Story chasing in Northern Ontario

By Somer Slobodian and Evan Loree

By Evan Loree

When March break arrives, many students flock to the south. Many travel to Florida, the Caribbean, or just stay inside and keep warm. For myself, Somer Slobodian, and creative partner, Evan Loree, this was not the case. We did the complete opposite.  

We decided to take a road trip up north in pursuit of a story. And when you pair an obsessive-compulsive worrywart with her clueless man-child of a boyfriend in a car for over 8 hours…it makes for a fun story.  

We both love adventure. Me, a little more so than him. While I see a new destination as thrilling, he may see it as intimidating. While he doesn’t worry about who slept in the hotel before us, I’m riddled with anxiety at the thought of someone else’s sweat stains in my bedding. When we got to our hotel room, I sanitized everything while I had him check for bed bugs.  

So where did we go? 

Picture Northern Ontario. Now if you only pictured as far as North Bay, picture beyond that. A place you can only access through one highway. A place with a population of 5,500 people. Where the weather reaches 30 below or colder, and there’s only one Tim Hortons to caffeinate the whole town.  

On the drive-up, Evan said he felt like a “stranger in a strange land.” Pine trees rose tall on either side of the highway, shielding the wildlife from my prying eyes. The air was quiet, save the sound of the occasional car driving by. 

This mysterious place we visited is called Cochrane, Ontario.  

It is home to the Polar Bear Habitat, which was the main reason for our trip. We’re writing an article on the habitat and its conservation efforts. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the experience of watching the bear keepers play with Ganuk through the fence. 

It’s also known for the Polar Express, a train that travels to Ontario’s only saltwater port, Moosonee. They call it the gateway to the arctic, and it is accessible only by plane or train. Due to time constraints, we were unable to go.   

Photo by Somer Slobodian

Along the way to Cochrane, we passed through Toronto, Muskoka, and North Bay. On the way back, we took the long route so we could see Timmins, and Sudbury as well. Here were a few highlights from our adventure.  

Cochrane, Ontario 

Polar Bear Habitat 

Photo by Somer Slobodian

This place is a hidden gem nestled within Ontario. Only 250 kilometers from James Bay, where this species can be found in its natural habitat, three polar bears live on 24 acres of sub-arctic boreal forest surrounded by trees, wildlife, a natural lake and plenty of snow. At PBH, they are committed to providing the bears with lives that closely resemble that of their wild ancestors 

We met Amy Baxendell-Young, the animal care team leader and Kearin Goff, part of the Animal Care staff. The hard work they put into the habitat shows, as does their love and passion for the bears. Being a facility that only focuses on polar bears, they are able to keep the bears under constant surveillance, resulting in unique research opportunities into the animal’s behavior.  

We also met Paul Buhay, the supervisor and gift shop manager. Paul was a joy to talk to, and his love for Cochrane and the habitat was clear in the way he talked.  

It was an incredible experience, and I can’t wait to go back, perhaps to feed Evan to the bears.  

Railway Cafe 

Photo by Somer Slobodian

This café was so delicious, we had to go twice.  

When you walk through the door you are greeted with an assortment of wonderful smells. The scent of brewing coffee consumed us, and it was lovely. The baristas were bubbly and made sure to draw the foam of my cappuccino into the shape of a polar bear. 

Photo by Somer Slobodian

Once we ordered our drinks, we went back through the door then up a set of stairs. I sat in a brown leather couch and Evan took the chair beside me. We sipped out of our cups in front of a fireplace for an hour or two, enjoying the comforts of something familiar. 

Fresh and Fancy Bakery  

After reading a review in a local tourism book, we had to check it out for ourselves. 

When walking into Fresh and Fancy, it almost reminds me of being in a grandmother’s kitchen while she bakes. Though it’s a small place, this little bakery is stacked with enough baked goods to keep me satisfied for a month.  

Before you go, make sure you bring cash. Since they’re a small shop, they don’t take any other form of payment. The staff was warm and welcoming, a grand reprieve from the cold outside.  

While everything here looks delicious, they are known for their apple fritters. Evan got one of those, I picked out a maple donut, a Polar Bear cookie and we both shared a pack of brownies.  

JR Bar-B-Q Ranch 

Photo by Somer Slobodian

Cochrane didn’t have many options for restaurant lovers, but they did have some decent options that would satisfy a budget-friendly belly.  

One of the restaurants we ate at was JR Bar-B-Q Ranch. They sell your typical bar food, with pizza, wings, and everything in-between. As you can guess from the photo, we went with the pizza. As far as pizzas go, it was delicious. Evan said the crust tasted a little odd. He can be a bit of a food snob though.  

Another restaurant we ate at was 49th Parallel. This place was also full of your usual bar foods, but my eye was drawn to the Southwest salad. Evan went with the burger and fries.  

Though they forgot to provide dressing for the salad, the workers were kind enough to deliver the dressing to our hotel room. So overall, I was satisfied.  

Black River-Matheson, Ontario

Dream Acres Alpacas  

Photo by Evan Loree

Anyone who knows me knows I love Alpacas. And if you don’t know me, I think this picture says it all.  

Although I didn’t get a picture of Evan with this much excitement for the fuzzy creatures, I know he was in love with them. He just won’t admit it.  

Jo-Anne and Gary Burton give daily tours of their farm, Dream Acres Alpacas. We got to meet Gary, and his knowledge of Alpacas clearly came from a place of love. I thought it was wonderful how much he cared about his Alpacas.  

It was a precious moment when one of Gary’s female Alpacas walked up to him and, when asked, gave him a kiss.  

A highlight of our trip was meeting his male Alpaca, Mick, who is in the picture above. Being the only Alpaca who liked hugs on the farm, I seized the opportunity. Evan, on the other hand, settled for some gentle strokes of the neck and a soft smile. I’ll take that as a win.  

Photo by Somer Slobodian

We left Cochrane on the morning of March 4th after picking up some coffees from the railway café.  

Once we passed through Timmins, we were on our way to Sudbury. Little did we know, we would be entering no-man’s land.  

We traveled without service for roughly three hours. We saw signs warning us that there would be no gas for over 100 kilometers. We were in the middle of nowhere. No houses, very few cars, and barely any side streets for hours on end. 

You can imagine our relief when we finally reached civilization.  

Sudbury, Ontario  

Tandoori Tastes 

While driving through Sudbury on our drive home, we wanted to try something other than the usual Harvey’s or McDonald’s.  

While walking the streets of downtown Sudbury, we came across an Indian restaurant called Tandoori Tastes. After seeing the four-star reviews, we decided to give it a go. 

This was a buffet-style restaurant. My germophobic anxiety kicked into third gear. Our experience started off rocky because I experienced a slight panic attack. 

We ate in silence, but after lunch we talked through my feelings and I felt much better. The butter chicken on rice and naan was delicious. I always love the explosion of spices when you take your first bite of any Indian cuisine.  

Huckleberries Chocolatiers 

Truffles and ice cream and brownies, oh my! 

As soon as we opened the door and entered Huckleberries Chocolatiers, our nostrils were filled with the smell of sweet, mouthwatering chocolate. Truffles waited in the display case in front of us, begging to be bought. Behind us, a freezer that housed a variety of ice cream flavours hummed softly.  

The cashier was very friendly and joked around with us as she worked through some technical issues with the debit machine. We weren’t bothered though, it just meant we got to browse longer. However, I do believe I gained ten pounds just by smelling all the chocolate.  

We ended up leaving with an 8 pack of assorted truffles, and two ice cream cones. Evan went with mint, while I went with maple walnut.  

Photo by Somer Slobodian

After we left Sudbury, we had roughly another five hours to go. We drove through Muskoka, getting the chance to see a beautiful bald eagle soaring through the sky.  

Once we hit Barrie, it all went downhill. We hit bumper-to-bumper traffic, and it added over an hour to our drive home. 

After everything was said and done, the drive home turned into a 12-hour trip.  

The good news is we didn’t kill each other. Evan says he might even do a cross-Canada road trip with me. If I could do it all over again I would. Minus the bumper-to-bumper traffic.  

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