Monthly Archives: August 2012

Technology sucks!

That’s probably the last thing you’d ever expect to hear from me, as I am a self-professed technology geek. But at times it can and does suck! Case in point: trying to update the maps on my Garmin Auto GPS. Cannot get it to work, even on two different computers. Why? Why? I don’t want to call tech support, I just to plug the f’ing thing in and have it to what it is supposed to do. Is that too much to ask? I guess it is.

Anyway, hey, I’m back! After a much deserved break following four straight days of blogging in the states, its back to the regular Monday ramble. Since it has been about a week and a half, I do have a lot to say; so take a bathroom break, grab a drink and get ready for some literary magnificence!

Okay, so where to start? Well, I last wrote about Day Four in Minnesota and the great time I had on that trip. A few days later, I was immersing myself back into the history of the railway. On Saturday, August 11th owner Shelley Simon was hosting the first ever “History Day” at the historic Silver Mountain Station. The station is the sole remaining significant building left from the railway and dates from 1907.

My journey would be an interesting one that day, since my wife and I were entertaining some friends at camp. My in-laws camp is situated east of Thunder Bay, while Silver Mountain is located to the southwest. I would thus have a 110km drive just to get to the presentation, and unfortunately have to depart prior to the dinner portion of the day-missing the prime rib buffet!

The day was designed to celebrate the history of the railway, the station and its most celebrated occupant, Dorothea Mitchell, the famous Lady Lumberjack. For this event, I would be joined by other historians and authors associated with the area; Elinor Barr, author of her own book on the railway and esteemed historian, Professor Michel Beaulieu from Lakehead University, Canadian best-selling author Elle Andra-Warner and Nolalu-area author Leo Hunnakko. Also present was artist Brian Nieminen, who created a famous painting of the railway for its 100th anniversary. Quite the notable company!

The social part of the day lasted from 3 until 6, which gave me an opportunity to chat with people at event. I made some good contacts and had some great conversations. I even got a chance to say a “few” words (you know my issue with brevity)! More importantly, I was able to spend some time Michel Beaulieu and Elle Andra-Warner. Elle is a fellow member of the Thunder Bay Historical Society and on the publications committee. This may help with my plans to get published and may even lead to another speaking engagement!

Speaking at History day, August 2012.

All in all it was a great day and I am glad I was invited to participate. I think that Shelley has plans to make this an annual event and I am certainly excited about the 2013 edition. The gears are already turning on how I can increase the exposure of my work!

At History Day I had the good fortune to meet a seasonal resident of Whitefish Lake by the name of Rocky McCutcheon. In our conversation, Rocky mentioned that he had explored some of the railway around the lake and we should get together for a hike. So last Friday I loaded up Loki and we drove down to Whitefish for what would prove to be an interesting adventure.

Now one of my objectives for that day was to try to locate, hike and mark the location of the one-time turning wye just east of the lake. Before my planned meeting with Rocky, I decided to stop by the road and quickly take a look at the area where the wye was located. I learned two very important things from that short exploration; the grade was very difficult to navigate in that area and following the wye might prove difficult as the ground there was quite wet.

When I met Rocky at 10:00, the first thing he did was to take me over to Maki’s Resort as he wanted to show me what turned out to be the Whitefish Lake spur. I had no idea this spur was even there. We made our way northeast, and it was apparent that there was something running across the ground toward the lake.

Rocky and I spent some time poking around the area where the west leg of the wye should have been, but I was unable to locate it in the wet, heavy undergrowth. As we returned, we located the junction between the spur and the mainline. We followed the prominent grade toward the lake, finding the remains of a wooden culvert in the process. We then worked our way closer to the lake until we reached a spot where the grade appeared to disappear into the water.

Culvert remains, Whitefish Lake, August 2012.

Rocky then told me that at one point this area had been dry, and the grade probably had crossed what is now a small bay. Sure enough, on the west side we found a continuation of the grade, and we resumed our journey westward. Soon thereafter we made an interesting discovery; a curved rail close to the lake shore. We pulled this roughly 12 foot piece out of the tall grass along with a curved fishplate. The rail was stamped “Cammell Sheffield Toughened Steel 1887.” I had never seen a pre-1890 dated rail, and wondered if it had been placed there. The curved fishplate told me that it was probably an original piece, but the date was baffling. However then I remembered that there was an abortive attempt to build the railway in 1887; was this rail purchased at that time and then left over? We can never be certain, but it is a tantalizing find.

Steel rail, Whitefish Lake, August 2012.

From there we moved on the property of resident Helen Morrison who took us a short distance further to where it looked like a gravel pit had been. When I returned home, I found a reference to the spur and that it was approximately 2250 feet long. Taking into account the section through the bay, the distance we covered from the junction to the gravel pit was about 670 metres, or 2197 feet…that’s pretty remarkable!

It was in conversation with Helen that I learned another interesting piece of information that relates to the events that are happening on Gunflint Lake. Over the last few weeks I have discovered that the grade is no longer owned by the railway, but rather it is now crown land. Helen told me that in the late 70’s the railway grade was offered up for sale. There were some people that did take advantage of that, but others were not aware or decided not to spend the money on the right of way. The big question now is which sections were sold.

From the spur, Rocky and I headed back to the mainline and proceeded to walk most the 930 metres from the junction to where the railway crossed Highway 588. Sections were heavily grown in, but others made for a rather nice walk through the conifers. We were able to locate and mark where the railway crossed the highway and paved the way for another hike west of the road, probably for another 500 metres or so until it reaches some private property?

Rail bed, Whitefish Lake, August 2012.

I’m planning one last hike before the days tick away to the start of the school year (sigh). When I was looking at the document with the spurs, I noticed the 1100 foot one at Leeblain. I’ve never been able to locate it, as it is not marked on the 1911 map of the area. Google Earth to the rescue! After staring at my geographical saviour for a while, I think I have a probable location. So I’m off to Leeblain next week, not that I need extra incentive to go there. The plan is to stay in that one area and hopefully turn up more railway related stuff.

Well, I think 1400 words are good enough for today. On Wednesday I’m off to the states for a week, so my next blog will be from the wonderful city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The boys are really looking forward to the trip, but it’s sad that it will be the last hurrah of the summer. Anyway, time to go. Until then…

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Posted by on August 20, 2012 in Hiking, Miscellaneous, Research, Travel, Writing


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Gunflint Day 4

Well, I’m sitting back in my basement as I write this last installment of my trip blog. It has been a very hectic day, a whirlwind tour of packing, hiking and driving. It is good to be at home though, as I miss my wife and kids.

My day began very early again, as I was awake at the crack of dawn; unable to sleep, I ventured to the balcony to snap a photo. It is at times like that I wished I lived on a lake such as Gunflint so I could experience the sunrise every morning. Maybe one day!

Sunrise on Gunflint Lake, August 2012.

My first order of business was to pack everything and prepare for the drive home. It was sad to leave, but it was a great adventure. I certainly will miss my hosts, John and Rose Schloot. They made the entire trip fantastic; their warmth and hospitality were beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. I really hope I can get back next year. If you’re planning to head up to the Boundary Waters, I would highly recommend a stay at the Cross River Lodge.

Before I hit the road, I wanted to return to the Minnesota side of the Gunflint Narrows to complete my work there. Area resident Jerry was once again very willing to take me along the grade through the private property. On my previous visit, we had looked unsuccessfully for a potential “treasure” that had been located in the area. As we walked toward the Narrows, Jerry informed me that he had better intel on where this item was located.

After a bit of searching along the lake shore, I found it; problem is that I have no idea what it is. I thought I was looking for a railway handcar, but I found a mystery. It is an older item, but it is unknown if it dates from the railway period. It is located near where the power line crosses the bay south of narrows, so it very well might have been used to lay to cable there. Maybe at some point I will figure it out.

Unknown item, Gunflint Lake, August 2012.

The area from the Narrows to where the old grade meets the Gunflint Narrows Road is a 450 metre stretch of near continuous 4 to 6 foot high rock cuts. There is only one real break, about 45 metres from the trestle which is the probable location of the US Customs House. It was constructed 1892-1893 and was supposed to oversee the flow of iron from the Paulson Mine to Thunder Bay. There are a few assorted items lying around the site, such as an old mattress spring and what appears to be the metal frame of a single axle wagon.

As the grade becomes the road, it curves westerly another 700 metres along the shore of the lake. This section is filled with many large rock cuts, the railway blasted from the sides of nearly sheer cliffs. The highlight of this area is a 330 metre stretch that contains cuts that are some 25 to 30 feet high and sheer sides that slide an equal distance to the lake. I can imagine the train creeping along the grade, much as vehicles do today.

Rock cut, Gunflint Lake, August 2012.

The railway then heads in a southwesterly direction for another 2km, weaving through a few more cuts and several wet areas. The drivable section ends at a large gravel pit and the grade continues for another 300 metres, crossing the Cross River twice before reaching the Gunflint Trail. I’ll need to revisit this area again, as I’m still trying to find the elusive turning wye and the water in the river was a bit high.

I’ve only been home a few hours, but I’m already getting geared up for the next event. I’m heading out to camp on Friday, but I’ll have to leave for a few hours on Saturday. I’ll be participating in the History Day at Silver Mountain Station, which will be a gathering of people interested in the history of the station, the railway and Dorothea Mitchell. Mitchell, the Lady Lumberjack, is quite the legend in the area. She was a pioneering entrepreneur in a male dominated business and certainly made a name for herself.

Anyway, I think it’s time to wrap this up. I’ve said enough over the past four days. I need to save a few things for next week. Until then…

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Posted by on August 8, 2012 in Hiking, Miscellaneous, Research, Travel


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Gunflint Day 3

So I’m sitting on the front deck of the lodge looking out at a beautiful evening here on Gunflint Lake. Living in northwestern part of Ontario (even though I’m in northeastern Minnesota right now) we often take for granted how lucky we are to be able to experience this amazing scenery on an almost daily basis. I wish I could live out here on this lake…it is breathtaking!

So the third day of my adventure began much better than the previous one. I woke up rather early, five o’clock exactly (central time), and decided to take a peek outside before I tried to roll back into bed. The sun was just rising over the calm lake and it made for a neat picture. Had I not been wear just my boxers I might have ventured down to the water for a better view!

Sunrise on Gunflint Lake, August 2012.

Last night I promised my host John that I would stick around for his hot breakfast at 8. He was actually early, so I had a filling meal of eggs, sausage, bacon and fresh strawberries. After that it was straight to the boat, and off across the lake to my first destination, the ghost town of Leeblain.

Since the lake was relatively calm, I was able to crank the boat up to full speed, 39kph, which made my trip much faster. With the wind cooperating, I decided to make a short detour and take a quick look at some of the rock cuts along the shore of the lake. After setting up the fish finder, I puttered along the shoreline a bit until I reached what I was ultimately looking for. The water depth ranged from 7 to 25 feet, but I really wanted to re-visit the retaining wall site.

In this location, the railway grade was blasted right out of the shoreline of the lake. However, unlike in other places, the water depth necessitated the use of some elaborate iron and wood retainers to keep the rock fill from sliding into the lake. The engineers pinned and buried large metal rods under the grade, and inserted thick iron bars through the loops and in front of wood timbers. It is amazing to see most of these items still in place after 120 years!

Retaining wall, Gunflint Lake, August 2012.

The water depth right beside the wall is 13 feet, but as you move away from shore it drops very quickly. Ten to fifteen feet out it is at 25+ feet and by 30 to 40 feet the depth plunges to a jaw-dropping 90+ feet! I wonder if they knew this beforehand, or did they run into problems after they tried running a train by?

After this short mini-adventure, I turned the boat around and headed west to my original destination. On the way I passed by Dynamite Island (which I just learned the name of a few days ago). During the construction of the railway, the powder house was apparently located on the island to ensure minimal damage in the event there was a catastrophic detonation!

With my previous day’s struggle in mind, I was thankful to be beaching my boat at Leeblain. It is one of the nicest locations on the entire lake and it is probably one of the reasons why the railway chose this site for the town. I always love my trips there, despite the fact that I don’t really get to spend any time on the sand. From the beach it is a very short walk to the railway grade and the rock ovens.

Beach at Leeblain, August 2012.

My first task was going to be a quick examination of the northern most oven, located at the top end of the bay. I spent a few minutes cleaning up the inside of the oven the best I could, removing any growth lest it damage the remains. Just a few hours ago I learned that there is in fact another oven located just nearby, lurking in the bush for my next visit!

From the northern oven, it is a quick 200 metre walk to the site of Leeblain and the other ovens. Since planning this trip one of my main goals was to try and locate more ovens around where the station and hotel were located. On my July trip I had tentatively identified a possible site next to the grade, approximately 15 metres east of the known oven site. In 1994 and 1997 there was an oven next to grade with a tree growing through the middle of it. Was this that missing oven?

I had brought with me a small shovel to excavate the slabs of rock I could see jutting out of the sand. When I began to dig it became apparent that the nearby brush was going to cause a problem, so I retrieved my K-Bar knife to cut away some of the growth. As I did, I instantly recognized that the oven site was just a foot or so north of where I had started to dig. I quickly cut away what I could, trying to disturb as little as possible of the remains. I could make out a depression where the centre would have been, and then the slabs of rock scattered around. It is impossible to tell if the oven was damaged by the blowdown, or the subsequent logging operations.

Remains of a rock oven, Leeblain, August 2012.

After my great discovery, I decided to take a little stroll along the grade to where some of the development is taking place near the unnamed lake. I’m usually in a hurry every time I hike the railway, so my leisurely pace was a nice change. I spent a lot of time staring at the ground, especially along the sides of the grade where some of the soil had been pushed up. I saw a lot of spikes, but a few other interesting things. I spotted what appears to be a hasp from a trunk or piece of luggage, which I decided to pick up. I also saw a lot of little nails, almost horseshoe size, so I pocketed a couple of those as well.

From Leeblain my journey would take me to the end of the lake at Gunflint Narrows. I decided to beach the boat in Charlie’s Bay (or so I call it), near the property of long time lake resident Charlie Cook. Charlie passed away in 1997 but his cabin had still stood on his land just south of the grade about 800 metres east of the Narrows. At the presentation people had told me that his cabin had been bulldozed and I wanted to see for myself. It was very flat, a wasteful destruction in addition to creating a huge mess. Charlie had lived his whole life on the lake and I assume there might have been some interesting things in that cabin.

Charlie’s Bay, Gunflint Lake, August 2012.

After a short walk, I arrived at the Narrows and proceeded to take a look at where the eastern abutment of the trestle might be. I found it easily enough, but I was shocked at the amount of junk and debris lying around. I guess in days past no one thought of disposing of things properly, and I wouldn’t imagine where you would dispose of garbage around here. I walked down to the lake, but I was not able to see as much as I wanted to since the water level is up from years past. You could see the rock cribs under the water, but the pilings were tough to make out.

Gunflint Narrows, August 2012.

Heading back east, I spent a bit of time poking around the area just north of the grade. In one spot was located the station at the Narrows and in another was the “town” of Gunflint. I wandered around for a while, but I couldn’t see anything substantial. There were people living around that area for quite some after the railway, so it is difficult to determine what objects (cans, metal items) are from when. The new growth has also made it difficult to see what if anything might lie on the ground.

My last agenda item for the day was to venture through the Narrows into Magnetic Lake. Many locals claim that an area about 100 metres north of the Narrows was quarried to create the rock cribs for the trestle. After driving by, it is a certainty that quite a bit of rock was removed from the cliff on the opposite side of the peninsula from the railway. Where that rock ended up can’t be conclusively proven, but it is an interesting theory.

So tomorrow unfortunately marks the last day of this wonderful trip. The boat is on the trailer and ready to roll. I still have a little exploring to do before I leave however, as I have to return to the Minnesota side of the Narrows to take more pictures and video. Then it’s back home to the family. I hate to leave, but I do miss my wife and the boys. I really hope I can get back here next year as there I’d like to explore the Gunflint and Lake Superior Railroad.

Anyway, it will be another busy day soon enough so it’s off to bed soon, but I’ll be back tomorrow with again. Until then…

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Posted by on August 7, 2012 in Hiking, Miscellaneous, Research, Travel


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Gunflint Day 2

Well, I’ve had a shower, I’ve eaten, washed the dishes and now it’s time to write. Sort of ironic that as I sit in the great room at the Cross River Lodge and write about my day hiking, I’m watching Owen Wilson run for his life in the movie “Behind Enemy Lines.” It has been a very busy day and I’m quite tired.

I thankfully had a good night’s sleep…I guess going to bed at 9:30 helped too. I slept pretty well until 6:30, and then lounged in bed for another half an hour before I got up. It was a nice morning on the lake, though I did notice that the wind was up which was not a good sign.

Sunrise on Gunflint, August 2012.

After breakfast I started my journey to the east. I was quite concerned about the state of the lake, as I could see whitecaps forming in the open water. Gunflint Lake is a very deep lake, surrounded by high ridges; when it’s windy the lake tends to get very nasty. It was going to be even more challenging since I was by myself, with no one else to help level and trim the boat. As it turns out it, my fears were confirmed and the lake was fairly tough to navigate. I was forced to creep along at half-speed (18kph), constantly watching my position in relation to the waves. So my 8km trip took quite a while!

When I arrived at the east end of the lake, I wanted to avoid some private property along the bay, so I was forced to beach the boat on a rather rocky shore. I had quite the struggle pulling up the boat, in the process smashing it into the side of my left knee. It’s quite swollen now and I’m sure it will be loads of fun tomorrow! Once that was all out of the way, I started walking.

My journey was going to take me just over 4km to the east, back to where I stopped my hike last year. I was immediately greeted by a number of rock cuts and embankments, which would set the tone for the rest of the hike. One of these embankments even had a very interesting culvert built into it. It appeared that they blasted a channel into the rock and the covered it with flat pieces of rock. Crude, but expedient…and it still works!

Rock culvert, Gunflint Lake, August 2012.

From there the grade crosses over what was a high bridge and then enters a wet, low area for 800 metres. Thankfully someone had recently driven along the railway which helped push down some of the new growth that has sprung up since the fire 5 years ago. It was really the only difficult section I had to contend with, and unfortunately kinda boring. Not much to see except chest/head high brush and burned trees!

After this tough stretch, the grade did improve. For the next nearly 2km the railway runs along the shore of the lake, about 100 metres or so from the shore and over 150 feet above it. With the trees gone, it provides an amazing vista of the lake. It was then on to the last major feature before my destination, another bridge crossing. I had visited this location in 1997 before the blowdown and fire, but I had high hopes with the trees gone. The drop to the creek from the grade is over 20 feet, but I wasn’t able to find any remains in the valley. With the rains in May and June the water level is a bit high, frustrating my search.

Gunflint Lake from the railway grade, August 2012.

Two hundred and fifty metres past the bridge I arrived at my turn around point, which was the intersection of the railway and the Gunflint and Lake Superior Railroad. The G&LS was a logging line that was constructed in 1903 and used until 1909. The junction used to be very easy to spot and there was a trail leading down to the lake. Unfortunately it was probably not used after the blowdown and is littered with deadfall and burned trees.

My journey back was smooth, except for the threatening skies. The forecast called for a chance of showers, even thundershowers, and it looked like it was going to happen (it only spat enough to nake the leaves a bit wet). I couldn’t stop at my starting point though, as I had to walk approximately 800 metres west to cover a section along the lake that I did not get to last year. As it turns out, I went 250 metres further than I needed to!

When I got back to the boat, I was shocked to discover, despite placing the cover on it, that the waves had splashed quite a bit of water over the transom. It took me about 15 minutes to bail out the water (gotta get a bilge pump), made worse by my tightening hamstrings. I had walked nearly 11km! Then it was off to creep back to the lodge at half speed, trying to stay pointed into the waves and avoid the reef off the point near Leeblain. I couldn’t believe the canoeists were braving the lake.

The break at the lodge was a brief one; enough time for a quick snack and to prepare my GPS for the next adventure. My host, John, was going to take me to the Narrows to look at the railway there and hunt for an “interesting” treasure.

Our first stop was at the home of one of the local residents; Jerry and Sharon had spoken to their neighbours and had agreed to take us for a look around. I was able to photograph and video the Narrows in the afternoon light as I wanted to. Our search for the mystery item was unsuccessful; we had the general location, but sometimes it’s like the proverbial needle in the haystack. Jerry has agreed to take me back on Wednesday morning so I can get some proper data and more images.

Well, I need to post this blog and turn in. Tomorrow should be a less strenuous day, with a visit to Leeblain and the Ontario side of the Narrows. There will certainly be a lot less walking, which is good since my knee isn’t too happy. Hopefully I’ll return with good news in my search for rock ovens and building remains. The forecast calls for a high of 24C and lighter winds…well see what happens!

Until then…

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Posted by on August 6, 2012 in Hiking, Miscellaneous, Research, Travel


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Gunflint Day 1

Greetings from Gunflint Lake! I am sitting here in the great room of the Cross River Lodge watching football as I write this. If it weren’t for the pounding headache that I have, life would be awesome. I’ve had a good day for the most part and I am certainly looking forward to tomorrow.

So this week has been a very busy week for me. This is my second kick at some fieldwork in less than a week. On Tuesday I decided to take the boys with me and walk a bit of the railway near the former village of Flint. I mentioned in my previous post the Flint is a village no more since most of the area has been washed away by the Whitefish River.

We started our hike where Diana Road ends along the river and headed north. It was going to be a 3km round trip, which I thought was well within abilities of the boys. It unfortunately was a cool night, so there was a heavy dew which made everything dripping wet. In areas the grass and vegetation growth was much thicker than I expected, but the boys took it in stride (much to my shock) and were real troopers about it.

When we arrived at our destination, which was a crossing of the river west of Harstone, we spent some time examining the remains of the bridge there. We then headed back and checked out some of the eroded sections of the grade. In one area it there was what appeared to be the remains of a diversion of the river. The engineers diverted the river is several places along this stretch of the railway and this could very well have been one of those locations.

When we passed through Flint we made our way down to the river to see what might still be lurking in the area. We could see some of the remains of the bridge across the river but no traces of the former village. From there we crossed the Silver Creek and finished our little adventure.

So that brings us back to Minnesota. I made the drive down to this very beautiful area today to give a talk at the Chik-Wauk Museum on the railway and the Paulson Mine. I’m sticking around for a few days to do some hiking on Gunflint and hopefully Mother Nature cooperates!

After stopping for some supplies in Grand Marais, I arrived at my “home” for the next few days, the Cross River Lodge. I’m staying in the main lodge and my room is amazing. Even as I sit here on the main floor I’m struck by how well appointed this resort is. What is even better is the hospitality of my hosts, John and Rose Schloot. They have been nothing short of fantastic and the staff is equally wonderful!

The presentation today had the makings of an interesting experience since it was outdoors and I had no technology assistance (other than my tablet for my notes). It was well attended (I didn’t count the number of people) but I’d have to guess there were about 50 people. I managed to stay within the one hour time frame and I fielded many questions about the railway and the mine. I’m looking forward to doing it again at some point in the future!

Following the presentation I returned to the lodge for a bite to eat and then headed out for a bit of exploring along the Gunflint Narrows Road. My main goal was to try to locate the turning wye that was situated just north of the crossing of the Cross River. I had spent a bit of time examining the area on Google Earth and I was pretty convinced that I would easily find this unique feature. Unfortunately as I began to walk it became apparent that I would not find it. I crisscrossed the site many times but I could not see any definitive traces. I guess the wye is where we thought it was all along, obliterated by a gravel pit.

Well, I’m heading off to bed since my head is still pounding and I have a long day tomorrow. I will hiking the eastern end of the lake and let’s hope I don’t get rained on. Then my host John will be taking me to the Gunflint Narrows to look at the railway there and maybe even see something neat!

Until tomorrow…

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Posted by on August 5, 2012 in Hiking, Miscellaneous, Research, Travel


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