How to Plan a Winter Picnic
There are lots of reasons to get out and enjoy a winter picnic. It can be as simple as wanting to extend your day out by having a meal or snacks handy. It can be exploring somewhere new close to home or visiting a summertime favourite to see how it looks in the snowy season. And it can be a special outing for Family Day or Valentine’s Day—or just a cure for cabin fever! Fortunately Thunder Bay in Ontario's Superior Country has a ton of options, both in terms of locations and picnic fare. Here are some ideas to get you started.
What are you going to eat?
Food, of course, is part of a standout picnic. Most of the time it just makes sense to go for something handheld and not too messy, although soup in a thermos is mighty delicious too. We’re spoiled for choice in Thunder Bay, with a wide variety of independent restaurants, bakeries and cafes with delicious offerings. At Sweet North Bakery, you can preorder vegan, vegetarian or omnivore fare like sandwiches, savory pretzels, soup and desserts (and watch for their drive-thru location on Memorial Avenue, coming soon). Two new spots in town are Carte Blanche Co., specializing in charcuterie boxes to go with an array of cheeses, cured meats, sweets, fruits and veggies, and Nomad by Pinetree Catering with epic take-out sandwiches, wraps and crepes. Other local favourites with take-out options include The Bridge Kitchen, with menu items like spanakopita triangles and sweet and savoury brioche made with local ingredients, and Royal Aleppo Food offering Middle Eastern fare like shawarma wraps, hummus, majamer and fatayer hand pies and pumpkin bread.
If you’re looking to travel light and fast, consider snacky options that can also stand in for a meal. Good options include nutrient-dense yummy stuff like local Bay Meats jerky, dehydrated fruit and trail mix made with nuts, seeds and a sprinkling of chocolate treats. You can pick up all of these in one stop at a local store like the Bulk Zone.
Italian delis and grocery stores are also a treasure trove for campfire sausages, sandwiches made on the spot or buying buns and fixings for a do-it-yourself picnic. Choose from Agostino’s Deli, Nucci’s Bake a Deli or Maltese Grocery. I picked up an assortment of sandwich items at Fresco’s Deli in Westfort which is known for its quality foods and welcoming warm atmosphere. I added some spicy olives (bring toothpicks or a fork!), some German mustard entirely because of the pretty packaging, and for dessert, newcomer Sleeping Giant Biscotti available in yummy flavours like “Guilty Pleasure” (peanut butter and chocolate chip) and “Sunset Trail” (cranberry almond).
A small cooler or soft-sided insulated bag that can be tucked into a backpack is a good idea to keep your meal at the right temperature. Nobody wants frozen sandwiches. If you pick up something pre-made like sandwiches or wraps from a local eatery, check if you can have them wrapped foil or wax paper in order to keep your mitts clean. Add a damp cloth in a ziptop bag for cleaning any messy hands, and be sure to bring another bag to pack out trash.
You can’t forget about drinks, and hot drinks are especially appealing on a cold day so load up your thermos with hot chocolate or coffee. Mint or berry herbal tea is a refreshing but not-too-sweet option for both kids and adults.
What are you going to sit on?
Well, that depends on where you go. Out in the bush, there’s the traditional choice of sitting on a fallen log or perching on your snowshoes. A wooden toboggan with a padded cushion has the benefit of being able to pull gear (or kids) on the trail and then double as seating at your picnic spot. In town, you can opt for folding chairs or the standby of an old sleeping bag topped with a cozy blanket. If there’s a picnic table or park bench, you can get fancy-schmancy with a tablecloth and even candles.
Where are you going to go?
A picnic can be as simple as a bench or tailgate, preferably with a killer view of Lake Superior. Try Hillcrest Park, Prince Arthur’s Landing or Chippewa Park. Kakabeka Falls is also spectacular in the winter.
If you’d like to combine some activity with your picnic, give snowshoeing or cross-country skiing a try. Kamview Nordic Centre has dozens of kilometres of groomed trails through the bush and fields or up the cliff with a sweeping view over the Nor’Wester Mountains. Bonus: you can stop at the chalet’s take-out window to buy cookies as big as your head for your picnic snack. Other snowshoe and/or ski areas include Lappe Nordic, Tapiola Ski & Nature, Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park, Loch Lomond Ski Area and Mount Baldy. Be sure to check each organization’s website or call ahead to confirm COVID-19 protocols and rental availability. You can also rent snowshoes at Wilderness Supply and Chaltrek.
For snowshoeing or hiking that doesn’t require a trail pass, head to one of the region’s conservation areas (there is a small fee for parking) like Mills Block Forest, the Cascades or Hazelwood Lake. Kingfisher Lake and the Trowbridge Falls area are also local go-tos. A newer Nature Conservancy of Canada trail is the James Duncan Nature Trail off Highway 61 in Neebing. You can hike the almost 10-km through trail end to end (Memory Road to Little Trout Bay, or vice versa), or start at the Memory Road trailhead and hike 3.3 km through the boreal forest to a cobble beach on Superior. Another Hwy 61 gem is the Mink Mountain trail system—consider the 450-m Picnic Point trail, a short but challenging scramble in the winter, or the 2-km hike to the Lookout, with sweeping views over Superior. Consider adding the locally developed WAYfinder app to your phone to get all the details on local trails.
Craving a campfire picnic? Snowmobilers, ice anglers or hikers on Crown land can have a small, controlled campfire to roast smokies, hot dogs or marshmallows, or, if you’re ambitious, heat up chili or tea. Be sure to confirm ahead of time that you are on Crown land, not privately owned. Use only existing dead wood for your fire and make absolutely sure it is out!
What are you going to do with the kids?
It’s best not to over-plan, and instead let the kiddos get into the rhythm of exploring the wintery landscape. On a recent walk on a bush trail, for instance, we found a large striped feather caught on a bush (later identified as coming from a barred owl) and tiny rodent tracks spiralling over the snow. A small field guide like Animal Tracks of Ontario, or an app like iTrack Wildlife, can come in handy. However, for those days when you need a little help to keep them entertained, hand them an old phone and get them to take pics and use the photo collage option, or challenge them to a photo scavenger hunt where they need to snap a picture of something in the shape of an X, an interesting shadow, something red, an icicle and so on. Lastly, don’t underestimate the power of handwarmers to turn a problem picnic around. Your outlook is definitely better when your hands are warm.
Have a wonderful picnic!