Turning 25 in Thunder Bay & beyond (June 10-13)

Terry Fox wasn’t all there was to Thunder Bay, and I’d love to talk a bit about the good people & times that I’ll remember from that place. It was a very hot and humid afternoon when I ran into town and met up with my friend Benjamin pretty close to “downtown.” Thunder Bay’s urban structure was interesting (or kind of uninteresting) in that its lack of a downtown was of a different order from towns like North Bay or Pembroke. Of course it had a strip mall situation, but this wasn’t overwhelming; it’s just that it was quite a sprawl, and from what I understand there were “two downtowns,” historically different settlements or something. Benjamin lived more or less in the middle of all this and walked every day to his job as a legal aide (side note: by now I have stayed with three McGill Law students working as legal aides in three different northern Ontario cities. I’m very grateful to Chelsea [Sudbury], Ben [T. Bay] and Viviane [Kenora], who were all wonderful hosts. But I’m most indebted to Ben, who actually hooked me up with all these connections!) The cool thing about his neighborhood was the really unexpectedly strong Finnish presence: he lived right across the street from this old-school Finnish sauna that’s apparently a big deal in town, and also pretty close to this famous Finnish restaurant, Hoito. I could walk down the street and literally hear old guys speaking Finnish to each other.

You encounter a lot of these interesting ethnic enclaves in the middle of Canada, which has been cool to discover. For instance, a few days later I stumbled into this Bavarian tavern in the middle of the wilderness 20 km east of Kenora that looked like it had been airlifted straight from Bavaria: I dined on zigeunerschnitzel with spaetzle and an awesome dunkelweiss, and even got served by a jolly plump mädchen! Or another example is the German/Russian/Mennonite community in Steinbach, where I stayed with Doug & Leona Woodmass. I’ve been realizing the fairly obvious truth that Canada is a far younger country than the US, in spite of all their similarities… for the most part, I feel that the well-known immigrant communities in the US (you know, random things like the Hungarians in New Brunswick NJ, or the Pennsylvania Dutch) tend to be more historical tidbits the vestiges of which can still be seen – but in Canada it’s relatively normal to hear different languages spoken on the street. Obviously Montreal has this all over the place: the Portuguese presence in the Plateau, the Chinese, or even all the Russian I hear on the street. Maybe this digression is old news to a lot of my readers, but I thought it was pretty cool.

Anyway! I had an awesome time staying with Ben (two days, as I had a rest day scheduled), who I probably should have started hanging out with a long time ago; actually, though we were acquainted through mutual friends before, we hadn’t really talked too much prior to my showing up at his house in Thunder Bay. On the 10th, we went out to the local hipster pub, the Sovereign Room, which turned out to have a fantastic beer selection (drafts & bottled imports) and way better food than either of us was expecting. I was living large and ordered both a whole flammkuche and the best latkes I’d ever tasted, all washed down with some decent local ale the name of which I can’t recall. Ben wasn’t too hungry and I ended up eating a lot of his excellent poutine with confit de canard. And this is just a pub – not too pricey! My theory is, when you live in a random small Ontario city in the boonies like Thunder Bay, you only get one chance at making a good hipster gastro-brewpub type operation, so they’re forced to get it right on the first try. If this place was in Montreal, I’d go there all the time. Same with the Happy Buddha in Sudbury, where Chelsea took me. Good times!

June 11th was my glorious day off, where I had all sorts of little missions to accomplish during the day – just stuff that falls by the wayside in the rhythm of running more than a marathon, then crawling into your tent every night. So I got a haircut and felt a little more respectable, and then paid a visit to a new friend I made a couple weeks before and gave me her address in T. Bay. So, flash back to a couple weeks before for a moment: I met Terry when I was killing time at the picnic area by the giant thermometer in White River: she was this pretty radical-looking chick with a gray cat on a leash, and she looked a little bit out of her element / distressed. I happen to have this thing for gray cats, and besides, I’m making an effort to be a more sociable person here, so I struck up a conversation. She had been in the process of moving from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay, in order to move in with a new girlfriend, but sort of got stranded in White River for a few hours (long story). On a superficial level, we might come off as different people, but I thought she was really cool and we had some experiences in common (besides getting stranded in White River). Maybe I just empathize with the role that cycling has in her life, because it seems like she became a pretty hardcore cyclist and got into fitness stuff simultaneously with a lot of major life changes, and those seem like things she relies on for her psychological wellbeing – like me. Whatever the case, I dropped in at her place that hot afternoon in Thunder Bay, and it turns out her girlfriend is crazy jealous about everything and was bothered that I was there at all. Look at me, messing up the relationships of 40 year-old lesbians. Anyway, Terry, a cool new friend – I hope we keep in touch. She’s a bit of an energy supplement junkie, so she gifted me three little phials of ginseng extract I’m keeping around for a rainy day. (I’m actually getting into energy drinks myself… sometimes a can of Monster/Rockstar/Red Bull/Whoopass/whatever can make all the difference in a day’s run. But I try to keep that to only once or twice a week.)

The giant thermometer of questionable veracity which is White River’s most distinguishing characteristic. According to Jen Taylor, whose grandfather (?) was the resident meteorologist when their record-breakingly low temperature was recorded, the mercury may have stuck that day. Note my sweet ride for the day off.

Terry, making the most of getting stuck in White River for the afternoon.

Terry’s cat, Gravy, is over 20 years old, and was a total trooper under the circumstances.

Another thing I did on that rest day was pick up a nice bottle of scotch, both to celebrate my birthday and as something to share with Benjamin, who is also an aficionado of Islay malts. It was a bit of a gamble because I’d never heard of Dun Bheagan, but gosh, what a lucky choice! When he got back from work, we had a beautiful afternoon, sitting around on his back porch in the sun, lobing that fine whisky. Later we went out for food, and I turned 25 only moments after watching the Devils lose the Stanley Cup to the Kings – funny how it seemed like none of the people in the pub were even remotely interested in the outcome of that game, since all it was was NJ and LA. But it was a grand way to celebrate my birthday, or rather my “birthday eve,” since I’d be taking off the next morning.

And so, on my actual birthday, I was running west again, into unknown territory, and bidding farewell to Lake Superior. The consolation prize of this (besides just the change of pace) was that it was a good deal less hilly. I also got an amazing chance to watch two young red foxes playing with each other, tussling around in the grass! I got rained on a bit, but only for about twenty minutes in the middle of which Estelí surprised me with a bday phone call – too bad about the timing, but a cool birthday gesture.

They really let me get pretty close and watch for a while.

A little bit of wrasslin’!

I’m not usually the type to make a big deal out of my birthday, but interestingly enough, this turned out to be like the birthday that just keeps on giving, because I had an interesting chance encounter the next day which revolved around the June 12th date. I had just entered the Arctic Watershed (the point past which all streams flow north into the Arctic Ocean), and I pulled over at a rest area in Lac des Mille Lacs to have a bit of dinner. As I was chowing down, I heard the convenience store clerk guy talking to the cook, and asking him how his birthday was the day before. I said, “Hey, your birthday was yesterday? Mine too,” and so we established this pretty odd chance connection. Jeff was only a couple years older than me, and he had been working all day the day before and hadn’t really celebrated; in fact, I hadn’t really done much on my actual birthday, either. Jeff said, “All right! I’m finishing work in a few minutes, so how about you come over for a beer and we can celebrate our birthday?” DONE. Furthermore, he was offering me a couch for the night, which later turned out to be a bona fide bed!

Entering the Arctic Watershed.

It was such an unlikely connection, and yet such a totally excellent one. Jeff lived in this trailer behind the rest area that was included for free as a perk of his job, and warned me that bears got into the trash pretty much every night. We hung out with a couple beers, and I shared the Dun Bheagan with him, which evidently totally blew his mind with its rich peaty flavors. He showed me some music & beats he’s working on (pretty good!) and we talked about hip-hop. I was dismayed to hear that Mystikal is evidently back in jail (he just got out!)

We talked a lot about living and working in the bush, and he and Randall (the other guy who worked there) really piqued my interest about working a totally different kind of job in the oil fields. Both of them had worked for a time out in Alberta, doing oil-related jobs: Jeff’s was as one of the “seismic” guys: basically, spending the whole day walking from location to location, checking up on these meters. According to him, a pretty simple job that was physically but not mentally demanding. Jobs like this pay over $5000 a month, plus free lodging and a per diem for food… unreal. He kept telling me if I could handle the wilderness and fitness aspects of my current trip, I’d have no problem with it, although the days are long and you don’t get weekends off – so now I keep thinking, “gee, I could be doing something in ways quite similar to what I’m doing right now, except that I would have made a ton of money this summer doing it.” Doing some sort of hard yet remunerative physical labor out in the bush somewhere in Canada is a concept that appeals to me right now, and I’ve found myself thinking about it increasingly often. People always talk about tree planting, which of course has a whole different hip scene built up around it, but also pays well… then there’s the forest fire fighters I met, whose work is extremely interesting. But that’s a whole ‘nother story, and I’ll tell it later!

A place called Sunshine, good omen (June 12). On a side note, why is it that all sports sunglasses instantly make you look like a douchebag?

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~ by edmundmilly on June 29, 2012.

One Response to “Turning 25 in Thunder Bay & beyond (June 10-13)”

  1. I am envying the large change of venue you are enjoying…im still HERE…not a bad place…just the same place LOL

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