Written by Jordan Hawkswell
I recently returned from a great adventure through precambrian rocks, winding rivers, wildflower fields, charming towns, and lush forest. This was the Great Waterfront Trail Adventure (GWTA), put on by the Waterfront Regeneration Trust, that brings people together from all over to experience the Great Lakes and their watersheds.
The adventure consisted of a cycling tour from Sault Ste. Marie to Sudbury in Ontario via the Great Lakes Waterfront Trail. The trail has been an ongoing project of the Waterfront Regeneration Trust for many years whose dream is to connect the shores of all of the Great Lakes and their watersheds. While the GWTA has been running for several years now, this trip was special as it was the inaugural trip along a recently opened section of the Great Lakes Waterfront Trail in what is known as the North Shore. The North Shore is a beautiful region along the north shore of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay between Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury. The 460 km stretch runs through 26 communities, 12 heritage rivers, and 2 Great Lakes. This area of Ontario is quiet, yet vibrant, and holds a rich natural and cultural history that was a pleasure to begin to discover.
The North Shore is a glorious example of the beauty of Northern Ontario and the Great Lakes shoreline. From start to finish I was in awe of the diverse nature, people, and water along the way. The trip began in Sault Ste. Marie—a vibrant community nestled in the energetic waterway that connects Lake Superior to Lake Huron. I had the pleasure of joining the Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy on a Voyageur Canoe paddle in Lake Superior along the shores of Gros Cap Provincial Park. We glided through the crystal clear water along the shoreline of ancient precambrian rocks and unique sandstones where we were treated to seeing two Peregrine Falcons (a rare sight apparently!) Our guides treated us to smoked local whitefish and freshly brewed cedar tea, both delicious and deeply representative of the land and water we were on. This experience set the stage for the next five days beautifully—I had my first literal taste of the North Shore and I couldn’t wait to see it all.
I got so much support along the way throughout this tour, I was decently far out of my comfort zone on this trip and having everyone encouraging me along the way made all the difference!
Each day we cycled anywhere from 78 to 120 km along the Great Lakes Waterfront Trail. We peddled down country roads, gravel paths, highway shoulders, and city streets seeing so much of what the North Shore had to offer. Our first cycle day we rode through Garden River First Nation and St. Joseph’s Island on our way to Bruce Mines. We saw lovely shoreline bursting with blueberries, a big Loonie, and the generosity of the communities that were hosting us.
When we were welcomed at Ojibway Park by members of the Garden River First Nation, I enjoyed hearing how they spoke of their land and how they love to see people enjoy the beaches, blueberries, and water. I was surprised to see how few people made the connection that we were guests on the land and were quick to snap a picture and be on their way. I found these stops to be so much more enriching when I took the time to look at the land, listen to the people, and feel each element. When we arrived in Johnson Township for lunch we were greeted with world-class fiddle melodies and a beautiful array of food, the warmth of the town radiated from this stop. We finished the day in Bruce Mines where we had the pleasure of strolling through the streets after dinner where we found ice cream, a gorgeous waterfront walk, and music put on by a local band.
Day two took us 96 km down the trail from Bruce Mines to Blind River via Thessalon and Iron Bridge. This day was a slight blur as I put the pedal to the metal and cycled the furthest I ever had (spoiler—the next day was longer), but the countryside, winding rivers, and glittering Georgian Bay stuck in my memory. The real highlight of the day was the evening in Blind River where women from the Mississauga First Nation let us witness a sacred water ceremony on their shores. The sun was setting and their voices and drums echoed across the water. They offered us fresh strawberries, the berry of the heart, and water blessed by their songs. It was an incredibly beautiful experience that is difficult to put into words. It brought up many emotions as I my thoughts wandered to my childhood on that very lake, my own deep connection with water, and people I care about that would have loved to be present at this ceremony. At the end of the ceremony we were given sacred herbs and tobacco to offer to the lake, so I waded into the water and expressed my deepest gratitude to the lake, the people, and the opportunity to be on the GWTA journey.
The longest, most difficult day of the trip for me was day three from Blind River to Espanola via the Serpent River First Nation, Spanish, and Massey. 120 km along the Great Lakes Waterfront Trail brought us gorgeous views of the Serpent River, Chutes Provincial Park, and the LaCloche Bluffs. This was the longest distance I have ever cycled and my mind and body felt it—it was hard. Near the end of the day I was cycling along a long country road alone (I was pretty well the last person out there) and my mental strength was dwindling. The GWTA sweep cyclist volunteers caught up to me near the end and noticed I was having a tough time and stuck close with me for the last push, offering encouragement and support until we reached the campsite. It was exactly what I needed at that moment and made me very grateful for the community energy that is fostered on the GWTA tour. I got so much support along the way throughout this tour, I was decently far out of my comfort zone on this trip and having everyone encouraging me along the way made all the difference!
The last day of the trip was an “easy” 82 km from Espanola to Sudbury via Whitefish, Lively, and various parts of Greater Sudbury. As we peddled into Sudbury we saw the beautiful characteristics of the city, including breweries, murals, river trails, and a few of the hundreds of lakes within the city. Sudbury clearly puts a lot of energy into the cycle infrastructure and public spaces in the city. While I only saw a small piece I was glad to experience some of the trails and parks along the way. We were welcomed at the official finish line at Science North, an amazing science centre right on Ramsey Lake.
The finish line marked a total of 450 km cycles along the North Shore section of the Great Lakes Waterfront Trail. My body was sore but I was so excited about what I had accomplished. After an official photo we took a well deserved rest before we were treated to a dinner in the amazing cavern space in the rocks below Science North. An amazing way to end the trip!
The ongoing protection, conservation, and restoration of the Great Lakes and their watersheds is one of the most important areas of environmental work in Ontario and Canada right now.
The GWTA was an incredible journey that encompassed the North Shore beautifully. Many people on the tour, myself included, had never been to the North Shore and I think this trip has many of them eager to return and continue exploring the shores of the Great Lakes. The Waterfront Regeneration Trust has been working tirelessly for years to build the Great Lakes Waterfront Trail along the shores of the Great Lakes in Ontario. As it currently stands, the Great Lakes Waterfront Trail runs from the Quebec border at South Glengarry all along the shores of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and Lake Huron. The trail passes through communities large and small along the way. The purpose of this trail is to encourage cycling and active transport along the Great Lakes and with that, encourage Canadians and visitors to enjoy, learn about, and protect the Great Lakes.
The ongoing protection, conservation, and restoration of the Great Lakes and their watersheds is one of the most important areas of environmental work in Ontario and Canada right now. Our freshwater resources and ecosystems are the foundation of life and it is our responsibility to be environmental stewards. Introducing people to the beauty and bounty of the Great Lakes and their watersheds is the first step in fostering a culture of caring about wild spaces. As we grow to know and love the water, we begin to care about it and its future. There is much work to be done to keep the Great Lakes safe and healthy. Cycle anywhere along their shores and you will see inspiring beauty and rich culture, but you will also see pollution, industry, and vital ecosystems fading away. Look, listen, and feel – that is how the Great Lakes got into my heart and how they will get into yours too if you let them.
Miigwetch and thank you to the Waterfront Regeneration Trust, The Great Lakes Waterfront Adventure, the First Nations and communities along the trail, Waterlution, and every individual who supported this journey and allowed me to be a part of it. Miigwetch and thank you to Danielle Moore for being endlessly inspiring and challenging me to leave my comfort zone and experience something I never would have.