The Meanderthals

Has anyone ever heard of Mannitowaning?

We have. It’s the place where we had lunch yesterday and is located on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Canada, about four hours from the U.S. Canada border (arriving through Michigan).

We were told it was a charming island to visit and that it’s believed to be the world’s largest fresh-water island, measuring 110 miles long by 3 – 5 miles wide.

After spending a night at a funny little place called the Bavarian Motel in Bruce Mines in Ottawa, we stopped in Manitoulin today, expecting to find something of an island personality. Perhaps a quaint area populated with funky little shops and interesting lunch spots? Something like Bainbridge Island or St. Simon’s Island?

Instead, we found ourselves driving through a wild and somewhat undeveloped part of the country with nary a shop or town in sight. Once we reached Mannitowaning, our lunch spot was the Musky Widow. Not a quaint little island restaurant but a rustic, woodsy dining spot filled with the spoils of the local owner – a taxidermist.

Since it was just a couple of blocks from the lake, the local fish of choice was the muskellunge, commonly called the “musky”, and the Musky Widow’s walls were hung with mounted muskies (the largest being 52 pounds) as well as a couple of dusty old stuffed owls and a lynx which had been stuffed and mounted and displayed in a glass cage. Not your regular restaurant artwork, but the broccoli soup was excellent.

The service was also somewhat laid-back. While our middle-aged waitress was as friendly as they come and told us all about the region (and the stuffed beasts), she announced (after serving us) that there was “a table outside with my name on it” and promptly vanished with the chef to sit outside and smoke cigarettes until another patron might come along.

While the island region was pleasant enough for a brief visit, we’ve found this part of Canada to be somewhat uninteresting so far, after some of the sights we’ve seen in past weeks. Yes, there are lots of beautiful water views around – and there’s no discounting the incredible Great Lakes for sheer beauty as they make an appearance along the way – but most of the area has been pretty flat. And the towns we’ve passed through have been somewhat, er, boring.

And then there are all these strange names. Not only is there a Manitoulin Island, but there are also Manitou Islands in Lake Nipissing about three hours north, which makes it somewhat confusing on the GPS. The lake’s name might be baffling enough, but it gave birth to a round of stupid jokes from my driver/husband, mostly having to do with the bathroom habits of the original natives.

There’s also Shewanaga Island and the towns of Pemetanguishene and Shequiandah (noted to be, at 9500 years, the country’s oldest native settlement). Turns out that the native Indian – would they be native Canadians, in the spirit of contemporary political correctness? – is still alive and well in these parts and the native population is the most rural in Canada. Half a million native people are committed to the land by heritage, by rights in a rural land base, and by a broad range of bureaucratic mandates provided by the federal government.

Talking of cultural differences, there have been a number times we’ve had to remind ourselves we’re in another country.

Such as, after we crossed the border and Skip was happy to see a new speed limit and started to fly along the freeway until he realized it was 90 kilometers and not 90 miles per hour. Or when the GPS reverted to meters and kilometers (with an English accent, of course). Or when the restaurant clerk looked perpelexingly at our $20 bill, unsure about how to give us change in Canadian dollars.

There are also dozens of Tim Horton’s fast-food places along every route we’ve traveled (move over, Dunkin Donuts) and the grocery stores sell chocolate bars larger than any I’ve seen in the U.S. (even in Texas). The “Mr Big” is a whopping 90 grams.

We’ve seen a number of billboards announcing restaurants with “Chinese and Canadian food” or “German and Canadian food” but are yet to find out what IS Canadian food, aside from the ubiquitous and delectable poutine – French fries smothered in both cheese and gravy. And there are plenty of radio stations playing country music.

So, today we’re headed for Ottawa. The capital of Canada; a city which is rumored to be quite lovely. And a name that we are able to pronounce.

It’s located next to a place named Gatineau. So, with the presence of French in this region, I’m just hoping it means there will be cakes.

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