Stories From Our Land: Celebrating Canada’s 150

The Road That Binds

EDITOR’S NOTE: During Canada’s sesquicentennial, the Manitoulin Writers’ Circle is compiling a collection of memoirs on the challenges and pleasures of living in Canada. In the following story, retired nurse Connie Suite reflects on the sometimes tenuous links that connect Canadians travelling on the ice roads of our North. Connie and Steve Suite reside in Kagawong. The Expositor inadvertently left out the name of the author of the last edition of Stories from our Land. ‘Getting T/here’ a poem about the Chi-Cheemaun ferry, was penned by Ann Carson. The Expositor apologizes for the omission.

by Connie Suite

Are you Connie Suite? And do you have a truck on this train?” My affirmative response was obviously distressful to the cold, grumpy and tired looking Ontario Northland Railway man in the –47°C dark, windy night. The old freight train was more than three hours late coming from Cochrane to Moosonee  and my husband and I were among most of the community milling about to stay warm.

My precious 4-wheel drive GMC Silverado truck was purchased almost new to precisely deal with the cold weather and ice roads of Northern Ontario. It was the first vehicle on a long row of flatbeds taking the brunt of the brutal weather. My husband, Steve, was working in Fort Albany, approximately 180 km North of Moosonee, and I was stationed in Moose Factory, an island in James Bay near Moosonee. There is an ice road between Moosonee and Moose Factory and all along the James Bay coast as far as Attawapiskat for approximately one third of the year.

I climbed onto the flatbed and managed to get the vehicle started and then Grumpy drove it off the flatbed efficiently. It eventually warmed up inside the truck and we were ecstatic to have such comfort at last. I was able to drive it across the Moose River to the island of Moose Factory but not a single gauge moved to register anything. No indication of speed, gas, oil pressure or anything else registered. The dashboard remained blank and silent throughout the trip across the river.

I parked my beautiful burgundy truck as close to my apartment as possible to protect it from the violent winter winds and plugged it in for the night. Sleep did not come easily and at 5:30 am, in the darkness, I got up to check on my precious vehicle. My husband was still asleep as I crept about. Once outside I tried to start my truck. Nothing happened.

Back in the house, dressed in my parka, hat, and mitts, with my nightgown flapping about the top of my winter boots, I wondered who I could call to help me. My CAA Plus card – I’ve had one for years. I dialed the toll free number with the prospect of finding a compassionate listener.

CAA: Where are you calling from?

Me: Moose Factory, near Moosonee.

CAA: Is that in Canada?

Me: Yes. It is on the ONR train line from Cochrane.

CAA: Did you drive there?

Me: Nope, no road.

CAA: How did you get there?

Me: On the train.

CAA: And now your truck doesn’t start?

Me: That is why I am calling.

CAA: The closest service I can get for you seems to be in Cochrane but how would he get there?

Me: On the train.

CAA: How would he get back?

Me: The train is every two days.

CAA: I really do not think we can help you, but if you need to be towed…..Uh………just pay for it and we will reimburse you.

Daylight was starting to glimmer on the horizon. I decided to call my truck driver brother in McKerrow. He suggested that I put a hair dryer under the hood near a small computer box. Within minutes the dryer froze in the brutal cold. In retrospect, I realize that the idea was nonsense and perhaps from such a distance it was all the advice he could think of at this hour of the morning.

I had 24 hours left before Steve would need to drive back to Fort Albany for school on Monday. Purchasing this vehicle was all my idea and I was determined that it was going to work.

My apartment was directly across the street from the emergency department of the Weeneebayko General Hospital and the blue and white “EMERGENCY” sign was glaring right at me. They were always open since it was a hospital.

I dressed appropriately this time and went to the emergency. The staff was highly entertained by listening to my winter woes. They referred me to the men in the security office who immediately accepted the challenge with passion and enthusiasm.  They boosted the vehicle and when it was running they moved it inside the heating plant until it thawed out.

The hospital complex in Moose Factory is heated with an above ground hot water heating system that originates in a large boiler room. There was room for the truck and a few snow machines and the building was very warm.

The next afternoon we got the truck back. Discharged from the hospital and it was wonderful. It was warm and all the gauges worked. Steve and I drove about on the river for awhile before he left for Fort Albany that evening alone and on the ice road.

Steve was born and raised in Trinidad and by this time in his career he was officially retired from teaching. He had never driven on an ice road before and so was very cautious and intimidated by the fact that heat would eventually make a river out of this ice. Until now he would not walk on ice knowing that there was water below. He definitely will never become an ice fisherman.

His first ice road trip was alone and pleasant enough for him to return for several weekends. He began to disregard weather forecasts and concentrate solely on the pleasures of his private expeditions.

On that memorable first trip from Moose Factory to Fort Albany he played CD’s all the way. He claimed that the entire trip took three CDs, and he played religious music because it was Sunday. I would suggest that he also prayed heartedly throughout the journey and that the music was an added assurance that the entire Holy Family was supporting and caring for him.

Half way home it was necessary to take a bathroom break and so he pulled over to the side of the road and left his mark in the snow bank with those of many others who had passed before him.

These precious and memorable weekend excursions ended when spring arrived.  The speed limit signs were taken down and stored away for another winter season. The pristine rivers and streams of summer returned to nourish the landscape.

Although we are both retired now the memories of the ice roads will remain.

Whenever we travel on Canada’s highways and byways and see speed limit signs slightly askew we are reminded of our romantic ice road adventures in the James Bay region.

Our travelling music continues to include the gospel music of Mahalia Jackson and Paul Robeson any day of the week. Their music has become a part of the everlasting memories of the road that binds.

This truck retired with me and together we boarded the train back to Cochrane to continue to explore the more permanent roads of Northern Ontario and beyond.