“My name is Sue Hamel, and I love Thunder Bay.”
With those words, the woman behind Seek Adventure + Tours kicks off what will be a fun, fascinating, and food-filled adventure along Thunder Bay’s downtown waterfront.
I’ve joined Seek’s “Lake Walk,” a guided tour along the shores of Lake Superior that illuminates local stories, history, art, culture — and, of course, food. It’s one of several guided tours the company offers, all of which celebrate different aspects of Thunder Bay.
Today, our first stop is Bight, a local restaurant with a gorgeous view of the lake, where we’re provided with a non-alcoholic drink of our choice in a reusable Seek mug. Part of Seek’s mission, explains Sue, is ecological and social responsibility, so the company strives to produce as little waste as possible.
Over the next two hours, we wander the shoreline and downtown streets, getting an insider’s glimpse into local art, architecture, and history, fortified by a tasting of gelato from Prime, which uses milk from the region’s dairies and features local ingredients — like the blueberries in my blueberry-cheesecake gelato, which is heavenly. Our final stop is In Common, where we dive into shared charcuterie platters. Featuring local meats and cheeses, and beer from the city’s Sleeping Giant Brewery, which, I learn, uses Lake Superior water and has access to the hops and barley from the Canadian Malt Company, right on the city’s shoreline.
The time flies by as Sue, who has been guiding wilderness expeditions for more than two decades, narrates the city’s stories. It’s captivating: I’ve lived in Thunder Bay for nearly 15 years, but I’m suddenly looking at my surroundings in an entirely new way. Sue points out details and tells stories I’d never heard: the fabled Prince Arthur Waterfront Hotel was built because of a poker game; the Baggage Building, now an arts centre, was originally a processing centre for new immigrants to Canada, who picked up their suitcases there on their way to a new life. We stand on the site of a long-gone hotel that played a role in running illegal booze across the border to U.S. cities during prohibition. We learn about the Indigenous legends of the harbour’s Sleeping Giant, or Nanibijou, and of Thunderbirds that gave the Bay, and later the city, its name.
All the while, Sue weaves in personal anecdotes that make it clear just how special this place is to her: like the fact that her husband, Rod, also a guide and outdoor educator, proposed to her — in a canoe — on these very shores. This is the city where they’ve raised their two kids, Ian, who is 11, and Nemma, whom Sue describes as “my 14-year-old marketing manager.”
“They are super-supportive of me and this new business,” says Sue, 45, who launched Seek in August after a solid couple of seasons of research and prep, immersing herself in local libraries and archives, interviewing artists, elders, historians, geologists, and local personalities — like the longest-serving waitress at Thunder Bay’s storied Hoito restaurant. “My purpose was to connect people to Thunder Bay, but I’ve become so much more connected to the place as a result.”
Born in Ottawa, Sue originally came to Thunder Bay to study outdoor recreation at Lakehead University. That’s where she met Rod. She’s spent a career teaching and guiding — leading whitewater canoeing, sea kayaking, dogsledding, backpacking, and snowshoeing expeditions across North America, and extended educational wildlife safaris in Kenya and Botswana.
The idea for creating her own guiding company came to her — obviously — while she was paddling her canoe, solo, on Lake Superior. She’s been guided by a variety of principles and inspirations. “I’m trying to make our city more walkable, and to get people to want to walk,” she says. “I would like to contribute to reconciliation, so I try to weave in as respectfully as possible the perspectives and stories of our First Peoples. I love this place, and so I want to provide people with opportunities and experiences to connect meaningfully to Thunder Bay.”
She’s inspired by people like Indigenous grandmother, Elder, and water activist Josephine Mandamin; Writer and ocean scientist Wallace J. Nichols, author of Blue mind: The surprising science that shows how being near, in, on, or under water can make you happier, healthier, more connected, and better at what you do. And Richard Louv, the author of The Nature Principle, whom she quotes: “Sustainable happiness comes from a relationship to place.”
Ultimately, Sue is driven by that concept of sustainable happiness, the desire to bring joy to people’s lives.
“We need to build connections to community and place, to reduce the isolation many of us experience right now,” she says. “I think the Buddhists got it right: we need to be in the present. We have never lived in a more distracting time. And what I hope these tours can do is allow people to focus on the place where we are, right now.”
SUSAN GOLDBERG is a regular contributor to the Whole Family Happiness Project, where she is thrilled to eco-geek out on composting, reducing plastics, and other low-carbon life hacks. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines, and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and co-editor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can often be seen picking up cans to recycle on her neighbourhood walks.
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