A Road Trip to Red Lake

Matt Dunne was carefree and ready for adventure when his university buddy reached out for help. The 27-hour bus trip from Toronto was just the start of their journey. Read the Great Big Northern Ontario Story Contest winner about friendship, fishing, and the things we do when we're young.

It was early August when I stepped into Union Station for the first time in my life. A comically long ticket folded up like an accordion, securely tucked in my back pocket. I scanned the crowds with mild anxiety, as I waited for Missy to arrive. To pass the time, I took a seat and watched a pigeon calmly navigate its way through a jungle of legs, human and chair alike, searching the ground for a morsel of food. Just as I began to think I was on the wrong platform, Missy entered the concourse with a roller bag in hand and a huge smile on her face. The moment we had been waiting for all summer had finally arrived, our whirlwind road trip to Red Lake was about to begin.

I’d known Craig for about a year, when Missy and I made a promise that we would visit him at some point in the summer.  The three of us had formed a close friendship while studying at the University of Guelph. Everyone knew that Craig was from a small town called Red Lake as he often spoke about it with a mythical reverence and respect. He was also a guy, who like myself, tended to speak in hyperbole and possessed a unique flair for drama, which was one of the reasons we got along so well. He had been having a difficult few months, suffering from anxiety and teetering on the edge of a deep depression. So, Missy and I did what any good friend would do, and we made fun plans for the future, something we could all look forward to. 

The promise

We promised to visit him in Red Lake as long as he promised to give us a true ‘Northern Experience’.  Craig said we were both absolutely nuts, but was more than happy to oblige. No one had ever visited him before.  We were young and naive and had no idea what we had just committed ourselves to.  This all took place in a time before Google Maps was readily accessible on every smart device.  We soon learned, through experience, that Red Lake is very, very far north. 

Red Lake; motor boats float in calm blue water next to docks on a green, forested lakeshore dotted with houses. Golden late afternoon sun shines in a hazy blue sky.
Red Lake—Photo credit: Erin Rody

After a little research, Missy and I decided that the most economical way for us to visit was to buy a one-way bus ticket to Dryden, Ontario, and then drive back down south with Craig the following week.  The bus ride would take us 27 hours from start to finish, and cover approximately 1700 km, peppered with exciting and familiar yet foreign stops along the way:  Toronto→Parry Sound→Science North→Sault Ste. Marie→Thunder Bay→Dryden.  We emailed Craig our plan and the bus information so that he could pick us up in Dryden, which he’d said was close by, while in reality it was still two and a half hours south of Red Lake.  His reply back was truly heartwarming. For the first time in months, Craig sounded happy and excited.  We knew we were making the right choice to see him.  He was a friend, and you do what you can to help your friends.  While Craig was the main reason for our visit, a secondary item was added to our Northern Bucket List.  Missy and I desperately wanted to see a bear, and figured that we were going to the right place!

Limbered up and ready to sit

Our bus pulled into the station right on time, and we performed a few half-hearted callisthenics in a last-ditch effort to ward off any stiff muscles.  Limbered up and ready to sit, I looked around and took in the notable characters who would be joining us on this journey.  There was a middle-aged man with a neck brace, who sat next to an old man with an eye patch.  I expected them to strike up conversation with one another and trade stories of their wounds, but they sat in silence never once acknowledging the other, which I found quite disappointing as I was practically dying from curiosity. There was a beautiful young woman, who talked nonstop.   When she disembarked, the entire bus breathed a collective sigh of relief at the peace and quiet we’d finally get. There were two mothers, who were travelling together, each with a young child and an elderly woman in tow; pulling a multigenerational double-duty throughout the trip. And then there was Missy and I, two city mice, who sat next to each other and ate all of our licorice and chips before even making it to Science North.

Being on a bus at night is a strange experience. The passage of time grinds to a halt and there is a disorienting lack of awareness of the distance being travelled.  I do not remember falling asleep, but I will never forget waking up and finding myself somewhere along the Trans Canada Highway.  To my right were green mountains, blanketed in a morning mist, and to the left peeking out between valleys and hills was the shimmering blue of Lake Superior.  In the seventh grade, my teacher did a geography unit about Ontario. If someone were to ask me to describe my home province, I would be limited to geographical buzzwords like Canadian Shield, Rolling Plains, Glacial Lakes and Boreal Forests.  I then would have listed all of the attractions that exist in the southern half like the C.N. Tower and Niagara Falls.  My own existence centred around the suburbs of the G.T.A., which were incredibly uniform and boring and so I assumed that all of Ontario was uniform and boring.  Well, we all know what happens when we assume.  Until this moment on the bus, I had never been further north than a two-hour drive.  I was officially in uncharted territory and the excitement of adventure began to stir within me.

Halfway to Thunder Bay, another realization dawned upon me. We were officially in bear country.  For the remainder of the bus ride, I scanned the countryside, manifesting a black bear into existence. I was on high alert, but all I glimpsed from the side of the highway were some unfortunate porcupines and one flattened skunk. I became absolutely desperate to see a bear, which probably had something to do with being confined to a bus for an entire day. I didn’t give up, and just as we saw a sign saying ‘Dryden 100 km’, I saw a mass of black fur lazily padding through a cleared meadow. I shouted ‘Bear!’, which caused Missy to scramble over me, pressing her own face against the window to witness this magnificent Ursus americanus specimen, only to realize that in my excitement I had confused a group of dairy cows for a bear.

A young man holding a bundle of yellow rope and a young woman, both with sunglasses on their heads and smiling into the camera. a red and white float plane landing on an expanse of very blue, shining water under a very blue sky. A band of distant forest can be seen on the horizon.
Photos : Matt Dunne, Erin Rody

Together in Red Lake

The week we spent together in Red Lake was one of the best weeks of my young adulthood.  We had proven to one another that distance was not a factor that would ever overcome our friendship.  We spent our mornings watching colourful floatplanes gracefully take off and land upon the lake, while seeming to defy all laws of physics. We spent our afternoons walking through bush and wishing we’d worn bug spray with a higher percentage of DEET. 

One overcast afternoon, we took a dinghy out onto the Red Lake, to a small secluded cove. All we brought with us was a container of minnows and a couple of fishing rods. We cut the motor and drifted for a moment, the three of us quietly taking in the natural beauty around us. It was at that exact moment that a bald eagle leapt from its perch high atop a mighty pine, soared to the surface of the water and gracefully plucked a fish from the shallows with its yellow talons. It was our National Geographic moment, and although this moment wasn’t captured on camera, it was forever ingrained in our memories. We too had some luck that afternoon and caught three sizable Walleye. As part of our northern education, Craig taught us how to clean and fillet the fish and his mom cooked them for our dinner that evening. I had never caught and eaten anything before, and I can assure you I have never eaten a more delicious fish.

Two young men smile, standing side by side as they hold up their catch of two fish, hanging on a rope.
Photo credit: Matt Dunne

On our return trip to Guelph, we picnicked and marvelled at the Kakabeka Falls, stargazed and camped at Pancake Bay and even took cheesy photos with the gigantic Canada Goose in Wawa. Yet it was that impromptu fishing trip on a cloudy day that gave us our most memorable Northern experience. There are places in the world that hold a magic to them, settings that evoke feelings of awe and inspiration.  Places that make you pause and realize how small you are and how big the universe is. Red Lake is a personal paradise of mine; a hidden gem isolated and insulated from a busy, noisy, polluted, and distracting world. It is a place of healing and growth, of friendship and camaraderie. It is not a question of if I will go back, but when.  This time I will have the honour of bringing my daughter along for the trip, to show her the beauty of the world that we live in, and that our own backyard deserves exploring.  Who knows, maybe this time we’ll even see a bear.

A young woman and two young men standing outside in formal dress, smiling. The man in the centre is hugging a large german shepherd to his chest, raising the dog to standing position. A large, red-roofed lake house, lake and green trees are in the background.
Photo credit: Matt Dunne
About Matt Dunne

Matt Dunne is a scientist by day and aspiring writer by night.  He loves to travel with his husband Joe and their daughter Maeve. 

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