Monday, September 24, 2012

The Truth, the Whole Truth and...

That part of the Superior Basin near what's today called Thunder Bay is where ancient spirit still resides. Where it's lived for thousands of years and does so still, as both the Wolf and the Anishinabe remain on its shores.

Canyon of the Gods

Ouimet Canyon Provincial Park isn't far east out of Thunder Bay or too terribly west out of Rossport. It's a bit of a drive off the highway but well work the side trip. Even though it's generally a positively hellacious place to photograph...

Science tells us this about Ouimet Canyon:

More than a billion years ago magma pushed up to just beneath the surface of the Earth and there ran horizontally, creating what's known as a sill. In time the sill cooled to become hard rock known as diabase. Over eons, the softer material covering the sill eroded away, exposing the diabase. Then a million or so years ago, the weight of a massive glacier broke the thing. Succeeding eons of freeze and thaw carved it out to what's there today -- a great, narrow gorge hemmed in by vertical walls that rise some 300' straight up from the canyon floor.

Because the sun rarely reaches that floor and cold pockets of air are trapped between its walls, Ouimet Canyon is an incredibly rare, remnant ecosystem.  The boulder strewn bottom of the canyon is haven for a variety of arctic and sub-arctic plants that when the region was colder were common but are now found this far south nowhere else. These include a variety of mosses and lichens, along with Arctic Wintergreen.

Due to the astounding rarity of the place and the fragility of what thrives there, access to the canyon floor is restricted. But two convenient viewing platforms from the rim provide ample opportunity to stand in awe of this special landscape, with the narrow walls making for resounding echoes when tourists call out across the chasm. And while you're looking down, see if you can spot the occasional whitewall tire left there from when (I'm told) locals used to push cars off the top of the canyon, just to watch them fall.

That's what science teaches us about Ouimet Canyon, and we must suppose it's largely true.

But being the north shore of Superior, this is also true:

Long ago, the good giant Omett assisted Nanabijou in the raising of mountains and the making of lakes.

In time, Omett fell in love with Nanabijou's daughter, Naiomi. One day, while Omett raised a mountain, the peak broke away and crushed Naiomi. Afraid of Nanabijou's wrath, Omett buried Naiomi's body in a shallow lake and covered it with a rock shield.

When searching for his daughter, Nanabijou strode across that shield and felt vibrations from beneath it. He drew a thunderbolt from the sky and struck it down hard to the earth, which split open into a canyon to reveal Naiomi's body. Nanabijou reburied his beloved daughter where she'd fallen and from her grave grew many beautiful flowers found only there.

To punish Omett, Nanabijou turned the giant to stone and placed him forever on the canyon wall to watch over Naiomi's grave.

Which is where Omett can still be found, even today...

Thar Be Silver Beneath That Thar Lake...

Near the tip of Ontario's Sleeping Giant (Sibley) Peninsula is a tiny island. Unlikely though it seems, at the height of its production, this little spit of wave washed rock was one of the richest silver mines in the world.

History tells us this about Silver Islet:

In 1868 while looking about for mineral riches, John Morgan happened upon Island #4 at the bottom of what became the Sibley Peninsula just east of Fort William.

A tiny mound of stone no longer than ninety feet in length and but six feet or so above lake level at its highest, this was an unlikely & particularly dangerous site for a mine but then Morgan found a vein of silver running from the surface of the island, descending down beneath Superior.

For two long years the Montreal Mining Company failed to build a mine, but as so often happens when our ambition is to scab riches from hard ground, the wonders of human ingenuity were pressed upon the place and progress soon prevailed. The Montreal Co. cut its losses and sold off the property to one Major Sibley of Detroit, who rolled up his sleeves and sent others to work.

Major Sibley's foreman, the engineers and a crew of thirty laborers arrived in September of 1870, late in the season for Superior. Working 18 hour days they managed to construct a breakwater around the island but in October the lake destroyed that. They built a second breakwater twice as large as the first and by Christmas the lake claimed that one too. Meanwhile, the laborers and their families passed the winter in tents along the windswept frozen shore of the big lake.

The next year, houses were constructed on the mainland, a break wall consisting of 50,000 tons of stone was built to expand the sliver of silver bearing rock to ten times its natural size and Sibley's operation on Silver Islet began in earnest.

Though there remained the problem of mining beneath the waters of Superior.

Working conditions were extraordinarily hard, even for the times. Miners made $68.00 a month, less 14 for room & board. At the end of each 16 hour shift they were fined ten dollars if they refused a body search.  Safety measures weren't even a consideration. Whiskey consumption was tallied. Labor unrest was constant, but in its first three years of operation the mine on Silver Islet shipped $1,300,000 worth of silver ore.

It was never again to be as good as that and took the next ten years to double the total. Meanwhile, the difficulties of digging a mine and the terror of working beneath Superior only intensified.

During a particularly brutal storm, the lake smashed the break wall, crashed over the works and poured down into the shaft. Two buildings on the island disappeared. By 1883 after thirteen tears of digging, the main shaft had reached nearly 1,300 feet deep beneath the lake and the number 13 lived up to its reputation.

Winter came on fast, the lake froze over and the coal carrier Tuttle never made it past Houghton. Fuel for the pumps that kept water from the shaft ran short. The company used wood to try and keep the boilers going and even dismantled buildings to feed the beast, but to no avail. The shaft flooded and the mine on Silver Islet closed for good. Eventually, the island reverted to something like its natural size, though even today the entrance to the shaft can still be seen beneath the water that claimed it.

Thunder Bay's Sleeping Giant (Sibley) Peninsula is mostly a State Park established in 1948 when the locals became afraid that the place would again be logged over. At its tip is the small community of Silver Islet, a curious place where the remaining homes are built into a sheer rock cliff and where a recently rehabbed vintage general store is now a destination spot.

But being the north shore of Superior, this is also true:

A notable band of Ojibwa once lived on an island off Thunder Bay, which island is today justly called Isle Royale.

The giant Nanabijou decided to reward this band for their fealty to the Gods. He called their chief to Thunder Mountain and  revealed to him the location of a great cache of silver. Nanabijou told the chief that if any of the tribe revealed the location of the mine to white men, the giant would be turned to stone and the tribe would be no more.

Apparently the tribe found the mine, as they went on to be famous for their workings in silver.

In battle with the Ojibwa, the Sioux found these splendid ornaments on wounded Ojibwa warriors and tried mightily to wrest from them the secret of the metal's location. The captured Ojibwa stood firm. Even torture and death couldn't pry from them the sacred secret.

Sioux chieftains devised a plan. They'd send their best scout disguised as an Ojibwa into the Anishinabe camp. The plan worked and within a few days the spy learned the secret of the silver. Sneaking into the mine at night, he stole away with several pieces of the precious metal, to prove he'd gotten what he'd came for.

On the way back to his own camp, this Sioux scout stopped at a white man's trading post to buy food. Having no money to pay for it, he produced a chunk of silver. Excited, the white men persuaded the scout to lead them to the secret mine.

When almost in sight of Silver Islet, a fierce storm roared down over the Cape. The white men drowned and the Sioux spy was later found properly crazed, floating alone in his canoe.

And the most extraordinary thing happened during that storm -- where once was an open bay there now appeared a great Peninsula in the shape of a sleeping man.

Which is where Nanabijou can still be found, even today:

And the Ojibwa? They no longer live on Isle Royale...

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