Ryan Taylor An 1886 trip to Northern Ontario


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By Ryan Taylor

Northern Ontario sometimes gets a bad press. Mosquitoes, black flies, snow in August, that sort of thing.

But it has its fans too, and at its most pristine, it can be Worth Travelling Miles to See-the title of a new book about a survey trip to Lake Temiskaming in 1886.

Lorene DiCorpo has taken the pocket diaries of Alexander Telfer and created a glimpse of a part of Canada few of us have seen today, let alone a century ago.

Telfer was a member of Alexander Niven's surveying party in the Temiskaming region, the Ontario government's first step in exploring and settling there. Fortunately, he writes graphically and in detail.

Pioneer hotels were fairly basic. Telfer walked from LaVase to Sundridge, a distance of forty miles. Halfway he came to McDonald's boarding house, where he stayed overnight. Mrs McDonald made up a bed for him on the floor, but by the time he got to it, some other men had stolen it for their own use. He rested on bare boards wrapped in his horse blanket, but did not sleep much.

Out in the bush, sleeping was precarious, too. Talfer wrote: "Considerable rain last night, patter, pattering, not on the shingles but on the canvas close to your ear...While lying on our brush bed, some sleeping and snoring, others awake, listing to the patter, patter of the rain, the canvas becoming wet and heavy, and one ridge pole being too light, it bent and slipped out of the post, and down came the whole tent on top of us."

That sounds like some camping trips I've been on.

Telfer's observation that everywhere they go, people are cutting timber and building, shows how early it was in the process of settling the area. DiCorpo has extensively annotated the diary, and her explanations highlight the historical significance of Telfer's work. She includes biographical material on the pioneers Telfer met on his journey.

Worth Travelling Miles to See is published by Natural Heritage Books and can be bought at bookstores everywhere ($21.95).

Natural Heritage has also published After the Hector: The Scottish Pioneers of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, 1773-1852, by Lucille H. Campey. A new Campey book on Scottish pioneers has become an annual affair.

The first Scots arrived in 1773, sparking a flood which gave Nova Scotia both its name and its character. This book claims to be the first detailed account of the migration, which includes all known passenger lists of the period.

Not merely dry statistics, Campey's narrative includes glimpses of Scottish life brought to the new world-the struggle of Gaelic to survive, the tension between humourless Presbyterian clergy and Highlanders with a natural human tendency to enjoyment. "Even some of the more fun-loving traditions like their fiddling had to withstand the jibes of stern clergymen who believed all musical merriment to be the work of the devil."

The Highlanders were used to a harsh landscape and an agricultural life that provided a living, but not a lush life. Perhaps that was why they were so successful in Canada: the northern climate held no surprises for these tough settlers.

Many readers will approach Campey's books as reference tools to discover more about the ships which brought the Scots to Canada, but they also offer vivid pictures of Scottish life which are a pleasure to read. For heritage-minded descendants of the Nova Scotia pioneers, After the Hector will provide both information and a bright sense of how these people lived.

After the Hector ($27.95) is also available through any bookstore. Information about this and other beautifully-produced titles from Natural Heritage can be found at their website.

Posted June 23, 2004
Column copyright © 2004 Ryan Taylor

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