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Bears, wolves a space ship and their stories (13 photos)

This week, Back Roads Bill tells us the stories of some of the roadside attractions he visited on the way to his backroads adventures along the two Trans Canada highways in northern Ontario

There seem to be more roadside tourism icons on Highway 11 North than on Highway 17 West?

One of the highlights of driving to the back roads is the opportunity to see a variety of roadside attractions or icons en route. And along the way, there are plenty of famous, not to mention unusual, landmarks across Northern Ontario.

For the town of Wawa, it all started with the ‘Wawa Goose’. There have been three replicas in its 62-year history and it was one of the first such roadside attractions in Canada.

Since 1960, the iconic 28-foot tall steel Canada goose monument has been visible from Highway 17 and has been a popular tourist stop on the long drives across More on that later but first a little bit of history on all those other icons we stop at for selfies.

There is a distinct lack of history on most of the roadside attractions that have sprung up on the highways. That's part of the inspiration for this story. There are two Trans Canada Highways (TCH) in Northern Ontario, that’s another story, but envision now heading north of North Bay on Highway 11.

Marten River, Big Fish

As you journey northwards from North Bay the first roadside icon is the Marten River walleye at the Rock Pine Restaurant and Motel.

As locals say, “You can’t miss the big fish.” It is the beginning of what seems to be the obligatory mascot, statue or icon that each town in northern Ontario seems to have – in this first example, it is what they claim is Highway 11’s largest fish.

Historic photos show earlier renditions of the fish facing west rather than the east, as it does now and it was originally located about two kilometres northwards at the Trading Post next to Marten River Provincial Park.

Apparently, the first papier-mâché fish was a community parade effort and it was moved to the location where there was a small, seasonal tourist information booth for the Marten River Association of Tourist Camp Operators.

Temiskaming Shores, cow, Ms. Claybelt

What about that massive cow in Temiskaming Shores (New Liskeard) beside McDonald’s? It’s been 39 years since “Ms. Claybelt” found her home at the Little Claybelt Homesteaders Museum but very few people know where she came from.

The Township of Dymond Council wanted a larger-than-life-size cow as a Little Clay Belt tourist attraction for the area’s prominent agricultural sector. Back in the day, a miniature 12-inch high by 18-inch wide Holstein was secured as a model and Ms. Claybelt was created from it. The gigantic cow is 12 feet high and 18 feet long and cost $11,000 at the time. Some think it doesn’t look like a Holstein, the most prevalent of the seven dairy breeds.

Earlton, Bison

Just up the highway is the bison at Earlton. His name is “Earl” as he is a bull and is most likely the most realistic and statuesque of all the highway landmarks. The plaque explains all.

It is one of the largest animal sculptures in Canada, at 19’ tall and 27’ long. The all-steel sculpture weighs over nine tons.

“What started out as a six-month summer art project, in 1983, blossomed into a year-plus engineering and artistic odyssey and a significant financial commitment," Pierre Belanger, the former owner of Northern Frontier Zoo explained. "It was originally meant to be a small entrance mascot or effigy for the Northern Frontier Zoo. Then it grew.”

“We’ve moved Earl two times and that’s a special task due to its size and weight," Belanger said. "It is more than an animal caricature. And while it is an anatomically correct bull bison it is an artistic representation of the animal.” (Yes take a peek at the scrotum.)

Over time it has become a must-see landmark on Hwy 11 North. 

“Every day, cars pull in and get out with their cameras and strike a pose with Earl. At this time of the year, Earl still has his Christmas lights on," Belanger said. "That is a beautiful sight!”

Iroquois Falls lumberjack, Guy-Paul Tree-Fall the Storyteller

Just before the exit to downtown Iroquois Falls is “Guy-Paul Tree-Fall the Storyteller” sitting on a stump tall and stately, looking resplendent with his red plaid shirt and toque and giant double-bitted axe.

The town lost its livelihood as the paper mill closed a few days before Christmas in 2015. The tourism committee had the idea of this roadside attraction and the lumberjack was chosen because it depicted the town’s heritage (a paper town). He is sitting down, telling his story of the days gone by.

A town contest to “Name that Lumberjack” received 88 submissions. Guy-Pay Tree-Fall is a 20 ft. tall French-Canadian storyteller and a legendary Lumberjack. He was erected in 2010.

Cochrane, polar bear, Chimo

You can’t miss Chimo. As you make the big left turn west approaching Cochrane, you are welcomed by the 10.7-metre tall fibreglass polar bear which is the starting point of the Polar Bear Express train and the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat attraction.

The Board of Trade held a polar bear drawing contest amongst the primary schools in 1969. It was an art contest to design a flag for the Cochrane Winter Carnival. Claude Labelle, who was in elementary school designed, created and won the flag contest. The flag had a blue background with a white polar bear in the centre. It is said the logo was the inspiration for the mascot.

The name of Chimo, the statue bear, means friendship or greetings in Inuktitut. The saying “Chimo” has also been around for many years as the greeting of choice during the town’s Annual Winter Carnival which has been around since 1934.

Moonbeam, spaceship

The spaceship in Moonbeam is a personal favourite because I believe in the extraterrestrial and a nighttime photo is always fun to try.

The town doesn't come by this reputation lightly. It may, in fact, be the only place in the world named because of a UFO.

When incorporated in 1922, the name Moonbeam seemed appropriate for that reason and also because of the sunset light beams, off of nearby beautiful, blue-green Remi Lake. The village was named for Moonbeam Lake and Moonbeam Creek; tales are told that pioneers in the area often saw flashing lights in the skies and what they called "moonbeams" falling down near the creek.

The 18’ in diameter flying saucer was created in 1991. When nearby towns were erecting monuments and other edifices that symbolized their community as tourist attractions, the Moonbeam town council decided that something a bit out of the ordinary might be preferable.

Some people wanted a statue of something to represent the area's wildlife, but eventually, it was decided to build a 'full scale' model of a flying saucer. A fibreglass UFO was constructed, complete with flashing lights around its rim, and erected on the edge of town.

Kapuskasing, black bear, Muskwa

A new medicinal marijuana facility is slated for construction in Kapuskasing located on the west side of town in the former Val Rita parish church but on the east side you will be greeted by “Muskwa.” The bear was erected and unveiled in November of 2000 and was commissioned for the Kapuskasing and District Chamber of Commerce.

The artist, Normand Fortin, spent about six months working on the massive bruin – the bear has a metal frame and the sculpture product is called “winter stone” – an acrylic cement developed especially for works subjected to northern Ontario’s weather.

Hearst, wolves and moose

The moose and wolf pack statues were sculpted from a sketch done by Real Gagnon, in Quebec and then transported by flatbed truck in the summer of 2002 to Hearst where they now rest at the Hearst Tourism Centre at the east end of town.

The moose was too large to fit on the transport trailer so the legs were attached in the Hearst town garage upon arrival. The approximate cost was $60,000 and through the years have required some maintenance usually involving fixing the cracked fibreglass to prevent damage from water getting inside.

As Hearst has a reputation as "the Moose Capital of Canada" the moose and wolves were a good fit and replaced an aging wooden moose that was in place for years prior to this display, most startling at night.

Beardmore, snowman

Before you arrive at the junction of Highways 11 and 17 in Nipigon, you will journey through Beardmore. The Beardmore Snowman was originally built by the Royal Canadian Legion and the Township of Beardmore in 1960, to promote the town and the local ski hill (Moose Mountain).

It was made out of painted plywood, metal beams, and acrylic epoxy paint. In the early years, it was a chip and ice cream stand for locals and tourists to enjoy on those hot summer days.

At 35 feet tall, the Beardmore Snowman is quite the monument and purportedly the largest of its kind in Canada.

In the summer, this big guy sports sunglasses, a top hat & a fishing pole and in the winter, he holds a curling broom and a winter scarf.

Many locals and tourists are often seen taking pictures with the Beardmore Snowman, as he is part of the experience when travelling along Highway 11 through Beardmore, a Greenstone community.

In 2015, the Beardmore Snowman won a CBC contest, for the best roadside statue in northern Ontario, beating Husky the Musky in Kenora, the Moose in Dryden and the Bigfoot in Vermilion Bay.

Wawa, goose

Beloved around the world as one of the well-known Canadian symbols, unless you happen to be walking barefoot along a waterfront trail, the Canada Goose is affectionately feted in Wawa.

Johanna Rowe is a local historian and author of many history books related to the region. Her next to-be-completed book will be on the Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson who “summered” in the area and resided at ‘Sandy Beach’ on the shores of Lake Superior.

During the construction of the Trans-Canada Highway in the 1950s, residents of Wawa noted that the route bypassed the town by a mile.

A number of business owners decided that something was needed to redirect highway traffic into the community.

“Enter Al Turcott, Jerry Spreng, and Mel Phillips. These three instrumental citizens were the masterminds behind Wawa's iconic goose statue," Rowe said. "They presented the idea to the Government, who were skeptical at first but eventually agreed to erect the base and plaque. The goose itself would be the responsibility of the residents of Wawa. Turcott funded the majority of the creation of the first Wawa Goose statue built by Mr. Koci using mostly chicken wire and plaster.”

“The original goose lasted a mere three years., and a new goose was erected in 1963. Constructed of steel made with iron ore from the town’s Helen Mine, the goose was built by Dick Vanderclift in Sault Ste. Marie with help from Algoma Steel.”

The original plaster goose currently stands on the site of Young's General Store on Mission Road.

There’s yet another goose.

“The Wawa Motor Hotel is Wawa’s largest accommodation complex built after the completion of the highway by Norm Cornell in the mid-1960s," Rowe said. "Cornell owned hotels in Florida and Toronto and fell in love with the Wawa area during trips to Superior and local lodges. He also loved the idea of a Wawa Goose statue and decided to get his own, which is still perched above the main entrance to the hotel’s popular restaurant and lounge.”

After 54 years, the second Wawa Goose desperately needed to be replaced.

Led by the late Lori Johnson, Wawa's Director of Recreation and Tourism for 25 years, funding applications were completed, donation campaigns were initiated, and businesses and citizens from far and wide contributed to the Wawa Goose Fund.

“The new goose was made by Research Casting International based out of Trenton. Made of stainless steel with a bronze coating in order to prevent rusting, our current Wawa Goose was unveiled on July 1, 2017, as part of the Canada 150 celebrations,” she said.

The original 1963 goose was dismantled piece by piece and tucked away in an undisclosed location.

“No one is sure what the future plans are for the 54-year-old gander," Rowe said. "But its legend will continue to be immortalized in Stompin’ Tom Connor’s song Little Wawa composed during his stays at the hotel with the goose on the roof in the town with the Big Goose welcoming visitors to the town with the Ojibway name for Goose.”

The song is about a goose that stayed behind when her lover “Gander Goo” gets shot down. The Goose also has its own children's book, Wawa Goose Meeting at Fort Friendship written by Raymond MacDonnell.

Brad Buck was born and raised in Wawa (Michipicoten Harbour – where the Hudson Bay Post was originally located).

Buck’s Marina has been operating for 51 years and is the home of the Wawa Salmon Derby 40 years running this August 19-22.

His parents Lyman and Mary were pioneers in the area, his father was the customs-entry officer before the Trans Canada Highway was completed and they operated a commercial fishery and general store at what was known as The Mission.

Buck was five years old and remembers the opening ceremony for the highway on Sept. 17, 1960.

At the time he wondered where all the cars were coming from.

“The Goose put Wawa on the map, if you were driving across Canada you knew where Wawa was," Buck said. "If you were hitchhiking back in the day you knew you could get stuck here for a week!”

He recalls some hi-jinks by locals who mysteriously, one night, painted large goose tracks and a crosswalk to the adjacent airport, across Highway 101. It was made to look like the Goose was making its way over to the airport.

"Apparently, the Ministry of Transportation Ontario was not amused by the stunt and painted it over,” he said.

Buck pointed out that the location and base of The Goose have not changed, only their aesthetics.

The vegetation on the hillside is slowly impeding the view of the iconic goose from the highway in both directions.

The Goose is one icon on our highways but there are many others to stop at, stretch your legs and take that iconic pic for your social media before taking to the backroads again.


Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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