To know Thunder Bay is to love Thunder Bay.
Lake Superior's largest town is hard to get to know, though, in part because it was two towns until 1970. No downtown pops out of the landscape; people driving through see only the flat sprawl of Fort William, then the hillier sprawl of Port Arthur.
But Thunder Bay's surroundings are spectacular: Mount McKay on the south, Kakabeka Falls to the west and Ouimet and Eagle canyons to the north.
Of all the Great Lakes, Superior is the drama queen.
It's unpredictable and petulant, throwing tantrums that threaten to swallow any boat that ventures onto its waters. In 1975, it famously swallowed a boat that itself was called Queen of the Lakes.
Superior loves irony. The first recorded wreck, in 1816, was called the Invincible.
On the northwest corner of Lake Superior, a 1,000-foot-high sleeping giant stretches across the horizon.
Its mesmerized onlookers for millennia. In 2007, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. listeners voted it No. 1 of Seven Wonders of Canada, far outpolling Niagara Falls.
From Hillcrest Park in Thunder Bay, it looks exactly like a cigar-store Indian, with a square jaw and arms folded over a powerful chest.
Thunder Bay is the Miss Congeniality of Canada blessed but not beautiful, endearing yet not alluring.
Craggy bluffs flank this working-class town of 120,000 on one side, and Lake Superior on the other. But the candy-striped smokestack of a paper mill is the first thing seen by those who arrive by air or U.S. highway.
Beyond is an unremarkable sprawl of commerce and industry. But Thunder Bay's homeliness is only skin-deep to those who know where to go: To the marina, where lovely sunsets frame the Sibley Peninsula with glowing bands of peach and slate-blue.
Along an international border, it's surprising how much difference a few yards can make.
To many Minnesotans, the stretch of Rainy River between Baudette and International Falls is beyond boondocks. It's beautiful the highway that hugs it is the most scenic part of the 191-mile Waters of the Dancing Sky Scenic Byway but it's far off the beaten path.
At the top of Lake Superior, there's a dramatic coast lined with rugged cliffs, cobblestone beaches and islands.
It's the home of Parks Canada's new Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area, created last October to protect the waters between the Sibley Peninsula, east of Thunder Bay, and the Slate Islands, off Terrace Bay.
The many islands are big, much like the Apostles in Wisconsin except closer together. That makes them ideal for kayaking. The Slate archipelago, where caribou live, attracts serious kayakers. But the Rossport Islands are perfect for any paddler.
Every so often, we stay in terrible places so you don't have to.
We know you love deals, so we're always on the lookout. That's how we ended up in a dormitory in Thunder Bay, the biggest city on Lake Superior.
Both Confederation College and Lakehead University are in the center of town and offer residence-hall rooms. Since the Confederation rooms have private baths, we decided to stay there and check out the Lakehead rooms afterward.