There must be something in these northern Ontario winters that drives a man to fill his world with giant concrete animals.
It isn’t just animals, of course, and it’s not all concrete, but in the 400-mile stretch of Canada 11 from Cochrane to Thunder Bay, there are quite a number of oddball statues by the side of the road.
It begins in Cochrane with the famous giant white concrete polar bear, named ”Chimo,” that marks the place where the Polar Bear Express excursion train leaves the station for Moosonee, 186 miles to the north on the edge of James Bay.
But it isn’t too much farther west, in the tiny but clean community of Moonbeam, that the local Chamber of Commerce office is decorated with an 18-foot-wide flying saucer made of Space Age plastics, on a tripod fabricated from playground swing-set pipes.
When I asked the woman at the information desk, she just told me the town was named for the beautiful moonbeams you can see there at night, and residents thought the flying saucer would remind them.
No, it doesn’t make sense to me, either. Perhaps it is a problem of translation. This section of Ontario is primarily Francophone, and the woman spoke English as a second language. Perhaps in French, it makes sense. It seems that when you speak French, a lot of things make sense that everyone else in the world scratches their heads over. Think of Jerry Lewis.
A local newspaper story lets on that there was controversy over the construction of the saucer, part of a $300,000 community revitalization program. Some residents wanted a giant beaver instead.
”The flying saucer won’t attract many jobs, like the beaver would have,” said local UFO critic Butch Bouchard.
Leaving the 25th century of Buck Rogers, we find ourselves back in the age of dinosaurs: In Mattice, the town’s only motel sits next to, and rather under, a giant freckled-concrete Tyrannosaurus rex, whose teeth have been further graced with a line of Christmas tree lights. Beside him sits a concrete stegosaur with a look on his face of a contented cow.
There is no mention of the dinosaurs in tourist literature; neither is there any reasonable connection with the motel. But there they stand, no more commented on than a couple of trees, with a few yapping dogs chasing each other around the lawn.
The community of Hearst is a mill town where almost everyone speaks French.
One of the things that make sense to them is poutine, a local delicacy made from french fries covered in beef gravy and cheese curds. It’s what they serve at the local McDonalds: ”Do you want poutine with that?”
It’s not as bad as it sounds, but neither is it health food — a triple whammy of grease and enough cholesterol to clog the Chunnel.
Hearst is also the heart of moose country, so the local tourist office has a giant bronze moose out front. In comparison with the other animals, it is rather staid and conventional.
After Hearst, there is a long, long stretch of road with nothing to see but the walls of trees on either side of a straight two-lane road. Occasionally, the forest breaks open for a crystal river or waterfall.
But then, at Beardmore, a tiny village of Nipigon Indians, there is a 40-foot plywood snowman. It is, with the exception of an abandoned hotel, the biggest structure in town, and it wears a silly grin beneath eyes that look as if they come from a Hindu idol.
Next to it is one of those plywood paintings with circles cut out where you can put your head through and have a picture taken of yourself, in this instance, looking like a snowman. Perhaps this all makes better sense in the winter, when skiing becomes the regional passion.
And when Canada 11 meets Canada 17 to wind down to Thunder Bay, there is a small motel next to a 6-foot concrete trout. I should have expected it.
What I couldn’t have expected was a few miles on, standing in front of an auto-parts store: a 15-foot-tall Bigfoot chomping a cigar like a theatrical agent and giving a big thumbs up to passing motorists.
In Dorian, we stopped for the night. We could tell we had left the French area because we ate pirogis as heavy as einsteinium that sat in our bellies and weighed us down under the drowning pull of sleep.
We had a choice of two rooms at the Dorian Inn. One on the ground floor with two queen beds for $55 or one on the second floor above the bar for $26. I’m no fool. I paid the premium.