NORTHERN EXPLORATIONS (Iroquois Falls Weekend, Part 2)

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Continued from The Trip North   

Road-weary, Tessi and I, accompanied by the rumble of my broken muffler, which had lost its purpose a few hours earlier, finally reached my friend Nicky’s place in Iroquois Falls. Thirteen hours after setting out very early in the morning, we conveniently arrived just in time for supper. With our last face-to-face visit adrift long ago in the past, however, Nicky and I chatted extensively before settling in or thinking about food. Her boyfriend, Randy, enjoys cooking and had prepared a spaghetti dish ready for us to delve into at our leisure.

Tessi took to Nicky’s home like she does with everyone else’s—like it’s new territory for her to explore. And Nicky instantly took to Tessi, very much missing her own sweet-natured Mandy, who has been gone for a couple years. Once excited chatter had settled and the tasty meal was eaten, we stashed the dirty dishes in the sink and headed out for a walk around Nicky’s hometown of Iroquois Falls. Iroquois Falls is a bit off the beaten path at about 75 km (47 mi) from Timmins, 50 km (31 mi) from Cochrane and 10 km (6.2 mi) from Hwy 11, aka Yonge St, which is reportedly—and controversially—the longest street in the world. Iroquois Falls’ population of 4595 (according to 2011 census) almost mirrors that of my southern Ontario hometown; yet, it embraces a northern feel mine would never experience with the annual interference of heavy, humid summers. The Abitibi River Our first morning in town presented an overcast sky sprouting occasional showers. With the sun hidden away, the indescribable sweet smell drifted in. (It seems to disappear when the sun shines.) I had forgotten the unique fragrance that so intrigued me during my first visit years before. Nicky thinks maybe it’s the combination of the wildflowers and other plant life—and the lack of smog. To me, however, it isn’t typical of a floral or vegetation type of scent. If I hadn’t caught isolated whiffs of the local paper mill’s distinctive odour, I would almost wonder if it was part of the mysterious sweet smell. I was relieved when the rain slowed down so that we could enjoy a dry walk for Tessi. Since Nicky knows her town better, I left her with the task of figuring out where we could offer Tessi safe freedom to roam. It wasn’t an easy judgment to make; bears are occasionally even spotted in town. We ended up at its edge, down by the Abitibi River. Seeing her cousin and his buddy fishing from the sandy shore made us feel less vulnerable. After chatting for a few minutes, we wandered on, letting Tessi sniff through the bits of grass. We didn’t get far; bushes soon blocked the way. On our return, Tessi snatched a minnow out of the guys’ bait bucket. They didn’t mind. They considered her battling with the wiggly fish far more entertaining than their unsuccessful attempts at fishing. While we strolled, I contemplated the lofty bridge spanning the river downstream. During my previous visit, I had taken it as a challenge to step unto its grated surface, which unnervingly reveals the river far, far below. I think Tessi’s small paws would slip right through the spaces. Even driving over it is daunting. Bush Cruising As the day moved on, the sun stayed mostly hidden, but the sky brightened enough to illuminate the fluffiness of the clouds passing over. Nicky wanted to show us their bush world. With cameras at our sides, and the picnic Randy had fixed for us and other supplies stowed away, Nicky drove us out of town in his truck. It handles the rough bush roads better than her car. Once we made it over the scary bridge, it was about a 45 minute drive on a main gravel “highway” (what probably would have been paved farther south) to reach the bush road to take us where Randy has a camp set up for work. As we turned off the main road (the “highway”), we encountered a rough and bumpy sandy bush road. The deeper into the woods we bounced, the lumpier the bumps became, giving me a serious case of motion sickness. I felt better upon arrival at the camp. Our stay was brief; numerous wasps buzzed around the cabin. We lingered long enough for me to appreciate the scenery behind it, where a lake fills in the backdrop through surrounding trees. Nicky needed to make use of the 4x4 feature of the truck to reach the top of the steep hill leading from the cabin. Then the lever stuck when she tried resetting it back to the regular mode. Fortunately, after a bit of fiddling, whatever had gone wrong righted itself. Cell phone coverage is nonexistent back in those woods and I’d forgotten what it’s like to not have the option of one in an emergency. We would have been in for a long, long walk. We could have walked—still a lengthy trek—out to where campers have set up on Crown land. Anyone can legally stay for free for 21 days; but most push past the limit. Unfortunately, these summer squatters abandon their garbage all over, ruining it for others who care about the wilderness. The Narrows We stopped at a part of Mistango Lake called the Narrows. Acquaintances of Nicky’s were camping on the Crown land near its sandy shore. She appreciates that these campers respect their surroundings and keep it clean. While Nicky talked to them, Tessi and I meandered along the water’s edge where the lake pinches into a thin stream in its middle. I could discern tracks where four-wheelers had run through the narrow band of water and disappeared into the woods on the far side. It made it look like a washed-out trail. More Cruisin’ Nicky took a detour off the main road to show us where they stock up on spring water. It gushes out of a pipe sticking out of a hillside in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. No waste of bottles for them. We toured down a few more bush roads in hopes of spotting moose or bears, which we never did. We only came across a pile of excrement a bear had left behind. Of smaller creatures, we found a beautiful snake with a bright orange underbelly sunning itself from the roadside. We managed to take some pictures before it slithered away. Then shortly after turning back onto the main road again, Nicky had to quickly slow down to avoid hitting a partridge dawdling in the middle of it. The bird crossed and stopped to the left of us to wait for her six babies as they took their time joining her. While we shot picture after picture, Tessi whined and whined in hopes of a different kind of capture. Though we hadn’t seen any big animals, I came away from our drive pleased at our small sightings and amazed at the network of bush roads hidden away in those forests. Giant warning signs stating that moose are night hazards are common on the roads around Iroquois Falls, and in the north in general. Sadly, we found out later, a man had lost his life from hitting a moose that night on one of the roads we had toured on. Horseshoe Lake The next day, we headed to another campsite, which Randy rents at Horseshoe Lake. It was a quiet Monday and we were alone. We could keep an eye on the immediate open area around us, but I kept Tessi close to me anyway. There were enough trees surrounding the campsites to hide roaming bears. While Nicky took care of some necessary tasks, Tessi and I headed down the adjoining hill to reach the tiny lake. As we followed the rough pathway cut through crowded bunchberries, many of which were displaying their white flowers, a bird interrupted the quiet with its pretty verse until a raven took over with its squawking message. On the narrow beach, I pondered the rows of bleached-out twigs and branches lying perpendicular to the water. Back in the main area of the campsite, Tessi caught a whiff of something under the outhouse, which was out of sight—for obvious reasons, I’m sure. I had to call her back often since she kept sneaking off. She must have smelled something we didn’t. (I actually didn’t smell anything, thankfully, off the rarely used structure.) I finally had to tether her so Nicky and I could concentrate on a bit of badminton. Neither of us had played in years. We mainly swatted the birdie back and forth. Well, most of the time one of us walloped it to the other where it landed on the ground. What a laugh. We gave up and returned to a more accomplished activity—chatting—while we nibbled on the picnic food leftover from the day before. Yummy Poutine Back at Nicky’s place for supper, I decided I had to indulge in poutine for our final evening’s stay. Local chip wagons offer the best poutine I’ve ever tasted. I never did conquer the French pronunciation of the word when I visited years before. (The region embodies a strong French culture.) I didn’t actually try this time, just calling it ooey, gooey, good. It’s so much better than any versions I’ve tried at home. Heading Home The next morning, we waited until the darkness disappeared before leaving for home. I drove away with that sweet scent tingling my nose. Only Tessi knows what intriguing scents she was leaving behind. North of Englehart, I spotted a dark animal, which I assumed was a dog, at the edge of the road. I had enough time to slow down as it darted across in front of me. (Fortunately for the creature, oncoming traffic was still far enough off.) In the split second it crossed the road, squeezed between the guardrails on the other side and disappeared, I comprehended its loping run wasn’t that of a dog, but of a bear. Temagami I stopped at the Information Centre in Temagami once again, this time to get directions to the area’s trails. The guy I had previously chatted with was working again. Once he supplied the information I wanted, he informed me of the broken bridge on the Beaver Pond Trail and explained someone had placed a bench on the caved-in section. We explored a bit of the White Bear Forest Trails on Caribou Mountain. I admired the commanding view of red and white pine forests and lakes from several lookouts, while Tessi reveled in her usual sniffing. At the noon-hour, the day was already suffering too much heat, even under the forest canopy. I wanted first to check out the Beaver Pond Trail before leaving the mountain. Sure enough we came upon a bench to climb across. I easily hopped over the ankle-deep water at its base, but had to encourage Tessi to follow. She had a hard time judging the water’s depth, I think. She didn’t seem comfortable at having to jump over it. I would deem the bridge to be more specifically a boardwalk. It traverses a marsh and ends at an island. Bleached skeletal trees lie strewn all over; random stunted clusters still stand. Water lilies prettily decorate the water’s surface. The smell though was typical of a marsh—sour and pungent. We made it as far as the island when I decided the sun was too insistent on broiling my brain. Tessi tolerates heat less than I do. It was time to return to the highway. Heat Takes Over By the time we returned to southern Ontario, the air was scorchingly uncomfortable. This proved a challenge when gassing up the car and having no choice but to leave the windows wide open while I quickly ran in and paid. Thankfully, I found Tessi and my belongings waiting as I had left them. It is a well-known fact we shouldn’t leave our pets closed up in a car in hot weather, but in that searing heat, it would have been cruel to leave Tessi for any length of time even with the windows open. I had decided to take the back way home to avoid Toronto’s weekday sea of stop-and-hardly-go traffic. Instead, I ran into the extended rush hour traffic of the city’s northern towns. By then, I was not only burnt out from the increasing heat, but from the increasing traffic, too. Off-leash Freedom in Guelph A few tedious hours later we stopped at John Gamble Park, which is an excellent off-leash area near Highway 401, for a much needed break. Beyond the usual advantages of an off-leash wander in a generous fenced-in expanse, I felt the added relaxation of not having to watch for bears. I hadn’t realized how unsettling that was until I didn’t have to do it anymore. I kept our break short. It was enough to sufficiently re-energize me for the final couple of hours left of our journey home. The Final Scent As time wound down to the remaining 10 minutes, I chuckled to myself when I detected an overpowering stink in the air. Of all the beautiful smells we enjoyed over the weekend, it ended with the stench of pig manure. For Further Reading

 (c) Cheryl Smyth, 2013

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