“Packing on the Pic was, well, no picnic.”
So began Selwyn’s tale of swamps that proved to be the bane of his so-called “summer vacation”. He had landed a job with General Timber Company, packing supplies into bush camps in the valley of the Pic River. The Pic, an Ojibway
name for “mud”, flowed into Lake Superior. It lived up to its name. Boats with small outboard motors (“kickers”) had to dodge hidden deadheads, i.e., submerged waterlogged timbers.
Leaving the river camp, “I would take the first load by kicker down the river to the landing, wrestle the load onto my back, then tote it two miles into the bush camp, or even beyond that to a new advance camp another two miles deeper into the bush. On one typical day, I brought in a thirty pound leg of ham, twenty-five pounds of fresh meat, and thirty pounds of assorted groceries.”
He describes the worst obstacles: cedar swamp and second-growth fire slash. Thickets of cedar produce a multiplicity of low-level branches which, dying out, leave sharp spikes. “They specialize in ripping shirts, pants, socks or skin with equal impartiality.” Deep pockets of muskeg promote many a fall into the muck. In burned-over terrain, encountering barriers of fallen timbers, the packer trips constantly, unable to peer through the opaque leafy screen of young poplar. He was following a line blazed by timber cruisers.
On that first day, returning with an empty pack, rain soaked him thoroughly, and he had to master the art of travelling upstream in an empty vessel, without ballast. “When the base camp came into view I would sometimes burst spontaneously into song. A hearty meal, followed by an evening of drying clothes and washing socks, completed a full day.”
Selwyn did not lack for companionship. Two packers soon joined him in his travails. At the river camp, company included a cook, a clerk, and sundry workers (Selwyn mentions two experienced timber cruisers assisted by two high school kids acting as tally men, and at another time, the head cruiser). Cruisers, by the way, conducted traverses in order to locate merchantable timber and estimate quantities. Such company relieved “the incipient claustrophobia of constant travel through dense forests”.
And he did find free time. He explored the
bush, and sketched. “Sketching bush subjects provided me with occasional hours of pleasant absorption. My oil sketching followed the Group of Seven method then in vogue at the Ontario College of Art.” On one memorable day, he discovered Nama Creek. After a hot and tiring trek through swampy ground, he emerged “on the bare rock to find a cascade of water so refreshing, so beautiful, I knew immediately that I would paint it. I made some sketches and two years later completed a large canvas called Nama Creek.”
Towards the end of summer, he thought more and more of pulling up stakes. “At such times”, he wrote, “the only thing that kept me on the Pic was our need for money. Irene and three little mouths awaited the fruits of my labour.”
Selwyn did see more of the country than swamps and a muddy river. When he had travelled north on the CPR at the beginning of his “vacation”, he dropped off at Heron Bay, “a hotel, a store, and not much else”. Looking for a job, he ended up at Peninsula ̶ “a coaling stop on the CPR with a marvellous view of Lake Superior” ̶ and a bunkhouse for General Timber. “Soon I would be going up Pic River where I would pack grub for the camps at four dollars a day all found . . . ‘All found’ meant that the company would supply food and accommodation.”
It would be years before Selwyn had an opportunity to explore the Lake Superior North Shore. “Whenever I visited these places on the Superior shore, the steep shores, huge hills and vast stretches of open water glimpsed between headlands never failed to impress me.” He would recall the iconic painting by Lawren Harris, one of the Group of Seven, titled North Shore.
Selwyn never mentions the history of logging on the Pic. Logging began in the Lower Pic Valley in 1916, targeting large white spruce. Drives were conducted on the Lower Pic and its tributaries. Different operations began cutting accessible spruce and balsam stands for pulpwood, which were boomed at the mouth of the Pic (Selwyn describes his encounter with rafts of logs) and towed to Wisconsin. In 1937, General Timber Company obtained the cutting rights for the Pic watershed. General Timber was a subsidiary of Marathon Paper Mills of Wisconsin.
After spring break-up, supplies reached the bush camps on the Lower Pic by the river, and after freeze-up, by a winter road paralleling the river. Selwyn never mentions the major change in 1943 in cutting operations (which, incidentally, he never described), the year of his memorable vacation. General Timber began operations on the Upper Pic by constructing a supply depot at Stevens on the CNR. The company constructed roads from the railway to access the Upper Pic and its tributaries. In 1944, Marathon Paper Mills acquired the licence for the Big Pic concession on condition that it construct a 250-ton-per-day bleached kraft pulp mill at Peninsula. Thus Peninsula acquired the name Marathon. River drives continued. Thereafter, logging on the Lower Pic was phased out and terminated completely in 1947, the year the new mill began operation.
You may wonder why, in Chapter 11, titled “Packing on the Pic”, Selwyn never mentions his battles with blackflies and other flying pests. He spends considerable time in Chapter 3, “Bush Apprenticeship” detailing his ordeals. He systematically describes his experiences with sand fleas (a.k.a. no-seeums), mosquitos, blackflies, bulldog flies (a.k.a. moose flies), deer flies, and dogflies.
The bush man lumps all these pests under the rubric of flies. To give you the flavour of his description, here is his account of the dogfly: “Always on the exposed ankle. Invariably you don’t expect it. Invariably the little nipper, a dogfly, escapes. Indistinguishable from a small housefly, the dogfly can bite through heavy bush socks with mysterious ease. There’s no swelling or itching afterwards, just that one absolutely savage and completely uncalled for nip. Being too brief to provide any nourishment for the dogfly, I must assume the nip is just its way of being sociable.”
After spring break-up and until just before fall freeze-up, flies are an inevitable fact of life in the bush.
Hardly worth mentioning.