Friday, April 21, 2017

The Lansdowne Letters: Alone

It’s difficult to express how isolated Lansdowne House was a half century ago.
Even today the village is one of the remotest
in one of Canada’s least known and least visited regions.

There are a number of names and boundaries for the ecosystem the community exists in,
but there is no disagreement over the fact that it is located in a vast wetland
of stunted forest, muskeg, bog, and fen,
crossed by slow-moving rivers and dotted with countless lakes.

Flying Over the Albany River (Right)
Northern Ontario, Canada, 1960
Photo by Don MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Whenever I fly over the area, I am struck by how wet it is, 
for it appears to be more water than land.
I am also struck by how empty it is,
for it is rare to spot any sign of human activity.

To get to Lansdowne House today, fly you must,
because there is no permanent road into the tiny community,
and the region is almost impossible to travel over
unless it is frozen and the winters roads are passable.

Trucks Crossing the Albany River on a Winter Road
Northern Ontario, Canada, 2004
The edge of the road is marked by small trees.
Heavy vehicles must maintain wide spacing and slow speeds.

Lansdowne House’s isolation today is a far cry
from its isolation in the winter of 60-61.
Now the community is connected year round
to the Outside with an all-weather airport
and internet and telephone services.

It no longer has to rely on the telegraph or short wave radio,
and it is no longer cut-off from the Outside during freeze-up and break-up.

The Ojibwa have modern housing and electricity and motor vehicles.
Yes, cars and trucks!
(To see a photo:  Click Here)

Whenever I look at a map of the new Lansdowne House’s tiny streets and its one road
snaking down to the tip of the peninsula where it once stood fifty years ago,
I’m reminded of living on Long Island off the tip of Digby Neck.

Whenever the ferry service across Petit Passage shut down,
there was nowhere to go except up and down the length of the island,
back and forth in a car on the main road.

In Lansdowne House there is nowhere to go
except up and down the length of the peninsula,
back and forth in a car on the only road.

Old Lansdowne House (Upper Right)
New Lansdowne House or Neskantaga (Middle Left)
Lansdowne House All-Weather Airport (Middle)
Map Data:  Google

A year after I left Lansdowne House, in the summer of 1962,
I tried to express my feelings about the isolation I had experienced in the village.
I wrote (rather floridly):

“Winter in the Northland is bright, blue, brassy, and barren.
The naked birch and scraggily fir people the rocky shores
and march across the bleak horizon.

Thousands of tiny lakes, scarring the land,
lie locked in the frozen grip of winter.  

Occasionally a hungry pack of fierce wolves can be seen roaming the empty wastes.
More frequently smoke from a tiny Indian settlement of cabins,
a church, and a Hudson’s Bay post floats lazily up into the still cold air.

A silence hangs over all, broken only by the biting buzz of a lone power saw,
the ring of an ax, or the protesting squeak of sleigh runners
hauled over the snow by huskies.

The Northland is silent, lonely, barren, and deadly.
Underneath her apparent peacefulness and lonely beauty danger lurks.
Her watchfulness never ceases.  She waits, and waits, and waits
for the unwary or careless intruder who dares to cross over her borders.

The more you love the Northland, the more you respect and fear her.
The life that is there pulses with a vital rawness.
There is no in between; you must love the North fiercely
with all that is in you or hate her just as passionately.”

Locked in the Frozen Grip of Winter
Peawanuck, Weenusk First Nation, Northern Ontario

Once I wandered off by myself
along the shore of the peninsula between the ice and the bush.
I stopped and looked across the frozen surface of Lake Attawapiskat
to the treed horizon and realized that no one,
not single person in the world, knew where I was.
I was truly alone.

Looking at the surrounding wilderness I thought,
“Maybe no other human has ever crossed this spot."
I wondered at the rawness of the land and at the absolute silence.  

In the bitter subzero cold, the air seemed frozen, crystalline.
I felt I could shatter it with a tap of a finger,
and the shards would collapse soundlessly into the snow.

The profound peace I felt at first slowly changed into uneasiness
as I glanced at the scraggily black spruce at my back.
I thought, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is hears it, does it make a sound?
If I fell and cried out and no one heard me, did I make a sound?”

Those numberless stunted and spindly trees
and those sweeping stretches of ice
made me feel small and insignificant,
and then the bone-burrowing cold and the wild solitude
sent me hurrying home to the security of warmth and love and consequence.

I have never felt so alone, and in this crowded and connected world,
I may never feel so isolated again.

Black Spruce, James Bay Area

What I didn’t understand as a young girl
is that the intimidating and dangerous wilderness I experienced
was home to the Ojibwa around me.

They and the nearby Cree had inhabited this region for thousands of years,
surviving on the food, shelter, and medicine the land provided.
They knew and understood their land and were deeply connected to its forests and waters.

When I lived in Lansdowne House over fifty years ago,
the Ojibwa lifestyle of trapping furs to trade for supplies
at the Hudson’s Bay post was disappearing;
and after I left, the people became welfare dependent in less than a decade.

Little development has occurred since then,
and the Ojibwa still depend on the moose, caribou, Canada goose,
and lesser snow goose their land provides.

The Hudson's Bay Post
Clerk Brian Booth and Two Ojibwa Men
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario
Winter 1960-61
Photo by Don MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

The recent discovery of rich chromium deposits in the Ring of Fire 
holds the promise of jobs, economic development, and a waged-based economy
for Lansdowne House and other remote Ojibwa and Cree villages in the area.

But the Ojibwa and Cree love their land
and value their traditional cultures.
They are concerned about the impact
mining and development could have on their land
and about whether or not they can maintain
their cultural identity in the face of massive change.

I remember the silent solitude and wild beauty surrounding Lansdowne House,
and I know that development and change are irreversible.

I worry that this vast and fragile wetland, so rare and precious,
will be broken and fragmented and lost
and that the indigenous people who have lived there for millennia
will not be the ones who prosper from the riches of their land.

My Father Crossing the Peninsula
near Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

Bay of Fundy out of Westport, Brier Island
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

1.  Winter Roads:  In recent years the province of Ontario has invested in building and
     maintaining winter roads to connect Lansdowne House and other remote First Nations
     communities to permanent roads and railway systems, but the roads are passable only
     from mid-January to late-March and only if the weather is wintery enough to provide
     the heavy snow-pack and ice required for the roads.  With rising temperatures and
     unpredictable weather due to climate change, these winter roads are increasingly

2.  References:  In writing this post, I referred to Canadian Geographic:  Special North Issue,
     March/April 2017, Vol. 137, Vol. 2:  "Out of Sight" by Jesse Gamble, pages 38-45.
     I also watched, yet again, the Ojibwa documentary "We Love Our Land" filmed in Neskantaga.

For Map Lovers Like Me:

Lansdowne House Lies in the Wilderness
West of James and Hudson Bays

Location of Lansdowne House
Known Today as Neskantaga
Hudson Bay Lowlands (green)

Lansdowne House 
Northern Ontario, Canada


  1. Your heartfelt thoughts in every word today. Progress as we see it is not the same in others' eyes, and for those who live at Landsdowne House, they probably want life to carry on as it has, with some modern aids to make life easier. Mining would mean HUGE changes, roading, electricity, housing, shops, and all else that goes with "progress" as the " powers " see it. And as an indivual, how can you or I change what we feel is not right, in whatever aspect of life? Hugs from NZ, where we had the first frost this morning, and a fire, morning and night, is now the norm.

    1. Hi, Nancy! Thanks for your thoughtful comment and insight. You summarized the Ring of Fire situation beautifully., and you asked one of the profound questions that individuals have asked globally and throughout human history. The Ring of Fire story has occurred around the world among indigenous peoples.

      We have had our fire going morning and night too. It's on right now, and I have a small blanket over my lap. Spring time in the Rockies means moisture in the form of snow or rain and swings in temperature. Two days from now our temperature will quickly jump up +16.7 CÂș.

      Thank you for always supporting me in writing my posts. I dreamed of writing my memoir throughout my working years. I carried it in my heart all those decades when I worked in the Oil Patch and taught, two careers that were all-encompassing and left me with no time or energy to write.

      Writing my memoir is not an easy thing. There were many raw emotions and memories that I had to work through, and I still don't have a sense of the final shape of the book. Posting on this blog has given me the opportunity to tackle an overwhelming task one bite at a time, to work out certain feelings and events one bite at a time, to explore the complex factors that have impacted Lansdowne House one step at a time. I keep moving forward one step at a time, trusting that this journey will end at my goal, a published memoir. Without this blog and the unexpected and positive support I have gotten by readers like you, I might have given up in despair!

      Sending you and Huge love and hugs, plus ear scratches, cheek rubs, or belly rubs to the kitties (whatever is their favorite)!

  2. Another great post. I remember the cars in North Ontario when I did a canoe trip to the James Bay. Those that would leave the area (via train) would have license plates, the other vehicles didn't and they didn't seem to enforce driver's license.

    1. Thanks, Sage! I think that people in the North, as in other isolated areas like the outports of Newfoundland, spend their energy on important survival things and take a practical "whatever works" attitude about the less important things like drivers' licenses. Actually the "whatever works" attitude is a quality I admire greatly. I think it comes from the fact that people living in isolated areas have to solve their own problems. They often can't depend on "help" from the Outside because of the distance and time that help has to travel.

      I've certainly enjoyed your A to Z series and anticipate reading more later today. Have a good one, my friend!

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks, Debra! I think, and think, and think. Sometimes my head hurts from thinking ~ LOL Wishing you and your Rare One a happy spring weekend! Take care!

  4. One lone road.
    That kind of isolation is foreign to most people. What you experienced and saw when you wandered off alone is something no one ever will again in that one spot. That's sobering.

    1. Hi, Alex! Your comment really hit me, because of its insight. That wild peninsula now has a road with vehicles traveling up and down it and an all-weather airport. Past the peninsula in what was pristine bush now sits Neskantaga, the new site of Lansdowne House. The fundamental wildness of that lonely spot has disappeared. It is sobering when I consider that no one may have stood where I stood, and if someone crosses it now, what I saw is lost forever. I'm fortunate in that I have lived in several remote areas and have experienced "worlds and ways of life" that were disappearing. That said, I love my modern amenities! Have a good weekend, my friend!

  5. You sure can tell you took it all in. One experience I'd like to never have at our sea. I'll stick to the many roads and not having one haha I have a friend who is teaching in isolation, he hates it, but it is good money. Told him he can keep it. My fear would be if something happens health wise, one is pretty much toast.

    1. Happy Friday, Pat! I "took it all in" because Lansdowne House exploded into my consciousness. Imagine coming from Smith's Cove and moving to such a remote area to live among the Ojibwa. The people were fascinating, but in some ways they weren't too different from fishermen and loggers in NS and NB. But the landscape, the bush! You know how grim and damp winter can be in Nova Scotia with its grey skies and cold fogs. Lansdowne House is located in an interior area, and in the winter there was little moisture in the atmosphere. Being so isolated and with constant sunshine, the area had sky and air that was brilliant, crystalline, and I would wonder at it every day. I swore that I would never live in the damp, grey East ever again. I've been largely successful at that! Have a great weekend, my friend!

  6. I enjoyed all your photos, Louise. And I miss those old general stores, and also the drug stores that had a soda fountain in them where you could order, coffee, a soft drink and even a meal. I love your posts and you are a great story teller. Thank you so much for sharing, dear friend.

    1. Thank's, Linda! Whenever I read that you enjoy the photos, it buoys me up for the next post because trying to find new photos and maps that are legal to use is a maddening hunt.

      I miss those old general stores too. I shop in a new King Soopers that is larger than a football field which at first was overwhelming. So many departments, aisles, and items, and the necessities are scattered about the far corners of the store.

      There is an old-fashioned drug store and soda fountain in downtown Denver near the government buildings. It's wonderful, but it's a long way from my home. I haven't been there in years, but I always enjoyed the odd visit to it in the past. For all I know it might be gone which would be a loss.

      And thanks, too, for saying that I am a great story teller. I have no objective perspective on what I write, especially when I've spent a lot of time writing a post. It takes me hours, and I write and rewrite, until I find exactly what I'm trying to express. By the time I've finished, I have what I want, but I think no one will find it interesting. So I leap out of bed on Friday morning to race to my computer and see if my diverse blogging friends grasped what I was trying to convey.

      I've probably said something similar to you in the past, but I am who I am. I reply with whatever your comment pops in my head.

      I've been trying to catch up with all my blogging buddies. Ironically, I finally get home, and we've been having a few internet and phone outages where I live. So many things to catch up on after being away for months, wonderful friends visiting, health and legal appointments, on and on. So now that I'm gaining on everything, we're off again shortly. Thanks for hanging in with me and understanding!!!

      Have a lovely weekend, my cherished Montreal friend! Sending you love and hugs!

  7. Very thought provoking post. Progress means different things to different people. I can understand their worry about what impact mining and development may have on their land. Once things are changed, there is something lost forever.

    This type of isolation is quite fascinating to me. I'm not sure I could handle it for more than a very short period of time!

    1. Happy Friday, Martha! I'm not sure that I could handle the isolation now. I've become such a comfort creature, and I enjoy living in a large place. My heart still responds to the wilderness though ~ It's where I go to fill my soul. Have a lovely weekend. Take a break!!! Sending you a big hug!

  8. As always, these are some good thought-provoking sentences you've struck me with today, Louise. In your blog, you wonder about the impact that mining might/will have on the development of the Ojibwa and Cree's land and whether or not they can maintain their cultural identity with such change that is certain to come.

    When I was a child growing up in the beautiful coal-mining country of West Virginia at the height of coal production, there was a bustle in the air of men going about their jobs working in the mines--good paying jobs, too--of women being innocently happy housewives, baking bread, hanging out the wash, gossiping over the fence, and of kids playing unsupervised up the street or down by the river and roller-skating under the tent of the traveling roller rink in the summers. Now that the need for coal is not as important for our country's fuel source, the many, small coal-mining communities are struggling to exist and, with poverty rearing its ugly head, hopelessness abounds. Change this time has caused the miners and their families and friends who live "up the hollers" to lose their former cultural identities and "limp" through their days kind of lost.

    So, once the mining opportunities have changed some of the cultural aspects of the Ojibwa and the Cree, and have run its course, will they be like the present-day coal miners of West Virginia? Or will the younger native folk leave the area behind, searching elsewhere for what they used to have? Or is there a 3rd choice?

    (Hopefully you get the gist of what I'm trying to say, because I'm not sure I do---I have had such little sleep lately that I'm not making good sense. And it's after 1:00 A.M. already! So, good night.)

    1. Thank you for your insightful comment, Susan. I'm glad that you have wonderful childhood memories of the heyday of coal mining. I've briefly visited the "hollers" in West Virginia, and it was really beautiful.

      What has happened in West Virginia is tragic. The loss of family supporting jobs robs people of their dignity, self-worth, and hope. I don't see a future for coal coming back, and it is sad to think of the cost the former miners are now paying. Some people are insensitive to how important a place and a culture is to the people who live there, and they think the solution is for the unemployed people to move away. To where? To what? With all the coming automation, robots replacing human jobs, and technological advancements, we as a society are going to have to find a meaningful way to help displaced people. I hope for a solution that allows people to retain their cultural identities and remain in the places they love if that is what they want.

      If coal should come back, I think it will return with a lot of technology that replaces people. But I think that we are going to resort to cleaner energy solutions. Also, we have discovered so much natural gas and oil in recent years, that coal isn't as important as it once was. Regardless, I think the coal-mining lifestyle of West Virginia and other places will be gone. If Trump can do something to help the miners, I'm solidly behind him on that issue.

      The flip side of the well-paying jobs is that coal mining is a dirty dangerous job and so many men have been injured or killed down in the coal mines. Generations of miners have struggled at great cost through unions to improve conditions in all kinds of mines, because the companies have always been about the profit and not the workers.

      Thank you for opening my eyes to this take on the potential mining in the Ring of Fire. With regard to the chromite deposits in northern Ontario, they are vast and it may take a hundred years to mine them. Their value is currently estimated to be at least 60 billion dollars. Chromite is a rare mineral and it forms in the mantle. It is found in commercial amounts in just a few places in the world, notably from southern Africa. Chromite is an important mineral in the production of stainless steel, tool steel, and other products.

      Given the value and rarity of the Ring of Fire chromium deposits, I have no doubt that they will be mined, because they are such an important natural resource. The question is how will these deposits be mined? Fortunately the First Nations peoples in the area, though small in number and by our standards poor, have the right to say what happens in their lands under the Canadian constitution. So the mining companies can ride roughshod over the also valuable and rare wetlands. This will slowly get worked out, and the Ojibwa in Neskantaga (Lansdowne House) and other Ojibwa and Cree villages are actively and politically engaged in protecting their environment and in shaping the development to help their peoples. It's going to be fascinating to see what plays out, for world industrial needs won't let this resource go undeveloped. The work of the native people in the area is slowing down the development and forcing a serious study of how to best protect the natural environment while extracting the resource.

      I've had many late nights myself, Susan. I've been so buried in things to take care of after being gone so long, I feel like I have been in a pressure cooker. We're off again shortly for around three weeks. Once I return I hope to be home longer. And then I want to get together with you!!! And Mary!!! And Gulay!!!

      Thanks for always being supportive of my blog with your insightful comments! Have a good one!

    2. So the mining companies CAN'T ride roughshod...

  9. Another great post. In the movie I have in my mind that essay you wrote in 1962 would be the prologue voice over at the beginning narrated by a deep voiced actor while on the screen a small plane is flying over the lakes. This would be a fabulous movie. Start writing the screenplay, girl.

    1. Thank you, Peggy! Gotta get the book finished first ~ then maybe the screenplay. I was catching up on your posts about 2:00 am the other night, and our internet and telephone services went down in our area. Argh! So frustrating! They got it fixed the following day, but it was still spotty and slow. I'll be back to your site very soon. I hope little Sadie is happier with her wheelchair by now. Wheelscooter??? Take care!

  10. thank you for sharing your memorable alone wander into this unique ,cold ,silent yet beautiful land my dear friend .
    i almost touch the sense of that profound peace which changed into an uneasiness for you,absolutely fascinating piece of writing !!!

    our origins shape us ,each different part of land build it's inhabitants in it's own unique way to face life .
    You did not belong to that watered ,snowy silent land but early years of your life when one absorbs environmental affects rooted in you as part of your own being.

    when we moved into our beautiful valley like village from a noisy city i was six ,i passed next 14 years of my life until marriage there and those are most vibrant part of my memories .i still relive and refresh by those alone wanderings on wet hills and fields. they made me poet when i was not aware what the poetry is.

    similarly those silences of land shore houses made you a beautiful writer and enriched your soul with peace and wisdom.
    it is painful [though it is nice too] that by the time the purity of that land will be polluted by the advancements which will ruin it's original innocent beauty but it is the way of life my friend.
    i am so glad that you are writing a book and working on screenplay too.wishing you more serenity and prosperity in life ahead.
    lots of love !

    1. Baili, you have such insight into people and life! I am fascinated at how different environments produce people who have different cultures. Equally fascinating are how different cultures around the world have underlying similarities. I grew up in small places where people were deeply connected to the land and water around them, whether up north, in farming, mining, and fishing villages in the Atlantic provinces, or the rich farmland of southern Ontario. Yes, we moved a lot!

      You wandered alone too! It's a special thing to be outdoors in our natural environments drinking in the beauty of nature. I have wonderful memories of many special wilderness areas, and like you, I can go back in my memories and relive those walks and refresh myself.

      Thank you for your kind words about my writing. You are such a lyrical writer, definitely a poet at heart, and your words encourage me so much.

      Lots of love back at you! Have a great week, my dear friend!

  11. Hello dear Louise

    My goodness, indeed you've spent hours on my blog!!! LOL!!
    Many many thanks for all your comments!! You amaze me!

    I am travelling too as much as I can, it helps to ease things...
    Leaving again this week, back to Spain where I have great loving friends as passionate as I am about fauna photography!

    This post is great, an impressive landscape showing that humans have not invaded large wild areas so much and all the wetness is a certainly a protection for nature, it seems. But also throughout your words, I feel great nostalgia... ;-)

    I hope your are well and enjoying yourself too :)

    Warm hugs, dear friend, take good care and enjoy your trips :)))))

    1. Thank you, Noushka! The time I spent yesterday catching up on your posts was very enjoyable. I have always enjoyed birds, but I have learned so much more from you! You're right ~ I am nostalgic for the North. I plan to see it again, but in summer not winter! I hope you have a great time in Spain. It's always special to connect with people who share your passions. I'm doing very well and have been having a ball. I'm going to stay as up to date as I can on your blog; I hate falling behind. Every time I see a beautiful bird, I think of you! Sending you hugs and love!

  12. That passage you wrote Louise when you were 12 or so is so poetic. I had to reread it aloud and I appreciated it even more. Your talent, my dear,never ceases to amaze me.
    We were listening to CBC TV program, the 'Nature of Things' with David Suzuki yesterday, It was about silence and noise on our earth. I will see if I can find it for you. You may enjoy its perspective.
    I too hope that the First Nations peoples of Canada, and the world for that matter, do get a chance to keep their some if not all of their heritage and life style and still make a living in our modern world/way of doing things.

    1. Here is the link to that program:

    2. Thanks for your encouraging comment, Jim! I get such pleasure from my writing. It's what I enjoy doing most, and I'm filled with gratitude when someone enjoys it.

      I've bookmarked your link. I was able to read a description, but the video can't be viewed here. I think one of the reasons we need to preserve big swaths of wilderness is so we can still experience solitude and silence. It's in such places that we can connect with ourselves and restore our souls.

      It seems to me that many different people are embracing and preserving their cultures. I just finished James Mitchener's novel "Hawaii." To think that that state's amazing culture nearly died out. But all kinds of people are sharing their knowledge and keeping it alive. I see the different First Nations people and Native Americans celebrating their heritage and preserving their traditions. And lets not forget the Scots with their bagpipes and highland dancing. I could go on and on. These thoughts give me great hope.

      I hope that your personal light displays have dissipated! I'm guessing since you're on the computer that they have. All the best to you, Ron, and Ms SD! Sending you hugs and love!

  13. Wow, what an interesting post. I love Northern Canada too but have never been to that area, I was living up in the Yukon years ago and loved it. There is something so different, hard to explain...about the feeling of being in that area of Canada. The feeling of being part of the country but at the same time, far removed from the ordinary.

    Your poetry and photos are wonderful So glad I stopped in today while blog browsing elsewhere. Have a good week, G

    1. Thanks for visiting and for leaving a kind comment, Geraldine. "Far removed from the ordinary" describes the North for sure! I always felt especially Canadian in the North ~ must come from "...the true north strong and free." Certainly in the northern wilderness you grasp a sense of how vast Canada is.

      Wishing you a good week too, Geraldine!

  14. I truly feel blessed to have found your blog through Alex's!! I am learning so much through you, about our Native people. I have been to Alaska, but I would love to visit our Northern lands. It would be such an experience! Big Hugs! I hope everything is well!

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Stacy! I'm glad that I found your blog too, because your art is truly compelling! Hugs back at you!

  15. It sounds incredible... Growing up, I remember always feeling like I was isolated because I lived in a small, heavily rural town in the backwoods of North Carolina; but this... Damn.

    That aside, is it weird to admit I never thought of Canada having bogs? That always just seemed like a southern thing.

    1. Hi, Robert! Northern Ontario is full of every variation of bog you could imagine and billions of every variety of mosquitos that you wouldn't want to imagine! ~ LOL Have a great evening!

  16. While reading your posts about Landsdowne House I always try to imagine the silence. Those stretches of icy space all still, and then the growl of a truck motor or airplane engine that must have accentuated the lack of sound before and after.

    1. Hi, C. Lee! The silence of the north is something to experience, especially in the winter. The only other area where I've experienced something close to that silence is in remote parts of the Four Corners area. It seems we have noise everywhere now. I hope you are enjoying your week.

  17. Lansdowne House sounds like a place to visit if you want to simplify and forget about high-stress city living. Must be beautiful thereabouts.

    1. Life was certainly simpler in Lansdowne House, J.L., and it has a unique beauty. I have always longed to return, but I have no desire to ever live there again. I've grown used to all our creature comforts. Have a good one!


Thank you for your comments! I appreciate them very much.