High above the Slate River Valley on the rural outskirts of Thunder Bay, where corn stalks march across rolling fields tall and golden waiting to be harvested, is a small clearing of land, tucked amongst native pine forests, where apple trees grow.
The road to the Mountain Stream Orchard winds up into the Nor’wester Mountain range through trees that sport the first blush of fall.
If it were not for the sign propped amid fall wild flowers and spent thistles at the side of the road, it would remain a hidden gem. And as I turn off Oliver Creek Road, down a small dip in the driveway, I think Mountain Stream Orchard just might be a tiny piece of paradise.
I stop beside a log home, weathered and solid and built, I am told, from white pine that was brought down off the mountain, towering overhead, more than 100 years ago.
It was one of the original homes in the area, constructed in 1892 when the road was little more than a dirt track.
Elaine Mackenzie lives here now and she meets me outside with a beaming smile and an inviting sweep of her hand to come and see the orchard.
We duck under a pair of electric wires she has strung up through the bush on the outskirts of the orchard to keep out bears and deer and step into a square of land carved from the surrounding forest.
Apple trees grow in perfect rows beneath the midday sun, bright and bold in a blue September sky. Elaine plucks two apples from a low hanging branch and hands one to me. Palest green with a blush of red on one side, it fits perfectly in my hand, round and smooth and warm from the sun.
I bite into it with a satisfying crunch. It is crisp and flavourful, sweet and juicy with a hint of tartness. A Goodland apple, it is one of ten varieties growing in this orchard of 125 trees, half of which were planted in 1995, the other, four years later, all of which are grown organically.
We toss our apple cores into the bush that edges the orchard as Elaine points out one heavily laden branch of red fruit after another. The trees stand importantly in this pocket of land that is so peaceful with the bare rock face of Beaver Mountain rising up nearby out of the woods. In the spring, Elaine tells me, a waterfall tumbles down the mountain into a stream that runs through the property, and Peregrine Falcons nest on the rocky ledges.
I wouldn’t blame Elaine if she wanted to keep this place a secret, but she did not plant this orchard just for herself. When the apples are ripe, Elaine announces dates and times on the Mountain Stream Orchard Facebook page when people can come and pick their own apples or buy any of the products Elaine makes on site: apple cider, apple cider vinegar, apple jellies and apple butter. She even encourages people to bring their own apples, which she will make into cider for them.
Mountain Stream Orchard products are also available through the Superior Season’s Food Market but it is worth the trip just south of Thunder Bay along highway 61 to Boundary Drive and up the mountain to 271 Oliver Creek Road to visit the tranquil spot where apples grow quietly in the sun and time seems to stand still.