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Adventures With B: Thunder Bay Paddle-Boarding and Fishing

Exploring Pass Lake, Hazelwood Lake and Cloud Lake in northern Ontario for late-summer solace

Photo by: Brandon Pullan at Hazelwood Lake for sunrise

I attended Lakehead University in Thunder Bay from 2000 to 2004 for kenisiology and eventually geology. If you’re unfamiliar with the city, it’s a 15-hour drive northwest of Toronto and seven hours east of Winnipeg.

There are uncharted backcountry areas, big moose and expansive lakes. It’s one of Canada’s most rugged places to adventure and to escape the crowds.

I spent most of my time in my early 20s skipping class to ice and rock climb in the Nor’Wester Mountains; a range of flat-topped billion-year-old peaks on the northwestern shore of Lake Superior.

Sleeping Giant on Lake Superior from the Bluffs in Thunder Bay

It’s where I cut my teeth on still-hard-to-climb sandbagged routes where a fall would leave you injured. I could write a book of climbing stories from my early days roaming the boreal forest, around the coordinates 48.3809° N, 89.2477° W, looking for never-before-ascended stands of ancient basalt and granite.

On my rest days from climbing, I relaxed into my canoe and paddled the lakes and rivers. It was a heavily dented 17-foot aluminum beater that could always be found strapped to the roof of my 1988 Chevy S10 pickup.

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I mostly paddled alone because I wasn’t just paddling for paddling sake, I was venturing out to fish small bays and along rocky shorelines for hours and hours. My passion for fishing outlasted my friend’s “yes let’s go fishing for an hour or two” novelty approach.

In winter, when not bashing my knuckles off steep ice climbs, I was freezing my toes next to holes on blustery-weather lakes jigging for lake trout in minus-forty conditions. It was awesome.

One of my mentors and climbing partners in Thunder Bay is and was Derrik Patola. He grew up in the area fishing and hunting and started climbing in his early 50s. He was a mechanic who moved on to be a computer tech at the university before retiring.

With Patola in 2001 after a day of ice climbing

Patola now spends his days sailing and climbing new rock routes far from the beaten path. I met him at the base of Lost Falls, an ice climb close to town, when I was bolting my first new route which I called Shenanigans 5.10. I told him to swing by Wilderness Supply, where I worked selling climbing gear and kayaks.

The next day, he was in the shop looking to pickup some new gear. He told me that Wilderness Supply was once an auto repair shop where he once worked. We started climbing that week and have since established a number of new routes and climbed throughout Canada.

I’ve visited Thunder Bay every year for the past 20 years and always try to see Patola. I’m often driving through and only stop for a day or two, but stayed for a week this time. I wanted to rekindle old friendships, climb some new rock routes and go fishing.

My first stop was to see Patola who told me that he had some big news. During our socially distanced garage hang, I learned that he was going to meet his mom for the first time. Patola, who was adopted as a baby, is now in his mid-60s.

Until this summer, he didn’t know who his birth mother and father were. Patola’s daughter found his mom, Estelle, after months of searching. Based in Kapuskasing northeast of Thunder Bay, Estelle had been looking for her oldest son, Claude (Derrik), for nearly 60 years. She’s 85 and remarried now, to Frank, and has a number of other children; Patola’s half brothers and sisters. One of his brothers is an avid climber.

Patola hugged his mom for the first time during the second week of September 2020 and they didn’t let eachother go for hours.

Sailing with Patola nearly 10 years ago

Patola travelled with his wife, Sarah, to Kapuskasing where he spent a few days getting to know his “new” family before returning to Thunder Bay.

I then spent time writing stories at the Sleeping Giant Brewing Company and with the many new climbers in the area. They’re stronger than I was when I was living there, so it was great to see them crushing my old routes. I bolted new climbs for them, too, but that’s another story.

Anyway, enough tear jerking stories, back to paddling and fishing.

Pass Lake

Pass Lake is found south of the Trans Canada along the road to the Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. It butts up to the road, so you can’t miss it. On the opposite side of the road is a popular rock climbing area that goes by the same name. The rock is composed of sandstone, a rarity in Canadian climbing.

I used to paddle my canoe and watch climbers from Pass Lake, so it was at the top of my list to revisit with my inflatable paddle board. On the eastern edge is a campground and close to the road is a small restaurant with good pies.

It was nearly dusk when I pumped air into my board. The sound of new climbers having a mini-epic juxtaposed the songs of two loons across the lake. It was perfect.

A Pass Lake northern pike, which went right back in the water

I found a spot to drop my board and paddled out. I’ve perfected the stand-and-cast which has helped me zone my casts between downed trees and bushy weeds. I was the only one on the lake as the sun dipped below the tall white pines.

There are smallmouth bass, northern pike and other pan-fish in Pass Lake. I was casting with a bright Little Cleo spoon because both bass and pike will strike it. It didn’t take long before I hooked a small pike.

It struck hard and caught me off guard, so I had to drop to my butt to reel it in. One was enough and I put the rod away to paddle a few laps of the lake.

Post-paddle at Pass Lake

Cloud Lake

South of Thunder Bay is a lake that sits out of sight until you drive up a hundred metres into the “alpine” and down a bumpy road. Cloud Lake has a surface area of 1,062 acres and is 16 metres (54 feet) deep.

Twenty years ago, I caught so many trophy-sized smallmouth bass that I couldn’t believe more people didn’t fish there. Since then, the lake has become more popular and is heavily fished in summer, but I wanted to try my luck anyway.

I only had an hour, which wasn’t enough time to find the fish, but enough to make a few casts. I paddled into rolling waves and the let current carry me back to the van.

There were tall weeds and I didn’t have the right gear to deal with them. So, after an hour, I packed it up and went rock climbing. It was fun to return to a lake that I’d told so many friends about.

I hope the population of bass is as plentiful was two decades ago, but with so many fishers out there, it’s hard to tell how many practice catch and release.

Pre-paddle at Cloud Lake

Hazelwood Lake

This no-motors-allowed lake is one of the must-visits for Thunder Bay locals and gets busy on weekends. I visited at 7 a.m. on a Wednesday so I had it to myself. It’s a great lake for canoeing, kayaking, swimming and fishing.

It’s northwest of the city and only takes 20 minutes to reach.

There are nice trails that meander through the shoreline woods and big parking areas to accomodate the many get-out-of-the-city folks.

Mandatory selfie at sunrise on Hazelwood Lake

There aren’t a lot of fish in Hazelwood, mostly because it’s so heavily fished, but I thought I’d give it a try. There’s perfect fish habitat throughout, from rocky points to weed beds, but after two hours of early morning casts, I packed it up without any nibbles.

Nevertheless, I would go back every morning to start my day because of how peaceful it is, not to mention the beavers that swim along next to you.

Paddling is a big part of my life and it takes me back to my childhood. I was a young man when I first learned about legendary paddler Bill Mason. One of my favourite quotes by him is: “The path of the paddle can be a means of getting things back to their original perspective.”

All of these lakes are worth a visit and I can’t wait to return.

Other Adventures

Animikii-wajiw “Mount McKay” in Thunder Bay

Hike, SUP and Fishing on Boom Lake

Hermit Meadows in Rogers Pass

About Adventures with B: My late friend Anna Smith, who lost her life Himalayan climbing, once said to me after an epic we had in Chamonix where we got away unscathed: “Adventures with B are messy and unplanned but always fun and my favourite.” This weekly column will focus on skiing, hiking, SUPing, paddling, fishing, friends and more. I’ve been adventuring all around Canada for over 30 years. More on my climbing life here.

Lead photo: Brandon Pullan at Hazelwood Lake for sunrise