Observing Invisible Lines

Harry Drabik

Soon as I heard about John Bouchard’s book Life on the Invisible Line I ordered copies out of respect for John and because I felt certain he’d have more than a little of interest to pass on from his decades as a Ministry of Natural Resources Ranger working out of Saganaga and Northern Light lakes in canoe country. I knew John from my outfitter guiding days. I don’t speak often of those decades of my life because those summers under canvas are like a treasured memento to be taken out and examined at special times under certain circumstances. I can best summarize those times saying I had my most happy and productive years living simply doing things I loved. This piece, however, isn’t about me. In fact, John’s book reminded me how fortunate I was to have met along the way so many who like John were true authentic characters; characters in this sense meaning people of strong will and admirable demeanor.

I was quite young when I met the first (and in ways most unlikely) north woods personalities, Werner. To me as a child of eight Werner seemed more a force of nature than any of the people I knew from Chicago. Werner could handle the rigors of portage and packing by day and thrive on the accordion after dark. By the time I was a young teen Werner’s health was fading him from the picture at a time I was ready for a different association with a local sawyer, Bill. Mom and dad would smoke and drink coffee with Esther while Bill showed me things around the mill. Bill was a jolly talker filling my eager head with lore of animal and tree. Prone to be a what others called a jabbermouth, I was all ears in Bill’s company and to this day hold as a treasured gift the broad axe Bill entrusted to a fourteen year old with much growing up to do before I’d be able to handle the tool or appreciate its hidden value.

A few years later saw the start of a series of yearly encounters with the root beer lady. Dorothy had as large and immediate an impact on me as either man. Moreover, Dorothy was a person of action who took one look at my scrawny self and knew I needed help. She gave this on the spot by telling me I needed to know how to solo lift and carry a canoe. The results of my first few tries grandly rewarded her with amusement trying to jerk and control a seventeen foot long object roughly equal to my weight at the time. But I got it. Her congratulatory thump on the shoulder did minor damage my young male pride did its best to conceal. I knew one thing. Never mess with Dorothy.

This piece starts with John Bouchard but could easily go on to feature North Country women such as the female perpetual motion machine who was the driving energy at Nipigon Trout Outfitters or endlessly in motion “Grandma” Powell who I knew on the Iron Range.  “Grandma” (Charlotte) married Frank Powell (deserving of his own book) followed by sister Betsy (she has her own book) doing the same. It’s complicated. People tended to fall on one side or the other of the Charlotte / Betsy line though both women were high octane versions of die cast north woods womanhood. There was more pioneer savvy and spirit in either of their little finger clippings than I possessed in total.

Even minor, passing contact with North Country forged character left a durable impression. Benny Ambrose was unforgettable, more so were Milt Powell’s accounts of work alongside him. I much regret not having made more effort to listen to Milt while there was time. It is too late now as it is no longer possible to thank Peter Paulson for his contribution. Peter had once been Bay Post Factor at Moosonee lived out past Beardmore when I met him. I remembered him telling me about a frightening crossing he once made by canoe. He summed up this brush with death saying, “We had to keep going to get there.” In wave and weather over my head I remembered, and it kept me going until I got there.  

You’ll understand, I’m leaving many out not because they are of less importance but because there is too little space to cover all. In any case, this piece began by telling about John’s book. I won’t spoil that. For those of you interested you can find it in some bookstores and if not there it is on Amazon. John covers many people and places I recall with all the warm fondness of a treasured memory from a youth I didn’t know was golden until long after I looked back to wonder at the dazzle in vision nearing tears of joy. There was, frankly, none of that the times over a dozen summers I encountered John on duty in the bush. After a time we “knew” one another in the friendly professional way of Guide and Ranger. I can’t describe better than that or detail the small gems of time and place you’ll uncover reading John’s account of life along the invisible line.

John reminded me that like the Canada – US border there are many other invisible lines that define not only national borders but critical aspects of life itself. I think few readily recall that as the new UN was being formed Eleanor Roosevelt stood firm using her influence to insist the Charter have a provision protecting basic human rights for women, ethnic and faith minorities, etc. Two nations (Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia – farthest left and farthest right) refused to accept the idea. The Soviet objection is gone while the Saudi refusal thrives with oil money and fifty plus Islamic nations insisting human rights follow the Islamic rule of gender inequality and justified discrimination based on religion. Crossing the line from one basis of human rights to the other will not be immediately apparent, but the consequences are most surely huge.