DE BIG-SHOT TRAIN: A Northern Love Affair with Algoma Central Country
A Rough and Ribald Story of a Lifetime in the Bush ~ Robert Cuerrier
OLD MAC BOUGHT A CAMP
Old Mac was just heading to retirement age when he called me, wanting to buy a camp. He was the most unlikely client I’d ever had. Mac was an industrial chemist who’d rarely stepped off pavement, had never hunted, fished, or ever been in the bush. I didn’t want to bother showing him a cabin, but he insisted and would pay for my time. We went, and I got his story.
When I met him he was the shipworn sack of sticks I’d expected, a man with a hang dog look whose life had treated him rough. It looked like his time had run out.
His wife had been permanently hospitalized years before and, living in the U.S., Mac had to pay the medical bills as well as raise his three sons. Because of this, he watched his Detroit neighbourhood devolve into crime and drugs and was unable to follow the fifties exodus to the suburbs. To get around safely, he got a mean, ugly pit bull that dragged him around chained to his waist.
The dog developed an immediate, menacing, hatred for me. In the boat crossing the lakes it strained on the end of its chain while standing on its hind legs, foaming at the mouth, snarling, wanting to kill me. Once we got into the cabin we reached an uneasy truce, but I knew where the shotgun was and had spirited a few shells into my pocket.
Of course that night it didn’t surprise me that Old Mac let the dog share his bed. In the middle of the night they had a misunderstanding. It seemed the dog was crowding the old man, and he was giving it hell. This was a fight they’d obviously had before. The dog snarled and growled until Mac found his lost decorum, cowered, and let it alone.
There had been a freeze up while we were there, and we were going to have to walk out. It was too cold for the short-haired dog, and he tried to turn us back just outside of the camp by jumping up in front of Mac, levitating in the air, and barking his displeasure. I was proud of the old man when he found the courage to boot it several times in the guts to settle it down.
I was leading the way and tried to unobtrusively step through every skiff of ice on the puddles, knowing that the dog’s paws would ice up and the son of a bitch would be miserable.
Mac bought the camp, sold his house in Detroit, and moved in full time. He got lucky, and the dog died. His successor was much more pleasant.
At first I tried to introduce him to bush hobbies but quickly gave up. He was doing just what he wanted which was not much. He’d come over to my cabin in the spring to watch me make maple syrup and for dinners time to time. He read a little, made firewood, kept a micro garden, listened to CBC Radio Canada, and, most interestingly, learned to knit the most complex patterns on four needles.
Mac was generally self-contained, and you could just see the years rolling off him. Even his wrinkles rearranged themselves into a happier looking countenance. He lived in his cabin on Spruce Lake, Mile 72, for about twenty-five years until his death around the turn of the century.
Back in ’73 I bought a camp with my buddy, Brian, on Norris Lake, Mile 237 on the track. It sounded all right, and the fellow working in the ACR Lands and Forests who knew all the camps on the line agreed, and so we went ahead without ever having seen it.
We decided to have a look at it and the country up there so we packed up some grub with enough beer and jumped on the train. Norris Lake is so far up the line that the height of land is crossed and the drainage flows into Hudson’s Bay. The topography and the bush changes too. This is the boreal forest, flat and covered in evergreen, poplar, and scrawny white birch. The whole landscape seemingly floats on muskeg and is prime for mosquito breeding.
Well, it was August and having worked in the bush all summer I was pretty inured to bugs and hadn’t even been using fly dope in the last while. We sure got a surprise getting off that train and walking into clouds of mosquitoes even though it wasn’t particularly buggy weather. We ran into the shack laughing, slammed the door behind us, rooted for, found and lit a couple of coils of Pic. We flipped coins to see who would run down to the lake for water. Never seen anything like it.
The next morning we watched for the train out the window. You could see its headlight from a couple of miles away…the land was so flat. We waited for the last minutes before leaving the shack, flagged it down, got on board, and never looked back. The camp was back on the market.
A couple of prospects went up, but there were no offers. By late September the railway called. A couple of Cree families were coming down to Norris to hunt trap and fish for the fall and wanted to set up camp in our front yard which was likely one of the few good sites in that bog.
Of course we said yes, thinking that that whole damned country up there should be ceded back to the Indians if they wanted it because we sure didn’t. My other motive was to go up there and kind of impose myself- see if they would let me work and live with them for a while –hell, I was even willing to walk the Red Road and forgo beer.
Things happened so fast that I never did go. We had sent up another prospect, and they bought the camp right away after seeing moose hung up, fish being cured, and hides stretched out on drying boards, tents and an outdoor cookery set up. It was like the turn of the century, reminiscent of an ebbing lifestyle.
The camp had been effectively merchandised for a quick sale, and I have always regretted the lost opportunity to live on the land with a peoples so closely connected to it.