Peterborough – Havelock (again)

Hi friends, here’s an old story… Please note – I haven’t ridden a freight train in nearly ten years.  This was way back in 2005, when I was still in school in my hometown of Peterborough, Ontario, and going to see Washboard Hank on Tuesday nights at the Peterborough Arms.  Enjoy!

 

There ain’t nothin’ sweeter than riding the rails – Tom Waits

 

When you spend all winter working, lounging and drinking, all in disproportionate amounts to each other, and all indoors, the first few days of warmth are like the unbinding of the shackles of boredom. Suddenly, you can do all of these outside, not to mention bummin’ around a little more comfortably.

I’ve always had a fascination with trains. I’ll walk down to the tracks at certain times to see if the westbound is on schedule, or listen at night for the whistle of the eastbound. Once I went down to the station on a Thursday night to catch a train; that was my first time hopping. It satisfied a certain void – I’d always admired the hobo lifestyle, but assumed it was long gone – another victim of modern times; progress – whatever you want to call it.

After that first ride I didn’t need to do it again for a while. I wanted to do a longer trip, and eventually did, but in the last few months I haven’t taken the opportunity. There’s always something that seems really important, or else it’s too cold. To get away from the tedium of “normal” life you sometimes have to really steel yourself.

Last night I was out on the porch – it’s spring damnit, or so we’re unconvincingly told by the calendar – and I heard the familiar call. That Lonesome Whistle, those Train Sounds Through the Distance tugging at my heartstrings. It was a Thursday – every Thursday for months the thought of catching out had crossed my mind. Without really planning on making a trip, I grabbed mitts and a toque, just in case I wanted to fool around hopping on and off for kicks. That’s always a thrill. On the way to the tracks I reasoned I might as well ride to Havelock – it had been a while – and really, why the hell not?

I wonder if it’s a characteristic of train hoppers to feel guilty as their ride advances. In the glare of the headlights, I see two points of view. One is that the engineers never even consider the thought of people catching their train, and also that for ninety-nine percent of people, to stand by the tracks as the train approaches means nothing more than watching it roll past. The other has me imagining that passing cops are reading my mind and know what’s going on, and sees me scheming to look innocent. Really, I force myself to believe, nobody cares. Not in a small city where the tracks don’t really go anywhere anyway.

So I let the engines roll by – one, two, three. A little excessive power for the twelve-car consist. Surprisingly, the first few cars are rideable. Around here, mostly everything is grainers, or at least covered hoppers. Some of them have that sweet platform at either end but it seems that more and more don’t. There’s just a coupler, some little beams, and the glistening steel limb removers spinning below. That just wouldn’t be fun to ride.

Generally the trains through Peterborough don’t stop in town, although I’m sure that once the crew parked the train right downtown to go for coffee. This one wasn’t stopping, though, and it was the fastest I’ve ever caught on. The ground is flat; the tracks curve away (so the crew can’t see you). I run along the ladder. It’s moving about as fast as me. First the left hand; then the right, one rung higher. A good step up and I’m on, climbing up to the platform.

Immediately I climb to the car ahead and drop into the little hole – it’s the kind where there’s no floor in the hole, just a beam and the wheels. But I just need to stay out of sight for the first crossing; I won’t be in there long. The platform itself is good. Pretty soon we’re across the river, still crawling along. At the edge of town, Botulf siding, I consider hopping off. What the hell am I gonna do once I get to Havelock? I wonder. Who cares – stay on, you need the wind on your face, the stimulation of an adventure even this brief.

As soon as we leave town I have no regrets. With so much power and so little load, we pick up speed instantly. Soon we’re cruising – only 30mph maybe, but it feels like three hundred. The roar of the steel, the clicking of the rails – the dim landscape, still illuminated by patches of snow, racing by below.

Whenever the train slows a bit I climb up the ladder, to catch the scene that was imprinted in my memory on my last ride – the daylight glare of the headlights shining on the rails and trees out in front, highlighting the silhouetted outline of the engines and the first couple cars. At this time of year, there are no leaves on the trees, and they glow unearthly against the infinite blackness of the sky.

But as soon as we speed up, I’ve got to get down fast. I’m alternating back and forth between the back ladder of one car and the front platform of another. I feel pretty comfortable doing this at slow speed, but not when we’re cruising. This train really rocks – in the most literal sense – on the winter-weary tracks. I keep thinking about the possibility of trains rolling over (they seem pretty tall and wide on such narrow rails), or at least jumping the tracks. Again though, rational thought is comforting – nobody cares enough that I’m on here to even contemplate it, and trains sway like this all the time. I hold onto the ladder and make sure not to get caught without a grip on something.

I’m always noting little things about trains that I’ve never seen before. This trip provided a sad new observation – the cubbyhole on the standard “Canada” or “Alberta” style grainer was welded shut. That was such a perfect spot to hide from the prying eyes of the hostile bull. You have to admit that there was never any real reason for the hole to be there in the first place, but I took the covering up of it as a personal attack against riders. What reason could there be to close the hole other than to keep people out? I see the freight train as a means of travel gradually dieing off – not only are there bulls to outsmart, but a smaller and smaller proportion of equipment is physically rideable. We really try hard to restrain the more adventurous types.

It might be a bit of a sidenote here, but you should all read Jack London’s The Road. He tells you all about riding the rails in the early 1900s. Everything from hobos waiting on a grade to catch out because the train would be moving so slowly, to the brutal conductors killing people with coupler pins on a rope, to the excitement of outsmarting the crews of passenger trains. It was a time when people took more responsibility for their own actions, rather than always looking for scapegoats. I bet railways would let us all ride if they weren’t so concerned about liability.

Back on the train I’m thinking this sort of thing – the mind really jumps around. Physical sensations are all kind of surreal. The wind is cold but the body doesn’t notice; the light rain is a pleasure not an aggravation. Some old songs roll off my tongue out into the deaf darkness: “I was riding number nine, heading south from Caroline…” Some of them gain new context as I improvise lyrics for the circumstances. It’s easy when there’s nobody there to judge you. “Can you hear me?” I shout. Of course not. There’s nobody there – it’s just me, the train and the night. It’s an unbeatable sensation – but maybe just to us railway fanatics.

We roll into Havelock around 1:00AM. The one thing holding me back from riding was the thought of getting stuck out here for the night. It’s not that warm yet, and there’s nowhere to stay. I’d slept in, slothlike, till noon in the morning, so I’m nowhere near tired enough to just pass out. And since the Havelock Hotel got knocked down a couple months ago, there’s nowhere to go for a beer. The town is dead, hitchhiking is pointless – what does one do?

My “solution” was to walk to the nearest shelter. This turned out to be pretty good, at least compared to other places I’ve slept. It was a little shed behind the grocery where they store all the old cardboard boxes. There was a padlock on the door – but it wasn’t closed. That’s an invitation if I ever saw one. For a few hours I tried to sleep on a mattress of cardboard, covered as best as possible by, of course, more cardboard. This was futile.

Around four, I finally got up the courage to go where I should have gone straight away – back to the railyard, where the engines were still humming. It might be a little risky, but really, what would they do even if they did catch me? I climb into the middle of the three units, open the door and walk into a wave of heat. My toes, by this time, are frozen numb, so I take off my boots, and sit in the engineer’s seat, with my feet up on the heater. I stayed there for an hour or so, always vigilant, ready to make my escape back into the shadows, but of course nobody came.

After five, I went for a coffee at a Mac’s Milk, and felt the “you’re weird” eyes of the clerk burning into me. Just like all my other paranoid worries, I’m sure this was all in my head. Any highway-side shop sees its share of people it doesn’t recognize. By five-thirty I was on the road again, and caught a ride home pretty quickly. By seven I was back in bed.

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Right or Wrong

I had the pleasure last fall of attending the Kole Crook Fiddling Association‘s fall workshop in Hay River, Northwest Territories.  On the Saturday we had a little talent show in the gymnasium of the school.  I sang this old classic and let the great Gordon Stobbe do his thing on the fiddle.  Gordon recently received an Order of Canada for his dedications and contributions to the Canadian musical community over the last four decades or more.  Congratulations Gordon!

 

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Homemade Cajun Triangles

I had thought for a while wouldn’t it be great to get some old hay rake tines and make a Cajun triangle – or, more likely, have one made for me. From what I’d been told, it is best to use old iron instead of modern steel, for the nicer sound quality.

But then I thought, hey, for seven dollars I could buy a piece of mild steel and try my hand at blacksmithing! Who cares if it’s not the right steel! If I could hand-forge a triangle, in my wood stove, in my kitchen, that would be great!

I’ve got some inspirational music on – Lisa Leblanc, who played Snowking’s Winter Festival the other day. She had a triangle with her, and since I’d met her in Louisiana, the Cajun connection seemed strong, and I got inspired to have my own triangle…and why not make it myself.

A bit of background – most of the men on my dad’s side of the family have worked with metal somehow. My dad was a tool and die maker for over thirty years, and my uncle has worked as a serious artisanal blacksmith. I love working with steel – grinding, cutting, welding – there’s something satisfying about being able to manufacture things yourself with such a solid material.  I’ve never tried pounding metal this way, so this will be all new to me. I don’t have an anvil, but I’m going to have to get one (or improvise something) to make the small-radius curves required in a triangle.

I didn’t know for sure if my woodstove would get the steel hot enough, but with some hardwood in there, the piece came out glowing. A few hits with the mallet on my makeshift “anvil”, and holy crap, the shape is changing!

I’d already thought about how I would approach this – I would start by tapering one end, then curl that end, then the first corner bend, then the last taper and curl. The idea is to maintain as much handle as possible while sticking it in my makeshift forge.

I’m burning hardwood pallet wood, and sticking the steel in for about two minutes at a time right now. The hotter the fire gets, the less time it will need presumably.

The old ball-peen hammer is getting a workout; I rarely know what else to use it for, so it’s great to have this purpose.

Progress seemed quick at the beginning…But now maybe I’m being too much of a perfectionist. I want to get a nice taper on the end, so it’s not as fast now as it was at first.

Got some more inspirational music on now, having made it through Lisa Leblanc’s album. Savoy-Doucet Cajun band with Bosco Stomp as first tune.

I have discovered now about over-working the steel, as I think I’ve kind of fractured my taper.

So, day two of the triangle project. I wasn’t able to buy a small anvil, at least not at the hardware stores, so I’ve decided to use a twelve dollar drift as a substitute. With a bit of luck it might work without snapping…

I was able to curl the end reasonably well, but I’m not sure how to really coil it. I decided to quit while I was ahead (even as it is the end is starting to split) and move on to the first corner bend.

I suppose I should have thought a bit more about the corner bend… It turned out ok but the hard part was bending it in the right spot, and in a tight enough radius, and to the right angle. Maybe I didn’t even need to heat it up for this part, but because I was getting it glowing red – and not always in the right spot exactly, I felt a bit rushed. Anyway I got the first corner not looking too bad, but now I’m extra nervous about the last curl and corner. Getting the length just right will be a challenge.

On my third session of construction, I put the curl on the end of the triangle which will be cut off to make the striker/mallet/hammer—whatever you want to call it. I did this work while it was still attached to the main piece in order to have a longer handle to work with.

After cutting that piece off with a hacksaw, and making my best guess at how much material to leave for the triangle itself (there are still one curl and one corner to make and it’s hard to know exactly how much length those take up), I started doing the last taper on the triangle in preparation for curling the end. I’ve done two curls now, so I know I can do it, but they’re both a bit different, and I’d like this next one to match the first one, for symmetry on the triangle itself.

I got the last curl on the triangle to a point that I was content with, and then moved on to doing the last bend. I thought I had a great idea when I decided to use a propane torch to heat up the exact point of the corner, instead of putting the piece back in the stove. The torch was barely able to get the steel red, but at least it was isolated at the right spot. It made doing the bend a lot easier, but then I wasn’t totally content with the look of it in the end. It’s cleaner than the first one, but lacks the character I think. Plus the radius ended up tighter, and it’s not quite as nice to hold onto as the first one.

After the moderate success of the first triangle, I decided I’d better try some more. I thought I had the process all figured out. But they all ended up looking and sounding surprisingly different. I think in the end I like the first one the best, but the third one is ok too. I could streamline the process even more with a better forge and an anvil. I think even a charcoal barbecue would make a pretty good forge, especially with some sort of fan to make it hotter.

So now I’ve made three triangles, but none of them have the quality or character of a real Cajun triangle. They don’t look or sound quite the same – the sound is more tinny than I like, and they just don’t look so polished and perfect. Something to keep working on.

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Pure Laine Pembroke – Oct 2013

The Pure Laine (Pure Wool) contest at the Pembroke Old Time Fiddling and Step Dancing Competition in Sept 2010, featuring April Verch, Shane Cook and Danny Perreault. Competitors must play tunes one after the other without losing the beat or making mistakes. They aren’t allowed to repeat any song that’s already been played. They shout out the key of the song, and the referee translates for the accompanist. It’s a long video, but I think that’s what makes it most impressive – the sheer number of tunes that each competitor knows. The first disqualification happens about six minutes in. There is also some good trick piano playing in the last couple minutes of the clip.

 

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Thanksgiving

I would have called this post “fall” or “autumn,” but we’re well into that season now in Yellowknife, probably bordering on winter actually.  This little update unfortunately has almost nothing to do with music, since I’ve been so musically inactive lately, except that I’ll mention two upcoming events that I’m excited to be attending: One, the Blackpot Camp/Festival, outside Eunice, Louisiana, home of Marc and Joel Savoy and major centre for Cajun music; and Two, the Texas Folklife and Texas Dancehall Preservation 2nd Annual Festival of Texas Fiddling, in Burton, Texas.  I’ll be sure to write something about these events.

For the mean time, all I really wanted to do was post a couple of pictures from around here.  People ask “What have you been up to?” and it’s always hard to answer.  Mostly this:

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(window cleaning)

and some of this kind of stuff:

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(That’s my shack in the Woodyard, Old Town, Yellowknife. L-R: Garden, Greenhouse, Shed, Three cords of wood waiting to be stacked, Shack, Truck). Photos Joel Maillet.

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Hoarfrost River

I had the very lucky opportunity to travel out to the East Arm of Great Slave Lake last week, to housesit Dave Olesen’s family homestead at the Hoarfrost River.  I’d never been to the East Arm, and, apart from canoeing there, what better way could there be to experience it for the first time than by traveling out there in Dave’s own bush plane?

We left Yellowknife on Sunday evening from the Plummer’s dock in Old Town, flying in the Bush Hawk for about an hour and a half to the east, with one brief stop at Taltheilei Narrows to drop off a couple of bags at the Plummer’s fishing lodge there.  Here I’ll just post some photos and comments from the next three days.

Getting ready to go – loading into the plane on Sunday evening:IMG_0244

Flying east, we were almost right over top of the forest fires that were burning near Reid Lake, as well as Harding, Hearne and Defeat Lakes.  It was a nice perspective of what the fires look like, as we flew just over their upwind edge.  Lots of it was just smouldering or burning less intensely, but there were some spots that were really raging, with flames as high as the trees:

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On Monday morning we went out to check the Olesens’ fish nets with their daughter, Liv.  Four nice Lake Trout, most of which would go to feed their dog teams:

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We had flown over Dave Smith’s East Arm Freighting barge the night before:

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And now they were tucked into a bay just around the corner from the Olesens’ to deliver fuel to a mine.  They also had some building materials and a dog sled for the Olesens, so Joel, Kristen and I made a few trips back and forth in the Lund to ferry it to the homestead.  Here’s Kristen in front of her place:

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The reason Joel and I were housesitting was that the Olesens were traveling by sailboat down to Taltheilei to pick up their winter’s supply of dog food, a trip that took almost two days, but brought back 8,000 pounds of dog food and rice.  We were to look after the dogs and the homestead, but also had lots of time to look around.  Our first foray was up the Hoarfrost River a few kilometres.  It was one waterfall after another.  This is the last one, where the river spills into Great Slave Lake:

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All the area around the Hoarfrost River (including, sadly, the Olesens’ main cabin and guest cabin), burned in a major forest fire last year.  It’ll be decades before it looks the way it used to.  Here’s where it’s at now:

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On Tuesday, we cooked up the dog feed in the morning – whole fish and rice in a big cauldron over a wood stove.  Once it comes to a boil, it all gets mashed up with a shovel, then scooped into pails to cool down for the rest of the day.  The dogs get this meal every two days, alternating with a small scoop of kibble on the off days.  I imagine they eat a lot more in the winter, when it’s cold and they’re working.  This should be the cover if Rick Sward’s band, Fishead Stew, makes an album:

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Here’s Joel again, looking kind of tired after feeding the dogs (one of our few chores, really):

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We visited with Tony Foliot, Dave Smith and company, while they were loading fuel drums from the East Arm Freighting barge onto a Twin Otter.  They were pulled into a bay just around the corner from the homestead, and aside from the goods for the Olesens, had about 300 barrels of fuel for a mine site to the north.  The plane took nine barrels per trip, plus consuming about one barrel worth of fuel, making one trip per hour, so they were going to be working for at least three days.

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It took only fifteen minutes to load the plane each time, then they could wait (and fish) for about forty five minutes till work started again.

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On Tuesday, after our failed attempt to hike along the Hoarfrost River to Lacy Falls the previous day, Joel and I took the dogsled trail through the forest to make sure we found the place.  Sometimes the trail was a little uncertain through the burned forest, but it was much more reliable than the intermittent footpaths we thought we were following along the river on Monday.  There is a canoe stashed on the bank of a pond on the river, and a short paddle and walk upstream brought us to the falls itself, where we fished for Grayling in the whirlpools at its base.

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And were successful:

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Grayling are beautiful fish – much more colourful in the water than in the frying pan – and fun to fish as they were biting almost every cast, and swimming wildly through the current as we reeled them in.  These were about the biggest we caught (they get somewhat bigger) and we caught some that were not much more that six inches long.

On Wednesday the Olesens arrived back right on schedule in their sailboat.  We spent the day pulling nets in the rain, shooting archery with the girls, and cleaning fish.

In the evening we hopped into the plane for the trip back, with Dave giving us a bit of an aerial tour of the East Arm along the way.

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We had a really great time out there, and I sure look forward to my next chance to visit!

Oh – and I guess I didn’t show any pictures of the dogs… Well, how ’bout a video then? Here’s one for the dog lovers:

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June, July, Aug 2013 – Leahy

To inspire my fiddling friends in the Aurora Fiddle Society, I was sending out YouTube picks for a while – I’ve been falling a bit short lately, but I should get back into it.  Anyway, they’re getting re-posted here for anyone who’s interested.

Leahy used to be the known as The Leahy Family, if I remember right.  There were eleven kids in the family and they were all in the band.  They grew up in Lakefield, which is pretty close to where I’m from, so I always knew of them as a kid.  I’ve got an LP of them from the 80s.

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