Recently my brother, sister and I went on a road trip. It was a trip through time as well as space as these things often are. Our reason for going was to visit the Cochrane Public Library and see a new mural in the children’s section which had been dedicated to our mother by close friends from her Brampton Book Club.
You might not know where Cochrane is. It’s not big – a town of only 5500 people in northeastern Ontario, not far from the Quebec border. Here’s how you get there:
- From where you are, merge onto Yonge Street.
- Drive north 500 miles.
- Get out of the car.
It’s pretty straightforward, but then, why would you go? Well, as it turns out Cochrane has lots of fun things to do, like the Polar Bear Express which is part of the Ontario Northland Railway and runs from Cochrane to Moosonee. That’s a trip worth doing and it’s the only way to get to Moosonee (unless you fly). It takes all day, but you already spent eight hours getting here so might as well do everything going. Or you can go to the Polar Bear Habitat near the railway station. Oh, wait, that’s closed right now because the bear died. Well that’s ok, because there’s also a Railway Museum which is…unfortunately…closed…due to a recent fire (arson suspected).
Anyway, Cochrane is a really nice little place, and very friendly. We spent the day talking to various folks including Christina, the wonderful librarian, who showed us the plaque that Mum’s friends had engraved.
A trip to the Visitor’s Centre to get our picture taken with Chimo was also on the agenda, as well as visit to the local Tim Horton’s, not because it is any different than any other Tim’s (it’s exactly the same, thank God) but because Tim Horton was born here. Oh, and his real name was Miles Gilbert Horton. Guess that wasn’t manly enough for a hockey player, although it sounds manly to me. Damn manly.
Next we went on a cable ferry across the Abitibi River. The ferry runs along a cable stretching from one side of the river to the other, and is operated by Alex, the cable ferry guy. Alex showed us pictures of other cable ferries in different parts of the world, old pictures of the Abitibi ferry, pictures of himself with various cable ferry enthusiasts like ourselves and, inexplicably, an 8×10 portrait of a goat. Seriously, I’m not making this up. “That’s me in my younger day”, he quipped in his French Canadian accent.
Then someone pulled up in a truck and honked his horn, and it was time to ride the ferry! We got on and road across to the other side. Then the truck pulled away and we went back again because, unless you are fishing, or chopping down trees or some such, there’s not much reason to cross the Abitibi at that spot beyond the entertainment value of being on a boat and talking to Alex. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “We are here on earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
But all of this took place on the third day of our trip because Cochrane is so very far away and we decided to take our time getting there. We used to make the journey in our parent’s car to a cottage on a little lake just south of Cochrane, and we did it in one day, eight hours behind the wheel for my father because my mother didn’t drive. In the backseat I read books, played “I Spy”, slept with my head in my sister’s lap, and woke to gaze dreamily out the window. Back then Highway 11 slowed through every little town; Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, and Huntsville, the beginnings of the boreal shield, the blasted granite jutting into the road. Then Burk’s Falls, Sundridge, South River, Powassan, Callander and North Bay, “Gateway of the North”.
The halfway point is Marten River. We stopped for Cokes, sandwiches and cookies from the cooler, (and a bag of peanuts in case there were chipmunks). Here the air, which had been close and muggy at home, is fresh and clear, fragranced with pine. The sandy soil around the rocks is smooth and cool underfoot. The wind moves through the tops of the trees with a sound as deeply calming as a Tibetan chime.
This is Temagami. The granite outcroppings are higher here, pinkish grey striated with white, pink and black, the tops dressed with spruce, pine, birch and maple.
Glaciers have pitted the precambrian rock with a thousand nameless lakes and bogs. You catch a glimpse of one between the trees, clogged with spiny black trunks, the murky surface covered with lilies. The road curves, climbs, dips down, waves breaking in rocky crests on either side of the car.
The sky is grey and heavy. Aspens sparkle, their silver leaves highlighted against the sea grey-green of pine, spruce and fir. A turkey vulture sails over the cliffs. Like a ship’s mast leaning into the wind, a white pine rises into the air.
My mother is in the car with me. She is in the passenger seat. Wordlessly, she touches the window with her hand, index finger raised. Here I am.