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Vimy 2017-Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

The whole crew in Honfleur, April 2017.

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

St. Patrick crew, April 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newfoundland Memorial, Beaumont Hamel, April 2017.

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

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

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

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

 

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There’s places I gotta see…

There certainly are…many in fact. In less than 24 hours, I’ll be on my way to make it happen. If you’re wondering about the title, you need to listen to more classic rock. Connoisseurs will recognize the line from the iconic Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Freebird.”

So after nearly 3 years of planning, we are finally ready to go to Europe. I can’t believe we started all of this in the spring of 2014. Where has the time gone? It feels like an eternity ago. And it’s not just me; the students have grown up along the way. Those young Grade 9 or 10 students are now in Grade 11 or 12, some getting ready to graduate. What a fitting way to leave the school!

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I usual write about how busy I am and how crazy my life is. My last post ironically said exactly that. Well, when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I managed to find another gear. What an insane few days! So I guess I should tell you about it.

Since this is a once-in-a-lifetime event, I thought it would be great to have the media at the airport for our departure. Last Monday however, I received a call from our school board communication officer, Mike Thompson. He said he was in contact with our two local MPs, Patty Hajdu and Don Rusnak, and they wanted to visit with the students before they left. The trick was that it had to happen by the end of the week, as Parliament is back in session at the start of April. We settled on Friday, but a lot of work had to be done to prepare. Mike would look after the politicians and the media, but I had to find a venue in the school and line up some students to be present.

During our trip, we will be visiting two cemeteries; Tyne Cot near Passchendaele, Belgium and Bretteville-sur-Laize south of Caen France. At those cemeteries, we will honour the fallen but in particular those that served with the 52nd Battalion, CEF and the Lake Superior Regiment. Both were organized in Thunder Bay and are perpetuated by the Lake Superior Scottish Regiment (LSSR) today. I served in the LSSR in my teens. Therefore I thought it would be fitting to invite one of my former officers, David Ratz, who is now a Lieutenant Colonel and commanding officer of the regiment, to the event. It was great to to catch up with him and the students were very appreciative of his knowledge of the history and his stories.

I had to MC the event and scramble with some last minute issues, so I was extremely nervous and sweating like a hog. Fortunately everything went well, and I am very thankfully for that. The media interviewed some of the kids, and even though I knew it was coming, it was still so nervous to speak to them myself. You can read more about the media conference on TBNewswatchCBC and the TBT News.

MPs Hajdu and Rusnak visit students from St. Patrick & St. Ignatius, March 2017.

Probably the biggest source of my stress and the thing that had me running around the most was the tickets for the Vimy ceremony. For security purposes, everyone attending the ceremony has to have a ticket, which makes sense. However, the registration and distribution if said tickets turned into a bureaucratic boondoggle. There was a mad rush to register within a short window and with it came some technical glitches. Then there was the drama getting the tickets. I received my ticket in early March, along with one other chaperone and that was it. We kept receiving messages that because of technical issues, it would be delayed; March 21st, then March 27th and still only 2 tickets. Last Friday Veterans Affairs reported that at the behest of the French Government, all tickets would be reissued. Finally, tickets began to roll in. Cutting it a little close you think, especially since the tickets needed to be printed before we left!

In any case, it’s done, so now there’s just little things left to go. I still have some packing to do and if you know me, I started getting things ready weeks ago. I am not a last minute person; in fact I tend to be quite obsessive about this aspect of traveling, most likely due to the fact that I have some OCD. I don’t care though, better prepared and organized than not.

I have all the boarding passes printed, so we’re ready to hop those flights across the pond. From Thunder Bay we head to Toronto (of course), and from there to Munich. We have a fairly long layover at the Franz Josef Strauss Airport before we heading to Amsterdam, which I guess will give everyone time to nap, including me. I’ll probably be taking the time to blog as well.

Anyway, I better get going. You’ll probably hear from me again from Munich with details of our first day. Until then…

 

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2017 in History, Travel, Writing

 

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Stress is a bad thing right?

Stress [stres]- is a response to environmental pressures or demands (“stressors”), in particular when we feel they are a threat to our coping strategies or well-being. Well, the clinical definition certainly makes it appear a lot better than it actually is, but unfortunately, as we all know, it’s not. People everywhere are either thriving from it, managing it or floundering in it. And the worst kind, mental stress, just doesn’t go away very easily. Dealing with the stress in our lives can be one of the most important things we do.

So, on that gloomy note, what’s stressing you out Dave? Well, I guess the answer would be what isn’t stressing me out. I can tell you for one, it’s not the weather. We’ve officially made it to spring, which is a very good thing and for the most part, it’s been decent month. There’s been a few hiccups here and there, but I am really looking forward to the day all the snow goes, hopefully sooner than later.

Now, I usually complain how busy things are and how tired I am, but lately it has become nuts. The source of a lot of my anxiety is work, more so than usual. What’s the deal you ask? Partly the everyday stuff-classes, marking, you know. However, we are less than two weeks away from our trip to Europe and there are so many little (and big things to worry about).

We had our last parent meeting on Tuesday, and yesterday I spent almost half an hour Skyping with our Tour Director Jason on some details of the trip. We have a few more student meetings coming up before we leave and I need to start the process of packing. The “big stressor” though, is something that is completely out of my control. For security purposes, anyone attending the ceremony had to register with Veterans Affairs Canada who is running the event. We did have some issues with the registration process, but now only 2 of the 26 in our group have received the entry tickets. They were supposed to be sent out by the 21st, but apparently due to computer issues, they are delayed. The revised date in now early next week, which is cutting it close to our departure date. Once they all arrive, and I have them printed out, I will feel much better.

I must say that I am getting excited for our journey in spite of all the issues. The kids are getting very pumped up too, though I can imagine there are some nerves as well. For many, this will be their first trip away from home without their parents. For 11 days, I am “in loco parentis,” which makes me nervous! Amsterdam, Ypres, Vimy, Beaumont Hamel, Normandy and Paris…it’s all going to be great. Having visited many of these places before, I can’t really decide what is my favourite. If I had to choose though, I would certainly say Ypres; I specifically asked to visit the city after our stop at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Passchendaele. It is such a beautiful and historic place. As I have done in the past, I will attempt to blog everyday on the trip. I’ll also be posting updates to social media, so you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter as well.

EF Backpack and Jacket, March 2017.

With all of the school-related things going on, my railway work seems to be a bit of an afterthought. However, I’m still plugging away on the book, albeit more slowly. I have nearly six chapters done, totalling some 18,000+ words. As I have described before, it is a challenge at times. Sometimes I’m on a roll and the words just fly onto the pages. and other times I can stare at the screen and barely manage a few sentences. I think part of my struggle of late has been that the subjects of the chapters have become more complex, which requires me to spend more time revising and clarifying my outline. I just need to remind myself that there is not a huge rush and even Rome was not built in a day.

With the onset of spring, my thoughts have also drifted towards the upcoming hiking season. I still have a number of field work sessions that I need to complete, in particular my plan to locate the final pieces of the Gunflint & Lake Superior grade. I am scheduled to do this during the Victoria Day long weekend, which seems like a long-way away, but will be here before I know it. I do have a few others to complete, but this is the important one which will help my finalize details for the book. Hopefully the weather will cooperate and keep things fairly dry to let do what I need to do.

Anyway, I better get rolling. Lots of things to do. I’ll be back right before we leave for Europe with my final thoughts on the trip. Until then…

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2017 in History, Railway, Travel, Writing

 

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The Scary First Step…

Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages…oops, wrong blog! Or is it? Not very many people have gone into space, but most us have done what was described in the opening of Star Trek-venturing into the unknown. And while not quite on the same plane as space exploration, our personal journeys are no less imposing and challenging. As well, these personal experiences can generate just as much angst and stress. But we know that without these experiences, we would not grow and mature as people.

Hey, welcome to 2017 kids! It’s a new year, with new challenges and new opportunities. As usual, things are no less busy than they were in 2016. The school semester is winding down, so there are always a million things going on. Next week we will be into exams and soon thereafter we’ll start all over again with a new semester. Hopefully I’ll be able to manage all the stress without burning out too much.

One of the things that is keep me busy of late is planning our upcoming school trip to Europe. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I’ll be leading 23 students to the Netherlands, Belgium and France for the 100th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April. We’ve been planning this for nearly 3 years now and it’s hard to believe it’s almost here. I just received our flight information, which makes it all too real. Things are going to get a little crazier as we move closer to our date of departure. You can read more about the trip here.

Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, March 2014.

Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, March 2014.

I guess I would be remiss if I didn’t say something about the weather, which is one of my usual things to rant about. So how has the weather been Dave? Well, how about crazy as usual? It’s all over the place, ranging from low of -30C last week, to highs above 0 this week. Hey, I’m not complaining, but it makes it awfully difficult to get to use to things when there are thirty degree swings in temperature. No climate change huh?

In a break with what has been happening over the past few months, I have done a lot of work on the railway front recently. My goal for the new year was to begin writing my planned book on the Gunflint & Lake Superior Railroad. I’ve never written a book before; the closest I’ve ever come was my recent article on Leeblain for the Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society’s Papers and Records (which, by the way, is now available online). The whole idea is very scary and very intimidating. I am very much out of my element…research is definitely my forte.

Surprisingly, despite my fears, things have gone relatively well. In just over a week of writing, I’ve managed to complete about a chapter and a half. Now, this is not saying that I’m the next Ernest Hemingway and there are Pulitzer Prizes in my future. All I can do my best and hope it turns out well. I have a lot more to write, plus I still have some research and field work to complete. Then I have to convince someone, hopefully the TBHMS, to publish it. I’m not sure when I’ll be finished, but I already have another project lined up.

Speaking of the Gunflint & Lake Superior, I’ll have to take a break from my writing next week to deliver a lecture at the Thunder Bay Museum on this topic. It will be the Canadian debut of this presentation and there appears to be a number of people planning to attend. Hopefully it will generate interest in the book and facilitate its publication.

Anyway, I better go. It’s still early and I can get some more writing done. I’ll be back in a few weeks with all the latest news. Until then…

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2017 in History, Railway, Research, Writing

 

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How to shred your legs the easy way

Oh, did you come here looking for leg workout information? Ya, well you’re in the wrong place my friend. But you mentioned shredding your legs didn’t you? Yes I did, but you didn’t think I was being figurative did you? I was being quite literal; when I say shredding your legs, I mean precisely that. Say what Dave? Yup, I mean beat the crap of them until you can’t lift them, abuse them until you’re cramping up in agony shredding. Why the hell would anyone do that you ask? Well, you’ll need to keep reading to find out.

So here we are at the end of November; where did the month go? That means we’re less than a month away from Christmas…craziness! Before I know it ole’ St. Nick will be coming down the chimney with his bag full of gifts. Unfortunately there is still a ton of things that need to get done before that day, particularly with work. I still haven’t caught up on all my marking from football season and I know it will take a big push to ensure I don’t have too much to take home over the break.

Now speaking of Christmas, I think this year we’ll have a white one for sure. Last year it was in serious doubt, only saved by a few dumps within days of the big event. Our weather has once again been very bizarre. The first half of November was gorgeous, with temperatures many times in the double digits. It was so good, I decided to go on a hike along the railway in the middle of the month. The temperature reached 16C and I was soaked in sweat by the time I was done. Just ridiculous for November! However, it was not to last. That hike was on Sunday and by Friday we were on the receiving end of a winter storm. The temperature dropped in the next few days and it was -17C with the wind. Oh Mother Nature, you are a cruel mistress!

November 2016 Temperatures

November 2016 Temperatures

November 18, 2016

November 18, 2016

Well since I mentioned it, I guess I should talk a little about my recent hike along the railway. My railway work has been on the back burner lately, so I was really itching the do something. The weather was fantastic, and the fall had been fairly dry, so I thought why not give it a shot. I have a few areas that I’ve wanted to re-hike in the fall, when the leaves are down and it is much easier to see things. I picked the area around Hillside, which is located between Nolalu and Silver Mountain. Here the railway winds its way along the Beaver (Dam) Creek, crossing it 12 times. Because it’s not easy to get to, there are many remains of the bridges to be found.

My first visit to this area occurred back in that inaugural year of my research on the railway in 1994; I was absolutely stunned by all the remains of the bridges I found. Without Google and any decent maps, I had no idea that the railway had crossed the Beaver Creek 12 times in this 4km section. In some spots, there were just cut-off pilings left, while in one in particular, all the bridge lacked was the decking. I went back to this area in 1995 and then again in 2010. I really wanted to record what was left of those bridges in HD video.

The railway stop at Hillside (milepost 36) was located west of Nolalu, where the railway left the Whitefish River and then travelled along the Beaver or Beaver Dam Creek towards Silver Mountain. In my previous hikes, I had not been able to locate the grade between Highway 588 and the first bridge. With all the leaves down, I picked it up very quickly. South of the road it passes through a nice, but very grown in cutting which lasts almost right to the first crossing.

Cutting, November 2016.

Cutting, November 2016.

When I arrived at the first bridge, I was a little shocked at the damage that had been done to the grade by recent floods. In 2011, 2012 and 2015 the area was hit by some pretty heavy rainfalls, which had washed away sections of the grade and left piles of debris near the bridge sites. You could also see that the water had damaged some of the bridge remains. Despite this, the low water allowed me to get a close examination of the piles.

Bridge I, November 2016.

Bridge I, November 2016.

One hundred metres to the south past another cutting lies what was left of bridge two. These remains had not suffered the same washout damage as the previous bridge, leaving the crossing and piles in excellent shape. This was in great contrast with bridge three, located 250m to the southwest. All that remains of this crossing are a few small piles on the south side of the creek…definitely in the worst condition of the 12 bridges.

Bridge II, November 2016.

Bridge II, November 2016.

As I travelled the 120m from bridge 3 to bridge 4, I came across a neat piece of the railway that I had not seen before. The PAD&W made extensive use of wooden box culverts along the line, a few of which are still functioning. In this case, I came across a large hole that had opened in the middle of the right-of-way. It appears as though the water still flows through it reasonably well, and the western side looks like it is in decent shape.

Culvert, November 2016.

Culvert, November 2016.

Bridge four is another great set of remains, and it this case, the flooding on the creek help to remove debris and growth away from the piles. While they have deteriorated over time, these piles are much more visible than they have been in the past. Past this point, the grade winds it way 160m to the next crossing. Once again this section has suffered a lot from the changing course of the creek and there are a few badly eroded sections. From evidence found at the bridge sites, it must have been a problem back then too. There were spots where rocks had been dumped beside the abutments and at bends to prevent the water damaging the grade.

Bridge IV, November 2016.

Bridge IV, November 2016.

The benefits of visiting this area in the fall was quite evident at bridge five. I can remember a lot of the remains of the piles being obscured by brush and trees. This was not the case this time, with the all of the piles as well as some metal objects being totally visible in the creek. It is interesting to note that a few of the piles, but not all, have been cut off close to the waterline. I wonder why it was done and when?

Bridge V, November 2016.

Bridge V, November 2016.

Bridge six is actually visible from five, as the distance is a scant 40m through yet another cutting. The remains at six are again very good, although clogged with a bit of debris and the northern side has suffered some erosion. I can’t quite remember what this crossing once looked like, but I certainly remember something that I came across in great quantities there.

Bridge VI, November 2016.

Bridge VI, November 2016.

Back in 1994 I became acquainted with the Thorn Apple or Hawthorn tree and what an introduction it was. Sporting 1-3cm thorns, I learned to give them a wide berth, but that wasn’t always possible. They are literally the most painful things I’ve had to deal with in my explorations of the railway. How painful? Well, if 2010 is any indication, extremely painful. That year I had two run-ins with them. The first ironically occurred on my last hike at Hillside, when I didn’t duck enough and ended up with a 1/8” of thorn embedded in my head. Ouch! You think that’s bad, it gets much worse.

Thorn apple, November 2016.

Thorn apple, November 2016.

Weeks later while hiking at Silver Creek (east of Hymers), I somehow was gored by one in the lower calf. Not only was I only halfway through the hike, so I had to hobble back in excruciating pain, but it took weeks for the thorn to work its way out. Turns out I was carrying a ½” fragment and it was such a relief to have it out.

The distance to bridge seven was a bit longer at 190m, but it did pass through a very long and pretty cutting. Hiding beside the grade was a telegraph pole (that I last saw in 1994), which was resting against a barbed-wire clad fence post. What purpose a fence served in that area is unknown, but things were quite different back then. The crossing itself was in decent shape, though again suffering a bit from erosion.

Cutting, November 2016.

Cutting, November 2016.

Beyond this bridge is yet another nice cutting, again harbouring a telegraph pole. This one still had the cross member attached and at least one peg, but I could not find any wire or an insulator. Bridge eight was at one time one of the better-preserved remains in this area, but time has not been kind to it. On the northern side was a nice of piles (or bents) with the top beam still intact. They are all gone now, with just the stubs of the piles remaining. I have no doubt that the floods are mostly responsible for its demise; I can see debris accumulating against it and then finally giving way. Too bad.

Telegraph pole, November 2016.

Telegraph pole, November 2016.

Bridge VIII, July 1995.

Bridge VIII, July 1995.

Bridge VIII, November 2016.

Bridge VIII, November 2016.

The line again passed through a pretty cutting as it travels the scant 40m to bridge nine. The remains here appear to be in decent shape, but it’s clear that the creek has shifted its course substantially. Here you can see more stonework and a scattering of metal objects such as tie plates. South of this crossing, the grade is badly eroded in several spots as it travels the 270m to the next bridge, though I did find a very long strand of telegraph wire.

Bridge IX, November 2016.

Bridge IX, November 2016.

When I first saw bridge ten in 1994, I was in complete awe. This was the bridge I mentioned earlier that was almost completely preserved, just lacking the decking between the abutments. There appeared to be one central set of piles or bents and it was in excellent shape. The reason for its longevity would seem to be the fact that it was located not on the creek, but rather over a seasonal stream that flows down from the ridge above and empties into the creek.

Bridge X, July 1995.

Bridge X, July 1995.

Sadly, bridge ten’s days are numbered. In the past 22 years, both diagonal cross members on the central piles have fallen off and the top beam is badly rotted. The northern abutment has been completely engulfed a large tree, while the southern one is hanging on. I’m glad that I’ve been to document it on several occasions and hopefully it will serve as a great historical record of the railway.

Bridge X, November 2016.

Bridge X, November 2016.

Bridge X, November 2016.

Bridge X, November 2016.

Bridge eleven and twelve are almost equaled spaced apart by nice cuttings, sitting 110m and 120m from the previous bridge respectively. Both are in good shape, though somewhat clogged with debris from the creek. Maybe due to the more remote location, the grade and bridges here have had less human interference over the year (it’s hard to believe that it’s 78 years since it last saw a train).

Bridge XI, November 2016.

Bridge XI, November 2016.

Bridge XII, November 2016.

Bridge XII, November 2016.

As I worked my way back, I could feel my legs beginning to tighten up. By that evening, I was in total agony. It had been a while since my last hike, so I was not in the shape I should have been. My hamstrings and adductors were cramping something fierce, to the point where I could not straighten them and were causing my legs to spasm. No pain, no gain right? In any case, you can view the 2010 footage from Hillside here, as well as the six-part 2016 footage here.

So now that hiking is done for the year, I can turn my attention back to research. My plan in the near future is to start writing parts of my planned book on the Gunflint & Lake Superior Railroad. I am very nervous, since my forte is decidedly research rather than writing. I guess we all have to face our fears and take the plunge at some point, so here’s hoping that it goes reasonably well.

Anyway, I need to move along. As usual there is a million things to get done. I’ll be back soon enough with the latest updates and dumb commentary. Until then…

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2016 in Hiking, History, Railway

 

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Long walks and battle scars!

No, I didn’t walk 500 miles, but I did wear boots…rubber boots that is. I did walk like a man, but definitely not like an Egyptian. It was very hot outside, so I may have well been walking on the sun. It wasn’t after midnight, and I definitely did not walk in a line. See what I’m doing here? Do ya? I know you do.

I’m back kids! I’m sounding a little chipper right now, but if you’ve looked at a calendar lately you’ll know that this isn’t a great time of the year. Yup, it’s almost time to go back to work. Sigh. We can’t stop time, so it is inevitable that the end of August comes around. I’ve already started back into parts of the routine; going in to work, prepping for football, getting materials ready, yada, yada, yada. I’m exhausted after two days and I’m not even officially back…it’s going to be a rough start-up.

I just returned from a family vacation the other day and I’m still in that “I need a vacation from the vacation mode,” which might explain why I feel tired. Jo-Anne and I took the boys to Minneapolis and Wisconsin Dells. In Minnie we made our first visit to Valleyfair, which was great, but not quite the same as Wonderland. The boys enjoyed all the attractions, especially the coasters; dad, not so much.

The second part of the trip took us to the The Dells for the first time. The “Water Park Capital” certainly has a lot of waterparks. We got our fill of water rides, coasters and go carts. The boys’ favourite spot was definitely the wave pool at Mount Olympus called “Poseidon’s Rage.” Every two minutes a gigantic wave comes rolling through the pool; we positioned ourselves at the 3 foot level where the wave would break, pummel us with water and send us flying backward. We spent hours in there and I may have left with a slight concussion.

So since I was away for a bit, I haven’t had railway time lately. However, I did manage to get some in before our trip south of the border. If you remember, I had a presentation scheduled at the Chik-Wauk Museum for August 14th. This was going to be my first full-length lecture on the Gunflint & Lake Superior Railroad, so I was pretty excited. It went well, but the turn out was a bit disappointing. Unfortunately there were several other events coinciding with it that contributed to the lack of bodies in the seats. The good news is that I’m going to be back there next summer with the same presentation and hopefully a bigger audience.

Because I had to go there for the presentation, I decided that I would take the opportunity to do some field work at Gunflint. I booked a night with John and Rose at the Cross River Lodge so we could hike the next day before heading home. What would be different for this hike was the fact that I had a larger entourage; in addition to the boys, my wife joined us as well (with a lot of prodding). I was hopefully going to trace the route of the G&LS along the north shore of Crab Lake, if luck was on my side.

After a nice ride across the lake, we beached the boat south of Bridal Falls. From there we walked to the top of the falls, about 700 metres, which was made a little more difficult by a number of trees knocked down on the trail by recent storms. There we split up, with Jo-Anne and the boys continuing east along the Border Route Trail for 1500 metres to where it intersects with the Crab Lake Trail. They would then take the latter trail south for 900 metres and await my arrival.

In the meantime, I would follow parts of the railroad grade south for 800 metres until I reached Crab Lake. From there, the meeting point at the east end of the lake was more than a kilometre away, the temperature was climbing and there was not a stitch of wind. I had no idea how difficult the walk would be and what the bush looked like.

Turns out, it was quite the mess. The last time I walked the railroad grade in the summer it nearly killed me (not literally)…this time was pretty close. The tall grass made it very difficult to see where you were stepping and there was a lot to trip over. The area was burned by the 2007 Ham Lake Fire and there was already a ton of deadfall on ground. Recent storms pushed many dead, burned trees over, making some areas a nightmare to negotiate.

Thankfully I had success in my goal of following the grade. I did find several spikes and one fishplate along the way, as well as a few examples of rock work beside the lake. There were a few spots where I could not find any traces, but in general I was able to get the route down. I did cut the hike a bit short at the east end of the lake as I was completely exhausted and I could literally feel my hamstrings tightening up on me (walking over all the deadfall tends to do that). I’ll have to try and get that part done at some other time, maybe next year.

Railroad grade along Crab Lake, August 2016.

Railroad grade along Crab Lake, August 2016.

Spike at Crab Lake, August 2016.

Spike at Crab Lake, August 2016.

Railroad grade along Crab Lake, August 2016.

Railroad grade along Crab Lake, August 2016.

Fishplate at Crab Lake, August 2016.

Fishplate at Crab Lake, August 2016.

Railroad grade along Crab Lake, August 2016.

Railroad grade along Crab Lake, August 2016.

Railroad grade along Crab Lake, August 2016.

Railroad grade along Crab Lake, August 2016.

I had kept in radio contact with the family the entire way, so they were waiting for me when I was done. At our reunion, I was greeted by the sight of my wife with a large, bloody gash on her forehead. Apparently she had an unfortunate encounter with a dead tree branch, earning herself a nice cut, or better yet, a “battlescar.” Hey, did I mention that battlescar was my nickname when I was in the army reserves? Obviously a play on my last name, I thought it was an appropriate term for her boo boo.

Hiking injury, August 2016.

Hiking injury, August 2016.

The walk back was tough as we battled through the stifling 31C heat. However it was compensated by the beautiful panorama that we passed beside on the trail. It would be great to visit that spot in the fall as the leaves changed colour; I’ll have to keep this in mind for the future. It was a very productive hike and I am excited to get back to Gunflint in October for another round of field work.

Panorama of Gunflint and North Lakes, August 2016.

Panorama of Gunflint and North Lakes, August 2016.

My next big event to look forward to is the Northern Great Plains History Coneference in St. Cloud, MN on September 17th. I think I’m ready, but my brain so isn’t there right now…too much school stuff to think about. I am sure I’ll be good to go when the time comes, but it all adds to my anxiety. It is going to be a quick trip as well; I leave after school on Friday for the six hour drive to St. Cloud. Hopefully I don’t get in too late, because the presentation is at 9am (cst) after which I need to head back home. What a whirlwind visit!

Anyway, I better go. Way to many things to do right now. I’ll be back in the near future, probably after the trip to St. Cloud. Until then…

 
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Posted by on August 30, 2016 in Hiking, History, Railway, Travel

 

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The Final Countdown

You and I know exactly what you’re doing right now…there’s no use denying it. As you’re reading this, the opening bars to the song by the Swedish band Europe are coursing through your head. Yes, no, maybe? Not a rocker? Could you be thinking about F-14 Tomcats screaming through the sky in the 1980 movie starring a grizzled Kirk Douglas and the USS Nimitz? No? Okay, I guess you’re stumped then. You’ll just have to read on…

So here we are in a new year, 2016. It’s hard to believe that Christmas was a month ago; time continues to whip by. The passing of the holiday season also marked another birthday for me…I’m officially one year older. In my mind I don’t really feel 42, but I’m starting to wonder about my body. It feels as if I’m falling apart at times. I know I’ve written about it before, but it’s as if it’s gotten worse. Aches and pains, a nagging tennis elbow…I’m wondering what else will “break” in the near future.

With January rapidly coming to an end, it means that the current school semester has almost run its course. That, as you should be well aware, brings with it some great news. When this school semester is done, so am I! Words cannot express how excited I am to be on sabbatical until next September. I have a lot planned, both on my own and with my family. My goal is to make each day count as I probably won’t have an opportunity to do this again.

Since I brought up my sabbatical, I guess I should talk about a little about what I’ll be doing while I’m off work. My whole intention when I took this leave was to spend most of it working on railway stuff. I do have a few other things on the agenda, such as a nice cruise with my family, but the majority of my time will be dedicated to that pursuit. I have had to modify some of my plans, particularly scrapping a trip to Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, but that’s the way things go.

Well, what exactly will you be doing Dave? Now that you asked, there’s quite a number of things on my list, but I’ll stick to stuff in the immediate future. Since February is pretty booked up with a football clinic in Minneapolis, a football tackling clinic and our cruise, I’m mostly focused on research. I’ll be visiting the Lakehead University Archives, the Thunder Bay Museum and the Thunder Bay Public Library.

I also have a whole bunch of organizing to do, as there’s a pile of copies that need to be filed in their appropriate folder. I’ve managed to get a little investigating in over the last month and that has led to quite a bit of new information accumulating. If you missed it, I also managed to get a few new videos up on YouTube, the first in more than a year. You can check them out here and here.

To be filed, January 2016.

To be filed, January 2016.

At some point next month I’ll begin work on a project that has been kicking around for a few years. Back in 2014 I was contacted by a professor at Minnesota State University who was interested in the life of John Paulson, the mysterious man behind the iron mine near Gunflint Lake. We spoke about possibly doing a paper, and that has also morphed into a presentation at the Northern Great Plains History Conference in St. Cloud, MN in September. I’m not sure how that’s going to work, since the conference is smack in the middle of my busiest time of the year; I’ll have to do some creative maneuvering for sure.

Anyway, I should wrap things up. For the record, the final countdown is 7 days folks! I’ll be back soon enough with more news. Until then…

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2016 in History, Railway, Research, Writing

 

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