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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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How to get lost in the bush and other exciting stuff.

Step 1: Find some hiking gear. Preferably something you’re not concerned about breaking or wrecking. Make sure you have sunscreen and especially bug dope…don’t want the bugs to eat you alive.

Step 2: Get yourself up to the woods in northwestern Ontario/northeastern Minnesota. There are roads and in some cases airports nearby. It might take some time, but you’ll enjoy the scenery.

Step 3: Find an old abandoned railway and start calling out for me, kind of like Hansel and Gretel. I’m sure to turn up; I’m the one wearing the desert camouflage hat, gps in hand and toting camera gear.

Step 4: Now follow me as I hike along the overgrown grade looking for something old and historical, or maybe just seeing where the trail goes. It will be scorching hot and you’ll get scratched up and probably fall a bunch of times. It’s okay though, as all those things add character (and scars and bruises), and besides, before you know it, you won’t know where you are. Don’t worry though, we have a gps.

Et viola! Getting lost in four easy steps. I think I should turn this into a book or maybe an infomercial.

You should already know that I have a pretension for being facetious and flare for overdramatizing things. Obviously this is another one of those instances. However, the title of this post is based on real events and real people…names have been changed to protect people’s identities. Sorry, couldn’t resist! Seriously though, I did almost get a little lost on my recent trip, maybe. I know, I know. I’ll explain it all later.

We’ve now entered the fourth week of summer vacation (I actually started this post while I was sitting and looking out at Gunflint Lake on a beautiful evening). Time certainly flies! It’s been all good though, as vacations generally are. It’s just hard to believe we’re almost through the month of July, and that means there is only one month left before its back to work. But we’ll just forget about that part.

So other than that little blip of two weeks ago (you know, the big downpour around Hymers and Nolalu), the weather has been pretty good. It’s been pretty dry and warm. This past weekend was probably the best all summer, with temperatures hovering around 30C. We just came home from camp, where we’ve been since Saturday. It was nice to be able to jump in the lake to cool off and the boys certainly enjoyed everything that camp brings with it.

Bass Lake, July 2015.

Bass Lake, July 2015.

Alright, so let’s get to the whole point of the article shall we. The big event that I have been building up to over the last little while (well, really since I found out about this in February) finally arrived. I was very excited for a four day trip to Gunflint Lake to participate in an archaeological exploration of the former Pigeon River Lumber Company logging camp at the east end of the lake. The trip would also give me an opportunity to take a look a few things that were of importance to my research.

I departed bright and early on Tuesday morning, knowing that the sooner I left, the sooner I would get to Gunflint. By 9:30cst I was at the Cross River Lodge and catching up on things with John and Rose. Shortly thereafter I had stowed my stuff in my room, put the boat in the water and was heading across the lake for my first hike. The objective for the day was to beach the boat on Little Gunflint Lake and see if I could locate telegraph poles and possibly insulators along the PAD&W all the way to the junction of the Gunflint & Lake Superior.

My first challenge of the day would be the lake. The previous few days had been windy and Tuesday was no exception. I have already mentioned on several occasions how interesting boating on Gunflint Lake is when it is windy. I certainly had my work cut out for me. Compounding things was the fact that the wind was blowing from the northwest, which created situations where the waves at times were coming from two different directions.

Arriving at the narrows between Gunflint and Little Gunflint, I had to deal with the next two challenges. The waterway between the lakes is very shallow, too shallow to use the motor, so I would have to paddle my way upstream which is not a picnic. The next problem became immediately apparent; I had never taken this boat and its long-shaft motor into Little Gunflint and I forgot how shallow parts of it are. That forced me to paddle the next 300 metres until the water became deep enough to drop the motor down. Now, that did not alleviate the situation, as the water is still too shallow to move quickly, so I had “putt-putt” the next 700m to my planned landing site.

Little Gunflint Lake, July 2015.

Little Gunflint Lake, July 2015.

After beaching the boat, I headed west alongside the grade. Hunting for things like telegraph poles and insulators is like finding a needle in a stack of needles. The bush plays a huge role in success or failure, since areas with less underbrush make it a lot easier to locate these items that were abandoned over 100 years ago. Why was I looking for these things? Well, the big idea is that I am trying to find physical evidence of how far the telegraph line extended at Gunflint. Back in 1997 I found poles 2km to the east on Little North, and then in 2012-2013 I found a couple insulators in the same area. I did a little poking around last year, but I wanted to explore things more thoroughly this time around.

I had my first success almost immediately, finding a long strand of wire near a presumed pole location. However, it was really downhill from there. I walked the 500m to the junction between the two lines and was frustrated by heavy underbrush most of the way. I sampled spots along the way, but even with a metal detector I didn’t find anything (the abundance of iron in the ground causes incessant beeping from the detector). I did a lot of exploring near the junction but came up empty. I reluctantly turned back. At the boat, I probed east for about 100m, finding more wire (buried some 4-5 inches under the soil) but nothing else.

PAD&W grade, Little Gunflint Lake, July 2015.

PAD&W grade, Little Gunflint Lake, July 2015.

Telegraph wire, Little Gunflint Lake, July 2015.

Telegraph wire, Little Gunflint Lake, July 2015.

Back in the boat, I headed back toward Gunflint and a brief visit to Camp 4. When I got to the big lake, I had a huge shock when I turned “Oh S@#t corner” (aptly named for people’s general reaction). The wind had picked up even more. It was a fight to keep the bow pointed into the waves, and the spray soaked the left side of my body. Turning east again toward the bay where the camp was located was a treat, and then things got even more interesting. Riding with the waves, the bow was plowing down into the troughs of the huge swells, causing some consternation on my part as I watched water touch just underneath the prow.

At Camp 4 my goal was to mark some of the sites for easier identification when the archaeologists arrived. My two most recent trips to the site were last fall and this spring, so I was unprepared for how thick the brush is with all the leaves out. I had a very tough time moving around and finding the spots, but I was able to do it. It did make me worry a bit about how it would affect our impending exploration.

The ride back to the lodge was sheer insanity, as well as physically exhausting. It was one of my roughest trips across the lake. It was a constant fight with the waves and the pounding was taking a toll on me. When I got back to the lodge, I became aware that the boat had taken a pounding too, with many loose screws in the internal woodwork. After supper, I scooted the 15 minutes up the Trail to the Seagull Guard Station to meet with the archaeologists. We were supposed to start work on Wednesday afternoon, but a problem with the Forest Service boat would push us back to Thursday and limit us to one day of exploring.

Wednesday morning dawned bright, clear and most importantly, very calm. Following a hearty breakfast, it was off across the lake for a free day of exploring; it was exhilarating zooming across the flat water at full throttle. Gunflint is such a beautiful place…I wish I could spend more time doing exactly that. The plan for the day was to look around the bridge crossing south of the border (I’d been there many times before, but I was hoping the water was lower) and then walk the grade toward Camp 4 from that point.

Gunflint Lake, July 2015.

Gunflint Lake, July 2015.

Zipping across Gunflint

The first part went off without a hitch, the calm water and bright sunshine made all the bridge remains stand out clearly in the creek. The second however, was nearly disastrous. I had only walked this part of the grade once, back in 1997. At that time, I believe it was being used as a snowmobile trail, so it was like a highway. Last fall, the boys and I hiked about 400m of trail north from the camp; it was rough, but it was easy to see the grade with all the leaves down. I had hoped to traverse the 1.2km from the bridge to where we stopped last fall, which I thought was very doable.

G&LS bridge crossing,  July 2015.

G&LS bridge crossing, July 2015.

G&LS bridge crossing,  July 2015.

G&LS bridge crossing, July 2015.

G&LS bridge crossing,  July 2015.

G&LS bridge crossing, July 2015.

The first 200m was okay, though I did get off track for a few minutes. The next 200m was great, as things opened up and it was very easy to navigate along the grade. From there things went off the rails, if you pardon the pun. The grade swings from a westerly to a southwesterly direction and with the knee to waist high growth, I lost the right of way. Thus began a 700m ordeal as I bumbled along parallel to the grade, frustrated at my inability to get back on to it.

What was once a beautiful trail was now a warzone of deadfall, burned trees and new forest growth. The 1999 Boundary Waters-Canadian derecho and 2007 Ham Lake Fire had done a number on the area. In the tangle of brush, everything looked the same, while the sun blistered in the sky and there was no wind to cool things down. On the gps the grade was just metres to my right, but I could not seem to get there. As I became more frustrated, I became more agitated, which only added to my growing exhaustion as I slogged along. I fell numerous times, more than I ever had before (I’m usually good for at least one on each hike) and even broke a strap on my tactical vest used to carry my gear.

Finally, I had had enough, and even though I was only 100m from my destination, I decided to turn back. It was at that point I reacquired the grade…figures. Highlighting the difficulty of the hike, I was off and on the grade for the next 300m until I managed to sort out my bearings and really get going. It only took me 30 minutes to get back to the boat, but boy was I beat. I was exhausted (physically and mentally), overheated and extremely sore…I have scratches and bruises all over my arms and legs (and on my butt too). A shower back at the lodge made me feel a little better, but I was stiff and moving slow for the rest of the day. I had experienced a 2.5 hour, 2.5km walk through hell; probably one of my worst hikes in twenty plus years of railway work. The big difference was that when I started doing this I was 20; unfortunately my body does not handle the punishment as well at 41!

GLS hike, July 2015.

GLS hike, July 2015.

G&LS grade, August 1997.

G&LS grade, August 1997.

G&LS grade (same area),  July 2015.

G&LS grade (same area), July 2015.

G&LS grade, July 2015.

G&LS grade, July 2015.

That night I obviously slept well, especially since I had to be up early the next morning. The plan called for me to meet the group at Heston’s Lodge at 8:00 where they would have access to a boat for the day. There was an ominous black cloud in the sky and storm cells on the radar, but mercifully no rain fell.

After a short ride to the south side of the lake, I pulled in at Heston’s and waited for the group to arrive. There had a chance to catch up with owners Greg and Barb Gecas, whom I had met many years before. Greg and I had a good chat about the history of the area, which I hope to continue at some point in the future. After a short delay, we were on our way to Camp 4 by 8:30.

Once ashore, we got our gear together and started with a little tour of the area. The group consisted of myself, Superior National Forest archaeologist Ryan Brown, University of Minnesota-Duluth archaeology professor Sue Mulholland, and two students, John and Eric. I showed the group some of the areas and objects I had discovered, mostly on the surface as I did not want to disturb the soil. Afterwards, Ryan wanted to start working an area of interest he had noted back in 2011.

John and Eric began by sweeping the area with the metal detector and mark each “hit” for later examination. I was able to experience my first taste of an archaeological dig, getting my hands dirty while meticulously and carefully unearthing whatever lay below the soil. We were only able to look at a few spots before lunch, but it told us a lot about life in the logging camp. One area held barrel hoops, remains of a bottle and a metal cup. Another, possibly a fire pit location, contained more hoops, wire, nails and pieces of molten glass.

Camp 4 archaeological dig, July 2015.

Camp 4 archaeological dig, July 2015.

After lunch and a rest on the beach (the temperature hovered around 30C), we decided to examine one of the sites that I had discovered during my spring visit. As we began to remove the underbrush it was clear that this spot might be of special significance. There seemed to be a number of metal objects in the area and coupled with bits of coal and what appeared to be slag we were turning up, it became obvious that we had stumbled upon the location of the blacksmith shop. Ryan decided he wanted to do a more formal excavation in the future, so we only investigated a few hits around the periphery of site. We only kept one object, which none of us were able to identify. A posting on social media quickly revealed that this was a brace, used on the outside of steel rails at a switching point. Interesting.

Railway switch brace, July 2015.

Railway switch brace, July 2015.

Before we departed we had to finish logging all the detector locations, which gave us a chance to look around the area more. Taking a peek inland from the shore at something, I stumbled across a huge jumble of wire coiled near a tree. What was interesting about this seemingly random pile of wire was that it resembled, both in size and composition, the telegraph wire that I had found on Little North and Little Gunflint Lakes. Was this the key piece of evidence I was looking for? Comparing the two at home it seems I could very well have a match.

Camp 4 telegraph wire?, July 2015.

Camp 4 telegraph wire?, July 2015.

With much reluctance we had to pack up and head back. I am really hopeful that more archeological work can be done on the site in the future, and that I am allowed to participate in the exploration. It is unfortunate that many objects may have been removed from the site in the past, which diminishes we can learn about life in the logging camp.

Please remember, historic sites in Ontario and Minnesota are protected by law and removing objects is both unethical and illegal.

When I arrived back at the lodge, I left the boat there and departed with all my stuff for the short drive to the guard station. I had only booked a couple nights at Cross River, and had decided to spend a night “roughing” it (even though Rose did let me know there was a room available). It had been a long time since I had last camped out in a tent, probably 15 years. It was so long time I had to read the instructions on how to set it up…fortunately they are attached to the outside of the bag so they were not lost!

Seagull Guard Station, July 2015.

Seagull Guard Station, July 2015.

After resting a bit, and enjoying a rustically prepared (on my Coleman stove/grill) steak dinner, Ryan and I were invited by a few of the fire rangers to join them in a little civilized fun. Not sure where they dragged it up from, but someone got a hold of a croquet set. I’d never played croquet before, so it was quite the initiation to the “sport.” I may have also made a few off-hand complaints about the conditions of the course! We had a hoot playing a couple games while a “large” crowd gathered to watch. When the sun went down and the mosquitoes swarmed, we retired indoors, where I had a chance to chat a bit with Peter, who was a professor from Iowa State University doing research in the area. Ryan and I ended up staying up to midnight shooting the breeze with Adam, Ryan and Jacob (our original croquet compatriots) and they were very gracious hosts. There were a lot of laughs and they even fed us pizza. What a great way to finish off a few days of hard work!

Since I had forgotten an air mattress to sleep on, I did not have the best night’s sleep, but it was okay given the surroundings. In the morning I had to pack up my tent and bid farewell to the group. I’ll be back at Gunflint in October for more field work, and let’s hope the weather is as equally cooperative. There’s still a lot of things to explore.

So with any luck you’ve learned a thing or two about how (or how not) to get lost in the bush. I could definitely write a book about my adventures but I don’t think there will be a movie deal anytime soon. Who do you think would play me if there was? Maybe an action star, but he needs to be bald…Jason Statham? Works for me. Anyway, I think after 3000 words I’ve said enough. I’ll be back in a few weeks with the latest news. Until then…

 

 
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Posted by on July 28, 2015 in Hiking, History, Railway, Research

 

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