By Train Across Northern Canada

June 30 - July 4, 1982

The conductor was passed out on the floor of the coach. The two trainmen were dancing a can-can in the baggage car, and I was at the controls of a 25-year-old locomotive, lumbering across the endless muskeg at 35 mph an hour. The train was rocking like a sailboat on rough seas. This section of track was in such bad shape that the maximum "safe" speed was 25 mph.

That summer there was a family reunion in Minnesota. Strung out from an unhappy relationship and a low-paying job working for a non-profit in Montpelier, Vermont, I was desperately in need of a road trip. So I decided to turn that trip into a grand adventure by traveling from Vermont to Minnesota as far north as possible by train. I ended up with two books full of tickets for $180 round trip, since the computer only read "Montreal to Winnipeg" without accounting for my roundabout way of getting there.

Traveling on a tight budget through an area where it might be difficult to find food and lodging, I loaded a heavy sleeping bag, a camera, a journal and a week's worth of food — including plenty of canned goods — into a backpack I named "Hoss." Hoss and I caught a bus to Montréal and boarded the Metro during the evening rush hour filled with chic Montréalais on their way home from work. When the car lurched forward, I fell backward and landed on my back, arms flailing like an inverted turtle. I made it across town to Victoria Station with five minutes to spare, and boarded a train bound for Senneterre, Québec.

This train served mainly to transport city-dwellers to summer cabins in the Laurentians. Its passengers were a hard-drinking chain-smoking lot, but I lodged my pack on the floor between seats, unrolled my sleeping bag, pulled a sheet over my head and managed to catch a few winks of sleep.

July 1, 1982
Senneterre, Québec

I am on a funny little two-day-a-week train between Senneterre, Quebec, and Cochrane, Ontario. The train has an engine, a baggage car, and one coach with about a dozen passengers and two conductors. It's a wonderful old train from the 30s and 40s — big and box-like with high ceilings and wide cushy seats that pivot around so you can make your own 'private compartment' from four seats. The ladies' rooms have makeup mirrors and leather-upholstered sofas.

What a big place this northern Quebec is! Everything seems oversized, as if to offset the vastness and emptiness of the landscape. Stacks of lumber stretch for miles. Piles of sawdust dwarf the train. Power poles two or three times the size of anything I've seen in the United States march across the landscape.

I awoke from a nap to find the countryside very much changed. Gone are the flat fields, roads and settlements. Suddenly we're in a vast expanse of black spruce and tamarack — short, shaggy and mean.

The tracks are getting worse as we get farther away from the main thoroughfares, and the train cannot be traveling more than 40-50 miles per hour. There's an occasional island of birch and poplar, but then the earth falls away, the sky opens up and it's muskeg as far as the eye can see.

The train from Senneterre to Cochrane

In the 1980s Canadian National was doing its best to dispense with passenger service in northern Canada by playing with schedules. So, for example, there was a 17-hour gap between when my train arrived in Cochrane and the only possible westbound connection.

The pack is still pretty unmanageable, despite my best efforts to consume its contents, so I made for the first halfway respectable-looking hotel I could find. But strictly speaking, there are no hotels in downtown Cochrane, only an assortment of rooming houses for a large transient labor force. So I was an object of considerable curiosity at the 'King George.' I went there initially just to make a few phone calls, since the sign at the desk said 'no vacancy.'. But when I inquired about other hotels, the woman at the desk explained that the sign was there for a reason. 'We have a lot of Indians around here, and they get pretty rowdy. The sign is there so they don't make trouble for us,' she said as she led me upstairs to my room. 'Of course it's not any discrimination or anything.'

The room was dismal — wood-paneled walls, textured ceilings, indoor-outdoor carpeting, and curtains and bedspread made of bargain basement remnants. But I was grateful for a warm shower, a place to stretch out, and a tiny refrigerator for my vegetables and cheese. I cleaned up, changed clothes and set out to explore Cochrane, discovering a Chinese restaurant — standard for every town in northern Canada, exploring Queen Elizabeth Park, visiting a local museum and even attended the Canada Day festivities at an arena named for Cochrane native Tim Horton.

To continue west from Cochrane, I caught a train the next morning, then a bus from Kapuskasing to Hearst, Ontario. The disconnect here was legendary: a full 24 hours between the bus from Kapuskasing and the only possible route west. On the bus I fell into conversation with a Hearst native named Bruno Joliet, from whom I learned, to my great surprise that Hearst was overwhelmingly French — a Francophone island in the middle of English northern Ontario. When we arrived in Hearst, Bruno made a few calls and found me a place to stay that night with his friend Victor Granholm. Victor was an American journalist who had come to Hearst 8½ years earlier as an employee of the provincial government, but who had stayed on to earn a meager living as a correspondent for a Thunder Bay newspaper and as assistant editor of "NordiNord," a left-leaning planning and development magazine. Victor was working on the latest issue, and I pitched in and helped with the editing. It was after 11:00 when we left his office.

Like a true frontier town, the streets were full of drunks and rowdies and the bars were jammed with hard-drinking, chain-smoking Franco-Ontariens and Indians overturning tables and falling down drunk on the floor to the beat of deafening hard rock music. We had some awful wine at the Waverly Hotel and then checked out a disco dance at the Knights of Columbus Hall on the edge of town.

The song "Waiting For a Girl Like You" shall forever be connected to slow dancing with Victor on that very memorable night in northern Ontario. We walked home under the northern lights, snuggled side-by-side in our sleeping bags, and talked until 4:00 in the morning.

Victor

In the morning, Victor made breakfast for me and we took a long walk in a field of orange and yellow and white flowers. Then Victor drove me to the train station, where I was thrilled to discover that for the next leg of my trip I would be traveling on a 1919 combination coach drawn by a 25-year-old engine.

Victor gave me a big hug and a kiss on the platform while the trainmen cheered. I stood on the open platform and watched Hearst and Victor and the station grow smaller and smaller until they disappeared.

Victor aboard the Pagwa

An Indian family got off at the first stop, and after that the only passengers were a couple from Hearst, two German hikers with huge backpacks and me.

Suddenly the train came to a halt in the middle of a bridge. I got up to see what was going on, and began taking pictures of the river through the train window. The engineer came up and invited me to step off the train to get a better photo. He said he had stopped so we could take pictures!

We stopped a few miles later and I had another chance to take pictures of the train on the trestle. This time the engineer got out too, and walked down the tracks to speak to two guys who were camping by the river.

As I stepped back onto the train, the engineer asked me if I would like to ride up front. One of the trainmen handed me a beer and a stool, and I stared in awe at all the controls and levers, and thrilled to the site of the tracks stretching before us as far as the eye could see. Then Brian, the first engineer, suggested we go for a walk on the front of the engine. 'Are you kidding?' I asked. But he wasn't, and with a little prodding from behind, I stepped out onto the catwalk, clutching the railing for dear life, but loving the breeze whipping my hair and the excitement of the big black engine beneath us. We walked all the way around the front of the train, and the muskeg rolled by on all sides, mile after mile. I would have stayed there all day.

We let the couple off at a small cabin next to the tracks on an unnamed river. An old man lives there for a few months during the summer. The man who got off was his grandson, home for a two-week vacation. He and his wife had brought box after box of provisions, and we all got off and helped them carry them down the hill. Then we went inside and had a beer with the old man, who told us about a time when there were Indian villages and logging camps and even a military base on the Pagwa. But they're all gone now, and all that remains is a handful of hunting and fishing camps like his. The train stops there each time it comes through to make sure the old man is okay and to bring him whatever he needs from town.

Stopping to deliver supplies to a hunting camp on an unnamed creek

Back on the train, engineer Greg Browne took over from Brian Hofferd, and he continued recounting the history of the area of the region, pointing out remnants of the American military base that closed in 1967. He stopped the train at an old camp where an Indian trapper had lived until his wife became ill a year ago. The man was 95 and had trapped in the area for more than 70 years . We only had a few minutes to look around, but the camp felt like a museum of a way of life that had all but disappeared. Greg explained that the Pagwa Subsection, as this line was known, was destined for oblivion. This section was of track was part of the original Transcontinental Railroad, laid down in 1908. But the Pagwa had lost its customers except for occasional hunters, fishermen and a few crackpots like me. Freight service was rerouted through the Algoma Central the previous year. Until then, a single passenger car used to tag along at the tail end of freight trains up to 100 cars long, and passenger service was scheduled to end in December.

It took 6½ hours to traverse the Pagwa. In that time, we saw fewer than half a dozen houses, and we drank three cases of beer. The conductor was passed out on thr floor of the coach, and Serge T. and Peter C. were dancing the can-can in the baggage car.

Visiting an abandoned Indian camp (and scratching blackfly bites)
Engineer Greg Browne on the Pagwa (and scratching blackfly bites)

We pulled into Nakina an hour late. Greg and Brian told me to wait in the coach, and they came back a few minutes later with a fresh pickerel and home-fried potatoes from the bunkhouse, along with a carton of chocolate milk and lettuce picked that day in Greg's garden in Cochrane. We sat at a table in the baggage car and watched the sun down, and drank some more beer. Then the whole crew walked me down to the station and gave me big beery hugs and farewell kisses, and Peter went through the motions of purchasing a ticket to Winnipeg so could accompany me.

I boarded the train for Winnipeg covered with soot, dirt and blackfly bites — souvenirs of my wild ride across the muskeg. The main line was quite dull by comparison — big, modern, clean and full of English-speaking people talking on and on about nothing of consequence. The conductor who punched my ticket scolded me for putting my pack on the floor. A big beefy conductor was summoned to hoist it overhead and out of reach. For a nickel, I would have jumped off that train and waited for the next run of the Pagwa. I spent several hours poring over the CN timetable, trying to figure out a way to build it into my return trip, but I couldn't make it work.

I would stay in touch with Victor for many years, and even visit him a couple of times. I also stayed in touch with Greg Browne, engineer for the Pagwa, and wrote a lengthy and passionate letter to Keith Penner, MP for the Cochrane Riding, with copies to the Ontario Director of Tourism Development, the Hearst Town Council, the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Thunder Bay Times-News Chronicle, recounting my remarkable journey on the Pagwa (with a few details omitted), citing its potential value for tourism, its importance to the people in the region, and urging them not to abandon the line. Mr. Penner responded — I still have a copy of the letter — assuring me that the line was not about to be closed but was simply undergoing "a routine five-year reassessment." But the line was indeed abandoned in early 1983, and I was privileged to take one of the last rides on one of the world's wildest railroads.

The fascination with Canada that began on this trip would grow stronger. Five years later, I would marry a French Canadian, immigrate to Canada, learn French and eventually become a citizen.

'Twas early in the spring when I decide to go
For to work up in the woods in North Ontar-i-o;
And the unemployment office said they'd send me through
To the Little Abitibi with the survey crew
And the black flies, the little black flies,
Always the black fly no matter where you go;
I'll die with the black fly a-pickin' my bones,
In North Ontar-i-o-i-o, in North Ontar-i-o.

And the man Black Tobey was the captain of the crew
And he said, I'm gonna tell you boys, what we're gonna do:
They want to build a power dam; we must find a way
For to make the Little Ab flow around the other way
With the black flies, the little black flies,
Always the black fly no matter where you go;
I'll die with the black fly a-pickin' my bones,
In North Ontar-i-o-i-o, in North Ontar-i-o.

So we survey to the east, survey to the west,
Couldn't make our minds up how to do it best;
Little Ab, Little Ab, what shall I do?
I'm all but goin' crazy with the survey crew
And the black flies, the little black flies,
Always the black fly no matter where you go;
I'll die with the black fly a-pickin' my bones,
In North Ontar-i-o-i-o, in North Ontar-i-o.

It was blackfly, blackfly, everywhere,
A-crawlin' in your whiskers, crawlin' in your hair;
Swimmin' in the soup, swimmin' in the tea,
And the devil take the blackfly, let me be.
Black flies, the little black flies,
Always the black fly no matter where you go;
I'll die with the black fly a-pickin' my bones,
In North Ontar-i-o-i-o, in North Ontar-i-o.

Black Tobey fell to swearin'; the work went slow,
The state of our morale was a-gettin' pretty low;
The flies swarmed heavy; hard to catch your breath,
As you staggered up and down the trail a-talkin' to yourself
With the black flies, the little black flies,
Always the black fly no matter where you go;
I'll die with the black fly a-pickin' my bones,
In North Ontar-i-o-i-o, in North Ontar-i-o.

Well now, the bull cook's name was Blind River Joe,
If it hadn't been for him we'd 've never pulled through;
'Cause he bound up our bruises and he kidded us for fun,
And he lathered us with bacon grease and balsam gum.
And the black flies, the little black flies,
Always the black fly no matter where you go;
I'll die with the black fly a-pickin' my bones,
In North Ontar-i-o-i-o, in North Ontar-i-o.

And at last the job was over; Black Tobey said we're through
With the Little Abitibi and the survey crew!
'Twas a wonderful experience and this I know:
I'll never go again to North Ontar-i-o
With the black flies, the little black flies,
Always the black fly no matter where you go;
I'll die with the black fly a-pickin' my bones,
In North Ontar-i-o-i-o, in North Ontar-i-o.

And the black flies, the little black flies,
Always the black fly no matter where you go;
I'll die with the black fly a-pickin' my bones,
In North Ontar-i-o-i-o, in North Ontar-i-o.


Recorded by Wade Hemsworth, Folk Songs Of The Canadian North Woods ©1955 Folkways Records