Island Falls, by Philip King, 1994

IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS THE WATER, the rivers flowing from the plains and park lands of Central and Northern Canada to form one immense waterway draining this vast land, and widening towards the Great Canadian Shield, giving way to a thousand lakes and narrows as it neared its destination to empty into the great oceans and bays to the east. Over these waters came the Cree of the Algonquin Tribe, and found a land of plenty upon which to settle, and the Cree hunted the pristine forests in which game of all sorts was plentiful, and fished the depths of the still lakes and the swiftly flowing narrows. It was a good life, and a millennium of seasons came, and were gone, each bitterly cold winter giving way to the long warm, sunny days of summer when at times the sun seemed never to set, and the ice and snow would be gone until the next season. There were place names like Pikoo, Tapeese, Sokatisewin, Iskwatam and Opawikusehikan each with a meaning, for a river, stream, rapids or island. These people lived, and hunted here probably eight thousand years ago.

When the great navigators and map makers a few centuries ago started drawing their imaginary lines across the breadths of our planet, from east to west, and from the North Pole extending to the South, it might be said that there was one single, insignificant dot came into being, to be identified as 55 degrees - 31 minutes North Latitude, 102 degrees - 22 minutes West Longitude. The Cree didn't know this had happened, and wouldn't know for a few hundred years to come, and as no other human had set foot upon or near this designated spot, and would not be doing so for a few centuries, this spot remained insignificant for quite some time. It was here where the Cree hunted and fished and made his home, saw the seasons and worshipped his Great Spirit. It was here the mighty waters moved eastward, eastward to the sea. It was here, centuries later, in 1929 and 1930 where the great hydro electric power plant was built, in order to harness this immense eastward outflow, which would ultimately generate a quarter of a million horsepower of electrical energy to supply the demands of the burgeoning zinc and copper mines of Flin Flon, seventy miles to the south and east. This insignificant spot became Island Falls. And new place names were added. Strange names like Churchill River, Charming, Ouellette and Harper Lake, and the Cree village became Sandy Bay.

For the less than two hundred of us living at Island Falls by the shores of the Churchill River, the power plant operators, machinists, carpenters, electricians, cooks, storekeepers, linesmen and many others representing the skills and professions required to maintain a community of this nature, it became, especially over the years, not so much a place where one lived, but as well a “state of mind”. Although scarcely seventy five miles from Flin Flon with its population of ten thousand people, we might have been, to all intents and purposes living in Shangri-La, deep within the Himalayas of Tibet, as viewed in the old classic motion picture, “Lost Horizon”. The experience of traveling the distance from Flin Flon to Island Falls was such that with little or no effort it was not difficult to create a cast of mind that one was, in fact, totally and thoroughly separated from civilization as we had known It. We were connected to the outside world only by seventy five miles of high tension one hundred and ten thousand volt transmission line, carrying within its aluminum fiber thousands of horsepower of electrical energy to serve the increasing demands of industry, and one single, rickety telephone line sometimes carried on trees, and where there were no trees, flimsy tripods made of poles hewn from a nearby stand of woods.

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IT WAS 5 A.M., MAY 29th., 1936, my nineteenth birthday, when the night clerk at the Flin Flon Hotel banged upon my door. I was already awake and dressed, and almost finished packing my small bag so that I would be in ample time to catch one of the Hudson’s Bay Mining and Smelting Co.'s electric engines, normally used for carrying tons of ore from the mine head to the rolling mill, but on this day was to carry a small group upon the first short leg of a journey which would, towards midnight of that same day enable us to complete our trek to Island Falls. Upon arriving at the appointed rendezvous, before six, I discovered my traveling companions were to be four adult gentlemen, accompanied by two young gentlemen and two young ladies approximately my own age, give or take a year or two, all of whom appeared to be known to and familiar with each other. We were all in high spirits, and no wonder. The morning was crystal clear and cool, and of the five youngsters, three of us, one of whom was myself, were about to enjoy the experience of our first trip to Island Falls. A sense of excitement prevailed.

I was soon to learn of my companions. The four adults were Mr. Davis, superintendent of the Churchill River Power Co., accompanied by another engineer whose name might have been Menzies, Stu Russell and Bill Grayson whose job it was to see that we arrived at our destination safely, an undertaking of some considerable responsibility as we were to find out as the day wore on. The youngsters in the group were Dick and Helen Davis, home for the summer after the winter semester at college, possibly B.Y.U. in Salt Lake City, Utah. The other young chap whose name has escaped my memory [Elliot Rich, from Salt Lake City] was along as Dick’s companion for the summer vacation, as was Hallie McCulloch a college pal of Helen’s and likewise along to enjoy the summer and whose name, as it turned out, was to remain in my memory forever. I was “the odd man out”, so to speak, also on summer break from technical college in Calgary, traveling to Island Falls, to join my brother who was an engineer and plant operator, and had arranged summer employment for me.

The locomotive, with its trailing flatcar, was ready and waiting, and I was to learn that it was the expected duty of all present to assist in loading the considerable array of boxes, bags, backpacks and ordinary luggage which was piled alongside the rails, upon completion of which we each selected as comfortable a perch as we could find upon the flatcar and we were off, rumbling along the steel track enjoying the feel of the fresh morning air in our faces and enjoying the scenery. It seemed that we had hardly gotten under way, however, when the engine began to slow down, and upon coming to a halt everyone jumped off and commenced to unload that which only fifteen minutes earlier we had loaded, and transferred the lot to another smaller flatcar situated nearby on much lighter, narrow gauge rails. This car was coupled to what we used to call a “speeder” which was simply a four wheeled platform capable of carrying two or three persons along a railroad track at an alarming rate of speed, usually propelled by some sort of internal combustion engine. With the confusion of unloading and reloading quickly over, we were once again on our way, each of us ensconced as before within the most comfortable, and in some cases the most precarious piece of space obtainable on the trailing flat car, but this time lacking the sensation of being carried safely forward upon a vehicle of considerable substance, rumbling along smoothly as only an engine weighing a dozen tons could be expected to on heavy steel rails well tied to the surface upon which they had been laid. Instead, this contraption rattled along at what seemed to be a magnificent speed, rattling and banging to and fro as it went, its gasoline engine rendering an uncommon racket shattering the stillness of that crystal morning frightening all living things within earshot, including its passengers. It was absolutely marvelous, and if one were to lower one’s gaze and observe the manner in which the slim rails upon which this contrivance was careening hell bent for leather, the twisting and bending upon its almost non-existent ties, one might consider that the degree of excitement of living dangerously was considerably elevated. This ride was soon over, however, but it had been great fun and we now found ourselves “at the end of steel”, and once again proceeded to unload all the on board cargo.

Stretching northward for about fifteen miles, running parallel to, and a few miles west of the Manitoba - Saskatchewan border is Mari Lake rarely, if ever more than three miles wide, and along its length sometimes narrowing to as little as a few hundred yards. It is a beautiful lake, crystal clear waters bounded by a rocky shore line and a low lying land mass of fir, spruce and lodge pine, and it was at the southern end of Mari Lake my traveling companions and I found ourselves upon our arrival at “the end of steel”. It was still very early in the morning, and with the sun showing upon the eastern horizon and a cloudless sky, there was promise of a perfect day. Again the process of loading, this time onto a fine looking cabin cruiser of about ten meters L.O.A. moored onto a nearby dock and to which we were directed by Bill Grayson and Stu Russell, the two fellows who, as mentioned previously would be in charge of our journey and safe keeping from this point on. Cargo was quickly stowed, passengers seated comfortably within the spaciousness of the cabin, and we were almost immediately under way, moving gently through the water, quietly propelled by the inboard marine engine in contrast to the raucous clatter of that which we had just left behind. The coffee pot was soon percolating.

Only as the morning progressed did we start to appreciate the pristine beauty and scope of this true wilderness, and to experience the sense of adventure and enthusiasm which was to be ours throughout the entire day, and in fact, well after nightfall, for here we were traveling an area of this continent where but a scant dozen years earlier, but for the odd prospector or trapper, few white men had trod this threshold within which the Aboriginal people had made their homes dating back to five centuries before King Solomon ruled Israel. It was quite unlikely that such thoughts were on the minds of any of the passengers as we made our way northward, as it would be doubtful that any of us on board were really aware of these outstanding realities, but as the hours passed I have no doubt in my mind that my companions were experiencing the same sense of change as indeed I was, that of leaving the old and established behind, and entering a new and different kind of world untouched and untrammeled by modem civilization. As we moved slowly through the clear waters of Mari Lake we saw no signs of human habitation on the nearby shores, nor was there any other waterborne traffic. There just wasn't anyone there, and so it was that we were the sole spectators of this paradise found during the few hours it took us to navigate the thirteen miles to a point where the lake narrowed to an extent that further progress was impossible, and our guides tied up to a convenient dock, the first man made structure we had encountered during the four hour voyage, and once again the unloading procedure began. This time to be reloaded onto a small four wheeled flat car riding on light rails, there was no “speeder”, and the pushing by all “hands” commenced so the small flatcar with its considerable burden moved briskly along the three mile route which would bring us out to the southern end of Golden Lake. An abundance of early wildflowers was visible among the trees and bushes, and many birds including Northern Ptarmigan some of which were in the process of shedding their winter white plumage to the safer camouflaged summer mottled dun. Again, we were completely alone, with Nature, and as the trail widened upon the shore of the lake, we encountered two large freight canoes, complete with outboard engines, just sitting their unattended awaiting our arrival. Once again, with our load aboard the two canoes we were headed northward, Bill Grayson in charge of one canoe, Stu Russell the other, with people and freight equally divided between the two. By this time it was well past noon, and this leg of our journey was to be about eight miles to the northern end of Golden Lake, at which point we would again disembark, unload our canoes and commence our second portage.

The ninety minute trip across Golden Lake was a completely new adventure, with the element of excitement provided by what appeared to be an impossible burden carried by the canoes seemingly bent on defying Archimedes principle, (or whoever it was who invented buoyancy) and thereby allowing a freeboard which was positively frightening, added to which a light chop caused by vagrant winds appeared upon the surface of the water once again providing that exhilarating sense of living dangerously. However, subsequent voyages of a similar nature aboard freight canoes used extensively at that time for northern transportation, provided me with the knowledge that their load carrying capacity was to all intents and purposes, infinite, and we arrived at the beginning of second portage filled with exhilaration, and starving. Once again the unloading procedure commenced and the canoes made fast on shore ready for the return journey.

So, another portage to cross, but this time there was no visible means of transporting the considerable cargo and Messrs. Russell and Grayson introduced us to the “tumpline”, defined by Webster as “a strap placed across the forehead to assist a man carrying a pack on his back”. Equipped thusly, the aforementioned gentlemen proceeded to load each of us with the largest back packs I have ever seen, before or since, attaching additional smaller ones to each side and upon the top by which time, feeling like beasts of burden we balanced precariously, scarcely unable to prevent teetering backwards by sheer weight of our lop heavy burden. At this point the tumpline was attached to the load, the strap over my forehead, and I was told to now pick up my personal baggage and proceed walking in the appropriate direction along the well worn path. And so it was at this time I was first to learn the meaning of the word “portage”, and once again set off on foot with the knowledge that the “other end” was not too far off. Forty minutes, we arrived at the third lake, called Harper Lake, well bitten by black flies and mosquitoes, and enjoying every minute. As before, two freight canoes were close by, our backpacks and baggage carefully loaded and once again we were on our way heading northward and westward, towards our ultimate destination, the “village” of Island Falls and the hydro electric plant which provided the reason for its being.

And so it was, from Harper Lake another portage to Ouellette Lake, from Ouellette Lake to Kipahigan, at the end of which a long portage to Chekuhikun Lake and finally as our canoes swiftly passed a point of land, the lights of Island Falls became visible. Soon the canoes were safely tied and we were all welcomed enthusiastically by the many people who were there to meet us. It was nearly midnight, all sorts of chatter and laughter prevailed as we unloaded the canoes for the last time, and with each carrying some part of the cargo, we hiked up the narrow pathway through the trees and bushes to Island Falls, and to our respective homes or lodgings. The end of an adventurous and exciting day.

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THE COMMUNITY OF ISLAND FALLS was unique in all ways. Many of the employees were there because they possessed a musical talent. The “Company” was aware that we were cut off from the types of recreation and entertainment found in most other communities, and so there was always music and dancing. Money was an unknown commodity because there was absolutely nothing to spend it on. All the day-to-day needs were met by utilizing the Company store, and as all people were Company people, the amounts were simply charged to ones account. Salary cheques were never seen, and each month the amount of one’s pay was deposited to ones account in Flin Flon. About the only useful function performed by money was to be observed at the seemingly never ending poker game that went on at the staff house and I suppose that would change hands so frequently that it rarely had to be refurbished. Acquisition of liquor was a perpetual challenge. Commercial aviation was rudimentary and expensive, there was no local liquor store, and the freighter canoe service was Company operated and did not provide for individual pick-ups and deliveries. So it was, then, that one had to rely upon friends coming in from the “outside”, and from what has previously been written about the rigors of transportation, it becomes obvious that there comes a time when one must choose between friendship and common sense. 65% O.P. alcohol was available in those days and because of its potency was a favorite. However, it was unpleasant to the taste and was diluted, and using the best recipe of the day was converted either into gin, rum, scotch or rye, four bottles of any to one bottle of O.P. Whether or not this process made the stuff more palatable raised considerable doubt, but it all added to the enchantment of Island Falls. Just like the home made ice cream.

Today as the result of modem technology Island Falls is no more, and the power plant continues to churn out millions of kilowatts of electrical energy under the watchful eye of what is known as “Remote Control”. The houses are gone, and the bowling alleys, the Rec. hall where we danced and watched 16 mm. movies, the store and the ice house. The Indian Village of Sandy Bay remains, different now because I think some of the modern Island Falls houses might have been taken there. And the Cree remain, and in this remote outpost perhaps, hopefully, will not change much. The trails and portages have disappeared, as have the freighter canoes which provided a vital link between “Camp” and the “Outside”. All that remain are the memories.

All who ever lived in Island Falls for long agree that this period represented a part of their life so completely different from any other that it has become a source of wonder to many that it should be so. Was it a period of life which established an insight to human nature, a first time “one on one” involvement with a small isolated community of people, socially interdependent upon each other, each often of a different culture or background? Or was it the knowing that we occupied a piece of this Earth which remained almost in its natural state, as it had been for over tens of thousands years untrammeled by other than the Aboriginal whose lifestyle remained the same over the millenniums of time, unchanged and untrodden by others. Perhaps too, the stillness of the forest, the tranquility of the lakes and the still clarity of the northern night sky in its auroral splendor cast a never to be forgotten spell upon the souls who watched and remembered.

This “Shangri-La” is gone now, and so have most of those who experienced its spiritual fascination. Soon there will be no one left to remember. But the story shall remain as long as mankind inhabits this Northland, and perhaps a thousand years from now the Cree elder will begin his story... “Many, many moons have passed since the white man came and built his power house so that he might fire the machines to dig our minerals from the ground, Now he has been gone a long time, and nothing of his remains but the ruins of steel and concrete, and the land and the waters are ours once again ....