On the Way to the Bay, Things Happened in 1956

This tale is true as affirmed by those who went, plus two movies and the trip log. In 1956, Keewaydin Camp’s Section A paddled 550 miles in 50 days from Temagami to Moosonee by way of the Harricana River. In 2014, a train of camp reunions, chance encounters of encounters, and diligent web work recovered home movies by Steve Langford and Pete Meinig, the trip log by Jack Mills, and eight of the ten still living trippers (some still are living in 2021). Nishe (read: Anishinaabe | The Canadian Encyclopedia) Belanger was the much beloved Mattawa Guide who spoke all three local languages. Jack Mills was the Staffman and Tuck Colby the Assistant. The mid-teenage campers were: Ed Trippe, Pete Meinig, Pete Stanley, Steve Langford, Tom Heeter, Tony Way (I was 16), and Ty Wells. These things that happened then should not be read now as a worldly adult but as an inexperienced sixteen-year-old.

The adventure really began before the trip. The train to Temagami had a night-time layover in Toronto for a few hours. The younger ones were corralled in the station by the staff, but we older ones were set loose with instructions to “Be back in time for the train and do not buy fireworks in Chinatown.” We followed directions, if not instructions, and thus the camp had a free show after our arrival.
From the train, the Temagami ferry, the Aubrey Cosens VC, took us to Keewaydin Camp. After a few days on Devil’s Island confirming that we could swim, right a tipped canoe, pitch a canvas wall tent, tump a wooden wannigan, and flip a 90-pound canoe, we set off for the Bay in wood-canvas Prospectors with two carry loads each. Stopping along the way at Island 86 to chat with June Keevil, daughter of the Temagami Mine founder, we reached Temagami Station for the first night. While some found a movie, and others found girls, Steve Langford found the Anglican priest (more about him later), as he was instructed. The next day, after portaging through town (a dollar for a truck lightened our load), we resumed our paddle only to be chased by the girls asking us to come back for a dance. We went on.

We stumbled down the steep Devil’s Portage into the Temiskaming with 60-90 pound loads, but the dam keeper sold us pop to brighten our moods. Across the Temiskaming we stopped in a farmer’s field where we found a nest of garter snakes that brought us much amazement and amusement. The snakes were not amused. Meanwhile, Steve and Stanley pocketed a tent mouse until it ate its way out. After dinner, Nishe sought out farmer Renee Langevin to save us the long steep climb up the Indian Portage (having done that the year before, I was much relieved). Nishe enjoyed our attempts at school French. Renee and his tractor carried us the next day into Laniel, with a stop at home to pull porcupine quills from his dog’s nose. Our lives were filling with new experiences.

After a brief tow from Tuttle’s Point we eventually reached Hunter’s Point’s water-side chapel, where Nishe reminded us to remove our hats. By arrangement, a local lady treated us to a sit-at-the-table meal (not the moose meat we had hoped for). We lost the obligatory ball game, 27-25 to the local Cree (as they called themselves). Meanwhile Stanley learned never to lunge from a canoe after an escaping fish. In the evening, a fiddle and guitar were passed around for music and a stumbling square dance.

On Grand Lake Victoria, a five-mile long peninsula separated us from the Hudson Bay Post, so we tried to portage across on a map-marked winter trail. After much frustration we concluded that the map did not show the massive windfall, and resigned to paddle the long way around. We bought candy at the post but then faced the strategic question of whether to ration or binge. Binge won out. Equally enticing was the bear cub tethered by the Indian family living nearby. Accordingly, the next day, some of the boys traipsed back and bought a mascot for five dollars. “Teddy” was not cuddly and was indifferent about either eating the food presented or the hand that presented it. Finally Nishe took the cub into his canoe, and at the next “pas bouchee” portage Teddy fortunately “escaped”.

The two-mile carry into Sabourin Lake became the access road to the Sabourin Club, and an offer to truck our loads was gratefully accepted. The girls of the Club provided us with water skiing, many for the first time (I got up on my first try!) and music afterwards. As we were slightly slow, we trucked from there to Val d’Or where Mr. St. Onge gave cartons of Jersey milk “for the boys”. We then passed on eight miles to the bridge over the Harricana. Having seen the “bright lights”, some of us tried hiking back to town. Fortunately, Jack and Nishe found a ride and drove us into town where Nishe introduced us to the night life of a mining town. It was a slow start the next day.
After three weeks, we finally saw the cathedral dome of Amos. We camped by the river on the edge of town where a neighborly lady gave us clean water and laundering. Afterwards, we wished our clothes had been labeled. Re-supply was trucked from the train station for $2 and we had our “mid-season” chicken dinner at the Radio Café. Nishe repaired to the Green Dragon while we sang the current hit, The Green Door:

There’s an old piano
And they play it hot behind the green door
Don’t know what they’re doing
But they laugh a lot behind the green door
Wish they’d let me in so I could find out
What’s behind the green door

Nishe’s favorite bar trick was to declare, when leaving the table, “I’ll keep my eye on my beer” and putting his glass eye by his drink. Jack went along to return Nishe. Some boys practiced talking with the French girls (Girls again? Remember we were still young and beautiful!) while Ed and I proved that an empty canoe dumps easily in fast water.
The Harricana River was full of rapids (cried Tuck in the middle of one: “Which way do I go now?”) and rain (wailed Ed: ”I am out here with nothing on but my shoes and golly it is cold!”), moose for stalking and geese for catching (a broken paddle was a great spear), Indian camps and cemeteries, and of course fish. Jack and Nishe had acquired a license in Amos for Belanger and Mills Prospectors, Ltd. Below the notorious rapids of Seven Mile Island, Nishe, Jack, Ed, Tom and I set out to find our gold only to find rain instead. So much for finding our fortune!

Finally, on day 43, we hit James Bay. We were surprised to see a dog on shore but the mystery cleared when Eddie Trapper and family from Moosonee appeared. We camped on the river before heading to Moosonee. With a canvas fly for a teepee and hot rocks from a fire, we made a steam bath and learned that when you get hot enough you can plunge into a northern river and the icy water rolls off your skin without a shiver. The next day, we started down the Bay but wind and tide drove us back. After lunch we started again. As the tide went out, the water shallowed to poling instead of paddling. We had a cold dinner on the water before we finally had to portage over the flats to a late evening camp amid a cloud of yellow mosquitoes so thick you could hardly breathe (I had to shed my lederhosen for pants to survive and finally found them on a high tussock the next day).

We were windbound for the next three days. Ed and I finally found non-brackish water for the camp but we had two more serious problems. The lesser was that we were running out of food. The greater was that the only train for the week was leaving in the morning. Eddie Trapper, cousin Eddie, wife and two children were camped nearby. He agreed to tow us with his freighter canoe to Moosonee. After waiting for the returning tide, we headed off, but only for an hour before the wind and rain pushed us back ashore. Finally, about midnight, the weather cleared and we set off again with five canoes loaded into and towed behind Eddie’s freighter. With clear weather the northern lights shimmered and the cold descended. And as it got colder my bladder got fuller. In misery from the cold outside and the pressure inside, I pleaded silently for relief until I realized that the only person who could help was the person I was talking to. So, I did what was to a sixteen-year-old until then unthinkable and put my drinking can to better use. Now I was warmed, at least inside, by the thought that I had just taught myself an important life lesson: When in trouble, don’t complain — just do something!

We reached Moosonee with only forty minutes to spare for getting our train tickets and loading our gear. We arrived at Temagami Station well into the night. I was dreading having to set up camp in deep darkness, (finding level ground and tent poles for our canvas tents) when Steve’s befriended priest, Father Clark, who had greeted us in Moosonee, said, as had been arranged: “Boys, come stay with me” (thanks Steve!). So once again, following the rule to never say no, we piled into the upstairs of the Anglican Mission. In the morning while Father Clark played chopsticks on the chapel organ (I didn’t know that was allowed), we ate the last of our food: rice with milk, sugar and maple syrup flavoring, a treat I treasure to this day. After buying supplies and again parting from the Temagami girls, we headed for our last camp before paddling into Keewaydin on Day 50. There we had a few days with love letters, tale telling, and song singing. But as the adventure began, it ended with the Aubrey Cosens ferrying us back to the train (and the Temagami girls) where we could say our final goodbye to summer. We were somewhat older, a bit wiser, and much more experienced.

Should you want to verify the veracity of these events, you can find the video at the Keewaydin Camp YouTube Channel: Harricanaw & James Bay, Keewaydin Temagami Section A 1956 – YouTube. If you are really interested in old-time tripping, you can see my 1955 trip from Temagami to the Dumoine at: Midseason & Dumoine Keewaydin Temagami Section B 1955 – YouTube. FYI: Most of the photos are enhancements of 8 mm movie frames.

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