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The Northern Ontario Boating Experience with UFC Champ Meisha Tate

Meisha Tate boating
Photo- Virgil Knapp

For every few degrees of latitude you travel in Ontario, the available wilderness increases. In other words, the farther you from Windsor towards Wawa, the wilder it gets.

If you seek out one of Northern Ontario’s unheralded gems – the Nipissing District– you’ll be surrounded on all sides by wilderness and wonder.

The truth is that Nipissing District gets lost behind the better known features of the area, namely Lake Nipissing itself and the nearby Great Lakes, but that’s a classic symptom of Northern Ontario – humble, friendly, and open to discovery.

The most prized natural wonder of the district is undoubtedly Lake Nipissing, despite still being underappreciated for its surprising size. Most northerners don’t realize just how big it is, let alone how much the lake feeds and fuels the topography around her. She gets overshadowed by Georgian Bay, but she is still massive in her own right. Surrounding Lake Nipissing are the predictable urban hubs that always gather around beautiful shorelines, like the quaint town of Nipissing itself, not to mention one of Northern Ontario’s central economic hubs- North Bay. The names are down-to-earth, just like the people, but their natural offerings are anything but.

For former UFC champion Meisha Tate, the chance to experience Nipissing at the height of summer is a welcome contrast to the rigors of the fight life. Trading in your sweaty gym clothes and the bruising lifestyle of a fight camp for warm sun, epic scenery, and watersports adventures is an easy choice when time permits.

“I love to do things that are out in nature and out in the wilderness, but that also accommodate my nature—a little bit aggressive,” says Tate of her love of powersports. “And after a fight is a good time to self reflect.” With a week to explore and a wishlist of adventures, the plan was to pack as much into the journey as possible. “I live in Las Vegas. I’m constantly around people. I’m in the media. So when I want to escape somewhere, I really want to escape.”

Photo- Virgil Knapp

Beneath the tall pines of Canada’s boreal forest are an intricate web of lakes and rivers. It takes a focused eye perusing a topographical map to realize the sheer volume, and the complexity, of Nipissing’s lake country. There is water everywhere, and many lakes are connected by small tributaries that make Northern Ontario appear like an unending maze of untouched wilderness. Which is entirely true, and among the biggest reasons why it’s so beloved. This makes for endless options for fishing, boating, camping, and off-roading. Every shoreline is dotted with craggy granite ledges, spruce, fir, and balsam trees, with trails and campgrounds tucked right behind. It is a rich ecosystem that hums with activity every warm summer night. If you want to explore by water -- traveling by PWC is an adrenaline fueled adventure that packs a lot into a single day, which is unsurprisingly exactly what Tate wanted to do.

Tate, a native of Tacoma, Washington, and one of the UFC's most popular fighters, has traveled much of the world. She trains primarily out of Las Vegas, Nevada (which is also the home of the UFC), but has also lived in faraway lands like Singapore during a three year stint as the Vice President for the UFC's Asian rival, ONE Fighting Championship. Her fighting accolades are equally balanced by her accomplishments outside of the cage. In other words, Tate has been many places and accomplished many things. Among them is her coveted UFC championship, which she took from Holly Holm by submission at UFC 196 in March 2016.

But after the lights dimmed at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Tate found herself with injuries to heal, time to kill, and a chance to explore the wilds of Northern Ontario.

There are few better escapes than Nipissing. The term is an Ojibwa word meaning ‘little water,’ likely in reference to the larger Great Lakes to the south. Lake Nipissing drains into Georgian Bay, which is part of Lake Huron, via the French River, which creates an interconnected labyrinth that has been used by natives and voyageurs for centuries. It’s also a mere 25 km (16 miles) from the western boundary of Algonquin Provincial Park, one of Canada’s most recognized wilderness experiences. Hubs like Lake Nipissing may get attention in the north, but those in search of more solitude can find plenty amongst the region's smaller, less marketed lakes.

Turtle Lake is one such gem. Nestled quietly among the pines, it’s ensconced in the center of the region’s waterway system. It's part of a larger network with Lake Nipissing to the west and the Mattawa River to the east. The main activity through passage comes via anglers, boaters, or adventurers, and that’s just the way people prefer it. It’s not a bustling lake being bombarded with light pollution and oversized boathouses. It’s quiet, calm, and secluded. Largemouth and smallmouth bass are plentiful, as are lake trout, and there is a public boat launch for those looking to get in on the action. You just have to know where to find the hot spots.

“I’m on the WaveRunner and there’s no one in front of me,” recalls Tate. “And the water was like glass. You couldn’t see a house in sight. You couldn’t see a person in sight. Like no one had ever been there before us.”

Once you pack up your boat or PWC and head into town, it’s not hard to find local flavour. If you take the water route, you can head west from Turtle Lake all the way to North Bay. If you take the land route, you can pack up at the Turtle Lake boat launch and follow Highway 17 west for the same result. Once you’re in town, Greco’s Pizza & Pasta is a top stop if you’re looking for homestyle Italian. They’ve been offering the best pizza in North Bay since 1969.

If Italian isn’t your preferred palate, you may be surprised to find North Bay has surprisingly diverse international cuisine. 100 Elements has the most expansive menu in the city with both vegetarian and vegan choices with a global influence. It’s a specialty setting you’d more likely expect in an urban melting pot like Toronto, which makes it an even better standout in North Bay. If you’re into pub grub, the Crown & Beaver Pub is a British-Canadian hybrid that offers exactly what you’d expect when mixing British pub flair with Canadiana. If pints at the pub aren’t your style, Green Papaya is the #1 ranked healthy restaurant in the city with unique Asian cuisine, as well as conventional fare.

If you still haven’t gotten your fill on the water, you can always stay afloat without the hassle of being a boat captain. The Chief Commanda II offers exceptional Sunday cruises on Lake Nipissing and the French River out of North Bay. The ‘Sunday French River Cruise’ is a scenic and educational journey that comes highly recommended- not only can you soak in the atmosphere from atop the third level of the mighty Chief Commanda II, but the tour includes a history lesson about the area and its influence on Canada’s economic development during the fur trading era from early 1600’s through to the mid-1800’s.

The 'Chief Commanda II'

Tired yet? Worry not. Nipissing knows you can’t spend your days cavorting around in nature without needing a warm bed and a welcoming smile. The Hampton Inn by Hilton is the de facto experience near the downtown core. If you want the local touch, The Sunset Inn on the Park is definitely the preferred choice – it’s right on 'The Bay,' too.

Once your wilderness excursions are over, if you want to keep the on-water fun going from within the city limits, North Bay also offers a well-appointed community marina and boat launch. Located right downtown it gives you the best of both worlds- easy access to boating on the expansive Lake Nipissing or to all the amenities that North Bay and Northern Ontario have to offer.

“I'm sold on it,” said Tate of the area. “I've done a lot of travelling. I’ve seen a lot of places. But this has been one of the best experiences I've had.”

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