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How a 60-Mile Walk Became an epic motorcycle ride

Ontario Road Map Circa 1957 with no hwy 17 to Wawa • Credit: Algoma Country

It's one of the Top 10 Drives in Canada. It has been named one of the best Ontario motorcycle routes twice. The twists and turns of the road are described as thrilling, even knuckle-clenching at times. Massive rock cuts, pristine wilderness, and amazing views of Lake Superior. The stretch of highway from Wawa to Sault Ste. Marie is one of the most incredible stretches of the Trans-Canada Highway that you'll ever experience by motorcycle.

agawabaylookout lakesuperior

Impressive views of Lake Superior from Agawa Bay Lookout, Hwy 17. (Photo credit: Chris Hughes)

Now imagine if this stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway never existed. Imagine if you drove to Agawa Bay, and then had to turn back. Imagine never being able to step off your motorcycle, or drive your car and see magnificent rock formations like Old Woman Bay, the white sandy beach of Katherine Cove, or the panoramic views from the top of scenic lookouts.

katherinecove lakesuperiorFine sandy shores of Katherine Cove on Lake Superior. (Photo credit: Rob LaRue)

But it isn't that hard to imagine. In fact, for almost 20 years, the bottom of the Agawa River Valley was where the highway ended. It just stopped. The town of Wawa was a mere 60 miles ahead. But you couldn't reach it. At least not by car. Before 1960, people living and working in the town of Wawa travelled in and out by steamboat on Lake Superior, floatplane, and railway as early as 1912 when the rail line from Sault Ste. Marie to Hawk Junction was completed, and after 1921, Hawk Junction to Hearst by train with Algoma Central Railway.

oldwomanbay lakesuperior

Old Woman Bay, Lake Superior, is an amazing scenic leg stretch stop.

Many Canadians were in the same situation; it wasn't until 1949 that Canada's Parliament approved the act to build the Trans-Canada Highway and construction began in the 1950s. Now, prior to World War II, the Trans-Canada Highway had been blasted and cut out of the east shore of Lake Superior from Sault Ste. Marie north to Montreal River. And it stopped.

The Gap: An Impassable Landscape

We are proud of our magnificent landscape in Algoma Country: rugged, rocky pre-Cambrian mountains, thick lush green wilderness, beautiful beaches, and crystal clear lakes. The very things we boast about are the reasons the highway lay incomplete for those nearly 20 years. These massive ancient rocks formed by glaciers millions of years ago were reasoned to be impassable by engineers. It was too hard, too tough to push the highway through. Can you believe that the Rocky Mountains were considered to be easier to navigate? It's true. The Rocky Mountains are not as old as our mountain range, and the sedimentary formations are not as tough.

hwy17 grandalgoma(Photo credit: Virgil Knapp)

Operation Michipicoten: A Journey Through the Wilderness

In the late 1940s, residents of Wawa were promised a "road out" by both federal and provincial governments and other surrounding communities pushed for the highway as well, including Chapleau. Petitions and meetings with highway officials always seemed to fall on deaf ears.

OldHwy17 Pancake1 wawaheritagecommitteeAugust 1951, Highway 17 Pancake River Bridge North of Sault Ste. Marie. (Photo credit: Town of Wawa Heritage Committee)

By 1951, the residents of Wawa had had enough. It was time to bring awareness to their plight and make headlines. Uniting together the people initiated "Operation Michipicoten". Their plan: walk the last 60 miles of shoreline from Wawa to Sault Ste. Marie to prove that if they could do it, certainly the engineers could build a road. Four men: Derek Baker, Paul Villeneuve, Edward Nyman, and George Kimball, all descendants of pioneers who helped build the North and accustomed to bush travel, set south on foot.

Following directions on a 1935 surveyor's map, they made their way over the rugged terrain, their only means of communication a portable radio. To add drama and urgency to the project, business owners convinced the four trekkers to take their time -- although the trip took 17 days, it could have been made in a shorter time frame as early mail carriers had been making the trip in three days. But that did not mean it was an easy journey either because the four men did meet bad weather along the journey. Upon reaching Sault Ste. Marie, a banquet was held in their honour, and all three political candidates at the time pledged to complete the road. If elected.

trekcrew1 alturcottbookFrom Agnes Turcott's book Land of the Big Goose
1951 trek MontrealRiver wawaheritagecommitteeThe gentlemen who hiked through the bush are just arriving at Montreal River to much pomp and ceremony! (Photo credit: Town of Wawa Heritage Committee)
TrekcrewarrivinginSault wawaheritagecommitteeTrek crew arriving in Sault Ste. Marie. From left: George Kimball, Edward Nyman, Paul Villeneuve, Derek Baker. (Photo credit: Town of Wawa Heritage Committee)

Closing the Gap: Excitement Builds for Motorists

In 1959, the 80-km route from Agawa to Wawa was finally cut through, but the road was so rough it took eight hours to drive from Wawa to Sault Ste. Marie, which today, would take about two hours. Eager and excited, but perhaps daring or foolish, drivers first took to the road in December of that year. And daring they were because a bridge at Old Woman River did not exist, inventive Wawa residents built their own homemade log bridge to cross the river! To ensure work continued on the highway and to keep it safe for everyone, the Government had no choice but to put up barricades with Ontario Provincial Police standing guard until the road was officially completed.

Below are some historic photos of the construction:

OldAgawa2 wawaheritagecommitteeSeptember 20, 1955. Location: Agawa River, the proposed site for Bridge & Scenic. (Photo credit: Town of Wawa Heritage Committee)
OldHwy17 NAgawa2 wawaheritagecommitteeOctober 1957 (Photo credit: Town of Wawa Heritage Committee)
OldAgawa3 wawaheritagecommitteeOctober 15, 1957. (Photo credit: Town of Wawa Heritage Committee)
OldAgawa hwy17northOctober 15, 1957. (Photo credit: Town of Wawa Heritage Committee)

The Grand Opening: Birth of the Wawa Goose

On September 17, 1960, the Gap was completed. Several politicians and members of parliament made the journey to Wawa for the ribbon-cutting ceremony that marked the opening of the final Ontario section of Trans-Canada Highway 17. The Wawa Goose, one of the most photographed landmarks in North America, was also unveiled that same day. The creative idea of local entrepreneur Al Turcott, the Wawa Goose was created to not only stop new highway travellers at the junction of Highway 17 and 101 but to encourage them to visit Wawa and the area. It's amazing what a 27-foot high, a 150,000-pound goose can do!

wawagoose grandalgomarideThe Wawa Goose Monument, Junction of Hwy 17 and Hwy 101. (Photo credit: Virgil Knapp)

The Gap, the last link of the Lake Superior section of the Trans-Canada Highway, was the most expensive section in Ontario and was some of the most difficult terrains that road crews encountered in Canada. In the end, engineers blasted 2,087,234 cubic metres (2,730,000 cubic yards) of rock, removed 5,982,641 cubic metres (7,825,000 cubic yards) of earth, and cleared 6.97 square kilometres (1,720 acres) of forest to bridge the 266 km of wilderness.

Without the dedication of the Wawa townspeople and the four men who trekked through the forest to prove anything is possible, we would not have this beautiful stretch of highway along the coastline of Lake Superior that travellers enjoy by car, motorcycle, and RV year after year. Learn more about The Grand Algoma Ride at www.algomacountry.com

Thank you Wawa local historian and author Johanna Rowe for the valuable information to write this article. Johanna is based out of Wawa and for over 20 years has provided heritage research and interpretation for many clients and projects. For more information about Johanna and her work visit www.wawahistory.com

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