Ontario, Canada: Crossing the Shield by Train
Journey Across the Canadian Shield: A Day Trip aboard Ontario's Agawa Canyon Train
By Victoria Hart
There is something magical about a train ride. In our world today, there are so many choices. It can seem as if there are too many options.
But, climb aboard a train and the choice is made. The tracks are laid, and there is no changing course. You are traveling to a place where those who traveled before thought special enough to mark the trail for others to come.
Building a railroad takes time. The Algoma Central Railway Company in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, Canada, was incorporated in 1899. The first 19 miles of the track that would eventually be ready by November of 1900 for the first passenger train travel.
The train was originally built for the mining and lumber industry. Today, a 114-mile single day adventure takes visitors to the Agawa Canyon Park, a scenic venue in the middle of the Canadian Shield.
The Canadian Shield
The Canadian Shield is a large area of exposed Precambrian igneous and high-grade metamorphic rocks that form the ancient geological core of the North American continent. It spans Eastern, Northeastern, and East-central Canada and the northern portion of the upper Midwestern United States.
It is more than 3.96 billion years old. The Shield is the Earth’s greatest area of exposed Archean rock, spanning approximately 3 million square miles.
Because of its rugged nature, the Canadian Shield is mostly untouched by inhabitants and industry, with the exception of mining, as it is a rich source of mineral ores, with substantial deposits of nickel, gold, silver, and copper.
A Unique Opportunity
The Agawa Canyon of Northern Ontario can only be accessed by train, or a really, really long hike. I took the train. You can hear the train before you see it, as day trippers wait at the station is Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
The big red locomotive pulls up as passengers snap photos, and then scurry to find their assigned cars.
A four-hour journey for a 90-minute visit to the Agawa Canyon Park might not seem worth it until you realize the journey is part of the experience. To be so close to nature on the temperature-controlled train, enjoying the dense forests and brilliant reflections on the lakes and rivers without the sore feet and aching muscles that come with a long hike is a luxury I’ll take any day.
In fact, for those who are no longer physically able to hike, the train is a perfect way to still experience many of the benefits of a day in the woods. A handicapped lift assists passengers with disabilities on and off the train.
Riding through this naturally gifted area, mostly untouched by humans, isn’t an everyday experience. A large mammal population of caribou, white-tailed deer, moose, wolves, wolverines, weasels, mink, otters, grizzly bears, polar bears and black bears call this place home.
Searching for them from the window of a train made this human more comfortable than perhaps, a chance encounter on a hiking trail.
After boarding the train, finding our car, and getting settled in, we sit down to enjoy the ride. The train pulls out of Sault Ste. Marie, a working river town. We pass an old paper mill and other signs of industry. Within fifteen minutes the landscape changes dramatically, the train speeds up, and we are dashing through the wilderness of northern Ontario.
Soon, the conductor comes through to tell us we may go to the dining car for breakfast. The train is catered by a local restaurant, The Mill, offering options of Agawa Canyon Steak and Eggs, Northern Quesadillas, a Breakfast Burger, The Mill Pancakes and a Breakfast Special.
Breakfast is served in a relaxing manner. Guests are not rushed, allowing time to linger while enjoying the spectacular scenery.
Food should be a consideration on this trip, as there is nowhere else to purchase food but on the train. So, packing a breakfast, lunch, and snacks, or enjoying the dining car are the only options. With entrees in the $10-$15 range, the food was nicely presented and reasonably priced.
Water is another consideration. There is no potable water on the train, so bringing a days worth of water with you, or purchasing in the dining car are the choices.
GPS Guided Tour
A GPS guided tour on the train provides an audio/visual description of each point of interest as the train passes. The tour is provided in five languages, English, French, German, Japanese and Mandarin.
The tour speaks to history, geology, and introduces passengers to the Group of Seven, seven Canadian artists in the post-impressionist period who went to great lengths to travel to this area to paint landscapes most people would never be able to visit.
With just 90 minutes to explore the park, planning your strategy is important. It takes a bit of hustle to explore all of the trails. The spectacular views will make you want to stop and breathe in the moment. Photo opportunities are everywhere. So, studying the map and making some choices about what is important is helpful.
Waterfalls? Stroll along the river? Follow the canyon wall for a cool, shaded path? Hike up 300 stairs for a breathtaking view? I could have stayed longer. Perhaps I will have to go back.
Listen closely to announcements about the train’s departure time. There are no overnight accommodations or food service in the park. You don’t want to be left behind. Well, they won’t actually leave anyone behind, but do you want to be the one responsible for delaying the other passengers?
The Return Trip
I am always amazed on a long day hike how different the scenery looks from the opposite direction. The train is the same. Don’t think just because you saw it on the way up, you don’t need to see it again. You do. The dining car serves a late lunch with a delicious menu of sandwiches, wraps, and salads with fresh, healthy ingredients to nourish hungry hikers.
The lunch experience is equally as pleasant as breakfast, with the addition of adult beverages available to accompany the meal.
When and How to Go
The Agawa Canyon Train Tour season is Summer and Fall. The train runs mid-June to mid-October. Opening and closing dates vary each year, depending on the weather. Fall is the most popular time, due to the brilliant changing colors of the leaves.
Reservations are strongly suggested. In the summer there are 340 seats on the train per day. In the Fall, extra cars are added to accommodate between 745-850 passengers. The station is conveniently located in downtown Sault Ste. Marie, with easy walking access from many of the downtown hotels.
Victoria Hart lives in Powell, Ohio. She loves to share her travel tips, bargains, strategies, and stories, inspiring others to create their own adventures. Follow her on Facebook at Victoria Hart Travels and Writes, on Twitter @vhartthewriter and on Instagram at vickysheridanhart.