Today’s post comes from Steven Kearney, a park warden at Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park.
Thirty kilometres west of Thunder Bay rises the impressive natural water formation known as Kakabeka Falls.
At 40 m high, it has affectionately been nicknamed the “Niagara of the North” because of its size and fame. The park also carries an extensive cultural history and displays great geological significance. Kakabeka Falls is a popular tourist destination along the Trans-Canada Highway, whether as a camping getaway, a quick day trip from Thunder Bay, or a rest stop along a greater journey.
This year, Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park celebrates its 60th anniversary and hosts a variety of events throughout the operating season.
The history of the falls
Although the park is turning 60, the falls have been an icon of Northwestern Ontario for much longer. The waterways carve a path through the Pre-Cambrian shield with mineral-stained water. A variety of fossils have been discovered (including blue-green algae), some dating back approximately 1.1 million years!
The first people to visit the falls were the Ojibwa, who gave it the name “Kakabeka,” which means “sheer cliff” or “thundering waters.” The falls feature in traditional stories including Princess Green Mantle, daughter of an Ojibwa chief, who sacrificed herself to save her people from an attack by the nearby Sioux.
Travellers, explorers and voyageurs in the 18th and 19th centuries had to portage around this massive obstacle and up the river before they could safely put their canoes back into the water and continue on their journey along the Kaministiquia River to Lake of the Woods.
Today, you too can travel this route by exploring the many trails and boardwalks in the park such as the Mountain Portage Trail or the Little Falls Trail.
What’s changed in the past 60 years?
Before the park boardwalk and viewing pods were built in the ’80s, visitors had only railings between them and the treacherous gorge (though this didn’t stop them from visiting and enjoying the magnificent view).
In addition to a maintained system of trails, the park also features a new gatehouse, a visitors centre, and a park store with collectibles and gifts you can only find at Kakabeka Falls.
The park offers three campgrounds for a variety of camping styles, as well as two beaches to relax and cool off at on hot days! Summers in the park aren’t the only time to visit, as the park features a system of cross-country ski trails and a warm-up ski hut.
The falls themselves are only a small part of what makes the park special.
The town of Kakabeka Falls
Before Kakabeka Falls was designated a provincial park in 1957, sections of the village of the same name were located closer to the falls. Some businesses operated within the park’s current boundaries. The Kakabeka Falls Hotel was located where the main parking lot is now, and a coffee/gift shop called The Green Mantle Tower stood where the visitor centre is today.
The village has always been a unique part of what makes the park special, and today the Kakabeka Falls Hotel still operates only steps away from the Park.
By following a trail along the main parking lot, visitors can easily access the village. The modern village features a coffee shop, several restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, gas stations, a school, a variety of other shops and stores, and very friendly, welcoming locals.
Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park is special not just because of the magnificence of the Falls, but because of its rich history and cultural significance. Kakabeka Falls is a place where you go to rest along a greater journey, enjoy the weekend away from home, learn about the cultural history of the area, or explore the trails.
The nearby village and friendly park staff make Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park feel like a home away from home so that you can comfortably enjoy all that Northwestern Ontario has to offer.
A personal connection
For me, Kakabeka Falls has always been a special part of my personal experience. I remember coming here often to hike the trails, camp, visit friends who lived in the village, or even just to look at the Falls.
Recently, my grandmother Vera Kearney showed me photographs she has had hidden away for years from 1948 of when she and her father, Charles Hardick, came to visit. It is amazing to see how different the area looks now compared to then; yet the falls themselves have remained unchanged after all these years.
Throughout my later high school years and into university, my mother, Liisa Kearney, worked in the old park office, which was separate from the gatehouse at the time. Fast-forward several years, and now I work at Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park as a park warden.
To me, Kakabeka Falls has not only been a great tourist attraction and cultural icon, but also a family experience filled with fond memories that will remain unchanged as long as the falls themselves.
On July 22, 2017, the 60th Anniversary of the Park, we are celebrating all that has made Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park special.
Join us to enjoy local musical talent from Thunder Bay, a guided walk around the falls to meet historical characters of the past, children’s programs, and more!
Even though the park and area are constantly changing, the falls remain as amazing and breathtaking as they have always been.