Tuesday, 22 January 2013


Lake Sulphite Mill, Red Rock, Ontario,
 "wood holding pond" construction
 - 1936-37.
Nipigon Historical Museum Photo Archives

nmp 6427
Foreman Malcolm Speidel beside ice cake,
 holding pod construction 1936-37
Red Rock, Ontario

Holding pond construction, Lake Sulphite Mill, Red Rock
Holding pond construction at foot of Jack-ladder,
Lake Sulphite Mill, Red Rock, 1936-37
Bob Brown on tractor.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

BLUEBERRIES by" Martin Hunter"

The Blueberry Patch 2012
Photo by B. Brill

Article written over 100 years ago but the generation "gap" was already showing.

"Martin Hunter" writes:

I have always advocated the saving of imported provisions, when giving advice to hunters and trapppers. The transportation of "White man's food" into the interior is always costly and a laborious work, and the more one subsists on what the country in which we hunt produces, the greater the saving from civilization.

I have pointed out in previous articles , the wholesomeness of several kinds of animal flesh, which the ordinary trapper throws away, the mode of preserving meat and fish by smoke drying, and other valuable hints.

One effect of civilization on the younger generation of Indians is to cause them to deride what their forefathers did to sustain life. The tendency is for them to look down upon, as beneath them, the patience shown by the old Indians in conserving country produce for the coming winter.

White men, however, as a rule are open to conviction and willing to learn where a saving can be made, and it is to such I pen this article.

Photo by B. Brill
"Every year in the back country,
 crops of luscious berries expand,
 fall to the ground
 and are lost."
Bears, marten, fisher and birds feed on them, but the crop is generally too abundant for those to make any perceptible diminishments. With the Old Indians of away back, the conserving of blueberries for winter use, was one of their obligations and attended to yearly.

The gathering of the berries was understood to be the work of the women and children, but occasionally the men pitched in for a day or so to advance matters.

As the berry season is also bear season, the men generally roamed about the brule hunting for "Black pit", while the family gathered the fruit on the edge of the clearance.

Bears, once the berry season is on, eat and eat almost continuously through the day, for this is the time when they put on fat to protect them from the excessive cold of the coming winter.

Blueberries are about the only fruit I know of that can be eaten in large quantities without any injurious results. One can consume appalling quantities without suffering any derangement of the stomach. This cannot be said of strawberries or raspberries.

The Indians had two ways of curing the berry, one way by drying and the other by evaporation. Both required a considerable amount of labour and patience, but they did it.

Berries for drying purposes were gathered before the first frost, as at that stage they are not so full of fluid. The Indians kept for the purpose of drying, mats of woven rushes or flags.

These mats were four feet long by three feet broad, the woof used being of strands of the inner bark of the cedar, a fibre which is very strong when twisted. A staging about three feet high being erected with strong poles all around, the mats were fully extended and tied over this, lapping a few inches over their edges so the fruit id not fall through.

The fresh picked berries were then spread on top to an equal depth of four fingers and a well-spread fire of moderate intensity started.

Whit what watching the proper degree of heat and the almost continual stirring of the berries, the fruit dryer had to keep pretty close to her job. Too much heat, of course, would cause the berries to burst, and too little would arrest the drying process. The work, therefore, to make a success required the utmost attention.

As the season for this work began about the twentieth of August, an occasional bright, sunshiny day could be expected even after this date. When such a blessing did occur another staging out in the open was erected and upon this the berries were exposed, but the stirring and moving about process continued all the time.

An Indian is partial to a smokey flavor to his dried fish and flesh and many like a tang of smoke on their berries. Those that do are not so careful about pure heat drying, but let the fire and smoke do their work together. When thoroughly dry like our currants of commerce, they are stored away in bark baskets in a dry place and used during the winter in various ways.

A white trapper would find them a nice addition to his barley soup or to help stuff a roast duck or partridge. A handful may be thrown into a flour soup with rabbits as the meat is very palatable to a hungry man and well relished.

As the berries cost him nothing but his labour it is worth while some of my brother trappers trying this. A few put in a frying pan, adding sugar to taste, makes a nice jam desert, or to eat with venison, duck, partridge and other game. No water is required, the sugar being sufficient.

The evaporation method or blueberry cake is made in the following way:

The berries are not picked until fully ripe and a frost has passed over the field. The beautiful bloom is then gone, the berry, perfectly black, is at the point of bursting.

The good wife's large copper kettle is then brought forth, hung on a strong pole, each end resting on a stout forked picket strongly planted in the ground and the kettle filled three parts full of fresh berries. Fire is again the "motif." With a strong hardwood palette in  the shape of a small paddle, the old woman keeps the fruit constantly stirred, while a bright fire underneath keeps the kettle boiling. At the first going off these is a tendency for the pot to boil over, this is kept back by drawing the pot aside for a few moments and stirring vigorously.

For the first hour or two a cloud of vapour arises from the berries; this is the watery part evaporating. Later the contents get thicker and thicker, casting forth only occasional bubbles of steam. The cooking process is carried on until the mass is so thick that the paddle remains erect in the middle. This test assures the woman that the contents are properly done.

The berries being now cooked to requirements, are scooped out into oval or other shaped bark pans and left to solidify. After becoming stiff enough to hold their shape they are placed upon scaffolding and smoke dried. When cool once more they are stored away in bark roggans for future use.

A slice or two of this cake placed in pancake batter makes a nice breakfast eaten with sugar or syrup.

Thursday, 10 January 2013


From: Unconventional Voyages by Arthur R.M. Lower
Ryerson Press

Chapter V
page 28- 34

(This is the last chapter we are typing. I found the description of the "northern sea-coast" quite an eye-opener.BB)

Having reached the "Sea of the North," I had to plan my summer's work. My instructions were to proceed up the coast, collecting information on the prospects for commercial fishing and in whatever way seemed practicable. Everybody at Albany stood ready to do what they could for me, though I was amused at the Scottish caution of the Hudson's Bay Factor, Mr. Gillies. Apparently he at first thought I might be an Ontario game warden and was careful to inform me that he had no furs about: he felt relieved, he said, when he heard of my arrival, to recollect that he had just sent them all over to the central depot, on Charlton Island, which, he dropped in incidentally, was in Quebec province. I was left to add for myself "and therefore out of my reach." When he found I was an emissary of the harmless government at Ottawa, come on an innocent quest for more information, he lowered his guard. After I got well acquainted with him, which in a spot like Albany naturally did not take long, although he continued cautious about giving out information that the Company might conceivably (though with difficulty) regard as confidential, he proved helpful and hospitable, a man of character.

I became friends with the Anglican missionary, the Rev. Mr. Griffin. He gave me free access to all the mission records, going back to the times of the good Bishop Horden in the 1880's. In their pages could be seen break-up and freeze-up, seasons of scarcity and seasons of plenty, rejoicings over Indians saved and grief over those who would not forsake their heathen ways. One entry recorded a trip out to Canada by way of the Albany, the Ogoki and the Nipigon to Lake Superior. The missionary of the time remarked, after passing through Lake Nipigon, on how pleasant and smiling a region it was and how easy life seemed there for the Indians compared with the stern James Bay: there are degrees of "north."

Life at Albany was unavoidably isolated but neither boorish or boring. The white community was small but its members were all of good calibre. It consisted of M. Pecodie, the assistant pot-keeper for Revillon Freres, his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Griffin, Mr. Gillies, his wife and married daughter and the Catholic priests and nuns. The Pecodies were two highly intelligent people and Mme. Pecodie one of the best cooks who ever invited me to a meal: the dinner she served was as elegant as if we had been in Paris. The griffins were good, kind people but I am afraid that the existence, in this remote outpost, of the same rigid wall between Protestant and Catholic as characterized my native county of Simcoe had to be put down in some measure to the North of Ireland origin of my friend Griffin. Talking about one of his Indians who had been seriously ill, and had been taken to the little hospital kept by the nuns, he said to me one day: " i stood it as long as I could, thinking of him lying there among crucifixes and with priests around him, and then I walked right in to see him: I just went right into the midst of them." The heavens didn't seem to fall either.

As a matter of fact, the Canadian priests I met in the north - all of them Oblates from Ottawa - seemed to me a very decent lot, men of fine manners and human feeling, and well-trained for their work. Their whole cultural pattern, of course, was very different from that of my missionary friend and from my own, and I can understand some of his instinctive feelings of hostility. Better education gave them a considerable advantage over the Anglican missionaries: this enabled them to learn the difficult Cree language more easily than did the Anglicans, to whom it always remained a stumbling block. But to say this is not to disparage any of the English-speaking missionaries I met, especially my friend Griffin and his wife, who could not have been better or more sincere people.

Mr. Gillies procured me a third man who knew all the camp-spots: he could pick out a little bluff or the mouth of a creek miles off shore when all I could see would be the occasional thin blue whisp in the distance. When Moses fired at a duck and missed, he always called out cheerfully "Very nigh," but when anyone else fired and missed, he would roar half derisively "No good!"

I got my training in west coast canoeing under Moses. James Bay represents the extension under water, and at the slightest possible angle, of the flat table land of Northern Ontario and Quebec. As a consequence, its banks are low and flat and the water for several miles off shore is extremely shallow. The tide rises vertically about twelve feet. Since the slope is so slight, the horizontal distance represented by twelve feet of rise is enormous. There are several miles between the edge of the sea at high water and its edge at low. Above the tidemark the shore takes another two or three miles to make up its mind whether it is really going to become dry land or not: this is a belt of grass and bullrush intersected by innumerable tidal creeks. Then low willow shrubs begin, and a mile or two  further on, the tree line, which quickly deepens into the dark spruce forest of the north. An exceptionally high tide will cover this foreshore and at low water the sea practically disappears below horizon. The intervening miles of tidemark consist of soft mud with the occasional hard ridge on which a man can stand without sinking up to his knees. The shore, such as it is, is just grassy bank, though here and there there are pebble beaches scraped up by wave and ice. The marshes are alive with the thickest clouds of the largest mosquitoes known to man. The only compensation for all this - and it is a  considerable one - is that these interminable rushes and reeds provide the best wildfowl shooting on the continent.

To paddle along this shore the Indians have developed methods which are as tedious as they are prudent. The day we left Albany, we paddled about three hours and then about three in the afternoon, Moses brought the canoe up on the shore. He indicated we were to camp for the night. I was rather annoyed, as, at that rate of travel, it seemed to me we would never get anywhere. However, within an hour or two, no water was to be seen, so it was evident that the alternative would have been to go on out beyond the tidemark until the tide came again at about two in the morning. Very sensibly, no Indian will do this. When the tide answers, it is possible to paddle for a few hours in the morning, "sit on the mud" from, say, ten to three, and then paddle for a couple hours after the afternoon high water. If the afternoon paddling period is stretched out too long, there is danger of having to pass the night "sitting on the mud" or paddling in the dark: weather changes are too sudden to risk that. I remember once making in to the shore on ebb tide, and finding the water draining out from under us with lightning speed; we had to step out into the mud, wading up to our thighs, and pull the canoe right through it before we got up to the "beach."

I made for the Kapiskau, the first large river north of the Albany. This stream has a narrow entrance but opens up into a good safe harbour. The Cree word means "the closed -up place", 'the narrows." The equivalent word to Kapiskau (phonetically Kaybesko) among the Indians of the St. Lawrence would be Kaybeko. This is the word that Champlain heard when he came through the narrows at the Island of Orleans into the first safe harbour up from the sea. Antiquarians have for generations wrangled over the meaning of the name of Canada's historic city but a little knowledge of Cree and Ojibway would have saved a great deal of ink. Kaybeko, or Quebec (pronounced, it is to be remembered, Kaybeck in French) is just "the closed - up place," "the narrows."

We camped at the mouth of the Kapiskau. That night the moon was gloriously bright and large over the grassy lands. It sparkled on river and on the distant sea; it lit up the dim line of the forest. Not a sound disturbed the still, keen northern night. It was a night, which, under the spell of the flooding moonlight, united man with all nature, a marvellous night. More marvellous still, there were no mosquitoes. But in the morning, there were other visitors, two of them: two husky dogs sitting patiently outside the tent, waiting for us to wake up. They had been left by their owners to shift for themselves during the summer. There was no human being within fifty miles, but the dogs, living on the country, were fat as butter. What is more, they were the only huskies I have ever encountered who were not shameless thieves. And were they glad to see us! And did they voice their grief when we paddled off! True gentlemen, both.

After the Kapiskau comes the Attawapiskat, a large river reaching back several hundred miles into the flat clay lands of the Ontario district of Patricia. In those days , Revillon Freres had a post there, but the Hudson's Bay Company did not. There was also a Catholic mission with a resident priest. Attached to the post were three men, two from Quebec and one, Tom Bates, born on the Bay. The four  white men at Attawapiskat were unique up there in that they were all Canadians. I did not meet a single other English Canadian during my sojourn on James Bay and only three French Canadians, apart from the priests. Everyone else had been born abroad. There were a few whites, of whom Tom Bates was one, who had been born on the Bay and had never left it. Technically, I suppose, they were Canadians.

Like so many whites up there, Tom Bates was married to a native. Should he ever see these lines, I hope he will forgive me but the story told about him and his lady does deserve rescue from oblivion, for few men can put up such a valiant struggle against matrimony as did Tom. Tom left Moose Factory and struck north to avoid the parson. But the parson was a determined man. He set out in pursuit. Tom moved on, past Albany, past the Kapiskau, with the parson still in pursuit. Tom came to Attawapiskat: the parson followed. There remained the uninhabited north: Tom struck bravely out. So did the parson. Finally on the banks of some remote creek he ran down his man, after full four hundred miles of chase, bundled him into his canoe, brought him back and demanded that he "marry the girl." Tom did.

Attawapiskat was an outpost, far in the bush, genuinely "backwoods" as compared with Albany. But I cannot say I found life dull there.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013





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Down to the Northern Sea

Chapter IV
Unconventional Voyages
By Arthur R.M. Lower
Ryerson Press

page20- 27

(This is a few years after his first summer in the Nipigon Region)

When the people of Ontario think of the sea, their minds as a rule turn to the great ports, to New York, London, Montreal. But the Province has a sea of its own, just over the height of land across the northern region of bush and lake. The Sea of the North, la Mer du Nord, as the French called it in the old days, is only three hours' flight from Ontario's capital. But in the minds of most Ontario people it is less real and more distant than the Pacific.

In the summers I spent in the northern Ontario bush long ago, many a time did my thoughts turn to that far northern sea. How often, as I saw the brown waters tumbling away northward, did I long to put my canoe in to them and paddle down to their destination far below. My memory as I write is filled with the sight of that rapids which breaks out of Allenwater, a hundred miles eastward of Sioux Lookout, or of the river stretching away northward from Fort Metagami. No one at the Fort could have avoided knowing the destination of that river, for the old birch freighting canoes were still in the canoe sheds and old "Colonel" Millar, the postkeeper, who had come out through Hudson's Straits in 1870, still full of the stories of how goods in the old days were freighted up from salt water, three hundred miles below.

Perhaps only those who have faced the bush with a paddle in their hands can know the urge of the river: it will draw a man up, or it will draw him down, but draw him it will, as it drew the fur traders - inland to the centre of the continent and right through out on its other side. In all of us who used to be together in the bush in those old days, the draw of the northern rivers leading to the northern sea was discernible, but virtually none of us ever imagined it could have its way.

To this day those who have seen the northern sea, even by railway, are few and fewer still are those who have gone down to it and come again by canoes. The trip down the river is long and arduous, the trip back hard indeed. It was rarely made when men used canoes: it must still be infrequent in these days of planes and outboards. Hudson's Bay, Canada's great inland sea, pressing in towards Lake Superior, cuts into the country's middle, giving it that "wasp waist" appearance so evident on the map. Yet the waist itself, though comparatively narrow from the lakes across to salt water, has remained one of the stubborn bits of Canadian geography, and even today is almost entirely wilderness. With its lakes and its rivers, its rocks and especially its muskegs, it is a difficult country. It has always proved an effective barrier between white men of the south and white men of the sea of the north. In those days, those men were French and English. Today they are ordinary Canadians and the northern fur traders, but the gap between them remains.

Little did I ever dream in those old "bush" days of mine that the chance might come to me to make that crossing and descend the northern watershed to the sea. Old Pere Albanel had blazed the trail two centuries and a half before when he had gone from Saguenay and Lake St. John and down by the Rupert River to head off the English. He was two years too late for that but his countryman, the Chevalier de Troyes, fifteen years later, did it effectually enough, when he went up the Ottawa, through Lakes Temiscaming and Abitibi and down the Abitibi River, to burn the English posts. However strongly I had felt the attraction of that northern sea when in the bush along the height of land, I had never dreamed that the chance actually would come my way to follow in the footsteps of the great men of old and myself make the crossing.

That, however, is just what did happen. The chance did come my way. One day I opened a letter and had my breath taken away by reading that I had been selected to take a small Canadian government party down to James Bay and proceed up its western coast to Cape Henrietta Maria. The object was collect data on the possibilities for commercial fishing. An oversize freight canoe was provided, funds, fishnets and two men. Supplies, route, procedure, were entirely at my discretion. It was an opportunity fit for a king: in charge of an expedition to the relatively far north! On my own! And not yet twenty-five!

After the necessary departmental consultations in Ottawa, I went to Cochrane, Ontario, the natural point of departure. There were plenty of people there ready to talk about routes but few who really knew anything about them. The northern line of the Canadian National was just then under construction: it made the journey much easier than it had been previously, for it cut across the rivers flowing north and saved the long trip over the height of land. Of northward flowing rivers there is no end: the Nottaway and the Harricanaw in Quebec; in central Ontario, all those that unite to form the Moose: the Abitibi, the Frederickhouse, the Metagami, the Groundhog, the Missinabi, the Kapuskasing and many others; further west, the Pagatchewan, the Nagogami, the Kabinokogami, all tributaries of the Albany. The route from the railway down to Moose Factory was about two hundred miles long and, by report, full of portages and rough water. By the Albany and its tributaries, the distance was nearly four hundred miles, but this brought me out a hundred miles further up the west coast of the Bay and the information I got about it was much the same as Radisson and Groseilliers must have received when wandering about in the country at the head of Lake Superior in the 1650's, they, first of white men, learned of a route to "The Sea of the North": "put your canoe in Albany waters and you can float right down to the sea." I had thus good precedent, and decided for the Albany via its tributary, the Nagogami, which flows into the Kenogami and thence into the Albany. This turned out to be far the best route, and surprisingly easy, for there were only fifteen or twenty miles of bad water, and that just below the railway line. These passed, there was nothing but smooth paddling all the way down. On this great river system, a good-sized vessel could be brought up from the sea to within a few miles of the "line": some day this fact will get the attention it deserves.

At the Nagogami crossing, there was a group of Indians encamped: most of them were Ojibways who did not know the northern water, but there was one Cree among them who did. He was a native of the Bay and his very presence carried with it a whiff of salt air. He was well off his beat, so far inland, but his being there showed we were now in a zone of tribal contact, with inlanders to the south and coast Indians to the North. I hired the Cree to take us down through the first few dangerous rapids. He proved supremely competent. I still can see the white water tearing at the rocks in the worst of the rapids, one forming a great arc of a circle where the river turned. The Cree stood in the bow, and as a rock approached, a barely perceptible movement of his paddle would draw the bow off from it and into safety. Deceptive long smooths, oily in their stillness, with vicious, curling, destructive waves at their end, foretelling hidden rocks, would go by harmlessly, the invisible skill of the man's wrists fending us off from disaster. At top speed, through foam and broken water, we tore down, but my guide brought the great canoe through as easily as a boy runs his sleigh down a hill. Thanks to him, we were through the rapids and had made camp, all in a few hours from "the line", with nothing but smooth water between us and our destination.

A day brought us to Mamawemattawa, "the great confluence"; here several brimming rivers join together into the Kenogami, "the long river", a big stream in its own right. A day or two down it, and then, that which will always remain an experience for me, no matter how often it is repeated, wider waters appear ahead, as if through some gigantic window, and suddenly the river pops into a greater than itself: a junction has been effected. In this case it was the Albany itself which appeared in the show-window; and now with a few strokes, we were out  on it, out on the broad waters of this great and beautiful river, this river which is yet more remote to most Canadian  (who of all people fail in appreciative knowledge of Canada) than Rhine or Nile. The Albany may be over-shadowed by the mighty Nelson on the north and the still mightier St. Lawrence on the south, but there I was on it , on the waters which Radisson and Groseilliers would have given so much to dip their paddles in. From their day to mine, the people who had descended this river to the sea were in all probability fewer in number than those who travel from Toronto to Montreal in the course of a single week.

Mile after mile we travelled on, making good speed with the current behind us. The great river was unimpeded by rapids and so broad and straight that sometimes a horizon appeared ahead. I knew what lay at the end of our road but I could not imagine it.

For several days we had this vast northern country to ourselves, and did not encounter a living soul, or the sign of one. Then we met people again: a big party of Indians taking in the annual supplies to Fort Good Hope. They were not using canoes but were tracking up a York boat which is like an overgrown river punt, but pointed at both ends. The banks of the Albany are wide and smooth, and it is therefore easy to walk along, a dozen or fifteen men on the tracking line, towing the boat. The supply brigade and the York boat spoke of another world, far out of the orbit of the railway, a world that had already been going on like this long generations before, when Frenchmen and Nor'Wester were paddling up through the lakes to the pays d'en haut.

On the tenth day, rounding a bend, I noticed that the shores were wet and muddy: there was a space between the water and the bank where nothing grew. This could mean only one thing. Typical Ontarian that I was, I had never seen the sea. I had always assumed that some day I would see it when I made the conventional Ontario pilgrimage to England, but at that moment I did not know a tide mark when I saw it. Yet in my unorthodox approach to the sea, sneaking up on it from the rear in this way, I was in good tradition. Thompson and Fraser had gone down the Columbia and the Fraser in that way, and the greatest of them all, Mackenzie, had come upon the Arctic and the Pacific, too, "by land, from Canada." But they were all outlanders, to whom the sea had  no doubt long been familiar. There had been few native born Canadians in that long line: Louis Joliet, first to descend the Mississippi, the great La Verendrye and others of lesser note. I did not compare myself to these giants, for that would have been nonsense, but I felt that I was treading in their footsteps.

Another hour's paddling brought into view some distant objects that looked like houses. One learns to distrust such impression in the bush. But a little more paddling, and they were houses. Our canoe drew abreast of the first of the. A man came down to meet us. He spoke in a slightly foreign accent and proved to be the deputy post-manager of Revillon Freres, who in those years were in strong competition through-out the north with the Hudson's Bay Company. Almost his first words were "Have you any news?" This sounded strange, until it dawned on me that he had been cut off from the outside world for months: there were no radios in those days. After a chat , we paddled on to the Hudson's Bay post which gives its name to the little settlement, Fort Albany....

When we reached the Hudson's Bay post, I was greeted by the factor in words which were only a variant of those of the first man: "How's everything down in Canada?" was what the factor said. So, I was no longer in Canada? Not in the opinion of the dwellers at the mouth of the Albany, apparently: they lived in a separate world, whose traditions did not lead south through the bush but out across the ocean, to the ports whence for nine generations had come their supplies and their men.

I walked up a little rise past the post. The river was wide and impressive. The high ground fell away in flats. The moment was come: the moment dreamed about around inland campfires. I had emerged on "the other side." For out there beyond the flats, beyond the stretch of the river, I saw a thin grey line where sky and water met: I was looking out over the horizon, out over "The Sea of the North." 

Monday, 7 January 2013


Arthur R. M. Lower, UNCONVENTIONAL VOYAGES, Ryerson Press

Page13: "On the "Pewabic" to Ombabika"

(Buzz Lein considers this to be about 1909 as A.L. was born in 1889 in Barrie, Ontario)

I was just twenty, and had never been out of the conventional surroundings of my Ontario upbringing. And now, after a year of college, I found myself plunging into the wilderness, already hundreds of miles from the familiar. At the very moment of departure, I had stepped into a new world, for with my inexperience, although I had an ordinary ticket, I had got into an old colonist car. It was filled with Italian labourers on their way to the northern mines; a few hours of their noisy, gay talk showed me that there were other people in the world beside the solid, inarticulate men whom I had hitherto regarded as normal.

As the train sped westward, darkness fell, but I woke myself up at daylight, eager to catch the first glimpse of what I knew lay up ahead, Lake Superior. At last it came; a great shining in the sun, a great glitter out there to the southwest. Those were the days before Canada had been revealed to the eyes of Canadians. Since then, that northshore country as i saw it that May morning in the sun has been put down on canvas by Lawren Harris. If you don't like his pictures, you may have been through that country, but you have not seen it.

All day we skirted that lake and in the late afternoon the train drew in to my destination, Nipigon; a place of which, until a few days before, I had never heard and in whose existence it seemed hard to believe. But soon after arriving, I encountered some other young men who were on the same mission as myself. We were all to serve as "fire-rangers" for the Ontario government, patrolling the line of railway that was being built across the north of the Province. The other fellows turned out to be students also. This gave me the necessary link with the known and brought "Nipigon" down to earth.
Our instructions were to go up to the north end of Lake Nipigon at Ombabika Bay and there report for duty. We began our journey at once. A little tug ran up Lake Helen to the head of navigation. Here a narrow-gauge railway had been put through the bush to South Bay and from that point there was a steamer to Ombabika. Before the tug left, provincial policemen carefully inspected the men who were going up to "the line" ( the trans-continental railway then being built, now the northern line of the Canadian National.) Nearly all of these were foreigners, part of the great army of cheap European labour that trailed across our soil in the years before the First World War. The policemen were watching for liquor, the worst enemy of the railway building contractor. Women, the contractor would tolerate - on the outskirts of the camp; he rather welcomed them, for they kept the men contented. Liquor, however, was taboo, for it meant drunken bouts and idleness. Many a bottle was whisked out of hip pockets as we watched.

We reached the Lake that night, and without incident, though I must confess I was alarmed at what did duty for a railway. The little engine and its narrow cars rushed wildly through the bush, over deep chasms on the slenderest of bridges, and up and down grades that no respectable train is called on to face. It was my first taste of pioneer expediency.

In the morning we embarked on the "Pewabic". She was a small vessel for that big lake, which at some points has a clear sweep of fifty or sixty miles, and she was heavily loaded, both with cargo and passengers. The new railway, for a stretch of a couple hundred miles, east and west, had, as its only supply base, this route from Nipigon station on the Canadian Pacific to the head of Lake Nipigon: the "Pewabic" and one other boat carried every pound of flour, every stick of dynamite and every manjack engaged on that stretch of construction. From the steamers' various points of call around the north end of the Lake, supplies were moved in to the "right-of-way" over the canoe routes; it is perhaps not necessary to explain that the Canadian northland consists in endless chains of lakes and rivers, between and along which for centuries the Indian canoe routes have run. The railroad builders just improved them a little by building "tote roads" over the portages. Every piece of freight, heavy or light, every passenger, that came of the steamers, elsewhere than at the main port of call at Ombabika Bay, where the new road touched the lake, went up to "the line" by canoe.

Our first stop was at the mouth of the Wabinosh River, which flows into Lake Nipigon about twenty miles north of Nipigon House, the Hudson's Bay Company's post; up the Wabinosh lay the first of the routes in from the lake to "the line". The morning was fine. The northern spring was just furiously bursting out. Islands lay scattered like jewels in every direction. As we drew in towards the river, two of them, shaped like great loaves of bread, rose up out of the water a thousand feet. These were the Inner and Outer Barn, solemn and impressive specimens of the geological formation known as the Keeweenawan, which is peculiar to the Nipigon-Thunder Bay region.

Between Wabinosh and the next stop we cut across wide, shallow Windigo Bay, in the centre of whose shoreline rose a single sugar-cone, the "Haystack". Windigo Bay, so the Indians said, was no place to be caught in at night; the Windigoes would get you. Windigoes are giants. It was certainly no place to be caught in, but for a very good reason; it was wide and open, and if you were crossing it by canoe, an onshore wind might blow you into its inhospitable muskegs.

Lake Nipigon abounds in ancient Indian legends. There is a splatter of islands out from Nipigon House which were thrown int their present positions by Nan-i-bo-zhoo, the tribal hero of the Ojibways; they are the different parts of a moose which he cut up and threw about in this off-hand way. I got quite a store of information about the Indians of the lake from a missionary priest who came aboard at one of our landings. He was a scholarly man and gentleman, a good sample of the old-fashioned classical culture of French Canada. I had occasionally seen Indians making baskets, but I had never before talked to a Catholic priest; priests were not very popular in South Simcoe. My Protestant innocence was mildly disturbed at finding him so courteous and intelligent.

Our course led us through the island groups in the north centre of the lake. These were even more picturesque than those farther south. Red granite cliffs alternated with the giants' causeways so common in the Keeweenawan formation. There was to come a time when I got to walk up some of these great flights of stairs; block after block, each about two feet high, with a two foot tread, and regular as if they had been built, several hundred feet, to the tops of the islands which they composed. At the top would come the reward; mile after mile of island and lake, green, silver and blue, into the infinite distance. I have never seen blues anywhere so intense as around the Nipigon - except in the lower St. Lawrence where they are more intense still. Canada keeps these jewels of hers carelessly. Half the time she does not know she posses them. Who, I ask, has ever seen her wearing the gleaming Nipigon in her hair?

Going into Ombabika Bay, the lake gave us a taste of what it really could do if it wanted to be nasty. We rolled merrily as the waves choked into the strait between lake and bay. This was naturally the moment the cook chose to ring the dinner bell. The roll of the ship parted some of my companions from their meal but I am proud to report that I held on to mine. No shipping company has ever made a profit on its food at my expense. I have eaten down captains themselves!

The Pewabic's little dining saloon contained one table. One side of this was reserved for the captain, who must have his place of state, even in this backwoods inland craft....

Earlier in the day, I had been brandishing a pocket compass which I had laid in as a piece of what I believed to be appropriate bush equipment. In those days I did not know how clumsy is the ordinary compass of the landsman compared with the simplicity of the mariner's compass - which may be obtained in pocket size too. The captain told me mine would be no good to me anyway. "Too much iron around this lake," he said, "draws my compass, right out on board here." The Indian name of this little ship - The Pewabic - itself means "iron". There may be too much iron, but it does not come in commercial concentrations; there is one considerable deposit on the east shore, but it is not practicable to mine it. Whether the iron "drew" the ship's compass or not, the captain used to go up and down that lake under conditions which would have terrified sailors used to the safety of the open sea. I remember another trip with him, on a rainy, pitch black night. He took her down through that maze of islands - without hesitation and without misadventure. In Canada, if you are looking for sailors, you must not confine your search to salt water.

After we had made the entrance to Ombabika Bay, we ran over to the depot wharf and the voyage ended. Reporting for duty, I was promptly put into a canoe and dispatched across the Bay to a portage, where, with two or three others I was told to camp until the main body came along. During our wait, in the first week of June, we had a snow storm. This tied up greenhorns like ourselves into unexpected and uncomfortable knots. It was to take four good months of paddle, packstrap and axe to make us over into something approaching bushmen.

I had left the "east" on Monday evening. And here I was on Friday, camped on this portage, a hundred miles or more from a railway. It seemed more like five years than five days, so vastly and suddenly had my experience of men and things widened. There is no more provincial soul than the inhabitant of Southern Ontario, especially of that central region whose numerous small towns gear tightly into the largest member of their class, Toronto, for it forms a cul-de-sac in Canada, unaware in any vital way of the rest of the country and satisfied with what it believes to be as high a civilization as can be achieved - short of the British Isles themselves!! Until that momentous journey to the head of Lake Nipigon, nothing had occurred to make me aware of myself in relation to that provincial society, which I had never had a look at from the outside. I had taken it completely for granted, as the norm of existence. But now the mould was broken. I had joined the fraternity of the frontier, and was to take part in that attack on the wilderness, that job of building, that collective act of faith, which had made America and was making Canada.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013


Variety pack. Abitibi scrapbook, Tom Ratz
Nipigon Museum Archives (digital)