Monday, 7 January 2013


Arthur R. M. Lower, UNCONVENTIONAL VOYAGES, Ryerson Press

Page13: "On the "Pewabic" to Ombabika"

(Buzz Lein considers this to be about 1909 as A.L. was born in 1889 in Barrie, Ontario)

I was just twenty, and had never been out of the conventional surroundings of my Ontario upbringing. And now, after a year of college, I found myself plunging into the wilderness, already hundreds of miles from the familiar. At the very moment of departure, I had stepped into a new world, for with my inexperience, although I had an ordinary ticket, I had got into an old colonist car. It was filled with Italian labourers on their way to the northern mines; a few hours of their noisy, gay talk showed me that there were other people in the world beside the solid, inarticulate men whom I had hitherto regarded as normal.

As the train sped westward, darkness fell, but I woke myself up at daylight, eager to catch the first glimpse of what I knew lay up ahead, Lake Superior. At last it came; a great shining in the sun, a great glitter out there to the southwest. Those were the days before Canada had been revealed to the eyes of Canadians. Since then, that northshore country as i saw it that May morning in the sun has been put down on canvas by Lawren Harris. If you don't like his pictures, you may have been through that country, but you have not seen it.

All day we skirted that lake and in the late afternoon the train drew in to my destination, Nipigon; a place of which, until a few days before, I had never heard and in whose existence it seemed hard to believe. But soon after arriving, I encountered some other young men who were on the same mission as myself. We were all to serve as "fire-rangers" for the Ontario government, patrolling the line of railway that was being built across the north of the Province. The other fellows turned out to be students also. This gave me the necessary link with the known and brought "Nipigon" down to earth.
Our instructions were to go up to the north end of Lake Nipigon at Ombabika Bay and there report for duty. We began our journey at once. A little tug ran up Lake Helen to the head of navigation. Here a narrow-gauge railway had been put through the bush to South Bay and from that point there was a steamer to Ombabika. Before the tug left, provincial policemen carefully inspected the men who were going up to "the line" ( the trans-continental railway then being built, now the northern line of the Canadian National.) Nearly all of these were foreigners, part of the great army of cheap European labour that trailed across our soil in the years before the First World War. The policemen were watching for liquor, the worst enemy of the railway building contractor. Women, the contractor would tolerate - on the outskirts of the camp; he rather welcomed them, for they kept the men contented. Liquor, however, was taboo, for it meant drunken bouts and idleness. Many a bottle was whisked out of hip pockets as we watched.

We reached the Lake that night, and without incident, though I must confess I was alarmed at what did duty for a railway. The little engine and its narrow cars rushed wildly through the bush, over deep chasms on the slenderest of bridges, and up and down grades that no respectable train is called on to face. It was my first taste of pioneer expediency.

In the morning we embarked on the "Pewabic". She was a small vessel for that big lake, which at some points has a clear sweep of fifty or sixty miles, and she was heavily loaded, both with cargo and passengers. The new railway, for a stretch of a couple hundred miles, east and west, had, as its only supply base, this route from Nipigon station on the Canadian Pacific to the head of Lake Nipigon: the "Pewabic" and one other boat carried every pound of flour, every stick of dynamite and every manjack engaged on that stretch of construction. From the steamers' various points of call around the north end of the Lake, supplies were moved in to the "right-of-way" over the canoe routes; it is perhaps not necessary to explain that the Canadian northland consists in endless chains of lakes and rivers, between and along which for centuries the Indian canoe routes have run. The railroad builders just improved them a little by building "tote roads" over the portages. Every piece of freight, heavy or light, every passenger, that came of the steamers, elsewhere than at the main port of call at Ombabika Bay, where the new road touched the lake, went up to "the line" by canoe.

Our first stop was at the mouth of the Wabinosh River, which flows into Lake Nipigon about twenty miles north of Nipigon House, the Hudson's Bay Company's post; up the Wabinosh lay the first of the routes in from the lake to "the line". The morning was fine. The northern spring was just furiously bursting out. Islands lay scattered like jewels in every direction. As we drew in towards the river, two of them, shaped like great loaves of bread, rose up out of the water a thousand feet. These were the Inner and Outer Barn, solemn and impressive specimens of the geological formation known as the Keeweenawan, which is peculiar to the Nipigon-Thunder Bay region.

Between Wabinosh and the next stop we cut across wide, shallow Windigo Bay, in the centre of whose shoreline rose a single sugar-cone, the "Haystack". Windigo Bay, so the Indians said, was no place to be caught in at night; the Windigoes would get you. Windigoes are giants. It was certainly no place to be caught in, but for a very good reason; it was wide and open, and if you were crossing it by canoe, an onshore wind might blow you into its inhospitable muskegs.

Lake Nipigon abounds in ancient Indian legends. There is a splatter of islands out from Nipigon House which were thrown int their present positions by Nan-i-bo-zhoo, the tribal hero of the Ojibways; they are the different parts of a moose which he cut up and threw about in this off-hand way. I got quite a store of information about the Indians of the lake from a missionary priest who came aboard at one of our landings. He was a scholarly man and gentleman, a good sample of the old-fashioned classical culture of French Canada. I had occasionally seen Indians making baskets, but I had never before talked to a Catholic priest; priests were not very popular in South Simcoe. My Protestant innocence was mildly disturbed at finding him so courteous and intelligent.

Our course led us through the island groups in the north centre of the lake. These were even more picturesque than those farther south. Red granite cliffs alternated with the giants' causeways so common in the Keeweenawan formation. There was to come a time when I got to walk up some of these great flights of stairs; block after block, each about two feet high, with a two foot tread, and regular as if they had been built, several hundred feet, to the tops of the islands which they composed. At the top would come the reward; mile after mile of island and lake, green, silver and blue, into the infinite distance. I have never seen blues anywhere so intense as around the Nipigon - except in the lower St. Lawrence where they are more intense still. Canada keeps these jewels of hers carelessly. Half the time she does not know she posses them. Who, I ask, has ever seen her wearing the gleaming Nipigon in her hair?

Going into Ombabika Bay, the lake gave us a taste of what it really could do if it wanted to be nasty. We rolled merrily as the waves choked into the strait between lake and bay. This was naturally the moment the cook chose to ring the dinner bell. The roll of the ship parted some of my companions from their meal but I am proud to report that I held on to mine. No shipping company has ever made a profit on its food at my expense. I have eaten down captains themselves!

The Pewabic's little dining saloon contained one table. One side of this was reserved for the captain, who must have his place of state, even in this backwoods inland craft....

Earlier in the day, I had been brandishing a pocket compass which I had laid in as a piece of what I believed to be appropriate bush equipment. In those days I did not know how clumsy is the ordinary compass of the landsman compared with the simplicity of the mariner's compass - which may be obtained in pocket size too. The captain told me mine would be no good to me anyway. "Too much iron around this lake," he said, "draws my compass, right out on board here." The Indian name of this little ship - The Pewabic - itself means "iron". There may be too much iron, but it does not come in commercial concentrations; there is one considerable deposit on the east shore, but it is not practicable to mine it. Whether the iron "drew" the ship's compass or not, the captain used to go up and down that lake under conditions which would have terrified sailors used to the safety of the open sea. I remember another trip with him, on a rainy, pitch black night. He took her down through that maze of islands - without hesitation and without misadventure. In Canada, if you are looking for sailors, you must not confine your search to salt water.

After we had made the entrance to Ombabika Bay, we ran over to the depot wharf and the voyage ended. Reporting for duty, I was promptly put into a canoe and dispatched across the Bay to a portage, where, with two or three others I was told to camp until the main body came along. During our wait, in the first week of June, we had a snow storm. This tied up greenhorns like ourselves into unexpected and uncomfortable knots. It was to take four good months of paddle, packstrap and axe to make us over into something approaching bushmen.

I had left the "east" on Monday evening. And here I was on Friday, camped on this portage, a hundred miles or more from a railway. It seemed more like five years than five days, so vastly and suddenly had my experience of men and things widened. There is no more provincial soul than the inhabitant of Southern Ontario, especially of that central region whose numerous small towns gear tightly into the largest member of their class, Toronto, for it forms a cul-de-sac in Canada, unaware in any vital way of the rest of the country and satisfied with what it believes to be as high a civilization as can be achieved - short of the British Isles themselves!! Until that momentous journey to the head of Lake Nipigon, nothing had occurred to make me aware of myself in relation to that provincial society, which I had never had a look at from the outside. I had taken it completely for granted, as the norm of existence. But now the mould was broken. I had joined the fraternity of the frontier, and was to take part in that attack on the wilderness, that job of building, that collective act of faith, which had made America and was making Canada.

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