Sault Ste. Marie to Wawa—The Long Way

Toronto rider Kendall Wright takes the scenic route along some of Algoma Country's most spectacular roads.

People seeking out adventure tend to head to a climate that is vastly different than their own. A place where mountains are at your doorstep or a tropical paradise awaits. In Ontario, some might imagine that the raw realism of adventure is far away. 

What if I told you that just a few hours from the city lies a frontier that whispers and breathes adventure? A wild and beautiful landscape that has captured artists and everyday people’s hearts for hundreds of years, with stories and monuments of First Nations cultures dating back even further?

On Lake Superior, things get quieter. Things get real. I’ve always had this sense of wonder and curiosity about the stories and places that lie within these lands, and the people who have made this place, Algoma Country, their home.

As a child growing up in downtown Toronto, during an elementary school field trip, I was introduced to the Group of Seven at the AGO. We were asked to find our favourite painting and recreate it. Not knowing the significance of these great Canadian painters, their presence of nature made my imagination go wild. Sitting across from an A.Y. Jackson painting, I would pretend I was canoeing down the rivers seeking adventure and wonderment.

I didn’t go to summer camp, but spent my childhood at my parents’ cottage in Muskoka. I always wanted to explore further than Algonquin and the surrounding area. It wasn’t until I left home at 18 that the travel bug in me had announced its presence. I ventured west, camping and adventuring through remote places in the Pacific Northwest, past the Arctic Circle in Alaska, and down to the deserts of California.

J.E.H. MacDonald (1873 - 1932)
Algoma Waterfall 1920
oil on canvas
76.3 x 88.5 cm
Gift of Colonel R.S. McLaughlin
McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Returning back to Toronto in my late 20’s, I found myself again sitting across from a Group of Seven painting at the AGO and had a big “aha” moment. The incredible landscapes depicted in most of these paintings didn’t all come from the west coast; most of them were right here in the province of Ontario. I felt like I was missing a big essence of Ontario, my home; I’d only scraped the surface of the secrets and mystery of this great land.

Now,  equipped not with a canoe but with a motorcycle, I was ready to find out for the first time what Ontario had to offer.

Biking alone is one type of experience I encourage every serious rider to explore. But for this trip, I brought along a friend who I’ve known since I started motorcycling, who I’ve known for years, laughed with for years and who is literally the friend next door: Andrew Dexter Scott. Around the same time as this trip, he’d introduced a beautiful baby boy into the world; I was very fortunate that he said yes to a week of exploring the Grand Algoma Tour with me.

The Grand Algoma - DAY 1

The night before we left, I was buzzing with excitement for what lay ahead. In the end, I only got three hours of sleep, yet I was totally alert and eager to get started at 6 am. I picked up Andrew, and we left straight for Porter Airlines. As we soared north to our adventure, one of the flight attendants mentioned that 17 % of pilots for Porter are women. That made me smile. I nodded to our female captain as I exited the plane and we began our Northern adventure.

Our Rides

The sun was beaming as we were greeted by the very friendly Rob and Heather of Algoma Country Tourism and taken to the Sault Ste. Marie Travel Information Centre. It’s a great place to start your journey. Grab a few maps, talk to the friendly locals, and get acquainted with the surrounding areas. We were introduced to the two beautiful BMW machines we’d be using for the trip: I had the 2017 R nineT Scrambler and Andrew the S1000XR

BMW's R nineT Scrambler is ready to go wherever you are

These bikes are more badass in person than in the pictures. The R nineT oozed cool with its classic 1200ccm boxer twin engine and modern ingenuity. Leather scrambler seat, upright handling. I was getting giddy just looking at it. The simplicity, agility, and power were the main focus of this bike. Plus, did I mention how sexy it looks? I felt confident that I could conquer anything that awaited on the road ahead. I started the ignition and the bike came alive like a rumbling beast. The power on this bike was incredible. I quickly strapped my bag down to the seat.

The BMW S1000Xr is the first all-in-one adventure sports bike

Andrew was in his own world taking in the S1000XR, a race bike in a touring frame filled with gadgets and panniers we’d need for equipment, plus all the pizzazz of a luxury touring BMW.

Heather and Rob couldn’t help but get excited with us; they were so supportive of our adventure. After we were given our maps of Algoma and said our goodbyes, we were off to the most important place we could think of after having three hours of sleep and a flight: breakfast!

The Breakfast Pig

The Breakfast Pig is the ideal place to fill up before a long ride

Located at 265 Bruce Street, The Breakfast Pig is a must if you have a hearty appetite for blissful comfort food, the perfect place to fill up at before a long ride. The ingredients are mostly organic, sustainable, and locally sourced. As we sat down at one of the booths to look over our maps, I realized I was so hungry I was ready to eat a whole pig. The Porter Airlines biscuits and coffee were the only things I’d eaten all day. I decided on the omelette and boy, was it out of this world. Three eggs with whatever ingredients I wanted, all sourced from local farms. Andrew opted for a monstrous chicken and waffle sandwich. Yum! 

Omelette and chicken and waffles to get us started

The place was empty on a Tuesday morning, save for a table of two who were eating and talking beside us. But you could tell this place is where locals hang out on the weekends with family and friends. The server was very friendly and gave us all the time we needed to settle in and prepare for the day’s adventure.

St. Joseph Island

After getting our bearings and fueling up we hit the road, heading out of town going southeast on Highway 17. About 20 km from the city we hooked up with Highway 548. It was the perfect ride to get accustomed to the bikes. Off to St. Joseph Island. I love islands—you can feel a change in the air when you cross over on them.

We arrived at a beautiful toll-free bridge that takes you onto the island. Andrew and I stopped at the end of the bridge to take in the stunning sites that surrounded us. The small islands in the distance and a lighthouse on the pier were so beautiful. The day was hot and we decided to head back over the bridge and take a dip in the lake before travelling onward. Watering hole #1, we called it. We stripped down to our bathing suits and with not another person in sight, jumped into the refreshing water. I highly recommend taking as many dips as possible out here. So worth it!

We couldn't wait to get in the water

Refreshed and awake, we hopped back on our bikes and rode to Hilton Beach. We truly came at the perfect time of year: early June, right before the kids are out of school and summer break begins. We had the place to ourselves. Roads were clear of traffic. We wanted to take advantage of the empty roads before heading in for dinner. One word of caution: if you’re visiting in the off-season, always double check when things are open and are closing—especially on an island! That applies to gas stations, but restaurants too. Simply call ahead of time. They’re mostly family-run businesses.

The picturesque Hilton Beach Marina

Situated by the water in a very quaint part of the beach community, the Tilt’n Hilton seemed like the happening spot in the high season. Owned by couple Cindy Hore and her husband Chris, the interior had the vibes of an old pub—a favourite spot for locals to shoot pool and relax. I had on the Ceasar salad to start, with the best Caesar dressing (must love garlic). For a main, I picked the smothered mozzarella onion and mushroom chicken. Andrew had the taco salad. Classic comfort pub food. The deck outside looked out on the docked sailboats and open water—a great place to unwind after the day of travel.

At this time of year, we had the patio to ourselves

The sun was close to setting, but we wanted to explore a little bit more of the roads in the area. “Look out for deer and turkey this time of day,” Cindy warned.

The 548 is a great loop that heads around the entire island; we hopped on our bikes full and satisfied and went for an evening rip. There are gorgeous side roads filled with curves and scenic layout. Truly a sight, I couldn’t stop smiling. We eventually passed a group of 10 Harley riders, most likely taking the long way back to their accommodations like we were. The BMWs were in their elements; I was really getting a feel for the control of this machine.

Home away from Home on St. Joseph Island

Knowing dusk was approaching, we traveled over to the Stonefield House B & B. There’s plenty of parking outside this 100-acre lot. We were welcomed by hosts Peggy and Monte, who gave us a tour of their lovely home. There are three rooms, one to fit every need, plus a wonderful library nook looking out over the trees and land. Families are welcome.

The cozy library nook at Stonefield House Bed & Breakfast

Yet again, it was a bonus to visit on the offseason, for we had our pick of the rooms that night. We took the Library Room with two double beds, a big bathroom, and big windows.

The best part of this pace is the hospitality. Monte and Peggy have created their own perfect Irish pub downstairs in the basement. Just one of the elements that make the Stonefield such a warm and welcoming home away from home.

Gotta love the basement pub they've got going here

The Grand Algoma - DAY 2

We had a restful sleep and awoke to the smells of breakfast. We didn’t see much of Monte, but his presence was prominent in the delicious homemade French toast, eggs, bacon, and mash with fruit he’d made all waiting for us in the pub. Peggy greeted us as we made our way down where the coffee and O.J. were awaiting. Truly a great way to start the day.

Breakfast is served

I was excited about this day. We were heading north to Highway 129 to Wawa. We said our goodbyes and ventured out to pack up our bikes. We made plans to visit again. I will recommend this place to everyone I know who likes to spend a night or two with some island locals on beautiful acres of land, in the heart of a place that is truly unique.

Highway 129

We rode off St. Joseph Island feeling like we weren’t ready to say goodbye. But the road was calling and it was time to move on. We took Highway 548 and continued to Thessalon, a quaint town about 45 minutes from the island. We entered via the sideroads off the highway. We passed a Shell station before entering Thessalon but we overestimated the size of the town and—as a local explained to us—because it was the off-season, the local gas pump was closed until later on in June. Because of our joyride around the island, we were both on reserve tanks.

Pulling up to the Little Rapids General Store

Backtracking to the Shell would have taken too much time, so we took the advice of the local. There was gas just north on Highway 129 off Little Rapids Road at the Historic Little Rapids General Store. We went for it. Having never been up here I always take the advice of the locals. Right before the older gentlemen in his truck drove off, he called out, “And don’t forget to get some 20-year-old cheese!”

This place is the last stop for food and gas before Wawa area. The gas was flowing, there were a plethora of delish snacks, and of course, the infamous cheese was there waiting for us! They only had the 10-year, but I highly recommend it.

Everything you need inside the store

Did I mention that all the people we talked to were the nicest people I’ve met? Everyone seemed to be going out of their way to help us.

Fueled and packed full of snacks, we ready to continue. The weather was calling for a bit of rain. It was early morning and we threw on our rain pants and jackets to block out the morning chill. We were off!

The next 221 km consisted of some of the best twists, turns, and scenic views one could ask for. We headed north. We could really take these bikes for a spin. With only a few trucks on the road, it was mostly us and the elements. Having said that, be careful on those corners. There are 18-wheelers going fast; make sure to be aware of wildlife as well.

Beautiful riding on the Grand Algoma motorcycle tour

We were riding through thick wilderness on either side, leaving civilization behind us. Through each twist and turn lay thick brush and trees, lakes on either side, and the Mississagi River snaking its way in and out of our view. We detoured a little onto a lumber road that gave way to a small bridge overlooking the river. By now, mid-morning, the sun was beaming, evaporating the last of the cold dew from the morning. We took off our rain gear and took a break to soak it all in.

The weather is always changing up here

Please take your time on the 129. Follow your instincts. If you want to see what’s over that ridge on the upcoming dirt road, there’s no guarantee that it’s going to have an end—or maybe it will end once you climb up it. For us, we were gifted with a lovely little bridge overlooking the river.

Aubrey Falls

About 112 km from Little Rapids General Store, we came upon Aubrey Falls Provincial Park in the beautiful Mississagi Valley. It was time to stretch our legs and explore. You enter through a precarious sandy dirt road. Just as a warning, it seemed a bit washed out at places, but it levels out by the end. This park is not staffed, but it’s extremely scenic, and it appeared we had it all to ourselves.

We took off our helmets and were also introduced to the intense mosquito invasion. It’s the real deal out here. Keep your citronella or DEET spray close by! With a gust of energy, I packed my small backpack with snacks and water and we hurried onto the dirt path that led to the falls.

The hike into Aubrey Falls

The walk is about a kilometre to the footbridge, and well worth the trek The falls are spectacular. It’s unique in the sense that it’s controlled by a dam regulated by the generator facility just above. I love it when I can hear the power of waterfalls before I can see them.

The falls just have to be experienced in person

After crossing the bridge, you walk the path to a lovely open area perfect for a picnic. The air was crisp, the sounds of the waterfall pure zen. Andrew and I explored off the trail in the surrounding area and made our way down to the water’s edge. The day turned hot, and I was tempted to jump in. However, the current can be strong. You become aware of this as you get closer. Surrounding signs read “Do Not Swim,” and we decided it was for good reason. I splashed away the sweat and dirt from my face, and Andrew did the same. We spent about an hour and a half at the falls, and the morning turned to afternoon quickly. By 1 pm, it was time to hit the road once again.

Chapleau and Wawa

We kept going on the 129 heading north to Chapleau. It’s an adventurous road that will let you soak in so much primitive beauty. The roads are impressively smooth. Andrew brought his Sena Bluetooth helmet communicator set for the both of us to use. I don’t normally ride connected like that, but it turned out to be a wonderful tool. It was a pleasure to have the ability to check in with my riding bud, cracking jokes, making up our own road lingo, and singing “On the Road Again” as we explored such epic terrain.

Yes, this part of the route was as fun as it looks

A few hours later, as the clouds darkened above us, we made it to the outskirts of Chapleau in good time, rolling into the gas station just as the rain started to come down. Always bring rain gear, the weather is unpredictable. One minute is scorching heat and the next a frigid rain storm. Be prepared.

We filled up and took cover in the small café at the back of the home-run station, reminiscing about 129 as we sipped our hot chocolates, I had the feeling that the ride was just beginning and that what lay ahead was going to blow our minds. The rain subsided and we took it as our opening to move forward.

Chapleau to Wawa is around 140 km on Highway 101, the Trans-Canada Highway. As one couple we met who were from the surrounding area mentioned, “the ride starts now. Have fun out there, and watch out for moose.” And they were right. The road passes through small lakes on either side and makes it way through rolling hills and Canadian Shield. I felt on top of the world. Both Andrew and I found our happy places. The late afternoon sun was back out in full force. We saw several moose on this road, a large male in the brush by the side of the road, and a couple of females that were spooked by our exhausts and ran right out on the road in front of us. So exhilarating, and also a good reminder to keep your eyes peeled.

Let the sun shine

The entrance to Wawa is breathtaking. We cruised in passed the magnificent Wawa Lake around sunset. Sun lighting the way as we enter the quaint town. I kept tapping into on the Sena to Andrew: “Are you sure we aren’t in BC?” “How have I not been here before!?”

Wawa is the gateway to adventure with its plethora of waterfalls, hikes, fishing, and canoe opportunities. Located on the Trans-Canada Highway, it is a lovely town with a rich history of gold mining and Ojibwe culture. Places like the famous Young’s General Store and, as of July 1, 2017, the new and improved Wawa Goose monument.

I was one of the last to visit the old Wawa Goose monument
The new and improved Wawa Goose monument was unveiled on July 1, 2017

As the sun set, the dark clouds slowly moved in on us. We made good time to our home for the night the Wawa Motor Inn. Situated right on the Trans-Canada, this place is ideal for the outdoor motorcycle and/or snowmobile enthusiast. The décor is charming and rustic. We settled in for dinner in the large dining room across from the enormous fireplace.

We were served by a lovely young lady. On a double shift and understaffed, she still managed to make a homemade cake for dessert. It was yet again another example of the genuine authenticity of the community up here. It was delicious. The portions are as big as the locals’ hearts.

In for the night at the Wawa Motor Inn

The rain was coming down now; after eating until our bellies were full and content, we headed to our room for a well-deserved sleep. We’d already had our spirits stirred by the landscapes, the sense of freedom that comes from riding, and the kindness of the locals—but the most moving moments were still to come.

Click here for Part 2 of Kendall's journey!

About Kendall Wright

Kendall loves riding the open roads of North America and attending motorcycle events year round. Exploring also means lots of camping and she can be found sleeping in her hammock after a long day of riding. With a home base in Toronto, she spends her free time enjoying the back roads of Ontario with her friends. It's all about good times and finding the next adventure.  

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