OLD TASHOTA MINE – A Revisit

A Report by E.J. Lavoie on 23 September 2008

Photo courtesy of Dennis King.

Very few people have ever visited the oldest gold mine in the Beardmore-Geraldton mining camp. In 1928, Tashota Gold Mines Ltd. began sinking a shaft 16 miles south of the northern line of the CNR, in the Onaman Lake area.

On May 3, 2006, Sage Gold Inc. optioned the Onaman Property from two unrelated individuals, and now has 100% ownership of claims with significant values for base and precious metals. The old mine is known colloquially as the Tashota-Nipigon,

On Tuesday, September 23, 2008, the writer accompanied a field party touring the Onaman Property. The day started cool and overcast. The four 4-WD pickup trucks turned east around the Kilometre 54 marker of the Kinghorn Road, north of Jellicoe, and traveled a good single-lane road for 3.6 kilometres (km). The party disembarked to examine a huge overburden trench, also described as an open pit. The pit measured perhaps 90 metres long, and 30 metres (m) at its widest point.

A field party on the Onaman Property clamber about the open pit of the Lynx North Zone.

The party ̶ comprised of Sage officials, investors from Toronto, and two government geologists ̶ examined the rusty bedrock, and listened to a presentation by Bill Love, Vice President/Business Development, and Nigel Lees, President. The “rust” or gossan, according to Ron Therriault, project geologist, came from the weathering of sulphide minerals in chalcopyrite, pyrite, and pyrrhotite. Other important minerals were ankerite, argentite, and copper bloom (malachite, a bright green colour).

The night before, back at Pasha Lake Cabins on the 801 Road, the party had lingered over displays of drill core and grab samples from Sage’s properties. One spectacular split core, from Hole S08-52, gleaming like a brass pipe, had returned assays of 8.07% copper, 6.08 grams per tonne (g/t) gold, and 236.0 g/t silver, over a length of 3.72 m.

Recently Sage has determined that three polymetallic zones, formerly dubbed Lynx 1 (now Lynx South), Lynx 2 (North), and Lynx 3 (Centre), are really one system. Other showings occur over a stretch of about 10 km from the old Tashota-Nipigon mine in the north to Km 50 in the south.

Sage was especially interested in two other zones to the west of the Lynx system. The Headway Main Zone is zinc-rich, and the Big M has copper, gold, and silver values. So far the company has conducted minimal exploration on these zones, but, according to Love (VP), Sage will bring in experts next summer to determine if these two zones and the Lynx system are interrelated.

“The best developed [explored] of all the copper zones is the Lynx system on the Onaman Property,” said Love. Sage has data from 106 drill holes over a strike length of 1 km, and to a depth of up to 200 m, for a total drilled length of 19,941 m. The system is “open” (that is, has mineral potential) at both ends and below 200 m. Nineteen of the holes are historic (i.e., predating Sage’s involvement). Sage has directed a “QP” (Qualified Person) to provide numbers compliant with the government-mandated regulation called NI 43-101. An independent examiner will then calculate the size of the mineral resource by the end of this year.

Commenting on the geology of the trench (in Lynx North), Lees (President) said, “It’s probably a good place to run courses on geology.” He told the writer that the Lynx zone system may be compatible with an open pit mining operation.
The field party then proceeded along the narrow road for another 5 km, crossing a plank bridge over a stream. The trucks stopped with a tailings area (what local residents call “slimes”) on the left and the concrete foundations of an ancient mill on the right. They had arrived at the old Tashota-Nipigon.

A big mound of waste rock dominated the clearing. There were evidences of wooden buildings here and there, and the remnants of concrete structures. Myron Nelson, prospector, immediately began tapping rocks with his hammer. His colleague, Lyle Holt, directed the group to the mine shaft, capped with concrete and measuring about 4 by 7 feet. No one, wisely, accepted a dare to stand on the crumbling concrete. Until a few years ago, it was not unusual to find shafts open to the sky in this mining camp, and some old shafts have yet to be rediscovered.

The crumbling concrete cap on the shaft. No one accepts the dare to stand on it.

In the 1930’s, miners had accessed this site from the railway or by airplane. There was a winter road from Tashota, a whistle-stop on the CNR, and in summer, an 18-mile canoe route. There was a 6-mile wagon road from Onaman Lake.

The tour of the Onaman Property ended, the party headed out. The sun peeped through the clouds, lifting everyone’s spirit just a tad. Next stop was a gold property back on the 801 Road, Sage’s Paint Lake Property.

Later, one of the investors remarked to the writer that the old adage holds true: “The best place to find a mine is in the shadow of a headframe.” Whether that headframe still stands or not.

Gerry White, government geologist, records the exact location of the old shaft with a GPS unit. Lyle Holt looks on.

 

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DEAD WOOD

Dead wood. There’s a lot of it around, some of it still standing.

Like some balsam poplar trees along Creelman Creek Road where I live. Still standing, but marked for felling.

Alerted by my son, Rob, I kept my eyes peeled as I walked a mile down the road today to pick up my Chronicle-Journal. Yes, Ontario Hydro had painted a huge “H” on selected trees. Probably last summer or fall when they didn’t have to plow through snowbanks. And when they could identify trees that were living or dead by the crown of leaves.

Funny how I never noticed them till now.

Rob had his attention recently drawn to the trees by a neighbour’s inquiry. Did he think Hydro would mind if he collected the felled trees for firewood? (Rob used to work for Hydro, Forestry Division.) This neighbour was always looking for dead trees to replenish his wood pile.

The neighbour recalled another time he had been salvaging dead wood. He was pulling some dead trees out of the bush to restock his pile. But he was warned by a C.O.

A C.O.: a word that strikes terror into the honest wood salvager in this corner of Canada’s boreal forest.

He was dragging the felled wood, all of it most certainly dead, out of the bush behind his pickup. The C.O., the Conservation Officer (don’t mind the oxymoron, it can’t be helped), accosted him. Did he know he was breaking the law? For wasn’t he was dragging the wood behind his mechanical truck, which, in the opinion of the C.O., constituted mechanical harvesting without a permit?

But the big-hearted C.O. let him off with a warning. Not a word about the wood salvager’s conservation of energy. Better to let the wood rot on the forest floor and pump another barrel of oil out of the ground.

Which reminds me of another C.O. story. The North is full of them, all of which throw the public personae of Ontario Conservation Officers into the flames.

For years now, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has pared back the budgets that oversee the production of wood in our forests and protect our fish and wildlife.

Earlier this winter, I heard a report of a clear cut beside a wild river not far from here. The clear cut obliterated a canoe portage that probably existed for several thousand years. No C.O. was standing by to preserve that historic trail. This is an everyday occurrence in this country.

In fact, C.O.s are pinned down to their desks in offices, sipping coffee. Not only are C.O.s scarcer than saw teeth, their budgets permit only rare travel into the forests that surround us. How do they know what is going on in our forests? Well, they wait for alerts from the public. No alerts, more coffee to drink.

Now, about that C.O. story. In wintertime, two fellows sledded for hours across country into a remote lake. They bored their ice holes and sat around a fire. Their meditations were interrupted by the arrival of another snowmachine. It was a C.O. He asked to check their fishing licences. One of them had none. He was charged. The C.O. turned around and left on the same trail.

Going back along the trail they had pioneered, following in the C.O.’s tracks, the two fellows noticed that the C.O., not being particularly skillful in off-road travel, had bogged down several times. The fine, by the way, amounted to around $100.

I know the amount of the fine because the two fellows were members of our family. Their story expands the rural legends about Ontario Conservation Officers.

This story also tells you the lengths some C.O.s will go to justify their jobs.

So, what advice did Rob give to our neighbour who would like to conserve energy by burning dead wood he hauls himself from the forest?

Don’t worry about it, he said. But I would like to temper that advice. C.O.s quit work at 4:30 p.m., unless they are engaged in some big operation like baking doughnuts.

My advice is, wait till dark.

Don’t leave a stick of dead wood on the Hydro right-of-way.

And if any dead wood happens to be perched on the shoulders of a C.O., don’t touch it.

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PAGWA 2 : VILLAGE OF MEMORY

Section of old NTR rail that has the date of manufacture: 1912.

We picked a miserably rainy day for our return visit to Pagwa Village.

Jim Marino and John Lavoie and I stopped at the junction of Pitopiko Road and the Pagwa Road which followed the original railbed of the National Transcontinental Railway all the way to the river.

It was Sunday, September 1, 2019, the Labour Day weekend, so we expected to encounter people. And we did.

Junction of Pitopiko Road and Rail Road.

In the bushes on the righthand (north) side, we spotted a sign: Ch RAIL Rd. What we had been calling Pagwa Road had the posted name of Rail Road. Probably erected when the forest access road was constructed on the railbed. One of our discoveries on this trip was the truly old Pagwa Road, but more of that later. And we found an old Anglican church.

Rail Road started 6.4 km from Highway 11, and ended at the Paguachuan River 54.2 km from the highway. We were in no hurry. We stopped to examine many of the culverts that

 

The concrete for culverts and bridges was made to order and thoroughly tested. It’s now showing its age.

Rail Road crossed. As we suspected, they were constructed of concrete. Thick, solid concrete that had withstood rail traffic and logging truck traffic and now regular vehicle traffic for well over a hundred years.

It was Jim that spotted the first discarded rail from the original tracks of the NTR.

First, an overview of the history of the National Transcontinental Railway:

  • NTR funded by federal government on condition that it be leased by Grand Truck Pacific Railway when finished.
  • Route from Moncton, New Brunswick to Winnipeg, Manitoba through Quebec City, Cochrane, and Nakina.
  • Survey of route began in 1904.
  • Construction began in 1906.
  • Pitopiko River bridge.

    Grading (of roadbed) completed in 1911. Trackwork already begun.

  • Trackwork (rails) completed beginning of 1912.
  • All iron work for bridges & trestles made to order & shipped to the right of way.
  • Last spike in Ontario driven at Grant (which locals called Hearst, which name stuck) 17 November 1913. The Quebec Bridge, however, was unfinished. It was the largest cantilever span in the world.
  • Distance from Quebec to Winnipeg, 1356 miles.
  • Grand Truck Pacific refused to assume responsibility for NTR with its huge cost overruns.
  • Ownership assumed by new federal government entity, Canadian Government Railways, on 1 June 1915.
  • NTR folded into new government corporation, Canadian National Railways, in 1919.
  • NTR name lingered for years, sometimes mislabelled Grand Truck Pacific which started in Winnipeg and proceeded west to the coast.
  • The line between Hearst and Nakina was labelled Pagwa Subdivision.
  • The Pagwa Subdivision rails were lifted in 1986 between Nakina and Calstock.
  • Calstock is now linked to Ontario Northland Railway on the old NTR line running to Cochrane. Lecours Lumber has a major sawmill in Calstock, located next door to Constance Lake First Nation. CLFN is the successor community to Pagwa Village.
  • Railway distance from Nakina to Calstock: 121.7 miles. From Pagwa River to Calstock: 53.6 miles. From Calstock to Hearst: 22.4 miles.

The section of rail Jim found was stamped with the phrase: ALGOMA STEEL 80 LBS SEC 100 1912. At many of the culverts and bridges, similar rails were erected as sign posts, topped by yellow-and-black striped caution signs. At least one of the posts carried the name of another steel company (illegible) and the date 1907.

Mysteries to be explored: How did these rails end up as salvage on the old NTR? Who erected the signs? When were they posted? What purpose did the signs serve?

Jim, a railway buff, speculated that the CNR, when salvaging the rails in 1986, erected the posts and signs as guides for truck traffic. After the rails were lifted and transported by train, other crews salvaged the ties, loaded them on trucks and followed the roadbed to the highway.

At one point in our trip, we came across three full-length rails in the ditch on the north side. We were unable to shift them, they weighing 80 pounds per linear foot. They were sinking into the ground, so we were unable to record information from them.

Nobody was home at the camps on the Otasawian River.

At the subdivision of cabins and trailers, Robert Lanthier and his wife were standing around a campfire. They said they owned the whole property, except for the lot adjoining to the west. That was the original site of the railway station Teltaka. That owner had not visited for a couple of years. Robert said that he had kept adding additions to his original cabin.

Location of original Teltaka Station.

 

By then we were standing around in a continuous drizzle. We had donned rain gear. We continued to drive. Again, no one was home at the Savoff cabin.

We arrived at the village. When we knocked, several people emerged from the cabin. In the back yard stood a white tepee. The owner, Ron Wesley, not knowing the story of our previous trip, proceeded to tell us a ghost story. One evening, standing around the tepee and a fire, they were engaged in a First Nations ceremony. Out of the darkness came the sounds of children laughing and talking. No living children were around.

Yes, he was aware of an old Catholic cemetery on the old Pagwa Road. It had been cleaned up some years ago, had probably seven or eight graves.

On Highway 11, there is a sign for the Pagwa Road. It is just east of the bridge on the Paguachuan River. On an earlier trip, Jim and another buddy had walked up it ways and were stopped by a washout. This road apparently once led to Pagwa Village. One of our informants told us that a logging company has plans to open it up again.

From Ron we learned which other residents were at home that weekend. We visited the old cemetery area and had lunch. Walking through the tall weeds, we discovered the nearby rubbish dump, tumbling down a hillside. Nothing but a lot of rusty cans.

While I checked the graveyard again, Jim and John walked the shoreline. Jim could not photograph the mystery artifact again ̶ the water was too disturbed. John picked up a stoneware shard with markings:

NOT

GENUINE UNLESS

BEARING

Wm P HARTLEY’S

LABEL

On the Internet, John found information on it. The label referred to certain stoneware storage containers found in antique sale or auction sites. The one John found was a jam pot.

John’s jam jar.

William Pickles Hartley, born in England in 1846, started producing his jams in 1871. He used no colouring or preservatives, only fruit and sugar. ln his first year, he sold 100 tons.

In 1886, his factory in Aintree, Liverpool employed 1,420 people, and produced 100 tons a day at the height of berry-picking season. Hartley sold strawberries, raspberries, black currants, and marmalade. By 1912, his company was the largest producer of sweet preserves in the entire world.

An unbroken crock offered for sale on the Internet.

John described his discovery in a message to me: “Found on east bank of Pagwachuan River about half way between high water and low water marks, downstream (north) of abandoned CNR trestle at Pagwa River village and approximately 200 meters north of the old cemetery . . . There were some additional smaller fragments from the sides of the pot that were not retrieved.”

How valuable was this piece of rubbish?

Well, the Amazon.ca.uk auction site lists a complete jar as “1890 vintage old stoneware jam pot – Not genuine unless bearing Wm. P. Hartley label”. The jar is 10.5 cm (4 in.) high and 7.5 cm (3 in.) wide at the base. What John found was the base or bottom of a jar.

Sales of this item recently brought an average price of £186.72 (US$225.41) and the highest price of £1,126.93 (US$1,378.93).

Whoa. Don’t get too excited. The listing is a misrepresentation of the vintage. Archaeologists excavating a rubbish heap at the site of one of Hartley’s factories determined that items like John’s jar were manufactured in the late 1920s.

The Amazon.com auction site lists a complete jar as “Antique Stoneware Marmalade Crock Wm P Hartley Lancashire England 1920s Ribbed”. Sales of this item recently brought an average price of US$47.57 and the highest price of US$229.00. Still a lot of dough, but, what is the base fragment of John’s jar worth?

I have an answer for that: it is priceless. The complete jar, full of delicious jam, was imported into Pagwa River, probably around 1930, and probably by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had a store there. This fragment deserves pride of place in the Pagwa River museum, whenever someone decides to found that institution.

One of the original labels.

William Pickles Hartley passed away in 1922, but his company’s successors and his jams have survived down to this day. Hartley jams are available in Canadian outlets, including Walmart. Not, unfortunately, in antique crocks, but in disposable glass jars.

Pity.

We set out to find the old Anglican church. Historical photos show it overlooking the river on the north side of the trestle. We searched further inland, in the thick bush which has overwhelmed the formerly large clearing where the main village was located. A network of trails and private lanes thread through the area north of Rail Road. We found the church. It looked bigger than we had imagined. In a 2002 photo, it was in a sad state of disrepair.

Old Anglican church on 13 June 2002, used as community hall. Richard Cameron photo.

Side view.

The church had been renovated with aluminum siding and modern windows. It looked spanking new, until you checked the rear wall, where the original weathered boards still clad the studs. Peering through the windows, we could determine the interior was set up as a camp facility with tables, wood-backed stacking chairs, and a kitchen. An outdoor oil tank suggested the fuel for the stove.

The building on 1 September 2019.

Side view.

Just down the road from the church, to the south, we knocked on a cabin door which had a pickup parked outside. Caroline Gilles answered. She welcomed us in. Over the winter she lives in Caramat. During the snow-free seasons, she lives there. She said the church had been built in 1962, that the original Anglican church had been replaced with a clump of poplar. That explained why we couldn’t find it. The itinerant minister had been Albert Williams. The building was owned by a group in Hearst who treated it as a camp.

When we asked about the old Catholic cemetery we’d heard about, she pointed towards the old Pagwa Road. She commented on the wood stove she had installed the day before, with help of friends. Something was wrong with the setup. Jim, a hardware merchant, offered to check it out. He offered some advice which I didn’t pay attention to. She gave directions to Caroline Wesley’s cabin.

As an afterthought, Jim asked her about the cabin owned by someone in Geraldton. It turned out to be next door to hers.

We found the Wesley cabin on Rail Road, south side. Caroline, Ron’s sister, answered the knock, stepped outside. As with others we encountered, she hadn’t heard about our trip of August 1st. As with others, I wrote down the Internet site in which I posted “Pagwa ̶ Village of Memory”, namely, E.J. Lavoie’s Blog. As we were leaving, she gestured towards the river and mentioned that there was a log Pentecostal church down that way.

Another church. We hadn’t heard a whisper before about another church.

We drove towards the river. At the turnoff to the boat launch, we continued south for another minute. The road, the old Pagwa Road, was growing in. We parked and walked for five minutes. It was a miserable walk. We pushed aside bushes, and trod the ruts and the vegetated centre hump. The steady drizzle was taking a toll on our boots and clothes, in spite of the rain gear.

The cemetery sprang up in the bush. Two crosses on a metre-high bank, facing the road. Behind them, a small irregular clearing with knee-high weeds. Stacked by the trees to the left, a mound of old pickets, probably the remains of fences around plots. The clearing was empty save for one small earthen mound. Some fence pickets were thrust in the ground in a haphazard way. Beyond the screen of trees, glimpses of the river.

Old Catholic cemetery, view looking toward the river.

Reverse view.

Perhaps the scattered pickets marked the sites of other plots. There was no marker on the small mound. And there were no mounds on the site of two crosses.

One cross was fabricated of angle iron. A synthetic wreath was draped over it. The other cross was made of PVC pipe and painted white. No gravestones and no inscriptions.

Back on the road we drove a minute, passed the turnoff to the boat launch, and stopped at the only cabin on the north side. A woman was finishing up some chore. She introduced herself as Isabel Wesley Dube. No, she had not heard of our previous trip. I left the address for our story.

We immediately passed the turnoff to the south that led to the old schoolhouse. We stopped at the only other structure. It looked like a log cabin. However, it was sided with heavily weathered planks. This was apparently the old Pentecostal church. It was, like other structures, locked up tight, and we weren’t prepared to disturb its ghosts.

Old Pentecostal church.

During our visits, John had encountered some teenagers in a red car. They said they lived in Hornepayne. They were visiting their grandmother. They had made efforts to fill in the washout on Rail Road. On the return trip, we met them again, as well as a handful of other vehicles.

Back on Rail Road, we headed home. Still raining lightly but steadily. Just before the Savoff cabin, we crossed a creek and met a single-lane road going north. We crept up it for a half a kilometre. Some clearings, but no concrete slabs or metal where Richard Cameron had said he found remains of the water tower used to fill the locomotives. We’ll have to get better directions.

Site of Savoff Station, view looking west 13 June 2002. Remains of water tower. Richard Cameron photo.

At Pitopiko Road we had a chat with a bear hunter from Wisconsin. He wanted to know what was up Rail Road. We left him the impression there was nothing to see. Not even ghosts.

But we knew that wasn’t strictly true.

Sign on highway, looking east.

[P.S. Check out Pagwa 1 at http://bit.ly/2zewkay .]

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PAGWA : VILLAGE OF MEMORY

The Pagwa railway trestle is still standing a century after it was erected.  View looking downstream (north).

Ghost town.

That is our first impression of the historic village of Pagwa River. When we visited on Thursday, August 1st, 2019, there wasn’t a living soul to be seen. It was a ghost town.

But the ghosts were there.

Lurking.

Lurking in the abandoned shacks, and in the old empty homes, and in a few modern-looking cabins. The village was absolutely deserted. But we sensed that the ghosts would eventually return to inhabit their corporeal bodies. They would soon return to resume their memories.

For me, it was a visit to the cemeteries that suggested that spirits still lingered there.

But first we had to find the village. It was a beautiful day. Early in the morning I had picked up Jim Marino at his family’s hardware store in Geraldton. John Lavoie, my brother, who lives in Manitouwadge, had met us just after 8:00 a.m. at the junction with Highway 11 after travelling the Industrial Road. John parked his pickup and locked it up. This was Jim’s second visit to Pagwa; this was our first. We are all unrepentant bush historians.

The three of us resumed driving east on Highway 11 in my 2018 Subaru Forester. One hundred thirty-eight kilometres past Longlac, we turned north on the Pitopiko Road (well signed), a good two-lane gravel road. After 6.4 klicks we came to a cross-roads. The two-lanes continued north, a single lane road went west, and to the east was the untravelled railway roadbed that nature was reclaiming.

The road led west to Pagwa. It was obviously a forest access road constructed by some logging company. The road followed the old railway right-of-way for the most part. From time to time we could distinguish evidence of the old roadbed immediately to our left. Whenever we crossed a stream, the former railway had provided a solid bridge or culvert.

At 11.4 klicks from the highway, we crossed a solid plank bridge suspended by ironwork over a shallow valley. This was the Pitopiko River, a mere dreamy stream.

The Pitopiko River.

It was a dreamy day. We indulged our curiosity at every opportunity. That’s what bush historians do when in the bush.

At various bridges and culverts we noted arcane metal road signs, always on the right side, such as Rr 1 and Rr 9 and Rr 20. We speculated on their significance and agreed on no conclusion.

One of the mysterious “Rr” sign.

The road was dead straight. A dark structure sprang up in the distance on the right of way. Soon it was looming over us. This imposing steel structure came as a surprise in such a wilderness. It turned out to be the Otasawian River bridge. This bridge was a worthy of a major railway, which the National Transcontinental Railway was when it was being constructed in 1912-13.

The Otasawian River bridge. View looking west.

At 24.4 kilometres from the highway, we rumbled over the planks of the Otasawian bridge. The Otasawian was another dreamy stream, larger than the Pitopiko, but still dreaming its way to the more vigorous Nagagami River, where it would join the fast-moving Kenogami River, and in turn meet the broad Albany River, and finally, weeks later, mix its waters with mighty James Bay.

View looking north from the bridge.

Just over the bridge, on the right-hand side, was a fenced in yard with a cabin, two RVs, and a pickup truck. Nobody seemed to be home.

A cabin, a pickup, and an RV.

Another RV.

At 33.5 klicks, on the right, we passed a cabin set back of an expanse of mowed lawn. Nobody seemed to be home. We learned later this must be the site of the former railway station Savoff.

A beautiful lawn in the wilderness.

Shortly after, at 36.8 klicks, we came to the washout we had warning of. It was easily negotiated in my SUV. Meanwhile, we passed occasional forest access roads which seemed no longer in use, including three with signs: Stanley’s Rd, Burrell Creek Road, and Ch. Clark Creek Rd. The forest was recovering from major harvesting activities.

At 44.8 klicks, another bridge, and just past it, on the right, a small undivided subdivision. As in, a haphazard collection of cabins and house trailers.

We came around a long dreamy curve in the road, veering left. We began to see cabins in the thick bush. Passed the turnoff to the old railway trestle. At the 54.2 kilometre point, our journey ended at the river. To our right was the trestle.

The Pagwa, or Paguachuan River, is a wide slow-moving water course. It looked as if we could walk across. We had been told that some people crossed on quads. Later we learned that for a short period, the river had been bridged at this point. A few metres to our right was a concrete ramp down the bank, evidently a boat launch. There was no evidence of a road ever continuing on the far bank.

View looking downriver. On the far grassy bank is a building being demolished (or rebuilt). Beyond it is the old cemetery.

The Pagwa River runs generally north till it joins the Kenogami River. At the junction, there used to be a Hudson’s Bay Company post called English River (the original name of the Kenogami).

By far the most prominent feature of Pagwa River (both river and village) was the trestle. It cast the Otasawian bridge in the shadow. Gazing right, downriver, my first impulse was to compare it to the new Nipigon River bridge. The Nipigon bridge is Ontario’s largest and longest cable-stayed highway bridge. It opened in late 2018 carrying four lanes of traffic. On second impulse, I realized the Pagwa trestle had only a single lane of traffic during its history. But it is still a huge edifice, towering high, stretching far from concrete pier to concrete pier. The piers and abutments have been standing for one hundred and seven years, since 1912. The rails and ties of the trestle have been salvaged, leaving just the bare steelwork. Yet it is still an awe-inspiring sight. It will still be standing when another century has passed.

Looking past and under the trestle, I spotted what looked like a church on the near bank, downriver. Many historic photos show an Anglican church in that area. Beyond it I knew we would find an historic cemetery. Everyone agreed to explore the cemetery first, but we got sidetracked.

What I mistook for the church was this. Jim Marino photo.

As we backtracked on the main road, Jim pointed out that the old schoolhouse was up a low hill behind some trees. We turned right (south) and drove into a cluster of scattered buildings. The school was a solid log building perched on a cement block above-ground basement. The blocks had a coating of plaster. The school was locked up tight.

Pagwa schoolhouse.

The main door, facing north, was inaccessible behind a covered porch, an obviously later addition. On the east side was another door, and there were traces that a porch once stood there. The windows were located high in the log walls. I want to stress that we did not attempt to gain entry into any buildings in the village. We respected the ghosts, and the living people that no doubt would be returning some day.

It was lunch time. There were a few flies around, so we continued to the cemetery, where we hoped to catch a breeze.

On the main road we took a left (going north), and arrived on a grassy bank overlooking the river. On the right was a building in process of being demolished or rebuilt ̶ it was hard to tell which. We had a bite to eat, enjoying the sun and breeze. Then we walked down a quad trail to the big white cross marking the cemetery. A huge ring at the centre of the crossed pipes suggested it was once a dreamcatcher. To the left the bank fell away sharply where it had collapsed into the river. John and Jim explored on their own while I photographed all the grave markers. In the long grass and weeds I counted 11 stones and one wooden cross. A photo in 2002 shows the cemetery in the same state of disrepair.

Entrance to the old cemetery.

I love old cemeteries. They tell so many stories, some in words, some left to the imagination. The village had its beginning in 1915 when the NTR started operating. The earliest date of birth recorded was 1903, the earliest date of death, 1921. The last recorded death date, 1953. Some grave markers were missing ̶ in his exploration, John found human bone debris where the cemetery was sliding slowly down the bank. If one took the time, most of the gravestones were legible.

Three gravestones defied our efforts to read them. The inscriptions were in syllabics.

Inscription in syllabics.

Most inscriptions touched the heart ̶ the heart of the reader, or the heart of someone long dead who cherished the memory.

IN LOVING MEMORY

OF

SINCLAIR WAHSAYAHPUN

WHO DIED DEC. 17TH 1921

AGED 16 YEARS

SON OF JOHN & MARY

WAHSAYAHPUN

The Lord is my Shepherd I shall

not want         Psalms XXIII

Sinclair Wahsayahpun died in 1921.

The death noted in 1921 may possibly be attributed to the Spanish influenza pandemic which accounted for 55,000 deaths in Canada, beginning in 1918 and lasting at least a couple of years following. Some of the deaths around that time may also be industrial accidents associated with the operations of Revillon Freres and Hudson’s Bay Company. The year 1916 was the first full year of operation of the National Transcontinental Railway, and in the winter of 1915-16, Revillon Freres built flat-bottomed scows and launched them fully laden right after breakup. Using Cree as pilots and scowmen, they floated the scows downriver to the mouth of the Albany River at James Bay, dropping off supplies. The supplies had to last several remote trading posts a whole year.

Some of the deaths were certainly due to natural causes.

Only one wooden grave marker has survived the decades. The cross had one painted phrase: WILFRID D. TAYLOR.

The only wooden cross.

A couple of plots fenced in with wooden pickets exhibited a sad state of decay. The plot surrounded by unpainted pickets was thoroughly overgrown to the point where the grave

A hopelessly overgrown plot.

marker was hidden. The better-preserved one still featured white paint. Most of the inscription had been obliterated, but one could make out some markings:

This grave is on the road to obliteration.

The stone within the ruined fence is practically unreadable.

PAUL ___

PEWINI[W]ASH

MARCH 3RD 1941

DEC 9[TH] [16 HRS] 1941

AGE 9 MONTHS

___

As you can see, some of the inscription was guesswork. A photo of this grave taken in 2002 by Richard Cameron showed the fence is in far better repair. Soon the remains will be sliding down the bank.

The same gravesite in 2002. Richard Cameron photo.

John and Jim examine the bone debris at the top of the bank.

Jim, poking around shoreline, spotted a bulky metal artifact which might have been used to anchor the scows before they began their voyage. The item was in shallow water but hard to make out. It must have fallen from higher up the bank.

 

The mysterious metal artifact in the river. Jim Marino photo.

Scows in 1925 about to begin their voyage. The ones on the near bank belong to Revillon Freres. They are anchored just up from the graveyard. The ones on the far side belong to Hudson’s Bay Company. They had a new power boat to bring the loads of furs upriver to the railway.

The three of us returned to the SUV and continued a couple of hundred metres to a newer cemetery, far from the river.

The new cemetery was the same size as the old cemetery, but someone had recently

The new cemetery.

mowed the grass. There were 7 gravestones, and one memorial marker; four of them, plus the memorial, commemorated members of the Wesley family. Three of them memorialized a Bull, a Ferris, and a Faries. The newest stone was devoted to Greta D. Bull, who passed in 2017. Its inscription referenced a white cross which was also devoted to Greta D. Bull. The oldest stones in the new cemetery dated to 1962.

A cross in the new cemetery.

This was the end of the road. We turned around. We looked for the old rubbish heap that we’d heard about, but failed to find it in the long grass. It was time for a closer look at the trestle.

Back at the main road, we parked and walked up the remnant of the railbed that soon brought us to a metal cyclone fence. Following the steps of other curious visitors, we skirted the barrier and gazed on a marvel. The open framework of the trestle seemed to

View looking west across the river.

stretch interminably. Glancing down, we observed the date 1912 inscribed in the concrete abutment. We had earlier learned that Mohawks from Caughnawaga, high steel walkers, had erected the beams and girders in 1913.

The year the concrete abutment was poured.

The skill of ironworkers from Caughnawaga Reserve, also known as Kahnawake, near Montreal, was recognized in the 1880s when they were employed to construct a railway bridge running from the island of Montreal to their reserve on the south shore of the St. Lawrence. As bush historians tend to do, we tried to supplement that information with Internet searches. Some reputable writers described the Mohawks as displaying their skill and daring as “skywalkers” during the construction of the Victoria Bridge in 1886. The Victoria Bridge was an engineering marvel, the longest railway bridge in North America, about 2 kilometres long. The fact is that the Victoria Bridge, in the same area, was constructed of iron in 1859. Reputable historians do not mention the Mohawk connection. From 1885 to 1887, the Mohawks were learning their trade on what was called the Black Bridge (possibly a description of the colour of the steel), and later named the St-Laurent Railway Bridge.

Despite literally days at the computer, I was unable to ascertain the length and height of the Pagwa trestle. It is long and it is high. Richard Cameron, in 2002, describes crossing the trestle after the rails had been removed. His wife feared walking the closely spaced ties. He and his wife rode in a van with 4-wheel drive to inch across the deck. His wife closed her eyes. The crossing took a full five minutes. After visiting the site of the USAF Pagwa Air Station (aka as a radar base), they crossed back.

The radar base operated from 1953 to 1966. Richard Cameron, writer and photographer, made several trips to Pagwa River at the turn of the century. During one of his trips, he described the trestle length as 800 feet.

View of the ties on the trestle looking east. Richard Cameron photo.

A contemporary observer of the construction of the trestle in 1913 estimated the height as 100 feet.

The comparison with the Nipigon River bridge begins to seem less far-fetched: trestle, 244 m long, deck 30 m high above the river; bridge, 252 m long, deck 25 m above the river.

Anybody who tries to walk across the skeleton trestle today has rocks in his head.

John, who is a naturalist, was the first to spot saskatoon berries. We spent some time picking them. The area is rife with saskatoons. John has an interest in orchids. He pointed out one to Jim. who photographed it. John was curious about a patch of Joe Pye Weed. That plant with its clusters of pinkish flowers prefers low, damp places. This patch was on a small hill in a clearing.

Saskatoons.

Northern Green Orchid. Jim Marino photo.

We had one more mission to accomplish ̶ to find the old Anglican church. Historic photos show the church close to the river bank on the north (downriver) side of the trestle. We conducted a search starting from the launch site on the south side, walked under the trestle, and tramped on a trail through the bush all the way to the area of old cemetery. The only structure was the mysterious unfinished building. We were almost prepared to declare that building was the old church until an informant later told us the church was still standing, intact. Somehow we had missed it. It much have been relocated in an area of private dwellings that we chose not to survey.

One of the cabins in the village. Jim Marino photo.

Bush historians conduct their research in, well, the bush. Often they are lucky enough to eke out their findings with real artifacts or scraps of texts or fading images or the faulty memories of living people. Rarely can they find corroboration of their conclusions by reputable historians, who themselves rely on the words and images of long dead people.

In the case of the Pagwa schoolhouse, I searched for hours in digital archives, and stumbled across letters and records of the Pagwa Indian Day School. In 1938, the Rev. Neville R. Clarke, of the St. Clement’s Mission Anglican Church, applied to the Department of Indian Affairs for funding of a school in Pagwa. Apparently the school was already established, with 24 pupils enrolled. Rev. Clarke asked, quite humbly, for financial support for a dozen pupils whose families were resident in Pagwa. He had faint hope of getting funding for a dozen others who had no history of year-round residence in Pagwa. The records show that after the Constance Lake Reserve established a day school, the file for Pagwa day school was closed in 1946.

On our next trip, we will find the old Anglican church.

The church and village in 1941 looking north. Neville Clarke photo.

Following the main road to the highway, we met the first live person we had seen on the trip. He was a Conservation Officer who had lived his life in the Hearst area. Why he was on patrol to a ghost village, he didn’t explain. But, in conversation, we learned about a bailey bridge that once joined the two banks of the river at Pagwa. No more information, just an off-hand reference. It is just such a scrap of information that keeps us bush historians interested and walking the bush and searching in cyberspace. Again, performing digital searches, we found more info on how vehicular traffic used to get across the river.

Enjoy these last two photos.

View of the log and gravel summer bridge looking east. September 1962. USAF airman photo.

View looking south and east. Bailey bridge under construction. February 1965. RCAF airman photo.

We shall visit Pagwa Village again on some weekend soon, when the corporeal bodies return.

We’ll try to pick a sunny day.

 

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CONFESSIONS OF A WHISTLEBLOWER

Last evening, when I emerged from the fog bank, I almost ran down the road worker holding the stop sign.

Soon after I had left Thunder Bay in late afternoon, driving north, I encountered stretches of fog which sometimes reduced visibility to thirty or forty metres. Otherwise, the highway was mostly clear under low ceilings.

North of Nipigon, when the hilly section began, I heeded the caution to slow down for road construction but there seemed to be no activity. The day before, I had breezed by the same caution going to TBay and there hadn’t been a single construction machine in sight let alone human beings.

So when a figure loomed out of the fog, I braked sharply. I sensed rather than saw the hazy figure waving a sign.

I immediately rolled down the passenger window (if “rolled down” is the term one uses nowadays for opening a car window by pressing a button) and raised my voice: “I didn’t see you! You’re almost invisible,” and in my next breath, “Who’s your boss?”

Surprised out of his stupor, the worker blurted out, “Brad!”

I knew the road worker wasn’t to blame but I had every intention of chewing out Brad, his supervisor.

On the rest of the drive home, I cast my mind over times when I had lodged a complaint about some road hazard or case of dangerous driving or even of dangerous pedestering (if there is such a word).

Not long ago I recalled stopping at the Greenstone OPP detachment to warn of a dangerous practice. Pedestrians were walking on the shoulder, backs to traffic, on a walk to Ottawa. (See my post WALK THE RIGHT WAY, http://bit.ly/2KeceRU ). I approached the constable on duty and pointed out the walkers were breaking the law by not walking on the shoulder facing traffic. The constable responded that he wasn’t aware of any such law. Nevertheless, he said he would monitor the situation. He never got back to me so I don’t know what he did, but anyway, nobody died.

I looked up the Ontario statute with regard to pedestrians and lo and behold, there is such a law.

Another time in stormy winter weather, just south of Beardmore, a semi passed me on a curve and crowded me onto the shoulder. I had to brake hard to avoid mowing down guard rails. I was really scared. So I sped up and followed him in dangerous conditions all the way to Nipigon so that I could report him at the detachment. This is one case when I did get feedback. The OPP said there were two drivers and neither would admit to being behind the wheel. However, later the police told me they had notified their Vancouver-based company and were assured the boss would take action. Again, nobody died on that trip.

On another trip, I almost did die. Just south of Jellicoe, coming around a sharp curve, I met two transports. Together. Side by side. I managed to slip by between the pavement and the guard rails. At the next opportunity I bought a dashcan. I swore that next time my family and friends would have a record of how I died. I fondly believed that my camera would survive any head-on collision with a transport.

I didn’t blow the whistle that time ̶ what was the point? It was all over in seven seconds. (See my post SEVEN SECONDS TO LIVE, http://bit.ly/31V6k0N . This post is my whistle.)

Some years ago, just east of Kenora, I encountered a big truck hauling a big trailer piled high with loose debris. The pile was canted to one side, the side I was meeting the truck on. I pulled over when I could and called the situation in. After the usual barrage of questions about who I was and where I was and what I was complaining about and what was the maiden name of my deceased aunt, I continued my journey. I had a vision of the truck toppling over at a curve, obliterating sundry tourists and the odd Volkswagen.

Over the next twenty-four hours, I monitored the newspapers and broadcasts out of Winnipeg. Not a word. Apparently, nobody died.

So, yesterday, when the road worker gave me the go-head, I drove slowly down the hill towards the flashing lights and the blurry machines and pulled over for a guy in a hard hat. Yes, he was Brad. What did I mean I couldn’t see him. He glanced up the hill where I’m sure he couldn’t even see the worker he was supervising. Oh, he said, the fog. Yes, I said, the fog. Well, he said, we’re just about finished here.

I drove on. He walked on. Ruminating on the incident, I concluded the road worker has not in a fog bank but in a low-lying cloud. For one thing, the mist was lighter in the hollow where the road gang was working, and in my experience, fog congregates in the low spots.

Still, whether in a fog or in a cloud, the worker had been practically invisible.

I’m so glad I stopped in time.

I’m so glad nobody died this time.

And for reporting another dangerous situation, I got, as usual, no feedback.

Call me a Nervous Nellie or just a crank, but . . .

I’m so glad I blew my whistle.

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CANADA’S ALBATROSS

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

The worst nightmare of the Ancient Mariner is being replicated in Canada. I want to understand why.

You know the whine of the Ancient Mariner1 – that he must relive the horror of a sea voyage in which all his shipmates die, and he endures a Life-In-Death afloat upon a Sargasso Sea, parched beyond belief, and . . .

Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs

Upon the slimy sea.

I have lived most years of my life upon a Spongy Sea, afloat in the boreal forest of Canada, the wellspring and font and source of one cup in five, of twenty percent of the world’s freshest water. Yet I dare not drink it. Raw.

Full many a time and oft have I plunged my face into a succulent stream and sucked the elixir of life. If bread be the Staff of Life, then water, my friends – water is the CEO and President of the Cutting Board. Without water, my dears, the ship of Earth is an Enron looking for a reef to founder on.

Water. You may remember the days, if you have lived long enough, when as a kid you shucked the sweaty baseball glove and you raced to the fountain and gobbled the mouthpiece. You may remember those days, but you bridle at the memory. You were drinking treated water, raw.

You may remember the days when you filled a glass straight from the tap and swallowed it. I remember the days when I used to dip my cup into the murk of a birch-ringed lake and drink the milky contents. Raw. No, no, never, no more.

One incident, not even ten years ago: I was helping to hustle a passel of feisty teens over a two-plus-mile portage in the Land o’ Goshen, which, in the middle of a two-week carry-your-own-stuff-as-well-as-communal-food-and-camp-gear trip, required several carries. Now, the leader of the canoe trip, whom I shall call John Jay, had a reputation. Part of it stemmed from John Jay’s belief that he was bound to provide a wilderness adventure, especially when things were running smoothly.

So, at lunch break, we learned that our canteens were dry. And it was a dry port, meaning, there was no potable water on the trail. But there were puddles. Puddles of swamp water ̶ black, and brackish, and crawling with slimy things.

Yes, we drank it. Sure, we dissolved a few pounds of chlorine in the stuff, but it was still awful. And when night overtook us, we camped on the trail, and we sent porters ahead to bring back pots of aqua. They found a seasonal stream that had flooded the port. To acquire the aqua, they waded into the muddy mess, dipped the pots, and chucked out the biggest clods. We boiled the stuff, boiled the hell out of it, and quaffed a concoction that had the colour of tea and the texture of 5W-30. Hey, it was an adventure!

No, no, never, no more. In all my excursions now into the Goshen woods, I rely on a lightweight, hand-pumped water purifier. As a departed friend used to say to me, as he bolted a belt of raw scotch, “No water, please. Fish pee in it.” It never bothered me before. It bothers me now.

It bothers me now to drink from South Sea blue waters churned up by the motorboats. It bothers me now to drink from rivers which are still dissolving the products of long ago log drives. It bothers me to drink from natural sources that are laced with beaver spit and duck poop and fiss pish.

But, ladies and germs, this is fresh water, fresh from Canada’s boreal forest, from the largest, the absolutely greatest reservoir of fresh water in the world. What has happened?

Here is what happened. In one word. Walkerton.

In 2000, in Walkerton, Bruce County, Province of Ontario, people watched their family and neighbours sicken and suffer. Many died. Others have never recovered their health.

What happened? Public officials, the people who were charged with treating fresh water and rendering it potable, failed them. Some of those responsible have been punished.

As a consequence, Canada has a dead weight suspended from its national neck. Sure, there has been a flood of clean water legislation, and the whole country has been battered by a tsunami of new regulations, but who trusts the water nowadays? Not me.

Do I blame Walkerton? Not entirely. The Walkerton tragedy could just as well happen in North Battleford, or in Kashechewan, or in Rankin Inlet. Come to think of it, it already did, to some degree. It could happen in Goshen.

The tragedy for me, the personal tragedy for me, is that I can never think of fresh water as I once did in the halcyon days of yore.

I am, now, an Ancient Mariner, and I stoppeth thee in thy happy business, compelled to tell thee this tale. For my dreams, my waking dreams, are haunted . . .

By coldwater streams once kissed by jewelly brook trout . . .

And rushing rivers brushed by the wingtips of osprey . . .

And eye-blue lakes caressed by the bottoms of thin-skinned canoes . . .

Oh, once again, good God, grant me a drop to drink . . .

Raw.

*   *   *

Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to trust.

1 Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, his longest poem, and published it in 1798. Even today, this tale of man’s sin against Nature has immense power to move the reader.

Originally published in The Gardens of Goshen, Volume 3, October 2006

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UNDER ARREST

Advertising may be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it. In this matter, Stephen Leacock misspoke, for advertising is not a science, it is an art, and art requires imagination.

It is a scientific fact that a municipal councillor has a practical turn of mind. A councillor is a no-nonsense type who, for example, makes note of the streets in his or her ward that need repairs. The councillor prepares a meticulously detailed report, in twenty-five words or less, and submits it to public works. He submits it again four weeks later, or, as the case may be, four years later, with or without revisions. Little has escaped his or her steel-trapped mind.

A councillor must also wrestle with a perennial problem – crime in the streets. The perpetrators are often non-citizens, or, more to the point, non-voters. They will trespass on private property, they will urinate on people’s stoops, and in some flagrant instances, they mate under the street lamps. As a consequence, councillors must devise laws that are increasingly stringent, to curb domestic cats.

A councillor’s mind is focused on practicalities – how to raise taxes, how to raise the community’s profile, how to raise hell at meetings, and, incidentally, how to raise taxes.

Speaking of community profiles, the mayor and council of the Small City of Dryden are taking a break from practical affairs, and are exercising their imaginations. It seems that the community slogan is just too practical: Dryden ̶ Unique, Progressive, Confident, Proud, Ontario’s Leading Small City. I wish I were kidding, but I’m never that funny.

The slogan is not working. Travellers on the TransCanada who must run the Dryden gauntlet think of it as the Small City of the Big Stink. Dryden’s neighbours are more charitable – they think of it as the Big Pew-Pew.

The stink comes from the small city’s big paper mill. Several forests, and generations of new growth, have fed the maws of this mill.   One must travel towards the subarctic regions to find a virgin forest, intermingled with smutty peat bogs, and sensual beds of moss, and woodland caribou wandering about promiscuously.

What has been the result of the council’s exercise of imagination?   It is – please, I am serious here – it is this slogan: Dryden ̶ The Wilderness City.

I know what you’re thinking – that sometimes, sometimes imagination should be exercised regularly, in order to avoid cramps.

Still, Dryden – The Wilderness City is a viable marketing concept. As one councillor said, “It’s kind of down to earth.” Way, way down. It is certain to appeal to visitors and to investors and it is certain to entice professionals to uproot and resettle here.

Wilderness has universal appeal. Just imagine. Imagine tourists who will come to dangle their toes in the acidic lakes. Imagine the firms that will relocate here, such as Air Wick, to name a few.   Imagine doctors attracted by the prospect of chronic respiratory illness and previously undiscovered cancers.

Okay, I’m kidding now. My point is, if you arrest your intelligence, you can see the humour in it, and if you can arrest other people’s intelligence, there may be money in it. Arrestment works, in police work, and in flood control, and in advertising.

Now that candidates are lining up for Goshen’s municipal elections, let’s encourage them to release their imagination. Some may hurt themselves, or pee on someone’s stoop, or mate with each other, but in a democracy, these are acceptable risks. Goshen’s slogan needs work. It is, I believe, We’re Still Here, Eh?

Goshen needs to raise its profile. Lately, as hundreds of forest fires swept the region, we and our neighbours achieved a national prominence. Smoke darkened our days, penetrated our lungs, infiltrated our homes.   But there’s been no money in it. We haven’t arrested anyone’s intelligence yet. So, let’s advertise.

There is a market for smoke. Millions of people. Worldwide. Who disguise their vice with breath mints. Who supplement their highs with arm patches. Who skulk outside of the workplace, puffing away.

Just imagine. Fire season in Goshen. Hundreds, thousands of smoke-deprived tourists, dragging in lungsful of cinders and ash. And imagine the product possibilities – nose filters, and wrinkle cream, and nicotine throat sprays. A new slogan? Goshen – Land of the Big Smoke.

We’d just have to persuade Toronto to release the slogan to us.

There’s just no limit to what imagination can do.

Unless you arrest it.

  *   *   * 

Many people feel like exercising their imagination, but when they start thinking, the feeling passes.

Originally published in The Gardens of Goshen, Volume 3, September 2006

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POACHERS, WELCOME TO PARADISE!

Trust, but verify. I love this maxim. People love the truth, love telling the truth, love hearing the truth. And as often as not, people will fudge the truth. People are funny that way.

Tigers aren’t laughing. Tigers are dying from lack of truth. India’s Bengal tigers have been dying for decades, but the people of India trusted that the 4,260 square kilometres of Sundarbans Tiger Reserve was a refuge that would never be violated. They trusted that there would always be tigers.

After all, just recently, the Ministry of Forests had counted 273 tigers there. But some cranks insisted on verification. As if government were ever guilty of creative accounting.

So some people were surprised when an independent agency could verify only 64 tigers in the Reserve. Poachers had accounted for the rest. It seems that the wardens had been covering up for years. Why? Some, to hang on to their jobs. Others, to make a crooked rupee.

This could never happen here. Why? Because the wardens that guard our forests are steadily losing their jobs, and those that still have jobs, are chained to their desks.

Canadians, bless ‘em, have a profound trust in the stewards of our forests, and forests, of course, include wildlife. The forests and wildlife have always been here, will always be here, and if such were not the case, government would tell us. Truthfully.   The woodland caribou, for example.

There is a plan, the plan has been implemented, and the plan is working to preserve the historic numbers of woodland caribou. Right? Ask a Ministry biologist, and he will affirm that we do have a plan to preserve caribou habitat, that the plan to preserve caribou habitat has been implemented, and that the plan to preserve caribou habitat is working.   Trust him. He is absolutely truthful.

Now, read that affirmation again. There is no plan to preserve the historic numbers of caribou. There is, instead, a plan to preserve habitat. So, what does that mean?

What are the historic numbers of caribou? No one knows. How many caribou are there today? No one knows, but someone will guess. What is caribou habitat? Some people claim to know. Is the plan working? Yes. How do they know? Because there are caribou living in the habitat. Do they know how many? No. Do they care? Not much, for as long as there is habitat, and someone can point to the presence of a caribou somewhere in it, the plan is working.

See? No one has lied. If you are not sharp enough to ask the right questions, you just go right on trusting. Canadians are good at that.

Now, back to our wardens – conservation officers, COs, we call ‘em in Goshen.   Yes, they’re chained to their desks, hunched over the phones, and waiting for the forest to talk to them. If there is a problem in the bush, if the trees or the plants or the wildlife need their assistance, surely someone will call.

Meanwhile, their trucks are parked. The CO positions that are vacant will remain vacant. To justify their jobs, COs must lay charges, but the quota has been drastically slashed. Even if the quota reaches zero, there will still be COs ̶ for the optics, you understand.

In India, at the current rate of poaching, there will be no tigers in tens years’ time. In Canada, at the current rate, there will be no . . . Wait! What am I saying? No one’s keeping track. Hard to do when chained to your desk.

Do you think I’m being funny? Well, I try to be, but I am definitely not kidding. The tigers are not laughing. The caribou are not smiling. The fish are not grinning – well, okay, some may be grinning, but that’s an hereditary quirk.

But somebody is laughing. The poachers are laughing. The poachers are having a field day. The poachers have known for years of the budget restraints in the Ministry of Manageable Resources, restraints so stringent that they are short-changing the health of our forests and wildlife.

And now you know. You may also have seen something in the papers, heard something on radio. But now that you have read this, you know. You. Know. You.

Are you mad? Don’t be mad. Be smart. Ask some sharp questions. You can trust the Ministry to answer truthfully, or to fudge the truth, expertly. The truth is still there, somewhere.

And you are smarter than any bureaucrat. Trust me. Canadians are good at trusting.

But verify.

* * *

Truth is like fudge – sweet, and sticky, and, in large chunks, hard to swallow.

Originally published in The Gardens of Goshen, Volume 3, August 2006

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GIANTS OF OLD

Surely we ought to be giants, living in such a country as this. The playwright, Anton Chekhov, was remarking on his own country. He prefaced the remark with The Lord God has given us vast forests, immense fields, wide horizons . . .

Such a country is Russia. Such is Canada. Such is Goshen, where the immense fields are clear cuts, and yet the moral imperative applies: We ought to be giants.

We ought to be giants because we live in a land peopled by giants. By children who aspire to greater heights. By fathers who stick to their dead-end jobs and support their families and shoulder a mountain of debt. By mothers who slave at McJobs and return to McClosets to raise their McBrats as they wait for their McPrince to close the bars. Still, they do not cut the throats of their employers nor drown their children nor poison their spouses at an unreasonable rate. They exercise a gigantic restraint.

Besides, we need giants. The other day, six of us set out to recover the artifacts of Goshen’s giants of old. We travelled for hours. We plunged into vast forests. We traversed mile after mile of logged-over wilderness.   And as for the horizons, while they weren’t especially wide, they were muscular. Like the shoulders of giants.

We found the old-time horse-drawn logging sleighs where they had been bulldozed into roadside dumps to clear the way for logging trucks. Two bunks, each with a pair of runners, would have constituted a sleigh. We found five bunks, wreckages of iron and rotting wood. And each bunk was . . . HEAVY.

To one bunk we applied our combined weight of muscle and bone, well over a thousand pounds, and barely budged it. Okay, there may have been some fatty tissue involved, and arthritic joints, and twinges of angina pectoris, but still.

So we applied our minds to the challenge, close to three centuries of brains and experience, and we wrestled each bunk into a trailer.   How the devil did a horse, or a team of horses, or a herd of horses move these contrivances, loaded with timber, over ice roads in the dead of winter?

It had to be Paul who logged these woods. It had to be Gin Jammer Johan who loaded the timber, and Cross-Chain Charlie who secured the load, and Gee-Haw Gustav who steered the horse, and don’t you forget Hayburner Hercules, that gallant steed, who drew the sleigh. The giants of old.

There was an item the other day, in the paper, about the excavation of old Paul’s grave at East Haddam, Connecticut. Well, it was actually the grave of Venture Smith, “the black Paul Bunyan”, as they call him. Born in Africa in 1729, Venture was sold into slavery at the age of six, served an American master, married Meg at age twenty-two, was sold again, separated from his wife, worked from dawn to dusk for nothing and then worked from dusk to dawn for cash until, at age thirty-six, he bought his freedom, and over several years, bought the freedom of his wife and his children, and worked his tireless brains and his legendary brawn from dawn to dawn as he accumulated a private fortune. There is a story of his shouldering a nine-pound axe and hewing seven cords of wood in a single day.

The logging artifacts that we recovered have been relocated to Goshen Museum, and now the task is to find the memories and the skills that can convert them into respectable exhibits. We are searching for the descendants of cross-cut engineers and coal forge blacksmiths and hand-augur carpenters. We need the sons and the grandsons of Sidney Sawyer and Samuel Smithy and Sheldon Shaver.

It seems that they were excavating Venture’s grave to secure some genetic evidence of his origins, but all that they found were some artifacts that were consistent with his existence. His marvelous mental strength and his stupendous spirit and his preternatural stature, they still belong to legend.

It was Paul Bunyan’s boys, and the girls who loved them and supported them, who built an industry that spanned a continent. It was the brains and muscles of the loggers, and the fibre and fecundity of the trees, and the sweat and the sacrifice of the horses that created legends. Giants, they were.

To be esteemed.

We ought to be giants.

Originally published in The Gardens of Goshen, Volume 3, August 2006

Posted in LOCAL HISTORY, MY EXCURSIONS, THE CHRONICLES OF GOSHEN | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MY TEETH ARE STRONG

Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land . . .

This sentiment comes to mind because I can hear the harvesting machinery ravaging the bush just across the lake from our home.

We live in Goshen’s rural domain, and if you want to imagine a Canadian’s worst nightmare, it is a feller-buncher loose in cottage country.

The train of thought upon which I now embark began last week, although I had no idea that such was the case until I punched out these words. The mind moves in mysterious ways.

Last week a prospector was trying to convince a group of us resource management advisors that the modern mining industry is a responsible player in the forest. He failed. Entertainingly.

Oh, he was a likeable guy, a very knowledgeable guy, and passionate about his work, but he was Ronald McDonald trying to convince a blue ribbon chef that white wine goes just swell with red meat.

Twenty years ago, he might’ve convinced a short-order cook, but today, in the forest industry, everyone’s a connoisseur.   It is no longer cool to slash truckloads of trees and leave them to rot, to punch heavy machines across water courses without putting in place a barrage of environmental protective measures, and to complain that one can’t barge about parks and preserves anymore, looking to strike it rich. When the guy left, we just shook our heads.   We were not prepared to entrust the living earth, our Grand-Parent, to this guy.

So, I am really not alarmed by the encroachment of feller-bunchers on my peaceable kingdom. I am confident that they are managing the forest as good Grand-Children should. And also, those guys are working, which is not the case for bush workers in the rest of Goshen. And forty years ago, my father might’ve been working with them.

When I was growing up in Quebec, sixty years ago, our household’s income came through my father, who cut wood in the country and hauled it to the city to fuel the wood-burners that heated people’s homes and cooked their food. Mom and dad raised a family of four on his earnings from a forest-based resource. In a sense, every scrap of food we ate, every rag we wore, every gum eraser we bought for school, came from the forest.

I am not going to trade how-poor-I-once-was stories with you – I’m sure you’ve got some doozers – but I often live my life backwards, and I am grappling with the mystery of how my parents found the cash to pamper us kids’s teeth.

I have vivid recollections of regular visits to the dentist, of yards of wire braces and pounds of mercury fillings and a multitude of excruciating extractions.   It had to cost a fortune. And there were then, as now, very few wealthy dealers in firewood.

When I was a teenager, my father was a bush worker in Goshen. My summer jobs were bush jobs, and I remember one day when I walked my legs off to keep pace with a strapping road locator, and that night I told my dad that I would never seek a career in the forest industry – it was just too exhausting.

I hurt him deeply, though he never said so. Yet, since I was a kid, I’d always tramped the bush – I still tramp the bush – in fact, I just read an item today which asserted that any senior who can walk .4 kilometres at one stretch is guaranteed, statistically, to live another six years. Judging by the walking I will have done this week, I will live to be a hundred and two.

I’m committed to walking this weekend. There are some portages to be cleared along a river course, and four of us will spend two nights in the bush to do the job. It will be exhausting work – carrying packs and canoes for a kilometre, and paddling up a lake, and making camp. We will be cutting windfalls and chopping brush and displacing debris that has been accumulating for a decade and a half. In effect, we will be biting the lice from Grand-Parent’s hair, not because we hate the lice, but because we love our Grand-Parent. And then we will be paddling and packing out.

Why the hell are we doing that? Well, we call it fun. And it is a community service – in another month, a high school group will utilize this canoe route. But now I understand that I have another reason – have always had this reason.

It’s no mystery any more. I am honouring my father, and my mother.

How do I know this?

I have my own teeth, and my teeth are strong.

*   *   *

Knowing oneself is a lifetime job. Sometimes it takes more than one lifetime.

Vector of Strong and Healthy Tooth

Originally published in The Gardens of Goshen, Volume 3, May 2006

 

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