JAIMIE VERNON – MY SUMMER HOLIDAY 1975 – PART 1
For those remotely following along at home you may know that my current day gig is to impersonate a security guard at cemeteries around Toronto. On Sunday and Monday nights I’m usually assigned to Pine Hills in Scarborough. Many of my relatives are buried there as I’ve posted most recently in acknowledging my mother’s mother’s 100th birthday.
There’s an uneasy comfort in knowing I’m surrounded by my dead ancestors but only when it’s top of mind. This past Monday (June 1st) I was fairly conscious of it. It was the eve of the 25th anniversary of my Grandmother Shierene Vernon’s passing from complications of ovarian cancer. My Dad’s mother would have been 98 on March 25. She passed on June 2, 1990. [My daughter, Danielle, was born 4 years later on the same day so we gave her my granny’s middle name – which was Mary.]
I miss her a lot. Aside from my parents, she is the person most responsible for shaping many of my adult viewpoints – Atheism among them. But her biggest influence on me was giving me an insatiable wanderlust; the joy of exploration and travel. When my Grandma passed on she left behind her legacy of annual trips across Canada and through the United States in the form of hundreds of photographs and Super 8 home movies from a time and a place we consider the Golden Age in North America – 1965 to 1975. [Here is footage from Expo 67 she shot and happened to catch Ottawa band Three’s A Crowd in action.]
It was an innocent time, one that I’ve attempted to recapture on trips of my own over the years. Exactly 40 years ago this month my Granny handed me the baton. She decided to open up the world to a curious 12 year old boy and took me across Canada on a once-in-a-lifetime road trip. I’ve written about it here before. But being the anniversary of the trip itself, I thought it would be apropos to take another look at what I learned but this time through the eyes of an adult.
The Province of Ontario has a total area of 9,984,670 km2 of which 9,000,000 km2 is either farmland, forest or impenetrable igneous rock which geologists have affectionately named The Canadian (Precambrian) Shield; Not to be confused with the post-Cambrian, menopausal-Cambrian or bi-Cambrian Shields. In the 1960s, NASA sent astronauts to Sudbury’s nickel mine slag heaps to do practice runs on its hostile terrain because it made for a close approximation of the surface of the Moon. Much to NASA’s surprise, when they actually got to the Moon, there were no Molson 50 beer swilling nickel miners to be found.
To follow the highways in Ontario, the distance from Cornwall at its most easterly tip through Toronto and then westerly again toward its border with Manitoba just past Kenora is approximately 2300km depending on how many food, gas and bathroom breaks you take; the distance from Toronto to Kenora alone is twice the width of Texas at just over 1800km. Things might be big there…but the real estate here is mind numbing. Needless to say, Ontario is really f%#*g huge.
The more intrepid journeyman today could, with enough Tim Hortons’ coffee and Red Bull drink stimulants, drive the Toronto to Kenora corridor in a single day (maybe even reaching Winnipeg in 24 hours). The less reckless tourist would be wise to divide the expanse into three legs: Toronto to Sault Ste. Marie, Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay, and Thunder Bay to the eastern fringe of Manitoba; in the ‘60s and ‘70s the speed limits, fatigue and the dangers of driving after dark – because electric street lights were still a novel concept – usually kept these legs to 10 or 12 hour excursions – as long as you started at 4 AM to beat the morning rush-hour on the Trans-Canada Highway’s single-lane routes.
THE FIRST LEG
The opening salvo from Toronto to Orillia on Hwy 400 was, and still is, an uneventful snooze as you slowly drift past the bustling Toronto industrial corridor towards Newmarket, past Gasoline Alley – a tourist trap meant to scare drivers on both sides of the highway into thinking that it was their last chance to refuel – through the calming sea-level furrows of the Holland Marsh’s vegetable farms and escaping through the twisting slow elevation divergence around the outskirts of Barrie and into the homestretch of Orillia itself.
Prior to Orillia being thrust into abject poverty from the gambling addicted community when Casino Rama was built, this modest town was a thriving industrious watering hole for industries thriving on its peripheries. As then, Orillia is still the fork in the road to Northern Ontario as it sits on the tip of the Parry Sound regional triangle – with North Bay as a junction to the North East and Sudbury as a gateway to the West. It is here that Canadian travelers must make a choice between these two cities; in the year 2000 I made the wrong choice in picking Hwy 11 heading out of Orillia northwards into the wilds of Temagami where I decided to play chicken, mid-highway, and head-on with a teenaged moose and my van. Don’t go that way. That’s not to say North Bay isn’t a nice place – my first honeymoon was there and I seem to recall a comic book store and a quaint 1950’s era movie theatre — it’s just a little off the beaten path if you’re trying to make it to Western Canada during the same calendar year.
The more scenic and less precarious Hwy 69 is the by-pass of choice. Officially known as the Georgian Route, it meanders through picturesque Gravenhurst and the work-a-day Parry Sound over a flotilla of tributary rivers, including the beautiful French River, before slam dunking you onto the plateau steppe of Sudbury itself; still, if you’re hankering for a water-front view you can still take Hwy 103 out of Orillia for a brief tour of the 30,000 Islands on Georgian Bay where the road eventually re-joins Hwy 69 again and off you go.
On all my Granny’s many trips, and even on the one I took with her, the route taken was never clearly defined as there’s no bread crumb of clues to follow in all our combined memorabilia. My own diary entry from 1975 says we left Toronto and ended in Sudbury 12 hours later with no mention of the towns we passed in between – mainly because, at that earlier hour of the morning, I was bunking it in the back seat of her ’72 Skylark; and no one ever bothered taking pictures on the way to Sudbury because there wasn’t much more than a million hectares worth of trees to photograph especially in the Georgian Bay Forest. The world at large has taken it for granted. One day this area of the Province needs to be investigated a little deeper if for no other reason than to see what all the settlers living there love about the place…and what do they all do for a living?
Sudbury was originally named Sainte-Anne-des-Pins (St. Anne of the Pines) which still is a rather strange name to call a place that is home to 330 lakes – not all of which are surrounded by pines. Or Saint Annes for that matter; in 1856 provincial land surveyor Albert Salter discovered magnetic properties in the area after he kept getting stuck, face first, to rock outcroppings via his belt buckle. The towns folk thought Albert a jokester and promptly ignored him little realizing that government workers have no sense of humour, so he must have been telling the truth.
It would be the intrusion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1883 that led to the discovery of nickel-copper deposits during the blasting of the bedrock to make way for the laying of train tracks. It was located in a basin believed to have been created by the impact of a meteor some 1.85 billion years ago…give or take a month or two. CPR’s commissioner, James Worthington, thought this a grand thing to impress his wife with but she was suitably unfazed by dirty base metals so, instead, he re-named the entire place after her hometown of Sudbury, England.
Soon prospectors were being brought in and out of the area as itinerant miners by way of the new rail line leading to a Klondike-style rush for these new ores. Thomas Edison even got in on the act by staking a claim in 1901 but eventually abandoned the idea of setting up shop there in 1903 despite cracking a major nickel vein in what became one of the richer deposits now known as Falconbridge. Instead, Edison decided to waste the rest of his life on such nonsense as light bulbs, phonographs and movie making.
The Sudbury economy ebbed and waned as the need for nickel did the same. But there would always be a call for it by the Canadian mint. Of course, politicians in Ottawa had no idea where Sudbury actually was, so the town built a thirty-foot Nickel effigy with King George’s face on it as a sort of Bat Signal to the world to let them know where Sudbury, and its nickel deposits, could be found. This, of course, led to rival towns all across Ontario building their own over-sized mascots in the form of Canada Geese, Huskies and all manner of Plaster of Paris wildlife.
But it was the Big Nickel, and the mine in proximity to it, that brought in the tourists including myself and my Granny…though she refused to go down into the mine saying she had no problems with plummeting to her death from great heights, but wasn’t stepping foot in any place where she could be crushed in a glorified cave. No harm done, I thought. We’ll just test that theory when we get to the gondola rides in the Rocky Mountains. What we did miss in Sudbury later that November was NORAD’s official report that radar and visual sightings had confirmed a UFO event over the town; no doubt in an effort to hijack that giant nickel and its sister, Mini Penny, during a time when both precious metals were actually worth something.
Continuing on Hwy 17 heading west out of Sudbury one rolls through small satellite towns like McKerrow, Espanola, Massey, Blind River, Serpent River, Thessalon and Bruce Mines hugging the fringes of the North Channel outline where the wash of Georgian Bay’s water mixes with those of Lake Huron and is trapped there by the grip of Manitoulin Island’s northern shore; and just past the town of Desbarats the highway bends like an elbow at a 90 degree turn as it ricochets past St. Joseph’s Island and two nearby American islands – Sugar and Neebis – to land in the lap of Sault Ste. Marie.
The Ojibwa called the area Baawitigong, which roughly translates as “place of the rapids,” and was used as a central gathering spot during the region’s whitefish season on the St. Mary’s River which has rolling rapids and feeds the city that now stands there. Following a visit by French explorer Étienne Brûlé in 1623 – who had spent his time racking up Frequent Lecher Miles infiltrating and earning the trust, and then ripping off, many native tribes all through the Great Lakes – he repaid the Ojibwa by having the area renamed “Sault de Gaston” in honour of Gaston, Duke of Orléans, the brother of King Louis XIII of France.
But in 1668 French Jesuit missionaries, realizing that the ungrateful bastard Gaston had never once visited the place, renamed it Sault Sainte Marie, and established a settlement on the present-day site of Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan originally on the south bank of St. Mary’s River. Both sides of the river’s rapids were settled as fur trading posts – crossroads of the affectionately named 3,000-mile Mass Extinction Fur Trade Route, which stretched from Montreal to Sault Ste. Marie and to the North above Lake Superior.
The Soo, as it’s known by the lazy-assed out-of-towners, was incorporated as a town in 1887 and graduated to city status in 1912 thanks, in no small part to Angelina Napolitano, the first person in Canada to use the battered woman defense for murdering her husband in 1911 which made international news and turned the town into a bustling urban centre filled with reporters looking to purchase rimmed hats so they could sport tiny hand-lettered signs in the brim that said “PRESS”.
In early 1942, only months after the US was attacked at Pearl Harbor, the paranoid faction that thought an Anti-Japanese highway should connect Alaska to Edmonton, turned their attention to the locks and shipping channel that was being fed by Lake Huron to the south and Lake Superior to the west. The advent of long-range bombing capabilities by the Nazis led military worry-warts to determine that the distance from Norway to New York was the same as Norway to the Soo and this could be a target by Nazis who had nothing better to do than hop across the arctic circle over 3000 vacant air miles to bomb a small seaport over 1000 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean for no discernible strategic reason.
The “Permanent Joint Board on Defense of Things No One Would Ever, In Their Right Minds, Attack” instigated the installation of an anti-aircraft presence in a joint venture between the United States Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) to defend the locks. However, in January 1943, most of these facilities and defenses were deemed excessive and removed or shut down. Ya think?
Following the war the region became the hub for a global steel industry due to the clever manufacturing of metal things that people were convinced they needed by Algoma Steel – thus, making them the biggest employer in the land. At the time of our visit, the city itself was still fairly small and dominated by a frustrating set of one way streets that made navigating down to the waterfront, and our lodging at the Canadian Motor Hotel, a comic Keystone Kopps adventure; and caused us to miss the last scenic boat tour of the day…which we had to catch on the way back through Sault Ste. Marie on our return trip from out west. The hotel turned out to be a two storey motel and still stands today under the name The Knight’s Inn.
And no visit would be complete without a boat tour of the Soo Locks so you can “oooo” and “aaaaah” in unison with fellow boat passengers while passing the smelly, dirty, gargantuan factory facades which dominate the city’s shoreline and ride the impressive locks themselves which spill you out into the glorious bridge-cluttered bay. This was a shipping lane and wasn’t meant for cruiser and scooner tourist traffic. More typical were the ships like the legendary Edmund Fitzgerald, and the one I saw during my visit called The Carol Lake, an ore carrier, which continues to sail the Great Lakes to this day.
NEXT WEEK: WEST OF SUPERIOR AND ONWARD
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Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com http://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon