On July 31, I headed out from Red Rock at 5 AM to Atikokan, Ontario to pick up three Souris River Canoes. Two of the canoes were sold to customers and one was for upcoming rentals. After the slowest July on record in canoe rentals for the BWCA (?), our August is looking fairly busy. At very best, this has been an incredibly odd year in Ely. Nonetheless, I needed to get these canoes and off to the Souris River factory I went. Being that it is the peak of our season at our resort (Northwind Lodge), I needed to get up to Canada and back in the same day and arrive no later than 5 PM. It’s about 470 miles round trip to the factory and back.
After arriving into International Falls, MN, I drove through town and ended up at the toll booth where I had to fork over $6.50 to cross the bridge over the Rainy River. The whole place there requires that you look in all directions as that is where the paper mill is located on both sides of the river. Remotely controlled trains drive back and forth and there are stop signs and train lights and tracks all over the place. There are also a LOT of warning signs that tell you to look this way, do this, do that, stay to the right, don’t stall, eat your breakfast, etc. I was coming through relatively early so there was not a lot of traffic but you have the real feeling of chaos in that part of the town.
While driving across the bridge into Canada, I can’t help but notice that the Rainy River is at it’s highest level still as it rips below me, heading west. There’s a lot of water. I file in behind a short line of Canada-bound vehicles and dig for my fancy driver’s license which is my Minnesota Enhanced Drivers License or EDL for short. My EDL is required to cross into Canada mainly so that I can cross back into the US of A. It has an RFID chip built into it and I was told to store it in the special paper envelope that was provided when I received it. Apparently the Radio Frequency Identification Chip is for the drones to follow me around. Wow – that’s exciting. I actually have no idea what the RFID chip is for and after using it twice, none of the people with guns have ever done anything with it either – at least, not that I could see. For both times that I’ve been in Canada, the Canadian Customs officers look at it, ask me where I’m going and tell me to have a nice day. They don’t even ask me if I have guns, am leaving anything behind in Canada, or give me the general “third-degree” to which I’ve grown accustomed over the years . Just “Have a nice day”, and I’m set free into Canada. Joe Baltich loose in Canada – the sign of the Apocalypse for sure. Apparently, the EDL is magical somehow. Maybe it’s in the RFID chip. So, head forward for a block or so and take a right turn through Fort Frances’ business district, I go.
That street is always busy with cars. It’s narrow and has some really rough looking hotel/motels on it as well as several handmade store signs with crooked lettering. I get the feeling that the businesses may be doing so-so and survival here appears quite difficult as it is in many places these days both in the US and Canada. Many of the properties look downright rough like Gartch’s Pub or the various, worn-out-looking, food catering businesses along the way. The other thing you can’t help but notice are the signs that say “licensed restaurant” as a bold part of their sales pitch. I often wonder if there is an option to eat at an “unlicensed restaurant” in Canada? In the US, the assumption in public eating establishments is that they are all licensed in some way otherwise the various governmental entities would go after the place to get it up to standards. Either one has a license or is shut down for public safety. Now that varies from state to state in the US, I realize but there is always some sort of inspector checking the place. In Canada, they emphasize what should be conclusive, so you get nothing of value from the ad or sign along the road. Does “licensed” tell you what they serve? Not really. Can a licensed restaurant still serve crappy food? Oh, yeah. Can you tell if the place serves Thai, Lithuanian, Canadian, or some other type of food by reading the sign that proudly advertises “licensed”? Well, no. Apparently, being “licensed” is all that matters and makes Canadian dining customers begin to drool. To determine what they serve, one needs to go in, sit down, and find out if the licensed restaurant actually knows how to cook or if you’ll be getting a licensed plate of boiled muk-tuk for lunch or not. It’s odd and makes little to no sense from a sign standpoint: Welcome to Canada.
Out on the open road I hit Canadian road construction. The long bridge that crosses Rainy Lake is being redone and there is usually a line of cars on it. This morning was no different. The bridge is narrow to begin with and we all squeezed into the narrow confines of concrete barriers with about eight inches to spare on each side of the vehicle. It looks like they are doing a nice job on the bridge but while we are sitting on it in a long line idling, I wonder if the structure is groaning under our collective weight. We are in Canada after all. Hopefully, their construction companies are “licensed”. I have seen actual, official, yellow highway signs in this country that tell me to “SQUEEZE LEFT” with my truck. I silently wonder exactly how does squeeze a 3/4 ton truck anywhere? I turned on the radio and started thinking happier thoughts.
Upon crossing the bridge, there was nothing but open road ahead, Highway 11, the TransCanada Highway. Yayyyyy! It sounds SO exciting. It is not. You drive past the reservation on the edge of town and see the occasional fancy (in relative terms) government building, and then the sagging, smashed, up, rotting, destroyed homes and rusting cars with grass growing where the wheels used to be. While you are driving 40 KPH which is about 25 MPH for about 10 miles – at least it feels that long, it is there that you will see the Canadian signs that say “compulsory” and “It’s Our Law” beginning.
“Use of Seat Belts Compulsory”, “Turn Off Your Phone and Drive – It’s Our Law”, “Big Trucks Must Have Speed Limiters – It’s Our Law”, “Use of Radio Wave Detection Devices is Illegal- It’s Our Law” (hope they don’t ask for my fancy driver’s license with the RFID in it) and a few more that I can’t remember. I’m definitely not in Kansas any more as the governmental control signs make it very evident. But try to find a wayside rest ANYWHERE in the next 125 miles and one will find endless turn offs to gravel roads with toilet paper at the edge of the brush, on the ground. Be careful where you step in Canada because they like signs, they are proud of their laws, but they apparently hate rest stops and toilet facilities. Lots of squatting occurs in the Canadian wilderness along boring Highway 11. It’s the law. It’s also pretty gross. Would it kill them to have a “licensed restroom” along the way? Welcome to Canada. Remember to bring toilet paper. Wayne Docking of Souris River Canoes once told me a matter of fact story about needing to go along the TransCanada Highway, so he took a gravel pull off with his truck. He went off road about to do his business and while squatting in the hazelnut brush, he noticed it. In front of him, a man’s nice, red and silver, striped tie hung about three feet away. The tie had “skid marks” that did not match the color pallet of the tie which was obviously no longer in the employ of the original owner. That tie served a new purpose in the Canadian bush. That tie ended up taking one for the team. I hope it was a licensed tie. Wayne thought it was hilarious.
For many miles along the TransCanada Highway (it sounds SO cool – it’s not), I saw the usual scenery. A lake once in a while, then rocks, then rocks and sticks, then rocks and sticks and a swamp, then repeat. I encountered more road construction as I did on the last trip about a month ago. The Canadian way for highway construction is to have a flag man wave his stop sign so you can see him from a great distance which makes good sense. So a few of us stop in a line and wait…and wait….and then finally we get waved ahead. We drive through gravel with various types of large machines lumbering about on the dusty surface. Some I recognized as regular heavy equipment and some pieces were obviously built by an alien life form off-world and then brought to Canada to work on asphalt.
After driving on the gravel for quite a way, our line finally met the final flag man. We passed him and his neon yellow “Slow” sign while still on the gravel and then sped up as a group outside of the work zone, but still on gravel. We go and go when suddenly our dust train changes lanes. Being a highway lemming, I decide to follow the leader for reasons unknown to those of us in the back. (The lead car is Canadian so they must know why we are now charging forth against traffic ) Now, we’re driving the dust train in the wrong lane on a curve because we are in Canada without the aid of flagmen. When you pass the final flag man on a construction site in Canada, it merely means “have a nice day”. I watched incredulously as we now drove past a large wheel grader with blade down, dirt rolling to the side and a good sized packer bringing up his rear. It became evident that we were not yet out of the work zone. The flagmen must be window dressing. Once on the other side, we got back in our lane and continued merrily down the dirt until we finally hit asphalt. Apparently, asphalt is the safe part except for the logging truck breathing on my tail. My guess was that their speed limiting law was to limit the trucks to about 190 kph or 117.8 mph. They needed a warning sign for that in case the 24 wheeler logging trucks were getting rammy, I guess.
Finally made it to Souris River in Atikokan and I shot some video clips to add color and pizzazz to this blog post. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So, what does video get us? Who knows. For the end of this tale, take everything I said above and read it in reverse. Or, watch the vids.
So, when are you getting your new Souris River Canoe? I have my fancy driver’s license and I’ll go get one for you. Give us a call. 218-365-4512