For outdoor adventure enthusiast Sue Hamel, truly memorable experiences are born from having a visceral connection to a place.
The owner and lead guide of Seek Adventure & Tours in Thunder Bay has tapped into the city’s celebrated culinary and spirits scene with her walking food tours of city neighbourhoods.
“I’m passionate about place and I love the natural and cultural world but I’m also passionate about food,” said Hamel, who describes herself as a “story seeker” and a “storyteller.”
She spent more than 25 years as an outdoor guide and environmental educator leading safaris in Africa and canoe, kayak and dog sledding trips across North America. She also teaches outdoor recreation at Lakehead University.
Culinary tours have been popular in European cities for decades and have become a growing tourism trend in major North American cities and vacation destinations.
Having a world view as an international traveller enabled her to look at her hometown’s features and natural gifts with fresh eyes.
“People have a desire for meaningful experiences in connecting with places. I’ve seen it everywhere and I’m reminding people that they can do it in their own backyard.”
In her themed tours of Thunder Bay’s neighbourhoods, Hamel combines good storytelling about local history, architecture, and public art while showcasing the city’s food renaissance.
“Good walking food tours are not just about roundhouse tastings, but the stories that connect you to the place.
“There’s nothing better than travelling to a new place and having access to a local guide who’s passionate and has a wealth of stories in guiding you through a neighbourhood. At the end, you haven’t just had a bowl of chowder but you’ve connected with the chef and how it was prepared.”
Hamel began offering the tours last May after the idea had been percolating for years.
“I was canoeing near White River at the end of a beautiful, sunny October day in 2017, and it hit me. Yes, I’m ready to do it now. It finally felt like it was right.”
To prepare, she spent countless hours combing through museum and library archival material while collecting stories over coffee from local chefs, artists, geologists and Indigenous elders.
Along the way, she’s cultivated partnerships with more than 25 restaurants and galleries.
“The purpose of my business is meaningfully connecting people to Thunder Bay, and in the process of researching my business I’ve never felt more connected to the place.”
Her program offerings include a loop around Thunder Bay’s vibrant café and comfort food scene, a sampling of food and drink in the trendy Bay-Algoma neighbourhood, and a taco tasting excursion while touring Prince Arthur’s Landing, the city’s revitalized waterfront.
“I don’t choose a random place, I choose a place that I really want to celebrate. There’s a lot of intention that I put into where our stops are for food and also for stories.”
Hamel prefers to keep tour groups small – between six and eight people – in her routes around the city’s revived north end and waterfront, although she will make allowances for corporate groups of 15 to 20.
Customized tours of certain sights can also be arranged.
The distance travelled on a walking tour averages about a kilometre and a half with a typical outing lasting two to three hours.
Hamel also delivers guided educational hikes to the natural wonders in and around the city, including full and half-day hikes, with catered lunch, to outlying iconic landmarks like Kakabeka Falls and the Sleeping Giant Peninsula.
Last fall, she experimented with a Haunted Streets tour that proved to be an unexpected hit. Once she put feelers out that she was hunting for ghost stories, the response was overwhelming.
“I had no idea of the quantity and quality of good paranormal stories that exist in Thunder Bay.”
With one guide hired on a contract basis and tour requests gradually picking up, Hamel isn’t ruling out expanding her offerings in Thunder Bay and beyond.
“I plan to offer tours year-round because there is a lot to do in every season. I love winter. That would be the season that some people would consider closing, but as someone who used to lead winter trips I don’t shy away from it.”