We're dabbling in pharology in Northern Ontario.
I have an announcement that might shock my readers: My husband is a pharologist. But not to worry! While it may sound ominous, a pharologist is not the same as a philanderer - not even close! A pharalogist's love affairs are confined to lighthouses and pharology is the scientific study of lighthouses and signal lights.
Ryan's pharaological tendencies are strictly of the amateur kind, falling in love with lighthouses all around the world. But we don't have to travel far from home to see them. Canada has hundreds of lighthouses - and not all of them are on the ocean coast! A handful call Ryan's childhood stomping ground of the mighty Lake Superior home and one in particular, Thunder Bay's Porphyry Lighthouse, is an especially fine destination.
It takes only a glimpse of a storm on Lake Superior to realize why lighthouses are such a crucial component of safety and navigation here. The lake can be as treacherous as the ocean when conditions turn rough and lighthouses (and their keepers) have been guiding fishing vessels, cargo ships, and more for over a century.
Like the majority of Canadian lighthouses, Porphyry Lighthouse is now an automated facility and is no longer staffed with by a dedicated keeper. But it has found itself some new keepers, of a sort, in the form of the Canadian Lighthouses of Lake Superior organization. This volunteer driven group takes on daunting restoration, preservation, and promotion projects in order to save the region's light keeping heritage. And it's thanks in large part to their team that the hiking paths are now in good condition around Porphyry. Hiking around a lighthouse? It's definitely possible - and you DON'T have to swim there to get started!
Porphyry Island, and its namesake lighthouse, are less than 50 kilometers from the city of Thunder Bay and it's accessible by chartered boat, as part of an adventure tour, or even by helicopter and float plane. For the fit and experienced, it can also be accessed by kayak.
In the high season, volunteers are on hand to welcome you to the lighthouse and eagerly show you around the buildings and offer interpretive insights. They're also more than happy to point you in the direction of the hiking trails (which were overgrown until recently).
In addition to the hiking and nature trails, visitors will also find two docks, a boat house, a picnic area - and also a cemetery, the final resting space of four members of the same family. The island is a pristine eco-system and the hiking trails traverse the Porphyry Island Provincial Park Nature Reserve. Visitors must bring in all food and drink with them (and are encouraged to take all refuse out).
Superior slumbers: Thunder Bay accommodations
If one day doesn't feel like enough or if the romantic pull of pharology beckons you to linger just a bit longer, you can actually stay overnight in the lighthouse keeper's former home. It's a three-bedroom home which can accommodate up to 6 people and has a full working kitchen and running water. (Again, guests must bring their own food and drink). Rates are $200 a night for non-members. A more rustic yet affordable option is to bring your own tent and camp for about $20 a night. You can make reservations for both here.
If you're a day tripper with limited time, there's a host of more mainstream accommodations in Thunder Bay itself (though, really, it's hard to match the atmosphere of being a lighthouse resident for a night!) Our personal choice for hotels in Thunder Bay is the Holiday Inn Express. Ever since we stayed at one in Singapore, we've been really pleased with what the chain has to offer. For us, it's the perfect balance of value for money, comfort, and extra little travel perks (like stylish and clever room design and a hot breakfast).
Thunder Bay also has a good selection of privately owned motels and 2 to 3-star chain hotels (like Comfort Inn, Days Inns, etc) that are budget friendly choices.
Things to do in Thunder Bay
You simply can't visit Thunder Bay without taking a moment to visit the Terry Fox Monument. This statue, just a few miles from where Canadian athlete and activist Terry Fox was forced to stop his "Marathon of Hope" in 1980, pays tribute to Fox's courage and determination. It's an inspiring and moving monument, made even more touching by the beautiful panoramic views. Friends with children report that it's also a very kid friendly stop and that there are great washrooms on site -a real road trip plus.
Kids (and big kids) will also feel very welcome at the Fort William Historical Park. This interactive historic site takes you back to 1816 when Fort William was an important fur trading post. Plan on spending several hours to check everything out.
If the weather isn't cooperating (or if you simply want some treats to bring with you to Porphyry Island), visit the Thunder Oak Cheese Farm. (You didn't think I could go a whole blog post without mentioning cheese, did you?) Poutine lovers will gravitate towards the homemade cheese curds, but I think the real treat here is the smoked Gouda.
No matter your chosen activity, please take our top piece of advice to heart: keep an eye out for animals. Moose in particular call Thunder Bay, and most of Northern Ontario, home and you never know when they'll make an appearance!
You don't have to be a full-fledged pharologist to fall in love with lighthouses - or with Thunder Bay! This is a beautiful part of country, a must-stop destination for anyone making a classic cross-Canadian journey or any traveler looking to get in touch with unspoiled nature and history.
If you enjoyed this article, you'll also like:
Northeastern Ontario's Best Hikes
Pioneering Pride in Otterville Ontario
The Art of Camping in the Rain