Friday, February 9, 2018

The Lansdowne Letters: A Picnic Unlike Any Other

The days rapidly grew longer and warmer as spring filled the land,
but the rotting ice lingered in May 1961, 
and Lansdowne House remained cut off from the Outside.

Rotting Ice
Pointe-du-ChĂȘne, New Brunswick, Canada
Flickr ~ Shawn Harquail   License   Cropped

Spring fever ran rampant, and suddenly our home seemed dark and cramped.
Everyone wanted to be outside stretching his or her limbs in the warm sunshine
and breathing the fresh, wholesome air of the North.

Two unusual days that I have never forgotten occurred in late May,
following one after the other, Sunday and Monday.
Both brought canoes and broke the monotony of waiting for break-up to end.
Both were wonderful.
Here follows the tale of the first.

Pussy Willows
Harbingers of Spring in the North
Flickr ~ fryed_2010   License

On Monday, May 22, 1961
My father wrote to his mother,
Myrtle MacBeath:

Dear Mother:
I just have time for a short note to you,
to let you know
that break-up is over, after a fashion.

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

The lake is open down about five miles,
and I just found out that there is a plane coming in,
and they are going down to meet it in canoes.  

However, the break-up still isn’t over for sure,
because the ice could shift tonight and close up the open space.
I would have had a long letter ready for you
if I had known last night that there was a plane coming in.

Yesterday we had a lovely day.  I rented a canoe
and took the whole family, including Gretchen, and went on a picnic.
There is enough open water around the edges of the lake
to allow you to travel by canoe.  
We went up the peninsula for about three miles.  
It was lovely, but Sara and I are both sore today from paddling.  

We took a camp stove and canned stew and really had a lovely feed.
I don’t remember when anything has tasted better.

The baby didn’t think too much of the canoe trip.
She was frightened of the water.  Ditto for Gretchen.

Family Picnic in the Bush
My Mother and Barbie
You can see the lingering ice on Lake Attawapiskat in the background,
the camp stove, and a bit of the canoe on the right.
Photo by Don MacBeath, Spring 1961
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved 

Everybody is feeling great,
although Roy has been bothered
off and on by tonsillitis. 

He is going to have them out
as soon as we get out.  
They are quite bad. 

Roy with Donnie and Our Dachshund Gretchen
Christmas, 1961
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved 

Sara is continuing to gain weight slowly,
and I am holding my new weight and not gaining.
The baby has gained three pounds or so since she came up.
She looks as healthy as a pet pup.

I will be glad when the break-up is over for good,
because we are running out of food rapidly.  
This has been a longer break-up than usual.  

Right low the ice is just sitting in the lake rotting,
and unless we get some strong winds for several days, 
it could sit there for three weeks more.  
A strong wind would break it up and clear it out in two days.  

Right now there isn’t a breath of wind, 
and there is none forecast for the immediate future.

Well, I must sign off now,
as the canoes are leaving soon to take the mail down the lake.
Don’t be expecting regular mail till you receive my next letter,
which will be a nice long one.  

When you receive my next letter, break-up will be over, 
and regular mail service will be in force again.  
However, I won’t guarantee when that will be.

Bye now,

The Tip of the Peninsula and the Father's Island
We canoed along the right edge of the peninsula toward the bottom of the photo.
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Canada, 1935
Credit: Canada. Dept. of Indian Affairs and Northern Development
Library and Archives Canada / PA-094992

Our family picnics were a staple of entertainment throughout my childhood,
from meals served on a picnic table in the backyard,
to sandwiches and pop on a blanket in a local park,
to wieners and marshmallows roasted over a fire by the ocean,
but this was most unusual picnic I had ever experienced.

We lugged the camp stove, boxes of food and cooking utensils,
blankets, and layers of clothes down to the Hudson’s Bay dock
to load the canoe my father had rented,
a big freighter with five seats and plenty of room to stow
seven people, picnic supplies, and one unenthusiastic dachshund.

The novelty of piling everyone into the canoe 
added a dash of adventure to a Sunday outing on a brilliant day.

Dad pulled the front of the canoe up on the shore,
so Roy and I could steady it.
He and Mom settled Donnie and Barbie on the seat toward the front,
baby Bertie on the floor by the middle seat,
and our dachshund Gretchen on the floor
toward the back among all the picnic supplies.

Mom hopped in and took the seat in the bow,
paddle in hand to push off.
Dad, Roy, and I gave the canoe a huge shove,
waded into the water alongside it, and gingerly climbed in.

Bertie was my responsibility, 
Gretchen Roy’s.

Bertie and Me
Summer, 1961
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved 

As our parents paddled the canoe
through a strip of water between the ice and the shore,
the familiar Hudson’s Bay post,
the Department of Transport buildings and dock,
the nursing station, and the school slipped by,
followed by a cluster of Ojibwa homes,
and then we were skirting the wild peninsula.

The sight of spindly spruce and birch standing above
an impenetrable tangle of shrubs was intimidating.
In most places the lake water lapped up against
rounded flat boulders, sparse grasses, and low-lying plants
that abruptly yielded to trees and brush.

The dip and pull of our parents’ paddles in the still water
was hypnotic in the warm sunshine;
but even drowsing, I could sense the cold ice floating nearby.
The bush was alive with birdsong and insect voices,
but the land felt empty, primal.

My parents landed on a suitable patch of ground
about two miles up the peninsula
where we could pull up the canoe and spread the blankets.  

The site contained the remains of a deserted store
that was falling into ruin.
The owner, a free trader named Joe Alex,
had crashed his plane and died several years previously.

In short order Dad got the camp stove going and coffee perking,
while Mom heated canned stew and sliced and buttered bread.

Does anything taste better than hot stew and homemade bread in the wilderness?
Well, maybe orange juice and cake to follow,
if you’re a kid with hollow legs,
and we all had hollow legs and the appetites to fill them.

Afterwards Dad curled up on a blanket
with a favorite magazine to read and enjoyed a smoke or two,
while Mom relaxed and watched us play.

Roy and I took the canoe out and practiced canoeing.
More correctly, we argued over controlling it
and spent much of our time going around in circles
until Dad sorted out our squabbles.

Roy and I Canoeing on Lake Attawapiskat
Near Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Canada
Photo by Don MacBeath, Spring 1961
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved 

Meanwhile Barbie and Donnie sneaked into the icy water
to wade, and Gretchen decided to go for a swim.
Add in a toddler who loved running around on her unsteady legs,
and my parents had their hands full.

Later they corralled us all into the canoe
and paddled another mile up the lake along the peninsula.
Here we discovered the lake was wide open and clear of ice,
a fact that figured in our adventures on the following day,
but that’s a story for a future post!

Hudson Bay Lowlands
Flicker ~ Ted and John Koston   License

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

On the Shore of the Annapolis Basin
Smith's Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada
July 24, 2016
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved


1.  Free Trader:
     A trader who operated independently from the Hudson's Bay Company.

For Map Lovers Like Me:
Location of Lansdowne House
Northern Ontario, Canada

Lansdowne House Today
Our parents paddled our canoe up to about the narrowest part of the peninsula .

Imagery:  DigitalGlobe, Landstat/Copernicus
Map Data:  Google 2017


  1. You have a way with words that "keeps 'em begging for more", Louise! "The bush was alive with birdsong and insect voices, but the land felt empty, primal." Wow! I love how you "see" your world. What artistry!

  2. Greetings Louise. I enjoyed reading your well-written piece. The picnic sounded like a great day out. I love camping, so can appreciate others liking the outdoors. Your parents had their hands full, and the slow ice melting was certainly a hindrance. Glad you had a pet dog to have fun with. You had loving, caring parents, doing their best for their children regardless of situation. Glad you enjoyed your picnic. It can be fun paddling in a canoe, especially for children. Blessings to you. Enjoy your Weekend.

    Thank you. Love love, Andrew. Bye.

    1. Thanks for your kind comment, Andrew! Gretchen was a wonderful dog and a fine companion to all of our adventures. I love paddling a canoe, although I rarely get to do it. I love the sound of the paddle pulling through the water and the sight of the water curling off the end of the paddle. It's a lovely weekend here in Honolulu ~ a little on the cool side, but nice and sunny. And of course any ocean is compelling! I hope that you enjoy your weekend too. I'll be by to catch up as soon as I can. I only have internet in the lobby and breezeway, and today it is balky and aggravating. LOL ~ first world problem! Take care, my friend!

  3. Off on an adventure. I can see how this picnic stayed in your mind as it was a real event. I love that your mom and dad took all of you and paddled away. YOu have a perfect way of describing the scene that makes me feel just like I was there. My parents also took us on picnics at a local park. Don’t you feel that things were simpler then? My parents would set up a table while we played with cups in the creek catching minnows. ARe there still minnows there? I wonder. I have had going on a picnic on my list for every summer and yet it seems I never make it. And I love picnics. I must make it a priority.

    1. Happy Saturday, Peggy! I appreciate the feedback about my writing. When I finish my memoir, it will be all the better because of comments from you and other blogging friends. I think picnics were an affordable way for a family to spend time together back then. It was definitely a simpler time. Each generation finds its own way to spend time together, and each generation thinks its way was the best ~ And, of course, our way was the best ~ LOL. I remember catching tadpoles and releasing them. It was fascinating to watch the eggs hatch and grow bigger and bigger. Yes, you must go on a picnic. But I think the time your family has at the lake and enjoys picnic food together counts! Have a good one, Peggy. Hi to Don and Sadie too!

  4. Did Gretchen appreciate when you roasted weinies? lol

    Sure sounds like quite the picnic to remember. Out in the pretty much untouched land can be kinda scary when you think of it as an adult, so much can go wrong, even if only a little ways away. At least you guys built up arm strength by going in circles and couldn't paddle off too far lol

    1. Haha, Pat! ~ Gretchen appreciated it when we shared a bite of our wienies. You just reminded me that we called them wienie roasts! A voice from the past! Yes, there was definitely danger in the wilderness, but people usually assume it will happen to someone else.

      Terry slightly questioned our coming to Hawaii because of the nuclear threat from North Korea. I just laughed, because I'm going to live my life as I choose regardless of potential dangers. I asked Debbie (who has worked the weekend desk at the Royal Grove for years) if she was here when the false missile alert occurred. She was, and I asked her what happened. She told everyone to go to their rooms and start drinking ~ What else are you going to do if a nuclear bomb hits? You're dead anyway! Debbie said she knew right away that it was a false alarm because the military jets didn't scramble. Honolulu has a big military presence. We all take our chances regardless of the time or place.

      There is nothing like sibling rivalry, and we did frequently share the size of our biceps! Have a great weekend, my friend!

  5. That was nice they trusted the two of you to take the canoe out and practice. I bet after being cooped up all winter, it was a much needed excursion.

    1. Hi, Alex! You are so right! As soon as there was a clear strip of water, everyone was out canoeing, Ojibwa and white. The outdoors feels especially wonderful after long, cold winter days and nights in small spaces. Your soul just soars! Have a great weekend!

  6. I can well imagine your parents were sore the next day after paddling that big canoe loaded down with kids and picnic supplies!

    1. You're so right, Debra! On the next outing, our father rented a small outboard motor too! At least they were in their prime. Have a great weekend with your Rare One, my friend!

  7. Those picnics sound wonderful! And I can only imagine how good the food was.
    Parents back then allowed their kids to take chances and try things on their own....with of course their watchful eye on them at all times.
    Question: Too cold for flies/insects? (asked the city-boy scratching his arm?)

    1. Hi, Jim! Parents didn't hover so much, and that was a good thing. Most kids survived childhood just fine! Our parents tried to keep watchful eyes on us, but sometimes they just tossed us outside to have a little piece. When I think of the stunts we kid pulled growing up, I marvel that we are alive! The flies and mosquitos hadn't arrived in force just yet. A couple of weeks later, they made live miserable if you went basted in Off! The heavy duty Deer type! Have a great weekend with Ron. Terry is bugging me to go for a walk! Take care, my friend!

  8. An adventure to top anything else. What a trip, a huge canoe, and even the doggie. Your Mum and Dad were such troopers, a whole lot easier to stay home ,in safety, and where else would you have this chance to be out there? Your words give me the imagination to be right there, smell the water, feel the cold, see the ice, and taste that picnic. This is the best picnic I could ever think of, to me, a girl on a small farm, no snow or ice in my childhood at all, apart from icy puddles as I walked the mile and a half to primary school. I had not seen any snow until I was in my twenties!!!

    1. Hi, Jean! I'm a little slow replying to comments, because the internet in our hotel is not very good today. Everything keeps freezing on me. Speaking of freezing, I remember you sharing about walking to school with friends and seeing whose ice shard from a puddle would last the longest. I know a lot of people grow up without snow. When I was back on a river in Sarawak, Borneo talking with the chief of the Eban people, he asked me how we built snow houses in Canada! Thanks for your kind words about our picnic. I hope that you are feeling better and that you and Hugh are enjoying a good weekend with lots of warm sunshine!

  9. It sounds nice to be cut off for a while.

    Your border runs right next to mine! I grew up on the thumb of Michigan in Sanilac County.

    1. Hi, Sandi! I tried to reply to your comment yesterday, but the internet in our little hotel cratered. Sometimes it can be maddening! I looked up Sanilac County, and I realized that I spent the summer of 1970 right across the water from you. I was a geology student and had gotten a job water sampling for a fluorite project throughout the area. One of the highlights of my summer was going down in a huge salt mine in Godderich and being under Lake Huron. The mine manager was a graduate of my Acadia University, and so he let my teammate Peggy and I go down into the mine. You grew up in a beautiful area! Take care!

  10. Your description of the picnic is pure poetry. Do you think your parents ever feared that you would run out of food completely? It would be a frightening thought. Now if we want something to eat, we go to the kitchen to grab it. Life is so different and difficult for people who don't have easy access to food.


    1. Hi, Janie! I don't think they seriously worried that we would run out of food, but they certainly worried about the essentials. In a remote community like Lansdowne House, people would have helped each other out in a dire situation. Good thing too, because I'm trying to imagine my father setting a snare for a rabbit in the bush, and the thought is too funny! I think of all the foodies today. They might not think too highly of canned stew with bread and butter, but it was a meal I'll never forget! I hope all is well with you and your loved ones, not to mention Penelope and Franklin. Thanks for your encouraging comment. It meant a great deal to me!

  11. I would have loved to go on one of your picnics! Thanks for sharing all the great stories and the pictures! I hope everything is going well Louise! Big Hugs!

    1. Thanks, Stacy! All is going well for Terry and me. We are loving being in warm and sunny Waikiki. Terry is playing a lot of pickleball at Fort DeRussy and at Diamond Head Tennis Club, and I have been going about with my camera. I finally had to break down and buy a new camera today, because I was having to manually open the lens cover before each shot and having to remove the battery, shake it, and lick the connection so I could get a few more pictures. The poor thing is battered from several years of rough service. Tomorrow morning I'm going to start taking hula lessons at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. I had so much fun with the lessons last year. Big hugs to you, my friend!

  12. What lovely memories, Louise! Your picnics sound fun...and unique. It must have been a great feeling to spend time outdoors. Winters can be quite long and restricting. Your childhood is filled with so many amazing adventures. I really enjoy your writing!

    1. Thanks, Martha! I did have adventures when I was growing up! Hope all is well with you! Take care!

  13. How fun Louise! That little picnic photo is precious. And yes, what better than hot stew and homemade bread in the wilderness...that is bliss to me! Thank you for sharing! Seeing your photos makes me long for the summer so we can be on the lake again! :)

    1. Hi, Rain! Summer is on its way! I do love summer! I treasure that picnic photo. I doubt my mother is in even six pictures that year. Photos were a luxury. Come grade eight, I was putting any spare money I had into film and processing ~ black and white of course ~ couldn't afford colored! Oh yes, and records! that would be 45s. Take care, my friend!

  14. Cool shot of rotting ice. Thanks for the stroll through bits of your childhood. I love the picture of the fat little dachshund! As always, you have an elegant way of writing about your adventures. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Adrienne! They meant a lot! We dearly loved our Gretchen! All the best to you!

  15. Goodness, I think my kids being out on a canoe like that would scare me to death. Your poor mother! I love reading about your adventures. They're so unique!

    1. Thanks, Crystal! It wasn't as bad as it looks! Roy and I were both good swimmers, as were our parents. Unique definitely describes my childhood! Take care!

  16. Wow, what an adventure! You had such a great childhood!

    1. Hi, Nasreen! Yes, I was fortunate in my childhood ~ We had so much fun growing up! All the best to you!


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