Honestly, I really struggled on how to start this post. As a history teacher, I always talk to my students about those dramatic events that occur during our lifetime, the ones where we always remember where we were when they happened, or have the visuals ingrained in our minds. I have several of my own; 1986 Challenger tragedy, the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. Well, it’s 2020 and here we are again. I know years from now I’ll remember exactly where I was, just where I am right now…sitting on my couch!
Well kids, I’m back…I wish it was under better circumstances. It is a very challenging time in the world, and I find it difficult to manage the tone of this post. I want to try and keep things upbeat though, as there is enough negative news around. The last few week have been a bizarre and surreal whirlwind of events that no one saw coming. Just before school shutdown, one of the last things I taught my Grade 10 class was about the Spanish Flu, the last time the world experienced a pandemic on this scale. The irony is not lost on me.
It’s now April and I’ve been away from school since the 13th of March. It seemed as though one-minute things were fine and the next we were told the schools would remain closed for two weeks after the March break. Now, that closure has been extended until May. And during that time the COVID-19 exploded across parts of the world. Since schools have been closed for the foreseeable future, we have been thrust into this crazy situation of trying to teach everything online. I taught a geography course online for a few years, but this is nothing anywhere close to the same thing. It is going to be a very interesting few months as we figure out how to salvage some semblance of the school year.
So here I sit, parked on my couch like millions of other people around the world. I, like many of you out there, really struggle to make sense of all of this. As I described earlier, the world has not seen a health situation like this in 100 years, and such uncertainty since World War II. There’s not much we can do, but follow the advice of the medical professionals, including staying at home and watch our physical distancing. I guess it gives some of us time to spend with our families, work on projects and pray for those experiencing the worst of this pandemic.
For now, anyway, the only saving grace has been the weather. The weather? Ya, I know, I’m actually saying something positive about it for a change. February was pretty good, though the first part of March was rather crappy. However, surprisingly, since we’ve been told to stay home, the weather has mostly been pleasant. I’ve been trying to take advantage of it, going for hikes (which I’ll talk about later), daily walks and bike rides; I guess I’m not really stuck inside am I? In any case, I went out and bought a new bike, which was inspired by buying one for Ethan’s birthday. I guess I was rather due, since my old bike was purchased in 1996! We’ve also gone to camp, which we will be doing more of as the snow receeds.
Since I have extra time now (well, in between doing schoolwork and projects around the house), I’ve been trying to do as much as I can on my book. The only bad thing is that COVID-19 likely will throw some of my plans for a huge loop. I was supposed to head down to Gunflint for field work in early May with the archaeologists from the US Forest Service, work we were originally to start on in October, but it snowed. Now the border is closed, and we’re told to stay home. Ugh! It’s like the history gods don’t want me to finish this off. Hopefully things clear up by the summer and we can set something up for then.
I’m also supposed to be in Toronto in early July to visit my brother and his wife, and at the same time do research at the Archives of Ontario. That might also be in jeopardy too; it’s all going to depend on how this pandemic plays out. In the meantime, I’ve been trying do little tweaks and edits where I can. I did get some documents from the Minnesota Secretary of State, but my requests with the Wisconsin Historical Society and Library and Archives Canada will need to be followed up on once this mess is all over. I did take some time to sort through and re-file most of the documents I used on the book. Boy did I kill a lot of trees!
While I am waiting to finish off the last parts of the book, I’ve started in on a new project. I know, colour you shocked! We’ll, it all started very innocuously. Back in February I got an email from the Cook County Historical Society regarding an inquiry someone made on the Palatine Mining and Development Company. This outfit was from Chicago and made up of Polish-American businessmen who wanted to open up the old Paulson Mine in the early 1920s. I passed along some of what I knew, but the request piqued my interest. So, next thing I know I’m scouring the internet for more information on the company and the people that ran it. Then I’m sending emails to the Illinois and Arizona Secretaries of State for documents. No, this won’t be another book, but likely an article for the Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society.
To help pass the time and also practice physical distancing, I decided that I should do some early spring hiking. I don’t really go out during the winter, since it isn’t easy to get around in the snow and things that I want to see are generally obscured. However, I figured what else do I have do and it might brighten someone’s day who can’t get out. So, the first hike I did was a few weeks back and I went to Stanley, where the PAD&W crossed the Kaministiquia River at Milepost 20 and the 1920s era bridge is still there. There was still a lot of snow, but it felt good to get out and look around. You can watch the video I shot here.
Last week I travelled much further out, to Milepost 59 and a place called Iron Range Hill. About seven years ago I was sent some pictures that were taken of the railway during the winter of 1915-1916. It shows a train stuck in the snow on the hill, which probably has the heaviest grade on the line at over two percent. The railway had to climb from 1541 feet above sea level at Sandstone Lake to 1690 feet at the top of the hill in just over a mile; the incline in the grade is very noticeable. Thankfully people use part of the old grade as a snowmobile trail, which made it much easier to get around. Otherwise, the snow was past my knees! You can watch the video I shot here.
Yesterday I went out in that same area, just a little more to the east at Gravel Lake Station, Milepost 52. It wasn’t a very long hike, but I knew it would be a challenge since there would be no snowmobile trail. There was a pretty solid crust of snow, but I still needed my snowshoes to get around. Gravel Lake Station lies at the end of a chain of four lakes known as the Gravel Lakes. This stretch of the railway is very bad, with the grade having sunk down in the swampy, muskeg terrain. I’ve been through there a few times in the past, the last time in 2010, so I thought I’d take a look in the winter. I hopefully plan to get back there in the fall and walk the entire 2.5km section. Anyway, you can watch the video I shot here.
Unfortunately, I’ve decided to shutdown the hikes for a few weeks. The Government of Ontario has asked people to limit non-essential travel to help flatten the COVID-19 curve; I know I’m not going anywhere with any people, but I still feel I should adhere to what we are being asked to do. Besides, soon the bush will be wet and not pleasant to hike through until it dries out. To help fill the time, I decided to try putting some of the lectures I do online. The first one will take place on Tuesday, April 7 at 7pm Eastern time. The talk will be on the Gunflint & Lake Superior Railroad, the subject of my book. Just click on the link below and it will take you to the live video:
Anyway, I better move along; there are a ton of things to do around here. Please stay safe during this challenging time. I’ll try to be back in a month, hopefully when I can start hiking again. I already have a bunch planned in my head! Until then…