March 27, 2018: Time Machines

March 27, 2018, and all is not well, but you know that already. Take care out there.

It has been too long since my last post -- I have been fooling around with Facebook stuff, along with the PhD thing, and getting The King's Salt launched (a good time was had by all, at least until I began to sing Barrett's Privateers!). On my Facebook page I have posted a couple of interviews, one on CFRC that may yet have an interesting denouement, and one on CKWS-TV that brought in a couple of folks to buy me book!

This month I am returning to boats I have known (Ratty was right). This is an old column that never saw the light of day, so worth showing it here for the first time, slightly updated.

Time Machines

Written on the occasion of a camping trip in Northern Ontario in 2005
© David More 2006

Holy liftin’, the summer of 1963 was a great, hopeful time to be alive. I was thirteen, and I owned a neat, seven-transistor, red, plastic Sony AM radio. The gorgeous girl-next-door was sixteen and she liked me, sort of. Enough to do a little, a very very little, light necking in her basement, at least. I think that was the first time I ever knew the infinite, glorious softness of a woman's breasts in my hands (through a bra and shirt, naturally). My father, a pathologist, said that Strontium-90 levels in milk would soon come down, because the so-called adults stopped air-testing H-bombs that summer.
Gasoline cost forty-eight shocking cents per gallon, but thousands of Canadians, including my family, excitedly un-toggled our duffel coats that spring, to flutter about the country like mating shadflies. We five went car camping, from southeastern Ontario to Vancouver Island. Forty-two years later, there is still only one highway connecting

The Mores -- Prairie Campsite, July 1963. © David More 2018

the eastern and western halves of Canada. But it wasn’t until we had wrestled our steamer-trunk-sized canvas tent into the little plywood boat we were towing, and wrenched ourselves away from misty, mystical Kakabeka Falls, where a storied Ojibway princess single-handedly destroyed an invading Sioux war party (as Robertson Davies pointed out, Sioux Lookout has the emphasis on the last syllable) that we realized the bitter truth -- nearly any summer would have been better for our trip. Highway 17 was a gravel road under construction, from Lake Superior to Winnipeg. Tripping with Dad always brought unexpected adventures. That little plywood boat would figure in several of my own. Later.
Of course, it was all Ottawa's fault. The Feds were nation building, and did not want their spanking-new Trans-Canada Highway signs erected beside an erstwhile logging road. Ontario would not pay, so Ottawa funded half. Some things about the Confederation never change, do they?
We rattled through dust as thick as a Halifax fogbank, with the windows closed so we could breathe, and our lights always on, so lumber trucks wouldn’t run over us. For endless hours we sweated and bounced northwest, dreaming of air conditioning, singing wistfully about lemonade springs on The Big Rock Candy Mountain, and flinching, as rocks ricocheted off the windshield. Dad had not prepared our car for crossing Sinai, and the grit storm seized a wheel bearing. We finally screeched to an emergency stopover at the Cecil Hotel, a truly grim establishment beside the Ford dealership, in a hamlet somewhere in Manitoba. The Cecil’s second floor fire escape was a three-inch manila rope, coiled around the iron bed’s leg like a hairy anaconda, but to us, that night the place seemed like the Ritz.
Forty-two years later, deep inside the electronic era, I am now the Dad, and, like my father, I have always loved the ancient, brooding hugeness of northern Ontario and its quirky towns, strung along the roads here and there like beads. Its quietness alone commands you to think, something like the Armistice Day silence that Western Front veterans referred to as, “the Voice of God.”
But bright, whirling blades of change continue hollowing out rustic communities, faster than Newfoundland fishermen once filleted cod. Regiments of think tanks cannonade skeptical hearts and minds with Adam Smith’s immutable message - global economic greed is a virtue, and virtue, we know, is its own reward.
Northern Ontario has its share of ghost towns, but some have the tenacity of lichens and, maybe, a bit of Irish luck. A thing is certain here, you thank the mercy of the divine spirit that moved humans to invent airplanes. Slogging 2,000 kilometers from North Bay to the prairies on the ground is an endurance test, one of the unofficial Tests that Canada offers to the unwary. The 1963 X-Canada Test prize was a night in the Cecil Hotel.
It’s nearly miraculous to cross this landscape on the ground. When considering the lunatics who bribed British Columbia into confederating with easterners using the promise of a transcontinental railway, and the fools who then actually built it, economists shake their heads in wonder. The endless northern Ontario blasting, and muskeg filling, and trestle construction alone cost tens of millions of 1880 dollars, when labourers earned $1.50 a day and Canada’s population was under four million.
My teenage, iPod-equipped daughter innocently agreed to The 2005 X-Canada Test. We would drive 24 hours northwest from Kingston, Ontario, the same distance from home as Orlando. Just before reaching Kenora, we would turn due north off the now-paved “T-Can,” onto Highway 105. At the end of the road, a few million more trees and two hours later, we would reach Red Lake, population 1,800. My wife of twenty-nine years had to wash her hair, and declined this camping opportunity. To be fair, she already has the 1974 and 1988 X-Canada Test prizes. Perhaps tellingly, the 1974 prize was, er, me.
Red Lake is near the latitudinal centre of Canada and, not by coincidence, several of the strongest and oldest cultural pulses of the nation are close to the surface. For me, being in Red Lake is like laying your ear on the soft skin over your lover’s heart, hearing it pumping away - steady, reassuring, homely.
You hope it continues forever.
Here, in the boreal forest, which covers a quarter of Canada and edges the continental Arctic tonsure, your feet tread once-molten granite shield rock that cooled eons before any geologic trace of life, and shaped Canada’s fur-trade beginnings. Elegant foursomes of cedar waxwings flit quietly about, dining on berries in their smooth-feathered, cinnamon-coloured suits, tastefully trimmed in red. You can feast on the local specialty in Red Lake - delicate Lac Seul pickerel and beans, meet moose, pick wild blueberries for dessert, watch bald eagles and red-tailed hawks soar. There are some bugs.
From Red Lake, you could wander 3,000 kilometers northwest to the Pacific coast without leaving the trees. Or turn east - same thing, the same distance - to the fjords of Labrador. You hear people murmuring Northern Forest language - Algonkian. OjiCree pictographs are as much a part of the scenery as birch bark. In Canada’s diverse geographic and cultural landscapes, that forest is a unifying broad green band on the map that most Canadians never visit.
And such lakes, numberless azure pockets in the stone, where loons tremolo their night wildness to a transparent sky, so vast with silent starlight that the weight of it trembles your knees to the ground and forces you to gaze up, through the clean-scented canopy of firs, jack pines, black and white spruces, tamaracks, birches, and aspens, to look upon Infinity.
But, I digress.
There is another reason to come to Red Lake - an airplane on a pedestal in the centre of town, the only one of its kind in a world full of airplanes on sticks - Bob’s airplane. Aircraft designer R.B.C. “Bob” Noorduyn’s name doesn’t ring many bells, here in Canada’s deep south, but in northern Ontario it resonates, deeply in tune with the people who live here. Bob died in 1959, and Red Lake has become something of a shrine to his memory - he remains the Honorary Chairman of Red Lake’s annual Festival.
Bob’s legacy is treasured at the end of Highway 105, for the empire of wings begins here – bush planes like the legendary Norseman that he created - the yellow one, forever about to touch down in the park. There is nothing soft about the Norseman’s iron pulse, but it derives from the hard bones of the country.
The Norseman was the first successful production airplane designed and built in Canada, tailored for northern work by Noorduyn, a restless, Dutch-born engineer. Among other useful innovations, his Norseman included an engine oil dilution system, so Norseman pilots could accomplish wilderness winter starts without first having to heat frozen engine blocks in the usual way, with blowtorches.
Bob had remarkable courage. He abandoned good aviation jobs in England and the United States, striking out on his own in Canada, smack in the middle of The Great Depression. The signs were not auspicious for a new airplane in 1935, when the engine of Norseman Number One first coughed her propeller to life, in Montreal.
Yet Noorduyn built the last of nearly a thousand Norsemen in the late 1950s. They aren’t beautiful to look at, not like Britain’s curvy WWII Spitfire fighter airplane is beautiful, but Norsemen have an undeniable chunky style - a comforting, bull-nosed Canadian charm. They have operated all over the world, from north to south poles. The United States Army bought hundreds during WWII.

Norseman on a stick – Red Lake, Ontario. March 2005 © David More

In 2006 less than twenty Norsemen remained flying in the world. Green Airways recently crashed theirs, number 625. A young Ojibway man I met in their Red Lake hangar told me, “We dumped ‘er last year.” No one was hurt - Norsemen are very rugged - and he told me, “We’re bringing the parts out of the bush, wing by wing. Maybe she’ll fly again.”
Six flyable Norsemen still call Red Lake home. Most are muscular workhorses, not showpieces, operating continuously during the brief floatplane season. They truck anglers, hunters and their supplies - more than a tonne at a time - far beyond the domain of wheels. It’s why Red Lake bills itself the Norseman Capital of the World. As we bounced about on the spartan cabin benches of Norseman Number 56, roaring and foaming its long, long way down Howey Bay and into the air, it made me think.
Some Norseman Festivals have seen seventeen of the remaining planes in the flypast. The story of these survivors is like the incomprehensible flight of bumblebees. I can’t think of another technology where the 1935 design still competes effectively with the twenty-first century model.
Earlier in the day I interrupted Chief Pilot Dave Robertson of Chimo Air Services, grinding a lawn mower blade in their hanger. Dave is an affable fount of precise information about Chimo’s two Norsemen, and says they still fill some niches better than any other aircraft. Rebuilt-as-new, they cost a million dollars less than comparable new Cessna Caravans. Robertson makes money operating Norsemen only a couple of hundred hours a year, where newer aircraft have to work 800 hours to pay the bills. Engine costs, too, are far less than newer turbines.
Bolted onto their stubby noses, Norsemen have a nine-cylinder Pratt and Whitney Wasp radial engine. This is a 600 horsepower window-rattler, and hearing that distinctive roar again, I felt even more like I had come home.
I introduced my daughter to Joanne Ivaniski, a tall, soft-spoken A.M.E. (Aircraft Mechanical Engineer), who resembles a 1940s pin-up. Joanne maintained Wasps for five years. She volunteers for the Norseman Festival each July, organizing air events, booking Norseman rides and staffing the street festival booth displaying a cutaway engine, a Wasp Junior, from a Beaver.
She grins and tosses her long brown hair back when I ask about her career, “I love working with my hands, and working on airplanes, and I wasn’t happy being a secretary,” she said. “Most older men don’t think a woman should be an A.M.E., but they go out of their way to make sure I know what they know. You simply ignore the assholes. I do just as well as any of them. I ended up in Red Lake because I fell in love, and my man was here.”
Then, she shifted gears. “The engine core of a radial is maybe a bit more complicated than the turbines I work on now. They stopped making Wasps around 1945, but there are still lots of them around, and there’s a replacement cylinder being manufactured which I hear is pretty good.”
Wasps. I grew up an air mile from Runway 08 at Kingston, Ontario’s airport. Kingston was a Commonwealth Air Training Plan base during WWII, and a Royal Canadian Navy pilot training facility until Ottawa retired Canada’s last aircraft carrier, HMCS Bonaventure.
The Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) used Harvard aircraft for advanced flight training. In the U.S. the airplanes were known as Texans, but all of them were powered by Wasps. A Harvard snarling overhead at take-off power is ear splitting, unforgettable. With a northerly wind, and students doing touch-and-go circuits over our heads, we clenched our teeth to keep the fillings in. Putty rained down. Mom had to secure the dishes.
Red Lake is a bit like that every summer, when it becomes the Other - the opposite to the winter silence of the great forest. Quiet or noisy, it is also an Other to globalized suburbanality, although ten years after Canada’s last gold rush started here in 1925, it was Canada’s busiest airport.
It’s not everyone’s cup of latte, certainly, but artist Cher Pruys loves it. She paints airplanes, including Norsemen. Cher grew up watching crop dusters in Saskatchewan before moving to Northern Ontario and seeing floatplanes for the first time. She is another pioneer, the first woman admitted to the Canadian Aviation Artists Association. “Norsemen were so important in opening up the north,” she told me, “and the Red Lake Festival is an amazing place to hear the pilots’ stories about this wonderful part of our heritage.”
Our roaring Wasp subsided to a comforting rumbling, and after a gentle descent, the floats of Norseman 56 kissed the water again. As it chugged to silence, coasting to the municipal dock, my daughter removed her ear protection.
“Sweet!” she said, smiling, deeply engraving her father’s heart with today’s all-purpose kid’s phrase of approval. We had touched an ephemeral bit of Canadiana. CF-JIN was delivered to the RCAF in 1941, has crashed and been rebuilt twice, has had nine owners. Her drum-tight, yellow, blue and white skin is only two years old. I hope her iron Wasp heart is still beating, when it’s my grandchildren’s turn to pass this Test.

 Rossport Provincial Park, Lake Superior, July 2005  © David More

Returning, we tented at Rossport Park on Lake Superior’s north shore, as wild and beautiful a place as anyone can drive to. Plunging off the glacier-scarred granite was like diving into a dry martini straight from the freezer. Splotched on the stone were paint-flat lichens, symbiotic, ancient, and thriving where nothing else can live. We should, and perhaps have, learned from them. Symbiotes only survive when all partners benefit.We are all symbiotes on the Great Turtle's back.
Late that night at the edge of the Big Lake, a couple of meteors shot past Polaris, which the Ojibway call the Bow Paddler. The north was making me think, again. Even falling stars seem different, since Columbia’s fiery rain. Humans are now truly spacefarers, having created stardust of ourselves.
I watched the calm water reflecting the lights of another westbound locomotive as it swung round a headland, kilometers away. Loons were calling, but they were wartime larks in Flanders, scarce heard amidst the howling in the forest. Not of wolves, but of semi-trailer tires pounding the T-Can. Freight trains shook the ground. The east/west trade of a nation of 30 million throbs by within earshot. That there are loons speaks volumes about their adaptability.
Insurance costs are rising, and only eight Norsemen attended the 2005 Festival. Red Lake is right to celebrate them - seventy years ago; the whirling blades of change were Norseman propellers, bringing a new vitality into the north.
Higher energy costs also silenced small town paper mills all around, although our downtown e-culture feeds black spruce forests into mega-mills by the trainload, like magazines of forty-foot wooden machine gun cartridges. Red Lake hangs on. They still mine the richest gold ore in the world here. Ninety-nine percent of Chimo Air’s customers are now anglers from the American mid-west.
Everyone hopes Ontario doesn’t run out of trees, or fish, or American sportsmen. Sure, the gold will run out, but they discovered emeralds, you know, just an hour southeast of Red Lake, by Norseman


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