On the deer trail

Elliot Lake’s got it all: 4,000 lakes, acres of new and old growth forests, rugged rock faces and rushing white rapids – all accessible from this modern city of 14,500 people halfway between Sudbury and Sault St. Marie on the north shore of Lake Huron.

The best way to explore this pristine beauty is by following the 120-kilometre Deer Trail. Although you could drive the well-paved circular route in about two hours, stopping to enjoy the varied attractions could easily take a week.

The fun begins at the intersection of the Trans-Canada Highway and Highway 108, where you’ll find the Trailhead Visitors’ Centre (look for the lifelike deer sculptures “grazing” on the grounds). Inside, interactive video screens provide the low-down on points of interest, nature trails, rest stops and boat launches. Picnic tables entice visitors to stop for lunch before continuing northwest along Highway 108. Beige signs, depicting a deer’s head, mark the route.

Depot Lake, the next stop, is a good place to launch a canoe or a boat for a spot of trout fishing. In spring, pink lady’s slippers – the flower, not the footwear – carpet the area, and osprey and bald eagles soar overhead.&lt/p

Plan to spend at least three days in Elliot Lake, the next stop. We stayed at Inn on the Lake, one of the town’s three hotels, attracted by the promise of smoke-free rooms and breakfast waffles with fresh berries and St. Joseph’s Island maple syrup.

Elliot Lake boasts several good restaurants. The Viking serves English-style fish and chips; Country Nook offers soups, sandwiches, quiche and a decadent chocolate raspberry pie served in a pretty tearoom decorated with dried floral wreaths. For something a little more upscale, there’s JY Truffles with its gourmet cuisine and a setting to match.

The best way to work off all those calories is by hiking the 4.5-kilometre Firetrail Lookout, also a splendid way of learning the lay of the land. At its peak (also accessible by car), there’s a replica fire ranger’s lookout offering panoramic view as far as the North Channel of Lake Huron, Manitoulin Island and the U.S. mainland – on a clear day, that is.

For a snapshot of the city’s history, visit the Mining and Nuclear Museum in the Civic Centre. A reconstructed prospector’s camp – complete with tent, cast iron frying pan on the fire, shovels and claim posts – recalls the primitive days of mining. Visitors see samples of uranium ore and learn how it was converted to “yellow cake” and pellets to power Candu reactors. The Civic Centre also houses a 364-seat theatre which hosts concerts, Monte Carlo evenings and performances by celebrities such as Buffy Sainte Marie.

Every September, the Deer Trail Studio Tour showcases the talents of Elliot Lake’s artists’ community in lodges and shops along the route. Last year, the sixth annual show featured the works of 30 gifted artists, including Steve Hearns’ striking black and white abstract Native art; Elizabeth Creith’s handwoven textiles made from angora wool from her own rabbits.

A fun way to experience the area’s abundance of wildlife or to appreciate its natural beauty is to join one of the regular free excursions of the Penokean Hills Naturalists’ Club. Just check The Standard for the location of their next meeting. It could be a wildflower-identification hike, a birdwatching excursion or rockhounding. During our visit, we joined a stargazing group, led by Hans Uhl, connecting-the-dots of the constellations and watching the sky come alive with the dance of the Northern Lights.

Members sometimes stage events in the amphitheatre at Mississagi Provincial Park, a 4,900-hectare sanctuary (and the fifth stop on the Deer Trail) cobwebbed with trails, ranging from the easy one-kilometre Flack Lake Trail to the challenging 25-kilometre Mckenzie Trail.

Laurentian Lodge, where we stayed, is just outside the park on Highway 639. Early one morning, as the mist rose over Mikel Lake, we paddled our canoes through the lily pads to Wilkie Falls. Back in the white pine dining room, we indulged in a hearty breakfast by the massive fireplace.

Afterwards we relaxed in our modern, cathedral-ceilinged chalet then splashed down the natural body slide in the pool by the falls and hiked the trails with Moxy, the lodge’s English setter. Our base for the rest of the Deer Trail was Frontier Lodge, in a cabin overlooking McElrea Lake. Every winter, owner Betty Middleton hosts two wild game weekends, which draw visitors to a feast that includes roast wild boar and venison, rabbit fricassee and partridge in red wine.

We next met Howie Hennessey, of Paradise North, for a brook trout fishing expedition. “There are lakes in this region that have never seen a fisherman,” says Howie. No cottages, signs or litter marred the pristine surroundings. “It’s illegal to build even a cabin on any of our Class A trout lakes,” he adds. While we were content to troll for trout from Howie’s boat, ardent devotees fly into outpost fish camps.

Between Blind River and Spragge, the Deer Trail parallels the North Channel of Lake Huron. Heralded as the third best freshwater sailing area in the world, the 112- by 16-kilometre corridor attracts yachters from both the U.S. and Canada.

The Deer Trail ends in the Serpent River First Nation Reservation. In front of the Trading Post, a rock, suspended by a rope, hangs next to a sign, “Serpent River Weather Station.” It reads: “If rock is wet, it’s raining. If rock is swaying, it’s windy. If rock is hot, it’s sunny. If rock is white, it’s snowing. . . If rock is gone – tornado.”

Inside, you’ll find colourful beadwork, handwoven black ash baskets, leather moccasins, and venison jerky. Look for the dreamcatchers. When you hang them over your bed (or so the legend goes), the spiderweb-like mesh will allow good dreams to pass through, but will entrap any nightmares. Above the cashier a carved wooden sign advises customers of the Trading Post’s policy: “To the Great Spirit credit. All others cash.”