Monday, August 20, 2012

North West Ontario Drive - Thunder Bay

The closest I've ever gotten to visiting Thunder Bay before this road trip was the lay-over in the airport to and from Sioux Lookout, Ontario.  From there I could see the famous "Sleeping Giant" land formation but not much else.  On this driving excursion, we finally had a chance to explore downtown Thunder Bay and were impressed by how beautiful it is.

As we drove towards Thunder Bay, we started to notice markers indicating that we were on the Terry Fox Courage Highway, following a small part of the path of Terry Fox's incredible run across Canada in 1980 to raise money for Cancer research.  A beautiful memorial has been built in the community of Shuniah where Fox had to give up his "Marathon of Hope" when his cancer returned.  The plaque leading up to the memorial reminded us that while in remission and with one artificial limb, Terry ran the equivalent of a full marathon per day for 143 consecutive days.

The memorial overlooking Lake Superior and the Thunder Bay coastline is a poignant tribute to this amazing man who has been called the greatest athlete of all times.  Looking at it and thinking about his feat of courage and perseverance brought tears to my eyes.   As a sign of our technological age and the dominance of Apple, we found it amusing to spot a white haired grandmother taking a photo of the scene by holding up her IPAD in both hands.

Thunder Bay has a lovely harbourfront, filled with sculptures, bridges, walking paths and outdoor art.  One area features Asian landscaping including a round stone arch with the Chinese characters for "Tai Chi" and a mosaic-tiled surface depicting the symbols for Yin and Yang.  Whimsical sculptures made of polished stone look like shapes that are formed when making balloon animals.  By a pool and water fountain are a series of vibrant, colourful murals that were possibly created by school children.

Fort William recreates a North West Company trading post from early 1800s, depicting the life of the people involved in the Canadian fur trade.  We have visited many forts and other historical sites across Canada, but found that the performers of the historical reenactment at Fort William did the best jobs of staying in character and making you feel part of the times. Tourists are addressed as if they were one of the voyageurs or fur traders and encouraged to participate in the role playing.

In one of the lodgings, the wife of one of the voyageurs explained about the points trading system where a typical beaver pelt was worth one point, while more exotic furs such as artic fox and lynx were worth multiple points.   Rabbit pelts were not considered valuable and were actually used as diapers.  The Hudson Bay Company "point blanket" was a popular item desired by the Aboriginal people, with thin black lines depicting the number of points that the blanket was worth.  The value of the blanket was based on its size and colour, with white being the cheapest and blue was the most expensive.

While the more luxurious pelts were turned into fur stoles for the wealthy, the most commonly sought was the beaver pelt which was used for making felt top hats.  The pelts were flattened and pressed into transportable units and packaged into heavy bundles that were then shipped by canoe to Montreal.   We were shown how the voyageur would have to carry multiple bundles of over 90 pounds each on his back and were allowed to feel and compare different types of fur.

At the hospital, the hilarious "doctor's wife" regaled us with stories about her husband's work, shedding light on the medical practices of the time.  She showed us a huge enema tool used as a de-constipator and then explained with a straight face how important it was to apply this contraption close to the toilet (a chair with a hole in it sitting above a bucket) to allow enough time for the patient to get there.  Apparently the tool is very effective.  She rolled her eyes in disgust as she recalled times when they forgot to put the bucket underneath, or remove the lid from the bucket.

The Thunder Bay Art Gallery promotes the works of North Western Ontario artists.  Nestled in the wood-like grounds of the gallery are various outdoor sculptures depicting moose and wolves.  At the time of our visit, the gallery was featuring paintings by local Thunder Bay Ojibwa artist Roy Thomas.

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