Today I took a drive down the old road that once led from the end of our bay to the fire tower. Over the past couple of years, it has been so aggressively logged that it’s now impossible to find evidence of what was once there.
I’d been forewarned what to expect, but it didn’t prepare me for the total physical effacement of years of memories, my own as well as those of so many others.
Lundy Tower was the magnet that most often drew us down that road. Almost 60 years ago, we were a constantly-together, co-ed gaggle of pre-teens and teens, some smoking illicit cigarettes, just as our hormones were beginning to stir. I have a strong olfactory memory of those walks—an admixture of pine, cigarette smoke, and girls.
In those days, long before the big logging trucks, the road to the tower was two sandy tracks with a hummock of grass growing down the middle. It cut through a dense forest of jack pine, poplar, birch, mountain ash and tag alders, with the occasional chokecherry bush hanging out over the road. I remember the tartness of the berries. There was a nearly mile-long straight stretch, then a sharp jog to the right and left, and then it straightened out again before the final short descent to the little road that cut up to the fire ranger’s cabin.
J. Irwin MacMillan was the ranger when we were growing up, the successor to Mountain Mel Allen of my father’s generation. Irwin had the whitest teeth I’ve ever seen!
We would take the path from his cabin up to the tower, stopping at the hollow to lift the metal lid of his sandy well, dipping in a tin scoop for some cold water, before making our way up the hill. There were a couple of steep rocky pitches and a meandering flat part between them before the final ascent that brought the tower into sudden view. “Hello, Irwin!”, we would holler, and we would hear his voice, sometimes almost carried away by the wind, telling us to “Come on up!”
It was an 85-foot tower with a cabin on top. For kids like me, born and raised in a small northern town, it seemed impossibly tall, at least when it came to climbing it. Many times I would climb up twenty feet or so, make the mistake of looking down, and then, embarrassed, descend to the ground while some of my friends continued on up. It was only when a girl, on whom I had a big crush at the time, scampered up without any hesitation that I quickly overcame my own fears and followed her.
The steel ladder was encircled by protective hoops that would do nothing to stop your fall, but at least would keep your body from blowing away into the surrounding bush. For the last few feet, the ladder angled inward ever so slightly. Irwin would open the trap door, you’d poke your head in, and make a grab for the brass ring tied to the pedestal of a round table, to the top of which was affixed a map and sighting device. You’d pull yourself in, slither across the floor, and when the last person had come through, Irwin would slam the door shut. It was safe to walk over it then, but not without a strange tingling in your belly.
The tower had a guest book, and if you could find the 1962 to ‘65 editions, you’d see the names of the same group of kids almost every day during those long past summers.
We would sometimes return in the evenings too, to visit Irwin at his cabin. He made bread, and you could smell it baking from a half mile away along the road. He always had an extra loaf for us to share. We tore off hot chunks that we would smear with butter that melted as fast as we could apply it.
The Tower Road holds other memories for me, too. My Dad and I would partridge hunt on chilly, fall weekend mornings, from when I was old enough to lift a .410. We would walk that road, or sometimes drive it in our old 1951 DeSoto hunting car that my Dad bought from his twin brother for a couple of hundred bucks. It was while walking along that road that my Dad gave me my first “birds and bees” talk.
The road held a world of memories for him as well. At the jog was a clearing, with a few humps in the long grass where a homestead once stood. “That was Old Man Walker’s place,” he told me. And a long way in the adjoining road that forked off to the right at that point, were the moss-covered ruins of another farm house. “Old Man Allen’s house,” he said. “Mountain Mel was born here.” You could actually still crawl into it if you bent low enough. A short distance further on, the road ended, at the edge of the Moffatt Creek.
Half way in that side road, at the sharp turn where there was a foot path to Johnnie’s Pond, was where my old dog, Lady, met her end, beside the hole in the ground that they had pre-dug for her. Ken, the adult son of old George, who was the caretaker and handyman for all of our cottages, had gone into the bush with my Dad. Lady was in the back seat, suffering from incurable cancer, whimpering from the pain. My Dad couldn’t pull the trigger. He passed the 12-guage to Ken, and turned away. That corner was Lady’s resting spot. I later marked it, on a weekend home from university, with a wooden cross and her dog tags.
Beyond the turn to the tower, the road narrowed, the forest became dominated by jack pine, and, a few hundred yards in, an overgrown field opened to the left. Across it, nestled against the foot of the mountain, were the still standing, spavined remains of another log cabin. “Old Man Radford’s,” said Dad. “I remember he made pancakes for us, with snot dripping off his nose into the pan.” If you continued past Radford’s, you arrived again at the Moffatt, a bit further upstream.
They were all Old Men. I know that they had wives and kids who must have died or gone somewhere, leaving them alone. They’re all long gone, as is my own old man, who remembered them. And now, to some, I’m an old man too.
I also learned to drive on that road. In the old DeSoto.
My friend Martin and I discovered that you could get it up to a hundred miles an hour on the initial straight stretch. We also learned that, at that speed, it couldn’t handle the jog. Instead it blasted its own path straight through the bush and out the other side. My Dad was going to kill me! Martin and I got out to inspect the damage. Not a scratch. Today’s cars would have disintegrated into shards of glass and plastic. The massive chrome bumper on that thing sheared off a few dozen one-inch poplars and saved me from a sure thrashing when I got home.
A couple of years after that, late one night, in that same car and along that same road, I drove my father, an alcoholic, through the dark. He had belligerently demanded to go into the bush to “sober up”. His supplies, crammed into the trunk, included an old canvas tent, a few cans of beans, and a case of Seagram’s VO. On the trailer behind us was his lawn tractor. I had refused to let him take the car, to which he finally agreed, after an angry and physical exchange. The tractor was the concession, in case he needed it.
He was in there for over a week. When we had to leave the cottage on Labour Day to go back home to Kirkland Lake, as school started the next day, I went into the bush to get him. His campsite, strewn with empty bottles and bean cans, was silent. Pinned to the door of the tent was a note, in his drunken scrawl: “Gone to Kirkland on tractor.” For those who don’t know, that’s 70 miles away. He had struck out, along the old Tower Road, at the tractor’s maximum speed of five miles an hour, on his way to Hwy 65 and on home to KL. In two vehicles, my mom and I set out to find him, following the two possible routes home. When we got to the house, there he was at the kitchen table, head slumped, in his old terrycloth robe, glass in hand. He’d made it as far as The Boot, said ‘the heck with this’ or likely something stronger, rolled the tractor on the way down the hill to his old Grade 8 teacher’s cottage, borrowed her phone, and chartered a float plane, beating us back by several hours.
And now it’s all gone. A whole world of memories has been scraped to the ground, almost lunar, now, in its aspect. There are a couple of scraggly black spruce that the loggers left standing, but the old side road, the jog, the sandy tracks, Lady’s grave, and the indentations of the old homesteads are erased. Forever.
Except in the thinning wisps of my memory.
Author: Frank Taylor (TwinLakes)
August 31, 2020