Down Canadian Roads Part 6


Gitche Gumee*


The legend lives on from the Chippewa** on down

Of the lake that they call Gitche Gumee.

Superior they say never gives up her dead

When the gales of November come early.

Gordon Lightfoot, The wreck of the Edmund Firzgerald


Heading into Northwestern Ontario, the town of Massey presents a delightful welcome with the Rapids on the aux Sables River.(Link) Blind River to Thessalon, to Sault-Sainte-Marie: we have only just begun our in-migration from Central Canada to the West Coast. The jewel of the Great Lakes lies just ahead of us as we near the end of our first day of travel on our westward odyssey.

The Trans Canada Highway northwest of Sault-Ste-Marie sweeps the north coast of Lake Superior. The highway traces the edges of a string of shimmering pearly shoreline indentations, connected bays. At  Batchawana Bay we reach the mid-point of the Trans Canada Highway: Pancake Bay, Agawa Bay, Terrace Bay, Thunder Bay. Mid-summer 1969 on Lake Superior when the pebble beaches are sparkling, a light breeze ripples the water and wavelets lap the driftwood flotsam strewn along the shore by last season’s storms, it is difficult to imagine Superior’s Chippewan evil alter ego conjuring up her furies, unleashing the frightening gales that 6 years later in November  9, 1975 would cause the Edmund Fitzgerald, “The Mighty Fitz”, “The Titanic of the Great Lakes” to sink taking its 29 man crew to Gitche Gumee’s silty bottom. Today Gitche Gumee, the playful kitten licking our feet at Ney’s Beach near Marathon serves up a refreshing respite from a long day’s vibrations from nearly 1000 kms. of travel, Ottawa to Lake Superior’s northern shores.


Canadian Pacific rolling around bay on Lake Superior

Today, in early July 1969, the largest of the Great Lakes, 31,700 sq mi, 82,103 km2 is  benign, and it is bragging openly about its post card beauty. A shift in latitude and a shift in attitude would definitely make her as desirable in November to the Northern Snowbirds as the Caribbean Sea, which by contrast is a mere 2000 sq mi, 5,200 km2 in area.

As we pass Batchawana Bay and Pancake Bay, demonic Lake Superior is notably absent although we are not exempt from Gitche Gumee’s mischief. Stopping for gas at a Gulf Service Station on the Trans Canada highway at Montreal River, our means of transportation is suddenly disabled. A starter solenoid which had already served notice of its reluctance to go west with us has refused to engage with the starter. I had learned to coax the faulty solenoid back into service by crawling under the car and by using a screwdriver to engage the starter by making simultaneous contact with both the negative and the positive poles of the solenoid.

Saved by the Butter Tart

Many attempts to apply this remedy have failed, the carburetor is flooded, the day is getting old and with the battery losing its charge we are contemplating a night in a motel. But where to find a motel nearby? To give the flooded carburetor a chance to be rid of its excess of gas and the battery a chance to rest from the recent demands made upon it, we take a short break in the coffee shop of the service station. Perched on the counter by the cashier is an alluring display of pastries in a glass cabinet. We resist the wedges of classy lemon meringue pie, puffed up by its inflated sense of itself. We pass up the red-food-dyed-cherry-pie, dangerously and steroidally plump from an excess of food dye. We decide against the apple pie, the girl next door of desserts and the banana cream a la Rita Moreno and we choose instead that most humble of truck stop temptations, the butter tart!

Back in the parking lot of the Gulf Service Station the magic of the screwdriver in the solenoid succeeds in firing the motor of our ’64 Rambler Classic with the “make-out” style, fold down front seat. We put our little bouncy Baby in the back seat and with our butter tart we get out of there and head northwest into a setting sun.

We spend the second night on the road in a newly developed Provincial Park, Obatanga, 56 kms.northwest of Wawa. We are pumped, stoked, almost blown away by what we have seen today. In our reflections on the first phase of our western odyssey we are spiritually moved to give thanks to the Great Manitou for Gitche Gumee and for the creation of this land full of natural wonders. We do not forget to say to Manitou, “p.s. thanks for the butter tarts at the truck stop at Montreal River”.


Post Scriptum: *Gitche Gumee, “Big Water” in the Ojibwe language is Lake Superior, the third largest fresh water lake in the world by volume.**Chippewa, a corruption of the word “Ojibwe”.

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