Lisa Meyers McClintick, travel writer & photographer

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Thunder Bay, Canada, Family Road Trip

A disgruntled Fort William employee gets ready to start a fierce argument that will land him in jail.

Fort William delivers lively look at fur trade

An apprentice cowers from the fiery argument.
By Lisa Meyers McClintick
Written for Star Tribune Travel

The argument started like any would: insults building to a spittle-flying shouting match. A man waved his tankard of ale and told high-hat superiors just what he thought of their rules and questionable politics.

Apparently life wasn't easy during the 1815 fur trade.

The feisty ale imbiber was portraying a Fort William employee in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and as he carried on, modern gawkers drew close to the hubbub while a few costumed actors cowered by the blacksmith shop and behind the well.

Fort William's offices and one of about 40 historic buildings.
Like other lively history lessons throughout the fort, this fiery debate quickly sucked in our kids, ages 6 to 10. They snapped to attention when a smart-aleck 21st-century boy told officers "I know everything!" when questioned about a scandal. Constable Tate hauled him off like a sack of potatoes to a windowless slammer.

Our son laughed and begged to join him -- briefly.
It was one of many entertaining moments that made Thunder Bay the highlight of a summer road trip tracing the routes of Voyageurs from Grand Portage, Minn., to Thunder Bay, and from Canada's Quetico wilderness to Minnesota's Voyageurs National Park.

Visitors can learn historic dances from the early 1800s.
My husband, Bob, who kept falling behind to admire the craftsmanship of Fort William's 40 historically accurate buildings, said it felt on par with Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg.

Fortunately for Minnesotans, Fort William's hands-on, living history is easier on the wallet and much closer at just 40 miles beyond the border.

A hands-on look at the fur trade
It was that international border -- and ensuing U.S. taxes -- that led the Northwest Fur Company to build the grand Fort William in 1803 to take the place of the humbler Grand Portage trading post on the American side. Fort William actors generally portray the year 1815, by which time the fort was bustling.

We hadn't even reached the fort, with its imposing palisade fence, when our kids eagerly ducked into a tepee outside its walls. Elaine Foster-Sergeant, one of many "fort nerds" and a longtime volunteer, portrayed a Metis woman whose heritage blended Native American (or First Nations as it's called in Canada) with European, usually French. She invited them to crawl across fragrant, pine-cushioned bedding. She showed them the native way of life, from sleeping on curly-furred buffalo robes and drying food to gathering moss for makeshift diapers.

A life without Pampers boggled their modern minds, but before they could learn more, bagpipe music beckoned us to the fort's main entrance and a humble stretch of the Kaministiquia River. We arrived to see costumed dancers circling and promenading, keeping time with a lively fiddler, and visitors linking arms to give it a whirl.

Kylie holds an heirloom chicken.
A jolt of historic reality
We arrived too late for the fort's morning wedding ceremony, but enjoyed plenty of pomp as fort officials in coats and top hats and the colorful Metis residents sent off a departing officer. As he was paddled away, a cannon boomed a farewell. Smoke drifted across the water as dancers headed back to fort posts.

We followed them back to the fort, where the kids gingerly held heirloom chickens in the barn and grubbed around the garden, triumphantly yanking out a fresh carrot or two. When a fort crew pumped water from a vintage firefighting wagon, youngsters shrieked and darted away, only to taunt and beg for more.

We ducked in and out of buildings, enjoying the surprises within: a woodworker turning a bowl with a foot-pedaled lathe and a tinsmith crafting a lantern. Inside the bakery, with the heady aroma of wood smoke and baking bread, our kids eagerly grabbed rustic brooms, eager to trade a chore for a tasty sample.
The doctor's office and primitive apothecary.

We ended our fort visit with a fresh appreciation for the modern age after seeing the doctor's office with its lineup of mysterious medicinal powders and rustic surgical tools. Even gingerly testing a primitive electric shock machine didn't have the same jolt as seeing 16 ominous razor blades on a "mechanical leech." The kids squirmed as the doctor's wife explained how they were used with heated glass cups to bleed Fort William's sickest residents.

"I'm glad I don't live here," our son, Jonathan, exclaimed with sudden enthusiasm.

Breakfast at Hoito's.
Feasting Finnish-style
We began the next day gorging on Finnish pancakes. Thin and deliciously crispy, they spilled across the edge of plates at Hoito's. This local institution in the lower level of the historic Finlandia Club blends Ikea-like simplicity with church-basement hospitality and timelessness.

Our waitress patiently and easily rattled off explanations of viili (clabbered milk), kropsu (an oven pancake), mojakka (beef or fish stew), and salmon sandwiches. We opted for the giant pancakes with red sausages that carry a sweet hint of nutmeg or allspice. We got a little daring, and despite having no chance of pronouncing it, ordered lohiperunalaatiko, a tasty rice pudding nestled in a moccasin-shaped rye pastry crust.
As we feasted, our waitress chattered away in Finnish with diners at the next table. Thunder Bay, it turns out, claims the highest Finn population outside Finland.

You can't go wrong with breakfast in Thunder Bay. Besides the fame of Hoito's, the city is known for Persians (a strawberry-frosted pastry), as well as 30 doughnut shops mostly ruled by Tim Horton's and Robin's Doughnuts. Anyone who grew up with these chains tends to scoff at America's Krispy Kreme fanatics.
A few of our treasures from the amethyst mine.
Finding Canada's real gems
About 34 miles northeast of Thunder Bay lay the day's big attraction: Amethyst Mine Panorama. The elevation makes it a good vista point for spying Lake Superior in the distance, but it's also been a working mine since the 1960s. It's one of a few open mines that tap the vein of purples that formed in cracks of granite hills west of the Great Lakes. The Lukinuk family dynamites and drills out the best pieces to sell, including $30,000 amethyst boulders for millionaires craving something flashy for driveways and gardens.

We climbed a platform to gaze into the mine, where deep purple, lavender and white streaks ripple through brown rock. Then we joined other visitors at what looked like a gravel pile. We grabbed hoses to wash off rocks and look for flashes of purple.

"Look at this one! And this one!" we repeated, holding the best of the best up to the sun to show off the prettiest patterns and shades of purple.

We left with 15 pounds -- $45 worth of rocks -- a hefty souvenir from a gem of a day.

'Niagara of the North'
Our last stop in the Thunder Bay area -- a thundering 131-foot drop of the Kaministiquia River -- left us gasping. The impressive Kakabeka Falls curves and horseshoes, giving it the deserving moniker "Niagara of the North."

Interpretive signs were there to tell us more about the fur trade, but it was hard to pull our gaze from the sheer power of the falls. Like turning amethyst around in our hands, we savored views from every angle.

When we finally pulled ourselves away, it was with the satisfaction of discovering yet another Canadian treasure.

Dawson Creek campsite, Quetico Provincial Park, Canada.
Camping in Quetico
Read more about travel to Canada and Greg Breining's feature on paddling through Quetico in this Sunday's Star Tribune. If you want to an easier trip, Quetico does have a Dawson Creek campground for car campers. Go mid-week or reserve early for the best chance at a spot along the beautiful lake. And take good bug spray in case there's a fresh hatch.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Enjoy Spring Blossoms in Minnesota and Wisconsin

Cherry bush
Drive the bluffs, see apple blossoms
Some of Minnesota's most stunning views can be found along the 19-mile Apple Blossom Scenic Drive each spring. This byway, tucked above the Mississippi River Valley in southeast Minnesota, celebrates the apples which have thrived along these bluffs for more than 150 years.

Bluffs, like the hillsides along the Minnesota River or St. Croix River , shelter orchards from cold temperatures that sink into the valleys. The bluffs' rich limestone soil also nourishes the fruit and gives the area’s 30-some apple varieties a distinct taste.

Meander by farms, orchards
Catch the drive at County Road 3 a few miles south of Winona. This is one of the most striking stretches of the Great River Road. Look for a maze of islands to the east, along with deep ravines and lush, wooded ridges rising from both sides of the Mississippi.

From the picnic area and overlooks at Great River Bluffs State Park, you can even seen Wisconsin’s Black River delta on the opposite shore. The park’s hiking trails thread through the hardwood forest, thick with maples, basswood, oak and hickory. They flame into full glory by late September and early October. If you want to camp here, reserve these spots early.

Most of the Apple Blossom Scenic Drive hugs the ridges above the river, curving through horse and hobby farms and passing historic red barns. As the byway meanders southeast, it nears the orchards. They’re showered with delicate white blossoms in early May (a little later this year) and thick with apples by late summer.

 Find morels and wildflowers

As a tasty spring bonus, watch for stands along Highway 61 selling tender asparagus and coveted morel mushrooms. Check in with morel fanatics for advice and tips if you want to do your own foraging, or check out this feature by Beth Gauper, creator of

Now through Memorial Day or the first week of June also is an ideal time to enjoy woodland wildflowers in Minnesota state parks thick with hardwoods. Look for white trillium, bright yellow marsh marigolds, false rue anemone, delicately striped spring beauty, sturdy Jack in the Pulpit, wild plum blossoms, trout lilies and more.

Marsh marigolds
Take a field guide along or check out the Minnesota Department of Resources wildflower guide.

Some of the best parks for wildflowers include Nerstrand Woods by Northfield, Whitewater State Park outside of Rochester, and Frontenac State Park along the Mississippi River. I spotted my first ever yellow lady's slipper on the steep bluffs of Frontenac. Be forewarned: If you hike down, you have to hike up. Pace yourself accordingly. 

Keep an eye out for returning songbirds, eagles and wild turkeys, too. Our son got the scare of a lifetime helping me find woodland flowers and startling a turkey that was as big as he was at the time.

That's the best part of exploring Minnesota's byways and hiking trails. You never know what kind of treasures and surprises you'll find.

For more information, check out the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for park updates or Explore Minnesota Tourism.

Lupine growing along Lake Superior.
Take more scenic spring blossom drives:

Here are my favorite picks for scenic spring blossom drives in Minnesota and Wisconsin:

Bayfield, Wisconsin
You can't beat the gorgeous Lake Superior setting, artsy shops, great cuisine and views of the Apostle Islands. The month-long Bayfield in Bloom festival kicks off Friday. Besides orchards, there are 54,000 daffodils. Our favorite Bayfield flower? June-blooming lupine which fills the ditches with an explosion of purple and tinges of pink.

Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, Chaska, Minn.
A great option if you don't have time to travel far from the Twin Cities and want to research planting your own apple or fruit trees. This year's funky sculpture exhibition, Steel Roots, opened last month and runs through October. Call the Bloom Line at 612-625-9791 to find out what's blooming.

Door County, Wisconsin.
Another lovely Great Lakes setting and the chance to meander by both cherry and apple orchards. Door County's six-week Festival of Blossoms runs through June 5th and includes several package deals. It's a great time to visit before summer crowds hit.

Gays Mills, Wisconsin.
This hidden gem in southeast Wisconsin sits along the Kickapoo River Valley and near the Great River Road region where roads meander and hills look like gumdrops. We found this town of 625 residents by accident one year. It was a fabulous find, especially in full swing of fall apple season.

--Photos and text by Lisa Meyers McClintick