By Virginia Marshall
Where Fort Creek enters the St. Marys River just below the historic locks at Sault Ste. Marie Canal National Historic Site, it’s a shallow channel scarcely broad enough to turn a canoe around. Bridged by boulevards and hemmed by sidewalks and parking lots, the creek disappears altogether for much of its course, buried and nearly forgotten beneath the city above.
On a warm spring evening, I witness a very different Fort Creek, winding through a verdant wetland filled with the sunset songs of veery, Swainson’s thrush and ovenbirds. A contented beaver navigates the meanders, watchful Canada Geese periscope from grassy banks. Perched above downtown, Fort Creek Conservation Area is a remarkable green space within the city.
The way Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy Executive Director, Joanie McGuffin, explains it, Fort Creek is both a living waterway and an allegory for the unseen connections that bind past to present, and culture to ecology.
Revealing hidden connections—between rivers, lakes, watersheds, communities, cultures, people and the planet—is the focus of a new visitor experience developed by the Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy in partnership with the Huron-Superior Regional Metis Community.
These interpretive tours provide visitors to Sault Ste. Marie with an exciting new way to discover the city, while making meaningful connections to the Soo’s vibrant Indigenous culture and heritage. Historic images, maps and hands-on materials add texture and context, transforming a modern cityscape into an historic gathering place, and an industrialized urban waterfront into a richly interconnected ecosystem.
For generations, the land that is now downtown Sault Ste. Marie was home to a thriving Métis community. The community was organized into river-lots that gave each family access to the river for travel, harvesting and economic activity. Families kept their animals communally in the area behind their homes and harvested maple sugar in spring along the escarpment. In the mid 1850s, Métis families were displaced from their lands, breaking promises by the Crown agent that their lands would be protected. Despite this injustice, the community continues to call Sault Ste. Marie home.
By sharing Métis perspectives on reciprocity and sustainable practices, the interpretive tours also advance the Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy’s work to promote watershed awareness and greater environmental understanding.
“The Métis story inextricably connects culture with ecology,” says McGuffin. “Indigenous people have been able to live with the land and care for our water for thousands of years, because it’s been a reciprocal relationship.”
Tour participants can choose to join a Walking Tour or get on the water with a Walking & Paddling Tour. Both tours travel to the city’s scenic waterfront from the Sault Ste. Marie Métis Cultural Centre—a first of its kind in Ontario. Tours last two hours and are led by a Métis interpretive guide, giving visitors a fascinating glimpse into traditional and contemporary Métis life.
Paddling Tour participants board a Big Canoe—a replica of the 36-foot birch-bark canoes that once freighted furs and trade goods between Montreal and Lake Superior—to learn how the St. Marys River is central to both the story of Sault Ste. Marie, and the Indigenous communities who live here.
McGuffin believes passionately in the power of the Big Canoe to bring people together to share ideas and cultural understanding. In 2019, the Conservancy founded a new program called Canoes for Conservation, and she points to the Big Canoe’s stability, inclusivity and accessibility for non-paddlers and multi-generational groups of all ages.
A highlight of the hour-long canoe portion of the journey is “locking through” the historic Sault Canal. Paddlers then venture onto the mighty St. Marys River—comparable in size and power to the Niagara River—feeling the spray of the rapids and the tug of the current beneath their hull. “It’s very tactile,” says McGuffin, “you have a paddle in your hands, you’re able to feel the water, listen to the water. It’s incredible how far into the rapids you can go—people are amazed by the experience.”
For the Métis Nation of Ontario, the tours are “an outstanding opportunity to grow Indigenous tourism in the north and advance reconciliation,” says community leader, historian and MNO Huron-Superior Regional Councillor, Mitch Case.
“In order to have that reconciliation conversation, Canadians need to understand who we are and what matters to us as a community,” he continues. By connecting across cultures, “we are protecting and preserving our unique heritage and world view.”
Lauren Towell is one of five young Métis community members who joined the interpretive guide team this summer. “The connections I share with the water resonate profoundly with the very fabric of my Métis heritage,” she says. “I take great pride in the task of sharing our story, ensuring that it endures for generations to come.”
Walking tour guide, Jake Chalmers, agrees, “Caring for our forests and wildlife is integral to caring for our Métis culture. Being a tour guide helps me to celebrate and share knowledge about both.”
The tours visit numerous sites of great importance to the Métis community. In just a couple short hours, participants come to understand how connection to the river and love for their ancestors empowers the Métis community here—and what it can teach all of us.
For those visiting the city for the first time, the interpretive tours are also a great way to discover the Soo’s top scenic and cultural attractions.
As we stroll towards the river and the leafy promenades of Parks Canada’s Sault Ste. Marie Canal National Historic Site, McGuffin and I pass the Agawa Canyon Tour Train Station and Algoma Conservatory of Music. Housed in a refurbished, century-old sandstone building of the former St. Marys Paper Mill, The Loft is reported to have acoustics rivaling Massey Hall.
Outside, we see a re-creation of the rudimentary locks the voyageurs used to shuttle their Big Canoes around the Whitefish Rapids. Nearby, the weekly Mill Market hosts local food vendors and artisans where a Hudson’s Bay Company Post once stood.
As we walk, McGuffin tells me about the hidden river, where Fort Creek flows unseen beneath the city. She relates how downtown Sault Ste. Marie, from Bay Street to the river, is built entirely on reclaimed shoreline. “It’s not just about what we can see, it’s also what we can’t see,” she says. “When we don’t look at where water comes from and where it goes, we feel no responsibility for what happens along its journey.”
Before returning to the Métis Cultural Centre, we pause at the mouth of Fort Creek, marveling at the resilience and tenacity of water. The story of a people can be like a river that way—sometimes unseen, but always flowing steady and strong.
Friday and Saturday mornings at 10:30 a.m.
Available late June–late September
Tours are 2 hours/5 km in duration
Cost is $50/adult or $25/student, group rate (max. 10 people) $350
Guided Walking & Paddling Tour
Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 5 p.m.
Available late June–late September
Tours are 2 hours/7 km in duration
Cost is $90/adult or $45/student, group rate (max. 12 people) $675
All paddling safety equipment is included
Celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision acknowledging the Metis Nation as a distinct Indigenous culture in Canada with a visit to the newly opened Métis Cultural Centre at 136 John Street.
By Conor Mihell
It’s no surprise that a community located in the heart of the Great Lakes would embrace all forms of paddlesports. Not only is Sault Ste. Marie the gateway city for some of the best coastal sea kayaking and wilderness canoeing in Canada, it also boasts amazing options for paddling minutes from downtown. Regardless if you’re passionate about standup paddleboarding, canoe tripping, sea kayaking, whitewater or recreational kayaking, there’s something for you in Sault Ste. Marie.
The Sault College Waterfront Adventure Centre is a community hub on the shore of the St. Marys River. Not only does the gorgeous facility feature a cafe with amazing views, the Waterfront Adventure Centre rents canoes, kayaks and standup paddleboards to explore the historic waterway that has always been central to Sault Ste. Marie’s raison d’etre. Evening is the best time of day for a paddleboard tour on the St. Marys River. Head east (downstream), past the Pine Street Marina, hugging the shore to appreciate the wildlife-rich wetlands of Bellevue Park, watching for ducks, mink and beaver. Rounding the isthmus of Topsail Island provides a new perspective on the city’s most popular park. If you time it right you’ll be graced with a spectacular sunset over the International Bridge on your way back.
Thrive Tours, a local Indigenous nature-based tour operator, offers guided canoe trips from the Waterfront Adventure Centre. These beginner-friendly outings share the full story of how the St. Marys River has supported life since time immemorial.
A downriver trip on the Goulais River, located just north of Sault Ste. Marie, is a springtime rite of passage for whitewater paddlers. This section of river requires high water, and the section from Mountainview Lodge on Highway 556 to the Highway 552 bridge can be done in as little as 4 hours thanks to a steady current. It’s best to make it a day trip to enjoy the Goulais’s soaring, pine-clad hills and great wildlife, including moose, waterfowl and beaver. This section includes Class I and II rapids, as well as plenty of swift water, making it suitable for novice whitewater paddlers–just make sure you travel with companions and dress for cold water temperatures. Stay at the nearby Bellevue Valley Lodge and pack a lunch to enjoy on one of the Goulais’s many gravel bars. As water levels decrease in late May and early June this section is great for anglers, with abundant walleye and smallmouth bass, as well as the possibility of rainbow- and brook trout.
Forest the Canoe offer guided nature tours on the lakes and rivers in the area, as well as on Lake Superior.
You won’t find a more remote–and picture perfect–retreat than Norm’s Cabin, tucked away in the Precambrian hills of the Algoma Highlands, north of Sault Ste. Marie. This off-grid cabin is located in Goulais River, a half-hour drive north of Sault Ste. Marie, and is accessible only by food or mountain bike. Rental comes with access to a canoe, and the freedom to explore gem-like lakes atop the rooftop of Ontario. Norm’s is popular for couples, families and getaways with friends. Contact Blaq Bear Eco Adventure Routes to plan your stay.
The hamlet of Gros Cap at the end of Highway 550, only 20 minutes west of Sault Ste. Marie, marks the eastern terminus of Lake Superior. An official launch on the Lake Superior Water Trail (a segment of the Trans Canada Trail) includes an accessibility dock, outhouses, picnic area and kayak storage locker. Paddling west provides an immediate glimpse of Lake Superior’s rugged shoreline: you’ll encounter spectacular cliffs, gravel beaches and a vast, open horizon along the 10-km section to Red Rock. Be sure to check the weather conditions in advance; this exposed stretch of shoreline is suitable for experienced paddlers only, with sea kayaks, sprayskirts and safety gear to mitigate the risk of cold water.
Central Algoma is a bucolic landscape of maple, oak and pine forests and small inland lakes, just east of Sault Ste. Marie. There are several public parks accessible via Highway 638, a quiet secondary route between Echo Bay and Bruce Mines, with great options for canoeing and recreational kayaking on calm and sheltered water. Visit Old Mill Beach Park on Rock Lake to discover a family-friendly waterfront for swimming and quiet paddling at the mouth of the meandering Thessalon River; this area is especially attractive to birders and naturalists, with a wide variety of song- and shorebirds and aquatic mammals. The Central Algoma Freshwater Coalition has produced an adventure map highlighting paddling and other outdoor activities throughout the region.
It’s amazing to discover a quiet, scenic, wilderness canoe route on Crown land barely 30 minutes from downtown Sault Ste. Marie. The Jarvis Circle Route is a perfect long-weekend getaway for novice and intermediate paddlers. The journey begins at a small public launch on Northland Lake, located off of Highway 556. A series of rugged portages (watch for discrete yellow signs to mark most) links nearly a dozen secluded lakes with many options for primitive camping, including Jarvis, Reserve and Crooked lakes—all of which boast excellent fishing for trout. This is a great area to practice your canoe tripping skills and get a taste of the wilderness of Northern Ontario.
Whether you’re road-tripping through Northern Ontario or looking for somewhere to get away for the day, Sault Ste. Marie is the perfect place for family adventure! There are so many exciting things to do in Sault Ste. Marie, from biking and boating to eating delicious treats and enjoying local artwork! With all these great places to visit in Sault Ste. Marie (nicknamed “the Soo”), this will be a day that everyone in the family will love!
Start your day off with some coffee from The Machine Shop and then head over to the Soo Canal. When the lock was built here in 1895, it was the longest in all of Canada. Today, pleasure watercraft are transported up and down the river through the lock to bypass the St. Marys River Rapids. Here you can enjoy watching the boats lock through as you walk along the canal.
Next, grab your bicycles and get ready to explore the Sault Ste. Marie waterfront. Bikes can be rented at the canal or from the Roberta Bonda marina in town during summer months.
Take one of the bridges across the canal lock gates to get over to Whitefish Island. Bike or hike along trails and boardwalks as you take in views of the rapids along St. Marys River. You can learn about the island’s culture and history by reading the information signs along the trail. Make sure you also keep a lookout for the fairy doors painted around the island!
The main loop will take a family with young kids around 45 minutes to complete by bike or an hour hiking. Side trails are available if you want to extend your adventure – like going under the international bridge! There are plenty of trail maps to keep you on track.
After exploring Whitefish Island, you can continue your bike ride or stroll along the John Rowswell Hub trail. This beautiful trail & boardwalk provides you with amazing views of the St. Marys River as you pass significant landmarks along the waterfront. Stop to eat a sweet treat at BeaverTails located right on the boardwalk and enjoy the lively atmosphere.
The whole loop is 22.5km and a great ride for the adventurous family, but equally, you can divide and conquer smaller sections too. The Fort Creek section is a beautiful 6km there-and-back trail with three awesome bridges that take you high over the ravine below. Parking is available at the south end.
Next, head into town to get some lunch or continue along the Hub Trail to Bellevue Park to enjoy a picnic. With 7 separate playground structures, Bellevue Park is a kid’s dream come true. Along with its impressive playgrounds, the park also includes a splash pad, beautiful paths along the waterfront and picnic areas.
Now it’s time to experience Sault Ste. Marie from the St. Marys River! You can launch your canoe or kayaks from the accessible boat launch located at Bellevue Marina, making it easy for you to get in the water and explore the river. Don’t have your own boat? No problem! Canoes and kayaks can be rented from the Waterfront Adventure Centre or from Thrive Tours who operate from the same building.
After enjoying your time on the water, head downtown to see the incredible mural artwork around Sault Ste. Marie. These murals have been painted by local and visiting artists, adding vibrant character to the city! If you are visiting during the month of June, you can watch new murals being painted as part of the Summer Moon Festival.
While you’re downtown, be sure to stop by Elliot’s Ice Cream for a treat that not only tastes delicious but also looks like a work of art!
Crystal Falls is located in Kinsmen Park at the North edge of Sault Ste. Marie. The falls are a short walk from the parking lot and can be accessed by walking along a wooden boardwalk. The amazing views keep coming as you walk up a series of steps to viewing platforms and experience the many layers of this waterfall.
If you have time, you can continue your hike along some of the many great trails nearby into the Hiawatha Highlands and the Voyageur trail system.
Now it’s time to relax while eating supper at one of the many delicious restaurants in town. Finish off your day by watching the sunset over the St. Marys River and then get some well deserved rest at one of Sault Ste. Marie’s hotels.
After such a great day of family fun and activities, the whole family will want to come back and do it all again! Sault Ste. Marie is the perfect place for family adventure.