Sunday, April 18, 2010

Where - Growing Up in the Wilds

I was born and raised in a Northern Ontario mining town; population about 27,000.  A language  mix of English- and French-speaking ; and many, many new Canadians from all over Europe after the war.
Born into a simpler time and a simpler way of life that has now all but disappeared.

We had electricity, wood stoves, coal or wood furnaces, or oil-fired space heaters.  Most of the homes were constructed of wood sheathed with either wood siding or a tar paper product called 'insul brick'.  Everyone had storm windows that were put on the homes the first of September and taken off the 24th of May.  We did not have television until the middle of the 1950's as the town was located north of the rock shield and blocked transmission from Southern Ontario; thus special receiving towers had to be built. 

Speaking of wood stoves.  Almost every other home in town used wood as its primary source of fuel for heating and cooking.  Sawmills in town cut timber into squared poles used for stoving underground tunnels   in the mines.   The cut portions with rounded sides were then cut into about 18" pieces called 'slabs'.  Homeowners purchased these or cords of logs those not squared off to be cut into stove size at home;  Wood supplies were always restocked  in summer and early autumn;  and piled in long formations in driveways and around properties to dry in the sun;  and then stored in wood sheds or basements as winter approached.

There were cars in town, but not that many; people basically walked wherever they were going.  Some of the retailers used horse and buggy, like the milk vendor, the ice man with his blocks of ice on a flat bed of sawdust, and during the war we had a 'rags and bones' man who came round in the summer to collect old clothing.....there was a shortage of material during the war and discards were collected for recycling.

I tell you this because years later when I was recounting the tales of the 'rags and bones' man and milk delivery using horse and buggy; a woman 20 years my senior in Southern Ontario said I was making up she grew up in the same province and had never heard of these.  Our community was remote connected to the southern part of the province by over five hundred miles of  a single two lane road.  So remote, travellers carried water jugs to replenish car radiators en route.  There were no gas bars or restaurants along the way.....only forest, thick impenetrable forest. 

The community sat  (and still sits - although no longer so isolated)  smack dab in the middle of thousands and thousands of acres of primeaval forest.  Evergreens, lakes, rivers and fields!  And real winter with real snow, and we used to have at least a week in January when Arctic blizzards actually blew their way in and around town   A great place to grow as the wind; freedom from fear, freedom to explore and grow under clear blue skies absolutely devoid of pollution.

Winters in Northern Ontario were magnificent.....snow, snow, snow and snow!  Sometimes reaching a depth of fourteen to twenty feet of packed snow....that's packed....all those lovely soft little flakes packing into a one could walk on top of the snow and not sink any farther than the person's weight allowed.  Catching snow flakes on your tongue, climbing snowbanks along roadways that were sometimes well over six feet high and sledding down,  Building underground forts in the snowbanks....and every yard had a personal snowbank keeping pathways and driveways clear.  I remember people shovelling pathways three to four times a day.  And cold!  I mean cold!  Temperatures often plummeted to -40 degrees  and sometimes colder.  Crisp, the snow would crack under your footsteps; trees would crack with a loud 'bang' from the would let off resounding 'cracks' as well as night temperatures dropped.  You wore many layers of clothing out of doors -  basically only eyes were not covered....and had to be wary of frost bite on cheeks, noses and ears.  The ground frost level was a few feet deep.  Fences along properties would actually change angles with the frost pushing posts as the ground froze over winter. 

Spring was always wonderful; at least until the town acquired a 'caterpillar' machine in the 50's that removed snowbanks and loaded snow onto trucks to dump snow into frozen river.  There were very few concrete sidewalks in town so spring would be a wonderful children's playground with rivulets of water running down the streets where we floated anything resembling a ship.....chips of wood, nut shells...whatever we could think of.  And the spring floods.....everyone walked to the river each spring to check the flooding as the river rose and to see if the logs were flowing freely or were there any log jams!  The spring mud was indeed lovely....the smells of the earth as it thawed and greened for summer!

Aw and summer .... warm from June to the 1st of September when the first frosts usually appeared.  Fields and fields to wander and roam....buttercups, daisies, dandelions, fireweed.  And the swamps with salamander and newts under rocks, garter snakes.  But beware....of the bears.  The old song "If you go down into the woods today...." about teddy bears.  Only they weren't teddy bears, they were black bears.  Very little to worry about if the blueberry crop was abundant, but in years when then berries were thin the bears would come into town looking for food. 

Summer also meant picking wild blueberries.  Not the large variety you see in stores now....the little, bitsy blueberry.  Pick! Pick! Pick!  And then 're pick' once home to extract any leaves or debris which may have dropped into the basket.  And then preserving in jars.  You picked in the evenings after daily chores, you picked Saturdays....all day...and Sundays after church.  Could never decide which was the worse of the evils...picking blueberries or staying home to care for my younger siblings! 

Autumn in the north meant getting ready for winter; stacking wood piles in protected areas from snow, many townsfolk hunting in the woods for moose and other wild animals.  Preserving of fruits and vegetables into jars for the winter, knitting winter mittens, hats and scarves.  Collecting coloured leaves for school projects and putting on storm windows and storm doors against the coming winter chill. 

The painting with this blog show an actual roadway outside the town where I grew up as it was after a snowfall a year ago.

This post linked to my other blog:


  1. I remember going berry picking at the weekends. I used to eat as many as I picked. Once we got home we went through the cleaning. My mother used to make me whistle a tune so that I could eat not more at this stage. Was the same with the fresh beetroot when cooked and being sliced I ate mountains of the stuff.

  2. Ah, I love this Winter-Snow-Painting! I'll come back to read the story beneath...