(feature image: Original sketch from an ACR surveyor field notes by S.B. Johnson, 1901. Character overlay by Leslie Anne Cochran, 2006)
August bid me farewell at the flag stop.
“Don’t blink when you pass through the Canyon, Yeff,” he cautioned. “You might end up in Hearst!”
Old Gus took the mail pouch from the baggage handler and I offered a brief salutation from the tip of my brow. By this time I was used to his remonstrations, as they usually found their mark.
The Algoma Central passenger train began firing up towards its true purpose, another northern tour, this time along a track resplendent with the improbable colours of early October. My own true purpose was necessarily more vague. In my hand was the sketch of early ACR topographer, S.B. Johnson. His delicate pencil drawing, “Entrance to the Agawa River Canyon, Feb’y. 27, 1901″ will mark my point of departure from today’s train. The fortuitous path of his survey crew selected out a portal between the steep canyon walls. Today I intend to scramble over those same ledges, find my own footing or become hopelessly lost.
I moved to the very back of the small train, wanting to see where I’d been, counting the mileposts as we climb past Achigan, Ogidaki, Mekatina, Mongoose, Regent, Montreal Falls, and Frater. The named- railway section houses reflected the Native, French and English ancestors of a not too distant past. In the wee distance, the steel rails seemed to narrow to a single track. Blinking back at the parallax, I began to hum old Anon’s smoky refrain:
“More than cross ties in the railroad
Or the stars in the sky”
Maybe not infinity but it’s getting there and so was I, retracing my steps to find a vacant seat.
As the checkered mixed woods of the south blend into the boreal, I was soon falling into a dream rhythm of the lullaby rail…
A toy train plies its way through a long tunnel vision of balsam and pine, single spruce and double spruce. The cedar boughs at every turn.
Braking on our long descent towards the mighty Agawa, I’m half awake and twice displaced. Glancing about the baggage car provides some hints: there are several spilling mailbags, vintage fishing creels and chestnut canoes, an artist’s easel and paints, undifferentiated crates and weathered packs. The usual characters are here too; three gents play cards and another, dressed in faded mackinaw and slouch hat, gazes out the open door. A conductor in full uniform approaches for my ticket, though I must admit that I am sadly lacking and therefore must purchase the passage.
“Well then, that’d be forty cents, each way.”
Incredulous at the going rate, I instinctively reach into my pocket for change, the one without the holes. To my astonishment it’s all real silver and large cents! A quick inventory of my cupped hand reveals the details. All the dates precede 1920. A few of them show the serene profile of Queen Victoria or the more severe expressions of her long departed sons, Edward VII and George V.
As the conductor counts out the coins, I get a better look at his dated hat brim: ‘The Algoma Central and Hudson’s Bay Railway’. I resist twin urges to ask him outright: “What year is this?” or “How did we get here?”
Fumbling instead with a few giant cents to close the deal, I venture an observation: “Sure don’t mind giving the old King his due, but where is the maple leaf or the beaver?” I’m betting that we’re some years ahead of Canadian content laws.
“You’ll see lots that where you’re goin’, chum, if that’s what you’re really looking for,” a card player chips in. The old boys at the table briefly turn their wagers on me and my out-of-sync attire. “Dressed like a dandy, I doubt he’ll see anything but his shadow, if that.”
I move alongside the man standing in the open doorway, hoping to gain some clues from the scenery passing by, but that too has altered. There are cabins to be seen, but they’re all styled of logs. Smoke drifts up from a stone chimney, on this warming autumn day. A few cedar bark wigwams hug the shores of the smaller ponds. The hills are thick with white pine punctuating through the bright maple, with a super canopy extravagance. Up front the locomotive throws back a plume of steam and smoke. The next jolt to the wagon sends some gear skittering across the floor. The man next to me reaches down to steady his kit, the brushes and paint I had noticed before.
“Have you been doing some painting up here?” I ask, without really thinking it through. It was then that I caught a glimpse of him, under that fedora. I saw a face I’d seen before, in grainy black and white.
“We’ve been off on the sidings a few times, bivouacked up at the canyon and later below the falls of the Agawa”.
It was A. Y. Jackson, who painted Algoma in 1919 and again in the early 20’s.
“We’re blending this landscape into paint, trying to stir things up a bit down south,” A.Y. said, with a conspiratorial grin.
A passing rectangle of scenery flickered by us, a moveable gallery of orange, pine-green and crimson. Together we took in that flexible canvassing of pure landscape pleasure, framed neatly, by an open boxcar door.
A.Y. then turned to ask me straight forward, “So what are your intentions up here?”
Imperfectly, I related my philosophy:
“At the outset travel light, without a compass, rarely looking back until lost in the bush, then keep movin’, follow the sound of the train back out to the steel. Been a practice of mine from time to time to become immersed, following plants or animal tracks then write about the detachment. It’s a way of letting nature triumph over the human and technological elements”.
I was sure Jackson would think me naive for such a bizarre pastime. Instead, he jumped in.
“That’s what some us are doing with the paints. We’re letting the landscape overpower us, see what happens when you let nature call the shot. The days of ‘man the manipulator’ are in fast retreat and so they should be. Seven of us rented a boxcar up here for a month or so. They shunt us off from siding to section house as their timetable permits.”
I pinched my earlobe trying hard to awaken while A.Y. spoke, but the sequence continued on without interruption. From our vantage, the scenery blurred and I remembered Johnston’s “Approaching Storm, Algoma”, also MacDonald’s “Solemn Lands”. Was it here, in a sliding, lurching freight car, where they first chanced upon their stunning visual insights?
I bid A.Y. adieu, then moved back towards my coach. There is always that shifting uncertainty under your boots when moving between the train cars. The threshold breaks apart then reassembles, as you open the coach door, entering another scene.
The next car was nearly full, unlike the trains of today or should I say tomorrow. I thought I recognized Varley and Harris. They were engaged in active dialog, each talking over the top of the other. Across from them sat R.J. Carmichael and Arthur Lismer, also of the Group of Seven, staring out at the vivid colours racing by at twenty miles per hour.
Behind them was a Native elder that I took to be Tawabinisay. Clustered about him, were the fisherman he had guided. Their elevated voices speculated on the total poundage of their catch. Tawab stared right through me even though I nodded in an attempt to catch his drift. His was a story I had read about in some detail; how he had paced out the trails before the steel had arrived. According to the author, Stewart Edward White, Tawabinisay was the most natural man he had ever met, perfectly suited to his surroundings. He was the “man-who-walks-by-moonlight”, his legend preceded and followed him onto the portage trails. Today however, Tawab too rode this train.
I took a seat and let myself go, prepared to carry on again, to the wild rhythm of the steel rail…
To read more by Jeff Hinich check out his website: www.wakingwiththoreau.com
*January 26th, 2015, 4:30 pm. Please support the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Train at the Sault City Council meeting. Council will be asked to vote on a resolution to petition the Federal government for continued investment along the ACR.
*February 4th, 2015, 1:30 pm. The Community is welcome to view the screening of the documentary film‘Detailed: The National Dream’ by local filmmaker Dan Nystedt at the Seniors Citizen Drop In Center at 619 Bay Street- main hall.
For further information contact:
Linda Savory Gordon I 705.949.2301 • firstname.lastname@example.org