5 Best Places to Canoe and Kayak in Ontario Within a Drive From Minneapolis & St. Paul

The greatest lake, natural rock arches, inland archipelagos, fur trade history, and the solitude of the Canadian Shield—paddling in the Thunder Bay area has it all.

A half-day’s drive north from Minneapolis lands you in a paddler’s paradise. By any measure, the Thunder Bay area is a world-class paddling destination and these five trips cement its reputation. Whether you’re a savvy, wilderness-wandering canoeist or a sea kayaker with an eye towards a cozy bed and a delicious lake trout meal, there are adventures waiting for you within the city limits and beyond. 

Kayakers with headlamps on the water
Sleeping Giant serves as backdrop for tours of Thunder Bay’s harbour. Photo: David Jackson

Thunder Bay Harbour Tour

If you don’t have the equipment but want to get on the water, check out the new initiative by Such A Nice Day Adventures (or S.A.N.D.) which makes it easy to get out on Lake Superior after just a short walk from downtown Thunder Bay. In the summer, S.A.N.D. offers fully outfitted sea kayak and voyageur canoe harbour tours that explore the ports and lighthouses. While on the tour, you’ll dive into the rich history of Fort William and the fur brigades which travelled these same waters centuries ago. The best part? You’ll finish off your paddle just steps from Bight Restaurant for a cold refreshment and a delicious meal. For a real locals tour, you can venture a few blocks north to "Finnish" the evening at Kangus Sauna.

Canoeing toward arch over the water.
Best experienced by canoe or kayak. Photo: David Jackson

Tour of the Sea Lion Arch in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park

Paddling around Sleeping Giant’s Sea Lion Arch is a unique way to explore this landmark that’s more often hiked to. After parking at Silver Islet, paddle west out of the narrow channel, rounding picturesque cliffs before discovering the arch. The paddle to the arch takes 30 minutes, and there’s plenty to explore along the way if Lake Superior is calm.

If the lake is not cooperating, explore the more than 100 km (62 miles) of trail in Sleeping Giant, leading to the rugged shores of Lake Superior, scenic vistas on top of the Giant, and to quiet lakes and streams deep within the park’s wilderness areas. Numerous inland lakes, such as car-accessible Marie Louise Lake, offer excellent paddling and fishing if you have a license. Campers have the option of interior sites, such as Lehtinen’s Bay at the foot of the Sleeping Giant, or drive-in sites within the park’s campground. If camping isn’t what you dream of, Sleeping Giant also offers five rustic cabins for rent. Canoes and kayaks are available for rent in the Westwind Store, located above the Visitor Centre.

Overhead shot of people floating in the water.
Hidden saunas dot the islands offshore of Rossport. Photo: David Jackson

Rossport Sea Kayaker’s Getaway 

The town of Rossport is a few hours’ drive east of Thunder Bay and serves as the gateway to the 10,000 square km (6,214 square miles) of sea kayaking heaven known as the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area. Superior Outfitters is set up at the main dock and offers rentals and guided services, and the Serendipity Gardens and Guest House is a short walk down the picturesque streets—don’t miss a chance to try their famous lake trout dinner. Trips can be both day-trip ventures or can take advantage of a vast network of backcountry campsites located around the islands. A copy of the Lake Superior Marine Conservation Handbook by Dareel Makin and Zack Kruzins is a handy resource for the many attractions spread around the pristine coastal wilderness. Some of the on-water highlights are saunas hidden among the islands, the rugged coastal scenery of Lake Superior’s north shore, and, perhaps best of all, world-class fishing.

The islands around Nipigon Bay receive a large inflow of water from Lake Nipigon and are known for some of the finest brook trout, lake trout, salmon and steelhead fishing in the world. Once you’ve tasted Superior’s water and eaten its trout, you’ll be punching your return ticket to the finest northern freshwater paradise anywhere. 

Old wooden building
White Otter Castle, built single-handedly a century ago. Photo: David Jackson

Canoeing Capital of Canada

The town of Atikokan has been dubbed the Canoeing Capital of Canada because of its proximity to Quetico Provincial Park, but also because it’s a fine place to launch a Crown Land canoe trip. Thanks to a helpful route guidebook called the 2019 Atikokan Crown Land Route Book, planning your next trip couldn’t be easier. This resource is broken down into sections of short, medium and long routes to fit most timelines. While Crown Land camping is free for Canadians, non-residents are charged a $9.35 daily fee. What makes the area so special is a labyrinth of portages and unique experiences, such as a visit to the three-storey White Otter Castle log cabin. The log cabin was built single-handedly in 1915 by Jimmy McOuat.

In the early summer, the crystal-clear waters of the region hold lake trout that can be spotted skimming along the shallows like freshwater sharks. The crown jewel of this region, the Turtle River, should be high on every canoe tripper’s to-do list. Canoes can be rented from Canoe Canada Outfitters in downtown Atikokan, or east of town at Quetico Outfitters and Canadian Quetico Outfitters. Many travellers choose to both launch and end their trips with a stay at Brown’s Clearwater West Lodge, as it is conveniently located at the start and finishing points of many of the area’s canoe routes. Start and end your trip in comfort  and get outfitted with Voyageur Wilderness Programme, located in the pristine wilderness on Nym Lake.  

Person canoeing on lake as mist rises up
Fishing in Northern Lights Country. Photo: David Jackson

Paddle the Northern Lights

The intrepid canoeist who wants to ditch cell service and feel alone on a truly wild route should head west of Thunder Bay. Known best for its walleye, pike, lake trout and brook trout fishing, this area is also home to a few classic Crown Land canoe routes on the edge of Quetico Provincial Park. The best option is to travel the Yellowhammer Creek down to the Weikwabinonaw River, which flows into Trafalgar Bay on Northern Lights Lake. The route is a boreal classic, with black spruce and meandering river broken up by short portages and runnable swifts, not to mention the untouched fishing, a rarity in an area where most lakes have boat access.

Outfitter Bob Miller, owner of Red Pine Canoe Outfitters, is ready to help you access beautiful and all-but-forgotten canoe routes. Some might call this a locals-only area, but an hour spent learning from Miller’s years of guiding and outfitting experience will open your eyes to the routes around his base on the edge of Northern Lights Lake. For accommodations along highway 588, check out Maki Resort’s rustic cabins. Red Pine Canoe Outfitters also has cabins for rent to serve as launching and landing pads for your trip.

Lake trout being reeled in
Lake trout on the line in the Rossport Islands. Photo: David Jackson

With so many big lake destinations, backwoods outfitting options and downtown outings available, there’s no doubt the Thunder Bay region is where you should be planning this summer’s on-water adventures.

About David Jackson

David Jackson is an assignment photographer based in Thunder Bay who spends his time between stories by paddling canoes and searching for fish in the north.

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