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Ontario’s Sault Ste. Marie has Amazing Climbing and Adventures

From amazing rock and ice climbing to paddling and hiking, The Soo has it all

The camera pans up a clean, multi-pitch sweep of rock, where two climbers are scaling a bolted route. In the background are endless pine forests. You could be forgiven for thinking the video was taken in the Rockies, but it wasn’t. They climb is at Riverside Cliff, a multi-pitch sport climbing area just 90 minutes from his home near downtown Sault Ste Marie, also known as The Soo.

Dustin Hooey was born and raised and educated in Sault Ste. Marie, and now he lives there and works in the wind industry. Once he started climbing, he travelled to many places throughout Canada, but he’s decided to stay right where he is, not just for the great urban life of the town and his roots, but for the incredible climbing close at hand. “B.C. is a long ways away,” he says, “I have family here and in southern Ontario, which at around eight-hours’ drive isn’t that far. There’s plenty of rock to be found, up to 100-metre-plus cliffs. Riverside and the Eyeball are more well known with a recent flurry of development. There’s also Cummings lake, as well as unnamed big walls with little to no development up Highway 129 and surroundings.”

Two of Hooey’s favourite local areas are Ranwick Rock at Montreal River Harbour and River Bend Rock on Mile 38 Road. Both offer lots of varied climbing, both trad and sport, up to 70 metres in height, just 38 miles from the Soo (with no traffic jams). Both areas have guidebooks by local Shaun Parent.

Parent has lived in the area since 1999 but has been developing climbing there since 1986. He’s responsible for much of the development of new areas. Lots of rock climbing sites with 45 minutes. He has developed 12 more sites in the area, for which he will be writing guidebooks over the next few seasons. Some of these climbs are enormous, 220 metre adventures. It’s an exciting moment in Soo climbing.

When winter comes, says Hooey, “For ice climbing, Northern Ontario is the right place to be,” and Parent, who developed most of the ice climbing there, agrees. There are 600 ice climbs at various locations from the Soo to Agawa canyon,” says Parent, including many ice climbs close to the Soo.” With ice climbing season getting shorter and shorter in Southern Ontario, northern Ontario climbers are still climbing ice five months of the year. One of Shaun’s favourite local ice spots is the Searchmont ice wall, which sports both ice and mixed routes, just a five-minute walk from the road.

Climbing, however, is only part of the picture. Hooey can barely list all the other activities that he can easily fit into his lifestyle in the Soo. “There’s the city’s waterfront on the St. Mary’s River, Hiawatha Highlands conservation area, especially for single-track mountain biking and cross country skiing. There’s the Voyageur hiking trails around the Sault and as far as you want to go.

There’s plenty of crown land around and bush roads to access it, and abandoned mines and natural caves to explore. Lake Superior from its sand beaches to its coastal highlands is amazing, though it is very much a freshwater sea that must not be underestimated. Inland lakes and rivers are much more forgiving, and the north abounds with them. The Agawa, Sand, Montreal, Chippawa, Batchawana, the Missisagi, and the Little White Rivers are the main rivers. There’s plenty of ice, five months out of the year. Across the border, there’s the pictured rocks national lake shore near Munising and its Ice fest. There’s also Michigan’s longest cave in the tail end of the Niagara Escarpment. Did I mention surfing? Lake Superior has its own surfing scene, if you don’t mind the cold. I often find myself travelling 1 or 1.5 hours for weekend adventures, but rarely farther than two. Weeknights, we usually keep it to within half an hour.”

With new routes going up every year, no crowds at the crags and a gorgeous wilderness setting, its easy to see why climbers in the area see it as a hidden gem. And with southern Ontario real estate prices rising, it’s easy to see why some climbers are sizing up other options in the province.

Sault Ste Marie is a welcoming community for climbers. “What we’re trying to do is reinforce the lifestyle we have here,” says Travis Anderson, Sault Ste. Marie’s director of tourism and community development. “As someone contemplating moving here or visiting here, once you do some research, you quickly understand that the Soo is arguably the best outdoor adventure town in Ontario.”

As a token of its appreciation of any outdoor recreationalists who choose to live in Sault Ste Marie, New residents are being offered an Adventure Pass, worth about $500. It is redeemable at many businesses around the Soo, including ski hills, bike shops, outdoor retailers and more.

You can check out all the buzz about rock climbing in the surrounding Algoma region on dozens of climbing sites on the internet. Visit the city website for more information on the community and having them on your back-step every day.

Dustin Hooey at Searchmont. Photo Brandon Klassen