OUT OF A RUT Sep 2000, Charles Pachter- Globe & Mail
The day after the sad news of Trudeau’s passing began bombarding the media, I boarded an Air Ontario Dash 8 and flew over Manitoulin Island and up to Sault Ste Marie. I needed to get to an undiscovered region of Canada to cheer me up.
Weary from the usual round of social obligations that crop up in the city in the fall, I was glad to have accepted an invitation from Gord and Lynn Dee Eason to come up to Wawa, Ontario (an ll-hour drive north of Toronto on the northeastern shore of Lake Superior) for a tour of their town and the surrounding wilderness areas.
This past summer I’d gotten a call out of the blue from Lynn Dee asking if she and her family could come visit the Moose Factory gallery in Chinatown where I keep my finished art works. She explained that being from Wawa, they’d had some difficulty locating me, but here they were, and could they drop by. She showed up with her husband Gord, a moose biologist with the Ministry of Natural Resources in the Algoma district, their two kids, an aunt and a nephew. Much to my surprise they fell in love with a painting I’d recently finished called “Moose Crossing-Gros Morne” that had resulted from a trip I’d made to Newfoundland a couple of years ago. After some intense whispered consultations between each other, Lynn Dee and Gord ended up buying the painting. I was delighted, as no one I could think of that far north of Toronto had ever sought me out, let alone sprung for a painting. I was touched by their warmth and enthusiasm. When could I come up to Wawa for a possible encounter with a real moose, they asked.
We agreed to the weekend of September 29 , 30 and October 1. This was the height of the moose rutting season which I was obviously curious to see after painting the animal for nearly thirty years. The day before , I’d heard about Trudeau’s death. All during the flight north I thought about the night I met Pierre Elliott Trudeau at a small dinner party in Montreal in October, 1988. The other guests were having a heated discussion about the Meech Lake Accord. As I slowly sipped a very good wine, I suddenly found myself asking Trudeau what had become of my flag painting that the Liberals had given him on his retirement in 1984. He looked straight at me, and said ” Would you like to see it?” “Sure”, I said glibly, not thinking anything of it. “Then come with me!”, he said, getting up from the table as the other guests looked at us, astonished. I followed him dutifully out the door into the street. We walked over to his famous Art Deco house on the hill just around the corner from the dinner party. We went in, descended a grand staircase, and there was my Painted Flag hanging over the entrance to his library. He told me how much it meant to him. He said, “You’re the artist, so you have a right to know where your painting is hanging. “ I was amazed at this kindness. He then gave me a personal tour of the
house. Overwhelmed, I thanked him sincerely. As we walked back to the party, I thought to myself, what a generous gesture, and what a class act. I never forgot it.
The plane’s steep descent shook me out of my reverie as it came down over a vast expanse of blue water and rocky shore. Gord was waiting for me at the tidy little Sault Ste Marie airport. Off we sped north on Highway 17, a spotless silver grey ribbon of Trans Canada asphalt hemmed on our right side by day-glo orange and fiery red maples, and cool deep green pines jabbing the bluest skies. On the left side, to the west stretching to infinity, the enormous wind-whipped “freshwater sea”, Lake Superior. Already my eyes were grateful.
Gord’s pride in this wild part of the country was evident at every turn. He stopped the car near Sand River, led me to a bridge where we looked down at hundreds of chinook salmon swimming upstream in clear amber water barely a foot deep.
Several kilometres ahead, inside Lake Superior Provincial Park, I followed him carefully down a forest path strewn with huge boulders, surrounded by high dark rock cliff walls. Suddenly we emerged into the blinding light and crashing waves at the lake’s edge. We crept along a slippery rock shelf beside the roiling water. Beneath a soaring wall of granite we came face to face with a panorama of red ochre Ojibwa pictographs of canoes, serpents, fish, horses and riders, and an assortment of
phantasmagorical creatures. I took several deep breaths as I tried to take in all these sensory stimuli at once. But there was more. Bone white sand dunes, lacy waterfalls, rumbling rapids. Each stop brought one natural high after another. Gord obviously knew where all the best stuff was. Back in the car we continued on up the road and soon passed the infamous Wawa Goose, a hokey giant sculpture plunked down at the town turnoff to commemorate the completion of this part of the Trans Canada highway in 1960. We arrived at the Easons’ comfortable house where Gord showed me an inky green splotch on their front lawn which he identified as bear
poo, and an Inukshuk-like pile of moose antlers he’d constructed in their backyard. Last year they had built a fence around the property in order to raise two orphaned female moose, Maggie & May, whose mother had been killed by a bear. Lynn Dee later told me one of them trotted right through their patio door screen to help herself to some cereal on the the kitchen counter.
This big-sky clean-air high was getting to me. I was feeling giddy with freedom. But
the best was yet to come. After a cosy family dinner, Lynn Dee drove me down to Michipicoten Harbour where she said the local nonconformists lived. We joined a group of artists and friends who were gathered in the spacious lounge of a former lodge of kayaker and provisioner David Wells on an isolated peninsula to look at each others’ new work and ooh and aah over slides of majestic wilderness bays some had taken around Pukaskwa National Park, which I learned was pronounced “puckasaw”. From outside the sound of driving wind and roaring waves invaded the darkened room. David, our genial host and former Torontonian led us all outside onto a promontory where the laser white spot from a distant lighthouse blinked intermittently. We all pranced around in the dark leaning into the wind and laughing.
The next day the Eason family with this more relaxed guest piled into the Chevy for a stomach churning ride through a pitted forest dirt road to Frater, a whistle stop on The Algoma Central Railroad. Here we were greeted by a friendly family who had renovated the one house remaining beside the rail line, and proudly showed off an enormous set of interlocked moose antlers and skulls they had laboriously cleaned and bleached. They explained how their dogs led them to the rotting carcasses in the woods. Apparently two bull moose had locked antlers and couldn’t extricate themselves. Their bodies were eventually devoured by wolves and bears, picked at by ospreys, and later finished off by maggots. Quelle histoire! The Easons rescued the antlers and had a beautiful sculpture to prove it.
Suddenly the blast of a train whistle shattered the stillness, and the familiar snout-nosed maroon and grey engine of the Algoma Central Railroad chugged into view. This was not the sleek train pictured on the cover of the Agawa Canyon tourism brochures, but a four-car “milk run” working train that still carries passengers and freight in scruffy boxcars up through the wilderness spine of midnorthern Ontario as far as Hearst. The train came to a halt, and we jumped on. The conductor, doubtless an uncle of TV’s Great White North characters Bob & Doug Mackenzie, greeted us with “Geez, this is some fine weather, eh? ” as we scrambled up the ladder.
We were on our way to the fabled Agawa Canyon. It was warm and clear and the forests were glowing red, orange and gold against the granite cliffs. The best of Canada was beckoning.
Gord said that the bigger tourist train from Sault Ste Marie was fully booked with over 1500 visitors, mostly Japanese and American. So he arranged to have us picked up on this “milk run” just like Group of Seven painters Lismer, Jackson and Macdonald did around here over 80 years ago. The train clicked along tracks cut into the sides of nearly vertical cliff walls, veering around the Agawa river canyon, around majestic Bridal Veil falls, and then in an exhilarating turnabout, let loose and careened down, coasting to a stop in the landscaped grounds beside the river. We got out, savouring the shimmering beauty all around us. Our train chugged north leaving just a handful of backpackers and us to revel in this stunning solitude for an hour before the southbound train would come to pick us up. At the tiny station house, the Canadian flag was at half mast. The station master explained that Trudeau had once come here with his young sons. I sat by the flowing river thinking about Trudeau, canoes, and the passage of time. The glory ended too soon as the southbound train arrived to take us back down the line.
The monarch of the north had yet to make an appaearance and Gord was still anxious to show me where he had called and seen moose. So off we trekked down another forest road for a few kilometres into the woods arriving at a moose pasture or swamp right out of a Tom Thomson painting. It was getting dark. We stood still, Lynn Dee, me and the kids trying not to chortle as Gord whined and whinnied in a muted moose call that sent shivers up my spine as it echoed across to the distant hills. No answer. He tried again. Nada. Rien. We shrugged,
walked some more. “There’s one!”, cried one of the kids, but it was just some fallen timber vaguely resembling an animal form. “Up here that’s called a Stick Moose”, said Lynn Dee. Gord noticed moose tracks beside the road, explaining that cows in heat were attracted to secretions left in the bull moose’s hoof imprints.
That little nugget of information gave me pause. (Pun alert?)
We came back to town, our lungs full of fresh air, my head full of memories of colour and light one sees only in dreams. I got a tour of downtown Wawa, a pleasant little place on a picture perfect lake. I bought some smoked trout from a highway general store and some freshly baked Algoma butter tarts that beat anything I’d previously boasted about in southern Ontario.
The weekend rushed by. The next morning we visited more cascading cataracts, made a brief trip to the abandoned mine, and then it was time to go. My time in paradise was up. Lynn Dee was to drive me down to the Sault, as she was teaching computer classes there this week. Gord and the kids followed us down for a few kilometres until we got to one of those ubiquitous “Moose Crossing” yellow warning signs on the highway shoulder. Gord brought a ladder out of his car, and
supported it against the sign pole as I climbed up to write my signature in the lower right hand corner while Lynn Dee snapped photos of me signing. Why? Because the image of the prancing moose silhouette was mine. Several years ago I’d gotten a request from someone at the Ministry of Transport asking if they could lift the image off one of my “Mooseplunge” post cards to use on their sign. At the time I was so flattered, little realizing it would find its way to repeated use every 20 kilometres along the Trans Canada up in Northern Ontario. So now I had my own outdoor national gallery where the people could see my moose image every few minutes as they drove through the wilderness. Northern Exposure indeed.
Lynn Dee bade me farewell at the airport, waiting patiently for my plane to take off. I thanked her and Gord for our time together. I told her that if Canada was the precious raw material just waiting to be discovered, it was Canadians like them who made it happen. And I was grateful. I flew back down to the gritty city, cleansed.