T-bay Notes

Leav­ing Thun­der Bay isn’t one of the things that gets eas­ier with prac­tice

Geist - - Geist - Jen­nesia Pedri


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.


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.


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.


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 Dead, the Feather­tale Re­view

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 and at lea­habram­son.com.

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