3 – The Clues
Where the Stilwell trail meets the tracks, there is a crossing. At this point, the trail becomes a path, and strikes out over hill and dale for unmeasured miles. Beware of the vines that clutch and the brambles that bite.
If we had followed the path, there is no doubt we should have stumbled across more historical evidence. But perish the thought. Finding historical evidence in the bush is like finding a locomotive in the muskeg. There are countless locomotives in the muskegs of Northern Canada. Buried deep. Yep. They go off the rails and sink. And sink. And sink. If you aspire to be a bush historian, and you should find a locomotive in the muskeg, you will recognize it by the blood on its moose-catcher. Some of it is the blood of historians.
No. To find historical evidence in the bush, you ideally start with a clue. In a document, perhaps. In an artifact some other historian has squirreled away in his shed. Or in the decaying memory of an oral historian.
The clue to Taradale lodged in the memory of my brother John. Forty years ago, when he was looking for a trapline between Lake Superior and Hudson Bay, he found a cabin beside the tracks. It was an empty cabin. It was decaying, as cabins in the bush tend to do.
So, one wintry day, he commandeered the stove, carted it out on his skidoo, with two eyes and two ears hanging off the back end. (Okay, he had an accomplice sitting backwards on the sled, looking out for locomotives.) The stove proved inadequate to heat up a half-wall tent, so he donated it to a camp for Girl Guides.
Over the course of forty years, John’s memory has decayed. I know how that feels. He knows there was a cabin there, at a railway flagstop called Taradale, and he has been accumulating intelligence about it. He found out that a Charles Dunkley owned the cabin at one point, that Dunkley was a trapper like him, that Dunkley had a residence in Longlac, on that paved highway closer to Hudson Bay, and that Dunkley died in Geraldton Hospital in 1955, when John was still in Geraldton grade school.
John never met Dunkley when he was living, but he would dearly love to meet him now that he is dead. That’s how the mind of a bush historian works. It can be frightening sometimes. Crazy, even.
Now, John has been talking to people. He has not reached the point where he talks only to himself. He has learned there were actually several cabins at Taradale once upon a time. That there was a cemetery there. That Charles Dunkley, after he died, insisted on being buried in that cemetery at Taradale, where one of his children was buried, and where his wife Catherine kept up their trapline.
Here’s another clue that doesn’t help at all: Dunkley built St. John in the Wilderness church in Longlac. That cabin at Taradale must’ve been built like a castle. A small one, sans turrets or steeple.
Anyway, earlier this summer, John went looking for the cabin at Taradale. It was gone. Wood does not last long in the bush unless it is attached to living roots. Unlike the brain of an historian, which decays even when attached to a living spine. I know that feeling. Intimately.
Talking to more people, he learned that a bush fire swept through Taradale in 2003. Not even decayed wood survived. John cannot even identify the site of the old cabin. But that never stops a true bush historian. We were going to Taradale to find that lost cabin that no longer exists even if a locomotive killed us.
The last clue came from Bobby, worker on the CN Rail section gang. He remembered seeing that cabin on one side of the tracks before it no longer existed. He remembered seeing a cemetery one time, six or seven crosses lined up on one side of the tracks. Which side of the tracks? Well, it might have been the north side. On the other hand, it might have been the south side. Whatever. It was definitely on one side of the tracks. And that, folks, is how helpful some bush historians can be. It’s their brains, you see.
So, that day last week, we stepped out onto the tracks at the crossing.