Skip to content

On the road north of Superior

Like almost all our small Northern Ontario towns, there is spirit
Michael Atkins, president, Northern Ontario Business

I found myself in Terrace Bay the other day for the first time in more than 20 years.

The occasion was the semi-annual board meeting of the Northern Policy Institute, which is in the habit of taking its board meetings to small communities across the North to allow board members to experience the issues and concerns at play in different communities.

This practice allows board members and staff to remember who they are working for and what is important.

For me, it was a homecoming. In the late 1970s I purchased newspapers in Ignace, Thunder Bay, Nipigon/Red Rock and Terrace Bay/Schreiber. I loved those communities, although it is fair to say it was not always easy.

In the early ’80s I employed a husband-and-wife team as publisher and editor of the Terrace Bay/Schreiber News. They were very good at their work and really enjoyed it. Unfortunately for me, and the community, they decided to separate and in fairly short order left my employ. What it meant was I went from full staff to no staff.

For a period of time, I would fly to Thunder Bay on Tuesday and drive to Terrace Bay. On Wednesday, I would call around and write the news. On Thursday, I would hustle some ads from Costa’s and Figliamoni’s and Moore’s Menswear, and on Friday wrap up stories and drive to Thunder Bay where I would have our design people at Lakehead Living (our weekly newspaper there) lay out the paper. I would fly back to Sudbury and start the process all over again the following week.

When the weather was bad, I would take the bus from Sudbury to Terrace Bay. This inevitably meant spending the better part of the night on the bus, maybe 12 hours. On one trip, I fell asleep across the last row of seats on the bus. We stopped in Marathon for a bio break. I remained asleep.

The next thing I knew a very large man sat on my head and did not immediately realize he was sitting on a living person in the middle of the dark in the middle of Northern Ontario. As I would later discover he had had a considerable amount to drink. It was life-and-death. Not a promising headline in the TBS News: “Publisher dead after man sits on him in bus.”

Times have been difficult on the North Shore of Lake Superior. It is as beautiful as ever and, thankfully, the mill in Terrace Bay is back up and running, although with half the employees. In Schreiber there is almost no industrial tax base and the future demographics are not hard to anticipate. The number of kids in the Superior-Greenstone District School Board is down by 45 per cent from its peak.

That said, like almost all our small Northern Ontario towns, there is spirit. There are people who love where they live and find ways to make it work. It is inspirational. Rossport, a few miles west, continues to live on tourism, stubbornness and good cheer. Population 65.

On my last visit to Rossport, oh so long ago, we’d had an investors meeting in Thunder Bay and I was making my way back to Sudbury. I spent the night sleeping in a big blue Mercury Grand Marquis after an evening of good cheer at the Rossport Inn. There wasn’t a room to spare in town, and even if there had been one I’d spent my allowance. I woke up parked three feet from a rude speeding train in the morning.

It’s been more than 60 years since 4,000 people would show up for the annual Rossport Fish Derby before the lamprey eel finished off the trout.

Although you can't buy any groceries in Rossport anymore, you can enjoy an extraordinary meal at the Serendipity Gardens Inn for most of the year, and from May to November you can stay with Ned and Shelagh Basher at the Rossport Inn. Shelagh, by the way, jumped off a train not far from where I was parked to join her future husband a few years later to reopen the shuttered inn. If you fancy some art, just follow the signs to Island Pottery where you’ll find Tim Alexander tending to his two-chambered Japanese-style climbing kiln, which takes 20 hours of stoking for each firing.

Independent people. Beautiful country. You can’t pry them out of rock.