Millennium Post

Vistas in wilderness Agawa Canyon

A trainride through Agawa Canyon near Ontario looks like a journey that came straight from a painting – vivid contrasting colours and surreal suuroundings galore makes it the ideal place to heal from the wears of modern existence

Clear skies and a sunny Ontario morning saw us boarding the train at The Algoma Central station in Sault Ste Marie. We sank into the comfortable seats of the passenger car and were ready to take on the slow, four-hour, 114 miles ride into the Agawa Canyon. Seats in muted red adorned the interior of carriage which was simple yet tasteful in decor. As the train pulled out from the station, the onboard state-of-the-art audio-video system began an interesting and informative commentary on the history of the region and the route we were to traverse.

Agawa Canyon is a fairly shallow area that lies within a transition area between two major forests. It was created 1.2 billion years ago by faulting along the Canadian Shield and was carved larger by the eroding action of the Agawa River and rises 575 feet above the river at its highest point. The boreal forest region on the north and the Great Lakes-St Lawrence Forest Region on the north and east, each with its unique flora and fauna, ensconce the canyon.

We skirted past the city's industrial area and the famed International Bridge before coming upon Northern Ontario wilderness in various shades of green. Our scenic journey began here as we were whisked by a ribbon of steel into a wonderland of pristine vistas. The train snaked past rivers, lakes and wetlands cradled by the undulating terrain of the Canadian Shield, geologically the oldest landscape on the planet, with rock formations as old as four billion years! Seemingly impenetrable foliaceous corridors, punctuated by giant granite rock formations, hug the tracks on both sides as the train leisurely coursed through serpentine tracks, flanked by endless stretches of verdure.

We passed through trestles spanning deep river valleys, glided alongside glistening lakes and rolled along the rails through mammoth rock cuts and vast mystery-shrouded woodlands of the Canadian Shield. The sheer beauty of these heavenward spiking, sensuous slabs of grey-pink granite faces bowled us over. The rugged landscape through which we travelled was dramatic and mesmerising. For miles, we were hemmed in on both sides by towering trees and scrubs that flaunt their lush hues. And then, suddenly, the train shot out into the open, giving us glimpses of wide expanses of water bodies.

It is as if we are riding on the edge between earth and water, journeying through geography and history at once. The locomotive-mounted digital cameras enabled us to have a clear view of the tracks ahead of us on the TV screens in our carriage and the winding course taken by the train. The GPS-triggered tour commentary, broadcast in six languages including English, continued to narrate the rich history of the Algoma region and highlighted the major landmarks along the way. The shutterbug in me was particularly happy with the spotlessly clean and huge windows of the fully air-conditioned coach. I clicked away with my digital device, the endless expanse of changing topography that we were riding through. A mosaic of spectacular views unfolded before us as the track followed the course of the Agawa River.

The carriage embarked on a slow-paced descent, 500 feet into the canyon as we reached mile 102. All of a sudden, our visual delight morphed into a serene and spiritual experience. The track and the river, funnelled between gargantuan granite walls, gently descended into the canyon 12 miles down, making for ecstatic views of the Shield Country.

The train halted at mile 114 for 90 minutes, allowing us to soak in our surroundings and experience the 'jewel' of the tour – Agawa Canyon Park. We detrained and stood in meditative silence for several minutes, awestruck by the compelling beauty and power of nature. The greens of summer were everywhere about us. The canyon, fringed by a medley of trees and shrubs, added to the charm of the ambience. Vast stretches of grassy verge draped in the glitter of emerald and gold enticed us to tread gently on their soft being. The ethereal beauty of the canvas before us had an almost mystical unworldliness about it, an "abstractism" that we 'saw' as much as we felt and experienced! The reflection of vegetation and granite on the tannin-stained Agawa River added further charm to the surreal surrounds. The river gets this colour from the tannic acid leaching out of the root systems and bark of the plethora of cedar trees in the canyon.

We pinched ourselves back to reality as we realised we have little time to explore our surrounds. We walked gravelled trails and climbed up 300-odd steps to reach the jaw-dropping 'lookout', 250 feet above the canyon floor. Our serpentine way up was shadow-swathed and hemmed in by trees of every timber, some woodsy, others densely foliaged in different stages of maturity. Every now and then, a dazzling lance of light cut across the dark wall of trees, many of which were sprouting mushrooms on their trunks. The scene before us was picture-perfect; it was an artist's palette of monochrome with the occasional yellow-ochre shining bright under a midday sun.

Captivating vistas seemed to leap right off the canvases of the Group of Seven. Incidentally, a group of artists who would later call themselves the Group of Seven, Canada's most renowned painters of the 20th century, became inspired by the magical landscape of the canyon and the Algoma region. They lived out of a boxcar in the area and produced some of their most iconic works along the rail line. In doing so, they also made fellow Canadians and the world, aware of the stunning beauty of this part of their country.

Greedy to drink in the tranquil and breathtaking environs, we changed tracks and walked the River Trail, veering inland to click photographs of the Otter Creek Falls, Beaver Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls. With the water lapping and slashing against boulders, the trio of waterfalls transported us to yet another world of pristine beauty with nature's own landscaping. Having sated our senses, we hopped into the souvenir car, a railway carriage so converted to pick up a couple of gifts and memorabilia, before embarking on our return journey.

Disembarking from the train at Sault Ste Marie station, we walked the short distance to the Ste Marie River promenade and sat on one of its benches to relive the mystical environs of the canyon. We did not know when the retiring sun slid off the dark canvas above to give way to a plenitude of stars. As we walked back to our hotel, our hearts were full with the vistas of the day, captured so indelibly by the lens of our eyes.

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