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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…