Taking my cue from poet Robert Frost, when I had miles to go before I slept, I stopped anyway.
No, not by snowy woods on the darkest evening of the year. It was mid-day under a scorching sun on Saturday, June 25. I was travelling north of The Soo when I saw the sign announcing an historical plaque.
Not seeing the plaque immediately, I was drawn into the bush by a friendly path and the sound of rushing water. I had arrived at the Chippewa River. Other travelers with dopey smiles were loitering about.
I had stumbled upon one of the magical places on Superior’s North Shore. The river cascades over two ledges and runs merrily under the highway bridge towards the unseen lake. As I learned later, the lower falls is 6 metres high, and the upper one, 7 metres. (For you metrically challenged readers, that 20 and 23 feet.) I joined other pleasure-seekers on the bare rocks of the lower falls. I imagine that in early spring the ledge was smothered in foamy water, but on that day the river coursed through a narrow channel that younger legs than mine could probably overleap.
The fairy-tale path beckoned to me, and I scrambled up the hillocks to the upper falls. Like the lower falls, woody debris littered the boulders and bedrock. What a pleasant place to spend a summer day, but I had miles to go . . .
Returning on the path, I stopped frequently to admire the plants in the understory, each with its tale to tell. But, I still had miles to go . . .
You know, back in the ’50s, one of the Group of Seven painters had found this river and painted an iconic picture of a Northern stream. He didn’t portray the falls, though, just a stretch of rapids. Perhaps the log jams and brush-and-root piles had spoiled the effect he wanted.
Back at the parking lot, there was a signboard to commemorate the contribution of this artist, A.Y. Jackson, and of his colleagues, whose representations of the Canadian Shield helped formulate our sense of national identity.
A stone monument commemorated the centennial year in 2003 of the founding of the Canadian Automobile Association.
Another signboard advised travelers that they had reached “the halfway point” (exact phrase) in the Trans-Canada Highway. There was a reference to the highway being 8,030 kilometres long. A lengthy notice paid tribute to a booster of the highway. Here is the core of the text:
In 1925, Dr. Perry Doolittle was the first Canadian to cross Canada by car. He drove 800 km (500 miles) of his journey using railway wheels fitted to his car where there was no road. He was a life-long promoter of a highway that could span Canada and he is now hailed as “the spiritual father of the Trans-Canada Highway”.
Strictly speaking, the historical note is accurate. An Englishman and an American-Canadian actually accomplished the journey in 1912 (taking a freighter across Lake Superior), and in 1920, a Canadian did the journey strictly on roads, but he drove partway on American soil. (I will tell their stories in my forthcoming book on the first Trans-Canada Highway, which followed Highway 11.)
I still had not discovered the historical plaque. I walked a ways up the highway to a café and asked the proprietor about its location. “Someone stole it,” he said, and melted it down for scrap. Not so, his wife piped up. It’s been replaced. The proprietor wasn’t so sure.
I wandered down to the highway bridge. The view of the falls is not impressive. Someone driving by would not be struck by its beauty, but up close it is a beauty spot.
A boy, perhaps 10 or 12 years old, clambered over the railing with a fishing rod in his hand, and dropped down. Apparently this method was the way fishermen accessed the shady shoreline under the bridge. From another angle I snapped a picture of a family fishing.
Back in the parking lot, I inquired of other travelers if they had seen the plaque. No one had seen it. So I concluded that the signboard about “the halfway point” was a substitute for the plaque.
Another word about the Trans-Canada Highway. Today, Highway 17 gets that label. In 1943, the highway link between Geraldton and Hearst, via Highway 11, was completed, and for the first time, Eastern and Western Canada were joined by a road on Canadian soil. Everyone, even the government, called that the Trans-Canada Highway. Motorists had to wait another 17 years for the Highway 17 route to be completed in 1960 from The Soo to Nipigon. In fact, when A.Y. Jackson travelled Highway 17 in 1955, he came to a dead end, but he was able to access the Chippewa River.
On the other hand, Dr. Doolittle, President of the CAA in 1925, never travelled Highway 17. He took to the rails to cross the Canadian Shield.
That tribute to Dr. Doolittle is misplaced at Chippewa Falls. The true halfway point in the first Trans-Canada Highway lies between Geraldton and Hearst.
We have to correct that historical inaccuracy.
And we have to find an appropriately scenic spot for a genuine historical plaque that honours the first Trans-Canada Highway.