THE LAND of NANNABIJOU
A Wonderful Part of Canada That is Being Overlooked
CHARLES CHRISTOPHER JENKINS
FEW Canadians are aware that in Ontario above the north shore of Lake Superior, between Quebec and Manitoba boundaries, there are 50,000,000 acres of rich arable clay and loam lands that yawn for settlement.
Only the fringes of it have so far been brought under cultivation, but those fringes have produced crops of roots, small fruits and grains equalling and in some cases eclipsing, yields in Eastern Ontario. A very small portion of this vast agricultural heritage of Ontario is organized; sections of it have never been officially explored nor felt the restless footfall of the white man.
It is a remarkable fact that there has never been such a thing known as a drought or crop failure in this near North ; industrious settlers in it have retired rich men in less than a score of years.
Herein a Northern writer predicts that the so-called hinterlands of Ontario, once looked upon and despised as waste land—a sort of backwoods paradise for prospectors, fur-traders and lumbermen—are destined to become Canada’s mightiest market basket when the prairies have become effete.
The word picture that follows is true to conditions in the North, telling the difficulties and drawbacks as well as the prospects.
FOUR well-dressed men sat in the smoker of a transcontinental. They were quite fed up on Northern Ontario scenery. Since breakfast time they had been looking out upon what seemed an unending panorama of spruce wilderness, patched on the hillsides with garish birch and rimmed in the distance by the desolate, forbidding peaks of the Laurentian divide. Only occasionally did they pass a settlement—invariably but a few log shacks with pitifully small spaces clAred around them.
At a tiny station squatting on the edge of one of these the train stopped. Some settlers and trappers, garbed in mackinaws, with their inevitable packsacks strapped on their backs, clambered aboard the train.
“What a life!” said the man sitting next the window. “I should think,” he observed, “that to stick up in this God-forsaken country a man would need to have a strong back and no brains.”
Two of his companions shrugged complacently and
smiled their grim approval of the car window philosophy. The fourth man did not smile. He just coughed nervously and wondered if he had made a mistake.
The three first-mentioned travelers are possibly still “well-dressed city men,” dependent on salaries somewhere and wondering where the rising costs of living are going to stop. The fourth man was tired of the city tread-mill and had decided to take a fling at pioneering in the North Country. He had not an abnormally “strong back,” but he believed he had brains plus Canadian initiative and determination to make good.
The man who did not smile over his fellow-traveler’s observation was George Sovereign, of Hamilton, Ontario, but he does smile good-naturedly to-day when lie tells of that incident in the smoker some eleven years ago. He can afford to smile as he surveys his three-hundred-acre stake, one hundred acres of which is cleared productive land and the balance valuable pulpwood and timber forest. Sovereign has a line of credit at the banks to-day of somewhere in the neighborhood of ten or twelve thousand dollars, has up-to-date buildings on his farm and
herds of stock and modern farm implements. He owns besides a threshing outfit, road-making machinery, a portable saw-mill and the most optimistic disposition north of the great
The optimistic disposition was a birthright he took with him from Hamilton, Ontario, but all the rest he accumulated since he set himself to the task eleven years ago of wresting his fortunes from a patch of unbroken wilderness on the rim of Conmee Township’s unorganized spaces in the district of Thunder Bay.
How did Sovereign do it? By using his brains more so than his back — just the reverse of the car window observer’s deduction.
Making Good in the North
A T any rate, Sovereign says TA that to make good in Northern Ontario an Eastern farmer must try to forget all the precepts of Lower Ontario farming and “study the country.” The brief summers of the North, the remarkably rapid growth and ripening of vegetation under sunlight that lasts from four in the morning till ten o’clock at night in the warm season, the early frosts that must be avoided and a fibrous soil that will for long resist the overtures of anything less vicious than a discharrow, demand an entirely individual system.
“You can’t find a text-book which will teach you how to farm successfully in the North,” declares Sovereign. “You’ve got to learn from the older pioneers or else find out for yourself as I did. There is no soil in Canada which will more abundantly repay industry properly applied.”
I might name dozens of other farmers of the North who have achieved more than Sovereign—John McKay Hunt, the Pipers, the Mountstephens, the Trewens and Munros of the fertile Slate River valley; the Sitches and Hymers of Gillies; the Brignalls and Thomases of Oxdrift and so on, but these are all well-to-do men of the older settlements. Sovereign’s case appeals to me as unique because seven years ago I first met him after “mushing” it in over many weary miles of a miry trail through virgin wilderness with a packsack of grub and blankets on my back. He was, as he then expressed it, “thirty miles from nowhere,” living in a tiny log shack on a stumpy clearing off which one wondered how he even eked an existence.
To-day Sovereign and the settlement that has.grown up
around him have a first-class wagon road running past their doors, over which they transport their products to market in motor cars. Things move fast in the North.
Forty Millions of Acres Available /\ SIDE from minerals, fish and furs, what a poten•¿V. tial heritage Canada has in the way of agricultural resources as yet practically untouched in that section known as Northern Ontario! Just take a look at the map of Canada. You could pick up Lower Ontario,
New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, drop them around on Northern Ontario’s surface and still have plenty of undeveloped territory lying around loose to hide Prince Edward Island and a few of the other odds and ends in.
It has been estimated that there are fifty million acres of arable land in the country represented by that top section of the map of Ontario, which, by the way, is usually decapitated by the map-makers, put through a shrinkage process and stowed in a corner of the geography page that displays the topography of the banner province. There is possibly more than fifty million acres just as fertile as the soil that our friend Sovereign made good on. But for the sake of being conservative, we’ll put it at forty millions. Let us play with a simple problem in arithmetic and see what that means.
It has been demonstrated that a family of five can live and wax well-to-do on a hundred acres of cultivated land in the North. That would mean that Northern Ontario could with ease support two million people, exclusive of incidental urban population.
Two million people is just one-quarter of all the residents of the Dominion of Canada to-day.
The present population of Northern Ontario is somewhere about seventy thousand, and if you excluded the cities and the individuals devoting their time to lumbering, hunting, trapping and railway work you’d scarcely have five thousand left.
What’s the reason that less than five thousand people are engaged in agricultural pursuits where two million might be producing and prospering? It s not the severity of the climate, for Northern Saskatchewan and Northern Manitoba have a much colder winter than Northern Ontario.
The answer may be given in two words—isolation and inaccessibility. In other phraseology, lack of publicity and lack of roads.
Unlike the prairies, any old trail won’t stand up as a wagon road in Northern Ontario. The arable areas on the Laurentian plateau are hemmed in by great waste spaces of rocky hills and muskegs, and the solid sixteen million acres of fertile soil lying above the Laurentians in the great clay belt is untapped at the northwestern end by either trunk road or railway. The Canadian Government transcontinental running along the lower fringe of the clay belt is the only flirtation it has ever had with civilization.
Why the First Shall be Last
BUT there are other reasons, practical as well as fabulous, why the Laurentian area, said to be the first of the world to cool, was destined to be about the last of the habitable countries taken over by man.
Nannabijou, the demi-god, so the Indian legend runs, was given by Manitou, the Creator, that section as a playground, and on the magnetic peaks of the Laurentian hills he set up the wicks of his mystic aurora borealis as a token it was a realm of magic under the spell of Windigoes,
Minetoes and Thunder Birds, where man might live only under special sufferance of the deities. It was a land avoided in dread by the Indian till scarcity of game east and west forced him to brave the wrath of his ancient gods.
With the advent of the white man history seemed to repeat itself. East, west and south — and even further north in the Western territories — he pioneered the wilderness and the plain with his axe and his plow and permanently established the standards of civilization. He left Central Canada to the fur traders and the lumbermen.
Across it was blazed from the north shore of Lake Superior to the treeless plains of the West the first four hundred miles of the longest and most romantic man-made trail the world has ever known, the first leg of the primitive Red River highway, over which frontiersmen and pioneers journeyed on foot beside their squeaking ox-drawn carts to find a land of quick wealth in the Golden West. Followed the Canadian Pacific Railway of Sir John A. Macdonald's time, and still the human urge was on and on—
on to the somewhere in the further West where the fabled pot of gold lay glittering under the tail of the dreamrainbow. Few paused to consider what fortunes might await the efforts of pioneer industry in the near North.
To-day, but for a few scattered settlements along the
lines of the three transcontinentals and in the districts adjacent to Fort William and Port Arthur, the Land of Nannabijou remains for the most part the same vast, challenging wilderness it was when the stout-hearted French voyageurs first essayed to cross it to locate the realm of sunshine and plenty by the Western sea. Though the traffic of half a continent has roared through it east and west for going on two generations, the North Country has brooded on in primitive neglect quite as isolated from the reclaiming assault of axe and plow as it might were it some great island in the Arctic Sea. Because it has had few champions to proclaim its potentialities, it has passed as a backwoods paradise for prospectors, fur-traders and lumbermen—a sort of no-man’s land between East and West.
YET a close study of the people who have pioneered the country and stuck with it shows that they have all done better than the average by themselves; that they have not only acquired prosperity but robust health as well.
The native-born children of the North are its best advertisement. Nowhere in Canada is there a sturdier or more distinctive type than the child of the North, and the achievements of its home-brew battalion -the famous
52nd—brought it honor in the world war that will go down in history.
Outside of the Finlanders, the sparse agricultural population is mostly made up of former railwaymen and prairie farmers, who, for one reason or another, did not find the West to their liking. The oldest agricultural settlements have not been under cultivation much . more than thirty years, but in less time than that some of the more thrifty pioneers have been able to sell out and retire wealthy enough to live independent of daily labor the rest of their days.
Of course, in the North as elsewhere, there have been those who have quit the country after a season of discouragement, but generally this has been due to lack of pluck and farming experience. There-have been many cases too where settlers took up land in isolated sections on the understanding they were to get roads that were never built, and thus without means of marketing their products they were forced to give up in despair.
Let us take a .square look at the North and. before noting what it can produce, point out some of the main difficulties that must be faced by the settler, for let it be premised that it is no country for the weakling or the faint-hearted. The North demands grit and the adventuring spirit.
In the matter of environment first impressions are against the North. For the newcomer there is for a year or so a sense of ghastliness to the country, a bewildering, drab vastness in the great silent spaces and an ominous, forbidding aspect to the bald and jagged mountain ranges that everywhere border the horizons. If hebe an Easterner, homesickness will grip him for the rolling landscapes and soft foliage of Lower Ontario. But give it time and the country will make a different man of him. He will unconsciously become more and more like his neighbors—bluntspoken and resolute with an alertness of mind and physique that only the magnetized ozone of the North produces. Once climatized. let him go east, west or south and the lure of those purple-shrouded hills; of the crystal dawns and multi-colored sunsets and the night-glorifying aurora borealis will tug at his heart-strings. There is a fascination which the North puts upon her own that seems to bear out the red man’s legend that the traveler who once drinks of the crystal waters in the Land of Nannabijou will suffer from a restless heel till he returns.
Then there is the long winter season and the protracted periods of below-zero weather. Fifty to sixty below are about the minimum temperatures, but normal winter weather, with a very rare thaw, ranges from a few degrees above zero to thirty and thirty-five below.
There is no spring to talk of in the North. Summer comes at a single bound in the latter part of May. Sometimes the frost does not entirely leave the ground till June. The newcomer sees March, April and May go by with no let-up in frigid weather. He despairs that any such climate will give the soil a chance to produce.
Then some morning he rises to find that the grass and the tree-buds have sprung into sudden existence. The Northern world has turned green overnight. Hibernating creatures are about the woods in a hungry mood; the forests resounds with the choruses of feathered songsters. From then on vegetation progresses at magic speed under sunlight of eighteen hours duration per day. I have seen crops advance as much in a few days of a Northern summer as they’d normally be expected to progress in two weeks of a Lower Ontario growing season.
The Curse of Speculation
BUT the first and mightiest problem which the prospective settler runs up against is securing a homestead within reasonable distance of good roads, schools and the social advantage of neighbors. His bitter discovery is that the land and mining speculator and the timber-skinner have grabbed oil the choice locations in advance and that somehow they manage lo hang on without tangibly developing the land.
The curse of tin N’orin ' untry is the land hog and the milting shark, two parasitic creatures mat require ungloved treatment írmn i patient Government. u may drive along many roads in the wilderness where ' there is only a farm here and there.
Sometimes there will be miles between the lonely settlers. The first question you ask is why these settlers didn’t take up land adjacent to each other so that they would have the advantage of co-opera-
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tion in road-building and in establishing schools, churches, and other social, educational and spiritual needs. You will learn that the undeveloped territory is covered by mining rights or timber limit concessions held by non-residents, who, so far as anyone knows, never started any real mining or lumbering operations in the section. So long as the land-speculator is allowedto ply his i tricky trade in the North real development will be very slow indeed.
I have tried to make it clear that only the tiniest fringes of this huge agricultural area have yet been brought under cultivation. Experiences in widely-scattered settlements should supply proof of what it can produce.
In the first place, crop failures and drouths are unknown in Northern Ontario. Perhaps that is because one is almost synonymous with the other, drouths being the cause of most lean crops in other sections of Canada. The North Country is watered by mists in seasons of scant rainfall. It is a land of innumerable fresh water lakes. You can scarcely travel ten miles in any given direction without coming upon the shores of one of these natural reservoirs of ice-cold, crystal water. No matter how long and hot the days, the nights are always extremely cool, and thus the vapors rising under the sun’s heat condense over the land in the evenings in the form of a heavy dew. These mists sometimes roll over the country like dense cloud-banks, drenching the soil as effectually as a downpour of
The phenomena commonly known as Northern Lights play over the country with great frequency and at very close range. Scientific research might prove that powerful electro-magnetic conditions have something to do with the marvellously rapid growth of vegetation during the brief growing season. There are sections so highly magnetized that the needle of a compass goes “wild” in them.
Mixed farming has proved the most successful method in the North. It is not a wheat belt, but wheat, oats and barley do as well as in any district in the province of Ontario. Clovers, including red, alsike and white, have seldom been known to fail. One hundred thousand dollars’ worth of clover seed was harvested, threshed and sold in the Oxdrift district alone this year. Farmers there made as high as $250.00 an acre out of clover, and one grower from a 15-acre crop threshed one hundred bushels of seed, netting him $3,000.00 Oat crops yield from 60 to 75 bushels to the acre: peas 30 to 35 bushels. The pea weevil is unknown in the North. Wheat is usually an average yield.
It is in root crops that the North claims to eclipse all Canada. Turnips, carrots,
beets, mangels, parsnips, cauliflower, rhubarb, asparagus thrive as they will thrive nowhere else, and it is now a pretty wellestablished fact that the northern potato is the king of all “spuds.” Three hundred bushels of potatoes to the acre is no unusual crop, and, as the potato bug is entirely absent, the worst pest of Eastern potato fields has not to be contended with. The growing of seed potatoes, encouraged by the Ontario Department of Agriculture, is now an established industry.
Of the small fruits, strawberries have proved the most remarkable success. The berries, during anything like a favorable year, grow to dimensions almost unbelievable. Albert E. Holder, of Dorion, and W. S. Sitch, of Sellers, have demonstrated that splendid returns may be made from the growing of small fruits as a specialty, Holder turning over $650.00 from his strawberry crop alone in one season. It must, however, be added that these two men are experts who have taken infinite pains to study the climate and the soil.
With the larger fruits, such as apples, pears, plums and the like, results have been indifferent, though a series of experiments are now under observation by the Department of Agriculture which will in time prove what success may be had with them.
Stock-raising and dairying have been carried on to some extent for years. Pasture of the richest variety is to be had in abundance, but the season for grazing is necessarily short, and until a more established system of stable fattening is brought into play, the North will not produce enough fresh meats to supply its local demands. At present most of the fresh meat consumed is imported from Manitoba.
Reclaiming the Muskegs.
YOU will hear it said that the North is all rocks and muskegs—a part truth that has done the country undeserved injury. At that, there have been successful experiments at reclaiming the once despised muskeg. Some of these “soggy prairies in the bush” are of dimensions that include hundreds of acres. They have the advantage of being treeless, and therefore all the settler has to do is to tapdrain the area and break the ground. Muskegs, which must not be confounded with swamps and beaver-meadows, are invariably on the higher altitudes. Tapdrainage consists of cutting a tunnel through the cuplike rock walls that surround the muskeg and letting the surface moisture flow off by gravity.
The soil of the genuine muskeg is decayed vegetable matter confined in great rock pockets of the hills for ages and once drained is of the most fertile character. The theory is that the muskegs were once
lakes or dry craters which gradually filled up with the. soil washed into them for centuries from the watersheds above them.
It would require a book-length article to tell all there is to tell about the North. I have not touched on its mineral resources, its wealth in timber and furs and freshwater fish or its well-known attractiveness for the big game hunter. But I make no apology for an attempt to draw a truthful picture of its possibilities in the way of agriculture.
What little I know of the North I have gained at first-hand. I have traveled much of the country on foot with only my packsaek and rifle for company, along its winding, age-old trails and through its great silent places. I have navigated its mighty rivem on rafts and canoes, “portaged” its hills and muskegs and slept by «ite lonely lakes, Indian-fashion, on a spruce-
bough bed with the sky for a ceiling. It has been on such pilgrimages that the vastness of this as yet unclaimed empire of possibilities has most impressed me.
It is a man’s country—a land of ad* venture whose prizes will go to stout hearts and conquering minds. Always I have felt that it whispered everywhere of a tremendous secret. I pose as no prophet, but my interpretation of that “hunch” is that when the prairies have become effete, when the East and the West have become over-populated and have settled down to the commonplace, the longneglected Land of Nannabijou will only have started to come into its own as the great and enduring market-basket of the Dominion.
It is much too big a country to be conquered in a single generation.