Will Ferguson’s Canada


How we got in touch with our ‘inner voyageurs’

November 11 2002
Will Ferguson’s Canada


How we got in touch with our ‘inner voyageurs’

November 11 2002


How we got in touch with our ‘inner voyageurs’

Will Ferguson’s Canada

THEY WERE BAITING the bear trap with doughnuts when we arrived.

Doughnuts? “Well,” said the park warden. “It is a Canadian bear we’re trying to catch.”

Amid the usual jokes about waking to find a dozen cops inside the trap, no one at the Sleeping Giant Provincial Park campsite seemed too nervous about the black bear that had been sniffing around the coolers. “Bears are more a nuisance than a danger,” I was told. And if anything, there was a certain begrudging admiration for the critter. “It’s a smart bear. He’s figured out how to open minivans.” (The swiping action of the typical bruin, it turns out, is perfect for springing a minivan door.)

This would all be very fascinating were it not for one small, niggling detail: when I set off on my father-and-son camping expedition I seem to recall promising my wife, quite specifically, that I would not let our son get eaten by a bear.

Sleeping Giant: the very name suggests size and strength, a landscape that might awaken at any moment, that might rise up and brush us aside. The Giant is a series of mesas, the backbone of a massive peninsula that juts out into Lake Superior to form the eastern flank of Thunder Bay. This is a land of sheer cliffs and sudden valleys, of deep forests and hidden lakes, of secluded inlets and rare orchids.

Other than the seasonal ghost town of Silver Islet, former site of one of the world’s richest silver mines and now a sleepy summer community, the peninsula and the park are uninhabited—bears and campers aside. Silver Islet with its converted miner’s cabins and wonderful general store/tea room is the end of the line: literally. Beyond it lies the moody expanse of Lake Superior.

My son Alex is four years old and our trip to Sleeping Giant is his first camping expedition, but he has already learned several wily wilderness tips from his old man. Namely: to put up a tent properly, you need to have a good supply of profanity on hand. This also applies to lighting a fire. And speaking of fires: to roast a marshmallow, you will need ap-

proximately 142 matches, an entire bag of firewood and a good half gallon of lighter fluid. By the time you are done, the flames should uncurl 17 feet into the air and set lowhanging limbs ablaze. Ideally, your campfire should generate enough heat to be visible on satellite screens. Only then is it time for marshmallows.

“OK, son. Slooowly lower your marshmallow toward th e—’FWOOM! “It’s on fire, quick, put it out. No! Don’t stomp on it, if j you do that you won’t be able to eat it. Here,

I let’s try again. Slowly, slowly, the trick is to : lightly brown it as you—’’FWOOM/

Long pause. “Dad, I think I prefer raw marshmallows.”

I had also promised my wife that I wouldn’t take our son out in a canoe. Or rather, I promised I wouldn’t take our son out in a canoe on Lake Superior.

Lake Superior is a vast inland sea—the largest freshwater lake in the world—where waves rise and fall like ocean swells, and squalls sweep in on hurricane-force winds. I would never dream of taking my son out on Lake Superior. But note: I said nothing about not taking him out on Marie Louise, a lake inside Sleeping Giant Provincial Park.

How can I take my son camping and not get him into a canoe? The canoe is the ultimate Canadian icon. The CPR may have bound this nation together, but it was the canoe that first called it into being. Our country was opened up by dogged explorers and foolhardy fur traders who rode rivers and crossed lakes and white waters to reach the interior. We began as a canoe route, and the image of the voyageur haunts us still. I have long argued that Canada is a land pinned between habitant and voyageur: the

Canada is a land pinned between habitant and voyageur: the habitant is who we are, the voyageur is who we wish we were

habitant is who we are, the voyageur is who we wish we were. True, the voyageurs themselves were little more than human mule trains, but the romantic myth of the rugged outdoorsman persists, and I wanted my son and myself to get in touch with “our inner voyageurs.” So off we went, paddles in hand.

OUR GUIDE IS Adam Moir, a strapping young lad with a degree in biology and a wealth of knowledge about the park’s flora and fauna. I refer to him as a park ranger, but his proper title is—and I quote—“Natural Heritage Education Leader with Visitor Services.” Basically, Moir gets paid to camp out, which is not a bad gig. “I’ve been coming to Sleeping Giant since I was five years old,” he says, and it’s clear there is nowhere else he would rather be.

Trussed up in our life preservers, we paddle out onto the lake. Though I must admit, Moir does most (if not all) of the work. Alex’s technique is more “splash and flail” than “cut and chop” and I am no better, as I try desperately to remember the difference between a J-stroke and, you know, the other one.

Alex soon tires of trying to wield an adultsize paddle and instead asks Moir some hard-hitting journalistic questions.

“Are there any sharks in this lake?’

Moir laughs. No, there aren’t any sharks in Marie Louise Lake, and you can see the disappointment descend on Alex. He looks at the water we are sliding across. “Any sea creatures?” he asks. “Nope,” says Moir. “But we do pull 25-pound pike out of here.” And northern pike, he explains, are sort of the fish equivalent of sharks.

“How about that over there? Is that a shark?” “No, that’s just a piece of wood.”


When visions of ferocious northern pike fail to capture Alex’s imagination, Moir tries another approach, telling Alex about the early voyageurs and the tough, treacherous landscape they had to traverse. “They crossed half a continent and they did it in birchbark canoes,” says Moir. “They had to portage over

waterfalls and carry heavy packs along narrow trails, and they faced all sorts of dangers along the way.”

“Like sharks?” says Alex, ever hopeful.

Above us, bald eagles turn lazy, lethal circles in the air and a single osprey drifts down on dwindling winds to land atop a gnarled tree. “We have a high concentration of peregrine falcons as well. The entire body of the Giant is actually a sheer cliff face, ideal for nesting.” And peregrine falcons, Moir tells us, are the fastest birds alive. “They divebomb in excess of 180 kilometres an hour. You will even see them pick off other birds in mid-flight.”

Driftwood jumbles and old beaver dams move past, and in the murky shallows we can see the submerged shapes of lost logs and drowned trees. Below us, the silted lake floor unrolls in a soggy green carpet. “It’s loam,” says Moir. “Two or three feet deep.” And pungent too, as we discover when our paddles come up slimy with the stuff.

Adam steers us toward what I think is the shore, but when we climb out, the surface is spongy. “It’s actually a floating mass of

sphagnum moss.” Moir jumps up and down, and sure enough, the ground below us ripples. This floating island is also home to a colony of pitcher plants, the reddish flowers rising up like television antennas. “These plants are predators as well. Tiny insects are drawn in and then caught in the sticky hairs and slowly digested.”

Alex thinks this is exceedingly cool: a plant that eats bugs. Not as cool as a shark, but still not bad, as far as plants go. Later, near the mouth of Sibley Creek, we go ashore again— the real shore this time, not the bouncy moss island of earlier—and Moir calls Alex over to a cluster of “touch-me-nots.”

“The seed pods are spring-loaded. They explode when you touch them. It’s how they propagate.” And sure enough, when we flick them . . . pow! They erupt like tiny green popcorn.

This was, without a doubt, the absolute apogee, apex, all-time best highlight of the entire trip for Alex, and he ran around bursting dozens of pods. Even now, as memories of our late summer trip to Thunder Bay fade, he will often say, with a faraway look

in his eyes, “Dad, remember those flowers that exploded when I touched them?”

In Alex’s world, every lake would be filled with sea creatures and sharks, and every plant would explode on contact. And every marshmallow ever eaten would be served raw.

THE LAKEHEAD of northern Superior was once Voyageur Central. Fort William, on the delta of the Kaministiquia River, was the inland headquarters of the North West Company, and as such it was a linchpin in Canada’s continental fur trade. This was where the annual Great Rendezvous took place, where every summer the supply canoes of the Montreal voyageurs would arrive from the east to meet the fur-laden canoes of les hommes du nord, “the men of the north,” who wintered inland and came down from the farthest reaches of the northwest.

This furs-for-supplies rendezvous was a raucous brawling event, with the hommes du nord baiting the Montreal men, whom they disparaged with the nickname of “pork eaters.” How tough were les hommes du nord? So tough they thought regular voyageurs were

just a bunch of namby-pambies.

Old Fort William, outside Thunder Bay, is a full-scale reconstruction located further upstream than the original site. It is a remarkable attraction, but what I found most interesting was not the buildings and the costumes or the attention to detail—but rather the way in which the forest itself has been used to separate the past from the present. A long pathway from the interpretive centre runs through deep woods, and when you finally arrive at the fort it’s like bursting onto a scene circa 1815. Climb the observatory at Old Fort William and you will see nothing but river and trees and the rooftops of the fort itself. The present day is nowhere to be seen—but it can be smelled.

At Old Fort William, the sour odour of Thunder Bay’s pulp mill hangs in the air. But this, too, is appropriate, in an odd sort ofway, for the Lakehead region is still a crucial trade link, even if it is wood pulp and not beaver pelts that is processed today.

The city of Thunder Bay is home to the modem equivalent of the “great rendezvous.” As the western terminus for Canada of the St. Lawrence Seaway, it is where the rail tracks meet ocean-going freighters. Prairie wheat, northern ore and western lumber are now funnelled through here, in much the same way the fur brigades once were.

Having survived the shark-infested waters of Sleeping Giant, Alex and I spent the next couple of days exploring the greater Thunder Bay region—we visited Ouimet Canyon and the crashing waterfalls of Kakabeka, “The Niagara of the North”—but everywhere we went, the perspective seemed to be skewed. It felt as though we were

shrinking. Or perhaps the landscape was expanding; it was hard to say. Thunder Bay, I realized, is all about mass. Sheer unapologetic mass. From the cold expanse of Lake Superior to the crowning cliffs of Sleeping Giant and the towering presence of Mt. McKay, the entire region is rendered on a scale larger than we’re used to.

I experienced this first-hand on our final day, on board the Pioneer II, a 22-ton passenger vessel that cruises the waters of Thunder Bay. As the boat moved past massive freighters and the towering cement grain elevators that line the bay like Saxon castles, I felt suddenly small. I felt like a tiny figure set against a vast and indifferent landscape. Which is to say, I felt Canadian.

It was an evening cruise and as we returned to harbour, Doug Stanton, captain of the Pioneer II, asked Alex if he’d like to take the wheel and “guide us home.” Stanton even perched his captain’s hat on Alex’s head in a jaunty and suitably sea-faring fashion. “Just use the McDonald’s sign as your guide,” the good captain advised.

There, on that distant darkening shore, glowed the twin arches of gold. A beacon in the wilderness, lined up with the harbour, showing us the way. “We often use the McDonald’s sign as a visual navigational marker,” said Stanton—and I thought, my, what a long, strange journey it’s been: from birchbark canoes to harbour cruise. From beaver pelts to Big Macs. From voyageur to habitant. I

Will Ferguson is the author of Canadian History for Dummies, which won the 2001 Canadian Authors Association Award for History. wferguson@macleans.ca