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Category Archives: Hiking

How to get lost in the bush and other exciting stuff.

Step 1: Find some hiking gear. Preferably something you’re not concerned about breaking or wrecking. Make sure you have sunscreen and especially bug dope…don’t want the bugs to eat you alive.

Step 2: Get yourself up to the woods in northwestern Ontario/northeastern Minnesota. There are roads and in some cases airports nearby. It might take some time, but you’ll enjoy the scenery.

Step 3: Find an old abandoned railway and start calling out for me, kind of like Hansel and Gretel. I’m sure to turn up; I’m the one wearing the desert camouflage hat, gps in hand and toting camera gear.

Step 4: Now follow me as I hike along the overgrown grade looking for something old and historical, or maybe just seeing where the trail goes. It will be scorching hot and you’ll get scratched up and probably fall a bunch of times. It’s okay though, as all those things add character (and scars and bruises), and besides, before you know it, you won’t know where you are. Don’t worry though, we have a gps.

Et viola! Getting lost in four easy steps. I think I should turn this into a book or maybe an infomercial.

You should already know that I have a pretension for being facetious and flare for overdramatizing things. Obviously this is another one of those instances. However, the title of this post is based on real events and real people…names have been changed to protect people’s identities. Sorry, couldn’t resist! Seriously though, I did almost get a little lost on my recent trip, maybe. I know, I know. I’ll explain it all later.

We’ve now entered the fourth week of summer vacation (I actually started this post while I was sitting and looking out at Gunflint Lake on a beautiful evening). Time certainly flies! It’s been all good though, as vacations generally are. It’s just hard to believe we’re almost through the month of July, and that means there is only one month left before its back to work. But we’ll just forget about that part.

So other than that little blip of two weeks ago (you know, the big downpour around Hymers and Nolalu), the weather has been pretty good. It’s been pretty dry and warm. This past weekend was probably the best all summer, with temperatures hovering around 30C. We just came home from camp, where we’ve been since Saturday. It was nice to be able to jump in the lake to cool off and the boys certainly enjoyed everything that camp brings with it.

Bass Lake, July 2015.

Bass Lake, July 2015.

Alright, so let’s get to the whole point of the article shall we. The big event that I have been building up to over the last little while (well, really since I found out about this in February) finally arrived. I was very excited for a four day trip to Gunflint Lake to participate in an archaeological exploration of the former Pigeon River Lumber Company logging camp at the east end of the lake. The trip would also give me an opportunity to take a look a few things that were of importance to my research.

I departed bright and early on Tuesday morning, knowing that the sooner I left, the sooner I would get to Gunflint. By 9:30cst I was at the Cross River Lodge and catching up on things with John and Rose. Shortly thereafter I had stowed my stuff in my room, put the boat in the water and was heading across the lake for my first hike. The objective for the day was to beach the boat on Little Gunflint Lake and see if I could locate telegraph poles and possibly insulators along the PAD&W all the way to the junction of the Gunflint & Lake Superior.

My first challenge of the day would be the lake. The previous few days had been windy and Tuesday was no exception. I have already mentioned on several occasions how interesting boating on Gunflint Lake is when it is windy. I certainly had my work cut out for me. Compounding things was the fact that the wind was blowing from the northwest, which created situations where the waves at times were coming from two different directions.

Arriving at the narrows between Gunflint and Little Gunflint, I had to deal with the next two challenges. The waterway between the lakes is very shallow, too shallow to use the motor, so I would have to paddle my way upstream which is not a picnic. The next problem became immediately apparent; I had never taken this boat and its long-shaft motor into Little Gunflint and I forgot how shallow parts of it are. That forced me to paddle the next 300 metres until the water became deep enough to drop the motor down. Now, that did not alleviate the situation, as the water is still too shallow to move quickly, so I had “putt-putt” the next 700m to my planned landing site.

Little Gunflint Lake, July 2015.

Little Gunflint Lake, July 2015.

After beaching the boat, I headed west alongside the grade. Hunting for things like telegraph poles and insulators is like finding a needle in a stack of needles. The bush plays a huge role in success or failure, since areas with less underbrush make it a lot easier to locate these items that were abandoned over 100 years ago. Why was I looking for these things? Well, the big idea is that I am trying to find physical evidence of how far the telegraph line extended at Gunflint. Back in 1997 I found poles 2km to the east on Little North, and then in 2012-2013 I found a couple insulators in the same area. I did a little poking around last year, but I wanted to explore things more thoroughly this time around.

I had my first success almost immediately, finding a long strand of wire near a presumed pole location. However, it was really downhill from there. I walked the 500m to the junction between the two lines and was frustrated by heavy underbrush most of the way. I sampled spots along the way, but even with a metal detector I didn’t find anything (the abundance of iron in the ground causes incessant beeping from the detector). I did a lot of exploring near the junction but came up empty. I reluctantly turned back. At the boat, I probed east for about 100m, finding more wire (buried some 4-5 inches under the soil) but nothing else.

PAD&W grade, Little Gunflint Lake, July 2015.

PAD&W grade, Little Gunflint Lake, July 2015.

Telegraph wire, Little Gunflint Lake, July 2015.

Telegraph wire, Little Gunflint Lake, July 2015.

Back in the boat, I headed back toward Gunflint and a brief visit to Camp 4. When I got to the big lake, I had a huge shock when I turned “Oh S@#t corner” (aptly named for people’s general reaction). The wind had picked up even more. It was a fight to keep the bow pointed into the waves, and the spray soaked the left side of my body. Turning east again toward the bay where the camp was located was a treat, and then things got even more interesting. Riding with the waves, the bow was plowing down into the troughs of the huge swells, causing some consternation on my part as I watched water touch just underneath the prow.

At Camp 4 my goal was to mark some of the sites for easier identification when the archaeologists arrived. My two most recent trips to the site were last fall and this spring, so I was unprepared for how thick the brush is with all the leaves out. I had a very tough time moving around and finding the spots, but I was able to do it. It did make me worry a bit about how it would affect our impending exploration.

The ride back to the lodge was sheer insanity, as well as physically exhausting. It was one of my roughest trips across the lake. It was a constant fight with the waves and the pounding was taking a toll on me. When I got back to the lodge, I became aware that the boat had taken a pounding too, with many loose screws in the internal woodwork. After supper, I scooted the 15 minutes up the Trail to the Seagull Guard Station to meet with the archaeologists. We were supposed to start work on Wednesday afternoon, but a problem with the Forest Service boat would push us back to Thursday and limit us to one day of exploring.

Wednesday morning dawned bright, clear and most importantly, very calm. Following a hearty breakfast, it was off across the lake for a free day of exploring; it was exhilarating zooming across the flat water at full throttle. Gunflint is such a beautiful place…I wish I could spend more time doing exactly that. The plan for the day was to look around the bridge crossing south of the border (I’d been there many times before, but I was hoping the water was lower) and then walk the grade toward Camp 4 from that point.

Gunflint Lake, July 2015.

Gunflint Lake, July 2015.

Zipping across Gunflint

The first part went off without a hitch, the calm water and bright sunshine made all the bridge remains stand out clearly in the creek. The second however, was nearly disastrous. I had only walked this part of the grade once, back in 1997. At that time, I believe it was being used as a snowmobile trail, so it was like a highway. Last fall, the boys and I hiked about 400m of trail north from the camp; it was rough, but it was easy to see the grade with all the leaves down. I had hoped to traverse the 1.2km from the bridge to where we stopped last fall, which I thought was very doable.

G&LS bridge crossing,  July 2015.

G&LS bridge crossing, July 2015.

G&LS bridge crossing,  July 2015.

G&LS bridge crossing, July 2015.

G&LS bridge crossing,  July 2015.

G&LS bridge crossing, July 2015.

The first 200m was okay, though I did get off track for a few minutes. The next 200m was great, as things opened up and it was very easy to navigate along the grade. From there things went off the rails, if you pardon the pun. The grade swings from a westerly to a southwesterly direction and with the knee to waist high growth, I lost the right of way. Thus began a 700m ordeal as I bumbled along parallel to the grade, frustrated at my inability to get back on to it.

What was once a beautiful trail was now a warzone of deadfall, burned trees and new forest growth. The 1999 Boundary Waters-Canadian derecho and 2007 Ham Lake Fire had done a number on the area. In the tangle of brush, everything looked the same, while the sun blistered in the sky and there was no wind to cool things down. On the gps the grade was just metres to my right, but I could not seem to get there. As I became more frustrated, I became more agitated, which only added to my growing exhaustion as I slogged along. I fell numerous times, more than I ever had before (I’m usually good for at least one on each hike) and even broke a strap on my tactical vest used to carry my gear.

Finally, I had had enough, and even though I was only 100m from my destination, I decided to turn back. It was at that point I reacquired the grade…figures. Highlighting the difficulty of the hike, I was off and on the grade for the next 300m until I managed to sort out my bearings and really get going. It only took me 30 minutes to get back to the boat, but boy was I beat. I was exhausted (physically and mentally), overheated and extremely sore…I have scratches and bruises all over my arms and legs (and on my butt too). A shower back at the lodge made me feel a little better, but I was stiff and moving slow for the rest of the day. I had experienced a 2.5 hour, 2.5km walk through hell; probably one of my worst hikes in twenty plus years of railway work. The big difference was that when I started doing this I was 20; unfortunately my body does not handle the punishment as well at 41!

GLS hike, July 2015.

GLS hike, July 2015.

G&LS grade, August 1997.

G&LS grade, August 1997.

G&LS grade (same area),  July 2015.

G&LS grade (same area), July 2015.

G&LS grade, July 2015.

G&LS grade, July 2015.

That night I obviously slept well, especially since I had to be up early the next morning. The plan called for me to meet the group at Heston’s Lodge at 8:00 where they would have access to a boat for the day. There was an ominous black cloud in the sky and storm cells on the radar, but mercifully no rain fell.

After a short ride to the south side of the lake, I pulled in at Heston’s and waited for the group to arrive. There had a chance to catch up with owners Greg and Barb Gecas, whom I had met many years before. Greg and I had a good chat about the history of the area, which I hope to continue at some point in the future. After a short delay, we were on our way to Camp 4 by 8:30.

Once ashore, we got our gear together and started with a little tour of the area. The group consisted of myself, Superior National Forest archaeologist Ryan Brown, University of Minnesota-Duluth archaeology professor Sue Mulholland, and two students, John and Eric. I showed the group some of the areas and objects I had discovered, mostly on the surface as I did not want to disturb the soil. Afterwards, Ryan wanted to start working an area of interest he had noted back in 2011.

John and Eric began by sweeping the area with the metal detector and mark each “hit” for later examination. I was able to experience my first taste of an archaeological dig, getting my hands dirty while meticulously and carefully unearthing whatever lay below the soil. We were only able to look at a few spots before lunch, but it told us a lot about life in the logging camp. One area held barrel hoops, remains of a bottle and a metal cup. Another, possibly a fire pit location, contained more hoops, wire, nails and pieces of molten glass.

Camp 4 archaeological dig, July 2015.

Camp 4 archaeological dig, July 2015.

After lunch and a rest on the beach (the temperature hovered around 30C), we decided to examine one of the sites that I had discovered during my spring visit. As we began to remove the underbrush it was clear that this spot might be of special significance. There seemed to be a number of metal objects in the area and coupled with bits of coal and what appeared to be slag we were turning up, it became obvious that we had stumbled upon the location of the blacksmith shop. Ryan decided he wanted to do a more formal excavation in the future, so we only investigated a few hits around the periphery of site. We only kept one object, which none of us were able to identify. A posting on social media quickly revealed that this was a brace, used on the outside of steel rails at a switching point. Interesting.

Railway switch brace, July 2015.

Railway switch brace, July 2015.

Before we departed we had to finish logging all the detector locations, which gave us a chance to look around the area more. Taking a peek inland from the shore at something, I stumbled across a huge jumble of wire coiled near a tree. What was interesting about this seemingly random pile of wire was that it resembled, both in size and composition, the telegraph wire that I had found on Little North and Little Gunflint Lakes. Was this the key piece of evidence I was looking for? Comparing the two at home it seems I could very well have a match.

Camp 4 telegraph wire?, July 2015.

Camp 4 telegraph wire?, July 2015.

With much reluctance we had to pack up and head back. I am really hopeful that more archeological work can be done on the site in the future, and that I am allowed to participate in the exploration. It is unfortunate that many objects may have been removed from the site in the past, which diminishes we can learn about life in the logging camp.

Please remember, historic sites in Ontario and Minnesota are protected by law and removing objects is both unethical and illegal.

When I arrived back at the lodge, I left the boat there and departed with all my stuff for the short drive to the guard station. I had only booked a couple nights at Cross River, and had decided to spend a night “roughing” it (even though Rose did let me know there was a room available). It had been a long time since I had last camped out in a tent, probably 15 years. It was so long time I had to read the instructions on how to set it up…fortunately they are attached to the outside of the bag so they were not lost!

Seagull Guard Station, July 2015.

Seagull Guard Station, July 2015.

After resting a bit, and enjoying a rustically prepared (on my Coleman stove/grill) steak dinner, Ryan and I were invited by a few of the fire rangers to join them in a little civilized fun. Not sure where they dragged it up from, but someone got a hold of a croquet set. I’d never played croquet before, so it was quite the initiation to the “sport.” I may have also made a few off-hand complaints about the conditions of the course! We had a hoot playing a couple games while a “large” crowd gathered to watch. When the sun went down and the mosquitoes swarmed, we retired indoors, where I had a chance to chat a bit with Peter, who was a professor from Iowa State University doing research in the area. Ryan and I ended up staying up to midnight shooting the breeze with Adam, Ryan and Jacob (our original croquet compatriots) and they were very gracious hosts. There were a lot of laughs and they even fed us pizza. What a great way to finish off a few days of hard work!

Since I had forgotten an air mattress to sleep on, I did not have the best night’s sleep, but it was okay given the surroundings. In the morning I had to pack up my tent and bid farewell to the group. I’ll be back at Gunflint in October for more field work, and let’s hope the weather is as equally cooperative. There’s still a lot of things to explore.

So with any luck you’ve learned a thing or two about how (or how not) to get lost in the bush. I could definitely write a book about my adventures but I don’t think there will be a movie deal anytime soon. Who do you think would play me if there was? Maybe an action star, but he needs to be bald…Jason Statham? Works for me. Anyway, I think after 3000 words I’ve said enough. I’ll be back in a few weeks with the latest news. Until then…

 

 
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Posted by on July 28, 2015 in Hiking, History, Railway, Research

 

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An interesting relationship…

No, this isn’t an exposition about my marriage or my attempt to delve into couples advice. Nobody wants to hear me give my two cents about either of those topics. This is rather a commentary about another relationship that affects many people’s lives, an international relationship. You probably have no clue what I’m referring to, so I will explain myself.

The title was inspired by the recent national holidays on both sides of the border, Canada Day and Independence Day. What made me think of this topic? Well, it all stemmed from a post I saw on Facebook on July 4th, very humorously labelling it as “Happy Treason Day” to the “ungrateful colonials.” It made me laugh! It also made me think of the relationship between our two countries; best of friends, but still very different. Many of the people who helped build what would become Canada in the early 1800’s had left the US following the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War, the United Empire Loyalists. My home province of Ontario still bears that legacy in its motto; Ut Incepit Fidelis Sic Permanet -Loyal she began, loyal she remains. One nation forged in rebellion against a country that the other still remains tied to in heritage and tradition. Interesting how things play out!

So, here we are into the third week of summer vacation. Wow, that went by fast! It has been relaxing and busy all at the same time. I’ve spent the last few weekends out at camp, which has been a lot of fun for the boys (and for me too). I have had to do some work out there, but it’s all good. Speaking of July 4th, we did travel down to Grand Marais for the celebrations and fireworks south of the border. It was a nice time in a great little town.

Fireworks, July 2015.

Fireworks, July 2015.

Fireworks, July 2015.

Fireworks, July 2015.

Fireworks, July 2015.

Fireworks, July 2015.

Fireworks, July 2015.

Fireworks, July 2015.

When I last wrote I was about to head down to Duluth for the UMD football camp. It was a very hectic 3 days, but fantastic for everyone involved. The players learned a lot and also had a lot of fun. Even though I’ve coached for football for 16 years, there are always new things to see and experience. You can read more about more our time at UMD here.

UMD, June 2015.

UMD, June 2015.

In my previous post I also wrote about my excitement for summer and all the hiking I would be able to do. Well, it’s week 3 and I have yet to get out. Why? Well, I’ve been preoccupied with a few other things, but I was mostly waiting for the bush to get a little drier. It seems as though I’ll be waiting a little longer. I was supposed to go out today with the boys and my brother who in town from Toronto, but my evil nemesis, the weather, derailed my plans again. Just as I thought things we starting to dry out nicely, the area southwest of the city got a large dump of rain. The rain gauge in the Whitefish Valley recorded 123mm of rain; crap! I had hoped to get out to the boundary waters to do a little exploring along Little North Lake, but there were washouts and road closures along Highway 588 (the only road out to the area). It’s very unfortunate for all the people in the Hymers and Nolalu area who experienced flooding.

Despite the frustration of the weather, I have been able to do some very constructive work on the railway lately. After my return from Duluth, I was able to head down to Grand Marais for the day to look through the Arpin Papers at the Cook County Museum. If you remember my post from last August, these papers are the personal letters of Pigeon River Lumber Company president Daniel Arpin and are a gold mine of information. I was able to get through another 2 volumes and I’ll have to head back to look through the last two at some point.

Arpin Papers, June 2015.

Arpin Papers, June 2015.

Arpin Papers, June 2015.

Arpin Papers, June 2015.

While I was there, I stumbled across a very interesting find. Several years ago, I was shown a photograph of “Merritt’s Camp” by Sue Kerfoot. After learning that this was located at the east end of the lake, I remarked that it resembled the arrangement of buildings that composed the US customs house in that area. The same photograph is in the collection of the Cook County Historical Society, so I asked them for a copy. As it turns out, that the photo was actually taken of an image in a book. Thankfully, the negative also included the title of the book.

George Shiras III was a wildlife photographer who had many of his images published in National Geographic and was a pioneer in the technique of night flash photography. In 1936 he published a two volume collection of his work entitled “Hunting wildlife with camera and flashlight.” Thanks to Amazon and the expenditure of $25 US, I was able to acquire a copy for myself. From the book (and some research), I determined the picture in question was taken sometime between 1919 and 1923. Shiras was in the area trying to photograph moose and stayed at the former customs residence which was at the time owned by the Merritt family of Marquette, Michigan. Sometimes luck is on my side!

Merritt's Camp, 1920's.

Merritt’s Camp, 1920’s.

Next Tuesday I leave for 4 days on Gunflint Lake to take part in an exploration of the former PRLC logging camp with archaeologists from the US Forest Service and the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Hopefully Mother Nature will smile on us while we are there, as this is sure to be an exciting investigation. Some “digging” was done in the area during the 1960’s or 1970’s, but this will be the first detailed and professional examination of the site.

I obviously am very excited and grateful for this opportunity, in part for the potential historical information it may uncover, but also for the simple fact that I’ll be out in the field. I’ve already documented my frustration with the weather, so I think I can be excused for my enthusiasm. Hopefully I can be of assistance to the archaeologists. It would be great if I could come back here in a few weeks and report on some useful discoveries that were made.

In any case, I better get rolling. I promise I won’t wait too long to post my ramblings about the trip. Until then…

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2015 in Hiking, History, Railway, Research, Writing

 

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You win some, you lose some.

Well, it’s pretty much the story of life isn’t it? I think all of us have experienced this at various points during our lives. The ups and downs are all part of the journey and make it all that much more interesting. It can take on many different forms, whether it be about our relationships, careers, school or sports, it doesn’t matter. In this case, I’m referring to something a little different, but when aren’t I? Now that I’ve peaked your interest (or maybe not), I can blather on about a bunch of other stuff first.

So, here we are at the end of June. Despite my best intentions to write more often, it’s unfortunately been over a month since my last post…I guess there are too many other things to preoccupy my time. That means I have a lot to catch up on.

The end of June means that we are days away from the end of the school year. In my case, it’s technically down to one day; in reality I’m on the clock until Saturday, but that’s a story for later. As I’ve stated repeatedly in the past, this year has been a complete blur. The years seem to go by faster and faster. I can’t believe I’m almost done my 17th year of teaching at St. Patrick…geez I’m getting old! With my upcoming semester off, I only have 12.5 years left of teaching. Never mind the year, my life is turning into a blur!

On Thursday I’m forsaking the last couple days of school to travel with the football program to the University of Minnesota-Duluth team camp. We have 25 players heading down with us and as usual it should prove to be a fantastic experience. UMD Head Coach Curt Weise and his staff put on an amazing event for players and coaches alike. The weather is even supposed to cooperate for us while we are there!

With all this talk about the end of school and football trips, we must be heading into summer. Thank Jesus! Yes, I know, poor teacher; life must be rough with all the holidays we get. The fact of the matter is I’m tired and burnt out. It’s not easy teaching teenagers…or any kids for that matter. I know what it’s like being at home all day with my boys and I can’t imagine having them plus another 20 or more for 5 days a week. I’d need to take up drinking! In any case, the time to decompress will be nice and I’ll be able to spend some time with the family (and some me time too).

My railway time lately has been taking a beating with all the other stuff going on, but I hope to change that soon. With the end of the school year, I’ve already planned my first research session of the summer for next week. Last year I spent a whole day at the Cook County Museum in Grand Marais looking through the Arpin Papers, which are the records of Daniel J. Arpin, president of the Pigeon River Lumber Company. I managed to examine four of the books, which at 500 pages per book made for an interesting day. There are still a number of volumes to look at, so I imagine it will take multiple trips to finish it all. I’m sure I’ll be bug-eyed by the end, but I know there will be a lot of great information to come from it.

The beginning of summer of vacation means that I’ll have more time to spend doing field work which will make me immensely happy. At the end of my upcoming trip to Duluth I have a meeting scheduled with all the principals involved in the July exploration of Camp 4. Hopefully we can formulate a good plan to maximize our time in the area. In the meantime, I have a few other hikes on the books along the PAD&W and G&LS to tide me over.

My last trek into the outdoors occurred at the end of May and is reflected in the title of this blog. I was very excited to visit a an unexplored portion of the Gunflint & Lake Superior Railroad, but unfortunately it did not pan out as I expected. One of the biggest mysteries surrounding this little logging railroad is how far it extended into the Minnesota wilderness. It’s route from the PAD&W across the border and 4.5 kilometres to the ridge on the south shore of Gunflint Lake is very well documented. The next kilometre from the ridge to Crab Lake is a little more sketchy but generally known; it is here where the questions begin. According to statistics, the G&LS reached its maximum length in 1907-1908 at nearly 5.5 miles (far short of its planned 30 miles). That means there could have been another 4 kilometres of track beyond where it reached Crab Lake. Where the track was located and how far it extended toward Whisker Lake is unknown.

So my plan was to drive up the Gunflint Trail as far as Loon Lake and then go north to the Crab Lake Trailhead of the Border Route Trail. This access trail extends some 3 km from Loon Lake to Crab Lake and then another 1.5 km to where it meets the Border Route Trail. I would walk and the boys would ride their bikes to where the trail passes between Crab and Whisker Lakes and at that point try and locate any traces of a railroad grade. I hoped my new metal detector would locate any spikes that had been left behind when the rails were removed.

It took us about an hour to reach our destination; along the way I periodically swept the trail with the detector to see if there were any traces of a rail line along the south shore of Crab (I’m pretty convinced that this trail was indeed built in 1936 during a forest fire). At the east end of Crab and on toward Whisker, I swept around with the detector but nothing really turned up. Sometimes you can hype things up too much and end up disappointing yourself. I guess I just assumed I’d get there, find a whole bunch of spikes and see a clearly defined right of way. Most likely if the railroad did extend this far it was a temporary affair and there was not a lot of effort put into the construction of the grade. It’s not that I am giving up, but I’ll have to reload and rethink my strategy. Maybe continuing to follow the grade east from where it meets Crab might help me connect the dots. In any case, it was a nice hike and I got to spend some time with the boys. You win some, you lose some!

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Whisker Lake, May 2015.

Whisker Lake, May 2015.

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Anyway, it’s time to move on. I should be back shortly (I know, I say that all the time) with more news and photos. Until then…

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2015 in Hiking, History, Railway, Research, Writing

 

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It felt so good…

Yes, yes it did. You know the feeling don’t you? Well, I guess everyone does for that matter. What feeling you ask? It’s that “oh my god, I have not done this in forever” feeling. Catch my drift now? I bet you’re still confused though, because I could be referring to a million things right now. I hate to burst your bubble, but it’s not what you’re thinking of…especially if you’re thinking of that! Some of you may have figured it out, but the rest of you will have to keep reading.

So we have reached the middle of May and I’m not sure I’m going to make it another month and a bit. I am burning out very quickly. I have wayyyyyy too many things going on right now…I can barely keep my head above water. Funny thing is if you look back on posts from previous years at this time, I probably wrote the same thing. Not much changes from year to year I guess. What’s keeping me busy you ask? The answer is pretty easy; what isn’t? This is my “other” crazy time, with work, football and family all piling up.

As we near the end of the school year, there is a push to finish my marking, especially big items such as essays. There are a lot of meetings plus the usual timetabling for next year. Football spring training is creeping up fast and then there is the trip to Duluth for the UMD camp to plan for. The kids are busy with swimming and soccer and there are a thousand things to do in the yard (we all know how much I love yard work!).

I don’t think I could write a blog post without commenting about the weather can I? So, what to say…well, how about crap? The sun and warmth of April and the first part of May has been replaced with cold and rain. Makes me happy doesn’t it? Just when I thought things were looking up for a dry and hot spring and summer, Mother Nature has decided to dump all over that idea. I guess the up side is that there is still a lot of time for things to turn around…I hope!

With all the craziness of late, I have had a little time to spend on railway stuff. There has been a lot going on with the Silver Mountain and Area Historical Society as I reported in my last post. On the 4th the board was present at the city council chambers as we made our deputation to ask to have the CN Caboose donated to the society. I was very nervous as I had never done anything like this before and it was made worse by having to wait a long time for our turn to speak. I did my best to make our case to council; it is now up to them to decide if they want to keep it or donate it to us.

Alright, so let’s get to this feeling stuff shall we? Well, if you’ve read some of my recent posts you’ll know that I’ve been really looking forward to getting out and doing some hiking. Fortunately I was able to do just that last weekend. The plan was to drive down to the Minnesota side of Gunflint Lake and then take my boat across the lake to do some exploring on the Gunflint & Lake Superior Railroad.

Things went fairly well, though I did have to deal with a few wrenches in my plan. The day was supposed to be partly sunny, but the sun decided not show up until we were ready to leave. Then there was the boat. So last fall when I was at Gunflint, the motor seemed to be acting up a little bit. At the end of April I had it looked at and apparently it needed a new carburetor kit and had a loose ground in the throttle assembly. A week of waiting and $400 later I assumed everything was peachy. Wrong!

Gunflint Lake is approximately 7 miles long and normally it would take about 20 minutes or so for my boat to travel that distance. Not on this day. About two minutes into our journey, the motor started to sputter and then would not accelerate beyond 1/3 speed, even with the throttle wide open…obviously something was up. In any case, I was not about to let the day be ruined, so we puttered along at a snail’s pace. Twenty minutes became almost an hour to get across the lake!

Because of the delay, I had to modify our plans for the day. The first stop on agenda was the former Pigeon River Lumber Company logging camp at the east end of the lake. I mentioned back in February that I would be participating in some archaeological explorations at the site this summer, so I wanted to do some preliminary work to prepare. With the GPS in one hand, metal detector in the other and the boys in tow, I spent an hour or so documenting and photographing the area. For obvious reasons I don’t want to say too much about what I found, but I’m sure I’ll have more to say once the professionals have a chance to do their thing.

From Camp 4 we crawled our way north, first to the site of the second bridge crossing at the next bay and then to the international boundary. The water level is down a bit from last year, so I wanted to see how much more was visible of the bridge pilings at that second crossing. I think if it drops a bit more, there will be a lot to see, but it may be a challenge getting into that shallow bay!

At the international crossing, I had more exploring to do at the site of the former US customs house. It’s another place that does warrant some investigation and maybe that will get some attention once the logging camp is done. My big task was to try and see if an image in the files of the Cook County Historical Society was in fact the customs house. After taking some pictures and comparing them to the one in question, I’m pretty positive I’ve made a match. At some point I’ll have to get some exact measurements that will help with the identification.

International Crossing, May 2015.

International Crossing, May 2015.

G&LS Grade, May 2015.

G&LS Grade, May 2015.

Custom house flagpole, May 2015.

Custom house flagpole, May 2015.

Custom house location, May 2015.

Custom house location, May 2015.

G&LS Grade, May 2015.

G&LS Grade, May 2015.

Fishplate connector, May 2015.

Fishplate connector, May 2015.

G&LS Rock Cut, May 2015.

G&LS Rock Cut, May 2015.

G&LS Grade, May 2015.

G&LS Grade, May 2015.

With an hour ride back to Cross River lodge, that was my last stop for the day. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to get back to Gunflint in the next few weeks…if the weather cooperates. There are so many things to look at and such little time. Maybe next year when I’m off I’ll have more of an opportunity to get out into the field. Of course that will also depend on what Mother Natures has in mind.

Anyway, I think it’s time to get rolling. It is in fact Victoria Day, so I should get out and enjoy this wonderful holiday; oh wait. In any case, I’ll be back soon enough…until then.

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2015 in Hiking, History, Railway, Research, Writing

 

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Breathing is overrated!

Overrated? Well, I guess that’s a little too far. As usual I’m being a facetious, but I think it accurately reflects my life over the last few weeks. Breathing has certainly been a challenge and it really makes you realize how we can take something so simple and vital for granted. You’re confused right?

As some of you may have guessed, I’ve been sick…very sick. Actually, it’s probably the worst I’ve been in a long time. My oldest son Ethan became sick over the March break with a fever and a lot of coughing. Turns out he had a bronchial infection. From him it went to my younger son Noah, and of course to me. I had a number of days of fever, chills and headaches and then the fun started. I too must have had the bronchial infection because breathing became a chore. It felt like I had phlegm in my lungs, which made me cough, but nothing would come up. It was like I had smoked for 50 years! I was always out of breath and felt so run down because of it. It’s been over three weeks now and I finally feel like I’m getting back to normal. I’m still a bit sniffly, but it’s a million times better than what I was.

So despite my ill health of late, I am very happy. The snow is all gone…thank the Lord! We had some rain last week and a little dip in the temperatures that resulted in a dusting of snow, but I don’t care. The last two springs were brutal and it took forever for the snow to go away. This year is much closer to normal and hopefully that will translate into warmer days and a much better summer. That should help dry out the bush as well, so I might have more opportunities to go hiking!

April 27, 2014.

April 27, 2014.

April 2015.

April 29, 2015.

It’s hard to believe we are almost through April and by the end of the week we will be into May. Holy cow time is flying by! Before we know it, the school year will be over. May and June are usually a very busy time between work and family, so it will go by even faster. Things are starting to pick up with football and will get even more hectic in the coming months. Noah has had skills and drills the whole month of April, which I’ve been involved with. In June our school program will start our spring training camps, which will then spill into our trip to Duluth for the UMD team camp from the 25th to the 27th. Good thing I get paid lots to do it!

With everything that has been going on, and being sick, I have not had a lot of time to devote to railway matters. Much of my “railway” time has gone into the historical society. On March 29th we had our annual general meeting and I was acclaimed as the new president until 2017; new title, same responsibilities. We have a number of projects on the go, the chief of which is an effort to re-locate the “CN Caboose” from its current location at Prince Arthur’s Landing to Silver Mountain. It was originally donated to the City of Thunder Bay in 1990, but the group that was supposed to maintain it has since dissolved and it is in a state of disrepair. I have to go before city council and make a deputation to have it donated to the society…then we have to move it should they approve our request!

Although I have not had a lot of time to spend on the railway of late, I am looking forward to the start of hiking season. Last week I took my boat to have some repairs done and hopefully it will be ready for a trip to Gunflint by the second week of May. I’d like to take a look at a few things and possibly do a little site survey at the logging camp in preparation for the archaeological work happening in July. There is ice still on Gunflint Lake, but from what I understand, it should be gone by next week. Now I just need the weather to cooperate and I’ll be good to go. I’ve got a lot of explorations planned for this year and hopefully I’ll be able to get to as many places as possible.

Anyway, time to roll. I’ll be back before you know it with the latest news. Until then…

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2015 in Hiking, History, Railway, Research

 

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I can smell it!

It’s definitely in the air and we all know it. It’s one of the most anticipated events of the whole year and I know everyone (myself included) cannot wait until it’s in full effect. Technically it has already happened, but as you know there is normally a little lag. Confused? No you’re not; you know I’m talking about spring. Yes, glorious spring, when we shed the cold of winter and watch nature new itself once again. I love the smell of the air in spring; so crisp, clean and wonderful…and of course, sprinkled with the aroma of dog crap. Gotta love spring!

Well, as you can probably tell, I’m excited for the change in seasons. Not that this winter has been particularly terrible, but certainly it has not been pleasant since my last post. Things seemed to be fairly normal this year until we hit February and that’s when the fun started. It was cold, really cold; we actually broke a record set way back in 1936. The mean temperature in February was -19.6C, which is freakishly cold. The month of March seems to be going much better, with relatively normal temperatures. With the very cold springs we’ve had the last couple of years, it will be nice to see some warm weather and have the snow go away by April. In that regard, things are well on their way. A lot of the white stuff has melted in the last few weeks and it won’t be long before the rest goes. Good riddance!

Early March, 2015.

Early March, 2015.

Mid-March, 2015.

Mid-March, 2015.

Up the mountain, March 2015.

Up the mountain, March 2015.

Up the mountain, March 2015.

Up the mountain, March 2015.

Up the mountain, March 2015.

Up the mountain, March 2015.

So here we are nearing the end of March and are almost into April. The time continues to fly by! Now that the March break has passed, we are on the downward slide to June and things will only go by even faster. Unfortunately there are still a million things to do between now and then. Work, kids, football…the list goes on and on. It actually makes me tired thinking of all of it. Oh well, I’m sure I’ll get by just fine like I always do.

Speaking of keeping busy, there are many things on the go on the railway front. This coming weekend we have the Annual General Meeting for the Silver Mountain and Area Historical Society which I am in the process of preparing for. In addition, we have a lot of projects on the table, which while not generating a steady amount work, do get intense from time to time. I have one on-going email conversation for one project, while I had a meeting today for another. I’ve been nominated for re-election at the AGM, so it appears I’ll be working away on this for at least the next few years!

My research on the railway continues unabated as usual. Last month I sent a proposal to the Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society to gauge their interest in publishing a book on the Gunflint and Lake Superior Railroad. I have not heard anything official from them to date, but I am optimistic that they will like where I am taking this. The more I dig, the more intrigued I become in this project. It’s amazing how something that only existed for 7 years can have so facets to it.

With the prospect of a somewhat normal spring on the horizon, I am very hopefully that I can get an early start on the hiking season. It would be nice to get out in late April or early May before the trees start to leaf out. Maybe the bush won’t be so wet as it has been over the past few years and the lake levels will be lower. That will certainly make my life a little easier. Fingers crossed!

Anywho, I better get rolling…busy as you know! I’ll be back as soon as I can with more information and updates. Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2015 in Hiking, History, Railway, Research, Writing

 

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Digging for Treasure

So we’ve all done it, or at least imagined ourselves doing it. I guess it’s the allure of finding something exciting, or maybe it’s the whole process of discovery. Admit it, we’ve all fancied ourselves being like Indiana Jones, probably without all the people trying to kill us or all the gross snakes and bugs and stuff. Especially the spiders…I hate spiders! In any case, few of us get to actually do anything like that, and besides, archaeology is not anywhere near what it is portrayed in the movies. I’m not one, unless you could the railway archaeology I do, but I do have an idea of what goes on. It generally involves a lot of research and tons of careful, painstaking excavation in the hopes of finding some small artifacts…no Holy Grails or Arcs of the Covenant unfortunately! So where am I going with this? I guess you’ll have to read on.

I know that it’s been a while since I last wrote, but as usual, I’ve been rather busy. It wasn’t my intention to go this long between posts, but it kinda snuck up on me. We’re now just over a week into February and it’s amazing how quickly time is going by. Five more weeks and it will be March break…hopefully with some nice “spring” weather to go along with that, unlike the last few years.

With February comes a new semester and new kids. Things seem to be going well so far and it appears I have some nice kids in my classes. I have Grade 12U History again, along with the Grade 10 AP History and Grade 12U Geography online, which is a nice, little mix. As good as things are, I’m already looking ahead to next year at this time. Although not as bad as last year, this winter is really starting to drag and I need something to distract me from the monotony.

So what’s happening a year from now that’s so exciting? No work, that’s what! Yep, one year from now Jo-Anne and I will be on leave from teaching for the entire semester. Seven glorious months of doing whatever I want to do! As much as I love to teach, I have a life outside of the bricks and mortar on Selkirk Street and I plan to exercise it to the fullest. Although we do have a family trip in the works for February, the main reason for me taking this leave was to work on the railway.

Since I began researching the PAD&W way back in 1994, I realized that I would not be able to fully complete my work without a visit to the National Archives in Ottawa. The trick has always been trying to find first the money, and then the time to get there, so I figured that this would be one of the best ways to accomplish this task, and I’d also have time to do some writing and field work.

I’ve also got a couple of other side trips planned for next year. I’d really like to get a book done on the little Gunflint and Lake Superior Railroad, which has become quite a fascination for me. The US National Archives repository in Chicago hopefully has some files pertaining to the customs operation at Gunflint I’d like to sift through since I cannot find that data anywhere else (unlike here in Canada). There are also some personal letters belonging to Pigeon River Lumber Company VP Frank Hixon located at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse that might prove valuable. Should make for an interesting road trip, since I’ve been to neither place.

Speaking of the G&LS, I’ve been keeping myself busy of late with more research. I spent an afternoon before New Years at the Thunder Bay Museum looking through some of their files, which yielded a few valuable leads (one of which I’ll mention later). I’ve also spent a bit of time digging on the Internet, which as usual answers some questions and raises a whole pile more. However, this is why I love this type of work; the excitement of the hunt and the satisfaction of making discoveries!

Even though it’s only February, I’m already anticipating the arrival of spring so I can get into the field to do some hiking. I’ve got a lot planned for this year, so hopefully the weather cooperates. I’d like to get out to the G&LS in early May, but that will all depend of how quickly the lake ices out. The past few years it has been very late due to the cold winter, which doesn’t really help me out. I want to make as many day trips as I can during the summer, and I already have the fall trip on the Thanksgiving long weekend booked.

During my Christmas break research I came across some information in one of the files describing some “finds” that were made at the Camp 4 (logging camp of the PRLC) site in the 1970’s or before. I passed along that information to my contacts at the US Forest Service who I know had done a cursory examination of the camp a few years ago. I’ve looked around site a bit over the years, but I haven’t done anything detailed other than examining the Shay line shaft located on the beach. That will change however.

This past week I was invited by the USFS to be a bit of a “historical adviser” for some exploratory work that will take place there this July. The digging will be done by the USFS in conjunction with archaeology students from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. I am very excited to be a part of this research, particularly since I am a historian and have never seen any type of archaeological work carried out. This is the reason why I’d like to get to Gunflint in early May so I can try and identify some potential sites for the experts. I’ll be sure (as usual) to report on everything that happens.

Camp 4 building site, Gunflint Lake, October 2014.

Camp 4 building site, Gunflint Lake, October 2014.

Camp 4 beach, Gunflint Lake, October 2014.

Camp 4 beach, Gunflint Lake, October 2014.

Anyway, I better run. Lots of things to do. I’ll be back soon enough with more news and updates. Until then…

 

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2015 in Hiking, History, Railway, Research, Writing

 

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