THE POWER OF THE NAIL
From blacksmithing to Indigenous legends to Parliament Hill: how one class forged an unforgettable relationship with Canada’s past
From blacksmithing to Indigenous legends to Parliament Hill, how one class forged an unforgettable relationship with Canada’s past
A CLANG REVERBERATES through the room and sparks light up the faces of the students standing huddled around the pulsing fire. “You have to strike while the iron is hot,” says blacksmith Don Mackay, a Parks Canada interpreter at Ontario’s Jones Falls Lockstation. “That’s an old expression that comes from blacksmithing.” He deals another blow to the red-hot iron he has pressed against the anvil, before plunging it into a barrel of water. The hissing steam has the students leaning in for a closer look. It’s crowded inside the small forge, which sits on the forested banks of the Rideau Canal, but Mackay has their undivided attention as he explains the history of blacksmithing. For these Grade 8 students from Dr. Roy Wilson Learning Centre in Medicine Hat, Alta., Mackay’s demonstration is just one of many incredible stops on the 2018 Canada’s Coolest School Trip. The all-expenses-paid, five-day journey to historic and natural sites in eastern Ontario was the grand prize of the annual national Parks Canada competition, hosted in partnership with The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Historica Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Federation, Nature Canada and Air Canada. The class’s photo essay about fire safety awareness in Elkwater campgrounds in Cypress Hills Provincial Park on the southern Alberta-saskatchewan border was voted best of the entries, which aimed to document stewardship in natural or historic places. Mackay invites the students to pump the bellows, giving them some first-hand experience in blacksmithing. “I’ve had people come back after 20 years and say, ‘Look, I’ve still got that nail you gave me,’ ” recalls Mackay. “I call it the power of the nail. It only takes about 20 seconds, but the kids help make something and get to keep it. It’s the most important thing I do here.”
“HE LOOKED INTO the darkness and from that darkness a large wolf came to him,” says Arihonni David, his voice carrying over the students in a gazebo overlooking the St. Lawrence River in Thousand Islands National Park. “It was growling and snapping, and he could see that it had an arrow in its back.” As the students listen to the Haudenosaunee legend about a hunter and his four loyal dogs battling an evil spirit, dusk falls over the campsite at Mallorytown Landing. David and his team from the Native North American Travelling College share stories about their people’s history and culture, explaining that the park sits on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee People. The students then enjoy hot chocolate and s’mores around a campfire before finally turning in for the night. Early the next morning, they head to Gananoque, where they’re greeted by 1000 Islands Kayaking instructors. The students practise stroke techniques on the shore before they head out onto the water. Bobbing and bumping into each other on the waves, they form a loose line, following behind their group leader like a train of ducklings. Student Liam Heath is struck by how much water there is everywhere. Heath has never been kayaking before, and like all his classmates, he ends up pretty wet. “It’s not as easy as the professionals make it look,” he jokes. The next stop is Fort Wellington National Historic Site, where a soldier in period costume meets them at the fortified gates. Fort Wellington was built during the War of 1812 to defend ships on the St. Lawrence River from attacks by the United States. Parks Canada interpreter John Lawless gives the students a tour of the fort, ending in the enormous stone blockhouse that once served as barracks for soldiers and their families. “Twenty-five families used to live inside the blockhouse — a total of about 80 people sleeping in the main room,” says Lawless. “Everyone was locked in at night, not only for safety, but also as a way to keep people from deserting.” In those days, living quarters were cramped, dirty and smelly, with people taking a bath only once a year. Rats were also a big problem and would scurry around under the beds. The students sleep in the blockhouse that night. “It was pretty cool that we got to sleep there,” says Justin Perich, despite the tales. “Not a lot of people get to do that.”
MANY OF THE STUDENTS didn’t know each other before the trip, having come
from different classes to participate in the competition, but by the time the trip ends in Ottawa, they’ve all made new friends. In the nation’s capital, the students meet Parks Canada’s youth ambassadors, tour Parliament Hill, visit the Bank of Canada Museum, and shop and dine in the Byward Market. They finish the day at Laurier House National Historic Site, the former home of two Canadian prime ministers, Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King. In this Victorian-era mansion, with its dark wood-panelled walls and richly furnished rooms, costumed interpreters take the students back in time to the Second World War, weaving together historical facts and fictional intrigue. Soon, the sound of laughter and footsteps are heard echoing through the halls as students race to find clues to a mystery set before them. “The students put forth their best efforts, put their hearts into this trip,” says Adele Henderson, the teacher who supervised the students. “I’m grateful for their new love and appreciation of Canada and how they grew as people on this trip.”
Tanya Kirnishni is Canadian Geographic’s special projects editor.
Clockwise from above left: Kayaking in Thousand Islands National Park; a campfire session at Mallorytown Landing; posing at Parliament; learning about money at the Bank of Canada Museum; an Ottawa Airport greeting from Parks Canada’s mascot Parka; a guide at Laurier House National Historic Site; Don Mackay at his forge.