Friday, May 11, 2018

The Lansdowne Letters: Life Disrupted

In my last post, I shared the letter
my mother had written to her mother-in-law
on Thursday June 8, 1961.

She had spent that evening writing letters and stressing over completing the grocery list 
going out on the next day's mail plane.

She would never see those groceries arrive in Lansdowne House on Friday, June 16th.

Wading in Attawapiskat Lake, June 4, 1961
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue All Rights Reserved

By Monday afternoon, June 12th, Lansdowne House was a memory
for Mom, us five kids; and Gretchen, and Uno and Dad
were going to have a well-stocked larder by the end of the week.

Back to the Brown Cabin
by the Church for My Father
The Father's Island
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Canada
Photo by Father Maurice Ouimet
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

On Wednesday, June 14, 1961
My mother wrote to her mother-in-law,
Myrtle MacBeath:

Dear Mother:
Well, here we are in Lac Seul.
I imagine that Don gave you
all the details.

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

I arrived in Sioux Lookout and Mr. Caswell told me Mike had a place for us
at Lac Seul which we could have until we could find a place in Sioux.

It is very rugged here, but very beautiful.  Lac Seul is a huge lake with many islands.
There are beautiful birch trees on the islands, not as much scrub as at Lansdowne House.

We have a little house with three rooms in it,
a large one for a bunkbed, a double bed, and a crib.
In the living room is a cot for me.

The kitchen is large with cupboards, a table, and a wood stove.
It is something like in Margaretsville.
There is a nice sandy beach near here.

We are staying in a little cottage near Anne's home (Mike, the nurse's wife).
There are two of Anne's brothers home now, so they get us whatever we need.
They brought me in an icebox tonight.

The Garrick Home
Fritz Garrick, Mrs. Daley (Minister's wife),
Mina (Fritz's sister), various nieces and nephews
Summer, 1961
Two Point, Lac Seul, Northwestern Ontario, Canada
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Anne's uncle made sling shots for all the children.
They are so good to the children, and so the children are having a marvelous time.
Today they helped them paint a canoe.

I want to get this off in the mail tomorrow.
I know you will want to hear how we arrived, etc.
There is a boat that comes with the mail on Mondays and Thursdays.

We are all very easy here anyway.
I will be glad when Don is through school and finds a place for us all.


On the Beach not far from Our Cabin
with Anne's Brothers
Fritz Garrick, flanked by Bertie on the left and Barbie on the right
John Garrick on the rock
Summer, 1961
Two Point, Lac Seul, Northwestern Ontario, Canada
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserve

The devil is in the detail it is said.
In the case of my mother's letter to Nana,
the devil was in the details she omitted.

To make a long story short,
the Department of Lands and Forests evicted us,
not for cause but for fire, a huge forest fire.

On Saturday the forestry department radioed my father
and told him its fire fighters were on their way:
We had forty-eight hours to vacate, by 6 p.m. on Monday, June 12th.

A fire with a fifty-mile front was burning through the boreal forest,
and the forestry department needed the house to coordinate part of the response.
My parents scrambled to make contingency plans,
for the school year didn't finish until the end of June.

Then my parents caught a break first thing Monday morning.
Mike O'Flaherty, who had rescued us from the island just before
accompanying his wife Anne to Sioux Lookout for the birth of their baby,
wired to say he had found a place for us to stay.
By early afternoon we were on a plane to catch the night train
from Nakina to Sioux Lookout and our new life.

But things didn't go the way we expected.
Mike didn't meet us at the station.
Instead he sent the town's taxi driver, Mr. Caswell, 
who broke the news that he was taking us to catch a flight
to Lac Seul where Mike had a place for us.

Lac Seul?

My brain was foggy.  It had been a very long night on the train.
I have a vague memory of Mike at the dock seeing us off,
assuring my mother that everything would be fine,
that he was sending us to Anne's family
in Two Point just outside Sioux Lookout,
and that a nice little cottage was waiting for us.

Mom managed to get a wire off before we left
to let Dad know that we were not staying in Sioux
but flying to some place called Lac Seul.
It was the last word my father heard from anyone in over a week.

"Just outside Sioux" proved to be a fifteen minute flight;
and exciting, for we flew in a real seaplane,
a seaplane that landed on its belly in the water.
Before I knew it, almost before I had time to be afraid,
the plane was plowing through the water on its belly
and racing for the shore by the Hudson's Bay post on Lac Seul.

A Grumman Goose
I don't know what we flew on, but it might have been a goose.
Flickr:  Alan   License

Anne's brothers, Fritz and John Garrick, met us with their fishing boat
and told my mother they would take us to Two Point about eight miles away.

I never forgot that first trip to Two Point; neither did my mother.
The old fishing boat owned by "the boys," as we came to call Fritz and John,
chugged through silver waters on a lake as smooth and reflective as a mirror.
As we headed deeper and deeper into the silent bush, the world slipped away.

For the next two months we had limited contact with the Outside.  
In Lansdowne House there was always a plane flying in
or neighbors stopping by.  Here there was no one,
except for Fritz, John, and their mother Kokum.
The closest short-wave radio was eight miles away by boat
at the Hudson's Bay post.

By the time the wilderness of lake, spruce, poplar, and birch
had swallowed up the Hudson Bay post, my mother had entered
a state of semi-shock.  She was exhausted by recent events,
and she was utterly appalled at being alone in the wilderness
with five young children and three Indians she knew nothing about.

Reaching "home" didn't help either.
We clambered onto the dock by a fish house and a few other weathered buildings,
and the boys helped us carry our few belongings
up the long path through a rough meadow
to the nice little cottage waiting for us:
a three-room log cabin whose walls were riddled with a variety
of animals including several weasels and a family of chipmunks.

My mother came to a sudden stop outside the cabin.
I thought she had spotted the outhouse some thirty yards
or so in back of the log cabin toward the trees;
but, no, instead she asked, "Why is all that heavy wire nailed over the windows?"

"To keep the bears out," Fritz answered.

Black Bear
Northern Ontario, Canada

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.  Forest Fires 1961:
     We didn't know it at the time, but 1961 would be a record year for forest fires in northwestern
     Ontario with 1,534,917 acres or 621,159 hectares burning.  That record wasn't broken until 2011.

2.  Mr. Caswell:
     We got to know Mr. Caswell very well doing our time in Sioux Lookout.  He was the town
     taxi service.

3.  Margaretsville:
     This is a small Nova Scotian village on the Fundy Shore where we lived in 1958-1959.

4.  Icebox:
     This was a very old icebox even in 1961.  I think Roy had the job of getting a chunk of ice for
     it every day or so from the fish house.

5.  Anne's Uncle:
     Kokum's brother was a trapper who came and went throughout the summer.  We all called him
     Uncle Pipe, because he frequently smoked a pipe.  Once he showed us a treasured and beautiful
     antique Ojibwa clay pipe that he kept wrapped in a thick, soft cloth.

6.  Two Point:
      It was Two Point River, but we all called it Two Point.  I have no clue where it was.  I haven't
      been able to locate it on any map ~ yet.

7.  Lac Seul:
     Lac Seul is the second largest lake completely within the province of Ontario.  Technically,
     it is a reservoir of the English River, and it stretches about 150 miles (241 km) in a large crescent
     from Ear Falls in the west to Sioux Lookout-Hudson in the east.  A power generating station is
     located at Ear Falls.  Lac Seul has a surface area of 640 square miles (1658 sq. km).  The lake is a
     maze of islands, bays, rocky points, shoals, and narrow channels.  The water is clear, but has a
     distinctive tea color.  It is famous for its sport fishing.  sunsetcountry

8.  Fritz, Bertie, and Barbie:
     Fritz, John, and Kokum loved children, like many of the First Nations people and Métis of
     Northern Ontario.  My younger sisters adored Fritz, especially Barbie.  Wherever Fritz was,
     Barbie was, and Bertie was not far behind.  He had a special way with small children.  John was
     shyer, but equally kind-hearted.

For Map Lovers Like Me:
Location of Lansdowne House, Nakina, and Sioux Lookout
Northern Ontario, Canada

Lac Seul
Northern Canada
Google Maps  Map Data 2018

To See a Photo of Lac Seul Click Here


  1. To keep the bears out...
    I think my wife would've had a meltdown at that point.

    1. Hi, Alex! My mother was likely feeling like that inside, but she had five young children and a dachshund who'd make a tasty treat for a bear. She had a steel core, and she had to keep it together for us. Happy Friday to you!

  2. Oh my...what a sudden turn of events. Off you go to a strange place, out of communion with your dad. I thought your dad was strong but your mother rises up to all the challenges the various situations put her through. The isolation she must have felt. Left alone in a new place with just the children. What will happen next?

    1. Hi, Peggy! It was a sudden turn of events, and this momentous year impacted my entire life. My mother was truly special. She is the strongest person I have ever known. I miss my parents every day. Have a great weekend. Ours was already great. We went to our nephew's graduation from Colorado School of Mines. We're proud of him!

  3. Fire and seaplanes and BEARS! Oh my! What a childhood you had. Your mother should be declared a saint. I am filled with admiration.

    1. Hi, Kay! I did have a different childhood, and I am grateful for all the experiences I had. My mother is the person I admire most in the world. Enjoy your weekend!

  4. Was everyone's life this chaotic back then or were your parents just adventurous?



    Oh my. Where did her strength come from?

    "As we headed deeper and deeper into the silent bush, the world slipped away."

    This sounds delightful to me.

    1. Hi, Sandi! There were definitely unexpected twists and turns when I was growing up, but to me that made life adventurous and fascinating. Definitely my childhood was different and unusual, but I wouldn't have traded it for the stability of growing up in one place. I think my mother's strength came from love, love for her husband and love for her children.

      The world did slip away. I look back, and it's like a dream. It's almost impossible to feel that solitude today, like the rest of the world and all its complications and conflicts didn't matter, didn't exist. It was delightful! Have a great weekend, mu friend!

  5. I love the dramatic way you commenced this post and ended it! Wow, I'm sure this ordeal took every last ounce of your Mom's strength and reserves to deal with. From the frying pan into the fire (so to speak)!

    1. Thanks, Debra! I worked hard on this piece of writing, and I appreciated your feedback. Terry just shakes his head when I'm writing because he can't imagine that I'm actually enjoying myself when I'm tearing my hair out! I have no idea how my mother did it. The day she left Lansdowne House was her 36th birthday. She nearly died before my sisters were born and again when I was in first grade. She was fiercely determined to be there for we five children and to give us the most loving and supportive upbringing she could. And on a lighter note ~ Go Jets!!! Have a good one, my friend!

  6. Another fascinating chapter, and your Mum, so solid,so brave, and not showing any fear to you younger ones.The isolation must have been so hard to cope with, and, as always, I can imagine being there.

    1. Hi, Jean! I'm glad that you can imagine being there! For me it is so real and powerful. It's hard to understand today that kind of isolation. We take the ability to communicate for granted. Mom couldn't contact Dad other than the one quick telegram, and Dad couldn't reach her or Mike and didn't learn anything more for a week. He was frantic about what had happened to us, and she was frantic about bears and a lot of other things. She kept it together for us, but she had some long, really dark nights of worry. But, a lot of people didn't have it easy back then, and they faced challenges that are hard to imagine in our connected, western world of convenience and abundance. Sadly, there are many people today who experience far worse. Whenever I have to summon courage, I think of my mother and draw from her strength. Have a happy weekend!

  7. haha yeah, I would have wanted to turn around after knowing the bears would try to get in. Just when you thought you couldn't get more isolated. Must have had plenty of fun with the slingshots. Oh what one can do with those.

    1. Hey, Pat! We had so much fun with the slingshots Uncle Pipe made for us. That summer was unforgettable, and the slingshots were just the beginning! Have a great weekend!

  8. "To keep the bears out..." Not words that you want to hear :)
    What a tough mom you had, Louise! Nerves of steel!

    1. Hi, Martha! My mother was tough! Whatever life and circumstance threw at her, she rose above it. We hear so much about the powerful and rich, but the people who impress and fascinate me are the quiet heroes among us who face life's challenges with courage and grace and enrich the lives of the people around them with compassion and love.

  9. Replies
    1. It is, Adam! Flying in a seaplane and landing in water in its belly is something I'll never forget. It was every bit as exciting as landing on a frozen lake in a plane equipped with skis. I dearly love to fly! I hope that you and Daisy have a great weekend!

  10. Lions, and tigers, and bears . . . oh, my!


    1. Hi, Janie! How lovely to hear from you! Have a great weekend!

  11. Those who protected us with strength of character when we were little never leave us. Their influence never ends. I love this post. It reached me when I need it. Thank you.

    1. Hi, Geo! What a delight to see your comment! I'm so glad that you enjoyed this post! I've been out of touch with you for too long! Take care, and thanks for not giving up on me!

  12. Your mom was truly a strong, beautiful woman! What a scary time for you, with the fires!! I wouldn't want to hear, "to keep the bears out"! What an experience!!
    (Thank you for all the comments you left on my blog!! You are so kind Louise!!!)
    Big Hugs!!

    1. Big hugs back at you, Stacy! It was fun to catch up with you. My mother was a rock! I miss her every day! Take care, my friend!

  13. i found your mom and dad so fascinating dear Louise!

    you were so lucky to have such ideal spirits as parents!

    i loved reading the letter your mom wrote to her mother in law!
    so nicely and delicately she described the whole details abput her new home and life style

    fores fires seemed so terrible and horrifying !

    i cn imagine the worries of you mom that time

    1. Hi, Baili! Thank you for your kind words about my parents. They were special people, and I miss them every day. Neither Mom nor Dad wanted to worry Nana, so they made light of their difficulties. Not that Nana wasn't smart enough to figure a lot of it out herself, and she had a big imagination. Being a parent is such a hard job. My mother hid a lot of her worries, but the wire over the windows to keep the bears out almost overwhelmed her. I hope that you and your family are doing well! Take care!

  14. Again I an in awe at the twists abd turns that life brought and all the modes of transportation. I recall that telegraph system phones were still very expensive and lines limited. When a cable through the ocean connect us to Europe for long distance calls it was a thrill. How fast the world communications have changed and I can read you post via the net. L\Love the way you recall those times.

    1. Hi, Heidrun! Thank you for visiting. It was a delight to read your comment. Sending a telegraph was expensive, and at that time we couldn't imagine how connected the world would be today. Have a good one!

  15. Greetings Louise. A well-written post that I enjoyed reading. Your Mother was a strong woman, expressed in your posts. She put up with a lot, and had you children and your Father to look after - and not forgetting Gretchen. I'm sure your learnt a lot from you loving Mother, as you are a strong willed person. Sorry you had the threat of bears in the vicinity where you lived, must have been scary! I'll look forward to your next post. Blessings to you.

    Thank you. Love love, Andrew.

  16. I think your mother had a warrior spirit and that spirit gave her strength when needed. Your parents were amazing human beings.. and so are you!

  17. I really like your new decorative designs! it's so beautiful so much and good idea on site.



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