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Author Archives: Padwrr

About Padwrr

History teacher, railway historian, football coach, outdoorsy guy, photographer, former reservist & Cowboys fan. Researching the PAD&W Railway since 1994.

It’s been 20 years?

Do you ever sit back and wonder where the heck time went? You know, like one day you’re single, hanging out at the university bar and the next you’re 40 something years old with a wife, kids and a million adult responsibilities? It’s like you blink and a good chunk of your life flies by. I think it’s most evident in your job, your career if you choose to call it that. One day you’re a bright-eyed, eager rookie and then next you’re a grey-haired old guy teaching kids whose parents are younger than you.

Welcome to December kids! Speaking of time flying by, it’s hard to believe that Christmas is three weeks away. It’s already been a month since football season ended, which occurred on a disappointing note. We finished third yet again, but it was great to work with another awesome group of players. Unfortunately the boys weren’t successful either, both of their teams falling in the finals, Noah’s in quite dramatic fashion. I guess there’s always next year!

Since we’ve reached December, that means things are winding down as we approach the Christmas break. The Thanksgiving to Christmas period is a long stretch and it’s nice to have some time to recharge before the end of the semester. I found this fall really physically tiring, but that’s probably because I am getting old. Thankfully I’ve remained relatively healthy, that was until yesterday. I could just feel it coming on, and sure enough this morning I awoke stuffy and with sore throat. I guess better now than at Christmas.

So speaking of work, this past month marked a special milestone for me. I officially began my teaching career with the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board in November 1997, just over a year after graduating from university. That means I’ve been teaching for over 20 years! I really have a hard time fathoming that it’s been that long. which is why I feel like it’s all been a huge blur. I don’t feel like I’m old enough to have been teaching all those years, until I look at my grey facial hair and remember I’m turning 44 in a few weeks. It’s been an amazing experience though, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to teach some great students over the years. 

As you’re well aware, no blog post would be complete without some mention of the weather. Honestly though, I don’t have much to say. After a rather lousy summer and fall, including some early snow and cold, things have been okay of late. The forecasters are calling for a snowy and cold winter, but so far we have not seen much of that (fingers crossed). If we don’t get more snow, it will be a pretty brown Christmas. The past week has been unseasonably mild and I hope that trend continues. I know I am just fooling myself, but one can dream right?

Early snow, October 2017.

Frigid football practice, October 2017.

Snow at camp, November 2017.

A scattering of snow, November 2017.

Now that I have a bit more time on my hands, I have had more of an opportunity to resume my railway work. It’s been a combination of research, revising and editing. That probably doesn’t make a lot of sense, so I’ll explain.

As you may or may not be aware, depending on how regularly you read this blog, I am immersed in writing a book. I began researching material for this project more than 3 years ago and I started the writing process this past January. I really thought I was done most of the research, with just a few loose ends to tie up so I could finish writing. Being new to this whole book writing thing however, I’ve learned that you’re never really done research. As you write, there are always new leads that you uncover, or topics that require further elaboration or clarification, so you’re always looking into things. Just last week I received a book I purchased on forest railroads and it led me to a whole new source of information. It can all be exhausting!

Steam and Thunder in the Timber

Revising and editing are elements that are continually evolving as well. If you’re digging up new material, guaranteed you’re changing your plan of attack. The aforementioned book I received provided me with a ton of new information, which forced me to go back to reexamine the contents of my chapters and tweak the details. I don’t know what other authors do, so maybe it’s just me. I am a bit of a perfectionist, so I could be taking things too far. I don’t know; all I can do is what feel right for me.

Besides the research and revising, I plan to get back to full-scale writing, which will most likely occur during the Christmas break. If I can get another big chunk of writing done this winter, I will only have some minor details to fill in after the spring and fall season of field work. Well, that’s plan anyway; we all know that things don’t always work out the way intend them too in most cases. I’ll let you know how things are going in a few months.

Anyway, it’s time to go. I’ll try to get back before Christmas

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Posted by on December 1, 2017 in History, Railway, Research, Writing

 

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Next time remember the batteries!

Nietzsche once said, “Without forgetting it is quite impossible to live at all.” True, but he must have written that in reference to other people’s forgetfulness, for no one in their right mind would say that when they themselves have forgotten. Most people would have said something akin to “ah, for God sake,” maybe replacing “God” with a few more colourful adjectives for good measure. The reality is folks that forgetting sucks, especially when you think you’ve got it all planned out or you’re a long way from home. Maybe it’s just a sign that you’re getting old or possibly providence telling you to quit while you’re ahead. In any case, it can really dampen anyone’s day or party!

Hey, it’s October kids! I know I have not written in awhile, a long while, two months to be exact, but I’ve been busy. You know the routine already, right? Work, family, football…the usual craziness. It gets faster, busier and more exhausting every year; maybe I am getting too old for this crap. Thankfully some of it is winding down, but that’s a story for another paragraph. My classes are good, but I have larger numbers than I’ve seen in recent years. It makes marking a bit more onerous with all those extra assignments, but I guess that’s why they pay me those big bucks.

So what else is exciting Dave? Well, it wouldn’t be a proper blog post without some gripe about the weather. The weather…sucks! Is that to the point enough? It’s been a crappy year in the regard. It’s been a wet fall, at least in September, especially compared to previous falls. It has been reasonably warm though, until this week that is. It’s amazing how it can turn on a dime; 15C one day and then feeling like -4C the next. They are predicting a cold and snowy winter, so I guess we’ll have to see how that plays out. Hopefully it won’t be as bad as they say. Today was about as miserable as it comes; wet and cold. Areas west of the city got a lot of snow while it just rained here all day. Football practice was fantastic! It’s supposed to turn to snow tonight, so it might be a snowy Halloween for the kids.

Now speaking of football, as usual, it’s my biggest preoccupation of the fall. Things are going well, but I find myself more drained than normal. Probably that getting old thing again. Thankfully I have great coaches around me to ease the burden. Our high school team finished third and is gearing up to play in the semi-finals on Sunday. We are taking on our cross-town rivals, St. Ignatius, and we hope we can avenge a previous loss we suffered to them a few weeks ago. Both Ethan and Noah’s team are in the finals on Saturday, which is very exciting. Unfortunately Noah has not played all season due to a concussion he suffered in the summer so it’s been a tough time for him. But with all the new information out there regarding this issue, it was best to err on the side of caution and take our time getting him back into sports.

As football winds down, something else has jumped into the spotlight in recent weeks. Although it was not that long ago that we were in Europe for our last school excursion, we have already started planning the next one. We will be heading back during March break of 2019 on a tour similar to the ones we’ve done in the past. This one, called from Vimy to Juno, will take us to many of the same places we’ve been before, with the exception of Berlin. I’m very excited to visit a new place to experience some different culture and sights. We met with the students back in September and just had a meeting with parents yesterday. Within the next few weeks they will start enrolling and the real planning can begin. Only 498 days to go!

As has been the case in the last few months, it been pretty quiet on the railway front. I’ve been just so busy that there is, at times, barely enough time to eat and breathe, let alone do any railway work. The lone exception to this was my annual trip to Gunflint was the boys on Canadian Thanksgiving weekend. I was very anxious for the opportunity to go, to get away from things for a few days, do some field work and maybe most importantly, spend some time with the boys. Fall is so crazy that I don’t see them as much as I should.

Our adventure started bright and early on Friday morning. As I have done in the past, I took a personal day to extend the weekend a bit and get as much time there as possible. We loaded up the truck and boat, and after a brief stop for some food in Grand Marais, we arrived at the Cross River Lodge by mid-morning. Our room was not ready yet, so we took the opportunity to get the boat in the water and do a little work on the east side of the lake.

It was a gorgeous day, warm with very little wind…probably one of the best fall days I’ve experienced on the lake. My plan was to shoot some video at the narrows between Gunflint and Little Gunflint Lake, something I had wanted to do in the summer but I forgot my wireless microphone. Even though it was a nice day, I had to wade through the water in the channel that separates the two lakes and man was it cold. Talk about waking you up! My oldest, Ethan, joked that he should have recorded me in the water as well, as it was quite hilarious.

While we were in the area, I decided to shoot a little video of the site of the US Customs houses on the US side of the channel. I did make a dumb decision to leave my crocs on while I did it, which was it retrospect a bad call. They were wet from being in the water and I nearly killed myself a half-dozen times while I walked around through the bush, video camera in hand. I guess it added a little excitement to the day!

Gunflint Little Gunflint Narrows, October 2017.

On our way back to the lodge we stopped along the north side of the lake where the PAD&W runs right beside the shore. The blue sky and fall colours made for some fantastic photos, even with my iPhone. I had no idea why I didn’t take out my real camera and take some shots. We spent some time near the spot I call the “Retaining Wall” which contains cribbing work done by the railway engineers 125 years ago. It’s still in amazing shape for its age and I am always fascinated each time I am there. I figured I’d record a bit while I had the camera out and add it to my collection for the day. You can view all the completed videos here, here and here.

Railway grade, Gunflint Lake, October 2017.

Retaining Wall, Gunflint Lake, October 2017.

Gunflint Narrows, October 2017.

Once we were back at the lodge and settled in, my next task was to prepare for the evenings events. If you recall, during my visit the previous year, I was asked to do an impromptu presentation on the railway. Afterwards, I told John and Rose that I would gladly do it again, but this time I would prepare myself a bit more. During my summer visit we discussed the idea and agreed it would be great to do it again. Since I had the opportunity to plan ahead, I decided to do a topic that I had not really spoken about before. A few of my presentations at Gunflint had alluded to John Paulson, the driving figure behind the mining efforts in the area in the early 1890s and the namesake of the Paulson Mine, but I had not elaborated much. With that in mind, I decided to dedicate my whole presentation to this somewhat mysterious man.  

I played to another packed house and the presentation was very well received. I also had a chance to meet some new people and connect with a number of familiar ones. I hope that this topic will form the basis of a lecture I plan to do at the Chik-Wauk Museum in a few years.

Our plan for Saturday morning involved some explorations of the Gunflint and Lake Superior in an area I had visited a few times before. We would ditch the boat for the day as our starting point was more readily accessible by road than by water. We would travel along the Crab Lake Extension of the Border Route Trail to where it intersects Crab and Whisker Lakes to look a few sites in that area. I was really apprehensive about how it would go, since it had been much wetter than in previous years and the ground could potentially be very soggy.

It’s about a 3 kilometre walk to the location, mostly along the south shore of Crab Lake. It was as I feared a bit wet, but better than I had expected. My first task was to trace a section of the railway grade along Whisker Lake, in an area I had missed on several previous visits. That was accomplished without much trouble, at which point I directed my attention to the grade along the east side of Crab Lake. In this case I was thwarted a bit by the water level on the lake, but I did make a few important discoveries. Our day was concluded by a nice meal at the Gunflint Lodge and a some down time back at Cross River.

Border Route Trail, October 2017.

Whisker Lake, October 2017.

Cylinder?, October 2017.

Pocket knife, October 2017.

Border Route Trail, October 2017.

Sunset, Gunflint Lake, October 2017.

Sunset, Gunflint Lake, October 2017.

Sunday took us back on the lake and to an area we had visited many times before. The calm waters of Friday were gone and it was quite a bumpy ride with the westerly wind blowing down the length of the lake. Having to reduce our speed made the journey a tad bit longer, but soon enough we were heading south on the trail toward Bridal Falls. The agenda for the day was to investigate a possible bridge spanning the Crab River where it is fed by the waters from Crab Lake. During my presentation at the Chik-Wauk Museum in the summer, a local resident had mentioned the possibility to me and I was determined to see if it was in fact true.

Like the previous day, I was concerned about the water levels near the railway grade as it winds it way southward from the falls to Crab Lake. As it turns out, where I thought it would be wet was dry and vice versa. I had noticed last year that it appeared as though a beaver had constructed a dam where a portion of the river widens into a small lake about 200 metres north of Crab Lake. That turned out to be true and it was a bit challenging trying to make our way around the lake., but once past there it was fine and we proceeded to the mouth of the river.

It was a bit challenging trying to get across the river as a beaver had built yet another dam at the mouth, and that was my first clue that the “bridge” may not have been what it appeared. Walking across the dam and examining the area around it I found no evidence that there was a bridge spanning the river, just the dam and a number of fallen logs. On the west side of the river, I swept the shoreline for approximately 100 metres and found no traces of a railway line, just some old beer cans. I guess that put that idea to rest, but I should have taken a photo of the phantom “bridge.”

With that part of the day done and feeling somewhat deflated at not finding any bridge remains, I decided to lift my spirits by shooting some video at the site of the former corduroy trestle that ran alongside Bridal falls. When we arrived there I began to unpack my gear and set the camera up to prepare to record. It was at that point I realized that I had left the wireless microphone on during Friday’s shooting and the battery was now dead. After scouring my tactical vest for a spare battery (I have a number of AA batteries for the GPS, but not a single AAA battery needed for the microphone) I proceeded to verbally berate myself for a) leaving the microphone on and b) failing to bring a spare battery. I had contemplated it before we left the lodge, but I figured I would only need the system for a few minutes and therefore not need a spare. Dummy! I have since placed several extra AAA batteries in my vest beside those AA ones so it does not happen again. To ease yet another disappointment, I took some time to take photos of Bridal Falls.

Mystery object, October 2017.

Bridal Falls, October 2017.

Bridal Falls, October 2017.

Bridal Falls, October 2017.

It’s always sad when I have to leave Gunflint as I really enjoy visiting there. I guess I’ll have to wait until May to get back. Hopefully my next trip will be more productive from a railway standpoint, but I think any time I get there it’s good for my stress levels. Next year’s plans involve more exploration of the Gunflint and Lake Superior, and in particular Camp 8. In the meantime, I’ll have more time to do some writing on my book when football is over. Hopefully I can get most of it done and just work on some of the loose ends once I get more field work done.

Anyway, I’ve babbled on too long so it’s time to get moving. I’ll be back soon, hopefully sooner than these last two posts. I’m sure there will be a lot to talk about in the next little while. Until then…

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2017 in Hiking, History, Railway, Research

 

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If they don’t find you handsome, Part II

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that the phrase concludes by saying that “they should at least find you handy.” That might be true, but your assuming I’m not handsome. I can say with some degree of certainty I’m no ____________ (insert attractive guy), but I’m definitely better looking than Red Green for sure. I guess it depends on what your definition of handsome is; are middle-aged, bald dads your type? We’re a petty large demographic, so I’m sure we have our fans.

Well, summer vacation is almost over kids. I really need to write more regularly, as the last time I posted, it had just started. What can I say, I’ve been very busy, but what’s new? Speaking of that, I did acquire a new toy last month. With the kids getting older and therefore bigger, we had a need for a more powerful boat for our water activities. After a bit of looking around, we replaced our 1991, 14-foot 25 HP boat with a 2012/2016, 16-foot 60 HP model. Boy does it really move, but too bad our lake isn’t big enough to really stretch its legs. It’s an Evinrude E-Tec as well, so I love the fact that I no longer have to mix gas to put in the tank!

Sadly, our summer hasn’t been what I expected it to be. The conditions and temperatures have improved, but things are just as unsettled as they were in June and early July. There have been some really nice days, but unfortunately, they are interspersed with some really crappy ones. It is certainly not the warm, dry summer we had last year. But a bad day at camp is better than a good day at work, right? All I can hope is that things settle down for the fall.

Calm morning at camp, July 2017.

Sunset at camp, August 2017.

So, you’re probably wondering what was keeping me busy this summer and what the title was all about. Well, I’ve written in the past how I’ve done some construction/carpentry work and how I rather enjoy it. Last year I finished our basement office, built a kitchen island for camp as well as a new dock. I thought I did a pretty decent job on those; this year it was a shed. For many years we realized that we needed more storage space, but I had never built anything close to a shed. It took me from the end of June until this weekend to finish it, working whenever I had time. There were many first for me with this project; framing a building, shingles, soffit and fascia and siding. It isn’t the best shed ever built, but it turned out pretty good and was a huge learning experience.

New shed, August 2017.

With the end of August approaching, a new school year is on the horizon. I’m obviously not excited about heading back, but I guess that is life. I’ve already started part of my fall routine however. Noah begged us to let him play summer football, and since he was, we signed Ethan up as well. And of course, I was asked to help coach. It wasn’t easy getting back into the saddle this soon, but it’s like riding a bike. The tournament is coming up this weekend in Princeton, MN and hopefully both teams will do well.

When I last wrote, I was preparing to head to Gunflint for a presentation and hopefully some field work. Well, one of those things turned out the way it was supposed to. Last year I did my first presentation at the Chik-Wauk Museum on the Gunflint & Lake Superior Railroad. Unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict, the crowd was not as large as they have been in the past. After chatting with the museum director, Bonnie Schudy, we decided to do it again this year on a less busy date.

There was a full house for the lecture and having done the same presentation on two previous occasions, I felt very comfortable with the material. Those in attendance we very appreciative and had a lot of questions at the end. As it turns out, I gained two very valuable pieces of information from the presentation. The first, which occurred right after the event, was when one of the audience members told me about a trestle/bridge they had seen along the G&LS route. I had not come across it in my travels, and it lends credence to fact that there were other branches to this line. I will be checking out this site during my October visit to the area.

Audience at the Chik-Wauk Museum, July 2017.

The other breakthrough came a few weeks after. For many years I have been searching for a photo of William Scott Jr., who was one of the founders of the Pigeon River Lumber Company and a well-known person in the Lakehead from his arrival in 1900 until his death in 1939. My efforts to locate an image of him had all come up empty. Fortunately, one of the audience members thought of me when they attended a presentation on the Outlaw Bridge a week later in Grand Marais. As it turns out, the Thunder Bay Museum did have a picture of him all along, just not an individual portrait. I am certainly grateful that these people were looking out for me!

After the presentation, we (the family and I) had a chance to relax at the Cross River Lodge and have a nice dinner at the Gunflint Bistro. I was a beautiful evening, so we took the opportunity to explore a little of Gunflint and Magnetic Lakes. The plan was to spend the night and do some field work the next day, but unfortunately, I forgot a piece of video equipment that I needed, so my plans went out the window. We went out on the lake anyway, more so because it was a nice morning and I really want to try out the boat on the big lake. She really flies!

Cliffs at Magnetic Lake, July 2017.

Sunrise at Gunflint, July 2017.

While I was out there I thought I’d try out the fish finder and better explore an area of the railway on the north shore of Gunflint I call the “Retaining Wall.” Building the PAD&W along the shore of Gunflint was very difficult, mostly due to the uncompromising geography of the Canadian Shield. In spots, such as this one, the grade had to be blasted right out of the shore of the lake, which resulted in trains passing precipitously between the rock face and the lake. The engineers had to construct a retaining wall in this spot to keep the grade from sliding into the lake. Most of it is still there, some 125 years later. The water is about 10-15 feet deep next to the shore, but quickly drops past 100 feet within a short distance. It amazes me every time I see it and I shot a little video which you can view here.

Well, I think it’s time to wrap things up. I’m not sure when I’ll be back again, since the beginning of the school year is rather hectic. Most likely I’ll have a few things to say before my annual Thanksgiving trip to Gunflint in early October. Until then…

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2017 in Hiking, History, Railway

 

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Goodbye old friend…

We have all been there. We have all had to say goodbye in our lives; many times, it’s a temporary good bye…sometimes it’s a forever goodbye. It’s never easy whatever the case, but certainly the forever kind leave an indelible mark on our soul. We are impacted by the departure, but also by the memories we shared with those that are leaving. It is a part of life that we cannot change or stop; the best we can do is make the most of the time that we are given.

Welcome to summer kids! I know it’s been a really long time since I last posted, but I’ve been busy. Another school year has come and gone and now I’m reveling in the glory of summer vacation. The month of June was nuts and I’m glad to finally start to de-stress. This is not to say that I’m sitting around doing nothing, but having that mental weight lifted is a huge relief. I can’t believe though that a week and a half has already gone by, but who’s counting?

The only downer of late has been the weather. Shocked? Me, rant about the weather? Never! Seriously though, the mother nature is really ticking me off (I so wanted to use a different metaphor, but this is a family-friendly blog). After that ice storm in April, things have not been the same. June was an absolute disaster and the beginning of July has been much of the same. Maybe disaster is a bit harsh, but I am so tired of this crap. The weather has been so unsettled; we just can’t seem to get any consistency. It seems as though every second day we get precipitation. I really hope we turn a corner soon and get a bit more “summer” like conditions soon.

One of the reasons I’m so irked by the weather is that I have been spending most of my time at camp. I feel bad for the boys since spending time indoors is not what you want to be doing, and our summer is so short to begin with. My time has been consumed with a fairly large project, which is the construction of a new storage shed. I’ve never built a shed before, but last year I had never built a dock before either. It’s going well, though I put in some long hours this past weekend and I am still feeling the after effects. I may have over did it as well, as my tennis elbow is flaring up again and it’s quite annoying. Hopefully I’ll have the door and shingles on it this week, so then I can slow the pace of construction down.

Camp, July 2017.

Storm clouds at camp, July 2017.

With all the excitement going on, my railway work has taken a big backseat. The only thing that I’ve done is begun the process of overhauling my web-based information. I’ve had an online presence for the railway for almost 10 years now, and launched padwrr.ca six years ago. That site has become a bit dated, but since I’m not very proficient in web design, I decided that the easiest thing to do is to migrate all that info on to this page. Therefore, you’ll notice several new tabs at the top, which marks the start of the process. There’s still a lot of work to do, so it will be a while before it’s all complete. Please bear with me.

Probably the biggest piece of news is my upcoming lecture on the 23rd. I will be making my fourth appearance at the Chik-Wauk Museum for a presentation on the Gunflint & Lake Superior Railroad, which will be very similar to the one that I did this past January at the Thunder Bay Museum. I hope it generates a lot of interest south of the border as well, since this topic encompasses the history of both countries. With my hike back in May, I have quite a bit of new information to discuss. If you’re looking for something to do in a couple weeks, why not take a drive up the Gunflint Trail to have a listen.

While I’m there, I decided to spend the night and take the opportunity to do some field work. I haven’t quite made up my mind as to what I want to do, but I guess I’ll have to fairly soon. I’m either going out on Gunflint Lake and shoot some video or make a return visit to what I believe to be the site of Camp 8. I need to do both, but it will really depend on what I think is the higher priority. It also might rest of whether I have the family with me or not. I’ll let you know in a few weeks.

So, back to the title, which refers to saying goodbye. Recently, I too had to say goodbye to an old friend, one who has been a big part of my railway research over the past number of years and has been featured in this blog. Thirteen years ago my wife and I adopted a dog, the first dog I ever owned. Rather quickly, Loki became one of our family and a loyal companion; he came with me on almost all of my railway hikes until he was hobbled by old age. Last October he was diagnosed with a tumor and the vet gave him months to live. We knew we were on borrowed time and made sure we enjoyed what time we had left with him. He made it another 8 months. Right up to the end, Loki was still soldiering on, including coming to camp. Unfortunately we had to let go of him on June 26th. I guess it’s fitting that in a few days it will be the 10th anniversary of the passing of my father, who obviously had a profound impact on my life as well. They both loved the outdoors, so I truly hope they have found each other and are enjoying a long walk together.

Loki, July 2004.

Anyway, I need to move along. As I mentioned, I’ll be back in a few weeks to report on how the presentation and field work went. Until then…

 
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Posted by on July 11, 2017 in Hiking, History, Railway, Writing

 

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I’ve been working on a railroad…and I got lost!

I was going to title this post “How to get lost in the bush and other exciting stuff…Part II” in honour of the last time I got lost hiking, but I thought this sounded better. If you read that post, I didn’t really get lost, I just went slightly astray. This time there was a bit more consternation though, as I was quite a distance from any civilization and I had been walking for a very long time. I do tend to go for long walks, don’t I? And I don’t really do any normal hiking either for that matter, which is probably why I get lost in the first place. I see a pattern emerging here…do you?

So, we’ve arrived at the end of May kids; the year continues to fly by! It’s hard to believe that in a month school will be over. Craziness! Unfortunately, there is so much to do between now and then I can barely wrap my head around it. In fact, I don’t even really want to think about it either. It makes me depressed. The kids have already checked out, so it’s like pulling teeth to try to get them to do anything, and that makes me even more exhausted. I guess like every other year, this too shall pass.

No blog post would ever be complete without me saying something about the weather. Talk about a dog’s breakfast! The temperatures and conditions have been all over the place, almost like the proverbial box of chocolates, you’ll never know what you get. As I write I’m sitting on my couch at camp watching a slight drizzle fall…it’s supposed to be mostly sunny and only a 25% chance of rain. Yesterday was gorgeous, one of the best days so far this spring. However, the blackflies were atrocious! Like I mean underneath your sunglasses, in your nose, in your ears, swallowing more than I’d care to atrocious. I have not seen them this bad in quite some time. I toughed it out most of the day, but it was not fun. The boys and I couldn’t even have a fire last night, as no one wanted to stay outside in that mess.

It’s a good thing that I decided to go for my first railway hike of the year last weekend, because thankfully (or mercifully) there were no blackflies to found. I had a great time, though I may have pushed myself a little too hard, which I’ll explain later. My plan was to continue following the grade of the Gunflint & Lake Superior eastward from Crab Lake, hopefully to its terminus, wherever that was. To accomplish this, I decided to spend a night with John and Rose at the Cross River Lodge, which would allow me to get an early start on the hike. It was a nice night and I got to spend some time chatting with the other guests.

Rising fairly early, I started my hike around 0800 (Central time). It was going to be a long one; it was nearly 3 kilometres to my starting point, a then I would have another 3 kilometres to my turn around point. By 0900 I had reached the western end of Whisker Lake, a short distance from where I had ended my hike the previous year and went over a part of a section I missed last time, making a big discovery. I had determined that a telegraph line had been run to Camp 4, but last year I found evidence that it may have gone further. At that west side of Whisker, I found another section of wire, but where did it go?

After making my way to my previous end point, it was another 600 metres to the east end of the lake. Along the way I uncovered many spikes, a few fishplates and a large coil of wire. That section, for the most part, went pretty smooth, or what passes for smooth in this line of work. Unfortunately, things were going to get way more difficult for the next 2 kilometres I hoped to cover.

Spike, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

Wire, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

Fishplate, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

Grade, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

Grade, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

Fishplate, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

Wire, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

The first 4 kilometres or 2.5 miles of the Gunflint & Lake Superior grade is well pronounced and easy to follow. Once it passes the top of the ridge south of Gunflint Lake, things become much less discernible. Using an old and inaccurate 1926 map of Cook County, I theorized that the railroad followed the Crab River south to Crab Lake and then turned eastward. The banks of the river and shore of Crab and Whisker Lakes gave me a reasonable area to work with to locate the grade. However, once past Whisker Lake, things became very dicey.

Logging railroads were well-known for their methods of construction, especially given their temporary nature. Rails were often thrown down in the most expedient location, with little grading work, since they would be removed once all the timber had been harvested. This is what I had to deal with. Away from the shore of the lake, I had no idea where the railroad went. I was reduced to zigzagging back and forth, hoping for a lucky hit on the metal detector. And to make matters worse, the vegetation changed significantly, as I moved away from the area that had been burned by the 2007 Ham Lake Fire.

It’s interesting how we (or in this case I), build up an idea of what an area will look like before we get there. I guess in my mind I envisioned towering trees and an easy stroll through the bush. There are two problems with that idea; one, the PRLC cut down all the towering trees, which is why I’m doing all this research. Duh! Two, this is the Canadian Shield, and it is messy in the bush. On top of the “messiness” is the fact that I was in an area that is partly swamp, so it can be rather wet and sloppy. So, it was not an easy stroll.

As I moved eastward, I found that hits came in batches. I’d walk 80-90 metres and then find some stuff, in this case strands of wire and spikes. Then it was another 100 metres or so before I found a spike and wire, in a spot so grown in that I could barely move. After 250 metres and some thought that I might be lost, I started finding spikes and wire again. This continued for another 450 metres before I completely lost the trail and I guess lost myself. Somehow, I got my bearings messed up and instead of continuing east, I ended up 100 metres south. It took me a bit to get myself pointed in the right direction and back on track.

Grade, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

Grade, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

Grade, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

Grade, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

I walked, or rather stumbled on for another kilometre before I pulled the plug on the hike; I had been at it for hours and exhaustion was starting to set in. I had gone into the water above my boots early in the hike (a “booter” as we would say where I grew up) and when it happened a second time, in a nasty muck hole, it was the proverbial straw that broke the camels back. Besides, it was getting late and I had a long walk back my truck. By the time I made it back it was 1500 and I had walked some 14 kilometres; I was sore and tired.

My physical state was mitigated by the great discovery I made. Since last year I had known of the existence of another logging camp, Camp 8, along the Gunflint & Lake Superior. I thought I had located it last year, but I there was this nagging feeling that what I found was not quite right. As I was hiking along the railroad, I came across a debris field near the grade that caught my attention. The first things I located were a spike and a fishplate using the metal detector; as I looked around I noticed that there were quite a number of items lying close by. This included a section of pipe, a light gauge rail, buckets, other chunks of metal, coal, slag, ceramic insulators and a snuff jar. The snuff jar was an interesting find, as the folks from the US Forest Service found the exact same jar at Camp 4 back in 2011. Close to the jar, I found an intact bottle of Davis Vegetable Painkiller, which was first patented by Perry Davis in 1845 (more info here and here). Right beside it was what appeared to be a chunk of metal, but in reality was the blade from a double bit axe. What a cool find!

Ceramic insulators, Camp 8?, May 2017.

Snuff jar, Camp 8?, May 2017.

Davis bottle and axe blade, Camp 8?, May 2017.

Based on what I found, I knew that these items are not randomly strewn about the railroad; something had to be close by. A short distance away I found another debris field, which included more buckets, wire and cable, a lantern, a shovel, and quite a number of barrel hoops. Then I saw it. At first my eye was draw to what appeared to be a berm rising up from the ground, then I noticed there was there remains of a log wall sitting on that berm. The berm appeared to made of stone, and the northern corners still had logs resting on them. It was a very large structure (I didn’t think to estimate a size) and contained metal and sawn lumber remains within the berms. As I moved around, I located what I believed were the foundations of another two structures, both smaller than the first. Both had more sawn lumber inside, while one contained sections of what appeared to be stove pipe. There could be more foundations and more debris in the area, but I did not want to disturb the site and I did not have a lot of time to linger.

Barrel hoops, Camp 8?, May 2017.

Lantern, Camp 8?, May 2017.

Building foundation, Camp 8?, May 2017.

Building foundation, Camp 8?, May 2017.

Building foundation, Camp 8?, May 2017.

Sawn lumber, Camp 8?, May 2017.

As you can tell, I’m being very short on details and coy about its location. While I was there, it was my impression that the site has not seen any visitors in quite some time, I would assume because of its location. It appears relatively undisturbed, which could be a boon to my research (on top of what I already discovered). In my discussions with the archaeologists from Superior National Forest, they have no records of this site. It’s also a rarity, since almost every other logging camp inside the 16,000 square kilometre national forest has long been picked over, including Camp 4. I really hope the Forest Service guys let me tag along when they decide to explore what I hope turns out to be Camp 8.

Anyway, I better move along. I hope to get out hiking again in a few weeks, but that will depend on the weather. I’d like to do some explorations on North Lake and I’ll pass along the details if and when it happens. Until then…

 
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Posted by on May 29, 2017 in Hiking, History, Railway, Writing

 

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It’s been that long?

Have you ever been doing something, anything and suddenly become aware that a long period of time has gone by without even noticing? Like say years. Years Dave? Yup, years. So what has prompted this line of thought you ask? Well, it was actually something I saw on Facebook. There were a number of posts a few days ago regarding an event that occurred in 2007, which was a very significant year for me for a bunch of reasons. Confused? Please, read on.

Welcome to May kids! Speaking of time flying by…wow, where did the year go? In any case, I’m back to my usual posts after all the travelling related ones I did last month. May means that the school year is almost over and it’s getting to that crazy time with a million things going on. I’m trying to get my classes all planned out to the end of the year, mark, prep for football spring camp…wow. Sometimes I wonder how I manage to juggle all of this stuff at the same time, and that’s in addition to everything going on at home. Oh well, it will be summer holidays soon enough and some even better news arrived last week. My wife and I have been approved for another semester leave starting in February 2022. Yay!

I guess I would be remiss in not mentioning the weather. I know, I always gripe about the weather, but this time it’s for real. Up until a few weeks ago, it had been a gorgeous spring. And then the wheels fell off. It started with quite a bit of rain one day, then some snow and then a massive ice storm. Ice storm? Yes, you read it right, ice storm. In April? Yup, and it was so bad the schools and the city were shut down for two days. Craziness! The last time that happened was in 1996, when I was still in university. The snow and ice melted quickly and things are relatively back to normal, but that made things around here a rather soggy for a while.

Ice storm, April 2017.

Ice storm, April 2017.

Alright, so I should rewind the clock 10 years and discuss what happened way back in 2007. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that year for a number of reasons, some good and some bad. In July, my wife and I welcomed our second son, Noah, which obviously was one of the happiest days of my life. Sadly, only a few days later, my dad lost a very short battle with cancer. It’s extremely difficult to describe the overwhelming emotions you feel when confronted by joy and tragedy all at the same time. However, the passing of my dad helped push me back into my railway research and field work which at the time had been on the back-burner for a number of years. I guess it was my way of honouring him by making the most of every moment that I have. My dad loved the outdoors, and being in the fresh air brings back a lot of memories of our time together. I also have a living reminder of him in Noah, as he shares so many personality traits with his grandfather.

Another event that took place in 2007 was one that I overlooked at the time. That year the bush was very dry after several years of relatively dry conditions. Back in 1999 there was a massive windstorm that hit our area, a derecho, which toppled millions of trees in the border areas. The lack of moisture and all those trees turned some places into a tinderbox. The spark came in early May, when a human caused fire broke out at Ham Lake, approximately 3 km southwest of Gunflint Lake. When it was finally extinguished, it had burned over 30,000 hectares on both sides of the border.

My first visit to the burned areas took place a year later, when I went to Gunflint Lake for the first time since 2000. It was also my first time driving to the Canadian side of the lake, coming down from Northern Lights Lake. It was quite the harrowing journey, as the road was in in terrible shape and a burned culvert over a deep stream had been replaced with a rather sketchy alternative. The burn zone was quite extensive, and without the trees the true character of the “Shield Country” (Canadian Shield) was visible. However, I was able to see a lot of things that had previously been hidden in the foliage. I wish I had explored more than year when all the vegetation has just starting to grow back.

Gunflint Lake, August 2008.

PAD&W grade, Gunflint Lake, August 2008.

Beach at Leeblain, August 2008.

PAD&W grade, Leeblain, August 2008.

PAD&W rock cut, Gunflint Lake, August 2008.

One positive thing that came of the fire was the construction of the Centennial Trail in Minnesota. Portions of the railway in the area had been exposed by the fire, along with a number of the mining sites that had been worked back in the early 1890s by John Paulson and his associates. The US Forest Service decided to convert portions of the grade into a trail, along with interpretive stops at key railway and mining features. It opened in the fall of 2009 and I was able to visit it in the summer of 2010. It was my first trip to that area since my initial exploration in 1998. It was a very different place after the blowdown and fire; however, I was able to see many new things, such some of the test pits I missed the first time.

Akeley Lake Shaft, August 2010.

Mine shaft, August 2010.

PAD&W rock cut, August 2010.

PAD&W rock cut, August 2010.

PAD&W rock cut, August 2010.

Sadly there were some negative consequences to the fire as well. Areas that were previously hidden and relatively free from human interference were now much more accessible. Places that had been neatly tucked under the umbrella of trees were now exposed and becoming overrun with new vegetation. Some physical traces of the railway and mining operation, particularly those made of wood, were unfortunately consumed in the conflagration.

The biggest victim of the flames was one of the most important and well-known historic sites in the area; the corduroyed wood trestle on Gunflint Lake. I’ve mentioned this spot before, as it was one of the greatest legacies of the Gunflint and Lake Superior Railroad. It was constructed sometime around 1904-1905 and was used by the railroad to climb the very steep ridge on the south side of Gunflint Lake.

The elevation change from where the railroad passes Camp 4 on the lake (1543 ft.) to where it crests the ridge is nearly 200 feet. Logging lines typically did not want to expend large amounts of capital on construction as they are generally temporary in nature. Therefore, the Pigeon River Lumber Company had to build something that was cheap but functional; the structure they designed was simple yet ingenious. They began the ascent nearly a kilometre to the east, just south of Camp 4 by climbing a ridge that parallels the lake. Upon reaching the Crab River, which spills over the big ridge to form Bridal Falls, the line turned south. A lengthy rock cut was blasted alongside the river the lower the grade, but there was still a sizable chasm that needed to be spanned. Rather than build a trestle or rock embankment, the engineers simply stacked logs (presumably non-valuable species) in a corduroy fashion until they had the correct angle and topped it gravel. The grade was atrocious, somewhere from six to ten percent (two percent is considered bad for a railroad), which necessitated the use of a special Shay locomotive to negotiate it. However, it was a sight to behold; a narrow embankment of logs, little more than ten feet wide, towering some twenty to twenty-five feet above the ground and covering more than four hundred feet.

G&LS Corduroy Trestle, August 1997.

G&LS Corduroy Trestle, August 1997.

G&LS Corduroy Trestle, August 1997.

I saw the corduroy trestle during my first visit to the G&LS back in 1997 and was amazed at how well it had aged. I am glad that I had the opportunity and that I documented it as well (watch the video here). The 1999 blowdown caused some damage to it, but it was the fire that sealed its fate. It ripped through the area, scorching some spots and leaving others untouched. The corduroyed logs caught fire, the flames smoldering deep inside the stack of logs for months afterwards. The Forest Service hoped the winter would extinguish the embers, but it continued to flare, even buried in snow (read a story here). There was no other option than to dynamite the structure to put out the last vestiges of the fire; the great corduroy trestle which had endured for more than 100 years (and no doubt would still be around) was forever lost.

Corduroy Trestle burns, Ham Lake Fire, May 2007. (T. Kaffine/USFS)

Article from the Cook County News-Herald on the trestle, March 2008.

With all the excitement of the past month, I haven’t really had any time to do railway stuff. I can’t remember the last time I even looked at the one of the chapters of the book. In any case, it’s almost hiking season, which has me excited. I’m scheduled to go out next week, so hopefully the weather cooperates until then and the ground continues to dry up. It’s always a gamble going out at this time of the year; it’s the best time to see things in the bush, but it still can be a bit wet. I’m hoping that I can finish locating the route of the G&LS as it winds it’s way south of Gunflint Lake. It’s a long and difficult hike, so my fingers are crossed that everything goes well.

Anyway, it’s time to go. I’ll be back in a few weeks with details from the hike. Until then…

 
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Posted by on May 10, 2017 in Hiking, History, Railway

 

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Vimy 2017-Reflections

The challenge of history is to recover the past and introduce it to the present-David Thelen

Do you ever wonder how these quotes become famous quotes? Do people set out to generate them, or are there people sitting around waiting for them to be said? Is there a committee that decides what is or isn’t a good quote? Who votes on them…is there a quotes academy? Okay, okay, I’m obviously being very facetious. The whole point of the quote from Thelen, who is an American History professor (I had to Google it), is that teaching history is not easy. One of the best ways to do it, is to have people experience it firsthand.

Well, it’s hard to believe that it has already been a week and a half since we returned from the trip. But I guess time moves just as fast when you’re not on a trip as it does when you are. We were very busy on the trip and it’s been even crazier now trying to catch up on everything while we were away. I’ve never missed 7 days of work before and I sure paid for it. There was a whole stack of marking I needed to get through, especially since midterm marks were due. I’m mostly caught up now, but I’m glad I hopefully won’t be missing that much school again in the future.

My return to real life and work was made that much more challenging by how jet lagged and exhausted I felt when we returned. I know, I know, poor me! I did get the gears from a lot of people who read this blog during the trip and asked me about how tired I was. How tired were you Dave? Really tired? The reality is I was tired…that’s why I wrote it. Duh. I realize I was in Europe and not at work, but these excursions are not your run-of-the-mill let’s jump on a plane and see some stuff type of vacation. First, I am the group leader and ultimately responsible for the 23 students we had with us. That is a tad bit stressful; when you’re teaching, the kids go home to their parents at the end of the day and you’re not on duty 24/7. Secondly, these trips are very busy and they try to pack in as many things as they can. So ya, I was up some days at 0500 and getting to bed, albeit because I was working on this blog, after midnight. I did try to nap some on the bus, but I like to see some of the sights and don’t want to sleep it all away.

In any case, it was a great trip. The kids really enjoyed themselves and hopefully learned a lot more about the history and culture of the world. I can honestly say, even though this was my third trip, that I learned a lot too. Even though the three trips were relatively similar, and there were some repetitive things, you experience new stuff. Amsterdam and Paris are so big, that there is so much still to discover. Besides those two places, we’ve never stayed in the same city twice, which is amazing. I have now seen Rouen, Amiens, Valenciennes, Colombiers-sur-Seulles, Lille and Honfleur. Each has it’s unique features, architecture, history and culture. In my personal opinion, while Paris is an amazing city, I much prefer the those smaller cities for their distinct charm and character. Maybe someday I’ll be able to explore them at a much more leisurely pace.

The whole crew in Honfleur, April 2017.

One of the things people often ask me is what was my most memorable memory or moment from the trip. That is always a difficult question, as there are so many. If I have to pick something, I would have to say it’s not one thing in particular, but rather watching the reactions of the kids. I mentioned before it’s a huge step for many of them, and for most their first experience with European culture. It’s akin to what I’ve experienced with my own kids, just they’re not mine…that sense of awe and wonder. It’s heartening to hear them talk about coming back and exploring more of the great places we visited. I was also blessed to be able to travel with a great group of chaperones, who shared my excitement and my stresses. I’m already looking forward to our next adventure! Our EF Tour Director, Jason, was the icing on the cake. His professionalism, easy-going manner and silky-smooth commentary put everyone at ease. The kids loved him and still talk about how great he was.

St. Patrick crew, April 2017.

So what about the bad Dave? I guess I can say there was really only one bad experience that I had. I thought the whole Vimy commemoration was good, though as I already described, more festive than I anticipated, especially compared to the 95th anniversary. I guess that will happen when there’s 25,000 people and lots of VIPs there. I thought the early part of the day was well planned and went very smoothly, but not the second half. I don’t think they (they being Veterans Affairs Canada, who were in charge of the event) anticipated the impact of having so many people squished into such a small area would mean.

In retrospect, we did have it easier than some groups, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. It only took us about 1.5 hours to get through the line to the shuttle buses, but no one thought to put any facilities in the assembly areas (or at least ours in Lens) so people could go to the bathroom. The poor employees at the MacDonald’s beside the parking lot must have had a rough day. At the memorial, I thought there should have been people directing traffic and making sure some areas did not get too congested. The fenced in area on the front side of the monument became so packed you could not move, and there were nowhere enough toilets for all the people (I tried going at one point, but couldn’t find the end of the line). Many stopped drinking water, which was not a good thing on such a warm day, so they wouldn’t have to go (myself included).

The exfil (to use the military term for exfiltration) from the site was an absolute gong show. People near the front began streaming up and over the monument to get out, while those at the back, including us, were trapped because they would not open gate to the main entrance. It seems as though transporting some of the minor VIPs took precedence over the thousands of people who had been baking in the sun for hours. Someone or some people broke down a portion of the fence and there was a mad rush for the opening. It was utter pandemonium! It was fortunate no one was trampled, but it was a nightmare trying to keep the group together. The scary part was realizing, as we surged along with the crowd, that we were walking through a part of the site that is off-limits due to UXO. Yes, people (myself included) were walking through fields with unexploded munitions in them! They don’t even cut the grass in those areas, but rather use goats to keep the vegetation down due to their lower ground pressure.

Thankfully we had told the kids where to go to catch the shuttle back to the assembly areas. It was insane, but we managed to get most of the kids rounded up in one big group, with one chaperone and a few students slightly separated. Getting on the shuttle created a lot of anxiety and some tears, but by 2030 we were all on our bus, Big Green, and heading back to Lille. We didn’t find out until later that it took some groups until midnight to make it back to the assembly areas. That’s nuts! Anyway, we got everyone out and I don’t think we’ll be involved in an event like that again. But it will be something that we all remember for the rest of our lives. Alright, so that was only four paragraphs of ranting!

From a personal perspective, my only issue, as it always has been, is leaving my family behind. I know my boys missed me, and it does put a lot on my wife, especially since I was gone for 11 days. I certainly appreciate everything she did during that time. If there is one positive to my absence, it has generated a lot of interest in the boys to see these places as well. I have promised them I will take them on a tour when they get to St. Pats.

All griping aside, I would do it all again in a heartbeat. While the Vimy ceremony wasn’t as solemn as I anticipated, there were many opportunities for us to have an intimate view of history. The place that probably generated the most reflection and emotion was the Bretteville-sur-Laize Cemetery in Cintheaux, south of Caen. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that we were relatively alone there, as opposed to the tens or even hundreds of people at the other places we visited. When it touches close and becomes personal, the impact of the history is much greater.

Newfoundland Memorial, Beaumont Hamel, April 2017.

Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery, April 2017.

Now speaking of which, we are planning to do it all again, hopefully in two years. We would like to change it up a bit, maybe see a few new places in the process. We’ve submitted our application to go during March break of 2019, but haven’t settled on an exact tour yet. One option would take us to Berlin, some different parts of the Netherlands and then Vimy, Normandy and Paris. The second is a complete break, focusing on the Italian battlefields. We’re leaning towards one, but we’ll make a final decision once the paperwork is (hopefully) approved. Wherever we go, it will be an amazing experience for the kids just like every other trip.

Anyway, it’s time to wrap this up. Now that things are getting back to normal, I’ll be back with my usual blog posts soon enough. Until then…

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2017 in History, Travel, Writing

 

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