest Ontario. Highly recommend this place.
Following Neys was another provincial park that had an intriguing name, Rainbow Falls. Again the reservation system allowed us only one night, and as it happened, we were directed to the Rossport Campground part of the Park. This was another park I’d seen on YouTube that offered great views and trails, however it didn’t show a beach. Fortunately, Rossport is located on the Lake Superior shore. The beach was great and the sunset spectacular! The site was small but fit our rig. Unfortunately, we were located close to the gatehouse which is by the Park entrance. And wouldn’t you know it, there was highway-widening construction happening right outside the gate. Ugh! However, we celebrated Robyn’s birthday with a vegan curry dinner and a bottle of wine I’d been saving from Burning Kiln Winery. We didn’t have candles so I used a flashlight. Hey, we’re on the road!
There are several great stop-off lookout points that offer stunning views of the Lake and the surrounding forests and escarpments. One such place I highly recommend is the Aguasabon Falls and Gorge. It’s between Neys and Rossport Parks. If you travel on this route, take advantage of the lookout points but be aware that some are for cars only because of limited space. They are well signposted.
The next campground I booked was two nights at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, one of my bucket list destinations. I’d heard of this campground many, many years ago in my tent camping days, but never had the chance to visit. This campground is located on a peninsula not too far from the U.S. side of Lake Superior. There’s a Flying J gas station at the intersection of Highway 17 and Highway 587 (the cut off to Sleeping Giant). Apparently the reviews on staying at the Flying J weren’t very positive, not that we were planning to. We saw a LTV Serenity in the parking lot and I spoke to the driver, who told us she and her husband were on their way to Winkler, Manitoba, for some warranty work on their rig. The campsites at Sleeping Giant are a decent size, but the electrical posts are positioned too far away. We actually witnessed a camper van being damaged as the driver skimmed a tree while trying to reach the post. Thankfully for us, I have an extension, having camped at provincial parks before.
This park came with a few firsts. We saw a bear box for food safety. In all my camping years I had never seen one in Canada. Robyn was visited by a female duck looking for handouts. We’ve been used to chipmunks and squirrels, but not a duck. Funny thing is that the next morning, it came by again, only this time it brought two more ducks with it. Another first was seeing an amethyst rock outside the visitor centre. This is a large campground and very well-kept.
Before our next destination we stopped in Nipigon. It was not quite the town I thought it would be. It was one of those names that is mentioned on the news channels and printed on maps in large letters, though unassuming in actual stature.
Our next stop and final pre-booked campground was two nights at Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park, outside Thunder Bay. As previously mentioned, this was on recommendations by friends, and online videos showcase the waterfalls as the highest falls in the Lake Superior watershed. It is definitely worth the trip, even just to visit the falls, which are by all means spectacular – flowing water through the river above with a multitude of cascades making their way through the gorge to a hydro power station. There are trails that take you around the river and falls with breathtaking views at all lookout points. We had a great campsite (again having to extend our electric cable).
We could have ventured further west to Quetico Provincial Park, but decided to finish our north shore of Lake Superior trip at Kakabeka. Now the choice to return east would be to take Highway 17 back the way we came, or wing it and take Highway 11, which is further north. I say “wing it” because there are no parks on that route, only boondocking possibilities which could be sketchy at best, and only one gas station for a long while.
We decided to return on the familiar route. The weather was changing; we had a few frost warnings for the mornings and opted to stay south instead of travelling north. While on the highway outside Thunder Bay, another stopping point I recommend is the Terry Fox Monument. The grounds are beautifully kept and the statue of Terry Fox, though very somber, is located with an amazing view of the Sleeping Giant in Lake Superior.
While at Kakabeka Falls, I logged on to the reservation system and was able to book a one-night stay at Rainbow Falls Rossport campground again, where we met fellow LTVers Leah and Terence Gunnell, who were parked behind us. Terence is an electrical engineer who created an amazing gizmo that makes the water pump in most RVs more efficient and silent. I hope Leisure Travel Vans’ designers take note as other LTV owners have. Contact Terence via the Leisure Travel Van Enthusiasts Facebook group for more information.
One of our local acquaintances was in touch with Robyn and recommended Pukaskwa National Park. Unfortunately, this park doesn’t offer an online reservation system but simple verbal cues from the park office to drive through the park, pick a site that doesn’t have a reservation tag, and return to the park office notifying them of your choice. Other than that, the park had great reviews, and I booked two nights. There’s a boardwalk trail that leads to a beautiful beach. Robyn decided to go for a dip in the frigid Lake Superior waters (it was 4 degrees Celsius). Not me! We camped in a very private site and were visited by an assortment of creatures, including chipmunks, red squirrels, a grey jay, a forest hare, and about six squawking ravens. Our very own camping menagerie. One of the the best features of our site was a rotating fire pit, which could be pivoted to be turned into the wind. I have never seen one like this before. We definitely would like to return to this park after COVID passes to canoe its still waters.
Another provincial park on our route was Pancake Bay. It has wide open beaches, and pull-through sites. The campground is very narrow in shape and runs parallel to the Trans Canada Highway. I booked two nights, but after one we decided to move on. Unfortunately this campground has very loud traffic noise from the highway. There was also a local fishing derby running and we were definitely the smallest rig in the park. We gave greetings to another LTV couple at the registration office and saw their Unity at the dump station the following day.
This was an appropriate time to stop once again for supplies and return to Sault Ste. Marie’s Walmart to take a break. There’s a good brewpub in The Soo called Outspoken Brewing. We also needed to figure out where to go next. I didn’t want to end our trip by taking the ferry back to Tobermory and heading home, so we decided to go to Sudbury. Here we could run some errands like refilling our propane tank and visiting a laundromat. Yay, clean clothes! Robyn had always wanted to see the Big Nickel. The Science North exhibit was closed for the season, but the Big Nickel made for great photo ops. Not able to find any camping, we stayed at the Walmart parking lot. Definitely get permission because no overnight parking signs are everywhere, however a review on RV Parky suggested otherwise, which was true. By the morning we were surrounded by at least ten rigs.
While at the Sudbury Walmart I was able to book two nights at another bucket list campground, Killbear Provincial Park. The campsites are huge drive-throughs and the beach and trails are within walking distance. I wish we could have stayed longer, but as with the previous bookings we were limited based on the information on the reservation system. This was by far the best campground, just for the natural beauty and the quintessential wind swept trees reminiscent of Group of Seven paintings. We met some nice people who annually group camped at Killbear for years. We could see why. I can’t believe it took us so long to get there. Definitely worth a return trip in the future.
After Killbear we had another choice: go east across to Algonquin Provincial Park and on towards the Ottawa region, or wend our way home. My concern was the weather. We needed to keep going south to avoid having to winterize our motor home. We headed to the town of Parry Sound and had lunch at Trestle Brewing Company. Great beer and the food was good, too. They are also a Harvest Hosts location, though we didn’t stay this time as we were en route. Perhaps on a future trek.
While in Parry Sound, I booked us one night at Arrowhead Provincial Park. This was a familiar park to us as we had tent camped there several times. There are many great trails in this campground. We had a large site, easy for our Wonder to get in and out, though not so easy for some larger rigs. I watched as a fifth-wheel rig took at least half an hour trying to manoeuvre into the site across from us.
Our next destination was at our favourite Harvest Hosts friends in Wiarton, the highly photogenic Rural Rootz Nature Reserve. Here we stayed for several nights, decompressing from our long drive. We hiked a trail or two and helped in the garden property. One of the owners, Tom, fixed our sliding pantry which had completely derailed and even mouse-proofed it. He tried to fix our steps, which stopped working near Thunder Bay, but was unable to. We were joined by a shiny Airstream whose owners live but a block away from us in London. It’s such a small world.
After Wiarton, we still weren’t done yet with our travelling, and so headed south along the shore of Lake Huron to Grand Bend, where I had booked us for two nights at Pinery Provincial Park. This has been one of our favourite destinations, camping here many times before. There are great trails and one of our favourite beaches, which is where we parked ourselves and savoured the lake air and the lack of crowds. It was too bad that the canoe rentals were closed due to COVID, as the Ausable River looked peaceful and inviting.
Robyn had read a review of a restaurant she thought I might enjoy, being an ex-Brit. Leaving Grand Bend, we continued south towards Sarnia, where we stopped for a fish and chips lunch at Purdy’s Fish Market in Point Edward by the blue waters of the St. Clair River, then we made our way to the Bluewater Bridge to find memorial bricks embedded in the riverside pathway. It was interesting to see how few vehicles were crossing to and from the US – I could only see transport trucks coming over the border into Canada.
This was the final stage of our epic trip around the north shore of Lake Superior, which included other bodies of water such as Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. We drove back home to London. A week or two later we winterized and stored our Wonderwheels until our next trip.
One experience we took home with us was seeing the awesome beauty of the fall leaves turning their colours throughout our journey. We saw the changes on our return eastbound with the foliage stretching across the north shore of Superior. It was absolutely spectacular!
Another was the camaraderie we felt with each LTV owner we met in person or passed by with a wave, as well as the rubbernecking and positive greetings we received from other campers and drivers. There was many a thumbs up! We have a special vehicle that protected us and handled correctly for us on our travels, and we belong to a group of fellow RVers who chose a Leisure Travel Van to call home. It’s an amazing feeling.
And finally, we respect the actions of the people of Ontario who persisted with mask-wearing and sanitizing along our travels this year. We are fortunate to have the ability to travel in isolation to places we have not been before, and we hope that someday soon this pandemic will end.
Stay safe on the road wherever you are going. If you cross paths or drive by, give us a smile or a wave.