By Irene Butler
Scripted on the province’s license plates, “ friendly” is a well-chosen attribute describing Manitoba’s peoples and places; with our thirty-three family members living here adding heaps to the cordiality. Hospitableness extends from the cultural centre of Winnipeg crammed with entertainment and fine dining, to the Precambrian Shield for adventures in the great northern outdoors, right up to Hudson Bay’s port of Churchill for polar bear and beluga whale sightings.
My mouth was watering for some traditional cuisine as we pulled into our first Manitoba stop, the renowned Ukrainian centre of Dauphin, but could not even scrounge up as much as a perogy.
“Everyone cooks the traditional dishes at home,” I was told, “so locals want something different when they eat out, but come back when Canada’s National Ukrainian Festival is on in August.”
Brandon was our next sojourn. The city was hosting Junior AAA Hockey, resulting in five failed attempts in finding a room. The Little Chalet looked uniquely inviting with long rows of individual Quonset huts with round arched roofs. Ours was sinking on one side, with mildew in the fallen corner, but did not complain too loudly as it was the last available one. These unexpected snags have yet to change our spontaneous mode of travel. Family visits with Marie, Terry, Murray and Paige was our special Brandon treat. Aunt Marie’s choice of the Green Olive Restaurant won our vote for a rating of 8 in our “Hobbit-Worthy 1 to 10 Restaurant Rating System”. Fresh lightly battered Walleye pan fried in butter melted in our mouths, complimenting the perfect crunch of a vegetable medley and the irresistible tang of honey-mustard dressing on crisp greens.
Our habit of not announcing our arrival, could have been problematic upon turning up in Winnipeg had our son, Mark, daughter-in-law, Khristy and grandchildren, Brittany and Dylan not had their cell phone with them. Joining them on an excursion of the Assiniboine Park Zoo, our aversion to caged animals was lightened by the excitement of our grandchildren as they moved between the enclosures, with 6 year old Dylan waiting patiently for the White Tigers on loan from the Ottawa Zoo. The feline sisters were stunning in their regal aloofness, when suddenly their eyes abruptly zeroed in on a young man walking by us on the path. Their keen sense of smell distinguished him as the source of their ten pounds of meat a day, even though at this time the zoo employee was making his way, after his shift, to the parking lot.
A profusion of Prairie Dogs and other rodents had polka-dotted the grounds with burrows, finding the park a safe haven. A special showing of well-cared for birds native to North American, travelling with trainers from Toronto, was captivating. The Peregrine Falcon left crows in his wake, as he circled and swooped at the fake leather prey being swung on a rope in circles. Considered to be at the top of the food chain, having no natural predators, other than man; they are a gauge of the health of the ecology in an area; their current reduction in numbers is directly related to habitat destruction.
Our youngest grandson, 7 month old Liam, and mom, Corrine were cherished moments. Dad Arron, landed in Winnipeg the end of July after graduating from MARS training with the Canadian Navy. Visits with Ed, Marg, Khristen, Kathleen, and Mitza, plus a dozen catch-up-on-news calls and visits to other family members and old friends was top-notch.
From our many years of seeing the sites of Winnipeg, we recommend three favourites to anyone coming to this fair city:
“The Forks”, the historic site in the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, was used by Native Indians for 6000 years; was a stopping point for explorers and fur traders, and is where clashes between farm expansions and land rights of the Metis occurred, the latter lead by Louis Riel, now considered father of Manitoba. This 13.6 acre recreational park is full of walking paths with fabulous flora, buzzing international arts and crafts markets, produce stalls and delectable multi-ethnic food. During summer live bands are a hot item, or paddle a rented canoe down the river.
The sizable Museum of Man & Nature is a wealth of excellent displays of geology, wildlife, fur trade and early pioneer history in the form of a 1920’s town, a full size 17th century wooden boat, as well as a hands-on science centre for big and little kids.
“Get cultured” by bopping around to the 46 pavilions of the annual Folklarama, held in August, for a taste of Manitoba’s cultural diversity, with brilliant performances, ethnic displays and home-cooked food. Goulash from the Hungarian Pavilion once saved my life, when the cafeteria food all started to (dis)taste the same while attending summer sessions at the University of Manitoba.
It was time to venture north to Thompson where our son, Darren, Tammy and grandson Terrance are keeping ties alive in the community I called home for 27 years, and Rick for three. Entering Hwy # 6, north of the Winnipeg Perimeter, the sign reads “Thompson – 736 kilometres”. Ritualistically, I always look at a map before undertaking this trip. If you have a map or atlas handy, I entreat you to check it out as the length of the long black line from Winnipeg, starting just past the 49th parallel, up past the 55th,never ceases to astound me.
Not far up Hwy #6 we veer off for snacks at M.T.T. Service, a combined store, restaurant, lounge, Grey Goose Bus Terminal, and gas station, to stock up on snacks. Only six pit-stops exist, without venturing off the highway, until the smokestack of Thompson is visible: Lundar, Eriksdale, Ashern, Moosehorn, Grand Rapids, and last but not least, Ponton, where we stopped, as all wise travellers do, for a gas fill-up before tackling the remaining 150 km of wilderness. Hearing an arrhythmic “ping, ping, ping. ping, ping” against Emili’s (our Toyota Prius) exterior, we watched in dread as a stampede of horseflies bombarded her, attracted to the heat off her engine. I suggested we toss a coin to see who would get out of the car to pay for the gas, as the females of this species can pack a hefty bite, but gallant Rick raced for the door. We also noted a great number of chubby dragonflies; indicating a bumper crop of mosquitoes and blackflies.
Along the miles past Grand Rapids spindly Jack Pine and Spruce rise out of the muskeg with a toughness synonymous with the north. The coldness of five to six months of snow pack, and the sun never being directly overhead, stunt the growth but do not defeat these boreal forests.
The highway is paved and fairly good. I have a flashback to the early 60’s when there was only a winter road. Afraid of damage, most young men coming to Thompson at that time, would ship prized vehicles up by rail. The new gravel road completed in 1971 was welcomed, though it was often washed out in places or was riddled with canyon like ruts left by the swells of permafrost making its way to the surface. When returning from vacation in the early 70’s, I recall a tow truck commissioned by the city pulling vehicles across a ravine where the road had once been. There is still a gamble of finding sections in upheaval especially after the spring thaw.
In February of 1956, after discovery of one of the highest quality ore-bodies of nickel in the world, an agreement was signed with the Manitoba government whereby INCO (International Nickel Company) would build a mine, mill, smelter, refinery, some town services, plus monetary assistance towards a hydro generating plant and a spur line connecting Thompson to the CNR’s Hudson Bay Line. “Mother INCO”, as she became known, meant employment for a good wage and adventure, in exchange for leaving extended family and city amenities behind. Hardy souls from all over the country and a raft of new immigrants came to reap the benefits of the burgeoning enterprise. Five mine sites were soon extracting ore; Birchtree, Pipe #1; Pipe #2, Pipe Open Pit, and Soab. The name Soab was an abbreviation of the term “Son-of-a-bitch” given by workers to describe the godawful conditions of this site, located deep in a swampy creek where any movement stirred up thick clouds of bloodsucking pests. Living in bunkhouses for the first few years, a housing boom started in 1958. The population sprouted faster than accommodations could be built; anyone lucky enough to have a house during the late 50’s and early 60’s had a basement suite, plus boarders squeezed into extra rooms as the workers started to bring in their families. By the time I arrived in 1963, the city was comprised of a Hudson Bay store selling groceries and all manner of dry goods, a small hospital, schools, and several housing divisions, plus the Thompson Inn Hotel. Women were not allowed in the beer parlour of the Inn, so couples lined-up for the lounge. Particularly on paydays the cue sometimes stretched for blocks as the “two out; two in” rule was enforced to keep order in the tightly packed watering hole. A few years later a library, theatre and recreation complex were completed. While all this construction was going on “Thompson gumbo” swallowed up many a boot until sidewalks and paved roads were in place. New found friends became allies of overcoming hardships, isolation and loneliness. The town soon grew in amenities. Twenty-eight thousand at its peak, advanced technology in mining and less demand for nickel over the years rendered the population down to the 15,000 it is today; but being the hub of the north, it services a much larger hinterland, an estimated 36,000 from communities with year-round road access, and 65,000 if remote locations using winter roads or plane travel are included.
There is nothing to compare with the wilderness terrain of the north and the tenacious fauna that live in this severe habitat when minus 35-50 degree Celsius is the norm for several of the winter months, making minus 25 feel like a heat-wave. Moose, timber wolves, lynx, and black bears roam the land; the hoot of snowy owls echo on crisp winter nights, and the melancholy cry of the loon can be heard when the waterways are once again fluid. I became especially fond of the raven, given the moniker, “Thompson Turkey” by locals; probably because of their size, with a wing-span of up to four feet and a beak to tail length of 27 inches. Seeing this stark black bird sitting high atop a swaying pine tree, feathers puffed out against frigid wind, instilled a deep admiration in me for these flinty characters. Highly intelligent, with a large, varied vocabulary, they are aggressive scavengers, especially during winter when rodents, insects, and grains are not readily available. Though most people learned to invest in metal garbage cans with tight lids, my neighbour did not. Watching out my window, I was fascinated by a raven’s cleverness and strength, picking up a full bag of garbage a few feet in the air, and letting it drop, repeating the action until the contents were laid out on a tablecloth of snow. Cats and up to medium size dogs had to wait their turn or face the wrath of sharp talons, thick beak and boisterous warnings of the outraged corvid. These usually solitary birds, except when the spectacular aerial mating show takes place, or when it is smarter to procure food in a group, can live into their 60’s. Their guttural cawing was a welcoming sound to my ears as we pulled into Thompson.
Winter nights of northern lights; streaks of ice blue, emerald green and rusted red, dancing until dawn across the sky – believed in Cree legend to be the spirits of departed friends. The mechanics of the Aurora Borealis are not fully understood. What is known is solar winds carrying charged particles are drawn towards the earth’s magnetic fields at the poles. They collide with oxygen and nitrogen, knocking away electrons, leaving ions in an agitated state which emit radiation of various wave lengths, resulting in the spectacular display of colours.
Sometime during the late winter a stick-man is placed below the Burntwood Bridge in readiness for the annual spring contest. The closest to guess the time of ice break-up on the Burntwood River, measured by the wooden fellow sinking into the drink, is proclaimed winner. Spring in the north brings with it almost continual daylight, with nights reduced to a few hours of dusk; mother quickly pull out the room darkening blinds so children settle down at bedtime. Summers of balmy days, some reaching +30 degrees Celsius, are filled with planting short-growing season crops, boating, fishing, camping and vacations down south, all vying for this ephemeral time. Autumns, when the frost benignly stayed away until the poplar and birch leaves turned gold were the best; other years, unfortunately, the still green leaves froze on their branches, causing them to drop like slugs when the weather turned clement for a few more days.
INCO was and still is the main reason for Thompson’s being. Many pioneers, who once planned to go south after retiring, stayed on, which speaks for the inexplicable way the north gets into one’s blood. Special bonds and lifelong friends are formed as ferociously loyal as conditions are harsh. After spending several days prowling old haunts and chattering from morning-till-night with our progeny and old friends, it was back to Winnipeg for more family gatherings.
Our ties in this amicable province are binding. We are fortunate to have family in many areas so as to continue to experience the variety that is the spice of Manitoba.
Good-bye from Manito-waba (Algonquin for Great Spirit Strait, named for the voice-like echoes resounding from the waters hitting the limestone edges in the narrow passages connecting Lake Winnipeg and Lake Winnipegosis).
Irene & Rick