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How far can you drive in Northern Ontario? Road trip time

Back Roads Bill recently completed this marathon dash to the most northern point one can reach by road in Northern Ontario
“Are we there yet?” In this context, 'there' is the most northerly point in Northern Ontario on a legal road.

If you don’t like to be in the car for extended periods of time this travelogue might make you woozy. But this trip is not so much about the bragging rights but our geography. Referring to an Ontario road map while you read this will help you get your bearings.

This adventure has been on my mind pre-pandemic and transitioning out of this sixteen months means summer school-high school at the Canadian Ecology Centre (CEC) looms; it is time again to work with students, face-to-face, with a mask, starting on July 4. So this 3,000 plus kilometre trek has to be quick.

After finishing an outdoor education program at the CEC I drive north in the afternoon to Timmins (College St. and Airport Rd.) meeting my travelling companion Brian Emblin and leaving at 5:51 p.m. on Sunday, June 27. He has picked up the rental.

Driving westward on Highway 11 is a review of community tourism icons.

First we pass the alien spaceship in Moonbeam, which I like to see at night. Then, there's the black bear at Kapuskasing as well as the wolves and moose in Hearst. Let’s not forget the walleye at Opasitka and the canoe portage at Mattice.

No time to stop for a selfie, though. These days there is lots of daylight for driving.

Arriving late, it was time for a nap in Longlac and then up and ‘em at 5 a.m.

We pass the snowman in Beardmore, now festooned in its summer attire (they change it for the winter) and soon enough cross the shiny cable-stayed Highway 11/17 bridge, the one that collapsed, in Nipigon on Jan. 10, 2016, just 42 days after its opening.

We pass the Terry Fox milestone maker and then shortly thereafter the lookout/statue and, looking to our left, we see the Sleeping Giant. We take the Thunder Bay bypass but, unfortunately, it means we miss Kakabeka Falls.

Trans Canada Highways 11 and 17 divide again and all of a sudden we are in the Central Time Zone. Again, there is no stopping though for a picture.

To accomplish this journey, Ignace becomes the next destination where we gas up and stop at a store. At the grocery store, we ask the long-time resident and cashier if they have been to Pickle Lake.

"No, never been," is the response.

We make sure the 'jerrycan' (German slang) is full because it is more than three hours to Pickle Lake on secondary Highway 599.

Quickly we pass over the CPR tracks. We find ourselves in Sandbar Provincial Park and the last gas for some time is at Silver Dollar. It’s named after a store and restaurant whose owner, Bob Sincox, hoped to 'make a mint' with his venture when he opened the operation in 1968.

The boreal forest becomes the scenery. There are sporadic lodge signs with fitting names like Whiskey Jack, Old Post and Village and North Albany Lodge.

At Savant Lake, we cross the CNR tracks and there is another gold exploratory drill project going on in the area.

The forest begins to change and there are fewer logging patches as we drive northward. We've heard there are plans to continue logging and we wonder how the pulp and any dimensional lumbering trees make it all the way to the mill in Thunder Bay.

The Miskeegogaman First Nation (63A & 63B) is the most populous community along the route with approximately 900 residents.

There is a welcoming moose sign at Pickle Lake which is populated by 425 people. The highest temperature ever recorded there was 40 °C (104 °F) on June 1, 1933. The coldest temperature ever recorded was −51.1 °C (−60 °F) on Feb. 8, 1934.

And here we find ourselves on the most northerly reaching all-season, all-weather road in the Province of Ontario maintained by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. It's approximately 292 kilometres (181.4 miles) long.

Highway 599 officially ends, here. This road construction was finished in 1966.

It is mid-afternoon and there remains another 217 km to go to the end of this highway so we gas up and get snacks at Casual’s Convenience Store.

At Central Patricia Centre just outside of Pickle Lake, the site of the old gold mine, we pass by an emergency telephone booth where truckers check in with a call forward to give an expected arrival time at their destination for safety reasons. As a public consumer, you are on your own.

Some new pavement has been put down for 52 km. Then another all-weather road starts.

On the way, there is a busy and interesting infrastructure project.

We started to see bright blue pickup trucks, with Valard written on the side door, with a coat of dust for good measure. Work on the project is being done in two phases - one is the construction of a transmission line from Wabigoon to Pickle Lake, and the other is the installation of lines from Pickle Lake and Red Lake to 17 remote communities, requiring over 1,800 kilometres of line.

While driving that stretch of the highway, we see metallic, zinc-covered transmission towers being erected, land being cleared for the line and lines being strung. It is a joint government/First Nations initiative being fulfilled in conjunction with Wataynikaneyap Transmission Project (Watay Project).

At the Musselwhite Mine turnoff, a major transformer station is being built for power distribution to the mine and then the feeders to the remote communities.

Musselwhite is a fly-in-fly-out mine but service vehicles use this road so there are clouds of dust like a summer snowstorm. We stay way right and slow down. The Musselwhite property is 17,548 hectares, entirely on First Nations land.

Since its first commercial production in April 1997, the mine has produced more than 4 million ounces of gold.

From the junction, there are few signs and little traffic. One sign has the mileage to distant First Nation communities accessed by the network of winter roads.

We catch sight of a red and white Stirland sign.

Located on Stirland Lake, it is the site of a former residential school known as the Wahbon Bay Academy. Students were flown in to it after it was opened in 1971 and it operated as a boys’ school until 1986 when the school merged with the Cristal Lake girls’ school run by Northern Youth Programs (Mennonites).

In 1987 students staged a protest against what they considered excessively restrictive conditions at the school, it closed in 1991. There is time for reflection as we drive another 83 km to the end of the road at Windigo Lake.

This is where the network of winter roads start crossing more of the boreal forest and taiga. That is why the extension of secondary highway #599 was created for the winter roads and the Musselwhite mine.

You can see a winter roads piece of machinery, a drag, and another private road leading toward North Caribou Lake which will eventually become a permanent road as the power project and other roads move to the other communities.

Our arrival at the end of the road is sort of anticlimactic because we are tired. We take the time for photos with a commemorative sign and then turnaround.

The end of the road is UTM Zone 15 U E 602325 N 5832245 or N 52° 37’ 49.9” W 91° 29’ 17.2”. Sault Ste. Marie-Sudbury-North Bay is located at approximately 47 degrees north latitude. Each degree of latitude is approximately 111 km, so we are another 600 km north.

It is time for the second nap in Pickle Lake as dawn is circa 4:30 a.m.

On the return trip and for good measure, we take on two sidebar trips.

For the first, we turn south on Highway 11 at Longlac and drive 142 km on a primary logging road to Terrace Bay. The last third is like driving along Lake Superior with its wonderful scenery. This logging road joins two Trans Canada Highways - 11 and 17. We are careful to watch out for the chip vans and logging trucks using the road.

Then we drive east on Highway 17, past White River and turn north to Dubreuilville. It's a very winding road that takes us past the new Argonaut gold initiative and then we drive 214 km on a network of logging roads through Oba, which is a significant railway junction of the ACR and CNR railways as they cross into the expansive Chapleau Game Preserve, and then it's on to Hearst.

There is a new piece of a secondary logging road (yikes) that joins these two communities. The handheld GPS helps us find our way through.

We continue back on to Highway 11, eastwards and back to Timmins, via Highway #655 to travel companion Brian Emblin's house, still talking all the way.

I arrive back at 3:29 a.m. on Wednesday, June 29, after a 21-hour day driving to the end of the road and then some.

Emblin's impression of the extraordinary road trip?

"’s certainly the furthest north I have ever been in Ontario other than flying into Musselwhite mine. (He’s a mining engineer.)," says Emblin. "I think that had we not seen the hundreds of power workers we would have had a strong feeling of isolation. And the long light days were in our favour."

In total, I spent 46 hours and 14 minutes in the car for a 3,074 km trip. We took two naps and there were two time zone changes during the trip - one there and one back. Actually on Highway 599 you weave back and forth between the time zone boundaries several times. Don’t tell mom.

Then I drove back to North Bay to work. That Bobby Gimby and the Blackflies song got into my head for some reason.

Far northern Ontario is a vast and magnificent land. There is much to learn about our geography. See the map.

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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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