By Conor Mihell
As a medium-sized city located on the doorstep of rugged northern Ontario wilderness and the heart of the Great Lakes, Sault Ste. Marie is rapidly emerging as one of Canada’s best outdoor towns. Locals have always recognized the city’s adventurous charms, which include over 100 kilometres of groomed cross-country ski trails at the Hiawatha Highlands and Stokely Creek Lodge (within a 30-minute drive of downtown); world-class fly fishing on the St. Mary’s River; incredible backcountry skiing at Bellevue Valley Lodge and Searchmont Resort (one of Ontario’s largest downhill ski areas); and easy access to long-distance canoe tripping on countless inland waterways and outstanding sea kayaking on Lake Superior.
The “Soo’s” outdoor cred extends beyond whispers of good fortune and disbelief at local trailheads. A growing number of adventure enthusiasts are relocating to northern Ontario—partly to pursue their passions for the outdoors; also to take advantage of the region’s low-cost, high-standard of living. City Hall has responded by investing in the paved, 22.5-kilometre Hub Trail for cycling, walking and running, and recently embarking on a huge $667,000 plan to develop Ontario’s finest network of mountain bike trails. We tracked down three new arrivals to learn more about why Sault Ste. Marie is an epic place to live and play.
Paddler: Katie Campbell
“I traded the Rocky Mountains for the Great Lakes,” says Katie Campbell, who arrived in Sault Ste. Marie from Calgary in 2003. “My life in Calgary was a very urban existence. I rarely made it out to the mountains and was fully caught up in the day-to-day grind. Sault Ste. Marie allowed me the opportunity to slow down and take stock.”
Campbell started to build “a new dream” the moment she first visited Pancake Bay Provincial Park, less than an hour’s drive from her new hometown. She was captivated by the park’s endless sand beach and Lake Superior’s “pure, clear water.” A few years later, when she discovered sea kayaking on Lake Superior, Campbell says, “I had the feeling I was everything and nothing all at once.”
Today, Campbell is the supervisor of the Sault College Waterfront Adventure Centre, a brand-new facility that offers rental canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards on the St. Mary’s River in downtown Sault Ste. Marie. She insists there’s no better way to fall in love with the region than by getting on the water, experiencing pockets of nature on a historic waterway and dreaming of more paddling adventures.
Trail Runner: Nick Brash
The rugged Algoma hills that cradle Sault Ste. Marie literally reshaped Nick Brash’s life. Five years ago, when he moved north from southern Ontario for a work opportunity, Brash was self-described overweight and unhealthy. His doctor warned him of the prospects of diabetes or worse; in response, Brash started exploring the hardwood hills and bald granite peaks of his backyard in rural Goulais River, 30 minutes north of Sault Ste. Marie.
Tentative hikes became longer and developed into adventurous trail runs as Brash transformed into a hard-core outdoor athlete—and staunch advocate for the region. “This is my home,” he says. “I’m still head over heels for my own backyard.”
His favourite running route at Robertson Cliffs became a scenic highlight of Ultra Trail Stokely Creek, a wildly successful trail race Brash launched in October 2019. The event was immediately recognized as Ontario’s toughest ultramarathon and gained accreditation as a qualifier for France’s prestigious UT Mont Blanc. Brash enthuses about the five-kilometre Robertson Cliffs loop, recalling his first ventures into these remarkable hills. “Did you space out wondering, ‘Is this actually Ontario?’ Yeah, you won’t be the first.”
Mountain Biker: Shannon Ramsey
Shannon Ramsey moved to Sault Ste. Marie from Huntsville, Ontario, in 2007. “I didn't really consider how long we would be here,” she admits. “But it would be very hard to be somewhere else where I couldn't step out my door and into this land of adventure!”
Ramsey is especially fortunate to live adjacent to the region’s best mountain biking trails at Hiawatha Highlands—a 31-kilometre network of single-track amidst hardwood and pine forests at the edge of the Canadian Shield, barely 10 minutes north of downtown. “I can literally hop on my bike, lace up my running shoes or get my skis on and get out into the wild year-round,” she says.
That sort of easy access has made the outdoors central to Ramsey’s young family. “My boys learned to ride their balance bikes on the beginner trails by our place, zooming over the hilly terrain with more skill every year, nearing the point now where I am chasing them as their abilities (and bravery!) improves,” she says. “There’s a wonderful outdoor community with people getting together to ride every night of the week. All ages participate in mountain biking, from little pipsqueaks to groups of seniors training out on the trails. Through our outdoor pursuits we have met an amazing group of friends who have become an extended family that we ride, run, ski and camp with.”
This article was sponsored by Sault Ste. Marie