This Thanksgiving weekend Mike and I did a fall-colours road trip that began out of a desire to see the farm in northern Ontario that my family lived on for a few short years when I was a child.
There’s something about childhood homes, if the memories are largely happy ones, that always seems to draw us back. I think it’s because we’re in them during our formative years, when we create the most powerful memories.
Certainly as a child I loved living ‘up north’, and missed it terribly when we moved down to southern Ontario just in time for my 8th birthday.
We moved to northern Ontario to follow family friends who’d moved there a couple of years previously. My father was a very smart man with a strong entrepreneurial streak but not a great facility for making money. Coming from a European background where hunting was a long-standing tradition, he decided to open a pheasant-hunting farm in the tiny community of Kynoch, at that time about two hours west of Sudbury, where our friends had their own farm.
We drove through miles of wild forested land where the roads snaked through towering cliffs of granite. Once we left the Trans-Canada Highway, though, at the small town of Iron Bridge, we were really in the hinterland, bouncing up and down a steeply rolling dirt and gravel road about half-an-hour to where our farm was located.
Our farm was just around a bend in the road along a creek lined with alder trees. Our property covered both sides of the road – in the summertime my mom and I would go across to the other side to pick wild blueberries. We lived in a 2-story pink-sided farmhouse overlooking another winding creek; we had a barn that my dad painted with the lettering Sandhill Farms (for the sandhill cranes that migrated through the area), 2 large toolsheds (one of which became the brooding house with incubators for the pheasant chicks), an outhouse and a pump house (in those days no one had running water or indoor plumbing), hollyhocks out front and a long curved driveway where I first learned to ride a bike.
Northern Ontario was a spectacular place to be a kid, but I don’t think it was an easy life for my parents. The weather was often lovely – fresh clean air, a dry climate and lots of sunshine – but when it decided to raise a tantrum, the results were dramatic. I remember torrential rain and fog so heavy we couldn’t see past the hood of our truck, snow several feet thick from mid-autumn to late April that blanketed the countryside and sometimes made going to school impossible, winter temperatures that dipped as low as 42oF below zero. There were also a wide variety of biting insects that all loved to eat me, although they didn’t bother my brother very much – so much for equality in genetics!
But there were long twilights when my friends and I would walk barefoot through the dewy fields for miles, breathtaking fall colours lining the winding road that my brother and I walked to school every day, building huge and elaborate snow forts in the winter, the scent of wood smoke in the air, swimming in a clear cold lake for hours after which we all had coffee from a thermos and Spam sandwiches. At dusk the whip-poor-wills would make their eerie calls, and many times we’d spot white-tailed deer bounding away into the woods as we drove along the roads.
I wasn’t sure what I’d still find there on our adventure last weekend. Mike and I have driven up there before, although not for many years, and I knew that our farmhouse had at some point been demolished and a small log home put up in its place.
The old one-room schoolhouse had long since disappeared and a small house erected; the road had been roughly paved and many of the dramatic rises and falls had been smoothed out. When we lived there we had access to only two television stations, but in the intervening years satellite dishes had begun to sprout on the farmhouses.
Mike and I set out before dawn on a very foggy morning, stopping at French River just like my family used to do on our trips to visit our friends after we moved down to the Niagara region. The old picnic tables and roadside rest area have been replaced by a provincial park area that includes quite a trek to get the river, but we spread a plaid blanket on some rocks overlooking the river and had our breakfast baguettes with a thermos of hot tea, followed by some wonderful gluten-free pumpkin whoopee pies.
We ran in to quite a bit of construction the further north we got, but the fall colours were spectacular. We stopped in the town of Blind River, where my family used to go about once a month to get groceries, and I think it’s gotten smaller rather than larger. Certainly the hospital where I had my tonsils out has been replaced by a smallish health centre. The town of Iron Bridge, where we turned off onto RR 554, has so little left that it’s almost non-existent.
But, oh the feeling as we drove along 554 through the brilliantly coloured trees! We stopped at Little White River, where my dad would often take us to swim among the rocks, and the old church and graveyard are still next to it. Our old farm, just down the road, looks very much the same, although all the outbuildings are collapsed – but the views up the hillside where the road swings left are the same, and the small alder trees still line the creek.
Many of the old families are still living in the same farmhouses, judging by the names on the mailboxes at the edges of the road. Across from where the schoolhouse stood, there’s still a hall where our entire school, all 8 rows of us, put on a Christmas concert for our families. Our friends’ farmhouse is still there, if looking a bit creaky.
After taking lots of pictures, we continued onward to the junction with the road to Thessalon, where we turned right to go to Cumming Lake, the chilly source of our summer swimming adventures, and I was able to find the exact same spot where we used to hike in from the road, although the sandy beach has since been inundated; it was already receding when we lived there. I dipped my fingers in the water and remembered happy times paddling around on old inner tubes.
They say you can’t go back, but I did, and because I had no expectations of finding much of anything the same, what I did find was an absolute delight. It was a wonderful trip down memory lane, and made me recall just why I missed the area so much after we moved. Not sure I could do the long winters again, though, so I’ll just have my photos and memories to enjoy, along with any further trips back in the future.