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Tag Archives: Superior National Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spike, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

Wire, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

Fishplate, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

Grade, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

Grade, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

Fishplate, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

Wire, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

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

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

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

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

Grade, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

Grade, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

Grade, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

Grade, Whisker Lake, May 2017.

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

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

Ceramic insulators, Camp 8?, May 2017.

Snuff jar, Camp 8?, May 2017.

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

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

Barrel hoops, Camp 8?, May 2017.

Lantern, Camp 8?, May 2017.

Building foundation, Camp 8?, May 2017.

Building foundation, Camp 8?, May 2017.

Building foundation, Camp 8?, May 2017.

Sawn lumber, Camp 8?, May 2017.

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

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

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

 

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It’s been that long?

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

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

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

Ice storm, April 2017.

Ice storm, April 2017.

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

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

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

Gunflint Lake, August 2008.

PAD&W grade, Gunflint Lake, August 2008.

Beach at Leeblain, August 2008.

PAD&W grade, Leeblain, August 2008.

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

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

Akeley Lake Shaft, August 2010.

Mine shaft, August 2010.

PAD&W rock cut, August 2010.

PAD&W rock cut, August 2010.

PAD&W rock cut, August 2010.

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

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

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

G&LS Corduroy Trestle, August 1997.

G&LS Corduroy Trestle, August 1997.

G&LS Corduroy Trestle, August 1997.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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Twice in the space of a week!

Really? You must be a lucky guy Dave! I know…I was pretty excited about it myself; I haven’t done it this often in a long time. It was worth all the money, time, exertion and effort too. I know what you’re thinking…is he really talking about this on his blog? Isn’t that a tad inappropriate? Money? Isn’t this a family blog? Well, of course it is…what is it that you think I’m talking about? Oh, I know, you’re confused. Well, that never happens here right?

So we’re here at the end of October and I am totally out of gas. It has been a crazy fall! Between everything that has gone on in my family life and work, I am very surprised I am still alive. No really…I’m not joking. It is a huge struggle to keep my head above water and I feel like I am not on the ball when it comes to teaching. I am behind in my marking and my planning isn’t as sharp as it usually is; I’m not focussed. I really need that sabbatical.

Football is winding down for another year. Noah and his Alouette teammates played in the TBMFA Atom championship on last Saturday and came away 25-6 winners. He played well in the victory, recording several tackles at his outside linebacker position. This week was the start of playoffs in high school junior football, and after finishing third in the standings we took on Superior in the quarterfinals on Thursday. It was a tough 20-6 win and we now move on to play Hammarskjold next week. I am very proud of this group as they have come along way since the beginning of the year and they have accomplished a lot no matter what happens from here.

Speaking of busy, this month has been very active for me on the railway front. On the 4th the historical society held its annual History Day at the Silver Mountain Station. This year’s edition had a very special guest, Harold Alanen, who was launching his new book, “They Came From All Around.” This was of great interest to me, since I’ve worked with Harold at Gunflint Lake in the past and his book covers a lot of history associated with the railway. I look forward to finish reading his book once things calm down.

Since I already brought it up, let’s talk about Gunflint. The weekend after History Day was Thanksgiving here in Canada and as I’ve done for the past few years, I spent it in Minnesota with the boys. It is some great father-son time, but also an opportunity to get field work done with most of the leaves down and the ground fairly dry.

Our adventure started bright and early on Friday morning as we packed up and made our way to the Cross River Lodge. After a short stop in Grand Marais for provisions, we arrived at the lodge by 9:30 or so. It was nice to catch up with John and Rose…it’s become like a second home for me. Shortly after noon we were heading across a very rough lake for the 11km ride to the site of Camp 4.

My objective for the day was pretty minimal, with just some minor explorations of the area. I did find a few interesting things, but no major breakthroughs for the time being. On the way back we took a short detour to Gunflint Narrows since the water on the lake was very low (not extreme, but one of the lowest I’ve seen). The boys climbed around on the rocks while I photographed the remains of the railway trestle.

Gunflint Narrows, October 2015.

Gunflint Narrows, October 2015.

One of the highlights of our trip was the spectacular evenings we experienced. The winds were very calm, the lake like glass and the sunsets were amazing. After the difficult times we’ve had over the past little while, I felt like it was some great therapy for the boys and myself. I really hope it repeats itself when we are there next year!

Sunset, Gunflint Lake, October 2015.

Sunset, Gunflint Lake, October 2015.

Sunset, Gunflint Lake, October 2015.

Sunset, Gunflint Lake, October 2015.

Sunset, Gunflint Lake, October 2015.

Sunset, Gunflint Lake, October 2015.

Sunset, Gunflint Lake, October 2015.

Sunset, Gunflint Lake, October 2015.

Saturday was expected to be the big day. My goal was to travel across the lake again, this time to the site of Bridal Falls, and explore the Gunflint & Lake Superior Railroad south toward Crab Lake. I had done this last year, but this time I had a better plan and hoped for better results. Armed with my metal detector (which I had bought specifically for this purpose), I hoped I would find some physical traces of the line and determine its exact route to Crab Lake.

After a much nicer ride on the lake in the cool fall air, we made our way up past Bridal Falls and on to the railroad right of way. My first big surprise was the state of the grade; last year it had been completely flooded by a beaver dam on the Crab River right at the top of the ridge. To my surprise the water was gone! I didn’t bother checking to see if it was a result of the dam being broken, but I really didn’t care…it made my life much easier!

The line was easy to follow in this area, with corduroyed logs very visible under the grade. Half way across the 180m stretch we made our first find-a small spike (one of the smallest I’ve ever seen), which told us we were on the right path. Continuing southward we entered a wooded area and immediately found another spike, keeping us pointed in the right direction. But this was all to be expected; it was further south that the route of the line was in question. After 140m, we reached another low, open section.

G&LS rock cut, October 2015.

G&LS rock cut, October 2015.

G&LS grade, October 2015.

G&LS grade, October 2015.

Corduroyed logs, October 2015.

Corduroyed logs, October 2015.

Last year it was here that I lost the line, but not this time. It didn’t take me long to find a spike, which told me my hunch was right, that the grade followed the course of the river. I crossed the low area and came into a wooded section where I immediately found yet another spike. As the grade curved around this ridge, I began finding many traces of the line. I came across a railway related object (might be part of a switch) and then several fishplates and spikes. The grade was clearly cut into the ridge as it swung from a south-westerly to southerly to south-easterly direction. Another fishplate told me I was still on the right “track.”

Switch part?, October 2015.

Switch part?, October 2015.

G&LS cutting, October 2015.

G&LS cutting, October 2015.

G&LS fishplate, October 2015.

G&LS fishplate, October 2015.

As the grade turns easterly the river widens to form a small lake, and the railway curves along the shore of the lake. Last year I found corduroyed logs in the water in several places in this 300m stretch. This time around I turned up a metal object at the northern apex of the lake and then several spikes at the southern end where the lake narrows again. A short 150m walk took me down to Crab Lake, finding more spikes along the way. While the boys took a break on the shore, I followed what turned out to be the grade a short distance confirmed by yet more spikes. There’s still another kilometre to explore to the east end of Crab Lake, which I hope to get to next year.

G&LS Grade, October 2015.

G&LS Grade, October 2015.

On the walk back to the boat we stopped to take some photos of the beautiful Bridal Falls. The trip back to the lodge was much nicer than the previous day and it felt good to have a shower and relax. It was a tough day of hiking so I decided to treat the boys to dinner at the Gunflint Lodge. This has become a tradition for us on these trips and it’s a great opportunity for us to just hang out.

Crab River, October 2015.

Crab River, October 2015.

Bridal Falls, October 2015.

Bridal Falls, October 2015.

Bridal Falls, October 2015.

Bridal Falls, October 2015.

Bridal Falls, October 2015.

Bridal Falls, October 2015.

Bridal Falls, October 2015.

Bridal Falls, October 2015.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny again and after breakfast we were off across the lake for our last hike. I didn’t expect this one to yield any great breakthroughs since it was a section I had walked last summer. Our starting point was going to be where the railroad crossed a small creek 700m south of the boundary. With the water low, I was forced to paddle the boat in the last hundred metres to the shore. The remnants of the bridge were very visible in the water and I spent some time photographing them before proceeding ashore.

Bridge remains, October 2015.

Bridge remains, October 2015.

Bridge remains, October 2015.

Bridge remains, October 2015.

It did not take us very long to follow the grade as it winds its way along the lake up to the narrows separating Little Gunflint and Gunflint Lakes. After stopping a little while, we made our way back south. Things that I had previous seen along this stretch were much more visible, such as the corduroyed logs underneath the grade. With the leaves down, it was easier to follow the line and photograph its features.

G&LS grade, October 2015.

G&LS grade, October 2015.

Rail, October 2015.

Rail, October 2015.

Corduroyed logs, October 2015.

Corduroyed logs, October 2015.

G&LS cutting, October 2015.

G&LS cutting, October 2015.

Bridge remains, October 2015.

Bridge remains, October 2015.

Our last night at the lodge was another great one. The mercury that day had risen to an unheard of level; the thermometer at the lodge was showing 91F, or 32C! It was gorgeous barbequing supper on the deck of the lodge and then enjoying the very warm evening. The next morning we were up early and after breakfast we had to sadly bid farewell to John and Rose and Gunflint Lake. I booked next year’s trip while I was there, so the countdown is already on to Thanksgiving 2016!

So, I guess after all of this blabbering I should mention something about the title. Well, one of things that came up during our time at Gunflint was the fact that I had not been hunting in a long time-eleven years to be exact-and that the boys had never been before. Hunting was a part of my youth. My dad hunted, not avidly, but rather I think he just enjoyed being outdoors and walking (I wonder where I get it from). I have some very fond memories of those times and I want the boys to experience that too.

The plan was that the following Sunday, if the weather cooperated, we would head down to North Lake to do some hunting and explore the railway at the same time. I had not walked this portion of the PAD&W since 2010 (I think) so I would be an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, if you pardon the pun. It would also be the first time in a long time that I did field work twice in a week!

We left early for the 100km or so drive down to the lake. Once we parked the truck we started on the long walk, almost 7km, toward our destination at Trestle Bay. Luck was on our side again and it was shaping up to be another fantastic day.

PAD&W embankment, October 2015.

PAD&W embankment, October 2015.

After about a kilometre of walking, we came across our first ruffled grouse, or partridge as we call them around here. I was a little nervous about actually shooting, as it had been such a long time since I had last fired a gun. Thankfully, my aim was true with my dad’s old Mossberg .410 and we bagged our first bird of the day. Unfortunately the shotgun blast scared the bejesus out of poor Noah!

This trip was a bit of nostalgia for me. Way back in the fall of 1990 I made my first trip to North Lake; I was all of 16 years old and it was also my first time moose hunting. Friends of the family had just purchased the former Bishop’s homestead on the lake and I was taken by all the history in the area. Walking the grade, finding spikes and exploring the remains of the North Lake Station really captured my imagination. This is where it all began.

PAD&W rock cut, October 2015.

PAD&W rock cut, October 2015.

Back then the grade was only clear for one kilometre past the property where it crossed a swamp. I had a lot of success in those days finding birds along this stretch and luck was on my side once more; by the time we reached the swamp we already had 3 of them. Continuing on we netted our limit by the time we arrived at the site of Greer’s logging camp, some 2.5km to the west (5 shots, 5 birds). The gun was then unloaded and shouldered, the dog cut loose and I could now concentrate on walking the grade. The hike was so picturesque and relaxing; I had forgotten how beautiful this area was. I also came to the realization that while enjoyed the time hunting, I’d much rather be focussing on the railway.

PAD&W cutting, October 2015.

PAD&W cutting, October 2015.

PAD&W cutting, October 2015.

PAD&W cutting, October 2015.

PAD&W rock cut, October 2015.

PAD&W rock cut, October 2015.

Greer's logging camp, October 2015.

Greer’s logging camp, October 2015.

PAD&W rock cut, October 2015.

PAD&W rock cut, October 2015.

PAD&W rock cut, October 2015.

PAD&W rock cut, October 2015.

By noon we reached Trestle Bay, and after a break for some food we started back toward the truck. We paused several times along the way to take some video of the many rock cuts in the area. We arrived at our starting point around 3:30, just in time to get rolling home, but not before we cleaned the partridge. I don’t think the boys enjoyed that part very much, but neither did I when I was their age. It did feel good to share this icky part with them though, especially teaching them how to do it properly just as my dad did with me. I think that he would have been proud of the day we spent together…hopefully we can do it all again next year.

Trestle Bay, October 2015.

Trestle Bay, October 2015.

Well, I think I’ve said enough for now. This post has taken a lot of time to write and put together…twice in a week is more exhausting than I thought. Anywho, I better go; more news and info coming soon. Until then…

 
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Posted by on October 30, 2015 in Hiking, History, Railway

 

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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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You win some, you lose some.

Well, it’s pretty much the story of life isn’t it? I think all of us have experienced this at various points during our lives. The ups and downs are all part of the journey and make it all that much more interesting. It can take on many different forms, whether it be about our relationships, careers, school or sports, it doesn’t matter. In this case, I’m referring to something a little different, but when aren’t I? Now that I’ve peaked your interest (or maybe not), I can blather on about a bunch of other stuff first.

So, here we are at the end of June. Despite my best intentions to write more often, it’s unfortunately been over a month since my last post…I guess there are too many other things to preoccupy my time. That means I have a lot to catch up on.

The end of June means that we are days away from the end of the school year. In my case, it’s technically down to one day; in reality I’m on the clock until Saturday, but that’s a story for later. As I’ve stated repeatedly in the past, this year has been a complete blur. The years seem to go by faster and faster. I can’t believe I’m almost done my 17th year of teaching at St. Patrick…geez I’m getting old! With my upcoming semester off, I only have 12.5 years left of teaching. Never mind the year, my life is turning into a blur!

On Thursday I’m forsaking the last couple days of school to travel with the football program to the University of Minnesota-Duluth team camp. We have 25 players heading down with us and as usual it should prove to be a fantastic experience. UMD Head Coach Curt Weise and his staff put on an amazing event for players and coaches alike. The weather is even supposed to cooperate for us while we are there!

With all this talk about the end of school and football trips, we must be heading into summer. Thank Jesus! Yes, I know, poor teacher; life must be rough with all the holidays we get. The fact of the matter is I’m tired and burnt out. It’s not easy teaching teenagers…or any kids for that matter. I know what it’s like being at home all day with my boys and I can’t imagine having them plus another 20 or more for 5 days a week. I’d need to take up drinking! In any case, the time to decompress will be nice and I’ll be able to spend some time with the family (and some me time too).

My railway time lately has been taking a beating with all the other stuff going on, but I hope to change that soon. With the end of the school year, I’ve already planned my first research session of the summer for next week. Last year I spent a whole day at the Cook County Museum in Grand Marais looking through the Arpin Papers, which are the records of Daniel J. Arpin, president of the Pigeon River Lumber Company. I managed to examine four of the books, which at 500 pages per book made for an interesting day. There are still a number of volumes to look at, so I imagine it will take multiple trips to finish it all. I’m sure I’ll be bug-eyed by the end, but I know there will be a lot of great information to come from it.

The beginning of summer of vacation means that I’ll have more time to spend doing field work which will make me immensely happy. At the end of my upcoming trip to Duluth I have a meeting scheduled with all the principals involved in the July exploration of Camp 4. Hopefully we can formulate a good plan to maximize our time in the area. In the meantime, I have a few other hikes on the books along the PAD&W and G&LS to tide me over.

My last trek into the outdoors occurred at the end of May and is reflected in the title of this blog. I was very excited to visit a an unexplored portion of the Gunflint & Lake Superior Railroad, but unfortunately it did not pan out as I expected. One of the biggest mysteries surrounding this little logging railroad is how far it extended into the Minnesota wilderness. It’s route from the PAD&W across the border and 4.5 kilometres to the ridge on the south shore of Gunflint Lake is very well documented. The next kilometre from the ridge to Crab Lake is a little more sketchy but generally known; it is here where the questions begin. According to statistics, the G&LS reached its maximum length in 1907-1908 at nearly 5.5 miles (far short of its planned 30 miles). That means there could have been another 4 kilometres of track beyond where it reached Crab Lake. Where the track was located and how far it extended toward Whisker Lake is unknown.

So my plan was to drive up the Gunflint Trail as far as Loon Lake and then go north to the Crab Lake Trailhead of the Border Route Trail. This access trail extends some 3 km from Loon Lake to Crab Lake and then another 1.5 km to where it meets the Border Route Trail. I would walk and the boys would ride their bikes to where the trail passes between Crab and Whisker Lakes and at that point try and locate any traces of a railroad grade. I hoped my new metal detector would locate any spikes that had been left behind when the rails were removed.

It took us about an hour to reach our destination; along the way I periodically swept the trail with the detector to see if there were any traces of a rail line along the south shore of Crab (I’m pretty convinced that this trail was indeed built in 1936 during a forest fire). At the east end of Crab and on toward Whisker, I swept around with the detector but nothing really turned up. Sometimes you can hype things up too much and end up disappointing yourself. I guess I just assumed I’d get there, find a whole bunch of spikes and see a clearly defined right of way. Most likely if the railroad did extend this far it was a temporary affair and there was not a lot of effort put into the construction of the grade. It’s not that I am giving up, but I’ll have to reload and rethink my strategy. Maybe continuing to follow the grade east from where it meets Crab might help me connect the dots. In any case, it was a nice hike and I got to spend some time with the boys. You win some, you lose some!

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Whisker Lake, May 2015.

Whisker Lake, May 2015.

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Border Route Trail, May 2015.

Anyway, it’s time to move on. I should be back shortly (I know, I say that all the time) with more news and photos. Until then…

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2015 in Hiking, History, Railway, Research, Writing

 

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Digging for Treasure

So we’ve all done it, or at least imagined ourselves doing it. I guess it’s the allure of finding something exciting, or maybe it’s the whole process of discovery. Admit it, we’ve all fancied ourselves being like Indiana Jones, probably without all the people trying to kill us or all the gross snakes and bugs and stuff. Especially the spiders…I hate spiders! In any case, few of us get to actually do anything like that, and besides, archaeology is not anywhere near what it is portrayed in the movies. I’m not one, unless you could the railway archaeology I do, but I do have an idea of what goes on. It generally involves a lot of research and tons of careful, painstaking excavation in the hopes of finding some small artifacts…no Holy Grails or Arcs of the Covenant unfortunately! So where am I going with this? I guess you’ll have to read on.

I know that it’s been a while since I last wrote, but as usual, I’ve been rather busy. It wasn’t my intention to go this long between posts, but it kinda snuck up on me. We’re now just over a week into February and it’s amazing how quickly time is going by. Five more weeks and it will be March break…hopefully with some nice “spring” weather to go along with that, unlike the last few years.

With February comes a new semester and new kids. Things seem to be going well so far and it appears I have some nice kids in my classes. I have Grade 12U History again, along with the Grade 10 AP History and Grade 12U Geography online, which is a nice, little mix. As good as things are, I’m already looking ahead to next year at this time. Although not as bad as last year, this winter is really starting to drag and I need something to distract me from the monotony.

So what’s happening a year from now that’s so exciting? No work, that’s what! Yep, one year from now Jo-Anne and I will be on leave from teaching for the entire semester. Seven glorious months of doing whatever I want to do! As much as I love to teach, I have a life outside of the bricks and mortar on Selkirk Street and I plan to exercise it to the fullest. Although we do have a family trip in the works for February, the main reason for me taking this leave was to work on the railway.

Since I began researching the PAD&W way back in 1994, I realized that I would not be able to fully complete my work without a visit to the National Archives in Ottawa. The trick has always been trying to find first the money, and then the time to get there, so I figured that this would be one of the best ways to accomplish this task, and I’d also have time to do some writing and field work.

I’ve also got a couple of other side trips planned for next year. I’d really like to get a book done on the little Gunflint and Lake Superior Railroad, which has become quite a fascination for me. The US National Archives repository in Chicago hopefully has some files pertaining to the customs operation at Gunflint I’d like to sift through since I cannot find that data anywhere else (unlike here in Canada). There are also some personal letters belonging to Pigeon River Lumber Company VP Frank Hixon located at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse that might prove valuable. Should make for an interesting road trip, since I’ve been to neither place.

Speaking of the G&LS, I’ve been keeping myself busy of late with more research. I spent an afternoon before New Years at the Thunder Bay Museum looking through some of their files, which yielded a few valuable leads (one of which I’ll mention later). I’ve also spent a bit of time digging on the Internet, which as usual answers some questions and raises a whole pile more. However, this is why I love this type of work; the excitement of the hunt and the satisfaction of making discoveries!

Even though it’s only February, I’m already anticipating the arrival of spring so I can get into the field to do some hiking. I’ve got a lot planned for this year, so hopefully the weather cooperates. I’d like to get out to the G&LS in early May, but that will all depend of how quickly the lake ices out. The past few years it has been very late due to the cold winter, which doesn’t really help me out. I want to make as many day trips as I can during the summer, and I already have the fall trip on the Thanksgiving long weekend booked.

During my Christmas break research I came across some information in one of the files describing some “finds” that were made at the Camp 4 (logging camp of the PRLC) site in the 1970’s or before. I passed along that information to my contacts at the US Forest Service who I know had done a cursory examination of the camp a few years ago. I’ve looked around site a bit over the years, but I haven’t done anything detailed other than examining the Shay line shaft located on the beach. That will change however.

This past week I was invited by the USFS to be a bit of a “historical adviser” for some exploratory work that will take place there this July. The digging will be done by the USFS in conjunction with archaeology students from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. I am very excited to be a part of this research, particularly since I am a historian and have never seen any type of archaeological work carried out. This is the reason why I’d like to get to Gunflint in early May so I can try and identify some potential sites for the experts. I’ll be sure (as usual) to report on everything that happens.

Camp 4 building site, Gunflint Lake, October 2014.

Camp 4 building site, Gunflint Lake, October 2014.

Camp 4 beach, Gunflint Lake, October 2014.

Camp 4 beach, Gunflint Lake, October 2014.

Anyway, I better run. Lots of things to do. I’ll be back soon enough with more news and updates. Until then…

 

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2015 in Hiking, History, Railway, Research, Writing

 

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