Leaving Thunder Bay isn’t one of the things that gets easier with practice
To get to Thunder Bay—where I was born and raised and where my maternal and paternal grandparents settled in the early twentieth century—you have to travel back in time. One way to do this is on a Westjet Bombardier Q400 Turboprop aircraft that travels daily, nonstop from Winnipeg to Thunder Bay, once in the morning and once at night. I now only make the trip from my home in Vancouver to Winnipeg to Thunder Bay once a year, preferably during summer months when the mosquitoes are bad but the temperature is warm enough to make you want to be outside.
When I arrived at my parents’ house—the house I grew up in—it was after dark and I carried my luggage directly to my bedroom. I found it nearly the same as it always is— drawers filled and shelves lined with the past: a stuffed animal I called Tigger, an original Nintendo Game Boy, a Muchdance 2000 CD, every diary I kept from 1995 to 2004, a rock collection, a Smucker's raspberry jam jar containing remnants of an old stash, and a random assortment of books I read between late childhood and early adolescence. Each year it looks more like a set from a film about girls coming of age. Long after my parents had gone to sleep I lay awake in the next room, slightly jet-lagged from my travels, playing Super Mario Land on my Game Boy, wondering who I’d run into tomorrow and whether they’d recognize me from the future.
In northwestern Ontario a camp is what the rest of Canada calls a cottage.
Like cottages, camps are usually modest, cozy dwellings in rural or semirural settings outfitted with items deemed too ratty for home but too good for the dump, resulting in an eclectic mix of dishes, light fixtures, towels, linens, furniture and other miscellaneous decor. One thing nearly all camps around Thunder Bay have in common is a sauna. And since Thunder Bay has the highest concentration of Finnish-canadian people per capita in the country, you’ll likely hear it pronounced sow-na, not saw-na. In the late 1950s my Finnish grandparents purchased the land where our family camp is located, on One Island Lake, just twenty minutes northeast of Thunder Bay, for five hundred dollars. The story is that the bush and trees on the property were so thick that you couldn’t see the water but could hear it from the dirt road. After clearing the waterfront, the first thing they built was a proper sow-na. Along with the purchase of lumber came an illustrated eight-step guide to bathing in a Finnish sow-na that now hangs on the wall of the dressing room.
The process starts with a light shower or rinse. Bathing proper begins by lying in a 112–130ºf sow-na for fifteen minutes followed by a period of cooling off in a shower, lake or sometimes, in winter, a snowbank. The bather returns to the sow-na; water is added to the hot rocks to produce a steam. An advanced bather may beat herself with leafy birch twigs soaked in water to intensify the heat, which, despite being half Finn, I’ve never done. Steps three and four may then be repeated several times before washing, after which the bather returns to the sow-na one last time, followed by a final rinse and a thorough towel dry, taking care not to catch a cold. After sixty years we’re still stoking our sowna fire with the cedar my grandpa and grandma cleared from the land.
Thunder Bay formed on January 1, 1970, when the towns of Port Arthur and Fort William were merged by an act issued by the province of Ontario. A referendum was held on what to call the new town; the three options were Thunder Bay, Lakehead and The Lakehead. According to the official Thunder Bay website, several failed plebescites on merging the towns had been held over the years, and many names had been proposed for the merged city, including: Port Edward, Williamsport, Westport, Westgate, Port Thurwilliam, Fort Artwill and Port Fort.
The demonym for a person from Thunder Bay is Thunder Bayer.
On a quiet Friday night, I was leaving a restaurant in downtown Port Arthur when the pay phone rang at the southeast corner of Cumberland Street and Red River Road. It was a retro, lumpy brown plastic box and had the faded word TELEPHONE printed above it in all caps. (I’d once read that, before there were cellphones, a robust subculture of pay phone number collectors would dial pay phones at random just to talk to strangers, a practice apparently popularized in the 90s by David Letterman, who dedicated a segment of his show to calling up strangers passing by the pay phone in Times Square). I answered “Hello?” into the cold, brown plastic receiver. But after a few discouraging moments of silence, the caller just hung up.
SQUEAKY WHEEL GETS THE GREASE
Finally, following months of public outrage, the Hoito restaurant, a Finnish diner famous for its pancakes, returned crinkle cut fries to their menu. Some things shouldn’t change.
ROMANCING THE PAST
Along the Kaministiquia River in Thunder Bay is Fort William Historical Park, a 97-hectare reconstruction of the Fort William fur trading post, devoted to recreating the days of the North West Company and the Canadian fur trade. On elementary school trips to the old fort we learned that Fort William was once the largest fur trading post in Canada and lost its stature shortly after the North West Company was forced to merge with the Hudson’s Bay Company in the early nineteenth century, after a decades-long bloody rivalry between the two companies.
By the time I’d entered high school, we no longer studied the old fort in our Canadian history courses; instead I knew it as a place where some of my classmates got summer jobs dressing up for tourists as William Mcgillivray (chief director of the North West Company), Lord Selkirk, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, or, if you were a girl, a milkmaid or “country wife.”
Today, the old fort is one of Thunder Bay’s hottest wedding venues. Last year I attended two weddings at the old fort. Both weddings included an open bar, a speech made by a groomsman with references to high school, underage drinking and playing hockey on an outdoor rink, and a photo shoot with an early nineteenth-century replica of an Anishinaabe birch bark canoe. used by voyageurs to transport fur pelts from Fort William to Montreal. At one of the weddings a Hudson’s Bay-themed wedding cake was served, decorated with red, blue, green and yellow striped icing.
My nonna was a serious Catholic. Until I was around thirteen years old I would stay at her house on weekends and during summer holidays. Every night before bed she would remind me to “Say a prayer for baby Jesus” (which I did, along with a long list of more practical people I thought I should pray for) and she
would regularly paraphrase sayings from God like, “God said, you can do whatever you want but not for as long as you want.”
On Saturday mornings we would take a taxi downtown to the Eaton’s department store where my nonna would have her hair done and I would wait. Afterwards we would walk across the street to the drugstore for the weekly Soap Opera Digest and to catch the Hudson 7 bus back to her house. On Sunday mornings we would go to mass at St. Anthony’s
Church. Sometimes the priest would be invited over to my nonna’s house for dinner and my aunts and uncles would come.
This winter my nonna passed away and I was worried about making it back in time to say a eulogy before her funeral mass. In the fifteen years I’ve been travelling to and from Thunder Bay, I’ve learned the probability of being delayed by ice or snow storm is high (once, in the winter of 2009, I was delayed in Toronto for seven days and seven nights without my luggage
because of snow). But all of our praying must have gained some purchase because, although the Air Canada flight was still delayed, not a single snowflake fell in the five days between my arrival and departure.
Hope for spring’s arrival came on March 19, when the US Coast Guard’s Alder reached Thunder Bay as part of the annual ice-breaking operation on Lake Superior. Local papers reported that the vessel had been expected earlier, on March 13, but was delayed due to heavy ice near Duluth, Minnesota. I was in Thunder Bay at that time. “Look.” My aunt passed the binoculars. “Is the icebreaker still out there?” Looking out at Lake Superior from her kitchen window I saw in the distance that it was and as far as I could tell, it had a long way to go. But Thunder Bayers no longer have to wait for spring to see an icebreaker in their harbour. Alexander Henry, the retired icebreaker named after the Canadian fur trader, has returned to Port Arthur, where it was built in 1958, and may soon be open to the public. The city of Thunder Bay purchased Alexander Henry for either $1 or $2 from the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes in Kingston, Ontario, where the vessel had been moored from 1986, serving as a bed and breakfast and museum, advertised to “boat buffs” who for $35 could “eat, breathe and sleep their passion aboard the 210-foot breaker.” The Canadian Coast Guard currently has fifteen icebreakers in operation: Louis S. St-laurent, Terry Fox, Pierre Radisson, Amundsen, Des Groseilliers, Henry Larsen, Ann Harvey, Edward Cornwallis, Georges R. Pearkes, Griffon, Martha L. Black, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Sir William Alexander, Earl Grey and Samuel Risley. A sixteenth ship, the John G. Diefenbaker, is scheduled to join the fleet sometime in the early 2020s.
A MATTER OF DEGREES
My nonna told me many times the story of when she immigrated to Thunder Bay from northern Italy with her seven children. She suffered two weeks by sea and another week by rail and when they got to Thunder Bay, in August 1957, it snowed. This was her way of reminding me that the winter I knew growing up could be worse. I looked up the Government of Canada’s monthly data report for 1957. It didn’t snow until October of that year, but the extreme minimum
temperature in August dropped to a low of 1.1 degrees Celsius. So it turns out her story wasn’t that far off.
I was seventeen years old the first time I left Thunder Bay, for university in Ottawa. The second time I left I was twenty-four and it was for Vancouver or, as my father phrased it, for “some guy.” When he took me to the airport I promised him I wouldn’t marry “the guy.” Then five years later we were married in Thunder Bay in Waverley Park, where my mother and father first met in 1971 when my mom was just fifteen and my dad sixteen. “Go west, young man” was a common expression among their generation, used to describe those leaving Ontario for the West Coast in search of work. In her mid-twenties my mom applied to be a flight attendant but realized after the interview that she wouldn’t be able to live in a city as big as Toronto: the biggest city they had ever been to back then was Duluth, Minnesota, with a population of 100,000. Leaving home isn’t one of the things that gets easier with practice, something that my nonna might have known because in the sixty-one years that she lived in Thunder Bay, she only went back to see her family in Italy once. It’s always hard to leave your first home even if it’s been fifteen years and even if it’s winter and not just because you might be snowed in.
From Songs for a Lost Pod, a comic book–album collaboration between Taylor Brown Evans and Leah Abramson. Taylor Brown-evans is a writer, illustrator and cartoonist living in Vancouver. His work has appeared previously in Geist, Matrix, Poetry Is...
and many other publications. He lives in Vancouver. Leah Abramson is a singer, songwriter, composer and multi-instrumentalist. Songs For a Lost Pod is her fourth album of original songs and her first comic book collaboration. She lives in Vancouver...