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Agawa Canyon, Ontario

A view of Agawa Canyon Wilderness Park from the Lookout Trail observation platform, by Dustin M. Ramsay, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The Algoma Central Railway line parallels the Agawa River through the middle of the gorge.

Other photos in this article by Henry Kisor,

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SAULT STE. MARIE, Ontario -- "This is a canyon, Madge?"

"Guess so, Harold. But it sure don't look awful big."

When I saw it for the first time earlier this month, I understood why so many opinions express vague disappointment in Agawa Canyon, one of Ontario's most famous wilderness sights, and in the Algoma Central railroad that brings tourists up from Sault Ste. Marie. The experience is simply not what many clueless folks expect.

As geological spectacles go, Agawa Canyon is hardly as vast as the Grand Canyon or lordly as Mexico's Copper Canyon. The tree-clad granite walls of the shallow gorge deep in the Canadian Shield 114 rail miles north of Sault Ste. Marie rise only 575 feet above the Agawa River, a beautiful but bucolic stream that pales beside the mighty and perilous Colorado River or the broad and tranquil Rio Fuerte.

For sheer beauty and historical interest, however, Agawa Canyon Wilderness Park easily equals its rivals. The canyon is an extraordinarily pretty place. Waterfalls slash through the greenery on the canyon's rim, and vivid wildflowers greet hikers on a series of short nature trails radiating from the railroad station platform at the floor of the park.

It was first formed from a fault in the earth's mantle 1.2 billion years ago, and over the last million or so years a series of ice ages whittled and polished the split and deposited sediments that now underlie the deep boreal forest blanketing the gorge's terraced sides.

Ever since 1911, the place has been a stop on the 296-mile Algoma Central Railway from Sault Ste. Marie to the terminus at Hearst in northern Ontario. Early on, northbound passengers from the Soo would get off in the gorge for a picnic, and return later in the day on the southbound train from Hearst. By the 1950s the place had become so popular that the railroad cleared picnic areas on the grounds by the river, and in 1972 it started up the Agawa Canyon Tour Train with a dedicated set of cars to transport tourists to and from the Soo on the same day.

Tour Train arrives at Sault Ste. Marie

F40 locomotive No. 106, built in 1978 for Amtrak and later sold to the Rio Grande Ski Train operation that carried winter sports enthusiasts  from Denver to Winter Park, Colorado, arrived on the Algoma Central Ry. when the Ski Train folded in 2009. It still sports Rio Grande livery and barely painted-over Ski Train lettering.

Closeup of ex-Ski Train F40

My trip to the canyon as a guest of the railroad began on a cloudy morning in late July. At 7:30 a.m. a six-car train, its locomotives facing out from either end so that they would not have to be switched at the canyon, slowly backed into the Algoma Central Depot in downtown Sault Ste. Marie. The depot lies conveniently just across the street from the Quality Inn, where I'd stayed the previous night.

Immediately my eye was drawn to the locomotive hauling in the train -- clearly a refugee from the historic old Rio Grande Ski Train and still in bright yellow-and-silver colors. It had been working for the Algoma Central only a short time, and presumably it will soon be freshly repainted in vivid AC maroon, silver and yellow, like its brother on the other end of the train, F40 No. 105.

AC F40 in new colors

This is the way a locomotive dedicated to the Agawa Canyon run ought to look. That morning No. 105 served as the lead engine pulling the Tour Train northward out of Sault Ste. Marie.

The car just behind the locomotive was, I knew from my pre-trip homework, also a hand-me-down from the Colorado mountain railroad, but it reportedly had been rebuilt, repainted and re-equipped over the winter as part of a relaunching of the Tour Train service. Three other similarly refurbished former Ski Train coaches and two ancient Algoma Central cars, one a coach and the other a diner, made up the midsection of the train.

Agawa Canyon Tour Train Coach No. 1

No. 1,
Achigan Lake, is one of three former Rio Grande Ski Train coaches on the train. Like the locomotives on either end, it was refurbished and repainted over the winter.

As I boarded Achigan Lake, the first car, I was immediately struck by the huge new windows the railroad had installed earlier in the year. They were clear and spotless, excellent for photography from the train (Canadian railroads, like Amtrak, don't allow shooting from open vestibule windows). The ceiling, walls and carpeting were fresh and new. The upholstery on the seats was in fine shape, only a few handrests slightly worn. But what truly caught my eye were the flat-screen video monitors mounted at strategic places throughout the car.

Interior of Achigan Lake

Soon after the train promptly departed the Soo at 8 a.m., the Tour Train logos on the monitors changed to a series of historic photographs accompanying a brand-new audio narration about the building of the Soo Locks. This audio is GPS-driven, each segment triggered by changes in location as the train rolls on, and the marketing department of the Canadian National Railway (owner of the Algoma Central) very kindly gave me a printed script. (It is available to other deaf and hearing-impaired riders, I was told, when they book their tickets.)

It's a fair pull -- as many as three and a half hours -- up to the canyon from the Soo, and this narration not only helps pass the time (for long, long stretches, one sees only tall green columns of trees out the windows) but also is quite engrossing. The history of the Great Lakes, the Sault and the hardy settlers -- some of them powerful industrialists -- who struggled to carve their fortunes out of them is worth knowing, and the audio vividly conveys Canada's pride in its heritage.

Typical window view on the trip

For long stretches, trees, trees and more trees make up the view out the windows.

I couldn't help thinking, however, that Harold and Madge probably would not be interested. This is not a good trip for the incurious and uneducable, those who consider Meteor Crater just a big hole in the ground and McDonald's the place to be at lunchtime. Better they visit Disneyland or the Wisconsin Dells instead. (Children, in my view, will enjoy the experience if they're self-contained enough to amuse themselves -- or be amused -- for hours.)

From time to time the audio narration would pause and the monitors shift to an engineer's-eye view of the tracks. Very quickly I discovered that one could spot oncoming trestle ties ahead and get one's camera ready for a fleeting sight of a stream or small lake as it flashed past the window. There are lots of those, and the audio tells you when many are coming up, but that camera in the locomotive helps a photographer's timing.

Engineer's-eye video

The engineer's view ahead is visible on 196 flat-screen monitors throughout the train.

View from a trestle

From time to time the walls of trees would part for a brief but glorious view from a trestle.

As the morning lengthened, I wondered when the passengers in my car would be called to in the dining car for breakfast. On boarding the train, I had told the attendant that I was deaf and needed to be informed of important announcements, but she never stopped by to tell me about the dining car call. I stifled my irritation and cravings with a muffin and apple liberated earlier from the Quality Inn's breakfast bar. (To be fair, the attendant did come by before the train arrived at Agawa Canyon to make sure I knew the exact hour of its departure for the return trip.)

Later on I decided to have a look at the diner and made my way back through two more refurbished ex-Ski Train coaches and Algoma Central Coach No. 5655, a veteran stainless steel leg-rest streamliner car (two seats on one side, one on the other) I later learned had been built in 1953 for the Santa Fe Railway, then inherited by Amtrak before going on to the Algoma Central.

Then I came to Diner 506. One look inside told me that this is not a luxotrain carriage with Cordon Bleu cuisine, but a spartan and tidy ham-and-eggs lunch-counter sort of dining car that serves sturdy Canadian Road Food much like that in the States. (It accepts U.S. currency, by the way, but gives you Canadian change. I went home with a pocketful of loonies and toonies, the Canadian $1 and $2 coins.)

Diner 506 interior

The diner was spartan and spotless, but a long way from its California Zephyr days.

AC Diner 506

Those boards once read "Burlington Route" and "Silver Pheasant."

The diner turned out to have quite a heritage. It was originally built for the old Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad in 1938 as the Silver Pheasant and ran for many years on that historic railroad's name trains, including the storied original California Zephyr, my most favorite train of all. I must confess to a bit of frisson upon learning that not only was this car two years older than me and still soldiering on in revenue service, but also that I just might have had supper in it back in 1956 when as a teen-age skier I rode a Zephyr from Chicago to Denver.

Late in the morning I opted for a $11.50 catered box lunch delivered from the diner containing ham and cheese on a Kaiser roll, an hard-boiled egg, carrot and celery sticks, a brownie and bottled water (tuna salad or veggie and cheese were the other options). Inasmuch as I had missed most of breakfast, I fell upon the lunch at my seat well before the train arrived at Agawa Canyon, where many passengers chose to open theirs at the park's picnic tables and others stayed aboard to eat in the diner. The sandwich was quite tasty.

Trout Lake

Trout Lake at Mile 57 of the 114-mile journey, one of the larger lakes along the route. It is, the on-board audio narration said, famed for its history as a firefighting base.

Onward the train rolled, the audio narration sharing with passengers the story of the Group of Seven, a celebrated cadre of Ontario artists who beginning in 1918 spent "that summer camping up and down the line, trying to capture the rhythms and moods of the land in their sketchbooks." During the next decade, the narration said, they created "the roots of a distinctive and uniquely Canadian style of painting that somehow captured in its stark forms and bold blocks of colour something essential in the spirit of this ancient and lonely land." Their images "would shape forever the way we Canadians see ourselves as a people and a nation."

House at Mongoose Lake

Small settlers' houses, now summer vacation lodges, abound along the line. This one is on Mongoose Lake at Mile 75.5.

The Tour Train is not the Algoma Central's only train. The railroad also fields a regular triweekly train between the Sault and Hearst, 296 miles north. This summer, it departs the Soo at 9:30 a.m. and arrives at Hearst at 6:10 p.m. Just about every lodge along the line can be reached only by train and hence is a flag stop for the regular train. The Algoma Central markets a "Tour of the Line," a 592-mile trip to Hearst and back.

Approaching Montreal Trestle

At Mile 92, the train slows to give passengers a good look at the 130-foot-high, 1,550-foot-long curved steel trestle at the dam over the Montreal River.

west view of montreal river

Below the Montreal River dam lies a hydroelectric station that supplies power to Sault Ste. Marie and the surrounding area.

View of Lake Superior

At Mile 102, there is a good view of Lake Superior five miles in the distance as the train begins its 500-foot descent to Agawa Canyon down a steep 10-mile grade of 1.3 per cent.

Agawa River

Near Mile 110, the train traverses a trestle spanning the Agawa River, stained brownish by cedar bark.

Bridal Veil Falls 1

As the train approached the entry to the park we spotted 225-foot Bridal Veil Falls ahead.

Bridal Veil Falls 2

The train trundled close by Bridal Veil Falls as it slowed for the station in the park.

At Agawa Canyon station 1

The train at Agawa Canyon station. Some passengers debarked to picnic or hike, but others chose to stay for lunch in the dining car during the 90-minute stop before the 1:30 p.m. departure back to the Soo.

There is a steep hike up the side of the canyon to a lookout some 250 feet above the tracks, where the Wikimedia Commons photograph that begins this article was taken, but I'm too much of a gimp to negotiate the more than 300 steps. Instead, I started out on the leisurely 30-minute (round trip) trek along a wide graveled path to Black Beaver Falls and made it about halfway before discovering that the trail took a long drop down to the river. I didn't think I could negotiate the upward return at my slow bum-knees pace before the train pulled out, so turned around and hobbled back to the station.

At Agawa Station 2
Above the locomotive lies the lookout where Dustin Ramsay took his photo of the park.

Gift shop car at Agawa Station

This ancient coach provides the gift shop for the park. Inside lie the usual displays of tourist T-shirts and gimcracks.

For half an hour I sat out on a picnic bench, drinking in the comely vistas until 1 p.m., then returned to the train for a soda in the dining car. Passengers were still lunching, and in the coaches quite a few bored-looking Harolds and Madges played rummy and cribbage. The trail adventurers slowly straggled back, many of them exclaiming about the gorgeous scenery, and the southbound Agawa Canyon Tour Train departed on the dot at 1:30.

Return trip upgrade

The old yellow F40 worked hard pulling the train out of Agawa Canyon
back up the steep grade
, so much so that it imitated a steam locomotive.

I sat on the other side of the train for the return trip and spent the time capturing sights with my camera, growing weary only for the last long green-walled hour through the approach to the Soo. "You seen one pine tree," goes the saying, "you seen 'em all." As  I began to sympathize with that sentiment, the train pulled in to the downtown depot some 40 minutes early. It appears that the Algoma Central pads its schedule as shamelessly as do Amtrak and VIA Rail, but that's an inescapable feature of modern North American transportation, even air travel.

Was the Agawa Canyon adventure worth the long drive to the Soo? (I had driven six hours from Ontonagon in the western Upper Peninsula.) It most certainly was, and I'm not speaking as a hopeless railfan -- although any kind of train buff would love checking this ride off the bucket list. The experience, thanks to this region's wilderness beauty, its colorful history and the thoughtful audio narration that celebrates it, is one of the best I've ever had on a tourist train.

I do think, however, that certain friends who advised me to ride the train not in the summer but instead during the spectacular fall colors or in January, when the trip to Agawa Canyon is called the Snow Train, know what they're talking about. I plan to return some day in the autumn or winter and take another ride -- maybe even the Tour of the Line with an overnight in Hearst.

Tour Train herald

I should mention that the Tour Train is not the only tourist attraction on either side of the Soo. There are art galleries, mountain resorts, museums (including a museum ship), historic sites, a zoo, a bushplane museum, a casino and (on the American side) boats that carry tourists through the locks. You could spend a week here without running out of amusements.

As a former private pilot I just had to see the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre on the St. Mary's River downtown in the original hangar where waterbombing was developed. Of the 30 historic aircraft on display, three unfamiliar examples stood out -- a huge Canadair CL-215 seaplane waterbomber, a brawny Noorduyn Norseman bushplane on floats from the pre-World War II era, and probably the most beautiful biplane airliner ever built, a de Havilland D.H. 98 Dragon Rapide from the 1930s.

Noorduyn Norseman
A Noorduyn Norseman occupies a favored spot in the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre.

Canadair CL-415
The Canadair CL-215 "Scooper" was a twin-engined waterbomber developed in the 1960s for scooping up a load of wet ordnance from lakes and dumping it on forest fires.

De Havilland Dragon Rapide
The de Havilland Dragon Rapide, perhaps the most striking short-haul airliner ever built.

The day before taking the train ride, I arrived at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, early enough in the day to hop aboard a tour boat for the Soo Locks -- an experience no tourist should miss. Downtown there is a free covered grandstand along mighty MacArthur Lock, a good way to get an overview of the locking operation, but the boat ride is unbeatable for a closeup. The little Nokomis chugged into Poe Lock just to the north of the MacArthur, and within 20 minutes had been raised 21 feet to Lake Superior level. It returned to its dock east of downtown through the historic Sault Ste. Marie Canal on the Canadian side, a century-old lock that now handles only pleasure and tour boats.

MacArthur Lock

An oceangoing tanker enters MacArthur Lock on the American side of the Soo. In the background lies the International Bridge to Canada.

Soo tour boat Nokomis

The Nokomis is one of several tour boats on the American side of the Soo.

Poe Lock

View forward from the Nokomis as it approaches Poe Lock, open to the St. Mary's River 21 feet below the level of Whitefish Bay and Lake Superior.

Poe Lock open to Lake Superior

The gates of Poe Lock open and its guard boom rises before the Nokomis chugs out into the lake. A freighter waits to negotiate MacArthur Lock, a tugboat snugging it against the quay.

If you go:

By automobile from the U.S., Sault Ste. Marie is reachable from the west by Michigan Highway M-28 and from the south by Interstate 75, which runs into the International Bridge (toll $3, both U.S. and Canadian). From Canada, Ontario Highway 17 brings travelers from the east and north.

By air, several airlines fly into both the U.S. and Canadian airports on either side of the Soo.

Ticket and schedule information on the Agawa Canyon tour train is available at Summer fares: Adults, $79; seniors (age 60 up), $70; youths 5-18, $35;  children 2-4, $30; under 2, free. Fall fares (Sept. 10 to Oct. 10) are markedly higher. Be sure to check out the motel-and-train packages, which afford a considerable savings.

Ticket and schedule information on the Soo Locks boat tours can be found at Fares: Adults, $22; youths 5-12, $10.50; 4 and under, free. Dinner cruises are available.

See the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre for general information. Tickets: Adults $10.50, seniors $9.50, students $5, and children, $2. Hours: Daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. mid-May through mid-October; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. the rest of the year.

An excellent source of general information on the Canadian side of the Soo as well as the Tour Train is at Be sure to click on the colorful Visitors Guide for a full rundown of all attractions.

And don't forget your passport!

Other links:

Please visit my blogs:  The Reluctant Blogger  and The Whodunit Photographer

Also see my books website,

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