An empty highway leading towards forest and mountains.

TransCanada Highway | James Smedley

Driving tour guided by the Group of Seven

An empty highway leading towards forest and mountains.

TransCanada Highway | James Smedley

Those who drive the TransCanada Highway through Northern Ontario to experience its raw beauty are not the first to be moved by this unique landscape.

Long before the TransCanada Highway penetrated the North Shore of Lake Superior, fur traders, miners, commercial anglers and lumberjacks travelled these wilderness woods and waters.

However, Northern Ontario was also visited by those who sought to extract nothing but enchanting beauty from this remote land. Canada’s Group of Seven, travelled north by ship, rail, path and paddle to portray this inspirational landscape with paint and canvas.

Follow in their footsteps, guided to iconic Canadian landscapes by the artists’ eyes.

Algoma and the North Shore of Lake Superior

Marked with distinct highway signage and stretching 652 kilometres, the Algoma and North Shore of Lake Superior driving tour is supported by 14 interpretive panels at key spots along the route.

Starting at Bruce Mines, east of Sault Ste. Marie, the route follows the TransCanada Highway from the farmland along the North Shore of Lake Huron to the rugged cusp of Lake Superior at the town of Nipigon. In between are wild rivers cascading over falls, rolling mountains of birch and maple and vast swaths of moss-shrouded boreal forest.

These lands are the traditional home to the Indigenous Peoples who inhabited this area for thousands of years before the influx of white settlers.

As early as 1918, members of the Group of Seven visited the Algoma region and the North Shore of Lake Superior, resulting in a collection of over 400 paintings and sketches that would help define a uniquely Canadian art style.

Charting the course of Canadian art

The Group of Seven founding members came together in the early 1900s to share their perspectives on painting the Canadian landscape. Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. McDonald and Frederick Varley formally established themselves as a group with their first exhibit in 1920.

Well-known painter Tom Thomson was never officially part of the group; he died in 1917 but greatly influenced their approach to painting the Canadian wilderness. Tom Thompson was the first to travel through Algoma Country on a canoe trip in 1912 along the Mississagi River.

The others would soon follow with annual trips along the Algoma Central Railway (ACR) from 1918 to 1921, capturing the wilderness lakes and wild rivers coursing over this rugged landscape. Lawren Harris discovered the North Shore of Lake Superior in the autumn of 1921, resulting in the group making eight trips to the shapely coastline between 1921 and 1928.

While other artists of the period were copying the styles of European masters, the Group of Seven was inspired by the unique Canadian wilderness to develop a style of their own. Their work during this period produced hundreds of paintings, including pieces like Lawren Harris’ North Shore and Arthur Lismer’s sombre Isle of Pic.

According to Sault Ste. Marie artist and historian Michael Burtch, the woods and waters of Northern Ontario helped to chart the course of Canadian art.

“They looked at Algoma and the North Shore as the catalyst for their idea of North. It represented what Canadian art should be and they painted in a style that honours the primal forces of nature rather than in some formula derived from Europe. And it changed the course of Canadian art.”

A couple walk towards an informational plaque in a park.
Pancake Bay | James Smedley Outdoors

Plan your route

Many of the locations depicted in Group of Seven paintings are accessible by the TransCanada Highway. Designated highway signage and interpretive panels will help you navigate the route and gain insight into what inspired these artists.

Moments of Algoma app

Before hitting the road, download the Moments of Algoma App. It will enhance the experience at each of the 14 interpretive installations with little-known and in-depth information around the artists and the areas they painted. In addition, there is audio providing insight into the Group of Seven and their time in this area of Northern Ontario.

Interpretive panels along the TransCanada Highway

There are two interpretive panels in Southern Ontario: one at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinberg and one at Alandale Station Park in Barrie. Each directs travellers north to where the road trip begins at Bruce Mines.

During this portion of the road trip, you’ll get glimpses of Lake Huron’s North Shore mixed with agricultural fields rolling beneath the ridges and bluffs of the Canadian Shield. At Sault Ste. Marie, the waters of Lake Superior funnel into Lake Huron at the St. Mary’s River Rapids. Then, the TransCanada Highway veers north towards Lake Superior, where the Shield erupts into bluffs and headlands that usher wild rivers over precipitous falls on their way to the Big Lake.

More interpretive installations are located at key spots throughout Lake Superior Provincial Park up to Wawa where the boreal forest carpets an undulating rock foundation separated by long sand beaches.

The TransCanada Highway continues north towards the towns of Marathon and Rossport where the mystical beauty of coastal islands inspired iconic works by the Group of Seven. The dramatic landscape continues to change as the route winds towards Nipigon. Here steep-sided and flat-topped mountains tower above wooded valleys that cradle wild rivers like the Steele and the Nipigon.

Side trips and detours

Most interpretive panels are conveniently located a stone’s throw from the TransCanada Highway, but a few require deviating from the main road for added adventure. In each instance, the app provides text and audio about the artists’ relationship with the rugged Superior coastline and the detour is always worthwhile.

At the town of Thessallon, Highway 129 heads north, meandering with the scenic Mississagi River and accessing a parking area at Aubrey Falls. It’s a short hike to the interpretive panel at the edge of the falls that tells of Tom Thomson’s 1912 canoe trip along the Mississagi and a subsequent trip in 1922 by fellow artist A.Y. Jackson.

Another side trip leads west of the TransCanada along Highway 627 to a panel on the coast of Lake Superior at Pukaskwa National Park.

The interpretive panel overlooking the famous Pic Island requires a 10-plus-kilometre round-trip hike from Neys Provincial Park.

Significance of this driving tour

One of the main reasons this land remains so intriguing is most of the sites remain much as they were when painted 100 years ago.

Artist Michael Burtch says it is significant that the iconic Canadian scenes painted back in the 1920s are still very much intact. “It’s so rare to be able to go to any part of the world and see where painters had painted almost 100 years ago where it’s still relatively pristine.”

Visiting areas painted by the Group of Seven allows you to experience the sights that inspired so many celebrated Canadian landscape paintings and the opportunity to capture their own moments within this broad and diverse landscape.

Last updated: May 11, 2024

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