Seek Adventure and Tours: Connecting to Place
Story by Tiffany Jarva, Photos by Patrick Chondon
On a partly cloudy Wednesday evening in September, I tag along with a group in the Waterfront District to learn more about ghosts, spirits, and the unexplained in Thunder Bay. We meet at the back of the Prince Arthur Hotel, looking past the pagoda (the oldest tourist bureau in the country), out across Lake Superior to the Welcome Islands and Pie Island. Storyteller and guide Sue Hamel sets the tone for what is about to happen. “I feel like the veil is thin here,” she says. “There is a sense of time on one side of the veil. And then it’s timeless on the other side, and sometimes the veil is thinner depending on the time of the year and where you are.”
Seek Adventure & Tours was launched by Hamel in August 2018. She began with a local food tour and was asked if she would do ghost tours. She was hesitant. “I’m not creepy or scary. I was never expecting the joy it would bring me,” she says. “It reminds me of being a kid. It’s an extension of my ghost-stories-around-a-campfire days. It’s meant to be playful and mind- opening, looking at reality in a different way.”
Hamel’s background includes over 25 years of wilderness guiding, experiential education, and leading safaris in Africa. She says she wants to pursue a deeper connection to place and is open about exploring the potential of new ways of seeing and being in our city. Hamel grew up in Ottawa and has traveled the world but chooses to be in Thunder Bay. “This place keeps drawing me back, and collecting these stories has opened up a whole other layer of magic that is here,” she says.
Hamel explains how thousands of years ago Indigenous people held powerful ceremonies on this shore, which was known as the realm of the thunderbirds, believed to be the spirits of the sky and links between the physical and spiritual worlds. She lights the candle in her lantern. While our drinks are being poured inside, she points out that Pie Island used to be called Turtle Island and how the very rock for the foundation of the Prince Arthur Hotel, originally built in 1911 by the Canadian National Railway, came from Isle Royale, the largest island in Lake Superior.
We enter the hotel and grab our drinks. Stories are shared about a cranky chef haunting the hotel’s basement, how a frazzled woman in old-fashioned garb runs into the bar and asks what time it is and then abruptly disappears, and how people can sometimes smell the cigar smoke of Harvey, one of the previous owners. We enter a dark room with a large oval table. The only light is Hamel’s lantern, and here she shares stories about Ojibway trickster Nanabozho, and the water god Mishipeshu. We are also teased with some small tidbits about Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s flirtation with spirits in the area.
We depart from the hotel’s front doors, admire the façade of the old Lyceum theatre, and grab a tasty treat to go at locally owned Prime Gelato. Next Hamel leads us with her lantern aglow to Graffiti Alley, where we take in the mural art of young Die Active artists and learn about the hauntings of an executioner whose demons eventually lead him to Ottawa to speak out against capital punishment. We also hear about the haunting of the Old Firehall on Court Street, where there is said to be not only a fireman’s ghost but also a horse spirit, given the huge disembodied steps people have heard over the years.
Outside of El Tres, where the chef treats us to a surprise Mexican dessert, we talk about Day of the Dead, the ancient Celtic festival Samhain, and the origins of Halloween. At Church Corner we hear about the soprano singer’s voice who can still be heard by the choir after her death. We trudge up to the roof of a parkade to look at the lake from a higher vantage point, visualizing the Lighthouse of Doom at Talbot Island and the ghost ship SS Bannockburn. We end the tour by candlelight in the creepy basement of the Tomlin block where there are interconnected tunnels running below all the businesses. It is here where Hamel shares some of the spooky details of a séance performed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on Silver Islet.
It is clear that Hamel has done copious amounts of research through interviews and articles and she clearly embraces the community. At times she teases you just enough to draw you in to make your own conclusions about the two sides of the veil, and other times she brings up details of places, stories, and people that catch even the locals off guard. And all this historical learning is mixed with laughter, getting to know one another, and fun stops to appreciate local fare. Hamel is a natural storyteller and people are taking notice. Her tours tend to sell out quickly, so if you’re interested, make sure you book early—it’s worth it. I am already looking into booking my next tour.
Ghost tours are every Wednesday evening starting at 7:30 pm until October 23. In addition to ghost tours, Seek also offers urban food tours like the Big Lake Taco Fiesta on Tuesdays, and guided hikes like Re-Wilding for Wellness Forest Therapy Walks. To book or for more info check out seekadventureandtours.com.