In the canyon of the Agawa, I wish the conductor a comfortable ride north, but he shrugs it aside. He is circumspect regarding my lack of a compass or suitable timetable, my headlong hike into the ragged outback of this stunning October day.
The diesel train pulls away, bound for Hawk Junction, Franz, Oba and Hearst. Soon I am immersed in a sea change of blurred colours. Footsteps select out the littoral, then the lateral: patterns of a water course, intersecting villages of plant life, subtle traces of insects. Splendid hardwoods of sugar maple and yellow birch scout at the very edges of their northern range, experimenting with every nuance of the colour spectrum. It is my choice to flirt with the unknowable, to court this spirit world. There is no easy trail of bread crumbs to follow, only this tangled yarn.
When the engineer pulls on the whistle up front, the sound fills the hollows and the canyons. Within that call, great distances are spanned, alerting any listener to pay heed to its location. More than one lost soul has been summoned from the wild to flag an approaching train. So it was that I reset my course through the falling crimson, back to the steel and the certainty it might offer.
I chanced upon a rough shanty, two benches beneath a sheltering roof; a familiar wayside along this Algoma Central Railway, an architectural invitation to pause and wait for a train. The soft pine boards retain the imprints of previous occupants, their initials and occasional sentiments fixed upon wood, within the rings of time. The mind rotates while waiting, but the ears remain alert, if only to differentiate the rumble of the cosmos from the racket of rolling stock…
Eventually there is a presentation, a plaintive whistle or two. I began by waving the flag that was provided, signaling my intent. The green and white banner proclaims no stationary allegiance, no anthem or patriotic vitriol, rather it unfurls for a moveable allegiance. Back and forth the twin colours snap, white and green, contrasting the usual co-dominants of this landscape, snow or foliage, depending on the season. Today however, a tangerine curtain of maple-scape audiences the locomotives of the engineer. This would-be rider hearkens to a measured response: two short/one long. You have now been identified as a potential passenger. This train will pause for you. Many breaking wheels and several hundred tons grudgingly halt in the vicinity of your shelter, there to board one pack sack and its porter.
My jaw goes slack. I try to shake the scene, but a shimmering apparition persists. An iron horse is puffing smoke! Some kind of retro steam locomotive slows to the milepost in my midst, perhaps a tourist ruse posing for the more familiar diesel. There can be no other logical explanation, since the last engine powered by steam left the ACR tracks in 1953. The baggage doors are open wide so there is no need for the conductor to drop the step. I grab ahold of the handrail and hoist myself all aboard this rusticatedGeisterzug. A rumpled 1922 timetable is tacked to the wall for all to see. And so it begins, slipstream chugging, out of time, out of mind.
No sooner are we under steam, when we slow again, coming to a stop, taking on another passenger, dressed in buckskins and moccasins. “Hey Tawab!” the conductor calls out in the familiar, but I know him by another name. He walks right past me, nodding only slightly. Does he sense our distance in time? Do we share a mutual regard? If I could speak to him, I would say that few of us are what we seem, that all of us have a deeper purpose.
We take on water near Achigan Lake and I scramble in between the coaches for a closer look. My temptation is to disembark, to see if I can recognize the lay of the land, the timber of tomorrow. One step off however and the coaches lurch forward. The train and the tracks seem to disappear behind a veil of steam and smoke. Even the rail bed vanishes, coupled with the last distant belts from the locomotive. Only faint traces of a trail remain. But someone else has gotten off on the other side. It is Tawabinisay…
I try to square the man before me, with the character portrayed in history.
A census recorded of the Agawa Band presumes his birthdate to be near the middle of the 19th century. Tawabinisay survived with his family, near the HBC Post at the river mouth, during the great winter famine of 1879. Later, he helped to select the rail path chosen by the ACR, in the first decade of the 20th century. His name is spelled or interpreted in a dozen different ways, as numerous as the legends we now associate with him. It is said that Tawab could run great distances through the bush, like a deer, carrying 150 pounds of gear. And that while guiding for the Bussineau family at Burnt Rock Pool, he hiked or paddled the forty miles to Batchawana for the birth of his child, returning the next morning. Snapshots taken of him in the 1930s show a vibrant individual, still living on the land.
In 1903, Stewart Edward White, in his book “The Forest”, describes a Native guide that leads his expedition up the Agawa to Kawagama, the lake of the crescent moon. White infuses Tawabinisay, the “Man who walks by moonlight”, with a shamanic ability to read the land, find the fish, and disappear without a trace…
He stood alone, framed against the forest, looking past me. I turned to see what it was he saw. A century ago the blue water and sky were still tuned to the changing winds. The mergansers and kingfishers moved along the shore in much the same way. The loons called to each other in a language I recognized but would never totally comprehend. Living for several decades, each pair may be intrinsic to this lake, genetically and geographically linked over just a few generations to the present day.
It was a thought I felt I wanted to share with Tawabinisay. I looked back at him, hoping he might be lost in the same reverie, but was nowhere to be seen. There was a dryness in my throat. Tawab was my last known fixed position. Now that anchor was drawn and I drifted aimless along the shore.
Cool mossy waters in a weathered cedar crib betrayed the presence of an artesian spring. I reached out for a dipper nearby, that had been fashioned from birch bark. A few beads of water remained in the cup. Could it be possible that Tawab was still close by? The darkness was coming on and I moved towards a thicket on the lower shore. Cached in among the gale and leather leaf was a small bark canoe barely visible among the stems. Upon turning it, I noticed a single paddle carved from black spruce. My knees hugged the bottom of the canoe as I steadied my frame with each paddle stroke. When the full moonlight reached out from behind the opposite shore, I could detect the presence of another paddler just ahead of me. I followed in his wake, mirroring his movements.
S.E. White writes about the birch canoe: “Far below you, gliding, silent, ghostlike, the bottom slips beneath…the silence is sacred…An inadvertent click of the paddle is a profanation. The only creatures in all God’s world possessing the right to utter aloud a single syllable are the loon, far away, and the winter wren, close at hand”.
Tawabinisay took his canoe onshore near the falls on the lower lake. I thought I knew where he might be headed on this auspicious night. Portaging seven ponds, we could reach the trout filled lake that today bears his name. Some traverses were only minutes long, others more tedious but together they linked in narrow sinews, a beautiful necklace of blue pearls. I knew the way as if by heart, having passed it with my mentor August Stam, some decades later. I followed Tawabinisay on this predictable pathway, though he must have had other names for these ponds and streams.
I watched as he paused along a gravel shoal and crept to its edge. Slowly he slipped his hand underneath a grey trout that spawned there, as it was the season. His silhouette shown in the gathering moonlight, as he lifted the gift up. Tawab reached into a leather pouch and sprinkled an offering. I heard him speak for the first time. It was a prayer beyond the tallest white pine, but within the shadow of the moon.
As the night was warm he then stopped near some muskeg to gather the sphagnum that would preserve his catch. This bog retained the coolness of the departed glaciers, locked in its feather mosses. A sponge of green fabric heaved slightly under my step as I moved with Tawabinisay back to our canoes. In between the moonbeams I detected a mutual regard and that same generous smile I had read about.
White tells us “Tawabinisay has a delightful grin which he displays when pleased or good humoured or puzzled or interested or comprehending. If he likes you…he tries to teach you, to show you things. But he never offers to do any part of your work…”
Together we drew our canoes up a high grade along the shores of Hawk Lake, near the twin blazes on an old yellow birch. It is here, where some years later, August constructs his outpost cabin. The cedars nearby would add several more ring layers, before the woodsman’s dovetailing and shake riving began in earnest.
Then came Wolfe Lake scattered with its many islands and promontories. As the bluish waters wet our paddles, a lunar tint spirited us to a final portage.
The lake we now call Twab was his obvious destination. When seen from above, this kettle lake looks like an animal totem in profile, with a pair of islands, two eyes gazing outward. When seen from the water, those same islands shelter a bay where a small round lodge stood. Bent alder branches were tied and covered with cedar bark. Together we acknowledged the sacred directions. Tawabinisay smudged with sweetgrass, then stood back, as I untied the leather straps that bound the small doorway. Inside, I felt around for the soft balsam and cedar that lent medicinal dimension to the dreams that would surely follow.
Once inside the lodge, a distant memory is conjured, then melts away. In time, Tawabinisay would paddle back to his own place and I, to mine. Upon the leaf mold of ten thousand autumns, may we shape another layer of intention, another way of seeing…
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