Back to God’s Country

16 Jul

Catchy title huh? Betcha you thought I had this great enlightening moment when it came to me right? Wrong…I stole it! Back to God’s Country is the title of a of 1919 Canadian silent film which was based on a short story written by James Oliver Curwood (there were remakes in 1927 & 1953). Ironically enough, Curwood wrote several novels with the same theme, one of which, The Country Beyond (1922), specifically mentions the railway in it. Curwood spent a lot of time along the railway dating back to the 1910’s, which influenced his writings. So, why did I pick this as the title for this week’s blog? Well, you’ll just have to keep reading.

So, what’s new? Well, it’s still stinking hot. But it’s summer, what’s so unusual about that? It is unusual because we seldom get this many days of solidly hot weather; it has been close to, or over 30C for the past 10 days. That is very weird for our area. Global warming? Probably, but that doesn’t exist right? Anyway, it has been both a blessing and a burden. I certainly appreciate the warm weather, but at times it has just been hard to bear, especially the humidity. You have to remember that it gets down to -30/-35C in the winter; that’s almost a 60 degree temperature swing!

In the meantime I have been very preoccupied with the visiting relatives I spoke about last week. On Tuesday we travelled down to Grand Marais, Minnesota which is a picturesque little town about 1.5 hours south of here. While I was there I paid a little visit to the folks at WTIP radio since I’ve had several conversations with the news director at the station regarding the railway. They are going to do a few little radio promos for my talk at the Chik-Wauk Museum on August 5th.

I also had a chance to stop by the Cook County Museum and meet up with an old friend, former museum director Pat Zankman. Pat and I met back in 1997 after I had written to the museum looking for information regarding the railway and the Paulson Mine. It had been a long time since we had spoken so it was good to re-connect. Pat has already prepared some writing work for me about John Paulson…I could make this gig a full-time job!

Anyway, the relatives enjoyed the trip and it was nice to beat the heat along Lake Superior. Yesterday we took them back to camp, with a short trip to Ouimet Canyon. Unfortunately it was scorching hot, but I was able to cool off with a nice dip in the lake. Then it was back into the heat for a refreshing sweat in the sauna! The time at camp also gave me time to try out the “new” boat we bought to take the kids around the lake (it obviously is used). Runs very nice…can’t wait to get it on to Gunflint Lake in August!

Well, what about the title Dave? Okay, I guess it’s time to talk railway. So on Thursday I decided to take a journey to the Canadian side of Gunflint, which is a rather interesting ordeal since it involves a 150km drive over some very rough road. The last time (and the first time) I did this drive was in 2008. I had recently heard that sections of the road had been repaired, and more importantly, that some work was being done along that lake near Leeblain. As I mentioned last week, I am very concerned for the preservation of the rock ovens near the ghost town and any potential remains that might be located there.

So my journey began very early, since the drive would be long and I wanted to beat the heat. The trip started with a very unique twist in fact. As I was passing Iron Range Lake and some road work, I noticed a guy walking along the road. It is very unusual to see someone walking along the road in that area since it is very remote, especially since it looked like the guy belonged in a metal band and not walking a gravel road. About 10km or so up the road the story got even better; I see a SUV on its side along the road. Then I realize the guy I saw was the driver of said vehicle (he had probably lost control and rolled), but he made no attempt to flag me down or anything. The plates were from Virginia, and the message written in the dirt on the rear window said “I’m fine, gone up the road.” What a bizarre episode.

Flipped SUV.

Eventually the gravel road became even rougher, and I entered the area burned by the 2007 fire. As I approached Gunflint Lake my thoughts were that people would have to be nuts to drive into the lake on that road on a regular basis-it was insanely rough! However, once I reached the area just above Magnetic Lake, the view was worth the drive. The surrounding ridges sit some 200 feet above the lakes, and a beautiful panorama unfolds before you. It is very breathtaking, even with the burned nature of the forest.

Magnetic Lake, Gunflint Narrows and Gunflint Lake, July 2012.

As I was descending the hills toward the lake, I came across several heavy machines heading north. I stopped and chatted for a while with the driver of a large dump truck. He told me that they were done working and were leaving the area, which was much to my relief. He also informed me that they were aware of the rock ovens and that there were currently no plans to develop that area. I certainly felt a big weight lifted off my shoulders, but I did want to check the ovens over for myself.

The ovens are located approximately 300m northeast of the newly graded road along the railway right of way. I drove to the spot and quickly found the undisturbed oven with my GPS. I decided to take a few minutes and poke around to see if I could locate the other oven that was nearby. To my surprise I may have located it buried in sand that was placed on the grade back in 2000 when the area was logged. I’ll have to go back with a small shovel to investigate further, but it appears it is in the right spot.

Rock oven, Leeblain ON, July 2012.

I then drove a little further up the road to where the RV sites had been created and near where the grade crosses a small creek emptying from an unnamed lake. From there it would be nearly 4km to our destination at the Gunflint Narrows. Almost immediately it was obvious that some work had been done to the grade, as the workers had replaced a burned bridge over the creek with a culvert and had bulldozed the right of way. They did muck some stuff up (ie. disturbing some of the drainage) but they also turned up things that had been buried like dozens of spikes.

Unamed Lake, July 2012.

After the small lake, the railway passed through a number of small rock cuts before the grade and the road split. When the area was logged in 2000, they chose not to follow a 600m section of the grade and instead built a new road around it. About 300m is through a swampy area, and the remainder encompasses an embankment and a rock cut. The road then intersects the grade, and afterwards there are several long embankments (they are not particularly high, but made of a lot of crushed rock). The second embankment is followed by a 150m long, 20 foot high rock cut.

This cut is of particular importance since it is the location of the Gunflint Cross. I made mention of the cross in a previous post and although this was my third visit to the site, it is still interesting nonetheless. The cross is a memorial to a worker named Joseph Montegia who was killed in a blasting accident near the spot in October 1892. In his memory, his fellow workers carved the cross near where he fell, and today it remains there 120 years later. The cross sits almost 5 feet above the grade, and is easy to miss if you do not know where to look (it was actually obscured by bushes growing at the sides of the cut).

Gunflint Cross, July 2012.

From the cross, the railway passes through several more rock cuts before it reaches the site of a 250+ foot trestle. Most of the eastern side has been obliterated when they created first the snowmobile trail and later the logging road. The trestle sat probably 30-40 feet above the valley, and it is neat to see the remains of the western abutment, with the massive amounts of rock fill that was used. Beyond that there are a few more rock cuts and embankments before the railway reaches Gunflint Narrows. I didn’t walk all the way to the Narrows since I will be returning in August and I knew that it was nearly noon and getting hotter by the minute (the temperature peaked at 36C with the humidity). Poor Loki was feeling the heat!

So I guess I didn’t explain the title did I? Well, this area is so beautiful and remote it is like the God’s country that Curwood spoke of, and it wasn’t my first trip there. As I walked the grade, I did what I often do in the quiet silence; I imagine what it would have looked like all those years ago. It would have been something to ride the train through that remarkable and untouched wilderness. Maybe someday they’ll invent a time machine that will let me do that…maybe in a hot tub!

Anyway, enough for this week…I’m had back to camp today so I have to get going. I’ll be back next week at the usual time. Until then…

1 Comment

Posted by on July 16, 2012 in Hiking, Miscellaneous, Research, Travel, Writing


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One response to “Back to God’s Country

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