Imagine strolling down the main street of a small Northern Ontario town. The air is crisp with the scent of fresh pine, and there’s a gentle breeze at your cheeks. It’s the kind of place where every passing car is driven by a familiar face, so you shoot them a friendly wave. The folks on the sidewalk? Yup, you know them too. Whether it’s a childhood friend or someone your parents used to know, you exchange smiles with each one.
There’s a unique warmth in recognizing everyone, a comforting feeling that comes from being part of a tight-knit community. Breathing in that clean Northern air, you can’t help but feel grateful for growing up in such a beautiful place where everyone knows your name and your story.
Sounds like the movies a little, doesn’t it? Funnily enough, this is a little snippet of my everyday life living and growing up in Nipigon, Northern Ontario. I wasn’t the only one who spent most of my life in that town, as my dad and Grandmother also did. So, I think it’s safe to say I can speak on small-town life like a bit of an expert. For one, I can confidently tell you that the way I grew up is very similar to the movies in that we all know each other’s business and who everyone is by the drop of a last name, and most importantly, we’re all there for each other when we need it.
There’s so much I want to tell you about my small town and the life I had growing up there. They all have similar themes of small kindnesses and the value we find in community. I’ve been racking my brain to find the best way I can explain these themes, and the conclusion I’ve come to is to tell you my favourite stories and memories about my life as a townie. They’re the kind of stories that impacted me so much they have encased themselves in my memory, and I think about them whenever I find myself either feeling nostalgic or missing home. So, sit back and relax as I tell you the first story I have in mind. It all starts with a hockey game…
To introduce this particular story, it’s worth mentioning that Nipigon is what you would consider a “hockey town.” We live and breathe this game. If there’s one thing that can get nearly everyone to leave their homes and gather in one place, it’s a good old hockey game at the Nipigon Arena. There’s something about the camaraderie on and off the ice that happens when we all gather together in this way. Where all of us in the same room are rooting for the same team, sitting on the edge of our seats, not bearing to watch because we’re all so full of anticipation, and then erupting in screams and hollers as that puck hits the back of the net.
In Nipigon, every Friday night from October to March is the day everyone in town goes to watch our Nipigon Elks Jr. B team play. It’s hard to explain the Jr. B team’s impact on Nipigon because it’s not like they’re famous. But they are definitely a point of pride for us as a community; they give us something to cheer for, especially being locals, and they give us a day to look forward to not only to see our local hockey team play but to see the friendly familiar faces that join the crowd. Now, it’s not like the arena is packed full to the brim every Friday, but on this particular night, I remember it being the most packed I have ever seen it.
This game was a huge deal to our community that year. It was the first time the Jr. B team made the playoffs in over a decade. This game was the talk of the town for the entire week, and everyone I knew was going, but I wasn’t prepared for the crowd I saw. Even outside the arena, I remember a line erupting from the doors that spilled out into the parking lot. Inside, it was hard to find an empty seat; so many people were there. The acoustics in the cold arena amplified the many voices anxiously sitting in the crowd as the players came out and gave it their all.
Throughout the game, the crowd was roaring in the most passionate, loudest, and most united way possible. For all the efforts of the players on the ice, they unfortunately lost that game. However, we as a community never stopped devotedly cheering for and believing in our beloved team.
The story I’m about to share isn’t just about a single moment. It’s more about the small-town folks in my life who came before me, specifically my Papa Joe. Papa Joe is my mom’s old man, and she would often talk about him, using his stories as life lessons, you know, teaching moments. Honestly, these moments and stories helped raise me and made me who I am. The values they taught me are the ones I try to live by daily as I keep growing and going through life.
My mom’s hometown wasn’t Nipigon; she grew up in Manitouwadge, further down Highway 17. Even though we’re from different towns, we both share that unmistakable Superior Country spirit and Northern Ontario charm. You could say it’s in our blood, but we’ve also learned it generationally. I have vivid memories of my parents always offering a helping hand whenever they could, whether it meant assisting someone in clearing their snow-covered driveway or simply sharing the moose meat we hunted that previous October to people who needed it, all qualities they’ve learned from their parents. There are many more instances that I have heard about and seen, so here’s one example.
When I was growing up, my Papa Joe worked maintenance for the Manitouwadge Hospital. But while my mom was growing up, Papa Joe had his own plumbing business, helping anyone in town with whatever household plumbing issues needed to be looked at. He would go over to their homes, tools in hand, and help them out. Now, these folks would try to offer him money, but he’d consistently turn it down, even though it was his own business. I wasn’t surprised when my mom shared this with me, though. One thing I always admired about Papa Joe was that regardless of what he was doing, he had the skills and know-how to help them, and that was all that mattered. No matter what, I remember him always lending a helping hand without any expectations. I thought it was just a part of who he was. He did it with a warm smile and a genuine, caring spirit that left everyone who knew him inspired, especially me.
So, Papa Joe would charge them with homemade food instead. He mostly got cherry pies (a very well-known favourite of his), among other sweet treats and homemade cooking. I watched him do this sometimes as a kid; he would bring my brother or me along for the job. I had such a fantastic time hanging out with my Papa Joe and watching him help others as much as he could for as little as a smile and a pie.
Of course, this is just one memory of my family, with one grandparent, but my nana and my grandparents on my dad’s side were equally generous and always eager to lend a hand to anyone in need. And it’s not just a family thing; it’s a Superior Country small-town North shore of Lake Superior thing. I guarantee that if you asked for help from anyone in our neck of the woods, they’d bend backward to offer their hand. It makes me the most proud when I think about where I come from, and honestly, I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I hope you all enjoyed these little stories from my life living and growing up in small-town Nipigon, Northern Ontario in Superior Country. No matter where I go as life carries on, I will always hold the values of where I grew up: kindness, passion, community, and pride.