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Dave’s Outdoor Adventures-Episode III: The Cruise Control Aversion

It’s something that some us use quite frequently, while others do not. At one time it was regarded as a luxury, a piece of technology that a few had while the majority did not. Today however, it has become a standard component in automotive offerings, so much so that it is often overlooked. Yes, I’m talking about cruise control. Huh? Yup, that little collection of buttons located somewhere near your vehicle steering wheel, subject to the variations of makes and models. Why am I talking about this you ask? Well, it seems to me that some people out there have forgotten that this technology exists; I guess we’re too worried about Bluetooth connections, LCD screens and in-car wifi to remember about something so trivial. Still confused? Yes, you’re probably wondering what my point in all of this is, but rest assured, as always, I will explain myself.

So 2600km and many hours of driving later I have returned ladies and gentlemen. The vacation is over; well, at least part of it is…I’m still on leave however. It’s amazing how much distance you can cover in a short period of time. Probably the best example was on the return trip, when we had to cross the entire state of Wisconsin from Beloit to Superior, all 600km of it. It took the better part of 5 hours to complete that leg of the 1000km trek home. It’s surprising how sitting in a vehicle that long can completely wipe you out. I definitely would not make a good long-haul truck driver!

So when we last left off I had arrived in La Crosse, Wisconsin on the first leg of our trip. The whole purpose of visiting La Crosse was to examine files belonging to Pigeon River Lumber Company Vice-President Frank Hixon, housed in the archives of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. There was palpable mix of excitement and apprehension before my visit; I couldn’t wait to see what I find but I was also worried that the volume of information would overwhelm me.

I had quite a number of email exchanges with the staff of the Special Collections Center at the Murphy Resource Library well in advance of my arrival. They had graciously examined many of the files in the Hixon records, so I knew that this would not just be a wild goose chase. The archives did not open until 9:30, so I had plenty of time to make sure I arrived on time.

Murphy Library, La Crosse, WI, June 2016.

Murphy Library, La Crosse, WI, June 2016.

Archives, Murphy Library, June 2016.

Archives, Murphy Library, June 2016.

The first files I planned to investigate were financial records belonging to the PRLC. While it turned out that most were for the years after 1909 (the year that the logging operation at Gunflint concluded), there were a number that fell into the appropriate timeframe. These documents gave concise information on the financial situation of the company, as well as the importance of the Gunflint operation to the PRLC.

From there I began an examination of Hixon’s letterbooks. These books, similar in nature to the Arpin Papers, contained copies of all Hixon’s outgoing letters to his many contacts and business partners. I was hoping that they would shed some light on the end of the Gunflint logging efforts, since the Arpin Papers do not go past April 1908. I found exactly the information I was looking for.

After looking through the 1908-1909 letterbook, I moved on to the unbound correspondence from the same period. Essentially these folders contained all the incoming letters that Hixon received, which proved to be even more useful than the letterbooks; they were a gold mine of information. Letters from President D.J. Arpin and Secretary/Treasurer William Scott, in addition to copies relating to company business, shed a tremendous amount of light on the day-to-day operations of the PRLC.

By focussing on the periods where there were gaps in the Arpin Papers coverage, and utilizing the assistance of my wonderful wife, I was able to make substantial headway in my examination of the records. When all was said and done, I had gathered over 600 photographs various documents in the collection. The haul of information made the time and expense of the visit to La Crosse well worthwhile.

Hixon Letterbook, June 2016.

Hixon Letterbook, June 2016.

PRLC Letterhead, June 2016.

PRLC Letterhead, June 2016.

When I initially planned the trip to La Crosse, I had figured that two days would allow me to make a full examination of all the files. Later on, I became convinced that a return visit was inevitable given the amount of information in the archives. Surprising, I was able to complete everything in one day.

I found La Crosse to be a beautiful town, and despite my good knowledge of geography, I did not realize that it lay on the banks of the mighty Mississippi. However, with my work completed, Jo-Anne decided that we should leave a day early and therefore have more time in Chicago. This was done, and early on Tuesday morning we began the four-hour drive to the Windy City.

Mighty Mississippi, La Crosse, WI, June 2016.

Mighty Mississippi, La Crosse, WI, June 2016.

Like the drive to La Crosse, I thought the journey across Wisconsin was equally as picturesque. Four hours and a bunch of change later, we were in Chicago. Neither my wife nor I had ever been to the Land of Lincoln before, so it was going to be a whole new experience. In the end, it was great; the only blemish, the damn toll highways. I’ve been on them before, but nowhere near that many. The real frustration comes when you miss one (or a couple…long story) and need to pay them later on. Apparently it’s quite easy. Just go on the web and pay online; the part they leave out is that it doesn’t work for non-US residents! What a pain!

So the extra time we had would allow us to explore the city in a bit more detail. Unfortunately we were staying in the suburbs, closer to where the National Archives were located. Thankfully we were able to determine that Rock Island District Metra line would take us right into the heart of the city in less than an hour. So, with oh so much irony, I rode the train into downtown. And what did I do along the way? I took pictures of some of the old stations along the line! I am very impressed that they were able to preserve all of these historic stations. While it appears that many are no longer in use, it is amazing to witness their unique architectural style…they don’t build things that way anymore.

Oak Forest Metra Station, June 2016.

Oak Forest Metra Station, June 2016.

115th Street Metra Station, June 2016.

115th Street Metra Station, June 2016.

99th Street Metra Station, June 2016.

99th Street Metra Station, June 2016.

91st Street Metra Station, June 2016.

91st Street Metra Station, June 2016.

To help us explore the city better, we purchased a get on, get off bus tour for the day. The first thing we had to do was walk though, from the La Salle Street Station two and a half kilometres to the Hard Rock Café on Ontario Street where the tour departed from. Our first stop after embarking on the bus was the Willis Tower, which many still know as the Sears Tower. The Skydeck at the tower gives an impressive view of the city and surrounding area, though the highlight is going out onto “The Ledge.” While I have walked, apprehensively albeit, on the glass floor of the CN Tower, nothing prepares you for the experience of stepping out into a glass box 1353 feet above the ground. Have I ever mentioned that I’m terrified of heights? And not only did I do it once, but twice, since Jo-Anne wanted to get the “official” picture as well.

chicago, June 2016.

Chicago, June 2016.

The "Ledge," Willis Tower, June 2016.

The “Ledge,” Willis Tower, June 2016.

The rest of the bus ride was great, including a stop at the Field Museum near the waterfront. We concluded the tour by disembarking near the Hancock Tower, at the northern end of the famous “Magnificent Mile.” We then made our way along Michigan Avenue toward the train station, stopping for some deep-dish pizza at Giordano’s before heading back to the hotel.

Field Museum, June 2016.

Field Museum, June 2016.

Giordano's Pizza, June 2016.

Giordano’s Pizza, June 2016.

The second part of my research adventure took place on Thursday morning with a visit to the National Archives and Records Administration repository in Chicago. Unlike the La Crosse archives, I was quite unsure what I would find at the NARA facility; I was rolling the dice here. What I was after were any records pertaining to the US customs house located at Gunflint Lake. Government records have yielded information on the agent, salary and duties collected for the Canadian customs house at Leeblain. However, US records only list the agent and salary; I was hoping that I could fill in the gap in Chicago.

Unfortunately my search that day was over very quickly. The documents in their collection primarily dealt with the vessel traffic in the port of Duluth. While the staff rendered their utmost assistance, this search is going to require a bit more digging to determine if this information is available.

Friday and Saturday were both spent downtown again, this time in some blistering temperatures. A heat wave had embraced the Midwest states, pushing the mercury in Chicago, even near Lake Michigan, above the 40C mark with the humidity. While I appreciated the fact that it was hot, it was not the ideal weather to be plodding the streets of Chicago in. We logged more than 25km over the two days and I must have sweated out several pounds of perspiration. The worst was during our architectural boat tour of the city, where I felt like I was going to pass out with the sun beating mercilessly down on us as we plied the shade less waters of the Chicago River.

Chicago River, June 2016.

Chicago River, June 2016.

Chicago River, June 2016.

Chicago River, June 2016.

All good things must come to an end, so on Sunday we left for home. During the drive I began to think about something that has bothered me every time I have taken road trips over the years, and is the inspiration for the title of this post; why do people hate cruise control? Am I being completely anal-retentive and unreasonable? It’s a no-brainer to me; you get on the highway, set your cruise control and away you go! It makes me mental to be behind someone on the road and have their speed fluctuate, sometimes quite wildly. Speed up, slow down and repeat. The best however, is playing tag with people on divided highways. You go by them, only to have them blow past you a few minutes later and then invariably you catch and pass them once again further down the road. I passed the same car from Maryland three times on the way home.

I’ve also noticed a propensity for this behaviour south of the border (mind you, I have done more trips there in recent years). Do Americans hate cruise control that much? Does my Canadian nature and mild OCD make me desire order and uniformity over chaos? Is it un-American to use cruise control? Maybe some people feel it unconstitutional, a slap in the face of freedom like wearing a motorcycle helmet (I really don’t get that). It could be that they’re afraid the government will revoke the second amendment if they use it. Obviously I’m being quite facetious here (or am I?), but it’s just something that catches my attention (and nerves) every time I hit the road.

Anyway, I best wrap things up. I have a plethora of things that require my attention. I’ll be back soon enough with the all the latest revelations. Until then…

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Posted by on June 18, 2016 in History, Railway, Research, Travel

 

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Dave’s Outdoor Adventures-Episode II: The Itinerant Chronicler

Did you know that I was a famous columnist at one time? Well, maybe famous is a bit of an over-exaggeration; let’s say well known. Okay, maybe that’s a stretch too, but I’m sure at least a few people read my work. So, what paper did you write for Dave? Globe and Mail? National Post? New York Times? Ummm, not quite. Chronicle-Journal? Unfortunately not. Try the Lakehead University Argus. Come again? Yup, you read it right; I wrote a weekly column at my alma mater, Lakehead, during my final year of university. See, I told you I was famous! The name of said column…you guessed it, Dave’s Outdoor Adventures. I was outdoorsy and a writer even way back then! For even more nostalgia, I was going to call this post “Episode II: Electric Boogaloo” (how many of you can remember that far back to know what I’m talking about?).

Well, here we are in June…the leave is almost over (yes, I am not counting July and August since that is normal time off). It’s kind of sad. Unfortunately all good things must come to an end. As I’ve mentioned on several occasions already, I have made the time count though. I’ve managed to get a lot done around the house and now my focus is going to shift to camp, that is when I get back from my trip.

June means a return to football, even though I am on sabbatical. I spent two lunch hours last week speaking first to Grade 9s at St. Pats and then to Grade 8s at Pope John Paul (our feeder school) about our program. In preparation for that, I was stuck to the computer for several days putting together this year’s edition of our recruiting video. Next year I need to make sure I start it well ahead of time so it’s not such a rush!

In the final few days in May I did manage to get out for my second hike of the year, probably the last for a bit until I get things taken care of at camp. My plan was to repeat a hike I had done last year, this time with a better plan and a secondary agenda. My journey would take me to Crab Lake, via the Border Route Trail access spur near Loon Lake.

It’s about a 3km hike from where you park to the trail intersection between Crab and Whisker Lakes. First, I was going to try and locate portions of the grade of the Gunflint and Lake Superior Railroad and determine if in fact it had come as far as the eastern end of Crab Lake and continued on along Whisker Lake. In 2015 I had focussed my search along a road that had been put in during the late 1920s or early 1930s (possibly on top of the railroad grade) and is now part of the hiking trail.

Crab Lake trail, May 2016.

Crab Lake trail, May 2016.

Crab Lake, May 2016.

Crab Lake, May 2016.

Whisker Lake, May 2016.

Whisker Lake, May 2016.

I knew from my search last year that this one time road did not look right, especially as there were too many undulations, even for a logging railroad. I swept it for about 300 metres in an eastward direction, finally determining that there was nothing to be found. I had always suspected that the grade was along the shore of the lake and with the lake drier than last year, I decided to take a look.

Within 40 metres I had found what I was looking for, actually quite by chance. My metal detector picked up a “hit,” but it was coming back at around 7 inches below the ground; from past experience I knew that any traces of the railroad tend to be closer to the surface, usually within an inch or so. Turns out, the location was above a small overturned stump. When I looked underneath it, I made the big discovery-a spike sitting right there. I had located the grade. From that point I made my way east along the shore for about 200 metres, finding more spikes and even a piece of fishplate in the process. Later I found more spikes, another fishplate and some coal near the west end of the lake.

Spike, May 2016.

Spike, May 2016.

G&LS grade, May 2016.

G&LS grade, May 2016.

Spike and fishplate, May 2016.

Spike and fishplate, May 2016.

Coal, May 2016.

Coal, May 2016.

The other part of the trip involved trying to locate a second logging camp belonging to the Pigeon River Lumber Company. I found documentation pointing to the existence of this camp back in March, and I was given a rough idea of where I could look from a spot discovered by Superior National Forest archaeologist Lee Johnson in 2007.

While I will not reveal the exact location, I did find the remains of what could have been a logging camp more than 100 years ago. The site was littered with tin cans of all types, and the best evidence, from my perspective anyway, was the discovery of several small barrel hoops. This leads me to believe that this was probably an early 20th century site as wooden barrels would have not been used in the 1930s. I also turned up a few nails a short distance away. An exact confirmation is pending; I have another location I want to check out next year to make sure I’m as close to sure as I can be.

Cans, May 2016.

Cans, May 2016.

Cans and barrel hoops, May 2016.

Cans and barrel hoops, May 2016.

So I am writing this from a hotel in La Crosse, Wisconsin, which means that I am on the first leg of my long-awaited research trip to the US. I’ll be spending a few days here in La Crosse before moving on to Chicago. I don’t have as much to do there, so my wife and I will be spending most of our time in the Windy City being tourists.

It’s almost 8 hours from Thunder Bay to La Crosse, and since we had to leave after noon due to a previous commitment, we got here in the evening. The drive down was quite interesting. Everything was fine until we passed Grand Marais; then we were subjected to short, periodic bursts of torrential rain, so hard at times it was difficult to see the road. Then as we approached Two Harbors, we received a severe thunderstorm warning for the Duluth-Superior area. Apparently there were winds reported up to 60 miles per hour and a potential for damaging hail. Thankfully none of that appeared.

The last time I drove through parts of Wisconsin it was 1977 and I was 3 years old…so it’s been a while. I rather enjoyed the scenery, as it is quite different than I am accustomed to in Northern Ontario. We managed to make really good time on the Interstate between Superior and Eau Claire. Along the way, I spotted some really nice rail-trail paralleling parts of I-53. It made me think a lot about the PAD&W and how it’s a shame that there are not more parts of it that have become trail. However, it has been nearly 80 years since it’s abandonment and in many places there is way too much infrastructure to repair to make it viable.

After a stop for some food in Rice Lake, we proceeded to Eau Claire where we left the Interstate for Highway 93, which winds its way 130km from there to La Crosse. I found this part the most intriguing, for it really gives you a glimpse of rural America. And besides, the rolling hills, farms and deciduous forests were well worth the 55mph speed limit. Too bad we won’t be passing back through it on our way to Chicago.

Highway 93 near Arcadia, WI, June 2016.

Highway 93 near Arcadia, WI, June 2016.

Anyway, I better get rolling. I’m off to the archives soon. I’ll have a full debrief of the trip when I return home. Until then…

 

 
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Posted by on June 6, 2016 in Hiking, History, Railway, Research, Travel

 

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Dave’s Outdoor Adventures

Picture it. Three intrepid explorers, probing the wilderness of the Canadian Shield while battling the elements and conditions. It is a test of wills and endurance; a modern version of the Revenant if you will. Makes for an interesting story does it? Come on! Did you forget who’s writing this? It’s more like a dumbass dad and his two sons blundering around in the outdoors all the while being swarmed by hordes of blackflies. Sound intriguing now? Wait until I tell you the while story!

So here we are nearing the end of May? Where did the time go? Time does move faster when you’re on vacation. I have been making good use of every moment though: I can say that I’m almost too busy. There are way too many things to do, inspite of the fact that I am on sabbatical. What have I been up to you ask?

Well, if you recall from my last post, I was a few days away from a trip to Toronto and my brother’s wedding. As you can imagine, that week flew by in a heartbeat. It was a great time, but insanely busy. It was an honour for my family to part of this event, and if I do say so we quite a good looking bunch all dressed up. We also had some family visiting from Italy, so some time was spent showing them around the city, which is ironic since I was a tourist too.

Part of my plan for this visit to the provincial capital was to sneak away for a few hours and look at some files at the Archives of Ontario. It was quite an interesting mix; a map, some photos and an Order in Council. What I thought would take me a morning took me less than an hour to get through. The map answered a few questions and the photos were very pretty cool, having been taken during a highway survey along the railway right-of-way in 1930. There were shots of Mackies, the rail line and narrows between Little and Big Gunflint Lakes.

The Orders in Council, there were actually two, provided the biggest challenge of the day. I first had to locate the docket number from a microfilm in the reading room. I thought it would take me forever, but mercifully I happened on the right page after a short search. Then I had to request copies of them and then have them emailed to me. Both documents, dated 1900 and 1903 respectively, related to the Pigeon River Lumber Company receiving permission to do business in the Province of Ontario. Not anything I didn’t know, but important information nonetheless.

Since returning from TO, I’ve kept my nose to the grindstone with projects around the house. Our office is almost done-it’s just waiting for a final coat of paint on the door and then the installation of the pocket door latch. My wife then decided that she needed to do something about the lack of counter space at camp; cue Pintrest…again! So we’ve been looking for a while for the right dresser that could be converted into a kitchen cart. Turns out, we had one right here. It’s taken a little bit of work, and a few bucks, but when it’s done it should look pretty good. We ordered a countertop for it today and its paint transformation will begin tomorrow. I’ll post some pics when it’s done.

Now speaking of camp (yes, camp…let’s not have this conversation again), we have been spending a bit more time out there as we move toward summer. This winter we inherited the camp from my wife’s parents and we’ve been doing clean-up work and some upgrades. Last Friday we brought a new fridge out to supplement the original tiny 11 cubic foot one that was way too small for our needs. We were back on Sunday to Monday cutting down a big pine tree in the yard that was slowly dying. Using the chainsaw made me feel very outdoorsy, though I did learn an important lesson; don’t cut pine trees without long pants on. Really, I should have been wearing long pants from a safety perspective, but it was bloody hot on Sunday and I was trying to keep cool. What I ended up with however, was sap stuck to my legs and leg hair. Rubbing alcohol usually gets it out, but since we didn’t have any out there, I tried a bit of vodka. While my logic seemed sound, the execution left a lot to be desired. Second lesson learned!

Sandwiched in between those visits to camp, was my first hike of the year. Yes, I finally got out there after months of talking about it and boy was it a doosy! I think you might have gotten that impression by my introduction, but I guess I should elaborate.

The plan for my first piece of field work of the season was to travel to the east end of Gunflint Lake, staying on the Canadian side of the border. Since I was staying north of the international divide, I thought it would be easier to get there via North Lake than travelling into Minnesota and directly into Gunflint Lake. The drive is a bit shorter, though it probably works out to be the same since the boat ride is much longer. Speaking of which, getting to Gunflint from North Lake is a bit of a challenge, as you have to cross not only North Lake, but then Little North and then Little Gunflint before you reach Big Gunflint, a distance of nearly 11 kilometres.

We arrived at North Lake by 9am and quickly had the boat in the water. The first thing we noticed, or rather was impressed upon us, was the clouds of blackflies in the air. It was unbelievable how bad they were. If you’ve never had to deal with blackflies before, count yourself lucky. Anyway, within a short amount of time we were zipping across the fairly calm waters of North Lake and were making good time.

North Lake, May 2016.

North Lake, May 2016.

The first trail of the journey comes when you enter the narrow channel separating North from Little North. With Ontario on one side and Minnesota on the other, the waterway is less than 70 metres wide at points. At its end, when you enter Little North, it drops to 25 metres and is very shallow, necessitating a cautious approach. You can pick up speed on Little North, but it’s only over a kilometre to the portage to Little Gunflint and there are rocks in the water, so you need to be careful.

The watercourse that separates Little North from Little Gunflint is extremely narrow and runs for about 50 metres. It is little more than a creek, and due to it’s location over the continental divide, its waters run west, eventually making their way into Hudson’s Bay. The creek itself appears to have been modified by human hands, most likely in 1892 during the construction of the railway. From our best understanding, the engineers laid down a small marine railroad on the Minnesota side of the narrows, which, using a small cart and capstan, were able to haul boats and supplies from one lake to the other. It was maintained by locals until the early ‘70s, but now sits as a stark reminder of the labours of centuries ago.

Railroad Portage, May 2016.

Railroad Portage, May 2016.

I’ve been through the creek when there was less than a foot of water in it; this time, given the fact that it is spring and there was an attempt by a beaver to dam it, several feet of fast-flowing water courses its length. It made for a crazy, bumpy and somewhat concerning journey downstream. Little Gunflint was much less dramatic, though there are several rocky and shallow sections that require a slower speed.

My course of action for the visit was to walk the 400 metres of the Gunflint & Lake Superior in Ontario (technically it was only branch of the Canadian Northern since the G&LS started in Minnesota) and explore the location of the Canadian customs houses near the grade. The land in this area is actually privately owned so I had to check with the new owner to do this work.

I’ve walked the Ontario portion of the G&LS grade many times before, the first time was back in 1994. However, I’ve never been there without leaves (or many leaves), so I was curious what I’d see. It was pretty warm as you moved away from the lake, and of course the blackflies were swarming anytime you stopped. I didn’t take us long to get to the PAD&W grade and then start working our way back. We came across a neat pile of spikes, which made me wonder if it was done when the rails were being removed or later.

PAD&W-G&LS junction,, May 2016.

PAD&W-G&LS junction,, May 2016.

Spikes, May 2016.

Spikes, May 2016.

Little-Big Gunflint Narrows, May 2016.

Little-Big Gunflint Narrows, May 2016.

When we returned to the beach, the boys decided it was lunchtime and I pulled out the metal detector to see what I could turn up. My first area to explore was the point of land where the two lakes meet and where the G&LS crossed into Minnesota. I wasn’t really holding out hope of finding anything, but as it turns out I made a critical discovery (actually two).

If you read this blog on a regular basis you’ll know that one of goal of my field work on the G&LS is to discover how far the telegraph line extended along the line. Last year I found a coil of wire on the Little Gunflint, though I could not find any evidence near the junction of the two railways. After turning up a long-lost tent peg, I uncovered a 50+ cm length of what I believe to be telegraph wire (I didn’t excavate the whole thing). Working off of that, I found another section of wire several metres further back on the grade. So I think I can say with some certainty that the line at least crossed into Minnesota.

Telegraph wire, May 2016.

Telegraph wire, May 2016.

After that, I turned my attention a little way up the beach to the north to where two buildings were once located; I presume that they were once the Canadian customs houses while the railroad was in operation. I’ve never really explored this site before, so I was curious what I would turn up. The detector immediately lit up and I could see several depressions in the ground. I’m not a trained archaeologist, nor do I want disturb any potentially important artefacts in the ground, so I treaded very lightly. I picked one spot and carefully dug down several inches to see what was there. What I had stumbled upon was either a garbage pile or a fire pit. There many nails of various sizes, assorted bits of metal and iron, pieces of glass and even a spent rifle cartridge (.30-30 I think). Some of the glass appeared to be fused together, which is why I thought it might be a fire pit. After photographing the items, I returned them to the ground; hopefully I can get some real archaeologists to the site to do the job properly.

Customs items, May 2016.

Customs items, May 2016.

All in all it was a successful trip, but the fun didn’t really start until the ride back. When we reached the aforementioned Railroad Portage, I then realized the challenge it would be trying to get the boat upstream into Little North. I thought I could pull it along the shore but the current was having nothing of it. Even jumping into the frigid, waist deep water to try to move it along did not help. It was going to be tough.

My next move was to lose some weigh, which meant putting my youngest, Noah, ashore. He became quite upset, convinced that we were going to be stuck there. Unfortunately that didn’t help much; the current was still pushing the boat back and on to the rocks. I was getting tired, the blackflies were eating us alive, and my oldest, Ethan, was even getting a bit rattled. It wasn’t until I decided to use the anchor rope to secure the boat farther upstream that we started to make progress. It took us more than 30 minutes, a ton of exertion and a bunch of bruises to get through. I learned a valuable lesson that day; never go though that creek in the spring…and I have all the blackfly bites to prove it.

Stuck in the creek, May 2016.

Stuck in the creek, May 2016.

I told the boys on the final leg of the boat ride back that they would remember days like this one many years from now. The more eventual trips with my dad are the ones that stick out in my mind. They can look back with fondness on all the stupid stuff their dad got them into, even though at the moment it didn’t seem so humorous. Honestly I was a bit concerned for a few moments myself, but hey, a little excitement makes life that more interesting. I’m sure there will be more well though-out moments in the future.

Anyway, it’s time to get rolling. Ironically, I’m off again for my next hike tomorrow morning. This time there is no boating involved, just more walking. I’ll be in Minnesota, hiking the Border Route Trail near Crab Lake. Hopefully it will be just as productive as the one I just described. I’ll be back again next week with all the details.Until then…

 
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Posted by on May 26, 2016 in Hiking, History, Railway, Research, Travel

 

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If they don’t find you handsome…

They should find you smart? Reliable? Funny? Come Dave, tell us! What, you couldn’t think of any other adjectives? I’ll give you a hint; it’s from a TV show. Still stuck? Maybe you aren’t Canadian, because most people who live in the top half of North America would know it. Need another clue? The guy who quoted it was the King of Plaid, the man who introduced duct tape as the handy-man’s secret weapon. If you didn’t recognize Red Green from The Red Green Show, you need to watch some syndicated TV. The program was a parody of other shows, notably home improvement ones, and the most memorable quote from Red himself was, “If the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy!” Consider yourself educated.

So here we are in May; it’s kinda one of those good thing bad thing situations, this year anyway. Why what do you mean Dave? Well, I’m very happy that it is now May and we’re that much closer to summer, but that also means my leave is going by very quickly. Sigh. Thankfully I’ve been enjoying every minute of it.

Now, one of the things that has brought immense joy to me is the weather. I know I gripe a lot about it, but when you have as long as a winter as we do, I think there is a good excuse. Anyway, conditions have done a complete one-eighty since my last post; it’s like someone finally remember to flick the switch and turn the heat on. The snow went away very quickly, the ice has left the lakes and the grass is starting to turn green. Hallelujah!

April 2016.

April 2016.

The only blemish on this otherwise great situation is my health. No, I’m not dying, but there was a point that I felt like I was. What is ironic is that you often have a short memory; it was at this time last year I was complaining how sick I was. Thanks to our friends at Facebook and their handy “You have memories to look back on” feature, I looked at my post from April 2015 and read about how awfully afflicted I was. Talk about déjà vu!

One thing that has me feeling better though is the fact that our school trip to Europe is less than a year away. Wow, it’s hard to believe it’s coming up that fast! While there has been some ongoing planning, things will start to get more hectic in the fall. I know I have been on similar trips twice already, but this is the big one. The commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge will be one of the most important events in recent Canadian history. Estimates put the number of people who will be attending in the 10,000 plus range. It will be an amazing experience.

Despite being somewhat handicapped by whatever plague I mean virus I contracted, I have not stopped making effective use of my time off. There are a lot of projects that need to be completed around the house and there is a ton of work to do out at camp. The ones at camp will have to wait until we get closer to summer, but we did get a bit of a head start last week. Meanwhile at home, a lot of my efforts have been dedicated to completing our basement office.

Camp, April 2016.

Camp, April 2016.

Back in March, Jo-Anne and I finally installed some bookshelves we ordered from Ikea, which allowed us to empty some boxes of books that had been in storage for many years. The next step was to try and hide two big, ugly filing cabinets that need to be in the room; some spray paint and some fancy wheeled platforms I whipped up took care of that while still allowed them to be moved around. The desk was going to be another story.

My wife spends time browsing Pintrest for ideas (shocking), and she came up with the plan of using kitchen cabinets and a simple countertop to make a desk. We were going to buy pre-finished cabinets, but then we came across a truckload sale of unfinished ones at Home Depot. The trick was that I now had to add panels to the sides and then stain and seal them. I really enjoy carpentry, and I’m getting pretty decent with fine detail work (except baseboards…I flipping HATE baseboards and trim). Anyway, things went great until it came time to stain. So I’ve learned that staining wood a very dark black-brown colour is not easy; it made me want to drink. I’ve put off the varnishing until I’m back from Toronto…I think I had enough stress for a while.

So with all of this time spent trying to be the next Bob Villa, I have not had a lot of time to work on any railway stuff. I also learned a long time ago that it is important to step away at times, take a break and come back refreshed. My last foray was about three weeks ago, when I made my last trip to the Thunder Bay Museum. While I did not uncover a whole lot of material, the quality made up for the lack of quantity; in actuality, my discovery was a game-changer.

Back about a month and half ago when I was transcribing letters from the Arpin Papers, I came across references to a “Camp 8,” which by all appearances was situated along the Gunflint and Lake Superior Railroad. It is commonly known that the principal camp of the Pigeon River Lumber Company was Camp 4, located on the southwest shore of Gunflint Lake. I wasn’t really sure what to think until a couple of things fell into place.

On my visit to Duluth during March break, I had chance to sit down with Lee Johnson, whom I’ve known for a number of years now. Lee is the head archaeologist for the Superior National Forest and during the course of our conversation, Lee described a site he located while battling the Ham Lake Fire in 2007. It sounded a lot like a camp of some sorts. The second piece came while searching the newspapers at the museum; I found an article that described “Camp 8” in the Gunflint Lake area. Hopefully I’ll be able to confirm a location in the next few months.

This week I’ll be departing from my brothers wedding in Toronto. I do have some research time scheduled for Thursday morning when I will be visiting the Archives of Ontario. I have three things to take a look at; one related to the PRLC and the two others are of the PAD&W. I’ll provide a full re-cap in my next post.

Anyway, I should get rolling…I need to finish packing and I have a busy day ahead. I’ll be back soon enough with the latest news. Until then…

 

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2016 in History, Railway, Research, Travel

 

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It’s a good thing I left the snow tires on…

April showers bring May flowers right? Wrong! Horribly wrong. More like April snow brings spring misery. For the love of God it needs to stop snowing! Snow? In April? Yes, unfortunately…the truth hurts. We’ve had more snow in the last 3 weeks than the rest of winter combined, or at least it seems so. Winter wonderland is great in December, but not now. Speaking of December, remember that brown Christmas I wrote about back then? Ya, well we’re paying for it now. Climate change deniers need a kick in the head. Ugh!

Hey, so I’m back. Maybe a little testier than usual, but if you just read my rant, you’ll understand. So yes, it is now April and the weather blows. My apologies for the somewhat profane language since this is a family-friendly blog, but hopefully it’s understandable. I am just so done with winter! Since my last post we received a huge dump of snow during March break (my deck had over 40cm or 16in on it). It will then warm up for a few days, melt that snow, and then we will get more to replace it. It is a frustrating vicious circle. Good news is on the horizon though; even though today is supposed to be 2C for the high (normal are around 7-8C), it is supposed to be in the double digits by the end of the week. Here’s hoping. Maybe I will listen to my wife and move somewhere warm and buy one of those much cheaper we keep seeing on House Hunters!

Results of a snowstorm, March 2016.

Results of a snowstorm, March 2016.

Snowstorm, April 2016.

Snowstorm, April 2016.

So besides the climatological issues, things are good. I am certainly enjoying the time off, though it is flying by way too quickly. This week is already the middle of April! I know I always complain that it goes by quick while I’m at work, but time typically moves more quickly when you’re on vacation. What that all means is that it’s time to start moving past winter and thinking ahead to all the stuff goes on in spring and summer…if the snow ever goes away.

One of the things that is starting to gear up again is football. Yes, football…in the snow. Okay, I’ll stop! Anyway, Noah just started skills and drills, which will last throughout the month and as usual I am helping out. Even though it’s a while away, planning has already commenced for our annual spring camp, which will be held in again in June. In preparation for that, I’ll need to finish filming and editing our recruiting video, which always takes up a bit of time.

I guess the one thing that the weather has not hindered is my work on the railway. In actuality, I’ve been quite busy with it since the last post. I finally managed to complete transcribing all the Arpin Papers from my visits to the Cook County Museum last summer. The end result? Thirty-one landscape pages of details from those letters, organized by date and who the letter was addressed to. And unfortunately I’m not done yet; a few of the early letters from 1900 are very difficult to read, so I’ll have to go back and see if I can decipher them from the original documents. That however will give me a chance to go to the Grand Marais Library while I’m there to look up a few things.

As I reported previously, I have been spending a lot of time at the Thunder Bay Museum examining digitized newspapers. They have been a great source of information, both about the Pigeon River Lumber Company and the PAD&W. There are still many years to look through, but I think I will wrap things up for now with one more visit this week. I have a feeling I will still have to do some manual searching at some point.

Since we’re on the topic, I’ve already begun planning my research trips that will be coming up rather quickly. At the beginning of May I will be in Toronto for my brother’s wedding and I’d like to get to the Archives of Ontario for a few hours. They have some photos I’d like to look through, as well as an early plan for the North Lake Station location and an Order-in-Council related to the PRLC.

However, it is a lengthy excursion to La Crosse, Wisconsin and Chicago that will take the most time, and planning. I’ve already mentioned that the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Archives holds the personal papers and records of PRLC vice-president Frank P. Hixon. Email inquiries have indicated there are extensive records at that facility; I have a feeling that I will have to go back in the future, possibly next summer.

Chicago is a regional repository for the National Archives and Records Administration, and they might have records for the Gunflint Lake customs house. Unfortunately I will not know what they have until I look through their files. I’ve never been to Chicago before, so my wife and I will be spending a few days there once I complete my archives research. I know it won’t be enough time to do the Windy City justice, but it’s better than not at all. I’m sure I will be able to get there again in the future.

In the meantime, I was able to do a little research a bit closer to home yesterday. The drive to Gunflint Lake never disappoints, even though the scenery was a little snowier than I would have liked. Bruce and Sue Kerfoot, always the cordial hosts, were gracious enough to take time out of their busy schedules to chat with me again about the local history. Bruce’s knowledge of the area is amazing and he has a lot of experience exploring many of the historic sites, whether by himself or with the First Nations people who used to live at Gunflint. I’m looking forward to going back as soon as possible, hopefully when I get back from Toronto.

Gunflint Narrows, April 2016.

Gunflint Narrows, April 2016.

Bottom end of a switchback, April 2016.

Bottom end of a switchback, April 2016.

Gunflint Lake, April 2016.

Gunflint Lake, April 2016.

I do have one trip to Gunflint already planned for the summer with a very familiar agenda to it. I have been invited once again by the kind folks at the Chik-Wauk Museum to come and give a lecture on a piece of local history. If you recall I’ve been there twice in the past, in 2012 and 2014. I decided to talk about my current research, especially since a lot of people are not very acquainted with the Gunflint and Lake Superior Railroad and I thought it would provide a refreshing change. Previously, lectures were held on the museum porch, but they have a newly constructed facility at Chik-Wauk which will bring everything inside and allow me to include a visual component as well. The date of the presentation is Sunday, August 14th and you can visit their website for more information.

Anyway, it’s time to move on. Shockingly, it’s snowing again, so I have to go clean off the deck for the sixth or seventh time in the last few weeks. I’ll be back soon with more news and hopefully in a better mood. Until then…

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2016 in History, Railway, Research, Travel

 

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Let the good times roll!

Have you ever felt free? No, not the Mel Gibson Brave Heart sword-throwing blue face paint kind of free…though that is cool. I mean the feeling you get when you don’t have a lot of things of your plate and life is fairly manageable. Yes? No? Well, I must say that I have not had this feeling very often in recent years. If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that I quite often write about how busy things are and how burnt out I feel. Well, guess what?

So if you haven’t figured it out (or read the last post), I am on sabbatical. Sweet, sweet sabbatical! I’m just finishing up my second week of this and it is fantastic. I could really get used to this for sure! It’s not that I’m doing nothing all day…I’ve actually been quite busy, but there is no work related stress. I’ll get to everything I’ve been and will be up to later, but for now I am enjoying every minute. As the band The Cars once said, Let the good times roll!

We have now passed the midpoint of February and as usual time is flying by (that has not changed). The weather has been up and down, but it looks as though were heading toward more spring like conditions. I can’t wait to get rid of this snow and get out into the field.

The first few days of my sabbatical were consumed with a project in my basement that was several years in the making. It’s about 95% complete and I hope to have in done in early March. Last weekend I plunged a little bit back into work, kind of. My fellow football coaches were interested in attending the Glazier Football Clinic in Minneapolis once again (I believe this was our seventh visit) so I tagged along. As usual it was a great experience and I certainly came back with some good information for our athletes. Getting away to another city was nice too, though twelve hours of driving in four days is a bit tiring.

Glazier clinic vendors area, February 2016.

Glazier clinic vendors area, February 2016.

First clinic, February 2016.

First clinic, February 2016.

I will have lots of time to rest up over the next week while I relax on a Caribbean cruise with my family. At the time we made plans for this sabbatical (my wife teaches at the same school I do), we decided that we would take the boys on a trip somewhere since it is so much cheaper to travel outside of March break. We did go on a cruise for our Honeymoon, but it’s been a while and obviously the boys have not had the experience. We are travelling with friends of ours, so we will be in good company while we visit such places as Cozumel, Belize, Roatan and Grand Cayman. Looking forward to the great experiences and warm weather!

Since I’ve been so preoccupied with other things, I really not spent a ton of time on the railway. I did make one brief trip to the museum to photocopy a file and then expended a few hours at the library looking through microfilmed newspapers. I forgot how tiresome that could be, and how “easier” it was when I was in my twenties. Thankfully the museum will be of some assistance since they do have a number of papers digitized, which can be keyword searched. Unfortunately I will still have to plug through some papers the old-fashioned way, but c’est la vie!

Museum files, February 2016.

Museum files, February 2016.

Things will get on track once we get back from our cruise as life will be a little less busy. Besides the aforementioned trips to the museum, I do need to start work on my portion of the John Paulson article I’ve agreed to do. The plan is to present this paper at the Northern Great Plains History Conference in Saint Cloud, MN in September. I also have some interviews to conduct south of the border once it becomes more spring like outside. Did I say I wasn’t busy?

Anywho, I should get rolling. I still have some stuff to take care of before we leave. I’ll be back in a few weeks with I’m sure a bunch of things to report on. Until then…

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2016 in History, Railway, Research, Travel, Writing

 

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You can’t learn history sitting there!

Well, I guess technically you can, but history does not stop at the door of wherever you’re at. I’ve said it on many occasions in the past (hehe) that there is so much more to be learned when you “touch” history. There is only so much you can get from a book, a library or an archive; if possible, you need to get out and see whatever it is you are interested in or studying in person. It adds that physical element to our understanding of what happened in the past as there is only so much “reality” you can build into a written account. As it turns out, I have had the opportunity to study history both inside and outside over the past few weeks. Please, read on…

So, where are we? Well, we’re past the mid-point of August, and you know what that means. Yup, it will be time to head back to work soon…sigh! I know, poor teacher, had the whole summer off and now it’s back to reality. I realize it’s hard to get people to sympathize with our situation, but I think it’s a little different for teachers. You see, I still have two weeks left on my vacation but my brain is already thinking ahead to what needs to be done to be ready for the first day/week of school. I don’t know that many other people do that same sort of thing.

Now one of the things I need to start gearing up for is football, which as you know combined with work, makes my life go from the proverbial 0-60 in a matter of a few days. Schedules are already out and I have a coaches meeting on the books for next week. The trick now is to get my brain, which has been focussed on anything but football for the last two months, into that frame of mind. I really don’t even want to think about it right now, but as usual things will kick into gear as our start date approaches.

So this summer is the second year in a row that I haven’t spent a whole lot of time in the bush doing railway field work. There were the few days in July following my presentation at the Chik-Wauk that I was able to get out, but that was about it. With that in mind, I decided to get out again a week and half ago to follow up on a few things I missed on that earlier trip. This time was going to be just a day trip, so it was a bit of a challenge making sure I had maximum time on the lake. That meant leaving pretty early, since it takes 2.5 hours to negotiate the round-about journey from Thunder Bay to Gunflint Lake. I would also have the boys with me this time, so I would have to keep this in mind.

We were up and on the road early, so we arrived at our launch point, the Cross River Lodge, by 9:00 local time. A short time later we were zipping across the lake at maximum warp, which is about 21 knots for my boat (39 kph). I know the boys really enjoyed this part, since the lake which our camp sits on is pretty small, so we really can’t open up the throttle for very long. Our first stop of the day was going to be the spot where the Gunflint & Lake Superior crossed a small, unnamed river just south of the international boundary. I wanted to see if I could locate more of the bridge pilings and pick up the right of way on the south side of the river.

The lake was fairly calm, so we were able to see some of the pilings under the water and get some good shots of them. Hopefully the water levels will drop a bit next year so I can re-shoot this area with an even better view. After studying the maps and Lidar in a bit more detail, I was able to follow the grade on the south side very easily. The pilings there were now part of a beaver lodge, but I was able to beach the boat successfully. I only followed the grade for about 80 metres since the boys stayed in the boat and I did not want to wander too far. I should be able to follow it fully when I am there in the fall.

G&LS river crossing looking north, August 2014.

G&LS river crossing looking north, August 2014.

G&LS grade, August 2014.

G&LS grade, August 2014.

Our next stop was going to be a nice beach southwest of the river, near where the Pigeon River Lumber Company had its logging camp, known as Camp Four. The plan was going to be to follow the grade as it made its way southwest toward the log trestle and the big ridge on the south side of Gunflint Lake. We would walk about 500 metres and attempt to locate some rails that were still in their place that I had seen in 1997.

Unfortunately my plan came unglued pretty quickly. After securing the boat, the boys and I moved off the beach, found the grade and started our hike. After about 100 metres we ran into a snag; just east of the beach the beavers had built a large dam, flooding the area in front of what is known as Saucer Lake. With the high water levels this year, the dam had now flooded about 80 metres of the grade as it skirts behind a ridge. No problem right, just detour above the rail line? Unfortunately that didn’t work too well since the area is littered with deadfall from the 1999 windstorm and 2007 fire. By myself I would have been okay, but the boys are still young and they could not walk through all the new growth of bush and avoid the fallen trees. Back to the boat we went.

Plan B was going to be to walk down the beach a bit then cut across the ridge and try to get on the grade that way. We did do our best, but it was just too difficult trying to get over that ridge. Seventy metres or so doesn’t seem like much, and I would have had no issues by myself, but again the boys are too young to handle that type of serious bushwhacking.

Plan C. So my next thought was to take the boat about 500 metres or so further west along the shore to a point where the railway passed close the edge of the lake. We would still have to climb over the ridge, but I was sure this time we could just go straight over and not have to worry about any wet areas. As it turns out where we decided to beach the boat was a back country campsite, so the shore area was already cleared. It was about 90 metres to get up and over the ridge, but once we did, we found ourselves standing on the G&LS grade.

After the first few failed attempts, luck was on our side this time. Within the first few metres of walking the grade, Noah announced that he had found a rail. We had come down right in the spot I was looking for! In this area there are a few lengths of track still in place, the rails joined by two-bolt fishplates and marked “Illinois Steel Co. Union 92 IX.” Even more remarkable, we found what appeared to be metal ties under the rails. As it turns out, these metal “ties” were probably designed specifically for logging railways, so that the rails could be laid and then easily removed and used elsewhere.

Rail & connector, August 2014.

Rail & connector, August 2014.

Rail, August 2014.

Rail, August 2014.

The grade in this area seemed pretty decent to negotiate, so I decided we would continue to follow it until we reached the log trestle, which was about 450 metres to the southwest. A little further along the grade, it was Ethan’s turn to make a discovery. This time it was a set of double tracks, which left me scratching my head a bit; I had no idea what the purpose of this might have been. It only took a few more steps along the rail to figure out that this was a junction, complete with parts of the switch. Where this spur might have gone from there was a bit of a mystery.

Rail junction, August 2014.

Rail junction, August 2014.

G&LS grade, August 2014.

G&LS grade, August 2014.

We made our way to the bottom end of the trestle, the whole time noting how quickly the grade rises in a short distance (about 3-4%). It was very breezy on the lake, but stifling hot in the bush, so it was time to head back. I am really looking forward to going back in the fall and re-examining everything once the leaves are down and the visibility improves. Hopefully the weather cooperates and I’m able to accomplish all of my hiking.

North side of the log trestle looking south, August 2014.

North side of the log trestle looking south, August 2014.

So along with this field work, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching for material for the article I would like to write on the Gunflint and Lake Superior Railroad. My efforts have yielded quite a bit of information, and my file on this small logging railroad has very quickly expanded. I always quote this biblical line from the Gospel of Matthew to my students and they are certainly words to live by, especially as a historian-“seek, and ye shall find!” There is still much to do before I can even contemplate writing, but I have made a lot of headway.

Now one of things that has helped me out a lot is a little field work of a different type I did last week. One of my great guiding sources for this project is the history of Cook County, Minnesota, “Pioneers in the Wilderness,” which was written by Dr. Willis Raff in 1981. I had the good fortune to meet and chat with Dr. Raff back in 1997 before his passing in 2002. His book, which includes a chapter about the G&LS, has given me a lot of direction as to where to look for information.

One source that Dr. Raff used was a series of letters written by Pigeon River Lumber Company president Daniel J. Arpin known as the “Arpin Papers.” At the time of his research, these papers were in the personal collection of Lloyd K. Johnson, who was an attorney in Duluth, but originally hailed from Grand Marais. Johnson passed away in 2007, but with a little bit of digging I found that these papers were now in the possession of the Cook County Historical Society in Grand Marais. So last Thursday I went to take a look.

I don’t think I really understood what I was in store for when I decided to take a look at these letters. Raff stated that there were 9 volumes of letters, with 500 pages per volume…that’s 4500 pages! He said they were on “onion-skinned” paper, which really meant nothing to me; it only took me a few seconds to figure it all out! The letters are actually carbon copies of his correspondence with friends, associates and businesses. The vast majority are typed, but since they are carbons, the paper is tissue-paper like (hence the onion-skinned) and the text is purple. Some are easy to see, some are quite faded.

Arpin Papers, August 2014.

Arpin Papers, August 2014.

These letters were a gold mine of information, and I am very thankful they are still around. However, between the purple text, fine paper and the sheer quantity pages, I was bug-eyed and exhausted at the end of the day. It took me seven (yes, seven!) hours to go through 4 of the 6 volumes they have accessible (not all of the collection is catalogued…I’m hoping they have the other 3 volumes). I will need to make at least one more trip back (maybe two) to get through the rest of the books. That was just to look at them all though; I photographed the pages of interest on my iPad and now I need to go back and make notes from them!

Well, in any case I’ve yammered on too long. I’ll be back in a few weeks with more news and updates. Until then…

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2014 in Hiking, History, Railway, Research, Writing

 

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