March 23, 1917 Up North

March 23, 1917

Union Station: I’m waiting on the platform. My packing was quick; like breaking camp. I had everything together by late in the morning. I didn’t have much to bring so I could easily carry it all. My rucksack containing my sketchbox and paints, my rolled-up blankets, and my canvas dunnage bag. Jim MacDonald came by to visit one last time. He was sad to see me go so soon. I saw the exhaustion in his eyes. Nerves, money troubles and marriage obligations. Poor Jim. I bid him goodbye and promised him a letter once I got settled in.

I could have walked to Union Station, but I decided to take the Yonge streetcar. It was an awkward affair when I tried to board. I was hoping that if I waited long enough, an empty car would come along but I was wrong. Another passenger helped me bring my stuff on board.  The way he looked at me, I am sure he thought I was travelling to enlist, or to run away. He didn’t ask anything. I was glad for that. I didn’t need the attention from the other passengers thinking the same thing. I just wanted to leave.

The train is coming into the station…

I am in an older Pullman car. This car, judging by its condition, is from the last century. The faded emerald green ceiling, the painted-over oak panels and the uneven springs in the cushions signal its age.  I’m sure this car has seen all of Canada and most of the U. S. Maybe a Duke or Duchess has travelled in this car, or a famous author, like Conan Doyle. He and his wife travelled through Canada in 1914 and visited Algonquin Park.

Grand Trunk uses the older equipment early in the season. When the weather gets warmer and the tourists start coming from Buffalo and New York, they switch to the newer stuff: the first class drawing room and sleeping cars. They keep the best equipment for the Americans, they’re still holidaying in decent numbers. Earlier in the year, it’s mostly miners going up North to Porcupine for the silver.

I’m glad leaving Toronto. Before the war, it was a happy place. Upon declaration of war (I was up North at the time in August 1914), the happiness rose to a state of ecstasy. Marching bands, dances, parades, and the grand send-offs. But the spirit of exuberance and enthusiasm began to disappear by the winter of 1915 when the mothers and wives of  recruits began to receive the telegrams telling that their loved ones were to never to return. When the wounded and broken men came back, the spirit disappeared entirely. The clubs are empty, the colleges are vacant; the city has lost its soul.

The train is crawling along the lakeshore. It is veering north past the munitions factories, through the cattle stockyards and the slums to make its exit out of the city.

Up into the hills, into the uplands. I’ll try to get some sleep.

We touch the shore of Lake Simcoe.  I can see on the opposite shore, the town of Barrie, nestling in a comfortable setting of English-style villas. The lake is still frozen, another month of ice at least.

Kempenfelt Bay, Muskoka Lake.  A pale-faced passenger gets off. A consumptive as far I can tell, seeking the cool clean air.

Huntsville. I could stop for a few hours to visit Winnie but I decide to go through because I don’t want to miss the connection at Scotia Junction.

Scotia Junction: If any place along the line that shows that the Grand Trunk was having difficulties, it’s Scotia Junction. The station used to have a pretty little tower, with two-tone decorative wood-siding and ample room for travellers and separate facilities for crews and section-men. But the station burned down in 1912 and the replacement is a simple single storey structure where the crew and the travellers share the facilities. The spittoons never seem to be emptied, giving rise to an unredemptive reeking sour smoky smell.

I board the eastbound 580 2nd Class. Kearney, Ravensworth, Rainy Lake. This section of line climbing into the Park is nerve-wracking. One of the crew has to get out and pour sand on the rails for traction. The puffing, screeching and creaking make for a terrible racket as the train attacks  the highest point in the Park. I know the train crew. I hitched rides with them last summer so I’m not worried. They know this line. But I was nervous when we crossed of the Cashman Creek trestle — it’s 500 feet long and 80 feet high. The section men keep a close eye on this one so there’s little chance of German sabotage.

The final leg of my ride is empty of passengers, save for me and two others with deep frowns on their faces.  First I thought they were miners or prospectors, but they’d be going up past North Bay, not through the Park. They must be part of a work  gang going to the east end of the Park. There’s rumours that there’s still alien camps out near Petawawa.

I arrive at Canoe Lake. New moon, pitch dark, save for a single lantern on the platform. Well I’ll be. It’s Shannon. He’s here to pick me up. Train is stopping. More tomorrow.

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