SECTION: TRAVEL LENGTH: Long : 120 lines ILLUSTRATION: Photo
For The Dispatch
For years I'd taken floatplanes, boats and barges to the acclaimed remote fishing camps of Ontario.
When I visited the Algoma Country information booth at the Columbus Sports, Vacation & Boat Show last year, I was ready for a change of pace. I was seeking a destination that offers more amenities and activities other than fishing. Most of all, I wanted to see more of the rugged landscape that for decades has drawn adventuresome Americans north each summer to fish sparkling lakes, canoe on wild rivers and explore the endless woodlands of Ontario.
I thought my desires would be a tall order, but Ian McMillan of Algoma Country Tourism just smiled, handed me an Algoma Central Railway brochure and asked: ''Have you ever considered traveling by train, eh?'
Suddenly, getting there became half the fun.
Four months later, after a seven-hour drive north from Columbus to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, I was listening to an almost-too-cheerful train conductor crying ''All aboooard!'
If not for his classic conductor's attire - from a patent-leather cap to the gold watch tucked into a green waistcoat - his boarding call would have seemed a cliche. Everything from the jolly conductor to the weathered platform of pine planks, however, seemed to fit a long-ago travel scene.
Thousands of people board the Algoma Central Railway each year for the ride itself - especially during the fall and winter months, when the scenery is spectacular. The ride also is a practical way to get to some of Ontario's remote lodges and camps.
The one I visited, Errington's Wilderness Islands, is a great base camp for* exploring the world's largest wildlife sanctuary - the 2 million-acre Chapleau Crown Game Preserve. Errington's is on Lake Wabatongushi, which the railway passes at the 206-mile mark of its 300-mile run north from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst, Ontario. The train stops for camp guests, who are met at the lake's edge by one of the Erringtons - either Abbie or his father, Al. Guests then board 18-foot, cedar-strip boats for the 15-minute cruise to the camp.
Upon arrival at the main island, guests check into one of six modern lodge suites or several cabins scattered along the island's shore. Each fishing party is assigned a boat - the best-outfitted craft I have seen at a fishing camp - with a 9-horsepower outboard, an electric trolling motor and a depth finder.
As for dining arrangements, lodge guests enjoy an American plan, while cabin guests may choose that or prepare their own meals. (My recommendation: Opt for the wonderful, home-style lodge meals.)
Wildlife thrives at Lake Wabatongushi, which covers 10,000 acres and includes nearly 70 islands within its granite- and cedar-lined shores. While fishing for northern pike and walleye is the major lure at Errington's, simply watching the wildlife is becoming more popular each season. Moose, bears, loons and eagles are a few of the more popular species spotted there.
During our trip, we shared the lodge with a contingent of Audubon Society members, who added so many species to their ''life lists'' that they re-booked space for summer before their week was half-completed.
While looking for a fishing spot one day, we got within casting distance of a bull moose up to his ears in underwater weeds; and, from our boat, we saw bears onshore three evenings out of six. Loons accompanied us each morning as we headed out onto the lake, and they serenaded us each evening with their eerie twilight call.
Errington's two main islands, on which the lodge and cabins are situated, are joined by a short footbridge. Their combined size is just less than 10 acres, so the cabins seem remote yet are close enough to the boat landing for easy loading or refueling. Nearby Timberwolf Island, which is larger but less developed, has a 3-mile nature trail. While bears do not live on the islands, many bird and mammal species frequent them.
In addition to fishing, hiking and animal-watching, guests are welcome to enjoy the camp's paddle boats and canoes. Or they can match their skills at a waterfront horseshoe pit that is illuminated for nighttime competition. The huge, two-story log structure that serves as the camp's dining room and social center has a bar, pool table and fireplace. Once a week, Errington's organizes a huge fish fry - followed by minnow races in a remarkable, water-filled ''track'' with automated starting gates.
Such simple pleasures, besides nature and relaxation, make up an uncommon vacation at Errington's. And, as the vacation nears its end, guests have that train ride home to look forward to.
CAPTION: Passengers wait at a remote station to board the Algoma
Central Railway, which travels 300 miles through Ontario.
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