‘Going Down the Road’ to
It was the
spring of 1961 and I was in the process of finishing my first year in geology at
. I badly needed a summer job if I was to return to University next fall, but
the industry was in a slump and jobs were few and far between. After sending out
some 230 applications to any company in the Canadian Mines Handbook that looked
the least bit active, I was finally rewarded with my one and only offer from
Madsen Red Lake Gold Mines in
camp. For a young lad from a small, sleepy Waspy town in south western Nova
Scotia, the thought of finally getting out of province (in spite of what some of
my Cape Breton friends would say, my one trip to “The Isle” really didn’t
count!) and half way across the Dominion was an exciting event in itself. But in
many ways it was to be a culture shock.
cookery the night I arrived my attention was drawn to the fact that I had been
transplanted into a mini united nations.
Lake, like many of the Canadian gold mining camps, had been a focus for immigration
over the previous three decades. The first wave saw an influx of Canadians from
across the country, including even a few Nova Scotians, but particularly people
of Ukrainian, Polish, Scandinavian, and British decent uprooted from western
and seeking relief from the dust bowl years of impossible prairie agriculture.
The second wave consisted of central and western Europeans, all of whom were
to improve upon their fortunes after suffering the devastating adversity of
World War II and the hardships of reconstruction. This group included people of
German, Polish, and Italian decent, along with a few Central Europeans who had
managed to make it to the West before the Iron Curtain was drawn closed. By the
time I arrived on the scene these two groups were the backbone of mine
operations. Although the subsequent transmigration of a large segment of this
population from the bush to the cities of Southern Ontario had begun, those that
stayed behind provided a lasting legacy in that their children today continue to
form the backbone of Ontario’s, and perhaps even Canada’s, operational
group was small when compared with the above two groups, but none the less
important. They had seized on the opportunity to exchange their labour for
relatively high Canadian mining wages for a period of a few years. Their open
intent was to eventually go back home to their families in
, or the
, buy a small vineyard, and become a gentlemen farmer. They were good
underground and, I assume, in the vineyard. Many succeeded!
group was the smallest and consisted of a few political refugees who had escaped
from Iron Curtain countries as a result of, and sometimes in spite of, post WW
II anti-Communist uprisings. A vivid memory remains of one of my roommates of
that summer, a young lad of about 24 who five years earlier had participated in
the futile attempt to change the Hungarian political structure, had managed to
escape via a machine gun under his arm, and made his way to Canada and Red Lake
with effectively nothing more that the shirt on his back.
kid from the Waspy small town in south western
impressed with his introduction to the real world? You bet!! There is no doubt
that this first experience in Canadian mining forever enriched my life. And to
paraphrase the guy from the razor company, I was so impressed I married into
“Going Down the Road” to
summer student from a small
town, my exposure to the ethnic mosaic in
in 1961 had had a major positive long term influence on the rest of my life.
However, there was another major pervasive influence in
that likewise had a
major influence on my enjoyment of the community during that summer and since.
morning on the job at Madsen Red Lake Gold Mines I was sent into
to the Red Cross hospital for a chest x-ray for my
miner’s card. I had briefly driven through the community the previous Sunday
afternoon but had seen nothing that particularly caught my attention, simply a
town site nestled on bedrock immediately adjacent to a water body
- shades of the Maritimes. But Monday morning provided me with a totally
different perspective.... there were a host of float-equipped airplanes taking
off and landing on the bay within 200 yards of the main street. This was
of the early ‘60’s, and to
some extent even today, was a frontier town at the end of the road. If one
wanted to go further north one flew, paddled, or walked, and by 1960 most opted
to fly in the host of bush planes available from bases along the main street.
The planes were focused on providing service to three main clientele - first,
the mining exploration industry which had been the backbone of the expansion of
air service into the area in the mid-1920’s; secondly, a host of tourist camps
providing hunting and fishing experiences to US sportsmen; and thirdly, the
Aboriginal communities to the north.
the end of the road had given
a frontier ethic - people worked hard and played hard. Wages were good and
people had money to spend. The liquor store, and yes, even a few bootleggers,
were well patronized. Parties were still often weekend affairs. The last house
of ill repute was still in place, and it’s retired, aging madam had become a
pillar in the community. Payday table stakes poker games were still to be found,
and the odd newcomer caught cheating was likely to find himself being helped out
of the muck pile after being tossed off the second story veranda.
were aware of the fact they were at the end of the road and family vacations
were directed at “going out”, while the unattached with vehicles often
“went out” to the neon lights of Winnipeg for the weekend. A newcomer in
town had only to smile and be friendly and was assured of readily being drawn
into the activities of the community. Many
of the newcomers from other parts of
to make some fast money and move back home to the better life. While a few did,
most moved out after a few years with little more to show for it than some good
memories and a few more candles on their cake. A few decided to stay!
some still active from the thirties, moved freely but stealthily in and out of
town, still enjoying the thrill of the hunt and trying to cook up deals with any
exploration company that might darken the Mining Recorder’s door. The Ontario
Provincial Police high
grading squad was still actively attempting to keep the miners honest. Baseball
flourished in the summer with each mine having a team; summer staff was often
recruited based on their ball playing abilities. Government officials were
frequently moving through the community as they carried out their assigned
responsibilities in the isolated northern communities. New pilots came from across
the country looking for their chance to move into the left hand seat of a Cessna
180 or, for the more experienced, a Norseman. They would work from dawn to dark
for ten days straight until the weather gave them a chance to blow off some of
the built up stress during a two day party. Many moved on to regional and
national airlines. Saturday morning in the summer would see the local
restaurants filled to over flowing with drawl-accented fishermen from
waiting for their turn to fly out to some remote lodge or outpost camp. Many
returned next year!
were busy, everyone was optimistic, and, remarkably, no one was old!