One of the many things I like about riding a motorcycle is the ability to get away from it all. For some, that can be riding a particularly challenging section of road that requires full concentration; for others, it’s cruising the open highway, getting a little “wind therapy,” as one riding friend calls it. For me, at least some of the time, it’s getting out into the remote regions and discovering the beauty of the Canadian wilderness in its purest form. For that reason, I decided this past July to venture into Northeastern Ontario and ride the Great Legends Tour.
Despite its remoteness, the Great Legends Tour is only a day away from Montreal, where I live, and even closer if you live in the Greater Toronto Area. If you only have a week vacation, you can do this loop—depending on where you live—without having to rush. I left Montreal in the morning and followed the Ottawa River on Highway 417 all the way into North Bay, near the southeastern tip of the tour, arriving before sunset. From there, the Great Legends Tour takes you north on the 101 from Mattawa through Temiskaming Shores to Cochrane, with a finger extending as far as Kapuskasing.
After a few days of off-roading north of Kapuskasing, including a trip to the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat, it was time to start heading south. To complete the loop, I headed first east on Highway 11 to Driftwood, then south on the 655 into Timmins, thinking of Shania Twain :) then south again on Highway 144.
The 144 is one of Ontario’s great roads to ride. It’s a two-lane highway that cuts through Precambrian rock as it descends down toward Sudbury. There’s a mixture of straight sections, but the real fun is with the large sweepers. The highway is immaculately maintained, with no potholes or tar snakes to worry you, and lined with purple loosestrife. Some views are so pretty I was compelled to pull over for a photo.
About halfway between Timmins and Sudbury, I needed a break and the bike needed some gas, so I pulled in to the Watershed Esso at the corner of 144 and 560. After filling up, I pulled up in front of the store-restaurant and did what every rider does after climbing off the bike: I checked my messages. Perhaps one of them distracted me, or perhaps I wasn’t used to the pay-inside pumps in these parts, because the next thing I knew there was a young lady in front of me asking, “Excuse me sir, but did you by any chance buy about $12 in gas?” I was so embarrassed! But she said it happens and the staff figured an amount like that must be for a bike, not one of the umpteen trucks parked out front. The Watershed has a general store and a clean short-order restaurant inside, not to mention polite staff, making it a sure stop.
After a short break, I had to press on because I wanted to catch Dynamic Earth before it closed and see the Big Nickel, the world’s largest coin and iconic monument of my elementary school textbooks. Dynamic Earth is what is referred to as an earth sciences museum. It has interactive displays and educational exhibits focusing on geology and mining. It’s the kind of place elementary schools take classes for a field trip, and there were certainly a lot of children and families enjoying the centre. I, on the other hand, was there for only one thing—to go down into a mine—and I arrived just in time to catch the final tour of the day.
We were outfitted with hardhats and told to dress appropriately because it can be cool underground (13° C/55° F). While waiting for the tour to begin, I took in some of the archival photos and artifacts in display cases, such as this shovel once owned by Thomas Edison.
Edison had become interested in using nickel and cobalt in his electrical equipment and was the first to start searching for nickel in the Sudbury area. His tests showed that there was nickel down there somewhere, but drilling was expensive in those days. After trying for two years (1902-03), he gave up, perhaps tossing this shovel away in disgust, not knowing that on one drill he was a mere few feet away from striking it big!
Our guide introduced herself and gave an overview of the tour. It would take approximately an hour and 15 minutes to complete. After the expected warnings for claustrophobics and safety procedures, we climbed into an elevator and descended seven storeys underground. When we stepped out, the air was cool and the lighting dim. We started walking through the decades of mining from the earliest methods to modern technology. Despite being a demonstration mine, the tunnels appear authentic, and while we didn’t have to crawl on our bellies for miles to get to the worksite, as George Orwell describes in The Road to Wigan Pier, we did get a sense of the ever-present confinement and companionate darkness of a miner’s day.
At various stops, there were installations showing the machinery used, the techniques, and general information about the mine. For example, there are so many tunnels in the Sudbury mine, descending layer upon layer like an anthill, that placed end to end they would cover 5,000 km, enough to travel from Sudbury to Vancouver completely underground! Some of the machinery looks diabolical, like some giant dental instrument.
The highlight of the tour is a simulated explosion. After showing how the dynamite stick (the charge) is placed inside a bored-out cavity in a rock face, then armed, we were “warned” to stand around the corner away from flying debris. I won’t steal the thunder, so to speak, of this part of the tour by saying any more about the explosion, except to say the demonstration involves sound, sight, smell, and sensation, so is pretty authentic. Well done, Dynamic Earth.
Finally we arrived at modern mining and the machines now are akin to the massive equipment used in the construction industry. The process, however, is unchanged: separate the nickel from the rock in the quickest and most efficient means possible.
While heading to the elevator that would take us back up, we passed a series of photographs, and one stood out for me. It’s of a youngish man in his work clothes, smoking a pipe. He’s set against a backdrop of rocks, is sitting on a rock, and has rocks between his feet. Crude work mitts cover his hands. A battered and corroded pale is in the foreground, and while he looks relaxed smoking his pipe, I couldn’t help thinking of what a hard and brutal work life he must have had. And since I smoke a pipe (yes, a tobacco one), I guess a part of me imagined if I would be tough enough to endure in such a world, and how different my life might have been if I’d been born in another time and another place, without the opportunities I was given.
Once back outside, I took in the Big Nickel and the surrounding landscape. As I looked out over the Sudbury basin, I tried to imagine the network of tunnels set deep beneath my feet and across the valley, and the men who had excavated the rock, stone by stone, explosion by explosion. The educational tour had not mentioned accidents or casualties but I knew there have been some—19 in total since 1980, including one as recent as 2015.
Mining is a hard and dangerous profession but, at the risk of sounding trite, someone has to do it, as the saying goes. I thought of all the nickel we take for granted—the plating of my exhaust pipes, the stainless steel utensils I ate my breakfast with, the batteries in my phone, GPS, and headlamp. I also thought of the lumberjacks who face similar risk in another dangerous industry of the north, and I realized that it’s not the CEOs, celebrities, or elite athletes who are the heroes of our society, but the ordinary working-class men and women who do these dangerous jobs, the countless unnamed legends of the North on whose labour and lives our society literally is built.
The Great Legends tour will take you back in time as well as to a place untouched by modern industry. If you want to experience the rugged rawness of Canada’s natural resources and the wide-open spaces of its beautiful wilderness, head north. And if you are passing through Sudbury, take a tour of the mine at Dynamic Earth, if only to honour those who brought you there.