JAIMIE VERNON – MY SUMMER HOLIDAY 1975: PART 2
We continue this week with the second part to my vacation with my Grandma Vernon to celebrate the 40th anniversary of my awakening as a world traveler. We begin with a western push out of Sault Ste. Marie toward Thunder Bay, Ontario and BEYOND!
The final assault around the perimeter of the overwhelmingly expansive Lake Superior requires a continuation on Route 17 out of Sault Ste. Marie toward Batchawana Bay as the elevation gradually begins to reveal the first glimpse of a mini-mountain terrain overlooking the nearly touchable American border. Past that comes the first quarter of this leg, from Montreal River to Marathon, which wasn’t completed until 1960 – having been forged westerly starting in 1923 from North Bay to feed the expanding mining industry – making it one of the most desolate sections of roadway with few towns in between. So don’t hitch-hike out there boys and girls. You’re most likely to starve or be eaten by any number of mammals – including the local residents. However, the payoff is the most stunning, picturesque scenic lookouts of the whole journey west save the Rocky Mountains themselves.
Montreal River empties into Lake Superior at Agawa Bay which also happens to be the southern tip of the cleverly named Lake Superior National Park (you can bet there was a government employee with a Masters Degree in charge of naming it). The park is one of the smaller ones in Ontario and leads travelers uphill directly into the grip of the former mining community of Wawa.
Although it is known for a steady stream of gold, iron ore and other mineral deposits dating as far back as the 19th Century and its appearance as the locale for the Alan Rickman/Sigourney Weaver off-beat film “Snow Cake” in 2006, Wawa’s biggest claim to fame has been its 28-foot-tall metal statue of a Canada goose; the only goose in all of Canada that doesn’t shit on people’s lawns.
Wawa takes its name from the Ojibwe word for “wild goose” (wewe) as declared in the Songs of Hiawatha. That, of course, never stopped people from renaming it Michipicoten City and Jamestown before the residents got fed up with having to continually repaint the town’s ‘Welcome’ signs. Alas, in recent years the town has been hard hit, economically, due to the collapse of the mining and forestry industries. I recommend to anyone traveling this way to stop and purchase local goods and take a ride on the historic Algoma Central Railway scenic tours as a way to help the 3,000 inhabitants maintain their livelihoods.
Continuing the drive through White River, the road moves out of the mountainous hills and heads due west once more on a flat terrain into Marathon – best known as the final stretch of the late Terry Fox’s heroic “Marathon of Hope” cancer awareness/fundraising run in 1980.
With nearly 180 kms between Marathon and Thunder Bay, the views become spectacular as coastline and mountains do a geological dance forcing Highway 17 up through high passes to avoid Lake Superior’s rocky shores. The pass between Pays Plat and Cavers is nearly 11 km long divided almost evenly between uphill and downhill escarpments with grades approaching 8% on many sections so those who are weak stomached or decided to skimp on new brakes for the car need to turn around and go back to Toronto.
Cavers is the first spectacular scenic lookout, followed by another band of mountains at Kama Bay and the post-card immortalized Kama Rock Cut, allowing the highway to drop below the neck-craning red cliffs and the camera-friendly expanse of Nipigon Bay. From there Highways 17 and 11 merge en route to the town of Nipigon.
The highway rounds southerly toward the US and through the dotted towns of Dorion, Ouimet, Pearl and Loon with Black Bay on the left and ultimately Thunder Bay itself – home to one of Canada’s Seven Wonders: The Sleeping Giant landmark on the Sibley Peninsula. It’s interesting to note that Canadian comic-book rock star THOR would immortalize the location in a song of the same name in 1976 on his album “Keep the Dogs Away”. To that end, the town and the landmark are the only things people still remember.
Thunder Bay – from the 17th and 18th century French fur trading settlements that designated it Baie du Tonnerre (which is French for “Loud Fucking Lagoon”) – is the bastard child of a lengthy lurid liaison between the twin cities of Fort William and Port Arthur. It is an important link between the grain and other industries in the prairies through the Great Lakes, or Lakehead region, and eastern Canada as well as foreign destinations beyond the St. Lawrence Seaway.
When metals were discovered in the ground – like everywhere else along the Superior Route – Ojibwe who couldn’t be converted by Jesuit missionaries were shipped south of the Kaministiquia River by the Canadian government in 1850 and given a plot of land where they could catch the effluence of the rivalry of Fort William and Port Arthur who were attempting to establish a foothold in trading with the Northwest Trading Company and The Hudson’s Bay Trading Company.
The arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1875 exacerbated a Hatfield-McCoys like pissing match between the towns whereby the CPR had one of its locomotives seized in 1889 during an ongoing tax dispute with Port Arthur.
Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier focused on the area in the early 20th Century by opening the trade lines even further with land rights given to both the Canadian National Railway and the Grand Trunk Railway out of the United States. The area flourished until after the First World War when the Canadian government’s own National Transcontinental Railway took over the CNR and Grand Trunk portions going through the area to stabilize services east and west from the financial uncertainty that would lie ahead during the Great Depression.
Still, the pulp and paper industries shipping out of the region into the USA thrived. And on the cusp of the Second World War, the Canadian Car and Foundry Company re-opened to build aircraft for the British Air Force. Female engineer Elsie MacGill was commissioned by the government of the day to help manufacture the Hurricane bomber for wartime by utilizing a 1/3 female workforce of riveters, welders and engineers. From there, MacGill would go on to be a Chair on the Royal Commission for Women’s Rights in the 1960’s.
By the time my Granny and I crashed at the Holiday Inn (currently a Super 8) in Thunder Bay on June 15, 1975, Fort William and Port Arthur had resolved their grievances through amalgamation five years before. We only stayed the night and were back on the road again by 4:00AM as Granny wanted to make sure we made as much time as possible during daylight hours. Those wanting to carry on into the USA can pick up the starting point of historic Highway 61 at Pigeon River as it meanders into Minnesota. We left that journey to future vagabond filmmaker Bruce McDonald and, instead, headed west.
The final push toward the border of Ontario is no less lengthy or scenic. It is here that the wonder of Canada’s beauty starts to take shape. The desolate wasteland of the Canadian Shield begins to open up to the power of forested hills and craggy waterways. It’s also home to the second largest waterfall in Ontario – after Niagara Falls – at the mouth of the Kaministiquia River called Kakabeka Falls which is 40 metres tall (that’s REALLY big if you’re measuring in the old Imperial scale). Legend has it that a young virginal native girl lured bad men to their deaths and it is in the mists you can see her ghost beckoning others to follow her.
Endangered lake sturgeon spawn here and there is, apparently, 1.6 million year old fossils at the bottom of the falls. No one’s ever gone scuba diving long enough to find out for sure. The name Kakabeka is an Ojibwe word meaning “waterfall over a cliff”. Thank you, Chief Running Obvious. The falls are spectacular and there’s hiking trails all through the surrounding valley.
We actually visited Kakabeka on the way home from our western trip. On this leg it was still dark out when we passed the falls and Granny drove like a bat out of hell until we hit Dryden – which was 188 miles from our starting point in Thunder Bay 5 ½ hours earlier. One thing I gotta say for my grandmother, she rocked that gas pedal .
Dryden, like Wawa, has one significant claim to fame: a giant statue of a moose. Like so many towns on our Trans-Canada trek, the size of your statuary was indicative of the pride of your town. Clearly, Dryden, was proud of their little town. It was named after John Dryden in 1895 – he being the Minister of Agriculture at the time. He established one of Ontario’s first experimental farms there and would bring work to the peninsula of the Bending Lake triangle – a watering hole that fed the towns of Dryden, Ignace and Atikokan. He was also in charge of keeping the native Ojibwe from warring with the Cree in the north and the Sioux in the south. His solution was to give them all jobs. Alas, that humanitarian generosity didn’t extend to his successors and First Nations people throughout the region continue to struggle as second class citizens even to this day.
Onward we went through Oxdrift, Minnitaki and Vermillion Bay where tacky and offensive native-looking gift shops continued to dot the highway and beckon us to spend our paper money (yes, we had both one dollar and two dollar bills back then). The cheesy, novelty exploitation of native culture seemed so…normal.
Soon we’d make it to the end of the line – the last civilized stop in Ontario before entering the Prairies: Kenora. The city was once known as Rat Portage. Needless to say, it was not a must-see destination for tourists under this moniker. So smarter heads prevailed and created a hybrid name that sounded, remotely, native. Kenora is an amalgam of the areas of KEewatin, NOrman, and RAt Portage. It was once considered a part of Manitoba and a long-standing dispute between the two provinces from 1870 to 1884 was settled after the Judicial Committee Of the Privy Council On Petty Land Disputes By Greedy White Men ruled in favour of Ontario in 1899. The territory that bounds Lake of the Woods was made official at that point giving Manitoba a third, Ontario a third and Minnesota, to the south, a third of all the fresh water they could expect to pollute for generations to come. To commemorate this historic event Ontario built a giant statue of Husky the Muskie. Because that’s just what you did back then.
NEXT WEEK: PORTAGING LA PRAIRIES
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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