Do you know the Northern Ontario winter? The crisp, cold and crystal clear winter. Yes, the cold can be bitter, not to mention the chill factor added by the wind, and it can snow so hard one cannot see beyond a few feet. But in its kinder, gentler, white blanket, moments it can be awe inspiring in its beauty. Picturesque scenes of snow covered pine trees in a landscape of sheer beauty with an exhilarating freshness that demands one to come out and play. Yes, come out and play. After all, I was almost six years old when we moved into the lumber camp.
Camp Abitibi 220 was a lumber camp half way up the west shore of Lake Nipigon, 80 miles from the nearest town and about 180 miles almost due north of Thunder Bay. We lived there from the fall of 1945, when I was five and a half, until the spring following my ninth birthday. My Father was the Stores Manager. He along with the Woods Manager and the Camp Cook were allowed to have their families with them. So, along with my Mother and one of my two older brothers, off we went to camp.
Eduquer means to draw out.
I was home-schooled in reading, writing and math but mostly I was allowed to explore and roam the camp at will. One of the current trends in education is Outdoor Education (also known as Fresh Air Learning). The OE premise is that children learn best when living, breathing and moving about within the subject or idea being explored. The lumber camp was a perfect teacher that suited the unquenchable curiosity of this young explorer. I laugh to think that I was introduced to a new style of education well over half a century before alternative modes of education had even been imagined.
I learned how blacksmiths make and mount shoes on horses. I learned how several tons of hay gets stored to feed the dozen work horses that were used to haul felled trees. I helped feed the ten or so pigs kept for fresh meat, then I watched while one was killed, gutted and dunked in boiling water to assist in shaving off the sharp, stiff pig hairs. And I learned how it is for the cooks and cookees to feed 50 to 60 hungry men three meals a day cooked on wood fired stoves.
Water from the River
The camp overlooked a river which was our source of fresh water. During the winter months after freeze up when it was safe to drive a team of horses out onto the ice, water was drawn from a hole chopped in the ice. Bucket by bucket the water was drawn and spilled into a huge, square, wooden tub that rested on a ski equipped, sled. After filling, the sled was pulled up the hill by horses to supply the water needs of the camp.
The day I learned about our winter water source was also the day I learned about fluid dynamics and to never hitch a ride on the back of a sled carrying a water filled tub. The tub was taller than I but at the back I was able to climb onto the sled, and hold onto the top of the tub. When the sled started up the hill up to the camp a bucket of ice cold water leapt over the edge of the tub sloshing over my face, mittened hands and down both inside and outside of my parka. In minus twenty degree weather a water soaked parka and mittens freeze solid in a few short minutes. That day, I was most grateful that my Mother and a warm, safe cabin was only a short, stiff walk up the hill.
Fall in northern Ontario, wrapped in glowing yellows, reds and sepias can be inspiringly beautiful. It was a radiant fall day and as I walked past the barn I noticed the big doors were open. I heard the clang, clang, ping, ping sound of the blacksmith and saw the glow from his forge.
Beyond the horse stables, the hay barn, past the pig pen and some distance away was the garbage dump. One of my pleasures was using the tin cans I had positioned along the top edge of the dump as targets for my BB-gun. The first shot pinged off a can and I started to reload a BB for another shot when, seemingly from nowhere, the biggest black bear the world has ever seen ... STOOD UP!
The cardinal rule of woods lore is to never run away from an encounter with a bear. The brilliance of the bear mind is anything that runs away must be food or it wouldn't be running away. I had yet to acquire that bit of wisdom. So I ran! I ran as hard and fast as my eight year old legs would carry me! Past the pig pen I flew, past the hay storage and into the barn looking for safety of the blacksmith yelling; “Bear! Bear!”
The blacksmith had a six pound lump hammer in his hand and probably could have easily subdued a raging black bear of any size, but by the time he got to the barn door, the bear was gone from sight. From then on, my momentary island of refuge, the big, burly, Swedish blacksmith laughed and teased me relentlessly about hunting imaginary bears with a BB gun.
The Adventure Continues!
My years at Camp 220 were filled with adventure that put my life onto the direction of life long learning that has served me well. In those years I learned many fascinating things about the world I lived in; however, there is one experience during that time that has been a constant memory over the ensuing 65 years.
It was in the winter of 1948/1949 and I was not yet nine years old. Under the light of the moon, with only one set of skis between us, my brother and I and one of the younger cutters took turns skiing the small hill beside our cabin down to the frozen river. I had just had my turn, so after dragging the skis back up the hill, I brushed the snow off of a pile of left over siding slats and laid down.
Dark comes early in Northern Ontario so I had seen the night sky many times before but I don't ever remember having brought it into conscious attention. That night, for the first time, I became aware of what it was I was seeing.
In the unimpeded openness of a crystal clear Northern Ontario winters night, the sky was ablaze with starlight displaying vastness beyond vastness, immensity beyond immensity. A shock of realization ran through me. I had no words for the sense of awe I was feeling and no place to put the awareness of what I was seeing. This is the truth of my inheritance, we are miniscule in this vastness.
I was a nine year old looking up at uncountable little dots of silver. Little lights tinged with hints of blues and reds, oranges and yellows floating on a sea of blackness. Totally awestruck by the magnificence of the sky, and by comparison, how small am I. How small we all are. I was totally humbled by the sight of the heavens above me.
There was a million, million, million stars and I felt a sense of wonder to see this vastness beyond vastness. Life's mundane, day to day drama had been drawn back for a moment and behind the curtain was the truth that as conscious beings we are living an amazing adventure. We are being allowed to recognize and appreciate the wonder of this Universe that we inhabit.
My knowledge of the millions dead from the recent world war had made me aware of life's transient nature so the realization that in this vastness, this immenseness of time and space, I am less than minuscule was not going to ensure my survival. I concluded this might be a good time to ask. “Please God, I want to live to be very old.” My almost nine year old thinking saw the time from then to the year 2000 seemed forever away so I asked; “I want to live to the year 2000.”
The gift given me at that moment of realizing the immensity of the Universe was a desire to see behind the curtain again. To know and understand the truth of the Universe. That has been my life's journey Perhaps this is what all humans seek, each in our own way, to know and understand the meaning of this vast puzzle we call the Universe. If we survive; and I believe we will, we will eventually solve the mystery behind the creation of the million, million, million stars.