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Saturday, November 3, 2012

Pakwash Junior Ranger Memories


Fond memories of Junior Ranger program

Saturday, November 3, 2012
A few weeks ago it was announced that the provincial government was closing down its Ontario Ranger program as part of its far-ranging debt reduction efforts. From the description of the program, I take it to be a lineal descendant of the old Junior Ranger program. That reminder brought back memories of a summer well spent.
In 1963, I and 26 other 17-year-old Ontario males found ourselves near Red Lake, employed by what was then the Department of Lands and Forests, later Ministry of Natural Resources. We were Junior Rangers and in those days our numbers were legion across the province. We were a lot of guys, the girls getting their own camps perhaps five years later.
Getting there was half the fun. A whole bunch of us had been mistakenly directed to Sioux Lookout when we were supposed to be at Pakwash Provincial Park on the Red Lake road. To move us, we were loaded into the back of a large uncovered stake truck with bare wooden benches running along each side of the box. We sat down, flinging our baggage under the seats or into the aisle in front of us. Pakwash was 180 kidney-jarring miles away on a cool, late June evening.
When we got in around midnight, things weren’t quite ready. For the first three nights we slept with one blanket, no pillow, on the floor of a tent-frame which was basically a plywood and two-by-four box with a canvas cover. It was like heaven when the cots came.
There was no such thing as a wash house, rather there was a rough-lumber wash stand on the beach with basins hanging from a cross pole. You took a basin, walked to the lake, got your water and returned to the stand to freshen up. A friend from those days remembers we were told to bring “soap that floats” so we could wash up as best we could in the lake without losing the soap.
When I think about it, a lot of what we experienced that summer would bury the premier in lawsuits if it happened today. Oh, I suppose we did some grumbling but it was mostly in fun, and instead of feeling aggrieved and in line for a settlement, nobody really complained. This was too much of an adventure.
I must mention the sharp objects. We prided ourselves on how keenly we could sharpen our axes and one good-natured giant of a guy carried a Bowie-sized hunting knife on his belt. That camp was a groaning buffet for lawyers, but at the end of summer nobody had been seriously hurt.
I gather that the ranger program ran out of steam partly because once it had been in operation a few years, there was little work left to do in the parks to occupy a summer. That did not seem to be the case at Pakwash, which was a fairly new park with a fair bit to be done.
We cut roadways by ax and brush hook, cleared slash and shovelled gravel when the truck came. We dug by hand post holes, outdoor toilet holes and ditches.
Two large docks were made from scratch: Our foreman sawed down tall jack pines which we limbed and peeled and dragged down to the shore to build the cribs. We filled the cribs with rocks, decked them with rough lumber and slapped the creosote to them.
There was always park clean-up and general maintenance. We worked eight-hour days, six days a week at 50 cents an hour.
Early on at Pakwash, I asked a department employee why they would take a bunch like us, pay us and feed us to get us to do this work. His frank reply: “Well, if it wasn’t you guys, they’d have to hire a bunch of winos to do it and in no time they’d be gone or drunk and harassing the visitors.”
Our tour of duty at the camp was interspersed with a handful of tours and presentations on tree species, local geology, etc. One of our guest-presenters was Jack McKirdy, an early-time guide and outfitter on Lake Nipigon and inventor of McKirdy’s Fly Repellent, an unctuous but effective bug dope. Jack gave us a thorough rundown on life in the bush and capped it by doing several chin-ups from the rafters in the cook house. He was in his early eighties.
If anyone was ever moved to complain about the conditions at Pakwash ’63, it would never be about the cooking. After a stumbling start with a cook who may have had a drinking problem, we were blessed with the arrival of Marie Snow, a tiny angel who treated us like her sons and cooked accordingly. The hamburgers came with home-made buns.
From what I have heard, in later years the JR program began to be weighted more toward supposed youths at-risk or those belonging to minorities. It seems we accomplished much the same without the tweaking of social engineers.
We spanned the gamut of Ontario society. We included the son of the president of Studebaker Canada and a couple of native guys from the northern reserves.
One fellow who became a lifelong friend grew up literally in the shadow of the steel mills in Hamilton. This particular JR had never seen the real North and was so blown away by it that he remembers every single thing about that summer after nigh-on 50 years.
I have in my possession a photo of most of the Pakwash gang gathered in and around the notorious stake truck, along with foremen Charlie and David Bannatyne. A couple of things catch your eye in this picture: Nobody is wearing jeans, rather plain cotton work pants, usually brown. And nobody is fat. We appear to be in pretty good shape, though a few are indulging in a smoke.
I like to think, and I think I’m right, that when our seven-week stint was up and it was time to leave, most of us didn’t entirely want to go. Surely we also felt a measure of pride in living and working in basic conditions, or what was tossed off as “roughing it.” It was a very good summer.
Bob Ekholm
Thunder Bay

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