Adventures With B: Animikii-wajiw “Mount McKay” in Thunder Bay
Twenty years after my first lap up the Ontario mountain, I return to put what I've learned to the "test"... and the historic Hoito has closed
I made the drive from the Canadian Rockies in Alberta to the Nor’Wester Mountains in Ontario this week. What are the Nor’Wester Mountains? They’re a group of peaks south of Thunder Bay with the highest being Mount McKay (the official name of the mountain, but keep on reading).
Other peaks include Godfrey, Hurlburt, Johnson, Matchett, McRae, McQuaig, Rose and Squaretop. All peaks have been climbed and most have rock and ice routes. For half-a-century, they’ve been at the centre of Northwestern Ontario’s climbing scene.
Mount McKay is a mafic sill on Fort William First Nation that formed during a period of magmatic activity associated with the large Midcontinent Rift System about 1,100 million years ago. It’s an old mountain with solid rock.
The peak was first known as “Thunder Mountain” (Animikii-wajiw in the Ojibwe language and locally written as “Anemki-waucheu”) and is still used for Ojibwe sacred ceremonies. “Mount McKay” evolved from “McKay’s Mountain” after William Mackay, a Scottish trader who lived in the Fort William area before 1857. The peak is 299 metres above Lake Superior and 483 metres above sea level. It’s not a high peak, but it’s one of Ontario’s most iconic mountains.
To continue using information from Wikipedia, facts I knew when I attended Lakehead University from 2000 to 2004, but have since forgotten: “It’s composed of shale and greywackes – the Rove Formation – which is covered by the hard, protective diabase cap.”
There, we’re all caught up on the geology of this flat-topped mountain, but it does little to capture the soul of the peak.
My first time up the north face gully, a third-class scramble up ledges and blocks, was 20 years ago this week. A group of us soon-to-be friends got a ride to the base and we made our way up. I’d never climbed a mountain, it seemed daunting and massive.
I don’t remember how long it took, but over an hour. Five of us slept on the rocky summit below short trees and a star-filled sky. The night is ingrained in my memory of mountain moments. It’s one of the ones that made me want to seek out bigger peaks.
Since then, I’ve climbed most of the most classic hard alpine routes to high peaks, such as Mounts Robson, Whitney and Blanc. But I often think back to my first romp up that bump on the Thunder Bay horizon.
I pulled into town and drove straight to the mountain. Two decades ago, there wasn’t a toll, but now there’s a $10 toll, which I couldn’t be happier about. Why? Because I got to meet Darlene.
The interact machine wasn’t working and I had no cash. Darlene, a grandmother working at the “toll booth” (a building next to the road), told me not to worry about it and to go on through.
I got out of the van to chat with her about the season during covid; she said it had been busy. We chatted about her son who lives in Calgary and her son who owns Man VS Meat, a restaurant in Thunder Bay that she recently invested in to save it from going out of business.
On a side note, if you’ve ever been to Thunder Bay then you know about the Hoito, a Finnish restaurant on Bay Street. It broke my heart to find out that it has been closed for good. The landmark eatery was a must-visit for tourists but also for hungover university students heading out ice climbing. RIP Hoito.
Darlene and I hit it off and chatted about mountains in western Canada, where I came from. I didn’t have cash, but I did have an ornate crystal I’d found near Mount Gimli a few weeks ago with Sonnie Trotter. So, I gave it to Darlene and she was stoked. It’s a cool crystal.
Darlene told me that the north face scramble was kinda closed and that hikers were told to go up the Scenic Lookout trail, but then said it wasn’t closed closed. I parked near the trail, walked around and took in what the area has to offer.
I ran to the north face gully and started up. It took me 10 minutes from the car to the summit, a feat that once took well over an hour and involved some epics. Funny what 15 years of living and breathing mountains in big ranges can do.
I passed other hikers on top and walked to the very edge above a steep drop. I thought “has anyone base-jumped from here” just before some hikers yelled “don’t jump dude.”
I ran through trees to a spot where I’d camped with a friend in 2002. His name was Fergus Blair and he recently passed away from cancer. A small tree was growing where our fire pit was. Maybe the ashes from our long-ago mid-October blaze fed into its now-sturdy trunk.
I ran down to the car via the Scenic Lookout trail and passed more hikers. I spied a new line up one of the thick cracks below the plateau edge; something for later. The mountain will always have a special place in my heart.
I then drove to Dorion Tower to visit my friend Aric Fishman, as he guided a group of clients from Toronto. I met new climbers who were happy to not be in the GTA. I then went paddle boarding on Pass Lake and caught a nice sized northern pike.
I’m writing this at the Mad House, a pub at the end of Machar Avenue, where I lived between 2001 and 2003. The quote on the wall is by Jack Kerouac: “[…]the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'”
I spent summer 2020 touring Canadian climbing areas, fishing in remote lakes and playing music with friends around bon fires. I live to climb, but rest days are best spent meandering around forests and across lakes.
From airy mountain tops to unique rock spires and remote lakes with windswept eastern white pines, there is nowhere quite like Thunder Bay.
Travel to Thunder Bay, find the mountain on the horizon and drive to James Street and eventually Mission Road to the toll booth. You gain a few hundred metres from the car and can do it in under an hour.
The most important thing to take away from this mountain is the history and the culture that surrounds it. Give er’ a go, you won’t regret it.
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.” This column will focus on skiing, hiking, SUPing, paddling, fishing and other adventures. A new alpine climb in 2020was named in Anna’s honour, read about it here.