• Nipissing

Ours to discover: Lake Nipissing. ‘The Small Water’ punches above its weight class

The history of the area adds to its present splendour, offering memorable connections to nature and Canada’s history

Avatar By: Wheels July 17, 2021
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About this series: With COVID-19 restrictions expected to ease over the next few months, Wheels wants to inspire you to get ready to explore – but only when it is safe to do so. This series of daytrips and weekend drives highlights great experiences you can have in the province once conditions allow and show you why Ontario is “Ours to Discover” this summer and beyond.

As Nbisiing Anishinaabe, the original people of Lake Nipissing, the land, the water – and in particular the lake—is ingrained in my DNA. Its lifeblood flows through my body. A trip home provides respite for the senses, the spirit and the city-dwelling family. Nbisiing means “the small water,” aptly named for its small stature compared to the larger Great Lakes. However, the experience of knowing, loving and enjoying Lake Nipissing is anything but small.

DAY ONE

In the morning: My wife and I pack our 2021 Dodge Challenger for this road trip that will sees us driving highways 400 and 11 north for roughly four hours to North Bay. Part of the roadway parallels the historic route known as the Toronto Carrying Place, a canoe and portage system that connected early explorers with Lake Ontario, Lake Simcoe and eventually the Georgian Bay.

Known as the Gateway of the North and located on the northeast corner of Lake Nipissing, North Bay will be the first stop on our two-day trip. Our drive will then follow the north shore of the lake, with stops in Nipissing First Nation and the Franco-Ontarian communities of Sturgeon Falls and Verner, before heading back to Toronto along Hwy. 69.

Around noon: Upon arrival, our first stop is a visit to the North Bay Farmers Market. It is held outside at Oak and Ferguson streets in front of the North Bay Museum – a restored train station built in the early 1900s – on Wednesdays and Saturdays during the morning and early afternoon from the May long weekend through Thanksgiving (it moves inside for winter). It features vendors selling locally grown produce, and my wife is attracted to the fresh preserves and handicrafts – pottery, jewelry, toys and soaps.

Hand-in-hand, my wife and I cross the underpass walkway that connects downtown North Bay to its waterfront. It is part of trail system through the city named for world champion skier Kate Pace, and is filled with cyclists, runners and families with strollers. The waterfront was once cut off from the downtown by a railway yard. It has transformed in the last two decades, and now features walkways, a marina, a beach, miniature railway and even a carousel with carved-seats in the shapes of animals – including a moose, beaver and raccoon.

In the afternoon: Heading out of town, I spend the afternoon with my brother, who takes me fishing on Lake Nipissing. Aboard his trusty 16-foot Legend boat with a 60 hp Mercury 4-stroke, we make good time to Target Island in the mouth of the French River, located on the south-side of the lake. While angling, we drift past our dodem – our clan animal – called migizi (the bald eagle). The majestic bird swoops so close we can almost feel the displaced air of his magnificent wings.

Lake Nipissing covers more than 870 square kilometres and is a popular fishing location for its walleye, bass and pike. There are boating outfitters in North Bay, and the communities around the lake, but you need to have a licence and there are regulated fishing seasons. Our short trip yields three walleye, all caught by my brother.

In the evening: Dinner means our choice of the area’s modern-day claim to fame. Once known the world over for its caviar, the community of Sturgeon Falls, a half-hour drive west on North Bay along Hwy. 17, is now known for its rival chip stands. On opposite sides of Main Street stand the Riv Chip Stand and Larry’s Chip Stand. Choose your side. Larry’s provides fresh-cut fry perfection and a more traditional menu (think pogos and hamburgers), while the Riv’s offerings include a variety of poutine options – toppings such as peameal bacon, Italian meat sauce and dill pickle. My choice was the homemade fish and chips at Monique’s Chip Stand, located off the beaten path on Nipissing Street.

Nipissing Nipissing

Once you get your food, head to Minnehaha Bay, at the base of King Street, a picturesque spot on the Sturgeon River with a marina. Or head to the parking lot off River Street, where you can see the falls that gives the community its name. While a dam now spans the river, water still cascades into the gorge that has carved its way through the Canadian Shield landscape.

Nipissing

After dinner, we drive back to North Bay and check into our hotel for the night. For years, accommodations in the city were limited to long-established hotels and motels lining Lakeshore Drive and the city’s downtown, but, in recent years, a number of modern chains have opened accommodations, including the Hampton Inn by Hilton and Holiday Inn Express and Suites.

Discover Nipissing

DAY TWO  

In the morning: For breakfast, we opt for local, Indigenous-owned Twiggs Coffee Roasters. Along with its in-house roasted coffee and lattes, Twiggs serves my favourite breakfast sandwich this side of Montreal – with bagels from the famous Kettleman’s Bagel Co. Jennifer Twigg and family also serve tasty, flatbread pizzas at their two locations in North Bay: at Minnehaha Bay in Sturgeon Falls and in Sudbury.

Nipissing

Around noon: Before beginning our drive back to Toronto, we spend time in my home community of Nipissing First Nation (NFN). NFN is a signatory to the 1850 Robinson-Huron Treaty, and its traditional territory is along the shores of Lake Nipissing. It has a total citizenship of 2,999, of which 998 people live on-reserve. At more than 40,000 hectares, NFN has one of the largest First Nation land bases in Canada.

We drive through the village of Duchesnay, just west of North Bay. Indigenous creative types will know Big Medicine Studio, the home of Aanmitaagzi, an artist-run company owned by Penny Couchie and Sid Bobb. Aanmitaagzi, means “he/she speaks,” and is a multi-disciplinary studio that is dedicated to Anishinaabe-Sto:lo cultural storytelling.

Nipissing

In the afternoon: Leaving the North Bay area, we head west along Hwy. 17 through Sturgeon Falls to the agricultural community of Verner, known for hosting the International Plowing Match in 2019. From there, our journey takes us south and west along Hwy. 64, which cuts through the area’s farmland before entering the picturesque alcoves of white pine and meandering waterways and channels that mark the West Arm area of Lake Nipissing and then the French River. The French River Trading Post is our last scheduled stop of the day before the ride down Hwy. 69 to where it meets Hwy. 400. It is a great stop for premium souvenirs, and their fresh fudge is delectable. But, if you are going to purchase a pair of moccasins, do so by only buying from and supporting Indigenous moccasin makers.

SIDEBAR: For the drive

For almost 20 years, Sturgeon Falls played host to an annual step-dance and fiddle festival, so get into the spirit by listening to SiriuxXM’s Bluegrass Junction. It reminds me of playing guitar with my dad and the times we spent roaming the campground at the festival, which attracted thousands of people and a fleet of RVs each summer.

SIDEBAR: COVID-19 need to know

Travel restrictions are beginning to lift. However, signs are everywhere reminding people to maintain physical distancing and wear masks. Visit the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit for more information (myhealthunit.ca)

SIDEBAR: Drive guide

Day one

  • 7 a.m. Leave Toronto
  • Drive Hwy. 400 then 11 north
  • 11 a.m. North Bay Farmers Market
  • Noon: North Bay Waterfront
  • 2 p.m. Lake Nipissing
  • 5:30 p.m. Hwy. 17 west to Sturgeon Falls
  • 6 p.m. Chip Stand
  • 7:30 p.m. Drive to North Bay
  • 8 p.m. Hotel

 Day two

  • 8 a.m. Twiggs Coffee Roasters
  • 9 a.m. Laurier Woods Conservation Area
  • 11 a.m. Duchesnay Falls Trails
  • 12:30 p.m. Aanmitaagzi
  • 1:30 p.m. Hwy. 17 west to Verner
  • 2:15 p.m. Hwy. 64 to French River
  • 3:15 p.m. French River Trading Post
  • 4 p.m. Drive to Toronto

NOTE: Times are suggestions only

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