Yonge and restless
Saturday, August 4, 2001
Rainy River doesn't exactly revel in its status as the western terminus of a great avenue. The guide at the local information centre - still open at 8 p.m., for some reason - directed me to a rather modest sign indicating Yonge Street. Is that it? I wondered. Yup, pretty much, she said with a shrug.
Would I like to speak to the former mayor? Apparently, he was a celebrity guest when Toronto held a 200th-anniversary shindig for Yonge Street five years ago. I took one look at the storm clouds gathering overhead and decided to take a pass.
"Rain much in Rainy River?" I inquired on the way out.
"People always ask me that," the guide said with a sigh, and then admitted, "Yeah, pretty much."
I fled the rain and stopped for the night just down the road in Fort Frances, where I fell asleep dreaming of fish, perhaps because of the complimentary copy of the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship Special Edition in my motel room.
In the morning I hit the highway for Thunder Bay - a short hop, judging by my map. I've travelled around Canada a fair bit in the past two years. In fact, I've seen more of this country than Nigeria, the one in which I was born. I've been to Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg. Always by air. Which is probably the worst way to see a country. Flying gives you a false sense of perspective, foreshortening your perception of distances until a country blurs out of focus.
A road sign informs me that the short hop is actually 444 kilometres, and I suddenly get a sense of just how big this country is. I find myself thinking about Terry Fox, whose Marathon of Hope ended near Thunder Bay almost 21 years ago. I'd seen a film about him in England and, as powerful as the film was, I didn't get a real sense of what he'd achieved. Film, like flying, compresses the scale and drama of a dying, one-legged man's cross-country run into a mere two hours. Only when you travel what he ran do you begin to appreciate what Terry Fox accomplished.
I set out, following the twists and turns of Highway 11 over some spectacular topography - beginning with the Noden Causeway, a 5.5-kilometre finger of land that carries traffic across Rainy Lake. Slow-moving lumber trucks kept me on the right side of the law as I passed from the Arctic Watershed to the Atlantic, entered the Eastern Time Zone just past Atikokan and finally rolled into Thunder Bay.
Mark Twain once said that, come the end of the world, he would hope to be in Cincinnati because it's always 20 years behind everywhere else. I reckon he could have bought himself another five years by visiting Thunder Bay. It's a city of more than 100,000 that, for some reason, reminded me of that gloomy town portrayed in An Officer and a Gentleman.