Thunder Bay, You Say

September 2016

Forensics Anthropologist Andrena Toth Finds Answer in the Stars

Andrena Toth remembers the exact moment she realized that she had made the right decision in moving to Thunder Bay. She was gazing at the stars.

Mind you, she was flat on her back, covered in kibbles, raw chicken and 23 happy, slobbering sled dogs. She had slipped on the ice while feeding them and from the snow, she stared up at the huge Northwestern Ontario sky and the vast multitude of stars glittering over Kaministiqua.

“Wow,” she thought to herself. “This isn’t so bad…” A Toronto girl, Andrena was a bright, quiet, academic child who discovered early on a knack for solving puzzles.

“My Grade 6 teacher was a HAM radio operator,” says Toth, “One day, he asked if anyone wanted to stay in from recess to learn Morse code. That appealed to me, so I did.”

This fascination with deductive reasoning led her to university where she tried to balance her knack for science with a heart for the humanities. There, she discovered a new program called Forensic Anthropology in the U of T and she jumped at the chance to blend her two interests. Her aptitude eventually led to a field placement at a large crime scene outside of Port Coquitlam, BC and a pig farm owned by serial killer, Robert Pickton.

“The lead forensic investigator was my instructor,” says Toth. “It was my job to analyze bone fragments and identify which tools were used on them, and how. It was very applicable but gruesome work.”
For over a year, Toth combed the burial site along with the RCMP, when a back injury sent her home to rethink her career path. She took an interim position at the Ontario Science Centre and it was there that she met Paul Amano, geologist and graduate from Outdoor Recreation at Lakehead University.

“Paul was also from Toronto,” says Toth, “But unlike me, he didn’t want to stay there. He’d done a placement with Northwest Sled Dog Adventures in Thunder Bay and he loved it! He’d also worked with a musher in the Yukon for a while. He had such a passion for dog sledding but honestly, had never thought of it as a career.”

The call of the north was in his blood however and Paul would often talk of his adventures in the forests of Northwestern Ontario.

“Paul loved Thunder Bay,” she admits, “It made him sad whenever he had to leave to come ‘home.’ At that point, we didn’t have careers, just lots of education. I knew if we moved, there would be no forensic career, no ‘upward movement,’ no Teacher’s College, but Paul had a plan and I knew that Thunder Bay would make him happy. We put in our 2 weeks notice at the Science Centre and packed our bags. What was the risk?”

Toth rolls her eyes, laughing. “We were so young.” They stayed at a friend’s camp on Lake Superior from September to May, watching the land transition through the seasons.

“The drive from Toronto to Thunder Bay made me fall in love with this land,” says Toth. “The colours – yellow birch, red maples, grey waters. Then the lake - the lake just drew me in.”

While Andrena was quietly falling in love, Paul was working on a Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Grant application. He dreamed of starting a mushing kennel and needed to draft a business plan. It happened to coincide with a retiring Iditarod musher who was looking to find a home for his 23 dogs.

“Paul had never owned a single dog growing up,” laughs Toth. “Suddenly, he was going to own 23!”

Through a series of small miracles, they found a ramshackle house in Kaministiqua and spent the next few months sleeping on the floor while building kennels to house 23 dogs.

“So many people came out to help,” says Toth. “It was a community effort – everyone helped smashing poles into the ground, erecting fencing, etc. We didn’t even think about the house. It was all about the dogs, and the contagious passion of a man fulfilling his dream.”

This contagious enthusiasm of the outdoor community appealed to the Toronto native, and soon Toth began going to the farmers market, striking up friendships with many of the vendors and making great connections.

“In Toronto, it’s easy to live in isolation,” says Toth. “But when you’re geographically isolated like we are, you really need your neighbours.”

Growing up in the south, she’d enjoyed the outdoors but never felt a connection like she did here. ‘Camping’ wasn’t camping but ‘cottaging’, with all outdoor experiences unnatural and contrived.

“There were so many interesting things to do here,” says Toth. “So many hidden gems. Paul had so much knowledge - back trails, spectacular scenery, remote outlooks. Amazing canoe trips, catching fish, amethyst mining, blueberry picking, So many times he’d take me somewhere and I thought we’d get lost and never come back! But once you’re there, you can’t believe no one else goes there. It’s a magical world.”

Toth’s skills in administration, problem solving and anthropology led her to an assistant manager position for the Thunder Bay branch of the Canadian Red Cross, but she admits she could never have predicted her life here in Northwestern Ontario.
“When I first embarked on this journey I was a little lost,” says Toth. “I was a scientist. I was gonna be in a lab, not the bush! When you’re cleaning up after 23 dogs, you don’t always see the ‘special’ but when I’m hosting friends and family, you’re reminded of all the great things that are here. They think we’re so tough and unconventional and I kind of like that.”

It’s an adventure she shares with her children as well, with daughters who are growing up easy-going, independent and informed. “I love bringing up my kids in the bush,” she says. “They take for granted living with 23 dogs, embracing the winter, identifying the sweet gale. They can hear the call of a woodpecker and know it’s a woodpecker. They have so much appreciation for nature and this big planet.”

The other thing that excites her is the fact that Thunder Bay is a city on the brink of change, and that everyone is welcome to make a difference.

“Since 2008, downtown Port Arthur has come alive with amazing shops and restaurants,” she says. “But so has the entire city. The Thunder Bay Food Charter was put forward; the Food Action Network and Food Strategy programs were started. There are a lot of things in this city to be a part and contribute to. In Toronto, everything’s so big and inaccessible that you can’t contribute or make a difference but here there are opportunities. Thunder Bay is redefining itself and I get to be a part of it.”

From the classrooms of Toronto to the horrors of the Pickton farm to a land of colour and magic, it’s clear that Andrena Toth has finally come home. Perhaps you can say it was written in the stars, with a healthy dose of dog kibbles sprinkled on top!
For more information on the Toth family’s kennel, contact Boreal Journeys Dog Sledding at

Heather L. Dickson is a photoshop guru, zoologist and author of 6 novels.

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