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  • July 30, 1999

    Off the train, on the truck

    Peter Brewster writes:

    PICKLE LAKE, ONTARIO: Off the train and into the bush, but not yet onto the water.

    Mark, Sherri, Jenay and the gang on the VIA Transcontinental delivered us safely to the hamlet of Savant Lake this morning, a tad late but in absolute comfort.

    But even before all our gear was off the train, we were taken over by a dark-haired whirlwind driving a GM Suburban diesel and hauling a big trailer.

    Jennifer Couto was stacking packs and boxes in her rig quickly and efficiently, ready for the drive up to this northern outpost.
    A little research on the train.
    -- Photo, Michael Peake

    Jennifer works for Lynn and Bernie Cox who run Canoe Frontier and North Star Aviation, and their company - rapidly getting established in new quarters at the airstrip - feeds a steady stream of canoeists into the rivers that flow north to Hudson Bay.

    Tomorrow morning Bernie will fly us into Winisk Lake to begin our real journey north, but tonight it's time for the final packing of food and equipment, 'editing' out stuff that seemed like a good idea in Toronto but now looks either gauche, goofy or simply extraneous.

    The road up to Pickle Lake and its sister community of Central Patricia is a rolling 166 km. of very litle but birch and spruce bush on either side. it's paved, and surprisingly well surfaced given the brutal winters it has to handle and an array of heavyweight vehicles. Traffic volume, however, is fairly light, as Pickle Lake has a population of about 450.

    As Jennifer told us on the way up, the community can actually handle many more people, and did when the mine here was open.

    It is coincidence that stories of this long and lonely road were first told to me in l967, by men I met when I joined the Toronto Telegram newspaper that year.

    Two people who would shape much of my knowledge of Ontario and Canada were Harvey Currell, a senior newsman at the paper, and Tiny Bennett, its outdoor writer. They, along with another staffer called Bob Shannon, were sent by the Telegram in l963 to drive the recently-paved road, meet it's users and report back in words and pictures to the city slickers in Toronto.

    Four years later they were still talking about the fantastic fishing, the remoteness of the bush and the characters they met. One, a Scotsman who was then manager of the Hudson Bay store at Osnaburgh House, arranged for an MG sportscar to be sent up so he could drive on the new asphalt!

    Bennett, my close fishing buddy, died 20 years ago. Shannon is happily running a B and B north of Toronto, and Currell, full of life and vigor at 77, has a cottage near my own at Parry Sound, and we talked about his Sixties adventure just two weeks ago.

    Pickle Lake is a friendly community with hotel, motel, store and auto services, and airplanes coming and going constantly on land and water.

    Lynn and Bernie Cox are highly-experienced outfitters with years of experience. Their "Big Eight" river destinations are the Albany, Otoskwin, Attawapiskat, Pipestone, Pineimuta, Winisk, Fawn and Severn, but they have many, many more trips available in this huge tract of land.

    From Pickle Lake and Central Pat runs a long winter road, shown as a thin line on the maps - but don't let it fool you into thinking it's summer-capable. It isn't. But come hard frosts and thick enough ice, it is a lifeline to the isolated communities scattered around to the north and west.

    There is much swampy muskeg between the lakes and rivers, terrain that could make you feel you were deep in Florida's Everglades except for the obvious Ontario fingerprints.

    When November howls through these birch and spruce trees being deep in Florida might seem like a tempting thought. But most real northerners relish the cold, sunny silence of the snow-covered bush, and truly travel is in many ways easier when the bugs are gone and the lakes are iced over.

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