Mid-Atlantic Misfit

Mid-Atlantic Misfit

Life between cultures

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Canada day 4 – An emotional homecoming

9 October 2013 , , , , , , , , , ,

Yesterday I set off west down highway 17 from my friends’ place in North Bay quite early.  I had planned to stop at Chutes Provincial Park in Massey (about 3 hours west), but I arrived at about noon and missed the sign for it and drove on 15 minutes up an increasingly narrow and rutted road before turning back.  When I did find it, I was, of course, a further 30 minutes late and looking at the time and the lack of colour there, decided instead to press on down 17.

The next stop was, you guessed it, Tim Horton’s in Blind River, a town of about 3,000 people in Algoma District on the Mississagi River.  This was always the first spot that told me I was getting close to home and I’ve always loved the way the road and the meandering river here snake around.  It’s quite beautiful.  Mississagi is the name of the specific Ojibwe (Chippewa) tribe here. I’d always wondered why there was the similar place name of Mississauga near Toronto in Southern Ontario. Apparently the tribe migrated there at one point and covered a stretch across south central and southwest Ontario.

Belly loaded up with yet more timbits, I pressed on to St. Joseph Island.  It’s the second largest freshwater island in the world and sits in the North Channel of Lake Huron.  It’s also the first place we lived when my parents emigrated to Canada in 1973.  One of my favourite spots has always been a small picnic area, before you reach the St. Joseph Island bridge (now the Bernt Gilbertson St. Joseph Island bridge).  The bridge was completed shortly after we arrived in Canada and one of my earliest Canadian memories is the ferry service here.

St. Joseph Island (Bernt Gilbertson) bridge

I spent about 30 minutes here and by now was starting to get choked up.  Memories were flooding back, so many of them, such a mixture of them.  My childhood was not a happy one, but some of the happiest memories were of this area.  I pressed on.  On crossing the bridge, you reach a t-junction and can either turn left towards Hilton Beach or right towards Richards Landing on Ontario highway 548.  I opted for the latter.  It’s funny, as a child you have a sense that the world is much bigger.  On returning, the island seems much smaller and I guess as we get older, the world in general feels tiny by comparison to our childhood.

Richards Landing is the largest town on the island, but at that only has 600 people.  It’s where I first went to school, at St. Joseph Island Central School.  I also went to pre-school here, but it’s no longer around.  I remember my teacher vaguely too, she was the warmest, friendliest teacher I can ever remember having, but sadly I don’t remember her name.  Other memories here include the school being evacuated as they thought the boiler might explode and the big yellow school bus that would fetch me from Gawas Bay to Richards Landing and having to sit next to Elgin Garside, whom would always pick at his skin and pinch me.  I was just 6.  Also here is the tiny Anglican church, where my mother was a Sunday school teacher.  I remember having to go into the basement and have loads of religious nonsense spouted at me.  Sadder memories include visits to Mathew’s Memorial Hospital, and seeing my Uncle Bill (actually my grandmother’s second husband) being in there on a ventilator. I can still remember the smell of the paint and his illness in there.  Wow… more memories flooding back.  I remember her 3rd husband being in there too, however I sat out in the car on that occasion and it’s when Murray Head’s ‘One Night in Bangkok’ was in the charts as I can remember listening to this on the Casey Kasem’s American top 40 radio show.  There’s nothing like a scent or music to take you right back to a moment in time!

Highway 548 circumnavigates the island, but following a zig-zag pattern aligned to the island’s grid system of roads, which are all designated as A-line, B-line, etc.  Very inventive those early settlers!  In all the time I lived in the area, I never once made that trip, nor to Fort St. Joseph Historical site on the south end of the island.  It’s about 50 km, but it was such a beautiful day and the leaves, though past their prime, were still beautiful.  I turned off the music in the Explorer and just chilled and let memories keep flooding over me.  Sadly the fort was closed, but I enjoyed the drive anyway.

I pressed on towards Hilton Beach.  Again I have many memories of this place.  When I was younger, my grandmother on my father’s side, would take us to the beach here.  Sadly, money has won out though and a huge marina has been built, obliterating the beautiful beach that gave the town its name.  Nearby I recall a Pepsi-branded restaurant making the best crinkly cut fries.  It’s a shell of that now and appeared closed.  Other happy memories were visiting the local dollar store and buying dinky toys (toy cars).  That too is gone.  However, the Hilton General Store is still there and is much as I remember it.

A few more kilometres on and my final stop was Gawas Bay.  ‘Gawas’ is an Ojibwe First Nation word that means ‘sloping sandstone’ and it’s very apt as there are a number of such rocky outcrops / islands in this inlet of the North Channel of Lake Huron.  It’s very sheltered and on one or two of the islands are cottages, with white pine trees over them and then beyond Camp d’Ours Island (Bear Camp Island).  There are more white pine trees on the shore, but beyond this a huge grove of sugar maples and at this time of year they turn the most amazing colours and when it’s calm you get the contrasting dark green of the pines with the blazing oranges, yellows and reds of the maples firing into the tranquil water.   It’s a truly stunning place and it’s the exact spot where my parents had their first house in Canada.  Two doors down my Uncle Ted built his first house in Canada.  He was a master carpenter.  He and my Aunt Val and my cousins Steve and Vince stayed on here after we moved the 60 km west to Sault Ste. Marie.  At Christmas, we’d come up for dinner and after dinner we’d go out snowshoeing or skymobiling on the frozen bay.   I have such happy memories of it here and it feels like my spiritual home.

I parked up by the public dock here and for a while just sat on the dockside, looked out over the bay and was transported back to that 6 year old boy, on my parents’ screened porch looking out over Gawas, sunset bringing a warm hue to the towering deep green of the white pines and the cottages on the tiny rocky outcrop islands.  I’ve long wished I could stay in one of those cottages, but the downside of that is you wouldn’t have the same amazing view.  Even as I write this I’m welling up.  Times were so much simpler then and happier.  At my parents’ house here I had a big sandbox, under a cedar tree and my mum had a big vegetable patch.  I can clearly remember my joy as I harvested the potatoes, the excitement of digging and not knowing what you’d get and the satisfaction of harvesting your own food.

I watched the sun go down and felt the memories flooding back.  Not much has changed here, except the main road used to go right along the bay and now it’s tucked in behind.  Other than that, it’s exactly as I remember it.  This is very much a trip of rediscovery, but so often you find things aren’t as you remember them or that they’ve changed beyond all measure.  Not here, not in this place where I feel most at peace, most at ‘home’.


Then a wave of sadness swept over me.  I’m here, but I’m here alone.  My Uncle Ted passed away in 1993 from pancreatic cancer.  We always had a special bond.  In any case, they’d long before moved a bit further up highway 17 to Bruce Mines, Ontario, where he built another amazing house and his own 45 foot steel-hulled sailboat, ‘That’lldo’.  My cousins have moved away, my parents are divorced and I’m estranged from my family.  I’ve always hoped that I could bring someone special here, just sit on the dock with them, silent, hold hands, enjoy the peace of this special place and watch the sun slip behind the white pines one more time.

I pulled myself together and jumped back in the SUV for the final leg of the journey west to my old hometown of Sault Ste. Marie.  I’ve not been back since 2002.  I’ve been putting it off, because I knew it’d stir up all sorts of emotion.  A lot has changed.  First of all they’ve built a four-lane bypass around the Garden River, where old highway 17 would hug the St. Mary’s River and gracefully bend around gradually (and very slowly as the traffic was hell), before you saw the welcoming lights of the city appear.  Now you’re whisked behind all that on the longer, but faster 17, until finally being unceremoniously dumped onto Trunk Road.   From here I turned onto Dacey Road, where my grade school, M.J. Dacey was.  When I was here last, it stood there, a dilapidated wreck, but otherwise more-or-less as I remembered it.  Now it’s gone, replaced by townhouse apartments and a small new sub-division.  Yet another example of how things are rarely as you remember them.

From here I headed up Chambers Ave., which was for so many years a key part of my mile-long walk to school each day in all manner of weather.  I saved going past my childhood home on Bowker Street, as it’s a small street and it was dark and I didn’t want to creep out the neighbours.  So I opted instead to go down the broader Eastern Avenue, where my parents bought their next house, which ultimately they couldn’t really afford so we were only there about 18 months.  It looked much as I remembered it.  I turned down South Market Street and back onto Chambers, before hitting Boundary Road and turning left.  This is where my parents last lived together and where I last lived in ‘The Sault’.  It too hasn’t changed much, but it was dark and I had someone behind me (as you always seem to in these drives).

Continuing on, I turned right down Queen St. E.   This ultimately takes you downtown, except there was a detour, where the hospitals are, or rather where they used to be.  My friend Pete tells me they’re gone and replaced by the ‘Sault Area Hospital’ up on Great Northern Road.  So a detour up to Wellington it was, before turning left onto Bruce Street, then Bay and finally St. Mary’s River Drive, to what is now called the Delta Waterfront Hotel and Conference Centre.  In my day, it was the Holiday Inn.   Very strange to be staying in a hotel in the town you grew up in.

After checking in, I hopped over the drive, to Station Mall.   Growing up this is where you went.  Downtown was the focus of the city and you’d hang out in the food court.  It’s been extended over the years, but was always anchored by Sears.  My mum used to work here in women’s fashion and finally the furniture department.  My father was a contractor to the store for the installation of flooring.  Yes, very much a basic background, me.

Like the city, the mall has fallen on hard times.  Sizeable sections of it are closed off.  A huge section of the central part of it has some kind of temporary floor and yet more shops are just vacant.  It was dead.  OK, it was a Tuesday night, but still I got the feeling its days are numbered.  City planners seem to be favouring strip malls and outlets on the main drags rather than downtown.  More is the pity in my opinion.

I decided to drive up Great Northern Road and check out what has happened there.  And this is where you do see a lot of change.  First of all there are a lot of new mini malls, then a large chunk of the old K-mart plaza is being torn down.  Further up beyond Second Line, are a lot of US imports like Walmart and others, before you reach, as Pete had advised, the sprawling Sault Area Hospital.  Sadly the city doesn’t feel so much a city anymore and looks run down.

I stopped at A&W on the way back downtown for a quick bite.  The summer after my first year of university, I worked at A&W in Station Mall as a grill cook.  That’s now a McDonald’s, but it was quite nostalgic in any case to have a mozza burger here.  With that it was back to the hotel, to work on the photos taken on St. Joseph Island and to absorb what has become of ‘home’.

What do you think?

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This is so well written. I understand all you emotions about the area.
Thanks for writing. It helps me imagine the area a lot better.


9 October 2013

I wish I could have been there with you to ease the loneliness.


9 October 2013

I am loving this reverential travelogue back to your beloved Canada & the shores of great Algoma North. Following the confines & strains of living in the UK, the explosion is palpable! This “Love Poem” to Canada — both prose & photos — is a lovely, unabashed total Oprah experience! So happy for you, lucky guy…

Tonio Whitters

10 October 2013

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