The first thing you notice is the architecture, which is as spectacular as the Lake of the Woods scenery that forms the backdrop. With a sweeping curved roof and rows of large glass windows that flood the interior with light, the building on the main drag of this tourist town would be difficult to miss.
The Northern Ontario Sportfishing Centre — note the Canadian spelling of “Centre” — is a must-stop destination for anyone visiting Sioux Narrows, a northwestern Ontario community on the northeast shore of Lake of the Woods.
Situated in the heart of the “Canadian Shield,” a landscape of rocks, trees and islands, this part of Lake of the Woods offers a striking contrast to the vastness of Big Traverse Bay, the 330,000-acre expanse that forms the Minnesota side of the lake.
There’s a wealth of history in this rugged Ontario country. Sioux Narrows gets its name from a historic battle that occurred in the mid-18th century, when Ojibwe warriors defeated an invading party of Sioux at the narrows on the lake.
Part museum and part travel information center, the Northern Ontario Sportfishing Centre brims with the history of Lake of the Woods and the fishing industry that is the backbone of the region. High ceilings and ample amounts of glass give the 4,600-square-foot museum an airy ambiance while providing a pleasing view of Lake of the Woods, which is just down the hill.
A series of three wooden totems feature ornate carvings of area wildlife and fish, including bald eagles, muskies, lake trout and bass, and a water fountain outside the entrance to the Centre allows visitors to sip from inside the gaping maw of a giant muskie.
A lounging area in the center of the museum has a homey feel with plush leather seating, coffee tables and a big-screen TV that was showing “Lake of the Woods: A History By Water,” on a recent Monday morning.
Visiting the Northern Ontario Sportfishing Centre had been on my to-do list since I first heard of its completion back in 2012, but I didn’t get a chance to see the museum in person until Monday, July 22, when two friends and I stopped in for a visit on the homestretch of a two-day fishing trip to Whitefish Bay, the deepest part of Lake of the Woods at more than 200 feet.
Fully immersing ourselves in everything the complex has to offer would have easily taken two hours or more.
Among the centerpiece exhibits is a built-to-scale replica of the historic Sioux Narrows bridge that was completed in 1936 and in use until 2007. Billed as the “longest single span wooden bridge in North America,” the bridge was completed over a two-year period to cross the 200-foot Sioux Narrows gap and connect the Lake of the Woods region with Fort Frances, Ont., and the U.S. to the south, the exhibit explains.
“A Masterpiece of Wood Construction,” the bridge is called in the exhibit.
“Most bridges are built on concrete ‘piers’ that carry most of the weight,” a panel next to the wooden replica reads. “But it was difficult to build piers in the deep cold water of the Sioux Narrows gap. The bridge would therefore have to be a ‘single span’ structure that ran from one bank to the other with no support.”
Instead of steel beams, construction crews used Douglas fir from British Columbia and eastern white pine from Ontario, according to the panel.
“Thousands of wooden parts were cut and numbered and shipped to the site like the massive pieces of a children’s jigsaw puzzle,” the panel reads. “Each part was unique, in size and cut, and the construction supervisors expected to run into serious design errors. But as the job proceeded, it turned out that the engineers had done such a good job that not a single on-site cut was necessary to assemble the bridge.”
The new Sioux Narrows bridge, completed in 2007, is described as a “steel girder bridge cloaked in wood” and incorporates timbers from the old bridge, retaining a look and design that’s similar to the original.
Also prominently displayed in the museum is a wooden “Haas Boat,” named for a company that manufactured boats in the area for about 20 years beginning in the 1940s; a replica of a Boston Whaler fishing boat; and a Heritage Room filled with antique fishing lures and vintage outboard motors, including a 1929 Elto 7-horse “Speedster,” a 1939 Evinrude Elto, a 1946 Champion and a 1955 7.5-horsepower Johnson.
No attraction dedicated to fishing would be complete without information on how to catch those fish, and the Centre features panel displays on prominent species such as walleyes, northern pike, muskies, lake trout and bass, along with tips on lures and techniques to use for catching them.
Being a lake trout fanatic, I was especially impressed with the lake trout display, which included a 1912 photo showing nine fishermen posing next to some 30 lake trout hanging from hooks mounted on a horizontal pole for display.
“Good Trolling — 362 pounds of Trout from Whitefish Narrows Lake of the Woods,” the photo reads.
As expected on a Monday morning, the Centre was relatively quiet during our visit, with only a half dozen or so other visitors taking in the sights. But for anglers and other tourists who visit the region, the Northern Ontario Sportfishing Centre would be a perfect way to spend a few hours on a bad weather day or just take a break from the lake, if their stay is long enough to provide that luxury.
For a change of scenery, the community of Kenora — a summer tourist town in its own right — is about an hour north of Sioux Narrows, and Nestor Falls, Ontario, is about a half-hour drive to the south.
The Northern Ontario Sportfishing Centre is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily throughout the summer tourist season. For more information, call 807-226-5293 or visit www.sportfishingcentre.com.