Friday, 28 November 2008

Hornepayne Ontario (Missinaibi River 1980)

Hornepayne Ontario On Route To the Missinaibi River (1980)
(Chapter One)

“It gave me a moment of exquisite satisfaction to find myself moving away from civilisation in this rude canvas canoe of a model that has served primitive races since men first went to sea.”

John Millington Synge

Brian and I, having finished loading the Chevy, gave one last tug on the ropes securing the canoe to the roof, said our goodbyes and departed our university town of London Ontario. Pushing back into my seat, I pulled out my treasured collection of Gordon Lightfoot cassettes and searched for an appropriate album with which to christen our journey.

Lightfoot’s music has always been my refuge, where I can hide between trips to the northern wonders of my beautiful province. Gord’s gift of painting musical portraits depicting rugged wilderness, lost loves and lonesome travels, have always been the embodiment of the Northern experience. What better way to start our trip than to complement it with some treasured Lightfoot tune? How appropriate! His beautiful tune ‘Hi’way Songs’!

Our destination would be the town of Mattice on the Trans-Canada Highway where we would test ourselves against the waters of the Missinaibi River. The beautiful Missinaibi is one of the last undammed rivers still free to run off the granite Canadian shield then weave it’s way through the Hudson Bay lowlands. Joining with the Mattagami River at Portage Island, the marriage of waters form the mighty Moose River.

A flip of a coin had us set our compass westward, taking the American over the Canadian route to ultimately reach our jump-off point(1). As the skies turned an unfriendly grey, we cranked up the heat to drive away the dampness of this spring day.

Approaching Port Huron, we crossed over into the state of Michigan on Route 69 then set our compass for Highway 75 and our trek northwards.

As growls from our stomachs were beginning to challenge the stereo’s volume, we chose an upcoming off-ramp outside of Flint Michigan and searched for some enticing restaurant offering a meal and brew. A rather tired looking pub sporting a flickering neon ’Schlitz’ sign beckoned us in spite of it‘s questionable appearance.

It was a rather uneasy feeling walking into that smoky darkness, the slamming door committing us to our choice. Chatter quickly died off as all eyes turned towards our two silhouettes standing in the doorway. God, it was just like a scene from the movies, where Bubba and the boys sized up the strangers in town. Plaid shirts, sports caps and the odd toothless grin aimed at us could have been a scene right out of ‘Deliverance’! Swallowing hard, we could feel eyes following us across the room as we seated ourselves and waited to be served. The din of the “good ‘ol boys” slowly returned as they once again swore insults and slapped each other’s backs.

Having finished our burger and Bud, our chairs screeched our intention to leave and all attention once again descended upon us. The cashier eyed me with curiosity as I opened my wallet to settle our tab. Pulling out some American ‘greenbacks’, a bright blue coloured Canadian bill fell to the counter. George Washington had brought Sir Wilfred Laurier along for a trip and he lay there staring back at me. “You boys Canadian?” drawled the apron garbed proprietor. My God, strangers AND foreigners invading their local hangout! “Yes we are, just passing through” I sputtered, keeping one eye on the door, our only means of escape. “Well boys, there’s no charge”. “No Charge?” I asked in confused disbelief . “Nnnooo chaaaarrge” the owner reiterated slowly so we “Canucks” could understand.. Once again the commotion faded as eyes focused upon us.

Canadian? As if a priest had just performed an exorcism, the atmosphere in the room lifted. The cashier’s till slammed shut and ‘the boys’ shouted jovial greetings at us!

It was 1980 and the year before Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor, stationed in Iran, had offered sanctuary to six American citizens hiding from militants. The insurgents who had invaded the U.S. embassy had taken over seventy hostages. With the blessing of the Canadian government, these American’s were issued Canadian passports and smuggled out of Iran as our own citizens.

We were soon made to realize that as Canadians, our grateful American neighbours were eager to offer us a token ‘thank you’ for the actions of our government. We were touched by the gesture, yet rather embarrassed as we obviously had no direct involvement. Escorted to our cars as celebrities we headed back to the interstate beaming, yet humbled. After all, neighbours look out for each other.

The sky remained overcast with a light drizzle periodically reminding us that summer had yet to arrive. The trip through the heart of Michigan was spectacular. Our ribbon of blacktop ran through a lush green corridor with abundant wildlife periodically watching the traffic from the roadside. Again, Lightfoot was our companion as his newly released album ‘Dream Street Rose’(2) was receiving disproportionate airtime. His song ‘On The High Seas’ blared out the lyrics:

“ was it somewhere in Michigan, or the Lake Of The Woods”.


Crossing back into Canada over the Michilimackinac bridge we entered the city of Sault Ste. Marie. Following the Trans-Canada Highway, as it hugged the eastern coast of Lake Superior, we were treated to a spectacular sunset.


Shades of orange shimmered off of the surface of Whitefish Bay, immortalized by Lightfoot’s masterpiece ‘Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald’

Eager to reach our destination we decided to persevere and push on down the road. Leaving Trans-Canada Hwy 17 behind, we rattled down the secondary ‘King’s Hwy 631' in inky darkness, pierced only by our headlights. What a desolate stretch of twisting two lane road this was. Miles turned to hours as they in turn gave yawns. It became obvious that any attempt to reach our destination this night would be at the expense of logic and safety. Surrendering to our fatigue, we decided to pull off of the road and find some suitable gravel shoulder to nap on. Headlights bounced off the roadside trees as we located an old gated driveway. Safely off the deserted highway we jostled for position within the car, my ending up intimately cradling the steering wheel in the front seat. Sleep immediately swept over us

Was it the low drone or the penetrating odour that first brought me to consciousness? Bells were clanging, horns were bellowing their displeasure. Diesel fuel permeated the night air as engines and rolling stock were jockeyed in the shunting yards. It became painfully obvious that we had driven onto some rail yard access road and the night long reshuffling of box cars would not permit any further sleep. With the first light of day just starting to paint orange hues into the midnight blue of dawn, we conceded defeat and pulled back onto the highway. Perpetual yawns were silent pleas for coffee. Perhaps some music would stimulate our minds enough to continue our journey safely. Punching a cassette back into the player Gord began to croon to our rising sun. A new melody began to unfold before us as Lightfoot’s “On The High Seas” broke the silence. Easing into our seats as well as the tune, the lyrics were painting images of worldly travels from Montreal to Reno to Rome. As the next phrase unfolded, Gord sang out;

‘Was it up in Hornepayne, Where the trains run on time?”

Simultaneously, as the words settled on our caffeine deprived brains, our jaws dropped when a misty road sign flashed into view. It simply announced HORNEPAYNE” Pop.1600. Peels of laughter ensued blasting away any lingering remnants of sleepiness.
That moment made our day and was captured in my memory for eternity.

Of all the trappings we might expect in this rather small, remote northern town I did not expect to find the “Hallmark Centre” a card store perhaps, which served extra duty as a post office, convenience stores and more. No ‘Second Cup’ or ‘Starbucks’ was to be found and the only foam was to be our styrofoam cup. Over the hot brown water, the proprietor was happy to explain to us that Hornepayne was a regional hub for the Canadian National Railroad. Indeed, we had decided to catch a few winks in what amounted to the center of the town’s major employer, the CN rail yards.

The song was replayed numerous times that morning until reaching our destination of Mattice. With that tune echoing in our heads we stowed our gear and prepared to ferry our car further east to Cochrane, our final destination and terminus of the Ontario Northland Railway. .

Lightfoot’s ‘On The High Seas’ was played one last time as it ended with the phrase...

"I don't want to own the key
To some ghostly mansion where souls are set free
I don't remember where she said she would go
Straight for the highway or down the low road
I don't remember where she said she would be
Back in the city or on the high seas"


And so our journey began……


Note: To view a slide show of my 1988 trip on the Missinaibi, click the above link (Chapter Two) and scroll to the bottom. Click on Frame to initiate the show.

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(1) Jump-off point is the chosen location on a river from where to load up and launch the canoes from.

(2) Gordon Lightfoot’s March 1980 release of ‘Dream Street Rose


Google Earth Co-ordinates:
(cut and paste everything after the dash- (in red) into Google Earth search bar.

Hornepayne Ontario - "Where the trains run on time"
Lat/Long - 49° 13’02.66” N, 84° 46’31.81” W

Mattice Ontario - Missinaibi Jump-Off Location
Lat/Long- 49° 36’56.15” N, 83° 15’48.37” W


* * *
In November of 2006 I had the pleasure of meeting Gordon Lightfoot for my second time, much shorter now as I looked up at my idol from wheelchair level. I took that opportunity to ask him if about his song 'On The High Seas' and whether he too spent a sleepless night in Hornepayne while the trains shuffled in the moonlight. I hoped to "get a scoop" on that story and pass it onto the Lightfoot News Group. Gord listened to my story intently. Having laid out the scenario, I reclined back waiting for some spectacular insight. Gordon answered me "I really don't know". With a chuckle he had revealed to me that the marriage between music and lyrics isn't always the product of deep thought or some profoundly moving emotional experience but sometimes may just due to momentary inspiration or sheer chance. If the words fit, use them!

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Massey Hall November 2006: Gordon Lightfoot and Myself Chatting about Hornepayne Ontario.

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