“If you have a travel blog, why do you keep coming to Thunder Bay,” asked the border guard. That kind of question caught me off guard a little bit, but it made me think. Why do I keep coming back to Thunder Bay? This year will be ten years since I first started coming there.
I discovered Thunder Bay as more of an accident of geography. It’s basically the closest Canadian city to where I lived in Wisconsin. My first trip there was about as impulsive as you could get. I was hanging out with a buddy in Duluth. We were bored and driving around. We were driving MN-61 when we saw a sign stating how far it was to the Canadian border.
Despite not having passports, we decided to drive there. If anything, we could say we made it to the border. We were surprised when they let us in. I mean, the sign just stated something about photo identification. It seemed our driver’s licenses would be sufficient. For Canada, they were, and we had an exciting adventure. You can read about that adventure here.
I always find it cool to discover new places. Thunder Bay is culturally similar to Wisconsin in many cases, but it’s still a different country. There were many other nuances to discover. I made sure to get a passport, and then I started visiting more.
Every visit, I learned more stuff. I eventually made some friends. When I started this blog, I posted my adventures in a group called “Thunder Bay Memories.” Before you know it, my biggest cluster of followers was in Thunder Bay. This remained true until my Facebook page got hacked.
Thunder Bay felt more like a home away from home with every visit. I’d always make sure to reach out to my friends and include them in my adventures. I soon became familiar with the area and found some of my favorite spots. I always looked forward to my trips. I used to try to visit once every couple of months. Now that I’m married and have a son, I don’t visit as often, but I try to visit once a year.
My first visit was in 2013. It’s crazy that it’s now been ten years. I’ve seen a lot of changes. On this particular trip, I decided to try to pay close attention to those changes. I’d compare them to what I currently see.
At my current job, I am done with work at noon on Fridays. I used to be able to start my weekends early and leave for my trips. This is no longer the case since I have to pick up Austin from daycare around 5 PM.
If you’ve followed my adventures for a while, you’ve probably noticed an evolution in how I travel. When I first started traveling like I do, I could easily get up and go almost whenever. Now there are a few more constraints, but I’ve evolved my style to work around them.
One way of evolving is that I take a nap on Fridays right after work. I may not be able to get an early start to the weekend, but I can bank up some much-needed rest. I’m always on the go while traveling, so any extra rest is useful.
I took my nap and then picked up Austin. I have to wait for Victoria to come home before I can leave. I flipped on the 5 o’clock news. I wanted to see the weather, especially since I knew there’d be storms.
After Victoria came home, I said goodbye and put my bag in the car. I built out this backpack to try on my trip.
I also brought some CDs to listen to in the car.
The first thing I’d listen to for the night is the Packer’s first preseason game. Driving the whole length of Wisconsin, I could always find a local channel with the game.
I took US-12 to the interstate. It was definitely starting to cloud up.
I eventually got a text alert about a severe thunderstorm watch.
The weather didn’t start getting bad until Tomah. Then it got kind of nasty.
Eventually, I could see some of the sunset in the distance.
After a long drive, I made it to Superior and stopped for gas and a quick snack.
I was soon in Minnesota, and it would be a long drive up MN-61.
The nice thing is there was very little traffic. Typically, you get stuck behind slowpokes, but they were all in bed. I eventually made it to a rest stop and called it a night.
As you can see, it was dark at the rest stop. It is an old pit toilet with few lights around. It did make it easy to fall asleep. I slept a few hours, and it was slightly lighter when I woke up.
I know I had taken pictures previously at Chicago Bay. The first time was in 2020. This was when the border was closed, and I visited my Canadian friends from across the river. The weather was much different then.
The rest of the drive to the border was pretty soggy overall.
One thing I do is fill up before I hit the border. Even with the exchange rate, gas is still about $1 a gallon more.
I ran into issues with my credit card that would foreshadow the rest of the weekend. The pump kept asking for a PIN despite this being a credit card. Luckily, I could fill up and then pay inside.
I mentioned this to the cashier, and he said, “Oh, you must have a Mastercard.” I did have a Mastercard. It sounds like this was a common issue, but my card worked inside, so I didn’t think anything of it (more on that later).
After filling up, I headed for the border. There wasn’t anyone crossing when I did, so I was able to drive right up to the booth. I got a few more questions than usual. One including the question I mentioned above about why I keep coming to Thunder Bay. After a few minutes of questioning, I was good to go, and now in Canada!
On my first trip to Thunder Bay, my GPS only worked in the USA. I also did not have a map. I just knew Highway 61 took me to Thunder Bay. I drove until I saw a sign that said, “Thunder Bay Downtown via Arthur St.”
This sign pointed me to civilization, and Arthur Street is where I start my routine in Thunder Bay. One element I did add was getting local currency from an ATM. My debit card can be iffy, but this TD ATM always works.
I also like that I can choose bill denominations from the machine.
I’ll typically get $100 in the nicely colored Canadian money.
The first stop on my first trip was the Metro grocery store. I usually leave this until the last stop before heading for the border. I always like to get some Canadian groceries not available in the USA. For this trip, I stopped there first to get some snacks.
One big difference I’ve seen is that grocery stores can now sell beer. When I first started coming to Thunder Bay, this was not allowed yet.
I picked up a few snacks. There was a line at the open register, so I went to the self-checkout. I scanned everything and went to insert my card. DECLINED! OK. That was odd. I have a recurring travel alert on both my credit card and debit card. They are both through the same credit union. The debit card just worked at the ATM a few minutes ago.
I tried my debit card, and it wouldn’t work. I thought there might be an issue with the self-checkout. I canceled my order and went into the regular checkout line. After waiting a bit, it was my turn. DECLINED! Now this was getting annoying. I ended up paying with the cash I had just gotten out of the ATM.
My next stop was going to be McDonald’s for breakfast. This was the same McDonald’s I stopped at on my first trip.
I ordered from the kiosk. DECLINED!
I had to pick up my friend Ryan and Matt soon. I figured I’d stop at the ATM and get more cash, just in case. The ATM worked fine. I now had enough cash to get by, but was super annoyed. I first got to Ryan’s house. While he was getting his stuff, I called my credit union.
I was given the runaround with their after-hours support. I had to call a separate phone number. Once I talked to that person, they assured me they had put a note in the system, and my next transaction would go through. Ryan got in the car, and we then picked up Matt. We planned to go to Nipigon for lunch.
Another favorite stop is Crystal Beach Variety. I always loved chatting with John, the owner.
He has since sold the business and retired, but it’s a nice stop to grab a quick snack. In this case, I’d try my credit card again. DECLINED! I paid for my pepperette with cash.
I ate that and sat on some picnic tables while I called my credit union again. At least the view was nice.
I was told the department that puts on travel alerts was closed. They could leave a message, and they’d get back to me the next business day. Obviously, this was of no help to me for my weekend in Canada. The after-hours person I talked to said they could note in the system that I was in Canada. They claimed that would help. It didn’t help last time, and it got declined when I tried it again while they were on the phone.
They then offered to send me to someone else. I talked to that person, and they told me I had to contact the department that handles travel alerts. I told them I was told they were closed. I kept going in circles, and nobody could help me. They kept talking about the system flagging my transactions. They could see the denied transactions. Yet, they could do nothing to stop the system from flagging and declining them.
I knew this was useless, and I’d have to work around this. The crazy thing is that I’ve been a member of this credit union since I was a kid. I even used them when I lived in Texas. There’s only been once or twice I had a problem, and I was able to call someone to fix it.
In the past few years, they rebranded. They’ve changed a bunch of stuff and claim it’s simplifying things, but it’s done the opposite. I used to be able to put travel alerts on my card online. Now I have to call.
When I called, I’d get a person right away. Now there’s a complicated phone tree. They used to have Saturday hours. Now they don’t, and I was actually calling during their traditional Saturday hours. They’ve really turned into garbage in the last few years, and I know many people who no longer bank with them.
After I got off the phone, I made it to Nipigon.
Our first stop was the Nipigon General Store.
I always like to chat with Terry, the owner. I’ll usually pick up some fudge or something else that’s local. I also always make it a point to sign the ceiling tile they have out front. In this case, I just got done, and Ryan and Matt were signing their names.
Usually, we’ll go to the Chinese restaurant down the street from the general store. This time, we decided to try something new and went to Ducky’s Diner.
When in Canada, get poutine. I got the fried chicken poutine, and it was great!
After eating, I wanted to get some Texas seasoning. I first discovered this in 2021. It is incredible on pork chops. I found Zechner’s in Nipigon carries it, so I stopped there.
The Beer Store is across the street from Zechner’s. I wanted to see if they had Pupper’s beer from Letterkenny, so I walked across the street.
Their wall had changed a bit from when I last visited in 2014.
I always love to show my American friends the differences in the price of beer. I’ll usually show them the photo from 2014. Those prices are still high for the USA, even a decade later. I did find a more updated sign.
They didn’t have Pupper’s, so we headed to the marina and Paddle to the Sea Park. This place is always peaceful, and I love visiting.
This was the last place we visited in Nipigon. I always make it a point to get there since it’s such a peaceful little town. The funny thing is that Nipigon reminds me a lot of Belleville, Wisconsin, where I live. They are both small towns with all the basic amenities. They are quiet and have a nice charm to them. I tell people in Thunder Bay that Belleville is very much like Nipigon but a little closer to the city.
We headed back to Thunder Bay. I dropped Ryan and Matt off at their houses. I would then get checked into a hotel. I always like to stay near Red River Road. There are a bunch of bars there, and it’s easy to have a few drinks and walk back to the hotel.
I’ve heard the old Shoreline is under new management and has been renovated. The last time I stayed there, it was a nightmare. Overall, it looked much nicer than before.
I went inside, and it looked nice.
I wanted to do a before and after comparison. It seemed nobody cared to come to the front desk. A guy ahead of me said he was already waiting 5-10 minutes. He tried calling the hotel number. A cleaning person peaked their head out of a room they were cleaning, but nobody came to the front desk.
The hotel might be renovated, but it’s clear there are still issues. I headed to an old-time favorite, The Prince Arthur.
They had a room available. Thankfully, my debit card worked, so I could check in. One major thing I’ve noticed is that the price of rooms has doubled in the past few years. You used to be able to get a room for around $100 CAD a night. They are now around $200-250.
Regardless, these hotels are in a prime location. It’s definitely more expensive to stay, but the rooms are nice.
You also can’t beat the views!
I also commend them for practicing what they preach. Too often, hotels want to skip on washing stuff in the room if you stay multiple days. They claim it’s green, but it’s really to save them money. I only take their word for it if they have recycle bins. That requires a little extra labor to sort things. If they have them, you know they actually care a bit. This is the case at The Prince Arthur.
My use of gadgets is another element of travel that has evolved over the years. I really wish I would have known about these things years ago. It’s great having USB fans, power banks, and other gadgets. These make the trip more comfortable whether I’m in the car or hotel room.
After I got settled, I went to walk on Red River Road. It sounds like Thunder Bay has recently removed all its payphones. You can tell the remnants of this payphone have seen better days.
I continued my walk down Red River Road. I will say the pandemic has brought out a lot more patio dining. That is definitely new compared to when I first started visiting Thunder Bay.
The destination of my walk was St. Andrew’s Church.
I attended the Saturday night mass there. This was the first time I attended mass in Thunder Bay. After mass, I intended to get supper at Nortenos Cantina. This business took over the old Apollo, and I wanted to see how things had changed.
Unfortunately, they did not open until 8 PM. I went to The Sovereign Room instead. This was the first bar I ever visited in Thunder Bay. I always make it a point to return for at least one drink.
I decided to try Quittin’ Time by Sleeping Giant Brewery.
I see they got rid of the pictures on top of the refrigerator and turned the mounted cat a bit.
The Old Charter sign is still there.
I let Ryan and Matt know I was at Sovereign Room instead of Nortenos. We decided to get supper there. More poutine for me!
I also tried another interesting beer called “Barking Squirrel.”
Ryan had to go home to take care of his cat. Matt and I decided to stay downtown and hang out while waiting for Ryan. It looked like something was happening in Marina Park, so we first walked there.
We realized it was a wine-tasting event, and you couldn’t buy tickets. We ultimately figured we could go to On Deck.
The nice thing about On Deck is that you can get pitchers of beer. Matt and I ordered one and talked as we waited for Ryan.
Usually, Ryan likes to bar hop. For this night, we stayed put at On Deck for most of the night. A few other people joined us. The only exception is that we went to Waterhouse for a bit.
Waterhouse makes good Caesars, so I make it a tradition to get a Caesar there.
Ryan and I also took a selfie for the occasion.
After a few drinks there, we walked back to On Deck. We all kind of hit a wall. It was around 1 AM. We decided to call it a night. Normally, we can close it down and stay until 2 AM bar close, but I guess our travels took the energy out of us.
I walked back to the hotel.
Canada is mainly metric, but you’ll find certain things still in imperial. I set the window unit for 64F for a good night’s sleep.
I slept in as long as I could. The morning came fast, and it was sunny.
I originally planned to stay another night and get an early morning start on Monday. When I discovered that rooms were $250 CAD a night, I decided to hang around Thunder Bay until evening. I’d then head back and get some sleep at a rest stop like I did on my way up.
Unfortunately, I got word that Austin wasn’t feeling well. He was running a low-grade fever. It ultimately ended up being teething. I decided to come back a bit early. I had a few places I wanted to see before heading back.
I first went to the marina.
I then went to Maltese Grocery to get some Shumka Dust. I also got some of the crispy coating from the people who make the Texas Seasoning.
I then went to the LCBO.
They had Puppers!
I got 3 of them, 2 canned Caesars, and a Northern Logger.
I then headed to the mall to get something to eat.
One staple that has always been there is Tim Horton’s.
Since it was lunchtime, I got a sandwich and a Coke.
I did a little people-watching and reflecting on this trip and past trips.
One big change I saw was Target coming and going in Canada. When I studied for my MBA, this was an extensive case study of what not to do. When I took this picture in 2015, Target was already closed.
It appears Dollarama has ultimately taken its place.
It was time to start heading for the border. With my credit card debacle, I decided I’d pay the premium for gas in Canada. I knew I had some extra currency left over so I stopped at a gas station.
As you can see, regular gas is $1.69.
I bet many Americans think that’s a heck of a deal. They forget this is priced in liters and not gallons. You need to multiply that by 3.78 to get the per-gallon price. $1.69 x 3.78 = $6.39 a gallon! Now there is a little consolation to this for Americans. $1 CAD = $0.74 USD. That brings the price down to $4.73 a gallon USD. I paid around $3.69 a gallon on the way up in the USA.
That’s one thing you need to do is a lot of math to convert things. I’m happy for speed, my car will do it automatically.
There was one last stop I wanted to make before crossing into the USA. I wanted to see the old border crossing from the Canadian side. This was the first place I met my Canadian friends when the border was closed.
The road was a mixture of beat-up pavement and gravel, just like the other side in Minnesota.
Surprisingly, I had reception when I got there. On the other side, I wasn’t so lucky.
I walked to the barrier by the old bridge castings.
I then looked through the hole in the vegetation where I’d have been standing on the US side.
I saw a car on the other side, but it seemed to pull away before I could say hi. This area is more popular than I thought. When I first went there, I made sure to alert border patrol on both sides. I thought it was going to be more remote and raise suspicion.
After looking for a bit, I headed back to the car. It was interesting to see where a small border town used to be to accommodate the crossing.
I stopped for another picture along the Pigeon River on the way back. It’s crazy how close the border truly is.
I made it to the border, and there was a big line.
I came at the right time because a bigger line was forming.
They actually opened up another lane in the meantime. When it was my turn, it was super fast. Unlike crossing into Canada, I was asked 3-4 questions and sent on my way. I was finally back in the USA!
I made it to Superior and got gas. My credit card miraculously worked!
The drive itself was long but uneventful.
I made it home around 10 PM. Everyone went to bed, but someone got up. She wanted to spend some quality time with me.
I took off on Monday. Coming home early was a blessing in disguise. I spent the day with Austin. Luckily, his teeth were better after spending a day at home. I also avoided many storms.
The funny thing is that I love Metro’s private-label party mix. I always pick up a few bags of it before returning to the USA. I realized they changed the bag in the last year.
I will say it still has the same great taste!
It’s been crazy the sheer amount of adventures I’ve had in the last decade that I’ve been coming to Thunder Bay. I’ve done a police ride-along, attended Bluesfest, got the amethyst for my wife’s engagement ring, and did the Lake Superior Circle Tour. I’ve come to know this area like the back of my hand.
I also love the friends I’ve made along the way. It’s incredible how easily we can pick up where we left off. I love having people accompany me while exploring the area. It’s also fun to hit up downtown and have a few drinks. I know I’ll continue to come to Thunder Bay.
That reminds me. I need to renew my passport and also get a new bank. I guess my work is cut out for me, but I’m sure there will be some good adventures in the meantime.
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