Black Holes, Chainsaws & Other Life Lessons From North of Superior
For a true city girl, taking the road less travelled can be a little daunting, particularly in the dead of winter, North of Superior. But one of the joys of my profession is travelling across this amazing country, meeting people of all walks, and hearing their unique stories. As an added benefit, for someone who doesn’t know the difference between what is due north and what is a dew worm, my vocation offers a firsthand opportunity to make up for a lack of proficiency in the subject of Canadian geography.
So, when asked to present to a health care group in Geraldton, Ontario, I figured ‘bring it on!’ Sure, I knew it would take me ‘Up North’ – I just didn’t realize how far! As a B.C. native I will admit being a tad naive about Ontario’s north, painting it with a rather broad brush, as a pleasant and picturesque place starting about two hours north of Toronto – where green meadows give way to pine and those bright coloured rocks that gridlocked cottagers assemble into roadside inuksuk’s. Anyway, me being a nurse and the client in healthcare, it was a perfect fit, and I accepted the invitation to speak. I mean how could I say no? Mind you I did have a show the very next day in Toronto, but I dismissed any concern, confident that logistics were a trivial detail to work out later.
So, feeling very pleased I boast to my husband about my latest gig. “That’s great! And where is it?” he said. I struggle to reply, as approach-avoidance conflict kicked in. “In Geraldton?” I said, up talking on ‘Geraldton’ which, of course, made it sound like a question. “Geraldton?” he said, his voice telegraphing concern. “Yes! Geraldton?” I said, up talking like I have the vocal chords of a valley girl. “Ever been there, hon?” I ask, panic now taking hold of me. “Well, no. But Geraldton used to be in my brother’s sales territory and in winter his employer sent him out with a survival suit and three days rations.”
He smiles. “You are joking, right?” The look in my eyes says otherwise. He fetches his laptop. “You know that we are talking north of Superior right?” he said tapping in some co-ordinates. “Like 280 km northeast of Thunder Bay!” he says. I feel faint as blood drains from my head. Thoughts pop like balls in an automatic bingo machine. Visions of being stranded on a lonely stretch of snow swept, northern highway, being stalked by hungry wolves dance through my mind. I laugh nervously. He was prone to overdramatize. “Ha, right! Good one!” I say. “So…when is the gig?” he asks. “March 4. That’s a Wednesday at 8 pm. At the Legion” I say, withholding one very vital piece of information. Finally, I drop the bomb. “There may be a…complication. I have a show at noon the next day in downtown Toronto” I said. These words I blurt out at triple speed, as if saying them faster will somehow get me out of the pickle I have placed myself in.
I am thinking “What have I gotten myself into now?” when WHAM! I realize I am asking myself the WRONG question. So, rather than “What have I gotten MYSELF into NOW?” I reframe it to the more surmountable “What have I gotten US into NOW?” That is “US” as in Husband and Wife and “NOW” as in the perfect opportunity for a road trip and marital bonding!
Travel day arrives and we fly into Thunder Bay. It is a balmy minus 23. We escape the city, taking in the awesome beauty of Lake Superior and the frozen surrounds. We speed east on the Trans Canada, past the Terry Fox monument, and onward to Nipigon. My husband, now conscripted as my chauffeur, informs me there are two important facts to know about Nipigon: 1) it is the home of Al Hackner, 1982 World Curling champ; and 2) the Tim Horton’s we are about to pass is the last one for 402 kilometers. FOUR HUNDRED & TWO? This truly boggled my mind, more so than time travel and black holes, given that back home in Oakville I could swing a cat and hit two Tim Horton’s from the middle of just about any intersection. It seems we were now poised to enter the Canadian equivalent to the Twilight Zone.
Obviously, we avail ourselves of Tim’s. As I head to the Ladies Room I am affronted by a sign outside the washroom with massive bold lettering that reads: “Customer use only. No bathing, showering, WASHING, shaving, CHANGING, brushing OF TEETH, or GARGLing permitted.” I couldn’t possibly make that stuff up, and I am sure it contravened the Canadian Charter of Rights. If this really is the last coffee stop for 402 km. maybe we should able to take a bath in the Tim Horton’s Washroom!
Fueled and caffeinated we press on to Geraldton, enjoying the spectacular scenery. Once in town I set out to visit the Legion Hall where I will speak. Unsure of its location I approach an elderly woman who, despite the cold, is enjoying a smoke on the steps of the local hospital. “Hello!” I say “Could you direct me to the Legion, please?” She takes a long pull on her cigarette, exhaling slowly, giving the question more weight than perhaps it deserved. “Well, if I remember right” she said “…head back down Hogarth, then take a left on Main…NO! Wait” she says catching herself, eyes darting skyward. “Make that a right. Yes, make a right – forget left- make that a hard right at the Chainsaw Store, then two doors down, same side.” Hard right at the chainsaw store? Directions never uttered back in my cushy world.
While I could not imagine living in Geraldton, neither would any of the wonderful people I met imagine giving up what they had for the creature comforts of the south. Sure they couldn’t mosey into a Tim’s, or play winter tennis in a bubble, or take in the bright lights of the big city. What they did have was an incredible sense of community, and a connection with the land that they would never trade in. They treasured the pristine wilderness just minutes from their back door and had plenty to look forward to: from fund raising concerts, to bonspiels, to poker runs and fishing derbies.
That evening at the Legion, undeterred by minus 30 degree temperatures, the people of Geraldton opened their hearts to share their stories and their laughter. We celebrated their work as health care professionals, and the difference they made in their community. The spirit they showed lifted my heart and gave me an extra kick in my step, which was a good thing, as we were to be back on the road and Toronto bound by 3 am the next morning!
As we drove out of town at that ungodly hour, I felt grateful. Had common sense prevailed I would never have made the trip. Nor would I have had the opportunity to meet the people of this remote, rugged and beautiful place and have them teach me what ‘Up North’ is truly about. As our plane lifted off from Thunder Bay and as my eyes drifted back north of Superior, I saw the land through a much different lens. Quite the geography lesson it was. Thanks Geraldton!