‘You always went away from his shack as happy as can be. He never raised his voice. We never saw him out of sorts.” Those are the childhood memories of people who visited the Keewatin, Ontario resident known as Happy Jack. Jack Whitmore came to Keewatin in 1891, worked there for 33 years and died in 1940. Children who knew him say he was fond of cats and although he never talked about his past or his personal life he was affable, well informed about community events, and always willing to listen to the young people who dropped by his simple dirt-floor home that had neither running water or electricity.
This week I hiked the Mink Bay Wetland Trail in northern Ontario. It has been nicknamed Happy Jack’s Trail in memory of a rather mysterious man who lived along its route. In summer Jack worked in a heading factory which made the tops and bottoms of flour barrels, but in winter he just hung out at his shack. He was a well educated man and students who struggled with math sought his help. But no one knew where he had been born, where his relatives were, or how he had landed up in Keewatin. There was speculation he was from a wealthy family in England and had been banished to Canada for some misdeeds- but no one ever asked him and the truth about his past died with him.
I didn’t see Happy Jack’s shack as I hiked the trail named after him and I didn’t see a mink either, even though I was on the Mink Bay trail. I did see many other things of interest and beauty. My hiking companions were my sister Kaaren, her husband Ken and my husband Dave. Kaaren and Dave are looking at the map to figure out if we have strayed from the trail outlined on the hiking brochure published by the city of Kenora. The sky scattered with downy clouds drew my attention repeatedly. After years of living in Hong Kong where the atmosphere is usually dull and gray the bright blue Ontario horizon beguiled me.
My sister and her husband have a cottage at Louise Lake near Kenora and we were spending a few days visiting them. Tuesday we woke to a chilly morning and decided a hike might be a better option than lake sports or swimming. The Mink Bay Trail runs along a wetlands/ boreal forest area- a combination eco-zone. A wetland gets its name from the fact that its soil is damp for most of the year and so certain kinds of plants and animals live there that might not live anywhere else. The term ‘boreal forest’ is unique to Canada and describes the coniferous woodlands flung like a green shawl across the shoulders of North America.
On our boreal forest/ wetlands hike we saw……………… bees, wildflowers, a unique wooden bridge, wild cranberry trees, water lilies, Canada geese, a driftwood garden, bulrushes, a waterfall, a reflection
What next? I’d like to do more hiking here in my home and native land. The scenery is very different than that of the European and Asian countries I visited during my six years in Hong Kong, but the Canadian landscape has a beauty all its own.
On one of my walks in Saskatoon I came upon a flock of Canada Geese beside the river. Having lived in Hong Kong for many years, where obviously there are no Canada geese, it was nice to see this native Canadian bird again. I have written about Canada Geese before, but this time I thought about how Canada Geese seldom have to worry about what’s next. They follow the exact same migration routes year after year. On their annual journeys they always stop to rest in exactly the same locations, both on their flights north in spring and south in fall. They make their nests in exactly the same places each year, sometimes even using the previous summer’s nest. Usually their nests are very near to where their parents built nests. Sometimes it’s comforting to have everything you need to do already established for you, so you don’t need to worry about what’s next. I visited the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon and one of the exhibits told the story of the Mendel family. In the 1940’s Fred Mendel owned a large international meat-packing company. He maintained homes in several European cities. but he was forced to flee , leaving his business headquarters and personal wealth behind when the Nazis took control. What next? He came to Canada and started over, building up another very successful business and amassing a large and impressive art collection. In the 1960’s he donated funds to the city of Saskatoon for the building of the Mendel Art Gallery and gifted the gallery with many of the pieces of art from his collection. There are times in life when all of us are forced to begin again- when we don’t have any idea what’s next but we have to leave old things behind and start over.
At the Ukrainian Museum in Saskatoon I spent a long time looking at a series of paintings by William Kurelek showing the life of pioneer women in Canada. They moved from one task to another, gardening, child care, home improvements, housework, cooking, cleaning, laundry. Did they ever have to ask “what next?” when another task always lay before them. Life was just one long, never-ending arc of work. In my teaching career I have often felt that way too- in September when school opened I stepped onto this long moving walkway of endless grading, lesson planning, meetings, crisis, problem solving, classroom organizing and a million other things. That walkway just kept moving and as fast as I walked I never reached the end. My old school in Hong Kong has already opened for the year and as I see e-mails and Facebook postings from my teaching friends there, I am not sure yet if I am completely happy or just a little bit sad that I won’t be stepping onto that teaching walkway of work this year.
Our son and his wife bought a home in Saskatoon a year ago, which we saw for the first time on our recent visit. Although their home is new and they are the first people to live in it, they are already asking “what next?” when it comes to things they want to do in their house and on their yard. They were busy landscaping while we were there. They have plans to finish the basement and build a deck and cover a walkway in their backyard with a roof. When you are a home owner you seem to constantly be thinking about what’s next when it comes to maintaining your home. It was kind of nice in Hong Kong where we rented a serviced apartment not to have to worry about any of those things. If something needed to be done in our suite we just called the front desk and they sent people up to take care of it. Already since moving back to Winnipeg we’ve made long lists of things we need to do in our condo here- replace a cracked window pane, buy a new washer and dryer, paint the walls, fix the mailbox lock, clean the ceramic sink, reinstall the broken towel bars, caulk the bathtubs, put up picture hangers……… I’m not sure I like being so responsible and having to constantly think about what’s next when it comes to home maintenance.