North on 61

Harry Drabik

What I call the “Canadian 500” was in full force this weekend. Five hundred kilometers along the shore is roughly the distance between the Twin Ports and Thunder Bay. On holiday weekends those 500 Km come as near a race course as I care to see. Anyone driving the limit will have a string of a dozen in comet tail formation behind waiting their chance to rocket past and disappear round the next curve so they’ll catch up with the next string of cars fifteen seconds sooner than otherwise. I don’t mean to deprecate Canadian drivers, though they seem to have a different concept of speed and night driving safety than I have. Car collisions are rare; the deer fare rather less well though roadside decorations of headlight rims and parts of plastic bumpers are seasonal additions of color to the landscape. I couldn’t fault speedy Canadian drivers for making ample use of a highway able to handle both volume and higher speeds. Highway 61 north is a good road.
You may know the first auto or vehicular bridge across the Pigeon River was put up near a hundred years past in a cooperative effort between the commerce chambers and cities of Fort William and Port Arthur in Canada and Superior and Duluth in Minnesota. Unsanctioned and unofficial it was known as the “Outlaw Bridge.” It was located not too far upstream from the current border crossing which replaced the earlier official crossing a good deal further inland. To see why Highway 61 was once inland you have only to look at a map and imagine the much greater difficulty and many added miles of winding around the various deep bays if you followed the shore. Before reaching Grand Portage old Highway 61 veered north to cross the Pigeon before turning south to Middle Falls. From Middle Falls the road followed the relatively easy going of the river valleys that stay on the level all the way to Thunder Bay. Taking the trip these days a driver is barely aware of the impressive bays deeply piercing the shore from Grand Portage Bay to Thunder Bay and beyond to Black Bay and other serious obstacles that keep the road well clear of the shore. Comparatively speaking, the highway in Minnesota is on Lake Superior rather than inland. (The expressway to Two Harbors deviates from the older shore route.)

I’d think that when it was first being done almost 100 years past the drive from Thunder Bay to the Twin Ports would have required an entire day of twelve or more driving hours. As a guess I’d say some drivers of the Canadian 500 accomplish the race in little as three hours and not a few are covering the 500 in four. With a much improved route and more reliable vehicles what was a challenging trek is almost a short sprint for the determined driver.

These changes in road and vehicle wiped out what was once the most reliable way to travel the shore; package boats. A package boat was typically in the +/- 100 foot length and carried both people and goods along the shore. As the boats depended on shore commerce and transportation they were obliged to stop at every call and opportunity. The boats stopped for lake fishermen to row out with their boxed catches for shipment and to drop off passengers and goods. Trips along the shore were not speedy. Unless the boat had a dedicated cargo for an up shore location it took its own sweet time plugging steadily along from stop to stop as was once said of a “milk train” stopping at regular intervals to take fresh dairy for delivery to a local creamery. Unrefrigerated milk couldn’t travel far. Things like package boats and creameries were essential features in our communities. I suppose UPS, Fed Ex, and Spee-Dee, etc. have in a way replaced the package boat in the modern world, but the milk you grab at a convenience store comes from where? We used to know the person who delivered our coal or milk. I’m not bemoaning change, but the extent of change is something to consider.

At least for me, Thanksgiving inspires reflection. I’m glad of better roads as I am of friends who use them to get together. Despite the modern bustle and electronic intrusions there remains a place for human contact. A picture of someone turkey dinner is no substitute for the substance of presence. Sitting down with friends without a gadget in hand, I had an excellent Thanksgiving and hope you did too. The turkey was excellent.
Speaking of turkey, Turkey has certainly put itself on the menu as a sort of turkey-al-a-king by shooting down a Russian fighter and claiming national defense when the real reason seems to be retaliation for Russia doing damage to ISIS. Are you a terrorist nation when you defend terrorists with military action and help them with black market oil sales? Well, there’s a good chance that is so because it meshes nicely with Turkey living up to its expansionist ideal of being the new Ottoman Empire with a Caliph replacing an elected leader. It’s interesting how often Turkey and Saudi Arabia are actively duplicitous. (Egypt seems to have figured that out and is concerned by how easily the West and the US are taken in.) The Iranians in happy contrast are at least honest about it. Funny how Iran’s open hostility can be less objectionable than deceit in a supposed ally who (as Turkey does) says one thing about membership in NATO while simultaneously seeing that participation as a way to lever their Ottoman Caliphate into a stronger position. If you don’t mind the cause it’s for a good cause. The Turks do know how to throw a party though. From ordinary followers at a soccer game booing a minute of silence for victims at Paris to the peaceful citizens firing automatic weapons at the downed pilot they redefine sport and manners. Well, Turkish leaders have told us. There is no such thing as “moderate” in their world. I believe them.