Friday, November 17, 2017

The Lansdowne Letters: Waiting for the Ice to Go Out

As April 1961 wound down, everyone was on edge anticipating the arrival of break-up,
that anxious interval when Lansdowne House would be cut-off from the Outside.
The only communication possible would be via short wave radio or telegraph.

Break-up was the spring period when bush planes
couldn't fly into isolated northern communities.
In order to fly, a bush plane had to be able to land on ice or water.
As spring advanced in the North, the ice weakened
and could no longer support the weight of a plane landing on skis.
However, thinning ice still covered the lakes,
so bush planes could not land on pontoons either.

Spring Draws Close in Northern Ontario
Flickr:  James Vincent Wardhaugh  License

Planes servicing Lansdowne House and other remote villages 
often flew out of Nakina or Armstrong, towns further south.
Break-up started when bush planes could no longer
take off on the ice in Nakina or Armstrong, 
even if the northern communities had good ice.
Break-up ended in each northern village when planes could land
on a stretch of open water in the individual communities.
No one could predict exactly when break-up would begin or end.

Everyone thought break-up had started on April 25th
when a plane made it into Lansdowne House out of Nakina
with the news that the ice was getting pretty bad down south.
We all hunkered down for the duration.

But Friday, April 28th brought a surprise,
as my father wrote in a quick note dashed off to his mother:

Dear Mother:
An unexpected plane just landed with this week's mail.
I imagine this is almost a record for a plane on the ice.
Surely this will be the last plane!
I guess with a plane this late in the season,
the break-up won't be too long,
not over three weeks at the very outside.

Everyone up here is in good shape.
Sara is feeling well, and the children are happy as larks.
They seem to love going to school to their old man.

Sara knows now what it is like to have twins.
She has been taking care of Duncan Junior all day,
while Dunc and Maureen are painting their living room and hall.
She is just about frantic.
She will be very glad when six o'clock comes,
and Duncan comes to pick him up.

The "Twins"
Duncan Junior and Bertie
Photo of Duncan by Don MacBeath
Photo of Bertie courtesy of Dawn White
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Barbie is sick with a tummy ache, but it isn't too serious.
I am rushing this, so I will be able to get it out on the plane.
Hope you can make it out.

I am glad the plane came in with the mail, 
for now I'll be able to figure out what you mean
when you wired that the house is selling well.

Well, I must sign off now and get this down to the plane.
I won't wire you, because this is the last last plane before break-up.
Bye now,
Love, Don
Happy Mother's Day

A Norseman on Skis
"Taildragger" at the Back
Flickr ~ NOAA:  Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren   License 

That was the last last plane before break-up 1961.
While the novelty of break-up fascinated Roy and me
and we fancied ourselves the Robinson Crusoes of the North,
our parents worried about having enough food and supplies
or unexpected medical and dental emergencies.

My parents weren't the only ones who worried.
Mike O'Flaherty, the nurse at the nursing station,
carried the weight of the medical and dental health
of the Ojibwa and white people on his shoulders,
especially during break-up and freeze-up.

While he could radio a doctor for an emergency consultation,
Mike had to handle whatever happened on his own
with the supplies and equipment in the nursing station.

The North awakened as break-up arrived, 
the skies loud with the honking of Canada geese
and the bush ringing with the songs of courting birds.

The snow retreated leaving a chorus of trickling, gurgling water in its wake.
Color blushed in the scrubby bushes, and a riot of red, black, gold, grey, and rust
emerged from the melting snow, the detritus of last summer's growth.

A Pair of Gray Jays Feeding Their Nestlings
Algonquin Park, Ontario, Canada

The hard-packed snow of the paths in the village
lingered for several days after the general melt.
It stood up in network of low dykes,
and we all tottered about on balance beams of snow.
Then the slushing dykes succumbed
and sank into thick, black, pungent mud. 

We school children awoke too, engineering the muddy school grounds
into fantastic canaled cities destined for razing by giants.

As the land quickened, so did the worries of Mike and the other adults.
Our Ojibwa classmates were no more immune to spring fever than we MacBeath kids.

It was the older boys who came up with the brilliant idea of barreling,
which had us shooting across the tops of oil drums rolling down a hill.
When Mike spied us out the nursing station window, he raced out and stopped us cold,
delivering his first of several lectures on medical emergencies during break-up.

We MacBeath children were naive about the dangers of the bush,
and the Ojibwa adults kept a watchful eye on us.
One mid-morning my mother opened the kitchen door after hearing a knock
to discover a wet and muddy Bertie riding on the shoulders of an Ojibwa neighbor.
He'd found her on a path in the bush singing and washing her dolly in a large puddle.
With the arrival of spring, Bertie had become skilled at slipping out the door.

© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

On another warm day,
my brother Roy and I decided
to climb a tall wooden tower behind
the Hudson's Bay Company post.

We were having great fun running around on the flat top
and peering over the sides
until Mike came roaring out of the nursing station:
"Get down!  Get down right now!
What do you expect me to do if one of you falls and busts yourself up? 
I haven't got enough morphine to stop your pain,  
let alone a plane to fly you out if I can't handle your injuries."

Chastened, we scrambled down.
Not satisfied that we grasped the gravity of the situation,
Mike horrified us with a story or two about nurses 
having to operate on patients on kitchen tables
while following directions from a radio doctor.  
We slunk away.

Many Ojibwa were returning from the winter traplines.
It was a thrilling sight to see them skimming across the still frozen lake,
six or seven dogs straining to pull a loaded sled.
And what a load, for the Ojibwa lashed a canoe on top of their sleds
and squeezed inside it amid food, supplies, and pelts.

I remarked on this strange mode of travel to my father,
and he explained it simply:
If the sled went through the ice, the Ojibwa hauled the dogs on board
and paddled to the next supportive stretch of ice.
I wouldn't have wanted the job of dragging the dogs aboard!

Waiting for the ice to go out
was proving to be an exciting time
for we kids experiencing break-up
in the North for the first time.

Melting Ice
Flickr:  Paul Tichonczuk ~ License

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

Boars Head Lighthouse
Tiverton, Long Island, Bay of Fundy
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

For Map Lovers Like Me:
Map of Canada
Highlighting Ontario

Locations of Armstrong, Nakina, and Lansdowne House
Map Data:  Google 2017

Bush Plane with Pontoons for Landing on Water


  1. Such an adventure!

    “...the children are happy as larks.”

    I love this line. It’s that old-fashioned way of talking, like in the movies.

    I had smile at the part about taking care of the baby Duncan Jr. I babysit my great-nephew and when the time rolls around to take him home I am usually pooped!


    1. It was an adventure, Sandi! And I loved it! It's hard to believe that all this happened over fifty years ago. Whenever I'm reading my father's letters, I hear his voice so clearly. He wrote the way he talked. My great-niece Ella just turned seven months old. She'll be walking in no time, and I don't envy her mother Jeannie. Fortunately Ella has two delighted grandmothers living nearby, so Jeannie will have some welcome help. I'm sure if I were nearby, Ella would soon run me off my feet! Take care!

  2. Hopefully no one got hurt during breakup while you were there.

    1. Hi, Alex! I hope that you are enjoying a great Thanksgiving break with your family ~ Well maybe starting tomorrow. There were some serious events during break-up, but none that involved we kids. I don't know how my mother did it! I'd have been worried sick. I know Mom was distraught when she realized that Bertie had snuck out the kitchen door and into the bush with her dolly. I don't know why she didn't tie Bertie on a rope like she had with me. I was a runner too. Take care, my friend!

  3. How frightening to be cut off and you describe it so well. I know it was exciting for you children who had never experienced it, but as an adult I know I would have been terrified.


    1. My parents definitely worried, but in retrospect my mother looked back on our time in Lansdowne House as one of the best times in her life. Have a happy weekend, Janie. I hope that you are feeling better. Penelope and Franklin did well covering for you when you were under the weather!

  4. Greetings Louise. You certainly had it hard growing up in a remote place. Break-up was certainly a struggle and worry for most concerned! Your father did well with all of his hardship! Blessings to you.

    Thank you. Love love, Andrew. Bye.

    1. Blessings to you, too, Andrew! At the time, I didn't realize it was hard. I thought it was a fun-filled adventure. I'm ruined now by living in an urban area for much of my adult life. I love my creature comforts! Take care, my friend! Have a great weekend!

  5. "we all tottered about on balance beams of snow" -- that whole paragraph is such an evocative description of the way hard-packed snow outlasts the rest! Not something you often see writers observe, so brava to you!

    1. Thanks, Debra! I remember it so well because we had such fun on it. Everywhere else we had lived had sidewalks and roads that were shoveled or plowed, so we hadn't experienced much walking on hard-packed snow. Have a great weekend with your Rare One, my friend!

  6. That would be the worst part, no access to much in such a remote part if a super medical issue arose. Sounds like you wanted to test such a limit while keeping Mike on his toes lol

    1. Hi, Pat! There were a number of emergency medical flights while my father and then our family was in Lansdowne House. More than once my father accompanied a sick Ojibwa on a medical flight to Sioux Lookout. Now Lansdowne House has a year-round airstrip, so freeze-up and break-up are much less of a problem. Enjoy your weekend, my friend!

  7. The plane on skies, and one at the rear as well, I could not imagine how hard it must have been during that time, no way in or out, and dreading an emergency. Even now, after Hugh's ones, I so value the rapid response of an ambulance, a friend, and the phone. And as kids, we really underestimate the fact that something could happen that would be a disaster when no help could come. Take care as you enter the time before winter sets in.

    1. Hi, Jean! I'm quite happy to have an emergency room a mile away, a fire station with paramedics a little over a mile away, and a hospital about three miles away. I'm ruined! I hope that Hugh and you are both feeling much better! I've been trying to give myself the best care possible. I have cataract surgery on Monday, Thanksgiving on Thursday, and a trip to Arizona a week from Tuesday ~ Busy, busy time! At 67 it is finally sinking in that I have to be gentler to myself, starting with not continually burning a candle at both ends. I'm a slow learner ~ LOL! Have a great weekend, my friend! Sending you and Hugh love and hugs!

  8. Hi Fundy Blue!!! I love reading the history in your posts and all about life during the break up days. I watch a few shows online where people are in similar positions. I guess having lots of knowledge of natural remedies and maybe some tooth-pulling gear would make life less anxious during that time!!! I think now though, living an isolated life would require some way of getting help in an emergency so we're lucky we have that way of communicating now. :)

    1. I'm glad that you enjoyed this, Rain! The revolution in communication in the past fifty years is amazing. It has made life in isolated areas much easier. The nurse did have tooth-pulling gear which he did have to use during this break-up ~ No fun for either patient. Have a fun Sunday tomorrow!

  9. We had baby birds in our storage building once. They were cute, but the sounds were annoying.

    1. Baby birds do make a lot of noise! We have had several sets fledge on our deck and porch. Enjoy the rest of your weekend, Adam!

  10. Louise, your landscape descriptions are so vivid! I can see what you are saying.
    I am trying to remember the title of a book I read a couple years ago about a couple from oregon in the early 1900's moving lock, stock and barrel to northern BC and staying there. I think you would enjoy the was written by the woman who did this. Now just to remember......
    Good luck on Monday and Happy Thanksgiving to you and Terry!!

    1. I'm glad that you could visualize it, Jim! I always appreciate the feedback, because I loose all objectivity about what I'm writing. The book sounds interesting, although I think I'm past the stage when I would want to live in the north again. Visit, yes. Live, no. I'm too spoiled! Enjoy the rest of your weekend, my friend!

  11. I can't help, but think of you running around up there. haha..innocent fun.. I imagine that it would be scary to get sick/hurt with no way in or out. The gray jays are so cute. I am not sure if I've seen a gray jay.

    Thanks for another interesting post. Have a great weekend..

    1. If I'm remembering right, we called them whiskey jacks. Canadian Geographic has suggested that the gray jay be named the national bird of Canada. I voted for the loon, but I'm okay with the cute jays. Have a good one, Truedessa!

  12. Poor Mike! I can imagine how worried he must have been the whole time of the breakup. I would have been too. It's not too often that you find situations in the modern world where you are totally cut off from everything including medical help. I imagine that he didn't have a lot of supplies to handle mass emergencies like burns, etc. He was a very brave soul to take on such responsibility.

    1. Happy Sunday, Peggy! I hope that you and Don are enjoying the day and that Sadie is feeling chipper. Mike and other nurses like him were brave and dedicated. I'm glad that the world has changed for the better medically.

  13. Every time I read your posts, I can't even imagine!!! I love how you describe everything Louise! I don't know if I told you, but my mom is enjoying your posts now too! We both agree, you should be publishing a book or maybe a few books!! How high was that tower?? You and your brother are brave! Or crazy! LOL!
    (I am waiting to get my "Christmas" cards in and then you will be getting a package from me! I'm usually not late in sending out things!! Sorry!!)
    Big Hugs!!

    1. Thanks you so much, Stacy! I'm glad that your mother is enjoying my posts. The tower was about three stories high. You can see it behind the two-story Hudson's Bay Post in the black and white photo in this post. No worries about the parcel. You can even hold off until later in December, because we'll be in Arizona ~ If everything goes A-Okay with our cataract surgery tomorrow. Big hugs to you, my friend!

  14. I like the idea of living somewhere so isolated, at least for part of the time. I probably wouldn't enjoy the reality.

    1. Hi, Patsy! I like that sort of reality in small doses these days. Sorry that I'm just replying now, but I had cataract surgery a few days ago. Have a lovely weekend!

  15. What an amazing lifestyle! Such an adventure!

    1. It was special, Nasreen! I'm so glad that I had the chance to experience it. Have a great weekend!

  16. Hello.... tom boy!!
    Why do I recognise myself when reading about you climbing up and running around at the top of that tower????!! LOL!!!
    More seriously, what a difficult life your parents took on!
    My, that harsh cold is not for me!

    Many thanks dear friend for your very kind and lengthy comments while I was out of an internet connexion... 3 weeks.... one feels very quickly isolated and so frustrated!

    Yes, I know about chickadees and titmice in North America and they actually do hang out in multi-species groups outside of breeding time but they are the only family to do so; emberizidae and others will do the same.

    The bird by the Crested tit is a Marsh tit, not sure you have them there.
    And they are indeed quite clever, they quickly understood that the food at the feeder was for them and that we don't mean them any harm, so when I fix the settings or refill the containers, they are all over me! LOL! Naturally I love it!
    Warm hugs and love, Louise, and keep well :)

    1. Hi, Noushka! It is frustrating to be cut off from internet. I'm glad that you're back. I was a tomboy through and through, much to the consternation of my grandmothers. Fortunately my sister Donnie came along, and she was a girly girl, to my grandmothers delight. Marsh tit! I should have known that. I can just see all the variety of tits surrounding you and you loving it! I had cataract surgery on Monday, and I cannot believe how much more vibrant, sharp, and colorful the world is! But ... I'm behind in blogging again. LOL I can never stay on top of it. Enjoy a great weekend, my friend! Sending you love and hugs!


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